September 17

6 comments

Comparing Nikon DSLRs: The D600 vs. The D800

By Dan

September 17, 2012


If you’ve been waiting to upgrade your Nikon DSLR, at long last, the waiting game is over. Now it’s time to choose. D800 bodies are finally showing up in regular stock at many camera stores, and the D600, which is already on shelves.

So, which camera should you get- the D600 or the D800? Let’s review the main features and see how the two cameras compare. Hopefully this will help you decide which body is right for you.

Image Quality

The biggest difference in this department is the number of pixels involved. Both cameras use the same size 24mm x 35.9mm FX-format full frame CMOS sensor and shoot 14-bit RAW, but whereas the D600 has 24.3 million pixels on its sensor, the D800 has a groundbreaking 36.3 million pixels packed onto the same area.

Essentially, this gives the D800 a big edge on resolution, simply because the pixels are packed more densely on the sensor. However, resolution alone is not the only factor that’s involved when were dealing with image quality.

That said, the sensor on the D600 has been given the second highest DxOMark score in overall image evaluation tests for available full-frame cameras. Also, software and image processing plays a huge part in how good your images look and how well the camera is able to reproduce tones across the entire spectrum of light and dark. Both the D800 and the D600 (as well as the D4) use Nikon’s new EXPEED 3 image processing brain, so even though the D800 will shoot higher resolution images, the D600 will produce comparable quality images, even in low light conditions.

When it comes to metering, the D800 has a brand new 91,000 pixel RGB sensor matrix meter, while the D600 uses the older 2,016 pixel matrix meter that’s found on the D7000. While this will not make or break your exposures, the D800 obviously has an edge when it comes to metering in tricky lighting situations and scene analysis.

Frames Per Second

This is where the D600 edges out the D800. CMOS sensors are able to process images at remarkable speed, but since the D600 has fewer pixels to crunch during each exposure, it’s able to fire at a faster rate.  Whereas the D800‘s top speed is only 4 frames per second at full resolution, the D600 can fire at 5.5 fps.

However the D800 can fire faster when it’s not shooting full res files. If you’re shooting a scene and absolutely need that extra speed, you can always switch to DX mode or 1:2 aspect ratio mode and shoot at 5 fps, or slap on the battery grip and shoot DX mode at 6 fps.

Autofocus

The D800 uses the new Multi-CAM 3500FX autofocus system, which is the same one that’s found on the top of the line D4. It has 51-point detection with 15 cross-type sensors and 3D tracking. Cross type sensors are autofocus points that are oriented in both the vertical and horizontal axis. They’re more sensitive to variations in light across multiple planes and thus offer improved accuracy when detecting and locking on certain subjects.

The D600 uses the new Multi-CAM 4800DX autofocus system, which is similar to the one found on the D7000. It only has 39-point detection with 9 cross type sensors. In effect, when compared to the speed and accuracy of the D800, the D600 has a slightly stepped down system. That said, I’ve tried the D600 and can report that it indeed has a very fast, accurate autofocus system, especially when used with AF-S lenses.

Also, since it’s been adapted from the D7000, which is a DX body, the AF matrix is more densely packed into the center of the frame. Some photographers who frequently position moving subjects closer to the edges of the frame might find this arrangement somewhat limiting.

Flash Capabilities

Both the D600 and the D800 have pop-up flashes can function as wireless commanders, and can control up to two groups of remote Speedlights. For most off camera flash work, both cameras will offer just about the same level of creativity.

I say “just about,” because there are differences. While the D800 flash sync speed is 1/250 sec. the D600 only syncs at 1/200. Strobist David Hobby has said that this is a major limiting factor. However, while I can understand his math and methods, and while I wish the D600 synced at 1/250, I just don’t think the difference between 1/250 and 1/200 will be the end of the world for many photographers. In fact, Canon’s new 5D MK III also syncs at 1/200.

The D600 also lacks a sync cord port, which is usually used to trigger flashes and strobes inside the studio. If you shoot mainly outside, no sync port is really not an issue. If you do need one, though, you can always buy the $20 Nikon AS-15, which slides right onto your hot shot and turns it into a PC sync port.

Body Construction

Whereas the D800 is built with a full magnesium alloy chassis, the D600 has some composite materials incorporated into its design in order to save weight. It still has magnesium alloy on the top and sides, and it has the same weather sealing as the D800, so unless you’re really beating it up, the D600 should weather the elements outside just fine.

The D600 is also slightly smaller and lighter than the D800, in fact the D600 is the smallest, lightest and least expensive full frame camera to date; it’s great for going fast and light!!

Video

Although the D800 will obviously shoot quality video since it has more pixels on the sensor, both cameras will shoot Full HD and are very comparable in this area. The main limitation on the D600, though, is that you can’t adjust your aperture while you’re recording.

Storage Media and Batteries

Both cameras have a dual-memory card slot. The D800 takes one CF and one SD card, while the D600 takes two SD cards, just like the D7000. All three cameras use the same EN-EL15 battery, so if you’re upgrading from a D7000, you can swap batteries between any of the three bodies.

Other Features

The D600 has a couple of features that the D800 does not have. One is the new WU-1b Wireless Adaptor which plugs into the USB 2.0 port on the D600 and allows you to send photos directly to your smartphone or tablet. At this point, there is no wireless adaptor for the D800.

Another think the D600 has several built in “Scene Modes, as well as U1 and U2 user banks that are found on the exposure mode dial. This allows you to program specific and often used camera settings for instant recall. You might have one setting for manual flash use and one for action sports shootings, etc…

Both cameras have the same size and resolution LCD monitor, compatibility with just about all Nikon lenses, new or old, similar battery life and very similar control layout.

Price

This is the big one:

  • D600 = $2,099
  • D800 = $2,999

Final Anaysis

So, which camera should you buy? As with any camera, it comes down to how you’ll use it and what you demand from a camera. For enthusiasts, photographers who are moving up from a D7000, or one of Nikon’s other DX bodies, and even many professional users, the D600 is an excellent quality camera that will deliver excellent image quality and offer a wide selection of usable features that will allow you to fully explore your creativity and push your technical abilities.

As far as quality goes, 24.3 megapixels is more than enough resolution for most people, after all, we’re still talking still talking over 6,000 pixels on the long end, vs. 7,300+ pixels on the D800. That’s not very much, especially when you compare to what we had just a few years ago.

Unless you absolutely need (want) the largest file sizes and the highest dynamic range, the D600 will likely give you everything you need in a photographic quality. You’ll save on price as well as on storage space. D800 RAW files are considerably bigger than RAW files made on the D600.

And as I said above, the flash sync speed is definitely an issue, but I don’t see it being a huge issue for many photographers, especially for outdoor, action, and travel shooters, and photographers who like to fast with light. Sure, you may lose a tiny bit of power on your Speedlights when trying to overpower the sun, but for regular flash use, you may never run into any problems. Remember those Cyclorcoss images I shot last week with my strobe? Many of them were shot at 1/100, 1/160 and /1200 sec.

In my mind, the bigger matter to consider is the autofocus system. If you’re a demanding pro user who shoots erratically moving sports and likes to frame subjects outside the center, or shoot sports and moving subjects in lower light, you may find the AF system on the D600 somewhat limiting. The D800 has the same high end AF system as the D4, and if you’re a heavy pro user, then you can probably afford to the higher jump to the D800 anyway.

$3K is certainly a lot of money to drop on a camera unless you can justify the price, though. If you’re coming from a DX body and going full frame for the first time, the D600 is an outstanding camera. It’s simply a better camera than you’ve probably every used before and you’ll likely find it to be an excellent and usable tool. For most outdoor photographers, it’s a no brainer. Want a new camera? Get the D600.

If you’re one of those disappointed D700 users who feels somehow lost and left out of this round of the Nikon upgrade game, you have three choices:

1: Get the D600, sacrifice a tiny bit on AF and flash sync speed and still get image quality that’s better than you’ve every shot before. However, despite the two things that I would have liked to see on it, the D600 is really a fantastic, and high performing camera. Nikon did well with this one and the majority of photographers will find it that it fits their needs perfectly.

2: Go D800 and sacrifice a little bit on frames per second, concentrate on timing instead of just slamming your finger down on the shutter and wildly spraying frames, and still get a camera that’s superior in every other way. (Or go full mac daddy and get the D4)

3: Keep shooting with your D700 because it’s still an excellent and relevant camera that will still deliver great results for you and your clients, and wait to see what Nikon comes out with in six months or so. However, if you’re like most D700 users, chances are you’ll be disappointed in that too.

I know, it seems like there will never be another D700, but who knows. There’s still a thousand dollar jump between the D600 and the D800, which means that there’s certainly room for something in the middle. Question is, will Nikon fill that price point with a D4 mini, which is what we all want anyway? We can only watch the Nikon Rumors site and keep our fingers crossed.

Or, like I said, you can buy one of these two awesome and capable cameras and go make some killer photographs with all that juicy new DSLR technology.

D600, D800. Red pill, blue pill. The choice is yours.

Support this site: Give your virtual thumbs up for the time, energy and research that it takes me to bring you reviews like this one by purchasing gear through these links. Thanks! -Dan

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About the author

Hi, I'm Dan Bailey, a 20+ year pro outdoor and adventure photographer, and official FUJIFILM X-Photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska.


As a top rated blogger and author my goal is to help you become a better, more confident and competent photographer, so that you can have as much fun and creative enjoyment as I do.

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  • Hi Dan,

    I’ve been struggling with this very problem. I have had the opportunity to shoot with both cameras. Both cameras pose interesting concerns. I am an art photographer that shoots natural light portraits in a variety of lighting conditions. I have a particular set of needs. I am interested in attaining an extended DOF as well as stopping motion in potentially low light and also high contrast situations. A difficult proposition to say the least. I will say that I do shoot with a tripod. I am also interested in the potential to print very large prints for gallery exhibitions ( this hasn’t happened yet but I’d like to in the future). All of these factors add to my difficultly in making a decision.

    There are a few things that I have found while using the D800 that not a lot of people are talking about in their reviews. One is the DOF. I find that the DOF seems to be exaggerated. F4 shoots like f2, f11 like f8. Which means that by stopping down to say f16 in order to achieve a sufficient DOF I then start to suffer from diffraction and softening. F11/13 seem to be the sweet spot. FYI I’m shooting with the 35mm N 1.4G. I’ve read many forum posts with people going back and forth about MPs, circle of confusion, DOF is an illusion, sensor microns etc…

    My other concerns are with ISO/Noise and shutter speed. Maybe it’s me. But I’m not seeing stellar ISO results at 100% . I’ve seen noise on skin tones of people located the shade at ISO 160. My shutter speed concern has to do with the fact that shooting with 36mp forces you to shoot at higher speeds to avoid blur. Something I could shoot at 250th or 320th now needs to be shot at 500th or higher.

    The D600 on the other hand doesn’t seem to suffer as much from my noise concerns. I would imagine that it would have to do with less mp, larger photo sites. As well as file size I guess. The D600 also “appears” to have a more “traditional” DOF. The D600 also has the ability to shoot at slower shutter speeds and still freeze action.

    The two biggest problems with the camera are the focus points and the metering system. The focus point use the DX layout from the D7000. All of the points are bunched in the middle rendering them not so useful. The metering(again using the system from the D7000) is certainly not as good as the D800’s 921,000 px system.

    So this is the dilemma. Thoughts?

    Here’s my take on each camera.

    D800 –
    Pros: amazing dynamic range and detail. Large files for large prints. Great AF system. Fantastic metering. Pro type body.

    Cons: Not great ISO performance in low light situations, even at low ISOs. Higher shutter speeds needed to freeze action. “Shallower” DOF.

    D600-
    Pros: Very good image quality and dynamic range. Slower shutter speeds to freeze action. Better low light ISO performance.

    Cons: poor focus point lay out. Standard metering system. Smaller body, consumer build.

  • When the D800 is switched from FX to DX, the size drops from 36 to 24mp, roughly a 33 percent drop. When the D600 is switched, the size drops from 24 to 10.5mp, a much higher percentage. Why? Not doubting the numbers, just curious.

  • I’ll make one additional point, which I have rarely seen covered (it’s probably not a big issue for most people).

    I have a D800 (which I rarely use, but that’s another subject) and I find one major irritant with the camera – which would also apply more so to the D600 – and that is its size. I’ve found the camera to be irritatingly small. The MB-D12 helps a lot in this department (it’s actually slightly larger than my F6 – also with the battery pack). If you find camera size matters, then you may want to consider this as well.

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    Terry Bourk

    I have read you new book “Behind the Landscape.” I could not “put it down” meaning that I kept at it because each photo you presented/analyzed was interesting and informative. I am trying to develop an eye for composition (both the scene and the light).

    Thank you! The examples you present and the suggestions are very helpful. Purple Mountains, McKinley River and Wonder Lake are fascinating.


    Roger Sinclair

    You have done it again! Another triumph.

    Your generosity to share, the clarity of thought and concise explanation thereof is brilliant. Perhaps I should also mention the beautiful photos and the talent necessary to produce them.

    Thank you, Dan.