Nikon D600 sets high bar for sensor image quality

Wednesday September 19 2012

Sensor Review
Introduction | Nikon D600 Preview | Nikon D600 Sensor Performance | Nikon D600 Versus Competition | Conclusion

Nikon D600 vs D3X

Nikon D600

On paper, the D600 would seem to have more in common with Nikon’s flagship professional DSLRs, the D3X. For starters, they both support full-frame sensors that roughly contain about 24.5-megapixels. But that’s where most of their similarities end, at least with their sensor similarities. The D600’s sensor bested its more austere sibling by six points and performed better than the D3X in every sensor quality category. 

Nikon D600

Color reproduction was much stronger in the D600 than the D3X, with Nikon’s consumer full-frame DSLR registering 25.1 bits compared to the professional-oriented flagship camera’s 24.7 bits. This four-tenths of a bit separation between the two translates to the D600 having 1/3-stop better color depth than the D3X. Interestingly, this gap in color depth becomes slightly more pronounced at higher ISOs.

Nikon D600

The D600’s command of dynamic range was also notably better than the D3X, 14.2 Evs to 13.7 Evs respectively. The D600’s dynamic range registered 1/2-stop better than its nearly four-year-old relative.

The sensor quality gulf widened between the D600 and D3X when analyzing their low light performances. The D600’s low light capabilities are about 2/3-stop better than the sports-oriented D3X, with the latter’s image quality falling off around 2000 ISO, and the D600’s image quality deteriorating at the relatively high threshold of 3000 ISO.

Nikon D600 vs D800 vs D4

Nikon D600

So how does the D600 stack up against Nikon’s other high-end full-frame DSLRs that were released this year? Including the semi-professional 36-megapixel Nikon D800, and the pro-marketed 16-megapixel sensor of the D4? The D600 trailed the D800’s DxOMark score of 95 by an insignificant one-point. But it bested the D4 by a more impressive five points.

Nikon D600

The D800 was the king of color depth between the trio, notching 25.3 bits of color compared to the 25.1 bits of the D600, and the 24.7 bits of the D4. However, the gap between the D600 and the D800 is pretty minimal.

Nikon D600

Dynamic range quality of the D600 closely mirrored that of the D800 – 0.2 Evs separated the two. But there was a dramatic dynamic range quality difference between the D600’s score of 14.2 Evs and the D4’s score of 13.1 Evs. This equates to a full 1-stop difference between the D600 and the D4 for low ISO settings.

The Nikon D600 scored a low light ISO score (2980 ISO) during DxOMark testing. Although the gap between the three cameras (D800’s score of 2853 ISO and the D4’s 2965 ISO) was insignificant, and photographers cannot visually distinguish the low light differences between these Nikon models.

These 3 scores are in the top 5 on the DXOMark lowlight ISO ranking.

Nikon D600 vs Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Nikon D600

DxOMark has yet to get its hands on the D600’s direct rival, Canon’s EOS 6D – this comparison would be most compelling. However, it is worth contrasting Nikon’s newest full-frame DSLR to the new and high quality 22-megapixel full-frame sensor of the Canon 5D Mark III, and the more veteran and wildly popular 21.1-megapixel 5D Mark II.

A quick comparison snapshot illustrates that the D600 continues the Nikon sensor quality dominance over Canon’s most treasured models. Hopefully the EOS 6D will make Canon and Nikon’s sensor and image quality feud more competitive.

Nikon D600

The D600 dominated the color depth quality of both the 5D Mark III and the Mark II. The Nikon model had a 2/3-stop advantage in color quality over the Mark III, and a 1-stop edge over the Mark II. This full-stop improvement over the older Canon model means the D600 is capable of capturing twice the number of colors as the Mark II if we take into account the colored noise.

Nikon D600

Dynamic range quality was not much of a contest between the D600 and the 5D Mark III or the Mark II. The D600’s image dynamic was nearly 2.5-stops better than its Canon rivals. Although it is worth noting that the 5D Mark III equalizes the dynamic range performance of the D600 at around 3200 ISO, and it actually performs better than the D600 at around 8000 ISO.

Canon has long been praised for its ability to perform photo miracles in the dark, and the Mark III and Mark II are no exceptions. However, Nikon has made great strides at improving its low light image quality, which shows in the D600’s low light performance. It bests the Mark III by nearly 1/3-stop and trounces the Mark II by nearly 2/3-stop.