Nikon D600 - Sony NEX-7 - 24MP 35mm and APS-C sized sensors compared at various ISO settings

Both the Nikon D600 and Sony NEX-7 have a 24MP sensor, though with the Nikon unit having almost twice as much surface area the assumption is that because the pixels are larger they will produce better results. I wanted to test that to see if the larger 35mm sized sensor did indeed produce better quality with particular regard to high ISO performance. What I found was that as a general rule, my assumptions and I guess everybody elses are pretty much the way it is, though there are a couple of instances where the NEX-7 throws up a couple of surprises.

Above was what I shot. I use something like this as its 3-D, I don't shoot flat surfaces or test cards, and there's a lot of contrast, i.e. the elements of what I shoot outdoors. I used a 30mm f/2.8 Sigma on the NEX-7 and a Nikon 35mm f/2D on the D600, chosen because its nearest I have to the focal length of the Sigma in a prime. I just moved the camera to get the same framing.

In terms of shooting raw and at high ISO settings, all my assumptions were proved correct. The D600 is substantially better at low light performance.

This is how the cameras performed at ISO 1600.

As you can see the D600 is clearly smoother and cleaner.

At ISO 12,800 the Sony file is almost completely breaking up with seriously poor colour rendition. The Nikon file isn't that great either, but does bear some ressemblence to reality.

However, the first "surprise" is that at ISO 100, the Sony file is actually slightly sharper. This might be the result of the excellent Sigma lens or a weaker AA filter or both. There's not a lot in it, but you can see it.

The other thing I didn't expect is that the in-camera processing in the Sony means that with regard to jpgs. the difference at high ISO settings is less pronounced, at least up to ISO 3200 as in the 100% blowup below.

The Nikon jpg. has a fair amount of colour noise and while the Sony file is very processed it does produce an acceptable result, better than I would have imagined. Having looked at the raw results its pretty obvious why this processing is necessary, but the Sony camera has done a good job with the jpg. in this example.

I've put a couple of high-res samples on Google Drive which you can download here. One is a comparison of jpgs. at ISO 6400 and the other is a full-size version of the raw processing at ISO 100.

So what conclusions have I come to from this? Well it is pretty much as expected. The larger sensor produces the "cleaner" files. For example even at ISO 100 the NEX-7 files have some luminance noise / graininess. The D600 raw files are clearly superior at higher ISO's though the jpg. processing in the Sony evens this out somewhat. Now as should be well known by now, I no longer shoot very much at all at anything other than base ISO, and if you do its obvious which is the better camera for that. The fact that the Sony produces sharper results at this base ISO isn't really a surprise to me since that is what I have seeing with my "real world" use of these cameras. Of course neither of them are close to what my Sigma DP2 Merrill produces at ISO 100, but in terms of what might be described as "normal" digital camera sensor performance both of the cameras produce perfectly acceptable results, within the shooting conditions to which they are suited. The D600 results particularly prove that it is an excellent all-round camera for just about any use required and those who expect an advantage from the larger sensor won't be disappointed.

However the NEX-7 still holds up very well, providing you don't expect it to be a great all-round all-situation performer. I think its obvious that its much more comfortable being an outdoors travel camera rather than as a useful tool for shooting in low-light. I don't think that anyone is surprised by that and thats exactly what I expected when I bought it.

The basic 24MP sensor unit in the D600 made by Sony, is probably going to turn up in lots of cameras from now on and its already in the Sony A99 and probably in the RX1. However I must say that I don't think its that much better than the sensor in the 3 year old Nikon D3X and in fact it reminds me a lot of that. I am however doing this from memory since my D3X is long gone. 

Do I prefer the D600 to my D800E? Well no I don't. Though the anti anti-aliasing filter filter in the D800E is a bit of a "fudge" it does make a difference and my D800E files are somewhat sharper though noisier at high ISO's. which is what works for me. However if you shoot weddings or anything else that requires indoor shooting without lights or flash, then the D600 would be a great asset. Though not as good as a Nikon D4 or the Canon 1DX and certainly not as good as the Fuji X Pro1, which I take a swipe at from time to time but is undeniably absolutely superb at high ISO's and is arguably the best you can get for this as the jpgs. are just so wonderfully sharp and clean. (There, I wrote something nice about it!)

So as ever, you pays your money and makes your choice. The 24MP sensor in the D600 is a very decent one indeed, allowing the D600 to be a pretty versatile camera. If you want the ultimate performance either at low or high ISO's then you will probably have to look elsewhere but if you want a camera that will handle most things pretty well then its hard to think of anything better, particularly considering its excellent price.

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