My Path to Nikon's D600

 

Nikon D600

Many, many individuals and websites more knowledgeable and detail-oriented than I have reviewed this camera.  I won't attempt to replicate their efforts here.  If you're looking for in-depth reviews and technical details, I recommend the following sites:

Instead, I'll outline my thoughts while evaluating the various options available to me in early 2013.  I already had two Pentax lenses at that point, but all system options were on the table (i.e. I had no serious prior investment in lenses guiding my choice).  Hopefully those of you in a similar situation find the following information useful!

System Features

Regardless of which camera I chose, I kept one eye on the following system (corporate) considerations:

  • Corporate health - Preferably, the company should be stable and unlikely to be sold every 3-5 years.
  • Innovative and active R&D - A company that innovates seems preferable to one that must rely on others to break new ground.
  • Diverse and actively-growing lens lineup - Doesn't have to be huge, but should cover all of the important bases.  Several options at each focal range would be even better.
  • Availability of lenses through rental companies - Would be nice to have the option to check out new lenses without committing the money upfront.
  • Availability of third-party accessories - More options are better, every time.

Required Features

Based on experience, I considered the following to be essential camera features:

  • Mirror lockup - Helps minimize camera shake associated with shutter activation.
  • Depth of field preview - Checking your depth of field is essential during landscapes, floral closeups, macro shots, etc.
  • Live view - Essential for evaluating focus based on contrast-detection (CDAF) and ultra-low-angle shots.
  • Button-/dial-based adjustment of major settings - Having to access a menu setting in the field is annoying, so the less of this, the better.
  • Weather-resistant, if not weather-proof - The more seals, the better.
  • Reasonably lightweight - A relative measure, but all else equal, a lighter camera would be preferable for backpacking.
  • Strong battery life - Less likely to die in the field.
  • Full frame sensor - This one was a difficult choice.  In the end, it appeared to me that APS-C sensors were getting squeezed from both directions.  Mirrorless cameras continue to improve, eliminating the form factor benefits (real or imagined) of APS-C DSLRs.  At the same time, full-format DSLRs continue to drop in price while delivering demonstrably better image quality in a number of areas.  Considering my intention to build a robust, reasonably 'future proof' lens kit over the coming years, I didn't want to paint myself into a corner.  This, to me, meant going full frame.  Others may come to a different conclusion.

Desired Features

Many of these are features I've only read and dreamed about.  Coming from a Pentax K10D, these represent advancements I thought sounded useful but with which I had zero hands-on experience.

  • Virtual horizon indication (either in Live View or in viewfinder) - Should help when on uneven terrain or where it's impossible to determine a level horizon.
  • Articulating rear LCD - Should help with Live View framing of low shots.
  • Built-in intervalometer (for time-lapse photography) - Never done it before, but looks like fun!
  • Reasonably-advanced video capabilities - Never really paid much attention to videography, but the potential would be nice.
  • Fast and reliable auto-focus capabilities for bird photography - No long lenses yet, but a wildlife biologist really should have the equipment to match the opportunity his/her job provides!

Narrowing Choices

My system and required features eliminated many options from consideration:  micro4/3, 4/3, Foveon (Sigma), APS-C (Pentax [DA], Nikon [DX], Sony [DT], and Canon [EF-S]), APS-H (Canon 1-series and Leica M8). 

Eliminating the Pentax K-5 IIs from consideration was painful, as up until then I had been following Pentax system development for several years.  By all indications, the Pentax K-5 IIs is/was a terrific camera, and evidence suggested that Pentax's upcoming APS-C cameras (now released as the K-3) would be equally impressive.  The build and image quality of Pentax's recent cameras are particularly note-worthy.  Rumors of a Pentax full-frame, a staple rumor on Pentax forums for years, were recently confirmed as well.  Pentax has a huge catalog of legacy lenses, but few of these are optimized (or even particularly impressive) on modern digital sensors.  Virtually all currently-produced Pentax lenses are DA (APS-C).  I hope Pentax is able to field a full-frame camera and lens lineup to their usual high standards, at which point I'd seriously consider returning.  Until then, though, I have images I'd like to make to my own high standards as well. 

It came down, then, to the following cameras:

  • Canon 6D - A 20.2 megapixel, $2K camera released in late 2012.  In my mind, the 6D's two primary strengths compared to the two Nikon models were access to Canon's expansive and reasonably-priced telephoto range and the on-board GPS.  All cameras over $1K should have on-board GPS, yet neither of the Nikons below do.
  • Nikon D600 - A 24.3 megapixel, $2K camera released in late 2012.  Early copies were plagued by dust and oil deposition on the sensor requiring user cleaning and/or service by Nikon.  Generally ranked slightly higher performance-wise than Canon's 6D, the two cameras represent the latest skirmish in the ongoing Canon-Nikon war.
  • Nikon D800 - A 36.3 megapixel, $3K camera released in early 2012.  Early copies were plagued by left-AF-sensor issues requiring repair by Nikon.  This is currently (January 2014) the highest-resolution full-format DSLR on the market from a major manufacturer.  The closest competitor in Canon's lineup, the EOS 5D Mark III, has a higher frame rate but 'only' 22.3 megapixels and costs $3,500. 

Certainly, the summary above barely scratches the surface of each of these models.  After considering all the features and costs (discussed at length at the review sites above), the D600 won.  I expect to be seriously tempted by whatever replaces the D800 so long as it maintains the high pixel count of the D800 and includes on-board GPS.  The extra $1K in 'savings' now will just be rolled into the lens budget!