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(Pocket-lint) - Full-frame, as it’s often described, is the pinnacle of DSLR photography as it offers a large- frame sensor the same size as that used by traditional 35mm film. The Nikon D600, the little brother of the D800, offers this FX format which, as Nikon likes to call it, is a sensor size at a snip of the price compared to any other models on the market.

It might still be a weighty investment on the wallet at around £1,665 for just the body, but it’s teetering on the cusp of consumer affordability depending on which lenses you’ll want to invest in.

How does this 24-megapixel full-framer sit in Nikon’s lineup; does it make more sense than the 36-megapixel Nikon D800; and is this the entry-level full-frame DSLR to beat all others? That’s a lot of questions. Fortunately we have lots of answers after testing the D600 extensively over the course of a week.

Our quick take

The D600 is like the lovechild of a D800 and D7000. Given how much praise we’ve had for both those models that sure sounds like a great thing. And it is.

It’s not so much that the D600 offers anything brand, brand new. It doesn’t. But what you get for the price - and don’t forget there’s no cheaper full-frame DSLR out there - is spot on. It’s not got quite as much grunt as the D800 in a number of departments though, so if you need the faster shutter or flash sync speed then the D800 is undoubtedly the choice to make.

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But most people won’t need those features, and that’s part of the point of the D600 - it opens the full-frame gate and extends a come-hither finger that’s a lure like a moth to an open flame. Only you won’t get burnt, as all those who have been chomping at the bit for a full-frame sensor but otherwise can’t afford one now can. Okay, so it’s hardly like popping to the shops for a packet of crisps kind of cheap by any means, but it’s a considered investment that’s well worth the dosh.

Image quality is excellent - though, again, we still think that D800 has that much more to give in this department - and the autofocus system is great in all of its modes from single and through to continuous 3D tracking. However the spread of the autofocus points is a too central - not nearly as wide-spread as the D800’s 51-point system.

So there we have it: this fence-straddling consumer-meets-pro DSLR is a cracker that offers great value for money. Clever, Nikon, very clever. You’ll want to pat the D600 on its camera-y head too.

Nikon D600

Nikon D600

4.5 stars - Pocket-lint recommended
  • Excellent image quality
  • Small and light for a full-frame camera
  • Weather-sealed
  • Most affordable full-frame DSLR to date
  • Limited AF point coverage (it’s too centralised)
  • Don’t like mode dial lock
  • Limited movie controls compared to D800
  • Don’t think image quality is better than D800 (despite lower resolution)
  • No live aperture control in movie mode

Design and D800 differences

If you’re looking to buy a full-frame Nikon then the choices are likely to be between the D800 and the D600. As the price between these two isn’t that significant, what is gained and, indeed, sacrificed when opting for the more budget model?

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It’s almost bonkers to describe a pricey camera as an "entry-level" model, as the D600 is far from that. Although it’s not officially described by Nikon as one of its "pro" DSLR cameras, it sure does feel it to us.

That’s the first thing to note between the D600 and the D800 really - the latter, older, yet higher-resolution flagship is deemed a pro camera. Its chassis is built entirely of metal whereas the D600, like the D700, is a mixture of magnesium alloy and polycarbonate panels. This does help keep the weight down though, and this is one small and light camera when thinking in full-frame terms.

Stick a heftier lens on the body and it immediately shows and feels different in the hand though. The 24-70mm f/2.8 used for much of this test makes the camera feel quite front heavy, so investing in the optional battery grip - which, despite sharing the same battery type as the D800, is different due to the D600’s smaller body "footprint" - might be a sensible plan.

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Nikon D600 - ISO 800 example image

The D600’s lower resolution - though 24-megapixels is still huge, trust us - means that 5.5 frames per second (fps) continuous shooting is possible, which is faster than the D800’s 4fps. So that’s the first benefit, at the cost of resolution. Secondly, however, that lower resolution over the same surface area also means larger sensor nodes and, therefore, image quality at higher ISO settings should also be the better than the D800.

The other main differences are that the D600 uses a 39-point autofocus system and 2,016 pixel RGB metering sensor, both adapted and updated from the Nikon D7000, whereas the D800 has a 51-point AF system and 91,000 pixel metering sensor shared with the top-of-range D4. It’s a logical step down from one camera to the next, each cutting a slice of cash away as the specifications shift.

Finer details - though details that may be essential to your work - include a 1/4000th second maximum shutter that’s one stop slower than the D800’s 1/8000th second, while the 1/200th sec maximum flash speed is, again, behind that of the D800’s 1/250th maximum flash sync. Shutter cycles, too, are tested to 150,000, which is some 25 per cent fewer than the hardier, longer-lasting D800’s quota.

The D600’s design also has a mode dial with a lock button on it that is rather uncommon for a Nikon camera. In fact, some existing Nikon users will find it plain annoying.

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Other than that there’s Wi-Fi compatibility via the optional accessory. You won't get this on the D800, as it was designed after that camera went on sale. It makes the 800 less well connected than the 600. Logical, yet illogical - that’s the paradox of release dates. But that’s the majority of the most important differences between the two models and, to avoid this reading like a boring Sunday shopping list, we’ll wrap it up there and get to the good stuff.

Big sensor, big resolution

The D600’s key feature, almost its main purpose, is its big sensor. Not only is it full-frame though, it’s also packed with a full 24-megapixels of resolution. That’s more resolute than the Nikon D4, but about 50 per cent less densely populated than the Nikon D800.

Seeing as Sony has been making these sensors for a while now, we suspect it could be the same sensor that’ll be found in the forthcoming Alpha A77, though that can’t yet be confirmed.

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Nikon D4, D600 and D800 images to show output size comparison

As the sensor is large it needs lenses that are able to produce an image circle large and sharp enough to cover it. If you have non-full-frame Nikon lenses, then there’s a DX mode that automatically comes into action, or that can be switched on manually. It’s a useful feature as it provides a 1.5x crop factor (as per Nikon’s DX, APS-C sensor cameras) should you nee that extra "reach" from whichever lens is on the front.

One of the "drawbacks" of full-frame is the inherent cost in getting full-frame lenses, but that’s part and parcel with the system and the best lenses cost a lot to produce.

Image Quality

After the marvel that was the D800, the D600 has a lot to live up to. Can this 24-megapixel sensor output images that are better than its bigger brother?

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Nikon D600 - ISO 800 example image

In short, no. As much as we had anticipated that this would be the better camera at higher ISO settings, it performed to a very similar standard as far as image noise was concerned. If anything we’d say that JPEG shots straight from the camera have ever so slightly more colour noise at ISO 3200 and above than those from the D800. That extra resolution of the D800 doesn’t hinder comparable performance as much as we had anticipated. Bombshell, eh?

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Nikon D4 (left), D600 (middle), D800 (right), ISO 3200, JPEG Fine with standard noise reduction at 100 per cent, scaled to 16-megapixel equivalent

Let’s put that in context: the D600’s images are still great. Really great. Lower ISO settings are definitely the ones to stick to where possible, but the higher ISO settings, even at this resolution, are very capable indeed. Right up to ISO 1600 there’s a limited impact on overall quality, which is a marvel to behold. Full-frame cameras’ images - and we’re talking right across the board here, manufacturer irrelevant - just have this "look" about them. Make the most of a wide aperture for portrait work, or sink down to f/8 for optimum sharpness in a landscape and the results will be eye-catching when shown at scale.

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Nikon D600 - ISO 6400 example image

We found auto white balance responded well to a variety of scenes, too. From indoor, to candlelight, through to outdoors in the sun as well as overcast - shots maintained a neutrality that was spot on throughout.

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Images have got us pleased, but what about how this full-framer feels in use?

As well as a large 3.2-inch LCD screen, the optical viewfinder has a 100 per cent field of view. There’s little more we could ask for really, although the 921k-dot resolution of the LCD isn’t among the highest on show these days - something that could be improved in the future.

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Nikon D600 - ISO 1600 example image

The camera’s 39-point autofocus system has been ported from the D7000, so its ability to focus from -1EV up to +19EV isn’t quite as impressive as the -2EV low-light capability of the D800. What’s more the announcement of Canon’s EOS 6D - a similar "budget" full-frame proposition - is sensitive to -3EV. Although we don’t have that to hand to test just yet, so how they compare in real life is, for now, unknown.

The D600’s autofocus system is slightly different from the D7000’s though as seven of its focus points can focus at f/8 - the sort of sensitivity required when using a teleconverter and long lens.

Focus speed is very good, much like that of the D7000, offered up in the choice of 39, 21, or 9 dynamic focus points when in continuous autofocus, or 39 or 11 points in single autofocus.

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Nikon D600 - ISO 2000 example image

The lower numbers are good for more central focusing, but, having said that, the widest autofocus arrangements aren’t spread out enough for our liking. The 39-point system is the prime culprit: it’s just not got a broad enough spread for the continuous focus and 3D tracking modes.

But the 3D tracking system is quick at identifying and following a subject with accuracy. Sometimes the viewfinder’s feedback is more up to date than the len’s focus though, which can result in out of focus shots when snapping moving subjects. Not by much, but it’s there.

Single autofocus is fast too, but we found that the acquired focus point didn’t always flash red to confirm focus.

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From focus to continuous shooting, the D600 is speedier than its D800 bigger brother. It’s not just the 5.5 frames per second burst either, it’s the fact that it only takes around 20 seconds to write 12 raw & JPEG Fine files to a Class 10 SD card. None too shabby, and it’s not as though the camera freezes up either - less than a second after snapping that last frame it’s possible to shoot another shot.

Movie mode

As well as stills, moving images are becoming ever more prevalent in the stills camera market.

While the D600 has much of the D800’s top-spec movie capture performance, there are some obvious limitations, namely that there’s not any live aperture control. That’s not to say there’s no manual control though, as the shutter and ISO settings can be adjusted while in live view mode, while the aperture can be pre-set outside of the movie live mode only.

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Elsewhere movies can be shot at 24, 25 or 30fps at 1080p, or even 50 or 60fps at 720p. Add a clean HDMI out and that’ll certainly be a draw for budget videographers that are looking to record off-camera, though the lack of live aperture control may be a thorn in the side.

Add a 3.5mm microphone input - very useful considering how noisy lens autofocus can be - and 3.5mm headphone jack for live monitoring and there are plenty of other top features. If you’re after XLR connectors then you’ll have to use an adaptor which, while not ideal, is the case for any given stills camera on the market at the moment.

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Autofocus is handled in one of three ways: manual focus for the smoothest, most silent results; AF-S for single autofocus that can be set-up before exposure and updated during capture by a half press of the shutter; and AF-A for full-time autofocus. The last mode is "always on" and will often be fishing out the focus with a rather clunky, noisy effect rendered in playback. For critical manual focus it is possible to use the magnify key on the rear to zoom right in, but, again, this can be done only before recording - during capture you’re at the behest of the 3.2-inch LCD screen which, really, isn’t going to offer the the kind of finery for critical focusing during capture.

As we highlighted in our D800 review, and indeed as with any stills camera, the D600’s use of a CMOS sensor can introduce "wobble". If the camera is moving "faster" than the sensor can deal with then you’re likely to get sheering effects, or wobble that can manifest itself almost like a plume of heat from a chimney; that shimmering kind of distortion due to movement. The D600 avoids the worst of it, but fast pans and the like will be a problem.

To recap

The D600 opens the full-frame door to many that would never otherwise be able to afford such a DSLR. It’s not exactly cheap, but it’s great value for money when considering both the build and image quality. The feature set is much like a D800 mashed up with a D7000 - an excellent blend of pro and consumer features therefore kit out this full-framer and it definitely gets our seal of approval.

Writing by Mike Lowe.