D800 and the D600: What is Nikon’s Game?

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Nikon D600 - the new consumer flagship

Nikon D600 – the new consumer flagship

So the introduction of the Nikon D800 has taken hold, and the Nikon D600 is starting to make its ways to retail shelves everywhere.  The D800 was a long awaited answer to the popular (some would say: timeless) Nikon D700, the entry-level professional body camera with a full-frame sensor.  The D700 was thought by many to be the one true gem of the Nikon line.  So the time came for the manufacturer started to refresh it’s upper line.  Starting with the new flagship, the D4 replacing the D3, followed by the D800 and D800E that replaced the D700.  And then they announced the D600, and that left a number of people scratching their heads and asking: Why?

The Legacy of the D700

The D700 was ahead of its time, and some would argue it still has a few years on its life.  When the D800 was officially announced, they did not announce it as a direct replacement for the D700.  In fact, they still continue to list the camera as current on their website.  The basics were generally the same:  Both had a full-framed ‘FX’ sensor that had a cropped ‘DX’ compatibility mode, affording both cameras access to the entire line of lenses (a feature that many grew to love).  Both had a slew of ports and control connections for tethering and flash control, and both had excellent high-ISO capabilities.  The two cameras were ideal studio cameras, but still very versatile (in fact, most pros I know use the D700).  Only two main features set the cameras apart:  Effective pixels and movie mode.  The D700 didn’t have movie mode and boasts 12.87 million pixels.  The D800 introduced movie mode, and nearly tripled the effective pixels to 36.3 million.  Sure, there are other differences, but these are the two major points.  At the time, I had my sights trained to the D800 and was somewhat disappointed by this approach.  36.3 megapixels may seem like an ideal thing, but it would be a problem for me:  I have no use for that much depth.  I remember thinking that the D800 was a great camera for the right user, but I felt the D700 was ideally the best camera for me.  And I believed that Nikon released the D800 as a brand new component in their lineup.  Maybe it wasn’t a replacement for the D700 after all.  Maybe it was designed to fill the gap between the D700 and the D3x – a gap I hadn’t really thought existed until that camera came to market.

Fast forward a few months and my theory may have been confirmed.  Just before Photokina 2012 mid-September, Nikon announced the D600.  It, too, was a full-framed FX sensor with a cropped DX compatibility mode.  And it seemed to have all the bells and whistles of the D800 with a few seemingly major differences.  The flash sync terminal (PC Cable Jack) was missing, high-speed flash sync was limited to 1/200 (vs. 1/250 of the D800) and the sensor dropped from a 36.3 to a much more manageable 24.3.  But the D600 had a few benefits as well, such as a faster continuous shooting speed of 5.5 fps (vs. 4 fps of the D800) and a presumably better low-light response.  Note that the reason is because both sensors are the same physical size, but the D600′s sensor has larger pixel (fewer pixels spread across the same area), each capable of gathering more light.  And we cannot overlook the fact that the D600 is smaller and lighter.

So it would seem to me – and many others – that the D600 is the new flagship of the consumer line, replacing the D7000 that only took up the banner just a few years ago.  And the D800 does, in fact, replace the D700 as the entry-level professional camera.  It has all the trappings of a pro-body, with it’s 100% alloy frame, the flash sync terminals, the high speed sync capabilities and so on, including it’s price point (which was comparable to where the D700 was when it came out).  The only question that remains:  Why the need for the D600?

The D600 doesn’t fill any gaps.  Instead, it creates a new market position for the consumer line.  The price point for the camera right now is fairly high, just over $2000 USD. But I expect that in coming months, the retailers will be dropping the price as the initial demand starts to taper, as it always does.  With the D7000 currently sitting at $1,200 USD, there is room for the D600 to decrease – maybe to $1,700 USD or somewhere there abouts – and then we’ll see the real benefit to the D600.  Truth is that Nikon was able to shave some of the costs by eliminating the flash sync terminals, or by eliminating the support for two different memory formats and even the simpler sensor (at least from a manufacturing perspective).  By creating this new market position, Nikon has put the much desired full-framed FX sensors into the hands of the consumer.  Until now, the D7000 was the settling camera, because the D700 and the D800 were too far out of reach.  Now, the D600 is going to be the sought after camera in the consumer line, and Nikon should pick up some good market share for that…not just from within their own line, but from their competitors as well.

Final Thoughts

It doesn’t matter how you cut it, the D600 is a smart move.  It allows Nikon to raise the bar with the D800 without alienating those that would have been in the market for the D700 in the past.  I suspect the D600 will do very well in the pro-sumer market.  The pros and some of the review sites have complained about it’s feature set – or lack thereof.  But there are a great many of us that would still benefit from the D600.  I, for one, now have my eyes set on the D600.  Those like myself may not need the flash sync terminals, opting for radio triggers or even a simple quarter-inch audio jack with hot-shoe converter with the savings.  And I do believe the hefty 36.3 megapixel sensor of the D800 is a bit too much to handle for many of us, especially when it comes to file size in RAW.  And so I believe that the introduction of the D800 and D600 splits a category that was probably much too broad in the first place.  And it was incredibly smart of Nikon to do it.

Good play, Nikon.  Good play.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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