Nikon D600 & D610 Review

The D7xxx Model Goes FX

d600+me1.JPG

The surprise in Nikon's 2012 FX onslaught was the D600, announced just prior to Photokina and only about six months after the D4/D800/D800E. The FX line went from one model (D3) to two (D3 and D700), to three (D3, D3x, and D700), and now with the current configuration, we're technically at six variants (D3x, D4, Df, D610, D800, and D800E). One could imagine this compounding into: D4s, D4x, Df, D610, D610E, D800, and D800E. But probably not more than that, which will be a disappointment to some D700 users waiting for an exact upgrade (e.g. D4 sensor in D800 body).

What? Disappointment? Yes. A lot of the D700 users think that the D800 wasn't the follow up they expected. I personally think they're seeing this wrong: in almost every way, the D800 is a better 12mp camera than the D700 was. These folk are really balking at the giant step from 12mp to 36mp, but that's a different story. Once the D600 came out, they got put out of shape because the D600 was the first consumer FX body. They believe that their choices are to go down in body quality or agonizingly up in pixel count. They're right. Those are their basic choices: get a much better imaging system in a slightly downgraded (D610) or different (Df) body, or get the best DSLR currently made (D800). Frankly, I don't see the problem. 

To get to the D600, Nikon did something rather simple: they took the D7000 body and parts bin, then stuck FX gear inside (shutter, focus screen, viewfinder, sensor). That's really about it. A few other modest differences exist, but they're mostly things that come with the D600 being two+ years later than the D7000: Nikon's iterative engineering keeps adding and tweaking things, so the D600 has those tweaks (as does the D7100, just announced as I write this), while the D7000 doesn't. The D610 is essentially the D600 with three changes: a slight uptick in fps, a continuous quiet shutter mode, and an improved Auto white balance routine. In all other respects, they are the same camera, so if I refer to D600 you can think D610, and if I refer to D610 you can think D600 (except for dirty sensors, which I'll get to ;~).

The D610 is a consumer FX body. The D800/D800E and D4 are professional FX bodies. What's that mean in practical terms? First, only professional bodies meet the requirements for NPS as a primary body. You can't become an NPS member with two D610 bodies only. You need at least one professional body (as I write this: D300, D300s, D800, D800E, D3, D3s, D3x, or D4). More important, however, is the "design sense" that Nikon uses for consumer bodies versus pro.

What's "design sense" mean? Well, one example is the presence of a Mode dial and Scene exposure modes on consumer cameras, while pro cameras have a Mode button and no Scene exposure modes. Consumer models don't tend to have as many dedicated buttons, they don't have a full metal body chassis (only partial), they don't have banks of settings (they sometimes have two user settings, U1 and U2 on the Mode dial, instead), and so on. The list of consumer versus pro aspects in Nikon's designs is actually fairly lengthy: the biggest change in user experience generally comes when moving from consumer to pro camera. Within the consumer lineup, things are very recognizable. Indeed, a D7000 user will feel right at home with a D610, as most things are exactly the way they learned and where they're used to them appearing.

So get used to this: the D610 is a consumer camera. True, it's one heck of a consumer camera, and performs at levels unheard of for consumer DSLRs not very long ago. But Nikon designed it for consumers, not pros. That's one reason why at Photokina they were saying things like "we think D7000 (DX) users will move up to the D610 (FX)." Yes, in the sense that it's the same camera with better internal digital aspects (bigger sensor), that's a very logical statement. Yet as I wrote in my Photokina report on the D600, that's not necessarily a 100% logical progression in my mind, but we'll get to that later in the review.

Right now the thing that you need to consider is whether you want a consumer FX camera with 24mp at US$2000, a professional FX camera with 36mp at US$3000, or a nostalgic body that's a bit of a curiosity in between (Df). 

Beyond what I've already mentioned, let me outline some of the other differences:

  • Video: the D610 does not put a proper clean 1080P signal on the HDMI port. Yes, the data is uncompressed, but Nikon has for some reason scaled the video in a non-centered black box when it comes off the video port on the D610. Moreover, the things that make the D800 uncompressed HDMI video special (the Advanced controls in the HDMI menu option) are missing. The D610 also does not have the power aperture of the D4/D800 models. If you're looking for the very best professional video, the D610 doesn't have it, it has consumer video.
  • Live View: we're back to the old Live View where the aperture is set when you enter Live View and doesn't change. This is for the same reason that the video doesn't have the power aperture: the part necessary to do the real time aperture control right isn't in the consumer cameras.
  • Viewfinder: no built-in eyepiece shutter. Remember, if you take your eye away from the camera (self timer, Live View, etc.) the light meter is in a position where it sees light from the eyepiece, too. 
  • No mixed cards: the D610, like the D7000 and upcoming D7100 uses two SD card slots. This is good news (same card for each slot) and not as good news (SD cards don't perform at the levels of CompactFlash, let alone XQD in terms of peak write performance). The D610 isn't terrible in buffer (57 JPEG Fine Large, 16 NEF at highest level), but turning some features on cuts into that buffer and when you hit it, the fastest SD cards aren't quite up to the performance as the fastest CF cards (and neither match what XQD can do). Not a big deal, but one to keep in mind.
  • No 10-pin or PC sync connectors: you get the consumer style remote connector, plus IR support, and will have to opt for an AS-15 if you want to sync with studio lights.

Interestingly, there are some things about the D610 that will immediately appeal. The eyepoint of the D610's viewfinder is a glasses friendly 21mm, which is better than the pro cameras for some reason. We've got a headphone jack for monitoring audio, and an external microphone jack, as well (though take a look at that photo, above; cords are a nuisance, and you can end up with a lot of cords plugged into the D610 for video production). 

Indeed, many of the features you'll find in the D610 are decidedly upscale from previous generations of consumer cameras: 150k rated shutter that actually flips the mirror up at start of Exposure Delay and keeps it up during Live View (unless you use flash), both front and rear infrared remote receivers, the viewfinder is 100% view (though DX is just a frame line), a big 3.2" 921k dot TFT LCD on the rear with ambient light detection, and more. 

Inside, we still have a CAM4800FX focus module (39-point), but it's been tweaked to support f/8 lenses (not with all sensors, though). Likewise, the metering sensor has been updated to 2016 pixels and is more involved with the focus system, as well. The battery is an EN-EL15 (shared with D7000, D7100, D800/D800E, and V1 models). 

The D600 and D610 require yet another new vertical grip, the MB-D14. The grip has a Direction pad (though small) and AE-L/AF-L button. You can stuff one EN-EL15 or 6 AA batteries in the grip, but you'll have to take the grip off to get to the battery in the camera for charging if you're thinking that you'll go two-battery via this route. 

The sensor inside the D610 is a 24mp Sony part. That'll net you 13 x 20" images at 300 dpi, which is probably as much as most non-pros need. In DX mode, though, we're down to 10.3mp, so unlike the D800 models, the D610 isn't quite the double-duty camera some want. If you're one of those using DX crop to keep from buying the super-exotic long telephotos, the D800 is a better choice, though you pay more for it. Sometimes just getting the right lens is the right decision.

Before I get to some not-so-great news about the original D600, let me say this: the D600 and D610 are very well-rounded cameras. They are a better high-end consumer camera than we had in the film SLR era when all is said and done. That's great, and I think that Nikon nailed the specifications and performance pretty much right on the head. The D610 is potentially one of those cameras you buy and use for a very long time and are perfectly happy with.

What Nikon didn't nail is quality control out of the factory with the original D600 (since corrected with the D610). I've gotten some flack on my apparent change of position on the D600's troubles, so I need to explain.

Soon after D600's started shipping I started hearing the same complaints from early D600 adapters as you might have seen on some Internet fora: D600's were being delivered "dirty" from the factory. There was a huge build-up of dust—in particular in the upper left corner of the image—and often accompanied by very obvious lubrication splatter rings. Before I had a chance to see this in person (and partly experienced it myself), I chalked this up to haste on Nikon's part. So they didn't clean some cameras as well as they should have. Definitely not something you'd expect on a (then) US$2100 product, but cleaning a sensor isn't all that much trouble; I've been doing it and telling people how to do it for well over a decade. 

Unfortunately, it started to become clear this wasn't just forgetting to clean sensors before boxing cameras. Some cameras I've seen were showing hundreds of spots, and close examination shows that it isn't "dust," but something more akin to what I'd call debris. In some cases these spots were so large that they showed up at f/8, which means it isn't dust. Spots so big that I could clearly see the offender without magnification while looking at the sensor with Lock Mirror Up for Cleaning. Moreover, even if you cleaned the sensor, within a thousand or so shots the army of black dots would be back, right up there in the upper left corner again.

My personal copy of the D600 showed very few of those large particles, not the excessive number I've seen on some other cameras. More problematic is that my D600 is definitely throwing some lubricant on the sensor, and that's a bear to clean. Generally I have to use a detergent-based solution in a first pass, wait for the sensor to completely dry, then use an alcohol-based cleaner to remove any streaking. At the 250-image mark, my sensor filter had well more than a dozen lubricant spots, and they continue to proliferate as I use the camera. So I'm doing more cleaning of the sensor than I'm used to with recent Nikons. Fortunately, this calmed down with continued use, though the camera still will splatter the sensor with a few lubricant spots every now and then.

This is all much more serious than just some casual dust left behind by manufacturing. Something seems to be shedding inside some cameras (or there's a large store of material hidden away where we can't see or get to it, but which the air movement caused by the mirror flip and shutter are causing to come to the sensor). Plus many D600's are more prone to lubricant throwing than other recent Nikon models (my D600 is far worse at this than my D800, D800E, or D4). Thus, some of those that sent their cameras into Nikon for cleaning got back a clean sensor only to find that a thousand or so shots down the road the problems were back. It was at that point where I began to change my position. Moreover, I know that some D600 users in Japan had been in multiple times for "cleaning," so Japan had to be well aware of the problem at this point.

Nikon eventually quasi-admitted to an issue with the original D600. Unfortunately, besides the awkward wording of this "article" (now posted on several Nikon sites around the world), Nikon uses the words "reduce this issue," not "fix this issue." I've gotten reports from some who've had Nikon look at their camera, gotten a clean camera back only to have the dust reappear as before. I've also gotten numerous emails from people claiming that Nikon replaced the shutter on their camera when the camera was sent in for dust. To Nikon's credit, problematic D600 cameras are getting fixed under warranty. Unfortunately, some cameras don't seem to get that shutter replacement until their second or third trip back to Nikon. 

So in the course of examining this issue closer (and closer [and closer]) I went from a position that Nikon just shipped some unclean cameras to a position that Nikon shipped quite a few cameras with a clear, recurring annoyance. How many and how big a problem is still unknown, though based upon the number of emails about this I've gotten from D600 owners and the number of NikonUSA repair tags I've looked at over the last year, it's not a trivial number. Over time, those complaints about brand new camera died down. Towards the end of the D600's production run, it appears that those cameras tended to be okay. Unfortunately, proving a negative is difficult. I can't tell whether the complaints died down because (a) Nikon was no longer shipping bodies with the problem; (b) sales were down; or (c) users were getting more used to cleaning their cameras and dealing with the problem themselves.

Now with the D610 appearing to replace the D600 without any substantive change, we have another issue to address. You can buy a new D610 and likely never experience the dirty sensor issue. Or, you could buy one of the remaining new D600's and take your chances. Unfortunately, with the earliest D600 sales now coming off of warranty, buying a used D600 becomes more risky, as Nikon is under no obligation to fix any lingering issue with dirty sensors on those cameras. 

Tip: buying a used D600? Ask if the unit was sent back to Nikon for repair, and if so, was the shutter replaced. If so, it's probably a safe unit to buy. If not, you're taking a risk in buying it and the value should be considered to be less.


What is It?
Since we've now had three "small" FX bodies, it probably is useful to look at a table of the primary differences:

D610 D700 D800
24mp Sony sensor 12mp Nikon sensor 36mp Sony sensor
1080P/30 max video, compromised HDMI output no video 1080P/30 max video (24Mbps bit stream in camera, 4:2:2 8-bit uncompressed on HDMI port)
39-point autofocus, f/8 lens cutoff 51-point autofocus, f/5.6 lens cutoff 51-point autofocus, f/8 lens cutoff
2016-pixel metering sensor 1005-pixel metering sensor 91,000-pixel metering sensor
Dual Secure Digital card slots Single CompactFlash card slot Dual card slots, one CompactFlash, one Secure Digital
100% viewfinder, 21mm eyepoint 95% viewfinder, 18mm eyepoint 100% viewfinder, 17mm eyepoint
Live View (still and video modes) Live View (handheld and tripod modes)

Live View (still and video modes)

MB-D14 MB-D10 MB-D12
EN-EL15 battery EN-EL3e battery EN-EL15 battery
150k rated shutter 150k rated shutter 200k rated shutter
Added features: HDR, Extended shooting banks, Time-lapse photography, additional RETOUCH options, Auto Distortion control, Virtual horizon display, Eye-Fi card support   Added features: HDR, Extended shooting banks, Time-lapse photography, additional RETOUCH options, Auto Distortion control, Virtual horizon display, Eye-Fi card support, 1.2x and 5:4 crops in camera,
D600-versus-D800-front.JPG

D600 on left, D800 on right; the D610 is identical to the D600 on the outside


Rather than wait til later in the review to address the differences, I think it important to get right to the differences between these three similar bodies and why you'd choose one over another:

  • Consumer DX user upgrading to FX: get the D610. It's what you're used to, on steroids. Sure, the 36mp of the D800 sounds like bragging rights, but short of being really good at handling your camera and having great lenses, you're not going to see much bump from what you would see with the D610. Save the US$1000 or so and get some better support or lenses or photographic instruction. Heck, you might need that to upgrade your computer if you're used to dealing with 6mp images.
  • Professional DX user upgrading to FX: get the D800. It's what you're used to, but with the best sensor on the market as I write this. Frankly, it's difficult to find serious fault with the D800's features or capabilities; a D800 that works as designed is probably the most capable DSLR currently available, with the exception of burst speed and fps. If that's what you need, the D4 suffices. Indeed, a D4/D800 combo is quite a punch for a pro bag, a clear step up from the D3s/D3x, which were already a mighty fine combination.
  • Professional FX user seeking backup: the D610 suffices, indeed it's the not-so-rich man's D3x. A D800 is more than backup, it does things that your other bodies can't do.
  • D700 user looking to upgrade: technically, the D800 is the body upgrade, but both the D610 and D800 are performance upgrades, and even the D610 has tech in it that the D700 lacks (video, dual cards, better live view handling, time-lapse, HDR, and much more). D700 to D800 is a long stretch: you might want new lenses to fully utilize that extra resolution, and if you're a pixel peeper, you're going to have to tighten your shot discipline to get everything out of the D800. The D610 is less of a stretch. Let me put that in a context: the 28-300mm is a decent lens on the D700, an okay lens on the D610, and a marginal one on the D800. With each bump in megapixels you see more of the compromises in such a superzoom design, but the pixels themselves also don't deliver the full gain you'd expect (especially as you stop down the lens). That's not to say there aren't gains, but the gains are clearer with something like the 24-70mm as you step up the bodies.


The Nikon Df puts another wrinkle in all this camera consideration, especially since it doesn't fit cleanly into a differentiated position in the lineup. In many ways, the Df is the D4 sensor in a completely reconfigured D610 body that's had the flash and video removed and the control system changed to something more out of the film SLR era. What the D700 users wanted isn't in the D610 or the Df, other than the Df having the sensor they sought. The advice in the above bullets doesn't really change other than the fact that you should possibly consider the Df everywhere I say D610.

Which brings me to those considering the D700 on the used market. As I write this, the D700 has seen somewhat of a resurrection in prices on the used market, now (Feb 2013) selling for US$1600-1700 in excellent condition. That's not a heavy discount from a new D610. Buying a new D610 over a used D700 you gain warranty, 100% viewfinder, lots of tech (see above), double the pixels on a better sensor. I contend that you'd be better off shooting JPEG Medium on a D610 than JPEG Large on a D700 at any ISO value. People are getting hung up on pixel peeping, but not pixel peeping at apples-versus-apples comparisons. Simply put: if you're a D700 user and wanted better high ISO performance, the D610 delivers that in spades (as does the D800). There's nothing particularly wrong with a D700—it's still a fine camera—but both the D610 and D800 are upgrades, just in different ways. I normally suggest that most people aren't well served but upgrading from one generation of DSLR to the next; I usually suggest that they skip a generation. But in the case of the D700, enough has changed since it came out that I'll repeat the statement I just made: both the D610 and D800 are reasonable upgrades to the D700. You can go slightly down body (D610) and get better image quality and all the latest tech, or you can keep the same body level (D800) and push right to the best performing DSLR on the market as I write this. All those people complaining that there isn't a true D700 upgrade aren't seeing reality: there are two upgrades to choose from. And yes, I've voted with my wallet: I've sold my D700 and there's nothing that I miss. 


How's it Handle?

Yeah, the cheese keeps moving (see my D800 review). One particular head-scratcher on the D610 is the Custom Setting numbering, in particular the D# settings. Consider:

  • Continuous Shooting Speed: D2 (D800), D5 (D610)
  • Maximum Continuous Shots: D3 (D800), D6 (D610)
  • Shutter Delay: D4 (D800), D10 (D610)
  • File Number Sequence: D5 (D800), D7 (D610)
  • Viewfinder Grid Display: D6 (D800), D2 (D610)
  • Viewfinder Customization: D7 (D800), D3 (D610)
  • Screen Tips: D8 (D800), D4 (D610)


The list of numbering differences goes on, quite considerably in the case of the D610 versus D800. To what end? How is this new order better for the D610 user than the old order was for the D800 user?

Now not every Nikon DSLR user handles more than one Nikon DSLR at a time like I do, but it's still a cognitive dissonance when you update to a new model. We've put up with this Custom Setting renumbering nonsense since the F5, believe it or not. Does this mean that Nikon really doesn't know what a set of base Custom Settings would be and that they need to keep them static? Or is that Nikon thinks a D610 user is more likely to change viewfinder settings than continuous shooting settings, and therefore has reordered them to make the most likely used thing on top? Whatever the reason, it's annoying to us long-time Nikon users, and it feels more like tweaking for tweaking's sake than causing any functional and practical difference.

There, I got that out of the way. I feel better now ;~). 

Handling really boils down to three aspects: (1) overall feel (hand positions, etc.); (2) button and control placement and quality; and (3) menu and internal settings adjustments. I've already started to deal with #3, so let's stay on that subject for a moment. 

Overall, the D610 menu system is going to look remarkably familiar to any recent Nikon DSLR user. Some of the menus (e.g. SHOOTING menu) still sprawl and have the wrong ordering to likely usage and things like slot role and file naming in the wrong place, too (they should arguably be on the SETUP menu, as they're something you don't change a lot while shooting). But Nikon is now in a tough situation with menus: changing them opens them up to the criticism I just made about Custom Settings numbering, while leaving them as is offers continuity. I guess my message to Nikon is this: choose one, not both. If we're going to have an upheaval in where things are, do it all at once for the current and future cameras and be done with it. Make sure it's well thought through and both structured and ordered correctly. If not, don't keep moving a few things: leave things where they are (or at least in the same order between cameras; some cameras don't need certain Custom Settings). 

Moving on. Some people aren't going to like the hand position, some will. Unlike the changes made to the D4 and D800 models to slope the area where the shutter release is, which changes the right hand feel considerably, the D610 is still the old school, relatively horizontal shutter release position. If you're a one-handed shooter, that position isn't comfortable. If you're a two-handed shooter (as most of us were from the film SLR era), it should feel fine.

One common complaint I get from people are the lack of dedicated ISO, WB, and QUAL buttons on the consumer models. Personally, I don't find the overloaded button structure (one meaning during playback, another meaning during shooting) to be a problem at all. I actually prefer the positions of the ISO, WB, and QUAL buttons on the D610 to the D800. Why? Because Nikon's basic control interface is left hand presses button, right hand twirls dials. My left hand during shooting is not on top of the camera, where the D800's buttons are, it's under the camera. Often I can reach around with my thumb and find the right button (if Nikon wouldn't keep moving them ;~). The ISO button is easy for me to get to without moving my hand much. 

Here's the thing that's killing all you consumer body users: you're leaving Image Review to On. Moreover, you're not in the habit of half pressing the shutter release when you want to set something. Those two little things (canceling Image Review, half press the release) will always make the buttons active for shooting. So what if you have to press the playback button to see what you shot? When you're reviewing images, you don't need the camera to be responsive to shooting settings. When you're shooting, you need the camera to be responsive to shooting settings. Nikon didn't mess this up, in my opinion, they just didn't point out the obvious in their manuals. Frankly, if you're always taking the camera from your eye to look at the last image you shot, you should probably be using a different button to change settings: the info button will get you to things very fast. But if your eye is at the viewfinder, where it should be for taking pictures, kill the image review and just get used to the button positions, simple as that.

Unfortunately, the QUAL and WB indicators are not in the viewfinder, so you'll be taking your eye off the viewfinder eyepiece to set those things, anyway. But that ISO button can be twiddled while looking through the lens at your subject, including turning Automatic ISO on and off (Front Command dial+button).

Overall, shooting controls work as well as any consumer DSLR I've used, and I'm quite comfortable with what Nikon did with the D610 in this respect. I get a kick out of the people complaining about the locking Mode dial, but frankly, that's better than the alternative. While the Mode dial has U1 and U2 (user settings) positions that you may want to change between, I think that exposure mode and whole camera changes are things you should have to think about each time you make a change, not just jerk around like a dog playing with a bone. Locking dials is welcome in my book.

The one handling area that is still lagging on the D610 is Live View. We're back to the "must set aperture prior to entering" problem. This has a lot to do with the parts Nikon uses to run the aperture activation arm in the consumer models, but a US$2000 camera really ought to do better here. It's still a step forward from D700 Live View, as the mirror stays up unless you use flash, but not having a live aperture is something that sticks out on a camera this well specified.


How's it Perform?

Battery Life — I'm still a tiny bit underwhelmed with battery performance. Like the D800 models, the D610 puts a heavy load on the EN-EL15 under normal usage. I get a few more shots than I do with the D800, maybe 1000 shots on a full battery charge, which is a bit better than the CIPA test indicates. But as with most recent Nikon models, other things can impinge on that result: GPS, HDMI connections, etc., all tend to pull the battery down faster than I'm used to with high-end Nikon gear. Some shooting functions, such as Interval shooting or Time-lapse keep the camera active and pull down the battery faster. One to watch out for is using the IR remotes; even Nikon won't let set you an active time more than 15 minutes, and that's because of the power drain. Live View definitely lowers battery life (indeed, anything that holds the mirror up). Also, note that if you're a fan of using AA batteries in the optional grip, the D610 only uses 6 AA batteries compared to 8 with some of the other models (e.g. D800). Thus, you have less milliamp hours there: you'll be replacing AA's faster in the MB-D14 than you do in the D800. 

Writing to Card — With top-end SD cards I get pretty much the performance Nikon outlines in their manual for buffer (57 JPEG Fine, 16 NEF at highest qualities with advanced features turned off). Buffer clearing numbers seem to suggest that the very best cards are maxing out in the 40-50MBps throughput range, which is better than previous SD-based Nikon DSLRs, but still not quite up to the speeds I expect from state-of-the-art CompactFlash or XQD. But this is, after all, a consumer camera. It holds its own pretty well. A couple of years ago we would have called this professional level write speed. 

Be careful, however. If you put an older non UHS-1, slow card into the second slot, you can lower the camera's overall performance. Maybe not for shooting if you're using Overflow as your Slot 2 Role, but every time the camera has to hit both cards—which includes image review—performance is determined by the slower slot. To put that in perspective: I took the oldest 2GB SD card I have, which might not even be 20MBps peak performance (it's unmarked) and put it in the second slot with a top-of-the-line SanDisk in the first slot. Image review slowed noticeably, even looking at images on the first card. 

Autofocus System — One of the key complaints many have about the D610 is the use of the 39-point focus sensor. Yes, between the reduced number of focus points and the FX frame, the area covered by the focus sensors is small, at best. Somewhat smaller than the 51-point sensor covers, and very noticeably smaller for anyone moving from DX to FX (the D7000 user moving to D610, for example, which Nikon has been promoting as an upgrade path). Note that the focus system doesn't perform any differently than before. If you've used the 39-point system in an earlier Nikon DSLR, you can expect pretty much the same performance in the D610. Actual focusing seems ever so slightly better in the D610 than it was in the D7000, all else equal (I suspect some additional smarts in the metering/focus sensor integration), plus the system will focus at the center point with f/8 lenses (and a subset between f/5.6 and f/8). So there have been some gains.

But that smaller "area" is what gets people: the focus sensors don't even hit the one-third points. The actual area seen by the D610 focus sensor is the same as is seen by the D7000 focus sensor, by the way. It's the change in angle of view (DX crop versus FX) that changes the apparent area covered. There's good news and bad news buried in the 39-point focus sensor for those of you contemplating the D610. This is the best implementation of the 39-point system so far, by a tiny bit. Many people also don't realize that the line sensors in the 39-point version are somewhat larger than those in the 51-point version, either. That has both positive and negative implications in and of itself. The positive and the negative is that it's more likely that sensor is seeing something that isn't perfectly centered on the viewfinder indicators. Sometimes that means the camera is finding the subject you didn't quite get the sensor on and that's what you wanted, sometimes it means that the camera is seeing something you don't want it to see when focusing. Remember, those viewfinder indicators are not indicative of the size and shape of the autofocus sensor. 

But let me cut to the chase here: a lot of consumers just focus in the center. Good news: the nine central sensors are all cross hatched and large. Central focus is pretty darned sure and reliable. Even Dynamic Area 9-point with the center area selected is darned good. It's all the things that you can do outside those central nine sensors (3D Tracking, Auto Area, 21-point/39-point Dynamic Area, Single Point with one of the outer sensors, etc.) that would probably get you into focus situations where you might not like the performance as much. As it is, a lot of shooters are focus-and-reframers. Great, stick to the central area and learn how the geometry of reframing works and you'll be just fine.

Metering System — As with all the Nikon consumer DSLRs, someone has decided that the matrix should be overly dependent upon what you're focusing on. Just in my office I can see one stop differences in what the camera sets based upon which autofocus sensor I'm using. In a high contrast scene outdoors, the difference can be more substantial. I understand why Nikon put this in (to fix backlight problems: person standing in darker area in front of brighter area, which is a common occurrence for many). But I really wish we could turn it off when we want to and just let the matrix decision be a matrix decision. In landscape photography I often will pick a focus sensor because I'm trying to find something at a distance that will trigger the right DOF for me, not because it is my subject. Likewise, there are times when you have subjects moving through an area: you set exposure prior to them arriving, and when they arrive and the camera focuses on them, it sets a different exposure. That's one reason why I use Manual exposure mode a lot: I set the exposure for the light and leave it there until the light changes. If I need more light on something in the foreground, I produce it with reflector or flash. 

My D610 can produce significant swings even in my office. Focusing on the bright white wall versus a dark black bag nets me a one-third to two-thirds stop difference in the matrix meter, with the same framing. This isn't as bad as some of the consumer bodies have been, but it's a bit more than I'd like to see. 

Noise and Dynamic Range — I'm still finding people who don't understand the "noise thing." How can the D610 model be 24mp and have low noise? Okay, let's back up a bit. 

We're now in an era where output sizes aren't really expanding but capture resolution is. For almost everyone, we have a fairly fixed print size. Let's assume for a moment that this is the maximum size a desktop inkjet can print (13x19"). In that 19" a 12mp camera is going to have to fit 4000 pixels, a 24mp camera 6000. So we've got 210dpi for the 12mp image and 315dpi for the 24mp image. Pixels are buried in both cases, but more so in the 24mp image. You're simply not going to see low-level noise in visible amounts using either camera. 

Meanwhile, at the other end, for those pictures we have the same amount of light hitting the same sensor area (FX, or 24x36mm). The net result is that: same amount of light, same sized print, you're going to get similar looking results from the 12mp and 24mp cameras, all else equal. We can completely equalize things by first downsizing the 24mp image to 12mp, thus masking per-pixel noise, but I don't think we have to go that far for most people because they're simply not printing large enough to produce a visible difference in the first place. Note my "all else equal" earlier in the paragraph. Guess what? The D600 isn't equal to the D700, it's better. The D600 sensor has better read noise and overall dynamic range properties than the D700, despite the increase in pixel count. Thus, it does pretty darned good. Don't believe me? Well, I don't even have to show the raw image optimized. Here's a straight out of a D600 camera JPEG shot at ISO 3200 with just the white point and black points reset slightly:

US PA Basketball 9-2012 D600 28679.JPG

Yes, you guessed it: twice as many pixels as the D700 means I get twice as many basketballs in the shot ;~). Seriously folks, this is actual pixel view, about 13% of the overall image. Noise is very well behaved, though the built-in noise reduction (which kicks in no matter what at ISO 2500) has reduced detail slightly. Colors have blocked up slightly. How's it look in real life? How's this:

US PA Basketball 9-2012 D600 28741.JPG

That's Philadelphia 76er Evan Turner not being successfully guarded by the usual gang of Men's Health players at our weekly games, by the way. Let's go in and take a look at that hand position:

US PA Basketball 9-2012 D600 28741ball.JPG

Surprise, I've bumped the ISO to 6400. I'm also shooting at f/4.5 with the 24-85mm VR lens from the half court position ;~). Try that on your D700! ;~0

With faster lenses and care, I can do far better than these results (I was also temporarily subbed out of the game, and was completely gassed at this point; I'm surprised I could even pick up the camera I had been running so hard [I was on Evan's team, thankfully]). 

Resolution and Diffraction — Does the D610 make a good landscape and nature photography camera? I'll let you judge (D600 JPEG out of camera, cropped only top and bottom):

US WY Yellowstone 11-2012 D600 29323.JPG

Let's pixel peep (remember, multiple compressions are in effect with samples on the Web like this):

US WY Yellowstone 11-2012 D600 29323-2grand.JPG

This is the 16-35mm at f/8, and infinity should be just a bit out of focus (my usual methodology in landscapes; I don't use hyperfocal). This was actually a quick handheld grab without paying a lot of attention: my primary camera was on the tripod and set up for the shots I wanted to take.

Basically the D610 is almost perfectly matched to the largest desktop inkjet printers: 300 dpi at 24mp is 20", just an inch beyond the largest print the desktop inkjets can do. You're not going to want to push beyond f/11 if you can help it, as diffraction starts becoming an issue that'll rob some acuity if you print that big, but had I shot this with an F100 and Provia I wouldn't have expected any different result (well, I'd have grain that I would have had to get out of the scan). 

Video — The D610 is a consumer camera. Did I mention that? Thus, it has consumer-grade video. Darned good consumer grade video, actually, but if you're expecting to get lots of manual control over apertures or uncompromised output from the HDMI port, prepare to be disappointed and get ready to trade your D610 for a D800. If what you want is excellent quality H.264 compressed video at standard HD frame rates and sizes, the D600 delivers that. The microphone amp is a bit noisy is about the only real drawback to the highest quality in-camera video you're going to create. If anything, the D600's subsampling in the video arena is about the best Nikon has come up with so far: fairly good detail without much tendency to produce moire on small detail in motion (it happens, as it does with any subsampled camera, but not dramatically so).

Overall, I'd say the video quality is very appropriate for the price point and likely user of this camera. 


Final Words

Nikon calls the D610 an upgrade to the D600, but it's really just a sleight of hand: "pardon us while we take a camera off the market that has a reputation for creating dirty sensors and replace it with the same camera with a different number that doesn't." While my tongue is partially in cheek, Nikon's marketing claim that there was an outcry for an extra half fps that necessitated the update seems really lame. Given that the only three fundamental changes are 6 fps versus 5.5 fps, a quiet continuous mode for the shutter, and a modest change to how Auto white balance is handled, Occam's Razor tells us that the D610 was likely an attempt to get a camera with a bad reputation off the market. 

In that respect, at least we have some clarity. A D610 purchaser shouldn't worry about it needing repair. If you're a gambler, you can consider one of the remaining new D600's at the right discounted price (you're taking more risk, you should get better return). Likewise, used D600 purchasers should ask for proof of repair by Nikon or ask for a discount, too.


Should You Get a D610?

I've already addressed a subset of the upgrader questions, but let me tackle things a little differently here. 

  • DX or FX? You really need to know which one you are, especially with the D7100 now available. Basically you have the same choice of camera (24mp, same body and controls), but in DX (D7100) and FX (D600) form. There aren't a lot of differences other than sensor. Nikon has been telling all you D80/D90/D7000 users that the D610 is the camera for you. I suspect not. The D7100 very well may be the camera for you, especially with that 1.3x crop, which gives consumers a phase detect system that works across nearly the full captured frame. Thus, if "reach" is one of the things you value, the D7100 is your camera, not the D610. Low light work? The D610 should top the D7100 by about a stop or so, all else equal, but even a stop behind is pretty darned good for most users. If only Nikon would make some fast DX primes ;~). What I keep finding is that DX users moving to FX either already had all the FX lenses they needed, or they're having to do a complete overhaul of their lens system. If you're one of the former, congratulations, the D600 may be for you. If you're one of the latter, I hope you have a lot of disposable income, as this can get expensive.
  • D610 or D800? Partly answered already, but I'll provide a bit more here. The usual questions/comments I get are along the lines of (1) "I don't want to have to upgrade my computer for those large files"; and (2) "I'm worried about my lenses or handling skills so I think the D610 is probably the better choice." I have news for you. If you're moving from the 12mp or older cameras, both those things apply to both the D610 and D800, just in different degrees. I personally don't think you make the choice on either of those things: no matter what you'll be upgrading your computer to deal with 24mp files, you'll be giving your lenses a thorough workout, and when you pixel peep you're likely going to find you've gotten a little too casual in your shooting discipline. I think you make the choice on where you want to be eventually. Just more of a casual shooter? D610. Looking to see how good you can get? D800. So which are you? Be honest with yourself, it may save you (or cost you) some money.
  • D610 or Df? Not as simple a question as it at first seems. I would say if you don't need the pixel count and shoot in low light a lot, the Df starts to look better, though it costs more than the D610. Some folk will prefer the Df's more film body-like handling to the clearly DSLR handling of the D610, but I don't think that's worth paying the extra for. The D610 is the better value, as it has a built-in flash that can control external Speedlights, it has a competent video capability, and it simply costs less money to start with. It strikes me that the Df appeals to a small group of very particular users, and those folk know who they are. So if you don't know that you need a Df, my guess is that the D610 is the right camera for you. But be sure to read my Df review to make sure. 


Drawbacks

  • Some Consumer Bits. Live View, video, buttons and parts of the build are all classic Nikon consumer (though top of the consumer line).
  • Cheese has been Moved. Yes, they're small things, but those changes in Custom Settings number really irritate someone like me that uses multiple Nikon bodies. Probably won't irritate you if you're a one-body user. 


Positives

  • A D3x in a D7000 body. Yes, the image quality is as good, if not better than, a D3x. I loved my D3x.
  • Dynamic Range Galore. Base ISO is great, and even ISO 3200 is clearly usable out of camera.
  • Bit of a Bargain. Even without Nikon's "free lens" initiative the D600 was clearly a very good value in terms of the price/performance tradeoffs. Perhaps the best value so far. 


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