Monday, September 16, 2013

Nikon D600 - Long Term Review



Many people say your equipment doesn't matter.  I suppose that's true to some extent.  But some equipment can truly make a difference for your photography.  The Nikon D600 was one such equipment for me.  I have had the Nikon D600 since launch day (September 18, 2012 in the U.S.). It's been about a year and in this post, I would like to discuss candidly my thoughts on the Nikon D600, from the perspective of an amateur who usually takes candid (i.e., not setup) photos of my family and friends and the occasional event.


BACKGROUND

For a while, I had been reasonably happy with my APS-C cameras (at the time, the D300) but whenever I saw a full frame image (Nikon or otherwise) with shallow depth of field, I was mesmerized.  To a lesser extent, I was also tempted by the high ISO capability.  After going back and forth with my co-author Mohammad, I decided to take the leap to full frame.  I was almost going to buy a Nikon D700 (to the point where I withdrew the cash to buy the camera) but held off because of rumors of a new full frame Nikon.

Weeks later, the Nikon D800 was announced.  However, it was not the camera that I expected.  For one, it had a 36-megapixel sensor, and I had no need for such high-resolution photos.  Unfortunately for me, Nikon D700 prices did not drop as much as I thought they would, so I decided instead to get a Nikon D3, which I felt would hold its value better.

My previous camera
I liked the Nikon D3 but when there were increasing rumors of an entry-level full frame camera, I sold it at once.  When Nikon announced the D600 a week later, I felt that its specs were indeed what I was looking for.  I placed a pre-order and got mine on launch day.

I've used the D600 as my primary camera for a year now.  I would like to point out the features that offered the most significant benefits to me, and the issues that were the most problematic.

IMPACT ON MY PHOTOGRAPHY

As I mentioned earlier, the D600 changed the way I take photographs, like no other camera I've owned (even the Nikon D3).  It is because of a combination of the D600's high ISO capability and its shadow recovery abilities.  On a per-pixel basis, the D600 is good but not that much better than the D3.  However, when comparing the D600 and D3 at the same viewing size, there is a large difference in their high ISO capabilities - more than 1 stop improvement, in my opinion.  See some comparisons here.  The high ISOs are clean and usable enough that I pretty much use any available ISO, all the way to 25,600 ISO.

Low Light
In the shot below, the room was very dark and the animatronic figure of Ariel was constantly moving.  It was taken at 16,000 ISO, plus dodging on the face (effectively increasing the ISO on the face).  I added a noise reduction of 15.



This one was at 25,600, also with a minor noise reduction of 15 in Lightroom 5:


I don't always shoot in low light, but the excellent high ISO performance of the D600 allows me to use very high shutter speeds which in turn results in sharper shots.  The shot below was taken at a shutter speed of 1/160 (at 560 ISO).  Taking the shot at a relatively high shutter speed (considering the subjects weren't moving) contributed to the sharpness of the shot.  The D600's smart Auto ISO really helps here because I can set it at two stops faster than the 1/focal length rule of thumb.



Lighting
Before I got the D600, I was heavily into using flash.  In fact, if you've been reading this blog, you would know most of my older articles were about lighting and flash.  The D600 changed all that.  Check out this shot:



Now here is how it looked straight out of the camera:

This is a typical backlit shot.  With backlit shots, I used to have some sort of fill light.  The easiest fill light would be a popup flash.  The problem is that it looks very artificial (in terms of quality, direction and color).  In the past, in order to maintain a natural look, I searched for various light sources that would look natural. It's not so easy.  Here I would probably have used a ring flash (for shadowless fill), or a handheld umbrella (from slightly below and aiming slightly upward to simulate light being reflected from the ground), neither of which are convenient to bring around on a vacation.

With the D600, I just took the shot with all ambient light, then brought up the shadows in post-processing.  The result looks natural and unobtrusive, and I didn't have to use any additional equipment.  The D600 facilitates this approach because it has excellent shadow recovery.  You can raise the exposure even by as much as 5 stops and the recovered shadows will still look very clean, with no banding and very manageable noise (if any).

Sometimes, too, using flash would be very difficult.  In this case, the high ISO capability also helps me shoot with ambient light only to preserve the ambience.  Here is a sample of what I'm talking about.



The shots above were taken in a gaming truck, which was photographically challenging.  It was dark, and it had laser effects like a nightclub.  On one end, a door was open, letting some sunlight in, while deep inside the truck it was pretty dark.  The shot at the top was with flash.  I bounced the flash against the wall facing the kids to simulate the light from the LCD monitors.  The shot below was all ambient, at 16,000 ISO.  Although the shot with flash is "cleaner," the all-ambient shot captured the ambience much better than did the shot with flash.  First, the all-ambient shot allowed more of the decorative lights to be seen, which were significantly diminished in the shot with flash.  Second, the flash still looks like flash (even though I tried to adjust the color a little bit in post), partly because it's unrealistic to expect a single color illuminating all of the kids (they're all playing different games).  I'm sure with more experimentation and setup I could get better results from the flash, but I often don't get that chance, in which case the results I get through ambient-only (with post-processing) are better.

Because of this and because most of my shots are not setup, I have seldom used flash with the D600. I only use flash in low light (it's not strictly necessary with the D600 but I get better results), or for setup shots.  The rest of the time, I got used to relying on shadow recovery to lift shadows.  (In the future I will discuss some of the techniques I use for lifting shadows.)

Dynamic Range
Another reason I love the D600 (as well as the Fuji S5 and the D7000) is the tremendous dynamic range (total range of highlights and shadows captured).  By itself, dynamic range is not important to me but what it does make available is the ability to preserve highlight detail.  In my view, preserving delicate highlights makes the image look more film-like (as opposed to digital).  And no, I'm not talking about the graininess of film :)  The shot below illustrates this point:


When a digital camera captures a scene where direct sunlight is falling on light skin, the skin is usually blown out (i.e., there's no detail).  In this shot, the sunlight is directly illuminating my daughter's leg and the rail of the slide.  However, all of the highlight detail was preserved, as they would be when shooting with negative film.  Again, this was made possible by the D600's very clean shadow recovery, which allows me to intentionally underexpose the shot, just enough to preserve all relevant highlight detail:


I then bring up the shadows in post, while keeping the detail in the highlights.

DEPTH OF FIELD


I'll get straight to the point: I still haven't gotten tired of the shallow depth of field of a full frame camera.  I think the high ISO and shadow recovery capabilities are more important but the allure of shallow DOF was one of the primary reasons I got a full frame camera and remains one of my favorite reasons for using the D600.

You can of course get a noticeably shallow DOF with a smaller sensor (even Micro-4/3) as was demonstrated by MShafik.  However, with a full frame camera like the D600 and a lens with suitably wide aperture, you can get shallow DOF even at wider angles and/or farther distances.

Sigma 35 1.4 @ f/1.4
Sigma 35 1.4 @ f/1.4
An 85mm 1.8 can get you a shallow DOF at reasonable distances on any camera be it full frame or micro-4/3.  However, whereas you might get a head-and-shoulders shot on a Micro 4/3 or upper body shot for APS-C for example, the same focal length and distance (and DOF) on a full frame would be a body shot.

Nikon 85 1.8G @ f/1.8
Furthermore, with a full frame camera, you have greater potential to play around with the blurred background.  For example, you can get a headshot like the one below with shallow DOF even on an APS-C or Micro-4/3.  However, note how colorful the blur is.  That was made possible because the full frame has a larger field of view and therefore captures a larger portion of the [colorful] background.  On a camera with a smaller sensor, less of the background would be captured and there would be less variety in color. 



ISSUES

So far, we've discussed some of the benefits of the D600.  But to be fair, the D600 is not perfect and has several issues.

DUST SPOTS
One of the most frequent questions that I get about the D600 is about the dust spots.  It is true that, out-of-the-box, the D600 is prone to getting dust on its sensor, particularly in the upper left corner.  Moreover, it appears that you cannot prevent the dust from accumulating because it appears to be internally generated somehow.  After a while the dust spots appear to diminish.  But no the D600 doesn't become immune to dust. :)

The last time I cleaned the D600 was at the beginning of May 2013, when I tested the Firefly.  Here is how the sensor looked after cleaning (f/45):




At the end of July, about 2700 shots later, here is how it looked (f/45):



So, believe it or not, the D600 can accumulate dust. :)

I tried to clean it with the firefly blower a couple of times:


A lot of the dust was removed, but there is still quite a bit of dust remaining.  I then tried to use the LensPen.  Contrary to my expectations, the spots just got moved around:


Since the spots got moved around, I infer that they are dust and not oil.  Anyway, although the sensor still had dust, I was satisfied and didn't attempt further cleaning (I still don't want to do wet cleaning).  Here is how the shot above actually looks:


In real life, I very rarely have any reason to shoot at apertures narrower than f/16, and more often I shoot at f/8 or wider apertures.  At those apertures the spots are not visible, and that's why this is a non-issue for me.

AF POINTS
A bigger problem for me is the AF points.  This is probably the most significant D600 issue for me.  The 39 AF points cover only a small portion of the frame (about 1/9th of the frame), and unfortunately just barely short of the rule of thirds intersections (although they do reach the golden ratio intersections).  I often focus-and-recompose, or I crop.  When I focus-and-recompose, I prefer to use the AE-L/AF-L button for AF-Lock only.  I choose the closest AF point to the target, I half-press to focus on the target, then I hold down the AF-Lock, recompose, and shoot as normal.  If the subject is fidgety or if the DOF is extremely thin, then I select the closest focus point, focus on the target with AF-C (continuous AF), then crop in post.



In actual use, I find this a bit of an annoyance, but usually doesn't prevent me from getting the shot I want.  The exception is when things are happening quickly (especially fast-moving sports), when the action suddenly happens outside the AF coverage area.

The D800 and other full frame Nikons do have 51 AF points, and they do reach the rule of thirds intersections, so that is one reason to choose those other models.  However, FYI when I had the D3 (which has 51 AF points), I was also frequently using focus-and-recompose.

Focus on Cruella de Ville


ERGONOMICS
The second biggest issue for me is the button arrangement.  One year after shooting with the D600, I'm still not used to the location of the zoom button (perhaps partly because I often use other Nikon DSLRs that place the zoom button in the traditional lower left corner).  Again, not really a hindrance but more of an annoyance.  That this is one of the "larger" issues with the D600 speaks well of the D600, IMO.

AUTOFOCUS
Autofocus is pretty fast and usually reliable.  In very dark environments, the D600 sometimes hunts, in which case I switch to the center AF point.



SHUTTER SPEED
The highest shutter speed of the D600 is 1/4000 (not 1/8000 like many other mid- and pro-level Nikons). I can probably count in my fingers the number of times this has been an issue in the real world (usually because  I want to use a very wide aperture in sunny conditions).  I have been able to use f/1.4 (at ISO 100, 1/4000) even in very sunny conditions (albeit backlit).



If the midday sun is directly on the subject then yes I have to switch to a narrower aperture.  However, I really dislike shooting with the sun as key in such conditions because of the unflattering direction, subjects squinting uncomfortably, etc. (in the shot below I was forced to do so):
ISO 100, 1/4000, f/4.0
SYNC SPEED
One of my early concerns was the 1/200 sync speed.  As you can infer from the discussion about lighting above, this hasn't been much of an issue because I often don't use flash at all.  The sync speed is important for overpowering ambient with flash, such as a situation where I'm trying to manage the dynamic range of the scene.  But as you can see from the examples above, post-processing can get me pretty good results, so for me the sync speed is not a big deal.



CONCLUSION
I got the D600 because I wanted the shallow depth of field and high ISO capabilities of a full frame camera in a relatively compact body.  However, I got even more than that: thanks to the D600's dynamic range and shadow recovery, it changed my shooting style completely.  Whereas I used to be fixated on artificial lighting, the D600 has freed me to rely on ambient-only lighting, which in turn has allowed me to give greater attention to other aspects of the photo such as the subjects' expressions, the background, and yes the ambient lighting conditions.  It does have a few kinks, most notably the AF coverage (and perhaps for some people the dust spots), but I believe it's one of the best, if not the best, photography-related purchase I've ever made.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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I'm an amateur photographer, and I've been shooting since 2007.  I started this blog in 2009 to help me learn photography and to help other photographers.  Most often, I take photos of people and events, though occasionally, I shoot other subjects such as products, architecture and landscapes.  Most of my shots are candid, though I do setup shots from time to time.  I have a few photos that have been published in calendars.  I have owned 11 DSLRs and a couple dozen lenses.  My Flickr album is here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/13451101@N05/ .