With full-frame cameras more affordable than ever, is a professional-grade APS-C relevant anymore?
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This isn't just a comparison of two cameras, it's a fight for survival. When Nikon announced the D7000 in 2010, the market had a very different landscape. APS-C sensors were the only reasonable option for enthusiasts, and 35mm chips were aimed exclusively at professionals. As the newest and most advanced Nikon APS-C model at the time, the D7000 was the base camp for the long and expensive hike up Mount Full-Frame.
But now, full-frames are cheap. Nikon's D600 is $2,100 for the body—only $900 more than the new D7100. 2012 saw a blurring of the line between low-end full-frame and high-end crop sensors. Is there room in the market for both a professionally-oriented DX camera and a cheap FX option, or is that simply redundant? At the risk of exposing our love for bad 80's movies, we predict that before long, there can be only ONE ...such product in Nikon's lineup.
Spec sheets for the D7100 and D600 are suspiciously similar. If you'd like to skip ahead, know that these two are almost the same camera, minus the D600's full-frame sensor of course.
Aside from the sensor (though both are 24 megapixels), it's the cheaper D7100 that actually distinguishes itself more often, though this is the newer camera so a few incremental updates are expected. Most notably, the D7100 is equipped with an outstanding 51-point phase detection autofocus system, with 15 cross-type points, while the D600 has to make do with "only" 39.
Both cameras are bulky, but physically handling the D7100 is a little easier, since it weighs nearly 200g less. The D7100 is also home to a few other minor niceties like a higher resolution LCD monitor, slightly longer battery life ratings, and a quicker maximum shutter speed of 1/8000th.
Just like the two cameras' feature sets, lining up our score sheets reveals nearly identical performance between the D7100 and D600. The D600 surpassed the D7100 more often in our tests (and it should for $900 extra), but never more than slightly. The story of these two cameras is more about their similarities than their differences.
While the D7100 does offer slightly better color accuracy than the D600, the D600 won for dynamic range, a test that most buyers will judge to be more important. We gave the D7100 a higher sharpness score, but if you already own superior glass to either kit lens it's a moot point.
The D7100 is also certainly faster than the D600, though the difference is only 0.5 frames per second.
The D600 is capable of only slightly better in-camera noise reduction than the D7100, but since the entire camera industry is in close competition here, the relative difference between these two Nikons is actually rather wide in context. The D600 also has an edge when it comes to white balance, thanks to a superior custom white balance rating, however all Nikon SLRs struggle with white balance, including these two.
We consider the D600 to be a better camera than the D7100, but only by the narrowest of margins, and even then, there are still certain advantages to D7100 ownership. What's more, the $900 gap between the two is still quite wide for many consumers—even those already looking to spend four figures on a camera.
We urge potential D600 buyers to consider what they're really paying for, and to think about the D7100 beforehand. It's hard to put a price on the full-frame aesthetic, but if you're not yet invested in full-frame lenses, the D7100 does offer that sweet 51-point autofocus system for action photographers.
Wildlife shooters may also be drawn to the D7100, seeing the 1.5x crop factor as an advantage rather than a drawback. The D7100 has an optional 1.3x crop mode available, on top of the existing DX crop, for a total crop factor of 2x. You'll lose a few megapixels, but it's a lot cheaper to slap a 200mm lens onto your D7100 than it is to buy 400mm full-frame glass.
For those reasons, the time when the top of the APS-C lineup and the bottom of the full-frame lineup become indistinguishable has not quite arrived just yet. But given all that's happened since the D7000, that time may be only a year or two away.