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Nikon D600 versus D800E - Review and Long Exposure Test!

Hello everyone,

earlier this week, I got offered to take the brand new Nikon D600 out for an afternoon. Better yet, the good folks at Beau Photo, the local camera store I deal with a lot, even included a D800e so I could do a direct comparison.

This should make for an interesting afternoon I thought. Without further delay, I got ready and headed downtown to take some pictures.

Above, you can see both the Nikon D800e and D600.

Although the size of both cameras is very similar (don't be fooled by the larger lens installed on the D600 in the image above) there are important differences you should be aware about:

  • Weight. The D600 is about 250 grams lighter than the D800. That's nice if you're planning to carry this camera all day.
  • Flash Sync Speed. The D600’s maximum flash sync speed is 1/200sec, while the D800’s is 1/250sec. While this may make a difference for some users, it's really very minor and I do not agree with reviewers, like strobist David Hobby, who argue that this diference alone makes it worth it to avoid the D600 altogether.
  • Fastest Shutter Speed. The D600’s top shutter speed is 1/4000sec, where the D800’s is 1/8000sec. As long exposure photographers, you may not care about this difference at all. While out shooting I did get a bit anoid that I couldn't shoot my Nikon 24mm f1.4 lens at its maximum aperture of 1.4. In full sunlight, the best I could do was to get to F2.2. Not a huge deal to most, but if you paid good money for such a fast lens, chances are you want to be shooting it wide open. For most landscape, architecture and long exposure photography this makes no difference at all though, as 'working apertures' are closer the F8 or F11.
  • Price. The D600 is about $1200 cheaper than the D800e, and still about $900 cheaper compared to the D800. You can buy a D600 with a very good lens for the price of the D800.
  • Megapixel. This one is obvious. Check out the image comparisons below and you will see that 12 extra megapixels on the d800e do make a difference. Is that difference important to you? Will it make a difference for your photography? Well that question isn't answered that easily. Unless you make large prints and/or crop extensively, you will very likely not see the difference. 24 megapixel has been called the 'ideal' resolution for 35mm and I agree that for the great majority of users, this number already exceeds what they need. 
  • Mode Dial and Scene Modes. The D800 has a less shooting modes available compared to the D600. On the D800 you'll find Program AE, Aperture priority, Shutter priority and Manual modes accessed by a Mode button and the rear command dial. In contrast to that, the D600 has full Auto 'green' mode, Scene modes and 'U1' and 'U2' user modes. I actually really like the user modes on the D600, as they are faster and more intuitive to use compared to the D800's custom menu banks settings. 
  • ISO Range and Noise. The range of ISO is the same on both camera models, but the lower resolution on the D600 suggests that the quality of images should be slightly higher (due to larger photosites on the D600). This point would be very important to us long exposure shooters, as we are always looking for low noise levels.
  • Autofocus System. The D600 has a 39-point AF system first seen on the D7000. The D800 uses an 51-point AF system so it seems to have an edge. Since I do most of my shooting in manual mode, and manual focus, this doesn't make a huge real life difference to me.
  • Continuous Shooting Speed. The D800’s higher resolution results in a continuous shooting speed of 4fps, while the D600 can shoot much faster at 5.5fps. Buffer capacity for RAW files is the same, however. In my opinion, both of these camera's aren't for sport and action shooters, but the D600 is certainly fast enough to take a series of 'action' shots of your family and kids every once in a while. Remember that if you want to get the highest quality out of these cameras, you should be using a tripod (especially with the high resolution of the D800 and D800e).
  • Construction. The D600 has a similar design to the D7000, using magnesium alloy for the top and back panels but polycarbonate elsewhere. The D800, by contrast, has an all-metal chassis, so we can expect it to last longer and also be better protected against the elements.
  • Memory Cards. This one is tricky and actually rather important. Both cameras have 2 memory card slots, but while the D600 uses 2 SD cards, the D800 has one SD and one CF card slot. I personally strongly prefer CF cards for their greater speed and increased durability, but both of these points are solely based on my personal experience and observation. I do like that my new apple laptop has a built-in SD card reader as well as the fact that with a D600 I would have to carry just one type of card if I wanted to use both memory card slots at once -:)

Ok so now that we talked about some of the differences between both cameras, let's take a closer look at how the D600 performs at long exposures.

The following image is a 15 minute long exposure (900 seconds). Noise reduction in-camera was turned off. The following observations can be made:

  • Ambient temperature was about 18 degrees Celsius (last day of summer)
  • Image is very clean with very low noise
  • Noise levels are especially low in shadow areas, where noise usually is high
  • It appears that there is no need to use the in-camera noise reduction feature on the D600

With the D800 lots of people, including several of my students and readers of this blog, have been complaining about increased noise levels and 'hot' pixels in particular. This seems especially true when photographing on warm days/nights. When I tested the D800 in early Spring, I managed to shoot a 35 minute exposure which was essentially free of noise (similar to the image below), BUT I had long exposure noise reduction turned on in the camera, and being early spring the temperature was just below 10 degrees Celsius.

It appears that the D800 needs this NR feature turned on in order to produce low levels of noise in long exposure images. The image below suggest that D600 owners can omit using this feature, and therefore can rejoice in the fact that they do not have to wait for the camera to process the image after each and every frame. A definate win for the D600 here.

Next, let's take a look at sharpness and resolution. With 12 additional megapixels, the D800 should come out as the clear winner in both categories. What is more, The D800e should add even more critical sharpness.

The following 2 images (well, 4 images actually) were shot with both cameras using the same lens (Nikon 24mm F1.4 prime) and exposure settings (ISO 100 and F8).

The cameras were setup on a tripod and the shutter was released using mirror-up and a cable release. This was done to get the utmost sharpness by eliminating potential camera shake and vibration.

Looking at the image above, we can see that the D800e indeed produced the sharper image. You can also see the gain in resolution as the 100% view is larger. It is important to note that dynamic range, or the ability of the camera to record tonal ranges, seems very comparable. When I first shot with the D800 back in the spring, I was actually very surprised by the dynamic range it was able to capture. As most of you know, I am used to shooting with a Phase One Digital Back, so to see a 35mm digital SLR approach image quality that can be obtained with a digital back nearly 10 times the costs is pretty exciting. Good times for photographers! And no, I won't be selling my digital back (just yet).

 In this second image, we can see once again that the D800e has an edge over the D600 when it comes to overall sharpness, detail rendition and resolution.

Please note that in both cases, I compared the in-camera jpg's (neutral, highest resolution and quality, Adobe RGB). I was able to open the D600 RAW files in Nikon Capture NX, but in the interest of time I decided to make this post using jpg's only. As I will have opportunities to be shooting with the D600 more, I will be updating everyone should I discover any changes working with RAW files instead.

So is the D600 worth it and a valuable alternative to the more expensive D800 (D800e)? For me it boils down to this:

  • Resolution. Despite the fact that the D800 (and D800e in particular) produces images with more megapixel and sharpness, I would argue that only very few photographers actually need and will notice such differences. As mentioned above, unless you are planning on making huge prints or crop and enlarge parts of your original images, 24 megapixels will be more than enough for you. If you're looking to stepping up from a crop sensor body, like the D7000 or D300, you will notice a huge difference in quality. As far as the balance of resolution, price and overall performance goes, I think the D600 is the winner here. The D800 and D800e are really specialized cameras aimed at experienced photographers looking to get the utmost details in their images, at the expense of slower shooting speeds (both auto focus and continuous shooting).
  • Price. At just over $2000 I belief the D600 is one of the best values out there.
  • Long Exposure Capabilities. Overall, the D600 seems to beat the D800 once again. Lower resolution results in reduced noise although it is possible to 'downsample' the D800 files to match the lower resolution of the D600 and by doing that noise levels can be expected to be lower. The fact that in-camera noise reduction appears to not be needed when shooting the D600 also makes it a better choice for long exposure photographers (at least those in a hurry).

For me, the D600 is the camera I am more likely to purchase. Some of you know that I have sold my D800 in May, after shooting with it for a few months.

The reason for selling wasn't the quality or performance, it was the fact that I don't want to make a big investment in *any* 35mm digital system since I am already heavily invested in medium format digital.

Still, with my Phase One being a very specialized camera, it makes sense to have a capable 35mm system for when I need to be able to use zoom lenses, shoot at high ISO, or simply cannot bring my bigger medium format system. I would not expect that 35mm system to deliver equal quality compared to my Phase One, and that is why I am more likely to purchase a D600, and use the savings to get a nice lens with it.

If this camera is your primary shooter, and you are looking for the utmost quality in terms of resolution ad sharpness, and you have the funds available, the D800 and particularly the D800e are among the finest 35mm cameras you can purchase today. If you're stepping up from smaller sensor digital cameras, don;t need the extra resolution, or are on a tighter budget, the D600 is a great choice.

Thanks for reading and please leave your comments below!

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Reader Comments (2)

Thanks, Marc. That was an excellent summary of the pros and cons. I appreciate you taking the time to put this review together for us.
Margy Krause

February 20, 2013 | Registered CommenterMargy Krause

Thanks for taking the time to put together a great summary.

Did you test for exposures exceeding 30 minutes, and what kind of cable releases did you use? I'm just getting started, so looking for the shoulders of giants :-)

Cheers -


May 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBeric Maass

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