Thursday, October 11, 2012

Nikon D600 + Nikkor 24-70: A Day with My Precious Ones (and my kids too)

Last weekend I took our kids to Disneyland - just the three of us.  It was my first time to bring them there by myself, so instead of my usual two camera combo, I just brought one camera and one lens - the Nikon D600 and the Nikkor 24-70 2.8G.

In this post I will discuss how the combination performed in terms of:
- versatility
- image quality
- autofocus speed and accuracy
- low light performance (autofocus and image quality)
- dynamic range

(Click on the pictures for higher-resolution versions.  FYI no additional sharpening was used - only LR defaults.  All shots were handheld with no flash.  Except as otherwise noted, I did not apply noise reduction, clarity, vibrance or saturation.)
I was initially concerned that I didn't have a telephoto lens or ultrawide angle lens with me, but the Nikkor 24-70 2.8G covered many kinds of shots, from scene setters to close-up portraits.  To me, the 24mm had a similar feel to my Tokina 11-16 and the 70mm portraits felt tight enough to isolate the subject.
Traffic Jam.  24mm
36mm. Clarity +15

For controlled shots, I found the images were sharp, even wide open at f/2.8.

The 24-70's bokeh is reasonably good in my opinion, though not in the same league as the Sigma 50 1.4:

The one thing that I was not impressed with was the amount of flare I was getting.  Please note that I did have a UV filter on (reviewed here), so I will look into this again in the future, without a UV filter.  UPDATE 10/12/12: I found that the rear element of my lens had a smudge in it.  I have since cleared the smudge, but I suspect the flare that I saw was from the smudge.  Will retest.

Consistent with previous tests, I found the D600's autofocus to be very good, speedily acquiring focus on active subjects.  Although the focus point was not always perfect, a high percentage of the shots had more than acceptable focus.  As expected, it was a lot easier to get good focus with an aperture of f/4.0 or f/5.6 than f/2.8.

I was surprised that the D600 and 24-70 were able to focus quickly enough to capture fast-moving subjects, even when I had no time to select the AF point.  The ride was at full speed in the shot below and IIRC the camera was on Auto Area AF with AF-C:

Although we visited Disneyland in the daytime, we did drift into more dimly lit areas and it also got dimmer toward the end of the day.  On previous trips, I probably would have used flash under the same circumstances but on this occasion, I wanted to see what the Nikon D600 could do.  In my opinion, using high ISO in dim lighting is a more realistic test of a camera's high ISO performance than using a well-lit test scene.  (Note: The scenes below might look brighter than they actually were because I adjusted the contrast.)

From prior testing, I found that the D600's high ISO performance was exceptional for the viewing sizes that I normally use.  I therefore allowed the Auto ISO to choose any ISO, all the way up to 25600.  Sometimes, the camera would choose weird ISO settings like 8063.  Not sure why but it wasn't an issue for me.  Anyway, here are some high ISO samples.  No noise reduction used except as noted.

2800 ISO

8063 ISO

I can play too! 10,159 ISO
One thing that I like about the D600's high ISO is that it can still retain detail.  I prefer a noisier but more detailed image than one that has no noise but also no detail.  Another benefit of the D600 is that because of its high resolution, noise reduction is more effective if and when applied.

20,000 ISO. Noise reduction +30. Saturation -22.
25,600 ISO. Noise reduction +50. Clarity +31. Saturation -20.
I also want to note how well the D600's autofocus performed in these low light conditions.  The last couple of shots above were in a very dim room lit by a low-wattage incandescent bulb.  The last shot was at 25600 ISO, f/2.8, 1/80, or about an Exposure Value of 1.  It was dim enough that it was hard to see into the shadows with my naked eyes.  IIRC the AF assist did not activate because the AF point wasn't in the middle.  Even in such extreme circumstances the D600 and 24-70 focused with no hesitation at all.

One thing that I was looking for in the D600 was its dynamic range.  I have a Fuji S5, which I love, and I wanted a camera that would have a dynamic range that could match that of the S5.

When we visited Disneyland, the sun was blazing, providing a good opportunity to test the D600's dynamic range.  Here are some examples that amply demonstrate the D600's DR:

In this shot, Belle was wearing a satin-like glove which fell under direct sunlight.  Nonetheless, none of the details of the glove were lost.

This following scene was extremely backlit.  It was hard for me to see much more than silhouettes against the sun's glare.  It was the kind of scene that is the specialty of the S5.  The D600 performed just as well, retaining all details with the exception of specular highlights (note that the delicate diffuse highlights, such as the glossy surfaces of Dumbo were not blown out).

Now I have to come clean about a couple of things.  For these DR shots, the straight-out-of-the-camera didn't look like the final images that you see here.  Second, I had to adjust the automatic exposure of some of these shots.  You'll see what I mean when I post in more detail about the D600's dynamic range.  In the meantime, here are more samples.

Smile for daddy!