Thursday, September 20, 2012

In-Hand Feel: Nikon D600 vs. D800

Which should I buy? D600 or D800? For many current and prospective Nikon shooters, the company has created quite a dilemma in that it now offers two full-frame cameras in the sub-$3000 market: the $3000 D800 and the $2100 D600. Now, both cameras have clear-cut differences both in body and under the hood, if you will. The big question: am I willing to forgo the advantages of the D800 in order to save $900?

Well, let's examine the question.

The key issue for current Nikon shooters is that the D600 is different in user interface than the D800. For people not familiar with the D600, Nikon has essentially stuffed a 24Mp FX sensor into a D7000 body and called it the D600. As for the D800, it is essentially an old D700 with a monster 36Mp chip in it. The big difference here: the two cameras are laid out completely different in terms of controls, which could go a long way in helping one decide which to buy depending on current equipment and future aspirations. .

So, how big are the differences?
Starting at the upper left, on both the D7000 and D300s, the two buttons (enter playback mode and delete) are absolutely identical, no differences (or learning curve) here.

The backs of the cameras

Looking at the left side of the camera, one notices that both cameras have 5 buttons. On the D600, all of them are dual in function while on the D800, only 1 is dual. First off, the easy part, the 'ok' button on the D800 (bottom on the left row) has moved to the center of the multi-selector on the D600, which is a good thing in that this button is used to confirm menu settings, which means that the operation of changing menu selections on the D600 is a one-thumb operation. On the D800, there is some redundancy as there is both the 'ok' button and another unmarked one in the center of the multi-selector. In place of the 'ok' button, the D600 gains direct access to picture style color modes (the paintbrush button). Now, onto the remaining buttons, they're identical in their playback functions on both cameras. Unfortunately, the bottom 3 on the D600 are dual function and have different functions in shooting mode. On the D600, these buttons, when in shooting mode, control ISO, white balance, and file quality, all 3 of which are controlled by single function buttons on the top left of the D800. Now, this is better than Canon where what dual function buttons do is dependent on which wheel you spin, but not as good on the higher-level Nikons where there are no dual functions at all. Also, the enter playback and delete buttons are the same on both cameras, too.

Looking at the right side of the camera and working from the top down, one notices that the 'AF-ON' button on the D800 is missing on the D600. In my opinion, good riddance, why would anyone use the rear button to focus when the same thing can be done by half pressing the shutter button? In terms of functionality, it's a mixed bag with the 'AE-L/AF-L' button. Both D600 and D800 have this function. Unfortunately, the D600 loses the control over metering that the D800 allows by turning this same switch. On the D600, metering is controlled by a button on the top right of the camera, which means having to look at the top side LCD display when changing metering modes. Moving down, everything else is the same.

The tops of the cameras.

Moving to the top right of the camera, things are almost the same here, save the button located closest to the LCD screen, which controls metering on the D600 and mode on the D800.
Coming to the top left of the camera, we see some other differences. First, the similarity is that both D600 and the D800 share the drive mode dial, which includes functions like frame rate, self- timer, quiet mode, and mirror lock up. The only real difference here is in how the dial is unlocked, which is done by a button in front of the dial on the D800 and by a button in the middle of the shooting mode dial on the D600. Personally, the D800 feels a lot less cramped (especially if you have big hands). However, on top of the drive mode dial, things get different. The D800 has single-function buttons for ISO, white balance, bracketing, and file quality while the D600 has a more amateurish mode dial as the ISO, WB, and quality functions are moved to the rear of the camera via dual function buttons on the left of the LCD and the bracketing button to the front of the camera where it is impossible to see at all. The good news is that the D600 has user-defined settings where you can save all your shooting parameters to the camera's built-in memory, essentially making your defined settings a shooting mode! This is a feature completely missing on the D800.
Finally, onto the front of the camera. Both cameras share a flash pop-up button in the same location. However, the new D600 adds an exposure bracketing button below the pop-up button. On the D800, this control is located on the top left with the ISO, WB, and quality buttons. Both cameras also feature the new style of AF/MF button, which can control AF mode and area via the cameras' control dials. Selections are displayed on the top side LCD screen. On the right side of the camera, both models are virtually identical in that they both have 2 buttons which can be assigned various functions. Unfortunately, unlike on the D800, these buttons cannot be used to control aperture during video recording, which means that aperture must be set (and the results lived with) on the D600 before shooting. Lastly, the D600 has all of its ports on the left side of the camera while the D800 retains a pair on the front.

So, after reading all of this, where do we get clear-cut advantages one way or the other?

Pros for D600
No pointless AF button on back of camera
Direct access to picture styles
All connection ports are in the same place

Pros for D800
Buttons are single function
Metering control is on rear of camera, no need to look at LCD screen
Bracketing button is on top left
Multi-purpose buttons on right front can control aperture in video mode

So, which to buy: D600 or D800?

For starters, there's no doubt about it: the $900 more expensive D800 is far and away the better camera in terms of user interface thanks to all of those single function buttons. On the other hand, for $900 less, the D600 is no clunker as it offers about 90% the functionality of the D800, albeit in a very differently-wrapped package. As for which to buy, it boils down to where you're coming from and where you plan on going.

If you own a D700 or D300/D300s, just get the D800. Yes, the cameras have a few different controls on them but are, for the most part, virtually identical in layout, which means a minimal learning curve when just starting to use the new one. As someone who owns a D700 and who has played with a D7000, believe me, you'll hate the D600's control scheme as all of those dual function buttons are a real pain in the neck after being spoiled by single function ones. If you own a D3 or a D4 and are looking for a second body (especially if you're a pro/semi-pro), just get the D800 as the story's the same here, too as the D3/D4's controls are virtually identical to those on the D800, which means that you can transition from one body to the other without having to stop and ask yourself what you're doing..

Now, if you own a D7000 and are looking to upgrade to FF, get the D600 as, as was the case for D700, D300, D3/4 owners with the D800, the same is true here as, while a few things are different, the D7000 and D600 share a virtually identical user interface, which means that there will be virtually no feeling-out process when stepping up to the D600. The catch here: as is always the case for some people, upgrading to better gear will only satisfy one's appetite for so long, which would mean buying an even higher-end camera, namely a D800 or D4. If you think that you may be wanting to upgrade from the D600 at some point in the future, just do yourself a favor and buy the D800 now as, in addition to eliminating the learning curve that will come with a D600 to D800 transition, you're saving at least $2000 in the process by buying nice, not twice.

Either way, in terms of imaging, both are great cameras, with the issue really boiling down to the in-hand feel, so be sure to play around with both before buying if you're on the fence.

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1 comment:

  1. Dennis, regarding your comment: "why would anyone use the rear button to focus when the same thing can be done by half pressing the shutter button", I think you may be overlooking a couple of scenarios.

    I have my cameras (including the D800) set up for AF-C mode and with AF activated only when pressing the AF-ON button.

    This way I can very easily do a "single focus AF-S like" activation by pressing AF-ON and releasing when I'm happy with it -- and just press the trigger later on as I want. I can just as easily focus and re-compose in the same way, not having to do a focus-lock or change to AF-S mode. But I can also stay in AF-C mode with the AF engaged to track movement all the way until I have triggered the shutter.

    So instead of having to switch between AF-S and AF-C mode and/or use focus lock, I stay in this one mode and am in full control of when I want to engage the AF. This is very easy to do and took virtually no time to learn as a habit, and is one further thing that can help you keep your camera at eye-level ready for shooting (I do a lot of concert/stage photography, where this is very handy when changing rapidly between tracking a singer with AF at one moment and AF/recompose the next).

    I know of several others (likely many) that do the same thing. Not having an AF-ON button one way or the other would require me to start working in a different and (to me) more complicated way, so I MUCH appreciate the fact it's there on the D800 (as it has been on previous cameras in the same family).