Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Guest Blog: Nikon Full Frame DSLR D600 Review: Part I

By TJ Xie


Why D600?

Photography is a hobby of mine. I shoot landscapes, events and street photography. There were a few constraints I had with my 3-year-old Nikon D90:

1) the 11-point focus system was too spread out for focus tracking;

2) the poor high ISO performance beyond ISO 1600 and;

3) zoom lenses are too heavy when I go travelling.

The thought that zoom lenses are heavy came after my recent trip to Australia. I had with me 18-105mm and 11-16mm zoom lenses, each mount on D5100 and D90 camera bodies, respectively. Given that the tripod is a necessity to me, the whole set of equipment was too heavy for me to enjoy the scenery. As such, I thought I could reduce the burden by using a point and shoot (PnS) camera to cover the normal focal range and a lightweight DSLR with a compact wide angle prime (such as a Voigtlander 20mm f/3.5) when I need a wider view. PnS cameras are easy to find, but wide angle primes are only meaningful on full frame camera bodies.

While the first constraint could be easily solved by choosing a camera in the D300s line, the second and third constraints are best handled by a full frame camera body. D600 was introduced just in time. It suited my needs except for the price at announcement. And just when the price of D600 dropped into my acceptable range, Nikon introduced D7100. Excited with the features of D7100 such as no low-pass filter and 51-point focus system, I almost decided to buy this camera instead of D600. However, when the excitement is over, I considered my needs again: a full frame camera might still be the solution for a longer term.

Of course, there are some concerns.

The first concern would be the “very small” focus area of D600 as described in Ken Rockwell’s review. I thought this was a big problem until I saw a picture of it online. It looks fine to me. If no one told me that this was considered small, I wouldn’t even notice. The focus points on the two sides are just nice for “rule of a third” composition. In trickier situations when objects are outside the focus area, I would first focus using the center point before composing the picture. 

The second concern would be the rumoured dust/oil issue. There have been a lot of discussions on this issue on the Internet and I was already kind of immune to it. Users on the Internet are also suggesting different solutions to this issue. Being a person who likes DIY, and thinks that Nikon ought to solve this issue under the warranty, I didn’t see it a big problem. Time spent on complaining can always be used to find a way to remove the dust instead. I will elaborate more on the dust/oil issue below.

Then, I went ahead with the D600 purchase.

First impression

The body looks pretty much the same as D7000, but since I upgraded from D90, the differences are still quite obvious. Anyway, I am not very particular about the design and the arrangement of the buttons, because sooner or later I will get used to the camera. Also, as I don’t hold the camera 8 hours a day, the ergonomic aspect is not that important either.

The first lens I mounted on D600 was the classic Nikon 50mm f1.8D. I was surprised when I peeped through the viewfinder. It felt like a 40 inch TV inside D600, as compared to a 24 inch one in D90. The angle of view of this lens is similar to the 35mm f1.8G on D90, but with shallower depth of field and nicer bokeh.
Knowing that full frame bodies are capable of excellent high ISO performance, I could finally set ISO sensitivity to auto (with upper limit 6400). Half pressing the shutter-release button doesn’t feel as great as that on D90, but again this is not important. After the first click with the crispy shutter sound, here goes a sample picture:

I sQg9n7F X3

[Larger size can be viewed at here]

It’s sharp and clear. ISO is no longer a constraint that slows down the shutter speed. I will bring it to the museum or aquarium one day to test out its high ISO performance in low light situations. 

Now, we move on to a more debatable topic.

Dust/oil spots

We can’t avoid discussing the dust/oil spot issue when we look at D600. Since this seems to be the biggest concern of the D600 users, I discuss this issue in Part I of the review. Let me first cut the long story short: my copy does have dust and oil spots, but it hasn’t caused me much trouble so far.

The third day after I bought my D600, I’ve reached 1.5k shutter counts. It’s time to see how dirty the sensor had become. I mounted my 105mm macro lens on D600, set the aperture to f/32 and took a picture of a piece of plain paper. Here we go:

[Larger size can be viewed at here]

It’s very dirty. Without magnifying the picture, it’s already obvious that there are dusts on the left side of the picture. I then followed the steps on pages 302-305 in the user manual to blow away the dusts (more on this in a minute). After cleaning, I took another test shot, with f/32, and here we go again:

I sR494t6 X3
[Larger size can be viewed at here]

Those more obvious dusts shown in the previous picture were blown away in the cleaning process. We are left with quite a number of small spots if you zoom in to view the picture. However, don’t forget that I was using f/32 at this stage. We would rarely like to use such a small aperture due to possible diffraction. It would probably be used only in macro photography. Knowing that dust/oil spots fade away with larger aperture, I then widened the aperture to f/8 this time to see what happen:

I 2jHKbHd X3
[Larger size can be viewed here]

If we zoom in to see the picture, all the spots are more or less gone. Only very few spots show low contrast in the picture which doesn’t affect the image quality. I seldom shoot at an aperture smaller than f/8, so this result is satisfactory.

Back to the cleaning process, the trick to blow away the dusts is that the actual positions of the dusts on the sensor are opposite to what we see in the picture. Recall our high school physics. When light passes through a small hole, the image is projected upside down onto the film. In other words, a dust appearing at the top left corner of the picture is actually found at the bottom right corner of the sensor. Therefore, it is important that we point the blower to the right position to get rid of the dusts. 

For the spots that can’t be removed with the blower, Nikon’s Capture NX 2 does a good job in removing them. [More details can be found at:] On D600, select “Image Dust Off ref photo” in the camera’s menu and take a picture of a bright featureless white object, say a piece of white paper. The camera then records a data file with the information on the positions of the dusts. When uploading the pictures, place this data file in the same folder as the pictures. Open the picture in Capture NX 2 and in “Camera and Lens Corrections” panel, load the image dust data file. The dusts on the picture will be removed in a few seconds. Note that this method only works with pictures of RAW format. For the other formats such as JPG and TIFF, the auto retouch tool does a good job in removing the dust spots, too.

The dust/oil issue is indeed annoying. I will eventually send the machine for sensor cleaning. But as of now, with aperture not smaller than f/8 and occasional use of software, I can still live with it. On the bright side, the large sensor, lightweight body and the affordability are still very attractive. I will leave it to the readers to do the cost-benefit analysis.

To be Continued

After the first few days of usage, I have not found my shooting constrained by any feature of D600 yet. I will further explore its potential soon and come back with more sample pictures. Please stay tuned. :)

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1 comment:

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