Is the D600 Nikon's best general purpose camera?
When reviewing the specs, it would seem that the title of "best NIkon DSLR" goes to the D800/D800E with a stratospherically high 36MP. Or perhaps to the hyper-fast, tank-like, professional 16MP D4.
I contend however, that for most users, the new D600 is the best camera in Nikon's current lineup. How can that be you ask? The D800 has THIRTY-SIX frickin megapixels which make the D600's TWENTY-FOUR megapixels seem rather meager in comparison. But the fly in the proverbial ointment is an old friend from our light and optics physics course--DIFFRACTION. Without getting overly technical, diffraction occurs when light rays don't fall squarely on a individual sensor pixel. The problem is that the more pixels you have, this occurs sooner at the smaller apertures because larger (i.e. fewer) pixels mean that light can straddle the width of a sensor pixel (actually a "sensel"). The more pixels you have, the larger chance it will not straddle a pixel but instead be delineated by it. The result is that clarity will be lost and the full resolution of the sensor unrealized at smaller apertures. On the D600, this generally happens between f/11 and above. With the D800/800E, it happens earlier. As much as a stop earlier (f/8). So if you stop down to f/8 and above on the D800, diffraction is robbing you of the maximum capability of the sensor, hence equalizing the difference between the two.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, just how good is the D600? In a word, excellent. The IQ up to ISO6400 is outstanding. Darn near the best of any DSLR available today. In fact, when D800 images are "down-rezzed" to 24 MP, the difference is almost imperceptible, even when pixel peeping. Of course, the D800's extra pixels are an advantage (within the aperture limitations described above) when printing wall-sized prints... because you know, we all dream of printing huge, wall-sized prints.
And for what it's worth, DxO has tested the D600 and given it their third highest image quality rating after the D800 and D800E--and higher than medium format cameras costing $40,000. I won't get into 35mm versus medium format but the rating does say it has one hell of a good, state-of-the-art sensor.
As for the feel of the camera, for those coming from a D7000, you'll feel right at home. Ditto if you're coming from any of the Nikon consumer DSLRs. But things for the pro-body folks are a bit less rosy. The D600 has a different user experience than Nikon's pro DSLRs. The differences are most pronounced where quick access to ISO, modes, and video settings are located. And speaking of video, even though it's capable of 1080p 30/24, it does not have auto aperture control once video is started. Other differences include the build quality, which is good, with magnesium alloy top and bottom plates and a polymer body. And while it has weather sealing, it is not quite at the level of Nikon pro DSLRs.
In closing, the file sizes of the D800/D800E can bring many computers to their knees, while eating hard drive space faster than Kim Kardashian at an In-and-Out Burger. The D600 files are still quite large, but more manageable. And they are 300dpi at the largest size (13x19) that most consumer and prosumer printers can produce. In my 20+ years in design, I used hundreds of images in magazines and other publications that were 150-200dpi and the result was still quite acceptable.
And finally, remember the Canon folks have been taking many extraordinary, award-winning photos with the highest-resolution 22 MP DSLRs that Canon makes.
Extra: DxO tested a number of zooms and primes and has listed the best lenses for the D600 here:
Photos courtesy of Imaging Resource