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DSLRs are under attack. There’s absolutely no doubt that with its A7 and A7R, Sony’s aiming for the low-hanging fruit—enthusiast shoppers looking for the latest and greatest thing. And we’re not even entering the scrappy smaller companies into the equation. Sexier, svelter, lither cameras lurk around every corner of the modern camera market, making the established Canon/Nikon duopoly look downright dowdy.
But for experienced DSLR owners, the whiz-bang mirrorless bunch still can’t beat the traditional feel provided by Nikon's new D610. Improving upon the D600 enough to give the camera a new name (but not a new D700 designation), this is the least expensive way to get into the Nikon FX family, giving you the complete experience without having to shell out for the spendy D800.
The D610 is an especially important model as a bump-up from the D7100. This is the next rung up the Nikon F-mount ladder, trading the smaller APS-C image sensor for a pro-level 35mm imager in a body that experienced Nikon shooters will know immediately. It's easily the best full-frame camera at this price point, in any system.
This camera is a Nikon shooter's Nikon, no doubt about it. Featuring a chunky body, a prominent grip, a mode dial with a continuous mode selector, and two control dials, the D610 looks and feels like it's a grown-up version of the intermediate D7100. While it's a tad bigger in every dimension, and about 10% heavier, the D610 has a legitimate excuse—that bigger full-frame FX sensor inside its chassis. So, while the D610 feels heavy around your neck, it's totally worth it for the killer performance you're getting.
While the Nikon faithful will adapt instantly, we have to raise a question regarding the button layout of the D610. Instead of the layout we've seen on some of the modern competition, the D610 requires you to use both hands to change crucial settings on the fly. Even the handy front function button can't be remapped to correspond to white balance or ISO. We found that, coming off time spent at CES and CP+ with a revolving list of cameras from competing brands, the Nikon's control scheme was easily among the more disruptive, unintuitive control schemes to adapt to. Crucial settings like white balance are so obtusely designed that on more than one occasion we had to turn to the thick user's manual just to remember what to do.
Like the intentionally hard-to-read old-school LCD look of the info screen, tradition seems to trump everything else in regards to Nikon's design principles. Instead of creating an easy-to-operate, pick-up-and-shoot camera, this camera is designed to appease the ancestral spirits of Nikon, hemmed in by what came before. The menu is a perfect example of this. Though the customizable section is a nice nod towards functionality, this is otherwise the same menu that debuted with the D1X back in 2001—Nikon's first real DSLR with a graphic interface. Imagine if your phone had the same interface that it did in 2001, or Microsoft called it a day after unveiling Windows 3.1? That's where Nikon still is after 13 years.
All that aside, the D610 is a camera that sells you on its credentials the second you pick it up. Completely weather sealed, and based around a magnesium frame, you can't mistake it for anything but the real deal. The dual SD card slots live underneath their own flap. The shutter and mirror move with a satisfying clink-crunch when you press the shutter button. The D610 is conspicuous and feels like you imagine it would. The shooting experience is so refined at this point that we can give it no higher praise than to say that it's good enough that you'll put up with the Byzantine menu system.
If you've been following Nikon's camera development, you'll know that the D610 isn't a revolutionary camera. In fact, it's reactionary. After the D600 got a bad reputation for accumulating oil on its sensor, Nikon had to do something. Featuring a redesigned shutter mechanism, it shouldn't have the same issue. Whether or not the D600's problem was as widespread as the echo chamber of the internet's Nikon forums would indicate, the D610 probably will go a long way to put the D600's problems to bed.
The difference between a D600 and a D610 is not a whole lot. There are few new and exciting features to geek out about in the revised version. If this DSLR were Windows, the D610 would be Service Pack 1. Physically, you'd be hard-pressed to tell it from its predecessor. The 24.3-megapixel CMOS sensor is the same. Even though it's en vogue to ditch the low pass optical filter, the D610 keeps on trucking with the same befiltered sensor.
You'll still find everything that was great about the D600 here on the D610. Dual control dials, a big 3.2-inch, 921k-dot LCD with great viewing angles, a backlit top info LCD, a bright, pentaprism optical viewfinder...everything that Nikon got right the first time still shines.
Without a doubt, the biggest of the minor improvements is a new Quiet Continuous shooting option. Using the same technique that Nikon developed for Quiet Shutter mode (reducing the motion of the motor when moving the mirror), you can get slightly quieter burst shooting from the D610. Instead of the typical machine gun sound, you get a popcorn popping, rock tumbler noise that is, indeed, a bit less of a racket.
The D610 is a decent choice for video, sporting a headphone jack, mic jack, and a 1080/30p and a native 24p rate. While you could get a better dedicated video camera, the D610 presents a pretty complete package for hybrid shooters. It's at least nice to see that Nikon is willing to give its "low cost" full-frame sensor as many features as the higher-end cameras, especially since Canon is apparently allergic to putting a headphone jack in anything other than the 5D line.
Where the D610 really shines is when you start to think about what you're getting for a price lower than the D600. For a hundred dollars less, you get an improved camera with slightly better performance and (hopefully) none of the teething issues that D600 owners have had to deal with.
Its full-frame sensor outputs plenty of dynamic range. This 24-megapixel sensor scored 9.46 stops of DR at ISO 100 in our stricter-than-standard test. While color JPEG performance was an improvement over the D600, the profiles on the D610 are still less than ideal. It's clear that even though the sensor is still one of the camera's strong suits, if you're not shooting in NEF RAW, you're barely scratching the surface of what this camera is capable of.
Nikon highlighted boosted continuous performance as part of that extra "10" you're getting in the D610's newly-minted model number. In our test, we found that the continuous rate of 6 FPS was about right, measuring 6.3 fps in Continuous High mode with RAW+JPEG on. The new quiet continuous burst mode is good for about 3 fps with reduced noise. All modes, whether JPEG or RAW were able to capture at least 13 shots at top speed before the buffer called it quits.
Video looked surprisingly sharp, even if the camera can only shoot at 1080/30p. With the 24-85mm kit zoom lens, we also got a solid low-light performance score and an impressive minimum required illumination of 4 lux. The only annoyance we found with using the D610 for video was the loud autofocus, easily picked up by the onboard mics (and, probably, also quite audible to any hot shoe mounted microphones, too).
While smaller, lighter, full-frame mirrorless cameras might be an inevitability, the D610 is as good as enthusiast-grade full-frame shooting gets for the time being.
The D610 acquits itself quite nicely, pairing up rugged construction with a quality sensor and fast tracking autofocus—not to mention the huge advantage of Nikon's vast F-mount lens library. While Sony's A7 twins might seem like a viable solution, the fact of the matter is that those cameras still aren't quite up to the challenge of knocking off a camera this good...yet.
That's not to say that the D610, and DSLRs like it, couldn't take a page from Sony's book. For instance, why not shrink the D610 to the size of the D7100? We've seen rugged, durable crop-sensor DSLRs like Pentax's K-3 come in at a way smaller size than the D610 without sacrificing performance. A shrunken-down full-frame Nikon might be an even better entry-level camera. What better way to differentiate this price tier from the D800 and D4S than to make it even smaller and lighter?
But, we digress. The D610 is a terrific DSLR in a well-established system at the right price. Even when compared to the direct competition, the Canon EOS 6D, the D610 keeps ahead by a decent margin on features, making it looks even better if we consider this a definitive 'fix' for the D600's issues. Of course, 2014 being a Photokina year, we'll see how things shake out this September.
Your move, Canon.
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