I’ve had a lot of people asking me in the past few weeks about whether they should get a Nikon D600 or Nikon D800.  In fact just this week a buddy of mine sent me an email asking that very question and I thought I would share with you pretty much what I told him.

Now before I do this I just want let you know that this is strictly my own opinion. I’m not DP Review and this is not a lab report. I’m certainly not speaking for Nikon here (in fact they would probably prefer I wasn’t speaking about this topic at all) but just know that this is a strictly how I see these two cameras after having shot with both of them (I actually own a D800) so at least I can share from using both in different shooting situations.

Is the D800 the D700′s replacement?
I think one of the big things that people thought when it first came out was that the D800 was the successor to the D700 and that makes sense because the number 800 comes after 700, and that’s pretty much the way Nikon has done product intros up to this point (the D200′s replacement was the D300. The D3′s replacement was the D4 and so on). However in my opinion I don’t think the D800 is a replacement for the D700 at all—it is completely different camera with a completely different customer in mind and here’s how to determine if you’re a potential D800 customer (again just from my experience and point of view):

The D800 is for you if you would be a medium format customer, but don’t want to pay $25,000 (or more) to enter that rarified air (in other words you need a very, very high resolution image file and that’s the most important thing but you’re not a full-time commercial photographer or a rich surgeon). So, who really needs a very very high resolution image file? Well, first off people who are shooting things where they need to capture a tremendous amount of detail, like commercial photographers shooting products. Though the D800 is also attractive if you are a landscape photographer or you primarily shoot cityscapes where keeping every little last bit of detail is of the utmost importance, then the D800 certainly fits that part of the bill.

But there more to it than just image file size
I don’t think that’s the main determining factor on whether you should get a D800. I think the main determining factor is actually “how large do you need to make your final images.” If you only show your images on the web, you’re pretty much wasting your money because the D800 hundred’s biggest feature is the ability to make very large prints which look very, very sharp. I’m not talking 16″ x 20″ prints — I’m talking about where 30″ x 40″ prints would be a small size print for you — I’m talking huge posters, backlit signs in the airport, billboards, and large output of that nature, and if that’s really what you’re doing, the D800 may be perfect for you because it has that 36-megapixel resolution that you really need to make sharp prints at huge sizes.

So, is it a Medium format camera in a DSLR body?
Now, while the D800 has a resolution that is similar to some medium format cameras, I don’t want you to think the D800 is a complete replacement for a medium format digital camera (or a digital back), because while it has a similar resolution, medium format cameras definitely have their own trademark look. There’s something special about the look of a medium format image that it unique to it. So while the D800 has incredible crispness, sharpness and all the stuff that is indicative of a medium format camera, the medium format cameras still have their own trademark look and feel. Some D800s would argue this point and say that their D800 files look better than a medium format. I’m not saying the Medium Format’s look is better. I’m just saying it has its own look (and some folks might like that look better).

So what’s the downside of a D800?
While for some folks the resolution is the best feature, for others it’s the biggest drawback. For example — I don’t think it makes a really great camera for travel photography.  For example if you shoot a simple five-frame HDR photo and you open that image in Photoshop —  those five images open on screen at one time is about six hundred megabytes. That’s 6/10 of a gig for one single HDR image (whew!).  Now imagine you’re stitching a pano with 14 frames. Something like that just really clogs up your pipeline in huge way (you’ll be stitching that pano for an hour). I know from first-hand experience because I took a D800 to Cuba and to Paris and while the images were sharp and crisp, the file sizes were just tremendous, and storage space really becomes an issue. You eat up memory cards like nobody’s business and you eat up your hard drive space like it going out of style, and your entire workflow is much slower because working with such huge files. Again, if you need files this big—no problem—perfectly understandable and you’re cool with all the extra headaches those file sizes bring, it’s great, but for most of us—working with those super high-resolution files will really be more trouble than they’re worth.

Contrast this with the old D700
I wouldn’t use the D800 for sports — the resolution is just too high to make it practical, and the frames per second rate is just too slow, and I’m sure Nikon would be the first ones to tell you it was never designed as a sports camera. In contrast, the D700 actually was pretty decent for sports, especially if you added the battery grip which pumped it up to eight frames per second, and I used it as my 2nd body on a number of occasions and it rocked.  Both cameras are great for portraits (though you might have to do some extra retouching with the D800 files because they pick up everything, and I mean everything), but again — if most of your images will be seen mostly on the web, I would have a hard time recommending that you by a D800.

The Nikon D600 is an entirely different story
I do see this camera as the upgraded replacement for the D700 (even though the model number is lower). Its file size is still pretty high (24 megapixels) but lower than the D800s 36-megapixels; it’s easier to work with its smaller files, it’s faster all around, and it’s got great video features.  That’s really how I see the D600 — a better D700. Take that great D700, then add great video features, and a few extra tweaks and updates and you’ve got the D600.

You can use it for travel and it works wonderfully well. You can shoot landscapes and it’s great for that too (and the images are still sharp and crisp), and you can shoot sports with it (I actually shot an NFL game with the D600 as my second body it while was a little slow, it took beautiful shots overall and I’d use it again).  I think this is a camera that will work for almost anything that you wanted to shoot and while it’s just an evolutionary step (where many would argue that the D800 was a revolutionary step because of its high resolution and sharpness at that price point) it’s a very good step in its evolution and an improvement over the D700, which is all we ever wanted, right — a better version of what we had. So, if you wanted to replace your D700 with something newer and better along the same lines (but with HD video), I think the D600 is that camera (and it’s about $1,000 cheaper than the D800).

So, which one takes better pictures?
Well, here’s the thing and its the big tiebreaker: where will you images be seen? If your images are seen on the web, I don’t think anyone will really be able to tell you, at web resolution, which shot was taken with the D800 or the D600 — even large sized images on the Web will look pretty much about the same (if not identical). However the one place where these two images will really hit that fork in the road is when you print really large images. At 13″ x 19″,  I think they would probably look very close to the naked eye if not identical.  At 30 x 40 , you’ll probably see a visible difference. As you get larger in size, the D800 images will really pull away from the D600s (or the D4′s for that matter), but you’ll have to go fairly big to start to see a real difference. So, honestly, unless you’re printing really large files, I’d have a hard time telling you to choose anything other than the D600 — it’s just that right camera at the right price with the right features for most of us.

Now, I know that since I’ve written this I will immediately hear from some photographers who’ll say “Scott, I have the D800 and it’s a wonderful travel photography camera” and then from someone else who uses it for sports and it’s perfect for them, and that’s fine— if you’re happy with your camera choice that’s great. Just remember this: loads of folks bought the D800 when it first came out, and I talked to a number of folks who bought it thinking it was the upgraded D700. That being said, it’s very, very, very rare to read anyone ever admit “I bought the wrong camera.” In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that sentence written online ever. As photographers, our job is to defend our purchase, and never admit we might have jumped the gun a bit, and I’m fully aware of that (and I hope you are, too). So, if you bought the D800 just to shoot Facebook profile photos for your clients, I fully expect you to tell my why you made the right choice. It’s OK. If you’re happy, that’s really all that matters.

They both have their Strengths and Differences
I shot with both cameras and they both have their strengths and weaknesses.  I think the reason why there are two separate cameras — the  D600 and D800 is because they were created for two very different customers and that’s a good thing because instead of just having just a D700 and D3 (like we used to have — just those two choices), now we’ve got this other camera in between (the D800) that I think actually replaces the very expensive D3x but at a fraction of the price, and I think that’s a great thing. The D3x was aimed at commercial photographers, and that’s who I think the D800 probably works best for, though those high res files may also appeal to some of us landscape and portrait photographers, too.

The bottom-line
There is nothing I hate more than reading a shootout review or article in a magazine comparing two or more cameras and at the end, the writer really doesn’t choose one or the other, they just kind of leave you with “Well, it depends on what you’re needs are, they’re both great cameras.” Well, duh. Every purchase we make depends on what our needs are. Well, I don’t want to leave you with that either, so I’m going to tell you what I told my friend. Get the D600.
I hope that helps you somewhat if you’re in that same “on the fence” situation between these two great cameras, and I hope it helps you make your decision that much easier. Cheers.