on September 20, 2012
This camera replaced my F5/FM2n... yes, I've been a film holdout for all this time. I've had some digital point-and-shoot cameras, but stuck by my film for "real" photos for a few reasons:
1. Until full frame DSLRs hit 12MP, I was getting more resolution out of my 35mm film (Ektar 100 / Portra 400 / Velvia 50) easily. I was also getting way better dynamic range out of my film until the most recent generation of full frame DSLR sensors, which now finally comes close to the dynamic range of film.
2. I am an occasional shooter and not a pro - so the cost per film shot, which works out to around $0.25/frame for me with development and scanning/printing, was totally reasonable compared to what it would have cost until now to take the same number of photos on a digital camera at the same level of quality I was getting. Heretofore, I would have had to buy at least a D3/D3s/D800/D700, and those are expensive to have sitting around not being used professionally or even on a weekly basis.
3. I have only "FX" lenses, and about 70% of it is AI-S. None of it is AF-S (what's autofocus is AF-D), so I had to have a screw-drive AF motor and I had to have a non-CPU lens memory bank. D600 has both, and it's full frame, so I don't have any of this funky crop factor crap.
4. Depth of field. I've got mostly very high-quality lenses, all primes and mostly f<2. I like the control of DoF they offer me. DoF at sensors smaller than APS-C is a poor joke, and I've seen APS-C look ok, but just didn't see the point in limiting my lenses.
5. Viewfinder. If you haven't ever looked through a 100% "FX" viewfinder, you might not understand how awful most DSLR viewfinders look to people using film or a proper "FX" DSLR like the D4/D3/D3s/D700/D800. I might not take a lot of photos, but I'd rather not spend my time staring down a short railroad tunnel squinting at the lights on the other end, especially if I'm going to be focusing manually.
Ok, so ultimately, I bought the D600. Now down to the actual product review.
Things that took some getting used to:
- I don't have a full set of AF / AE-lock buttons like I used to on the F5. D800 and D4 still have these, but D600 has one "catch all" button. Thankfully, this button can be reprogrammed entirely to perform any of the three old functions, or it can be reprogrammed to an unrelated function, too, so it's quite flexible. I am using it as "AF-on" right now, and I have the "Fn" key bound to "AE-lock", which compensates for the loss of the dedicated buttons on the back.
- Auto ISO. I'm not sure how I am going to deal with this, but I find Auto-ISO both useful for time savings, and annoying conceptually. It tends to adjust ISO a little too readily for my taste, but perhaps this feeling will fade when I adapt to the whole "ISO is more or less unimportant nowadays" thing.
- Autofocus-Continuous/Single button simplified to AF/MF. This is a little annoying because it makes the functionality of autofocus ambiguous. I believe the default functionality is fairly similar to AF-Continuous on my F5, but I more typically use autofocus in AF-Single mode, which doesn't track subjects. My subjects don't move much. **Update: Thanks for the tip, James, I see that this was just me not exploring enough, or, put another way, I should RTFM. The switch has indeed been revised so it's a two position switch, modified by a button in the middle of the selector. All functionality remains, and all is well**
- Viewfinder has an odd eyepiece. It's a great viewfinder to use, but that eyepiece is a little small and odd (ergonomically) to hold up to the face. This coming from someone used to the veritable porthole-window on the F5 should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt. I'm also an eyeglass wearer, but my correction is so minimal that I don't mind just taking off my glasses to use the D600. Didn't have to do that with the F5, but not a big deal.
- It's not all that small. Yes, it weighs about a pound less than my last camera, and that's a welcome change, but it's thicker and just as wide. Actually, this is the thickest darn camera I've owned, and I don't understand why. The F5 is a tank and probably about as happy pounding nails as any hammer in my house, but the fact remains that it feels, and measures, slim compared to the D600 (or most full frame DSLRs I've seen). The comparison to film cameras gets even more odd looking when you place the FM2n next to the D600... FM2n looks like a rangefinder, practically. So maybe this has to do with the sensor or the screen or whatever, but I know that it's not the optics, since flange distance and all that jazz is identical. Nevertheless, I'm happy it's light, which is is... very light.
- > 0 < indicator for manual focus is a little squirrely compared to the F5. I suspect this is because the emphasis is so much more on autofocus now, and the distance between AF sensors has gotten so much smaller. Anyway, it's good enough, just not as good as it used to be when cameras were made with manual focus in mind as a large percentage of lenses.
- No viewfinder screens from Nikon, at least yet. I used a grid screen with microprism collar and rangefinder center before this on the F5, which was nice as a MF aid. Also not a huge deal, just ergonomic.
- "Scene Modes" ?? Why is this useful? At least I can ignore it.
Things I like:
- I can shoot with impunity. Almost have to, now that I've got a $2000 debit from my account to justify to myself.
- Picture quality is really, really good. Certainly better than my photos deserve.
- I get matrix metering with my AI-S lenses. Maybe this is common now and I didn't realize it, but of the autoexposure film cameras Nikon made, only three that I know of had matrix for AI-S -- F6, F4 and FA. I'm fine with center weighted, but matrix is definitely more convenient for normal lighting.
- ISO 6400 looks a lot like ISO 1600, which looks mostly like ISO 800, which isn't so bad compared to ISO 400, which looks like ISO 200??? ISO is irrelevant on this sensor. Well, maybe not irrelevant, but it sure is impressive to be shooting above 800 and have such minimal noise.
- It's fast. Don't notice shutter lag, and the buffer hasn't given out on multi-shot sprees yet, though I do have a lot of the "auto" stuff off, which speeds things up (like the auto anti-vignette, auto d-light, etc).
- Mirror lockup. No, it doesn't have the little lever anymore, but I like the way they implemented mirror lockup. If you buy the IR remote, first click can lock mirror, second click triggers shutter. This is great for astrophotos.
- Key rebinding. Nikon allows you to rebind many of the buttons on the body to your preferred function. You could do this on the F5, but only to a very limited degree. D600 allows for comprehensive customization of the button functions, and this more than makes up for any shortcomings in the number of buttons included.
- LCD. Seeing what you just shot is great! I'm used to getting preview only on my crappy cameras, where critical focus is hardly a concern and sharpness is more or less limited by the crap lens attached. Plus, the screen on the D600 is quite nice. Very good resolution and brightness.
- Lens compatibility. Everything works, and my lenses are old. Non-CPU lens memory stores focal length and aperture for you, so you can shoot with full metering on AI-S lenses.
- Menu layout. Yes, there are a lot of settings. It's almost overwhelming compared to what I'm used to. But they're well laid out, and I have no issues with the depth of the menus. Plus, way easier to set "Turn on viewfinder gridlines" than try to remember that Option 15 should be "2". And if you find yourself using something all the time from the menu, bind it to a physical button and you're done.
All in all, I am glad I didn't get a D800E. I almost did, but just felt it was still too expensive. I'm also glad I never got bilked into the APS-C "DX" game. The D600 is a perfect camera for someone who isn't a professional, but who expects their gear to work like good film gear worked, and I figure I'm especially pleased because I've been living in the photography stone age, so this thing is practically magic.
I have not even tried the video features, so cannot comment there.
Highly recommended camera.
-------------- Update a few days on --------------
Still very pleased with the D600. I have now shot using most of my lenses, and I'm over 550 frames. It takes great photos in all light levels.
As an update to the auto-ISO matter, I maintain that auto-ISO is somewhat difficult to understand, at least in Aperture Priority and Manual modes. When I adjust aperture, for example, it often changes the ISO instead of changing the shutter speed to compensate. Shutter speed stays pretty fixed, and it's like I'm effectively balancing exposure with aperture and ISO instead of balancing between aperture and shutter, with ISO moving only once that balance becomes impractical due to light and shake constraints. I have not switched the mode back to manual ISO, but if I don't start figuring out its logic, I'm going to.
Another "Caveman Lawyer" moment - I found out this evening that I can bind a function to the "DoF" key. Here I was thinking DoF preview key would be mechanical, like on all my other cameras, but no- it's rebindable too! Good thing, since I almost never have need for DoF preview, especially now that I can simply take a photo and preview it on the beautiful LCD. I bound Spot Meter to this key, and the functionality is great.
To summarize, then, I have been able to rebind functions for:
- "DoF Preview" key (rebound to Spot Meter)
- "Fn" key (rebound to AE-L)
- "AE-L/AF-L" key (rebound to AF-On)
I tried a long burst earlier today, and filled the buffer for the first time. Was able to take 13 shots at full speed and full resolution / quality before it slowed down. That's a lot of pictures at full speed, and there's a neat "rXX" value that pops up in the viewfinder, indicating how fast the buffer is processing the shots you've taken (and how many shots you have in reserve that can be taken). When you exhaust the buffer, the value will read "r00", and when it's ready to take another, say, two shots, it'll read "r02". Time between shots after buffer was exhausted was around 1 second. Maybe people who know better will complain about this, but again: I'm from the stone age... it's true my F5 could go through a roll at about 8fps, but I'd rather go through 13 shots at 5.5fps and have it cost me nothing at all than be forever afraid that I'd invoke crazy-motor-drive-mode on the F5 and waste a roll in under 5 seconds. The buffer is definitely sufficient for my needs.
Having carried it now for a few hours at a time, I can definitely say I stick to my assessment regarding burden: it is not a small camera, but it is very light.
Oh, and battery life is excellent for something that has an LCD screen.
Finally, regarding quiet mode, represented by "Q" on the drive mode dial: this is the same as the "Cs" mode on the F5, and I'm sure other cameras have it as well. Just like the F5, it isn't really quiet at all. In fact, the sound pressure peak of the noise is nearly the same as the peak of the standard shutter noise. Granted the peak is shorter, and the total impulse of sound longer, but that's just the thing -- on both the F5 and the D600, "Quiet Mode" should really be called "what-the-hell-was-that-odd-unhealthy-camera-like-noise" mode. Just use the regular shutter and stop taking pictures if you need to be that quiet. Or get a Leica.
-------------- After a week --------------
No regrets. I took this out over the weekend to the dark wilderness and did some astrophotography. The battery life is fantastic, the mirror lockup mode using the remote is likewise wonderful, and the camera's noise levels in -complete darkness- are unbelievably low. It's like shooting a film camera, really, except not paying for film. Heck, about the only thing I can think of that might be disadvantageous for this camera vs., say, an FM2n for astrophotos is the battery consumption for very long shots. But with digital, to hell with long shots anyway. Take fifty 30-second exposures and stack them; then you hardly even need a mount.
After the night (mostly awake playing with the camera under the stars), I woke up and did some hiking. Spent that whole day using only MF lenses. Everything up to my 135mm is just fine with the stock viewfinder screen. Unfortunately, I do miss the microprism collar and rangefinder center for the 200mm and 300mm lengths. It's just darn hard to focus manually without those aids at such a power, and I can attest to it not being as hard on the F5 (with swapped viewfinder screen). Then again, I can stop down enough that focus isn't as critical with this sensor and still have good shutter speeds, so who cares?
I will probably get a third party / accessory viewfinder screen if that ever becomes available. If not, I can deal.
This weekend also marks the first time I used my "heavy" lenses for an extended period. No, I wasn't in -10F or anything, but the polymer faceplate didn't have any trouble supporting heavy telephoto primes. This camera is sturdy. Perhaps the F5 can stand up to abuse, but I plan on using my cameras, not abusing them, and the D600 is plenty good enough for any real use I might have. I will make sure to report back on how it performs next time I am in low temps.
Video! I finally used this mode. It works great and quality is very high. No bad noises in the mic, no "jelly" motion or shearing. I only shot with a 28mm AI-S lens, but all was quite well.
Ergonomics- I can do everything now without taking my eye off the viewfinder. This camera will be very familiar to anybody who has used a Nikon since the F5. Buttons are where they should be, and the stuff that's been invented since that era isn't much of an additional burden to learn, since it's all quite well thought out. What has been left out of this camera that remains on the professional line can easily be compensated for with the aforementioned key rebinding.
A few gripes:
- What could it have cost to give me an eyepiece shutter? I got some kind of plastic thing that that I'm never going to carry with me. Nikon, integrate this feature. Not a big deal, but silly.
- The stock strap is gaudy and stiff. Thankfully, the camera is light enough that I just swapped the strap out with paracord (550 cord) and it's plenty comfy. I've always swapped my straps on light cameras for paracord, but never could get away with that on the F5, since it was so heavy and the cord would press uncomfortably into my shoulder (even making marks after a long day).
- I wish there were a way to lock up the mirror for multiple frames. I feel bad cycling the mirror each time I take a series of astrophotos. No need for the mirror to work 50 times just because the shutter needs to cycle 50 times. Maybe I just don't know how to do this yet?
- Playback mode could be smarter. When you ask the camera to store JPG+RAW, you have to browse through both JPG+RAW in playback mode. I can see this being useful to someone, but you should be able to optionally limit playback to one or the other. Where this really gets annoying is deletion. When I shoot JPG+RAW, review, and decide I don't want to keep a shot, I must delete the JPG and then delete the RAW. They aren't always even sequential, which means I have to figure out what I haven't deleted yet, or be left with a patchwork of orphaned RAW/JPG files that I don't want! Just offer the option to hide one or the other in playback mode, and I'll be happy. And make deletion actions applicable to both the RAW and the JPG of the same photo.
- The Auto ISO thing never worked out. I turned it off, and I'm perfectly happy switching between ISOs when necessary myself. Ergonomics are so good on this camera that I've got that movement memorized now.