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NIKON D600’s High ISO

NIKON D600’s High ISO

by: Hoan K. Trinh

I haven’t write any kind of reviews on camera bodies on this blog.   The reason simply is because by the time I get them, they have been out for a couple of years (if not out of production).  Who would want to read a review of the Nikon D40 or even the D90 in 2012? That and I’m more interested in the aesthetic of photography than actual gears anyway.  However, I got my hands on the brand spanking new Nikon D600 due to all the crazy sales by Adoroma and B&H Photos in the last couple of days.  There are a lot of discussions with regard to the D600 and the D800 and what would make a better choice as a whatever camera.  Ultimately, which camera you decide to go with is a matter of needs and taste, I won’t get into that too much in this post, but one of the more mundane issues that everyone get hungover about is the high ISO performance of the new Nikon D600.  I knew that the D600 is a very capable camera both at the lower and higher ISO just from some of sample images I have seen from other photographers as well as  DXOMark‘s lab result.  Now,  Nikon did scare a lot of people when they released the Nikon D800 since a lot of people feared that the extreme pixel count would  hurt the camera high ISO performance.  However, the D800’s high ISO performance held up surprisingly well.  Not only did the D800 surpasses it predecessor in the high ISO battle, the Nikon D700, which has about a third of pixel count but it also does surprisingly well against the new flagship model, the Nikon D4.  So where does the Nikon D600 fit in?  Well, let me tell you, figuring out where the D600 fit in among these giants is a very first world problem in the world of photography.  While I do not intend this blog to a complete review of the D600 since I only has it for a limited time and I’m still playing around with it, I will say that with the D600, you will have absolutely no excuse for a bad photo.  Just to put everything in context, I have been shooting on the Nikon D90 for portraiture and events along with a few weddings and there are very few times that I thought I was being limited by the camera ISO or overall performance.  Anything under 1000 ISO and I doubt I could have done much better with anything else, up to 1600 ISO, I don’t find the noise to be objectionable, and I have pushed the D90 to 2500 ISO and beyond at times and while the result could have been better, if your exposures is spot on… can get away with it.  I bought D600 for those times that I really need to go to 1600 ISO and beyond which is actually not as often as one might think.  A lot of photographer think that they spend their days shooting in caves for some reason.

Anyway, that was my overall spiels about the D600, now on to the test.  Well, first of, this is not DXOMark so it’s not very scientific, but at least you get some sample images.  Now, a lot of the test images are by nature very mundane images because; first, you tend to have boring subjects to keep thing objective, second, the lighting is beyond terrible, which is good for testing the camera’s ability, but tend to make disgusting photos.   Well, I found a pretty interesting subject for this test, it’s a postcard that a good friend of mine sent to me from China.  This postcard is certainly unique since it actually doesn’t have a photo on it and the fact that it came in all the way from China, well, let’s just say it warm my heart :).

 I know that this postcard is not the absolute best choice when you’re testing for noise because it’s mostly white but you can still get a pretty good idea.  The lighting for the shot in just “natural” incandescent light in the living room and I just kind of found a dark corner.  At 25,600 ISO and f4.5, I managed to get a shutter of 1/200  so it was properly dark for a high ISO test.  I have seen Nikon’s advertising brochure with an image taken at 12,800 ISO at f8 and 1/8000 of a second shutterspeed or something like that and I thought to myself, “what’s the point of that?”.  All photos were taken on a tripods, except for the last one of the zippers.


ISO 100, F4.5, 1.3 second


ISO 200, F4.5, .6 second


ISO 400, F4.5, 1/3 second


ISO 800, f4.5, 1/6 second


ISO 1600, f4.5, 1/13 second


ISO 3200, f4.5, 1/25 second


ISO 6400, f4.5, 1/50 second


ISO 12,800, f4.5, 1/100 second


ISO 25,600, f4.5, 1/200 second

And just for kicks and giggles, about 2 stops of extra light and probably more in line with situation that you might run into at wedding.


ISO 12,800, f2.8, 1/200 second

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the D600 overall performance and especially impress by its ability to perform once the ISO go beyond  1600.  Obviously, there’s always a noise penalty for higher ISO so you still would want to keep the ISO as low as you can and not set everything to 1600 ISO.  But I would be completely comfortable with the D600 at 3200 ISO, 6400 ISO would not bother me much either.  ISO 12,800 hold up surprisingly well, the image quality is probably around what the D90 can produce at 3200 ISO so it’s approximately a 2 stop improvements.  So you can use 12,800 ISO as needed but don’t abuse it,  25,600 ISO….again, you can use it when you  need to but definitely DON’T  abuse it.  In short, for me, the D600 won’t improve my photography by leap and bound or anything like that, but a 2 stops improvement in the ISO department could get you out of a jam when needed.



ISO 2500, f2.8, 1/250.  Taken with Tamron 70-200, f2.8 lens.  This image is available in full resolution if anyone want to pixel-peep.

So here is a real life photos for you, I know it is not the darkest situation ever to do an ISO test but let’s face it, you’re not always photographing in a cave.   As you can see, this was taken at the end of the day and we were under a huge shade and the D600 did very well.  People are fascinated with the amount of noise or lack thereof when it come to high ISO, however, other important considerations that people often forget is the color details as well as the dynamic range that is often neglected as you push the ISO higher.  But just look the color details in the jeans, the blue jacket, the purple scarf, as well as details in the blowout lighting in the background; for 2500 ISO, that’s almost unreal.  I don’t think my old Nikon D40 have this kind of details even at ISO 200, even though it probably won’t have as much noise, not that I’m seeing a huge amount of noise in this image.  On the Nikon D90, you can see this levels of the details in the image probably up to about 640 ISO.  Does this mean that the D90 or even the D40 could not have taken this image?  Of course not, you would just need to use the 50mm f1.8 lens, walk a little closer, bring down the shutter speed to say 1/80 (probably a little lower for the D40) as you won’t have much handshake to make up for at that focal length and you will get a fairly similar image.  But the option to use the 2500 ISO along with all sort of lens is certainly valuable.  And sometimes, you do need the D600 and the 50mm f1.8 to get any images at all 🙂

Update:  Here are a few more high ISO photos that I took in real life conditions so you can see what the D600 is capable of for yourself.  I have included the full res files of the images so you can inspect them as much as you like.


Here is one more at 3200 ISO, f2.8, 1/125 shutter


3200 ISO, f3.5, 1/50 shutter


10,159 ISO, f2.8, 1/200 shutter.   Taken in a stairwell of a parking garage.


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