After a waiting a few years for Nikon to release an update to the D300s I’d been using, I finally made the jump to full frame when the D600 was announced. Here’s why I made the decision and why I think I’m better off with this camera than the one I thought I wanted.
First, why upgrade cameras at all? I bought the D300s when it was first announced in mid-2009. Its predecessor, the D300, was highly regarded as an excellent DX format (crop sensor) body and many pros used one or at least had one as a backup camera. I had no doubt the D300s would be just as good, if not better. I was replacing an aging D70. I certainly had a reason to upgrade. I wanted more resolution, lower noise in low light, and a pro-level autofocus system. I’d advanced as a photographer enough that I would take advantage of many of the pro features of the D300s. Without spending the big bucks for a full frame camera, the D300s was the best camera I could buy and it worked extremely well for me.
We photographers have an obsession with gear; we always like to have the latest and greatest. We don’t always need it, but we like to have it. Pros have a good excuse: “If all the other pros have the best gear, but I don’t, then they have an advantage over me”. When “advantage” starts translating into money, then it starts to make sense to make sure the playing field is level. Of course, I’m not a pro, but that doesn’t mean that I still don’t want the best gear.
I was very happy with the DX format. It meant that I could have a pro-level body for a reasonable price. It meant that I could carry smaller lenses that weighed less. It meant that those smaller, lighter lenses would cost less. It meant that I got a little extra reach on telephoto lenses and didn’t need something super long. Given that I shoot as a hobby and usually while on vacation, a smaller, lighter, cheaper, but still pro-level setup, was perfect for me.
I like to shoot in the early morning or evening. The light is the best at these times—unfortunately there’s not much of it. I have a tripod. A very nice tripod. I even got one that’s light and fits in my carry-on luggage. But I’m still not going to have it with me at all times. Jon and I also enjoy going to nice restaurants and, as anyone with an interest in photography might, I take photos at these restaurants on occasion. These restaurants are dark but a tripod isn’t going to dinner with us. Point is that I wanted a camera that could shoot high ISO with little noise. My D300s was certainly an improvement over my D70, but in 2012 knowing that every other Nikon DX camera in production had better low-light performance than my “pro-level” camera really bothered me.
There were rumors of a 16 megapixel D400 with ISO up to 6400+, etc., a few years ago. This would’ve made me super happy and I would’ve bought it in a heartbeat. It never happened. It still might happen. There are plenty of wildlife photographers out there who like the crop sensor bodies and would buy a pro-level D400. It certainly seems like there’s room in the Nikon lineup for a pro-level DX body still. Many think that Nikon will merge the D300 and D7000 lines into one upper-level DX camera. This makes sense to me and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see it in 2013. I don’t know what feature set it’d have, what it would be called, or how much it’d cost, but merging those two lines makes sense with the current state of the technology already in lower level DX bodies.
So why did I decide to make the jump to full frame with the D600? I knew I’d go full frame one day, it was just a matter of when it would be affordable. About half of the lenses I owned were already FX lenses. As my hobby progressed, I wanted better and better (and faster) lenses. When I could tell a difference between using good lenses verses the cheaper lenses, I wanted the good stuff. In most cases, the “good stuff” means full frame. Also, whenever I did end up buying a new DX lens, I knew I’d have to sell it someday. Going full frame would simplify the lens situation somewhat, and I’d finally be able to take full advantage of the full frame-compatible glass I already owned. A bigger deciding factor in going full frame though was the sensor. The D600 has excellent performance in low light and its 24 megapixel sensor (double the resolution of the D300s) would allow for downsampling to further reduce apparent noise or allow cropping relatively tight on noise-free images while still maintaining resolution. When I realized that even if I held out for the next high-end DX camera, the sensor wouldn’t be anywhere near as good as the one in the D600. That pretty much made my decision given that one of my big motivations to upgrade in the first place was wanting better quality of low-light shots. Another motivation had to do with setting myself apart. With the cost of cropped sensor entry level DSLRs almost as low as $500, everyone has one, and the image quality these cameras produce is really very good. On top of that, there are mirrorless cameras now with sensors as big as the Nikon DX format that are also quite affordable. If I’m going to lug lots of big lenses around the planet I wanted a good reason to do so.
Am I giving up anything with the D600? A little. It’s not a pro-level body like the D300s. The autofocus system doesn’t seem quite as snappy as the one I’m used to and it’s not the same system that’s in Nikon’s higher-end FX cameras like the D4 and D800. Nikon purposely left out features available in the D4 and D800 to be able to distinguish it as an entry level FX camera. But I think that’s ok. When I looked at the major differences between the D600 and D4/D800 I realized I didn’t really need the extra features they provide (at least not for the extra cash it’d cost to get me there). I certainly didn’t want, or didn’t want to deal with the 36 megapixel images of the D800. I didn’t need the added size or 11 frames-per-second shooting of the D4. I did want the 1/8000th of a second fastest shutter speed (the D600 tops out at 1/4000th) but when I looked at the number of times I’d used 1/8000th on my D300s I could count them on one hand. Having only 3 frames of exposure bracketing is ok too, especially when each shot can be 2 EV apart (Hey! This is a feature the D4 doesn’t have!).
What about upgrading to full frame lenses? As I said, I had a number of great FX lenses already including the 24mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.4, and 70-200 f/2.8. There were two DX lenses that I really liked and used often that needed to be replaced though: the ultra-wide Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 and the normal zoom Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8. I replaced the ultra-wide lens with the Nikon 16-35mm f/4 VR. This is actually going to be a much more useful lens than the 11-16mm. It’s a hair wider, twice as long, and has vibration reduction. I’m perfectly fine with f/4 in this range as wide-angle shots typically have a large depth of field anyway and the VR gives me an extra stop or two (let’s also not forget that the D600 is at least a few stops better than the D300s in the high-ISO noise department). Replacing the 17-55mm was going to trickier. I suppose an obvious choice might be the pro-level 24-70mm f/2.8. If it had VR I might consider it, but the 17-55 had more range, was lighter, and didn’t cost $2K. I love VR and if Nikon ever updates their 24-70 with VR I’m going to add it to my wish list. Until then, I’ll go with something lighter and cheaper. I’ve decided that the 24-120mm f/4 VR has the size/price/performance ratio I’m looking for, at least on paper. I’ve actually just ordered one and am hoping it’ll work when I want to be lazy and use a zoom. I do have three primes that cover the same range if I need more light, better out of focus rendering, or sharper edge-to-edge images.
There have been a number of comments online from early adopters of the D600 with problems with sensor dust on their new cameras. I feel like I should say something about that here. I had the sensor dust problem too. After a few hundred shots I noticed dust spots on images taken with small apertures. Blowing air on the sensor or using the camera’s dust removal feature didn’t help. I ended up sending the camera to Nikon. They cleaned the sensor and when returned it was free of sensor dust. I’m aware that it might return, but instead of worrying too much about it, I’m going to just shoot and not go looking for problems. If I notice dust again, I’ll ask Nikon to take another look.
So far I’ve used my D600 in a couple dark restaurants and in a few other indoor situations. It performed as well as I’d hoped! Most notably, images taken at high ISOs still look great and the noise is well controlled. The autofocus, which I was worried about, worked just fine in these dark environments on still subjects. My cameras get their biggest workouts when I travel though so I’m anxious to see how well the D600 does with me on vacation. Luckily, Jon and I have a big trip planned for later this year! So far, I couldn’t be happier with my decision to go with the D600. I won’t regret it if a D400—the camera I thought I wanted—is ever announced. I’ve sold my DX gear, have a great collection of FX lenses, and more image quality than I know what to do with. I hope to be able to grow with this camera over the next few years, become more disciplined in my shooting, and create better images.
All of the image on this page were taken with the D600. They were processed in Lightroom 4 the way I’d normally process images. They’ve had white balance correction, contrast added, noise reduction, and sharpening applied. They were also heavily downsampled to appear here. I have noticed, however, that I have to do a lot less to my D600 images in post than I did with the images coming out my D300s. You can click to enlarge all the images, but even the enlarged images have been downsampled and are only only 2048 pixels on the longest edge (D600 native image size is 6016 x 4016).
My Cyrus Restaurant Finale gallery is the first to feature images taken only with the D600. Watch for more to appear in the coming months. If you’ve got any questions, leave them in the comments!