Nikon D600 Lens Sets

I've written before about good lens sets for the D800 (now buried in the 2012 Nikon News archive). It's time I wrote something similar for the D600.

It's not a coincidence that Nikon has five recent variable aperture zooms for FX (18-35mm, 24-85mm, 28-300mm, 70-300mm, and 80-400mm). The first three of those almost certainly wouldn't have been developed if there wasn't going to be a D600. Thus, D600 users have three zoom lens set choices to consider:

  • Variable aperture zooms -- 18-35mm, 24-85mm VR, 28-300mm VR, 70-300mm VR, and 80-400mm VR.
  • f/4 zooms -- 16-35mm VR, 24-120mm VR, 70-200mm VR.
  • f/2.8 zooms -- 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm VR.


There's little question that quality in some very technical and low level areas goes up as you go down those bullets. So does cost and size (80-400mm notwithstanding). It's those two bits, cost and size, that argue for seeing if you can get by with one of the lower-specified zooms. The good news is that you can, without giving up a lot (and in some cases gaining something: the f/4 lenses all have VR).

Knowing something about how you shoot most of the time is important, too. If you're doing mostly scenics and stopping down to small apertures, you're not going to see a lot of differential between the 18-35mm and the 14-24mm at 20mm and f/11. Frankly, I don't see any such differences worth commenting on in that scenario. On the other hand, if you like throwing backgrounds out of focus, the variable aperture zooms are probably not going to please you.

The good news is that there's not a dud lens in the current Nikkor FX bunch. I'll happily use any of the zooms on the D600 body, whereas on my D800E I'd be skipping the variable aperture zooms other than the 70-300mm and 80-400mm. It's not just diffraction differences. I've been researching an article about sensor/lens interaction for awhile now, but am not ready to show my findings. However, I will share a preliminary conclusion: that the camera you mount the lens on does make a small difference to apparent lens performance. A really good case here is the old 20mm f/2.8D. I've long recommended that you avoid it on the DX cameras. Yet it seems to work better on recent FX bodies. That's actually one of the things that sent me into testing mode trying to figure out why as it's counter intuitive to supposedly established logic (e.g. DX cameras only use the best central area of an FX lens). Well, one "why" is probably this: from the front of the AA filter to the photo-to-electron conversion area in the sensor, you need to think of that as a second optical system. Light from the first optical system (lens) that hits the second optical system (filter/sensor) even remotely off axis will be "handled differently" by different cameras. Leica M 240 owners who previously used Leica M9's are going to find that corners work differently on their same lenses, for example, and it's due to sensor/filter changes.

Fortunately, we don't have to worry about that with any of the recent FX lenses and the D600: the 18-35mm and 24-85mm, and even the 28-300mm, seem very well behaved on the D600. I'm finding the 18-35mm to be a remarkably good fit with the D600, as a matter of fact.

How about primes? We have six categories we need to discuss:

  • Older D lenses: 20mm f/2.8, 24mm f/2.8, 28mm f/2.8, 35mm f/2, 50mm f/1.4D, 50mm f/1.8D, 85mm f/1.4D, 85mm f/1.8D, 105mm f/2D DC, 135mm f/2D DC, 180mm f/2.8D. Generally, if you had experience with these lenses with film, they perform very similarly on the D600. The first three wide angles are overall decent to good in most respects, the 35mm f/2 has some edge issues and low contrast wide open. The 50mm lenses are low contrast wide open. The telephotos are all superb. I wouldn't hesitate to put any of these lenses on a D600, but in many cases there are better, newer choices.
  • Fast G revisions: 24mm f/1.4, 35mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.4. All really good lenses (though the new Sigma 35mm f/1.4 outclasses the Nikkor for less money; plus you need to understand field curvature and focus shift with some of these fast lenses). Most are a bit big for the D600 body, but if you need f/1.4, you need f/1.4.
  • Slower G revisions: 28mm f/1.8, 50mm f/1.8, 85mm f/1.8. Also very good lenses (though again watch out for field curvature and focus shift), and very nice complements to the D600. The smaller size more naturally fits the smaller body, and you're not really giving up a lot.
  • Macro lenses: 60mm f/2.8, 105mm f/2.8. Sharp as nails on a D600.
  • Exotic lenses: 200mm f/2, 300mm f/2.8, 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4, 600mm f/4. Again, sharp as nails on a D600. But I'm not sure the D600 is the camera best suited to these lenses (you probably would prefer the larger focus area of the D800 or D4, plus you need to be a little more careful about putting stress on the D600 mount than you do on a D800 or D4).


I probably should also dip in to some legacy lenses, as well. I don't have a large collection of legacy Nikkors any more, as I've been pruning my collection to just the few lenses I need. But I can say that brief use of the following before I sold them off convinced me that they're all very usable on the D600: the old 18-35mm, the old 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5, the 17-35mm f/2.8, and the 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5. Legacy lenses I found less satisfactory in performance are the old 24-120mm f/4-5.6, and the 20-35mm f/2.8.

So what's an appropriate D600 kit using modern lenses? For a more casual shooter who wants a well rounded capability at the lowest cost, simple: 18-35mm, 24-85mm, 70-300mm zooms, and the 28mm, 50mm, and 85mm f/1.8 lenses. Versatility in the zooms that matches well with the D600's capabilities, plus fast lenses for low light that also work well with the camera.

If you're the perfectionist trying to extract every last bit of goodness at the pixel level, my recommendations are basically the same as with the D800 (and why didn't you get that camera if you're pixel peeping that hard? ;~): the 16-35mm and 24-120mm zooms, and/or the f/2.8 zooms, and the top f/1.4 primes.

A lot of folk jumped on the D800 because it was "the best Nikon makes," regardless of whether their skill set or lens kit matched up. Many of those should have gotten a D600 instead. It's a more logical choice that gives excellent results with almost anything you stick in front of it.

There's a "balance" issue at work here. The D600 plus any recent FX lens produces better-than-film type results, in my opinion. Few people need more than that. And if they do, they'd better be prepared to pay in cost, size, and weight to do so.

Of course, a D600 isn't exactly "cheap." The simple kit I suggest would run you US$5260 for camera and lenses. Good thing this set delivers well, then. But this also brings us back to talking about DX. The closest equivalent DX kit right now would be a D7100, with 10-24mm, 16-85mm, 70-300mm, 35mm and 50mm f/1.8 lenses. That would run you US$3810. But note how nonequivalent the two are:

  •     DX range = 15 to 450mm via the zooms, not the 18-300mm of the FX kit.
  •     DX is missing a wide, fast prime.
  •     You can't build an f/4, let alone f/2.8 DX kit.


Ironically, you can make a Nikon 1 kit that comes closer to the simple FX kit than the DX kit! Try 6.7-13mm (18-35mm equivalent), 10-30mm (27-81mm equivalent), 30-110mm (81-297mm equivalent), 10mm f/2.8 (27mm equivalent), and 18.5mm f/1.8 (50mm equivalent), with a 32mm f/1.2 (85mm equivalent) in development due out shortly. Once again one has to wonder if all the DX engineers are on an extended vacation or not.

Which brings us back to the D600. One of the appeals here is that there is a simple kit available that provides a wide range of very usable options with good performance. You don't have to buy it all at once, but knowing that the option is there for future extension without having to buy the most expensive Nikkors is quite reassuring.

The only conclusion I can make is this: Nikon got it right for FX and CX lens development. Yet despite 14 years of DX, they've yet to figure out what DX lenses really are required. Here's my list, one more time, should Nikon ever find where the DX lens designers snuck off to:

  •     Variable zooms: 12-24mm+, 16-60mm+, 50-200mm*
  •     f/4 zooms: 16-60mm, 50-150mm
  •     f/2.8 zooms: 16-50mm, 50-150mm
  •     Fast primes: 16mm, 18mm, 24mm, 35mm*, 60mm+

    * = exists, + = passable option exists


So, D600 owners should be thankful. They've got a wide variety of lenses, both legacy and current, that work very well on the camera. Indeed, D600 users are sitting nearly perfectly in the FX sweet spot, as there are very few poor options, and all of those are legacy lenses. The D600 is so nicely in the sweet spot, it's going to lure a few folk who would have otherwise opted for a D7100, and it's that lens choice that is the bait. Perhaps that's been Nikon's strategy all along, but if it is, it's not a great strategy long term. Why? Because the D600 plus the simple lens set might very well be your Last Camera, plus smart consumers are not going to be all that inclined to be lured higher for more money again after being stretched so far once.

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