Nikon's two cheapest full-frame cameras present great value, but to very different shooters.
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The proliferation of lower-cost full-frame cameras was one of the surprising camera trends of 2012 and 2013. In addition to competition from Canon and Sony, Nikon debuted two such models in the form of the 36-megapixel, $2,999.95 D800 and the sub-$2,000 D600. While the two cameras look similar on paper, there are some key differences that will help you decide which Nikon DSLR is right for you.
Deciding between the Nikon D600 and D800 will likely depend on where your work will end up. The D800 provides class-leading resolution with its 36-megapixel image sensor. For landscapes, print work, or just about anything where resolution is paramount, the D800 is an intriguing option. For those who need a professional DSLR but don't want to keep their budget in check, the $1,999.95 D600 may be the better bet, but there are plenty of differences to keep in mind.
This is meant to be a brief comparison between the Nikon D800 and Nikon D600, based on our extensive lab testing and full reviews. To get a complete picture of what each camera is capable of, please check out the full reviews. The D600 review can be found here, while the D800 review is here.
The Nikon D800 and D600 have quite a bit in common. They are both fairly large, have full-frame FX image sensors, and have complete autofocus compatibility with the entire range of Nikkor lenses. They both offer the same 100-25600 ISO range, use the same battery, and have the same rear screen. Both cameras are built to professional specifications, with durable, weather-sealed bodies and bright, fantastic optical viewfinders.
In terms of features, the differences are actually quite subtle. The D600 can shoot a little faster (5.5 frames per second against 4), is a little lighter (26.8oz against 31.7), a little smaller, and has two SD/SDHC card slots compared to the Compact Flash/SD setup that the D800 uses. The D800 has a nicer viewfinder, a faster maximum shutter speed (1/8000th vs 1/4000th of a second), and a better autofocus unit (51 (15 cross-type) AF points against 39 (9 cross-type) points).
For video shooters, both cameras provide a 3.5mm mic input, audio monitoring, uncompressed (clean) HDMI output, full 1080/30p capability, and full manual control. The D600 offers control over the aperture only when live view is turned off, but locks in the selected aperture once recording begins. The D800 and D800E will let you change the aperture even while recording with their power aperture feature.
In our lab testing, there wasn't much to choose between the D800 and the D600. There are some minor differences, though it's mostly down to splitting hairs. The real key here is resolution. While the D600's 24-megapixel sensor takes sharp, detailed images, the D800's 36 megapixels offer something you can only currently get in a medium format camera. The extra resolution not only will be a major advantage for anyone whose work will be used for large prints, but it allows you to crop liberally or downsize the image, reducing the appearance of grain while enhancing the perception of sharpness.
Otherwise, the two cameras perform pretty similarly. The D600 has slightly better color accuracy, did a hair better in our noise tests, and did poorly in our white balance testing. The D800 also performed poorly in our white balance tests, but it outperformed the D600 in our dynamic range, resolution, and video tests.As expected, we also confirmed that the D600 is slightly faster when shooting continuously, though we preferred the D800's autofocus system for most types of shooting. There have been some reports of autofocus miscalibration with the D800's AF sensor, but we had no such issues with our review unit. Similarly, the infamous D600 oil spots were not a major issue in our performance testing, though Nikon has acknowledged the issue and encouraged any affected units be sent in for service.
Deciding between the Nikon D600 and the Nikon D800 is not simply a matter of deciding which camera is better. While the D800 edges the D600 in most of our performance testing, the two cameras are pretty much equal for most applications. The D600 is, of course, currently about $1,000 cheaper than the D800, shoots a little faster, and is also an extremely well-built camera.
The D800's resolution is, however, a trump card that shouldn't be overlooked. Both cameras offer enough resolution to print to any size you might need, but the 50% greater resolution of the D800 allows you greater flexibility in ways you may not expect. Even if you ultimately aren't planning on printing to massive sizes or using your shots on a billboard, the D800's extra resolution allows you greater editing latitude by downsampling, which improves image quality in almost every way.
For example, I shot all of Photokina 2012 with the Nikon D800. Trade show lighting is almost universally terrible, but I ran into particular trouble at the Leica booth, which was mostly black and lit dramatically. Without an ultra-fast lens in my bag, I was stuck ramping up the ISO. Even though my shots were ultimately only going on the web, I was able to produce usable web images at ISO 6400 that looked clean because I was downsampling from such a massive original file. I could do the same thing with the D600's 24-megapixel shots, but the final result would be better from the D800.
That said, that is a fringe case that won't come into play for a lot of people outside of news photographers who will likely gravitate more towards Nikon's premier D4 flagship. (Also, it was my fault for not having a fast prime in my kit.) In those cases we think the D600 is a perfectly fine alternative that provides nearly everything the D800 does in a slightly smaller, cheaper package. There are still some use cases where one is clearly better than the other (and you should read both reviews, linked below, to find out more), but the D600 provides better value for the average consumer.
Our head-to-head articles are meant to give a brief rundown to see how two cameras stack up. For our full performance review of the Nikon D600, please head right here. If you want to check out the Nikon D800, our full review can be found right here.