Nikon D300 Overview
August 23, 2007 was a very good day for Nikon fans. For those who held onto their Nikon gear while others defected to other brands, their day had come. Though Nikon had long since re-established its prominence in the digital SLR market, the announcements of the D3 and D300 took the battle to a new level. If the D80, D40, and D40x were shots across the bow of their largest competitor, the D3 and D300 were broadsides, point-blank.
Both the D3 and D300 are pro-grade cameras, and share many of the same revolutionary features. While the D3 breaks new ground for Nikon with a full-frame sensor (called FX) at 12.1 megapixels, the D300 nearly matches that resolution at the old DX-size recording a 12.3 megapixel image with a 1.5x crop factor. They share so many features, we've come to think of the D300 as the build-it-yourself Nikon D3. You can almost achieve the D3's performance by adding accessories to the D300; all but the larger frame size.
Nikon's D300 displaces the D200 at the top of the prosumer DX lineup, but it does not replace it. The D200 will live on. But many D200 owners might take an interest in the D300's new features. The Nikon D300's increased resolution, 14-bit A/D conversion, and a frame rate of six frames-per-second will pique their interest. The new Scene Recognition System that merges data from the AF system with data from the 1,005-point metering system for greater accuracy and better tracking will draw them closer; but it's probably the new 51-point AF system that fairly dominates the DX-sized frame and includes 15 cross-type sensors will entice them the most. The 920,000 pixel, 3-inch LCD is just gravy.
There are a few limitations to those D3-like features, namely in the autofocus and A/D conversion departments, but we'll get to those soon enough.
The Nikon D300 also has Live View, in-camera Lateral Chromatic Aberration Correction, a self-cleaning sensor, and optic-by-optic autofocus fine-tuning, plus the ability to upgrade to eight-frames-per-second with the purchase of a battery grip, all sure to be popular with D200 fans.
Shipping as of November 2007, with an expected retail price of $1,800, D200 owners will be on familiar ground, investing a little more money for a lot more camera.
by Shawn Barnett
Nikon's D300 is a photographer's camera. There are no Scene modes, not even a Green Auto mode to make the camera do it all for you. As such, the flash doesn't have a mode where it pops up automatically. But if you know what you're doing, there's plenty that the Nikon D300 will do for you. It'll adjust your ISO, find detail in the shadows, and track your subject even when it's not in the autofocus area.
There are a few limitations to what it can do compared to what we heard when the Nikon D300 was first announced. For example, though it has 14-bit A/D conversion available in RAW mode for significantly more color information in each image file, the frame rate slows down from 6.13 frames per second in 12-bit mode to 2.66 seconds in 14-bit mode. That doesn't happen with the D3, nor the Canon 40D (though the 40D is only 10 megapixels instead of the D300's 12.3). And though the Nikon D300 has 51 autofocus points like the Nikon D3, it is much slower at acquiring focus than the D3 is when in Auto-area AF. It's also slower than the competition, whose AF includes considerably fewer points.
But these aren't reasons to discount the Nikon D300, which is one of the most capable and well-designed digital SLRs made. Like the D200 did, the Nikon D300 continually surprises me. When I encounter a new situation that requires a new setting or mode, I just take a look at the back and top of the D300 and usually find my answer readily available. Granted, in the beginning there were a few times when I just decided to make do with other settings rather than delve into the comprehensive menu system. Later I found the solution after a little investigation, but it's clear that there's a bit of learning curve to using the Nikon D300. Indeed, the Nikon D300's manual is almost twice as thick, with just over double the pages of the D200's: 421 pages compared to 210.
I'll try to hit on a lot of the Nikon D300's major points, but this is just the User Report, so there's not as much room or time as this significant digital SLR camera deserves. For more of the in-depth detail, see the many tabs and sub-tabs which include pages of detail and analysis. We've taken hundreds of shots with the Nikon D300, and you're welcome to download, tweak, and print any of them for your own individual camera research purposes.
Nikon D300 Look and Feel
The Nikon D300 is similar, but not identical to the Nikon D200. Contours are smoother, buttons and connector covers are reshaped, but most of the main controls are in familiar places.
From the front we can see the slightly more organic curves and a restyled red accent on the grip. The Nikon logo looks slightly bolder, and the D300 logo has been moved up and left a bit to make room for the new tethered Flash Sync and Remote Terminal covers (top right). The grip is essentially the same, with a nice indented inner surface for the balls of your fingers to sink into. The rubberized surface is tacky and well-textured for a secure hold.
If you look in the lower right corner of this picture, you'll see another thoughtful contour that makes it more comfortable as your left hand cradles the Nikon D300 to reach out to hold the lens body. It's subtle, but it makes the Nikon D300 easier to hold. And more comfort while holding the Nikon D300 is not a bad idea, since this solid camera weighs in at around two pounds without a lens, but with a card and battery.
The back has the same number of components in familiar places, but the purpose and name of a few have changed. Starting at the upper left, what was once the Bracket button has been replaced with the Playback button, and the five buttons left of the LCD have been moved around a bit. Menu moves up one button to make room for more clearly marked zoom buttons, and the Enter button has changed to OK. On the right, the AF-area mode switch no longer includes the Group dynamic-AF option, and the memory card latch has a new design. Finally, the 3-inch LCD takes up more real estate on the back. A plastic screen cover is still included with the D300, but is not shown here. The LCD itself is reinforced with tempered glass.
On top we have only minor style changes, with a trend toward oval and round buttons on the D300 in place of the oblong buttons on the D200. The left strap lug has been moved from its far-forward position on the D200 to a spot more near the center of the body. There are also minor changes to the Status LCD.
This 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5 lens, which first appeared on the Nikon D70, is a nice fit on the Nikon D300, with a good focal length range and good optical quality for the price, which is about $350. With this lens, the Nikon D300 combo weighs 2.9 pounds (1,353g). I shot most of the gallery images, however, with the superb 14-24mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S Nikkor, and the 24-70mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S Nikkor. They're wonderful, but extraordinarily heavy. At about $1,700 each, these lenses are pricey, but are two compelling new reasons to buy a Nikon. With the 24-70mm f/2.8, the combo is 4.3 pounds (1,948g).
The D300 has a strong magnesium alloy body for a rock-solid feel. It is sealed to keep dust and moisture out, and the optional battery grip is built of the same material. The Nikon D300 is a handful, but its greater surface area allows more room for all the buttons and dials I find so useful when taking pictures. It may not be the best camera for portability or casual travel, but if your purpose for traveling includes photography, you won't mind the extra bulk.
Controls. I like the control system on the Nikon D300. They used buttons and dials for just the right features. The Quality, White Balance, and ISO buttons are where they should be on the top deck, where you can press them and make the setting on the top Status LCD by turning the Main command dial. The Mode and EV compensation buttons are also on top, behind the shutter release. Having the power switch around the shutter button has always appealed to me, because if the camera's been switched off, you can just flip it on without taking your eye from the viewfinder or your hand off the grip.
Only one control is cumbersome for me: the Sub-command dial. Used to set aperture and bracketing increments, among other things, for me it's out of sight, and out of mind. Those accustomed to shooting high-end Nikons will have no trouble with this, but anyone moving up from most consumer SLRs might be a little lost at first. I prefer this dial on the top of the grip, as it is on Sony and Canon digital SLR cameras. Once you own the Nikon D300 and get used to the Sub-command dial's location, however, this won't be an issue at all. The Main command dial is recessed on the right side just enough to prevent frequent accidental activation, but it's easy to turn when you want to.
The navigation disk on the back is really a pleasure to use once you get used to it. Whether moving around in zoomed photos or in menus, the disk comfortably rocks in whichever direction you want. It's not as fast as buttons or dials, but it is easy on the fingers, and more difficult to activate accidentally. It's also great for selecting from among the 51 AF points in a hurry. If you hit the Info button, you can look at the rear Status display and use the disk to select among the AF points without having to peer through the viewfinder.
Viewfinder. While the Nikon D300 has a new Live View mode, where you'll find the real speed of an SLR is through the optical viewfinder. And though the Nikon D200's viewfinder was big, bright, and beautiful, the Nikon D300's viewfinder delivers nearly 100 percent frame coverage, something we specifically wished for in our D200 review. It's here, and it's glorious. Magnification is still a very good 0.94x.
Though I still prefer a bright LED over Nikon's combination of LCD and LED, the new Multi-point AF array works well with the new 51-point AF system. The use of an LCD panel means that they can offer an optional grid in the optical viewfinder, something that requires you to change the viewscreen on other digital SLR cameras. Because this LCD serves as an electronic mirror in the pentaprism, it draws a very tiny amount of power even when the Nikon D300 is turned off. When the battery is removed or completely drained, the screen dims a bit, and all graphics disappear. Just charge the battery and it all comes back, never fear.
LCD. The Nikon D300 has an unusual high-resolution LCD. At 920,000 pixels, the D300's LCD resolution is higher than any SLR currently on the market, with the exception of the Nikon D3 and Sony A700. As LCDs get bigger, the value of higher resolution becomes clear. You can more easily check focus, sometimes even without zooming in; but when you do zoom in, you can really check focus. The actual resolution in more familiar dimensional terms is 640x480, because they count each color in their calculation (RGB). But even if you count three horizontal pixels as one, that's still 266 pixels per inch, which is a lot finer resolution than your computer screen. The result is a remarkably smooth, crisp, and sharp view of your images. Menus are so bright and crisp, they look like they're printed on photographic paper.
The new LCD has a 170 degree viewing angle, and offers a 100% view, whether you're looking at captured images or framing in Live View mode. The Nikon D300 includes a protective screen cover that isn't as bad as previous models, but I still find the extra reflection and glare bothersome enough that I generally leave it in the camera bag.
Nikon D300 Autofocus
Though Nikon has been criticized by some for having fewer AF-points on their pro cameras when compared to Canon, Nikon's new Multi-CAM 3500DX AF system will silence the critics. Its 51-point "precision focus" AF points include 15 cross-type points, sensitive to both horizontal and vertical lines. The Multi-CAM system can be set to five modes on the Nikon D300, including 9-area, 21-area, 51-area, and 51-area with 3D tracking. The fifth mode is an 11-area mode designed to mimic the D200's AF system for those making the transition.
The big story with the new autofocus system, however, is its intelligent integration with data from the Scene Recognition System metering to enhance subject tracking. When in 51-area with 3D tracking mode, the EXPEED processor looks at data from both the AF sensor and the 1,005-area metering sensor. With this extra information, the AF system can better select and track a subject, even when it leaves the AF area. A red car moving toward the camera could conceivably be tracked from one side of the frame to the other, tracked more accurately through the AF zone.
Though having 51 AF points is great, focus acquisition in Auto-area AF mode on the Nikon D300 is quite a bit slower than it is on the Nikon D3. It's also slower than I'm used to seeing on Canon cameras, which have fewer AF points. The useful side of so many AF points is that the camera can be very explicit about where it's focusing. While shooting a sunrise with a flag pole in the shot, the Auto AF ran its point selection right up the flag pole.
Overall, I've found the 51-point AF to be quite useful, especially when handing the Nikon D300 to an amateur to take a shot of me with someone else. I mostly use the single-point mode, which is much faster at acquiring focus. At times in low light, the Nikon D300 does give up, so I think it's AF system isn't as sensitive as I'm used to, but our lab results show that it can focus down to below the 1/16 foot candle light level.
Fine-tuning. If we've discovered anything reviewing lenses on SLRgear.com, it's that lenses and bodies don't always match. Sometimes they focus in front of the subject, sometimes they focus in back of the subject. Camera companies are starting to acknowledge this, building in adjustments to compensate for front- and back-focusing problems. The Nikon D300 has a new system that just does that, but unlike the D200 it doesn't just work for the body side of the equation. Sometimes it's the lenses that are out of tune too, so adjusting just the camera's AF to work well with one lens won't solve the problem with another; indeed it can make other lenses worse.
So the Nikon D300 has a new system called AF fine tune, where the camera can store adjustments for up to 12 lenses. Not individual lenses by serial number, mind you, but at least by type. If you have only one of each type of lens, say a 50mm f/1.4 and a 100mm f/2.8, you'll have no problem. But a photo team that has several of one type of lens, like a few 300mm f/2.8Gs for shooting road races, will have to be careful, because the camera will only load compensation information for the lens that was mounted when the compensation was initially set for that type of lens. Nikon has included a half-measure for such problems, allowing you to input the last two digits of your lens's serial number so you can match the camera to the lens. Initially, we hoped this meant that you could put another lens on of the same type and enter that serial number so you could store two values, but it seems like the identifier number is only for reference: a note that allows you to make sure you've attached the right lens of a given type.
I ran into just such a problem when I got hold of the Nikon D300. Cameras very often come to me with all the settings the Lab used last still in memory. I do my best to clear them, but it turns out that AF fine tune doesn't change when you reset all (which makes perfect sense). So I had a lot of trouble with back focusing issues on some family shots I took one weekend, and only discovered the following day that the particular lens I used had been adjusted to +20 in one of the Lab tests, and that setting was never cleared. I'm glad we discovered it, because I was about to spiral into a long analysis of what might be wrong with the AF system.
Nikon D300 Live View
Perhaps triggered by Olympus and Panasonic in the consumer SLR space, "Live View" on DSLRs has become a more common feature. Both the Nikon D3 and D300 now feature Live View modes of their own. What makes Nikon's Live View mode unique are the two options it provides for autofocus operation. The first mode is the one used by everyone else. Because the traditional AF sensors are blocked when you flip up the mirror for Live View mode, you have to drop the mirror to focus, then flip it back for Live View. Canon, Nikon, and Olympus all have this mode.
Their second mode is the real charm, one we've been waiting for since the Olympus E-330: Called "Live View (Tripood mode)," this mode uses contrast detect autofocus, driven from the imaging sensor (note that contrast-detect AF in Live View first appeared on the Panasonic L10). Instead of flipping mechanical switches, the Nikon D300 simply reads data off the CMOS image sensor and evaluates how abruptly light to dark (or dark to light) transitions happen on the image plane. Contrast-detect AF isn't nearly as fast as phase-detect (which is why the shutter response of most digicams is so much slower than most digital SLRs), but at least these new Nikons can focus without interrupting the Live View display. As an added benefit, because it's working with data coming from the main image sensor, you can move the AF point anywhere you want within the frame area, right out to the extreme edges. AF operation in this mode is unfortunately quite slow, so they really mean it when they call it Tripod mode.
The D300 also provides up to a 10x zoom in Live View mode, providing excellent focus discrimination when focusing manually. This is pretty key, as less than 10x magnification really doesn't do the trick for getting the focus set right, but at 10x we felt we could pretty well nail the focus every time.
Both the new Nikons and Canons include the ability to control the camera from a computer remotely, and that includes receiving a Live View image from the camera. You can focus, adjust settings, and fire, all from a computer. What's more, you can do it via cable or WiFi connection, with the optional WiFi adapters. It's a feature Olympus cameras do not yet have.
The new Nikons require optional Camera Control Pro software to enable this feature. Software for this feature is bundled with Canon cameras.
Sensor. Measuring 24x15mm, the Nikon's new 12.3 megapixel CMOS sensor produces images with a slightly greater pixel count than its big brother, the full-frame D3. The D300's images measure 4,320 x 2,888, compared to 4,256 x 2832 on the D3. Of course, the pixel pitch is a little smaller, at 5.49 microns, compared to the D3's 8.45 microns. Generally, the larger the pixel, the more light-gathering ability, so it's no surprise that the Nikon D3 has better low-light noise control.
Still, they've raised the ISO for the D300, ranging from 200 to 3,200, plus Lo-1 (100) and Hi-1 (6,400).
Also like the D3, you can switch between 12-bit and 14-bit analog-to-digital conversion. The latter mode avails you of far more color nuance than the traditional 12-bit mode. Though JPEG images are saved at 8-bits, NEF (RAW) images can contain the full 14-bits of data.
Shutter. The D300 is capable of six frames-per-second, and up to eight fps when used with the new MB-D10 Multi-Power battery pack (more on this below). Shutter lag is 45 milliseconds, the viewfinder blackout time is 100 milliseconds, and expected shutter life is 150,000 cycles.
As I mentioned above, however, that six frames goes down to 2.66 when you shoot in 14-bit RAW mode. Since we haven't tested the battery grip, we don't know how fast the combination can shoot in 14-bit RAW with the extra battery. Since the limiting factor is likely the larger file size, however, it's probably the same speed with or without the battery pack.
One of my favorite aspects of Nikon shutters is their sound, and the D300 doesn't disappoint, sounding a lot like film cameras of old. More important, they don't draw undue attention with whining sounds or loud clacking. They're well-behaved. Competitors have noticed and are starting to make their shutter and mirror mechanisms quieter too.
Processor. The Nikon D300 uses Nikon's new EXPEED processor. We're not sure if it's the same as the one in the D3, but the slower frame rate makes that unlikely. It has a 16-bit pipeline and is the engine for processing the 14-bit color data from analog to digital at such a rapid rate. The buffer is sufficient to handle up to 100 shots at eight frames per second in JPEG Large/Normal mode. It also enables such impressive features as the Scene Recognition System, in-camera Lateral Chromatic Aberration Correction, and Active D-Lighting, detailed below. Nikon's latest releases on the matter describe EXPEED as not necessarily a piece of specific hardware, but rather a method of processing images for a desired output, so it's hard to know what kind of processor it is. It's also interesting that unlike Canon's DIGIC system, the EXPEED system doesn't handle autofocus or exposure data, only the task of processing and compressing images. Dedicated processors handle these other tasks.
Scene Recognition System. Nikon's old Matrix metering system has improved so much that they had to rename it Scene Recognition System. Matrix metering in general compares what it sees through the lens to a special database, one that's created from several hundred thousand different possible scenes. The SRS version does a more complete analysis, improving white balance, focus tracking, and exposure. One of its chief benefits is highlight analysis, which is designed to prevent blown highlights in common situations by adjusting the tone curve to compensate.
The Nikon D300 also includes a new white balance tweaking tool, with x/y axis adjustment, as we've seen on a few other digital SLRs.
Active D-Lighting. D-Lighting is a popular post-processing feature in cameras like the Nikon D80 and D40, and even some of Nikon's consumer digital cameras. It's a quick software process that attempts to overcome underexposed images, and bring detail out of shadows. It's seen as a solution to a number of common problems, including backlit images where fill lighting could have been applied, but wasn't (hence the name, for digital lighting, and a play on "delighting"). Well, the system has been improved in the Nikon D300, to include optimization of image contrast. That's a good tweak on their part, because often D-Lighting could overprocess the shadows and flatten the overall contrast in an image.
I'm cautious about leaving something like Active D-Lighting on at all times when shooting JPEG only, but looking at our test shots, I might be persuaded to leave it in Normal mode all the time on the D300. Rather than just tweaking shadow and highlight detail, it seems like the D300's Active D-Lighting is looking at all portions of the image and making significant adjustments to the tone curve where it matters most. When we processed our dynamic range images from the Nikon D3, I saw exactly what I expected: a curve that didn't flow evenly, instead wiggling at the ends in the dark and light ends of the curve.
Active D-Lighting Samples
Our daylight test shots show an increase in shadow detail and contrast with near objects, while maintaining highlight detail. I prefer the Normal setting, but the High setting sure does pop. Note how the highlight on Marti's forehead comes under greater control in the Normal shot, and though to my eye the detail gets a little noisier in the shadows, the local contrast seems to be improved in and around shadow areas.
Lateral Chromatic Aberration Correction. While other cameras have had lens distortion processing built-in, notably the Olympus E-1, none have done the processing based on the distortion they see in the image like the D300 and D3 do with their Lateral Chromatic Aberration correction. The E-1 took its distortion-correction cues from whichever lens was mounted and applied a pre-set amount of correction; but no image analysis actually took place. That's also the approach taken by most software applications. But the new Nikons have the power, thanks to the EXPEED processing system, to actually analyze each image after capture and fix the chromatic aberration before saving the JPEG file.
Chromatic Aberration: JPEG vs RAW
|Wide: From JPEG,
upper right @ 200%
|Wide: From RAW,
Moderate and bright,
upper right @ 200%
As you can see above, the in-camera CA correction works quite well. Since it is applied only to JPEG images, we were able to just how well it works by comparing the shot at left with the one at right, extracted from a RAW image.
Picture Control. Nikon has standardized their Picture Control system so that camera settings for tone, saturation, brightness, and sharpening can be set and ported to other Nikon digital SLRs. Currently the only camera compatible with the option is the Nikon D3, and new models are set to follow the standard.
Storage and battery. The Nikon D300 uses an EN-EL3e battery, which will drive it through 1,000 shots on a single charge. The optional MB-D10 Multi-Power Battery Pack adds two frames per second (with a higher capacity lithium-ion battery or AA's installed), taking the D300 to 8 fps, probably its most enticing feature. But it also allows a battery to be kept in the camera body to supplement the battery grip's input. Other designs use a tower that goes up into the battery compartment, which introduces a few problems, including packing an L-shaped grip in a camera bag when it's not in use. The MB-D10 is easier to use, and packs well.
The reason it's called a Multi-Power Battery Pack is that takes other kinds of batteries, including 8 AA cells, and an EN-EL4a, the same lithium-ion battery that the Nikon D3 and D2x use. Now we're talking power: 11.1v 2500mAh to be exact.
Dust cleaning. The D300 has a dust cleaning system that the D3 does not; it's Nikon's first dust reduction system. They're careful to call it "reduction," which is admirable, because we haven't seen a single system that actually keeps all dust off the sensor. "Four different resonance frequencies vibrate the optical low pass filter," according to Nikon, which is an interesting approach. Apparently dust reduction for their full resolution D3 will have to wait for the next revision, due to complications in vibrating such a large piece of glass at the necessary frequencies.
Despite the new dust cleaning system, many of my Gallery shots have some prominent hunks of dust after several weeks of shooting in the lab. So while this is a nice feature to have, don't be fooled into thinking that you won't have to either learn how to clean your sensor or send it in for cleaning.
WiFi. The new WT-4A wireless transmitter is compatible with both the D300 and D3, providing support for wired LAN (10BASE-T and 100BASE-TX), and 802.11a/b/g. A Live View image can be transmitted to a computer via wire or wireless using the optional Camera Control Pro 2 software.
Shooting with the Nikon D300
The Nikon D300's incredible sophistication kept it in the lab longer than most recent SLRs, because there are so many interesting and unique modes to explore and test. That meant I had less time with the camera, so it's hard to do justice to a camera with such depth and ability.
Much like the D200, the Nikon D300 is a dream to work with. As I shot it in very different situations, I found it easy to make the camera adapt. Major functions like ISO, White Balance, and AF modes are assigned their own buttons and switches, and making these common changes are easy on the big Status LCD on the top deck. The big, bright viewfinder and its Status display make framing shots and adjusting settings a pleasure, rather than a squinty, eye-straining chore.
I stayed out late one night, shooting at a local town, trying to find a decent sunset in the heavily-treed North Georgia area; then got up dark and early the next morning to explore how the same town looked at sunrise. It was a simple assignment I gave myself to see how the camera and I would function in an unusual situation (especially the morning shots). My D300 and I had a great time together. It didn't hurt to have the heavy but fine 14-24mm f/2.8G and the 24-70mm f/2.8G Nikkors along, which I've already boasted about.
The Nikon D300 was an able companion, just the camera I'd want if my camera was my main source of income.
Autofocus. In candid people shooting, I had a little more trouble with the Nikon D300's slow acquisition in 51-point mode. I'm just used to faster performance, and while the Nikon D3 delivers that performance, the D300 has to think a little too long for candids. But I was just trying out the 51-point system for the review; I prefer locking it to a single point, and either moving that point around or leaving it at the center and recomposing.
When it comes to focusing in single-point mode, the Nikon D300 is fast and capable, and the camera serves up images with great speed, and more flourish than even the D200, thanks to the gorgeous 900,000 pixel LCD.
I'm not as hot on how the Live View mode works. Although it's fast, I haven't gotten used to the requirement to fully press the shutter button to activate Live View between shots. It just seems counter-intuitive. I'd rather just have Live View come on, and let me press the shutter when I'm ready to take a picture.
It's great that you can zoom in and check focus. The zoom automatically chooses your selected AF point if you're shooting with just one point selected. If you're shooting in multi-point mode, it zooms in on the general area covered, but you'll have to move around a bit to see just what's in focus. You don't see which points are selected until after the shot is made (provided you have the Focus point option selected in the Display Mode dialog under the Playback menu, an option I recommend activating).
Menus. Getting lost in the Nikon D300's gorgeous menu system is very easy. As with anything, you can get used to it eventually, but the submenus can make it complicated to remember under just what tab and submenu an important function is located. Though I didn't bother to set up the My Menu function, I surely would for quicker access to commonly used functions, or else I'd go insane in high-pressure situations. I don't think it's a fault, because I can't imagine how they could make such a complex and customizable camera's menu any better than it is. Making the D300 so malleable requires a deep menu structure (we took over 1,000 screenshots of the D300's menu and other functions), and understanding all those functions requires a 421 page manual, plain and simple. Well, plain anyway.
ISO. In real low light situations, the results are indeed pretty soft, but this shot of my son sleeping in front of the television was taken in near darkness. Only the light of the television contributed to this exposure at ISO 6,400. The Nikon D300 wasn't able to focus in this light without the AF assist light (which is why his eyes are slightly open here), something the Canon 40D did achieve, but the shot's impressive nonetheless. With an exposure time of 0.4 seconds, I had to use a tripod and the 2-second Self-timer. It was taken with the 18-70 f/3.5, so that's probably why the D300 had trouble focusing, frankly. Regardless, having this kind of low light shooting capability is handy.
|Canon 40D @ 3,200||Nikon D300 @ 3,200||Nikon D300 @ 6,400|
Analysis. As I mentioned at the outset, the Nikon D300 is not a digital SLR camera for those who just want to dabble in photography. Neither is it for those who just like having the latest, coolest-looking camera hanging around their neck. Tyros need not apply. Seriously, snapshooters should steer clear. I hate to put it that way, but it's the truth. You can lock it in program and get good shots much of the time, but the Nikon D300 will do the equivalent of bucking you to the dirt if you mess with it without checking the manual to understand what you're doing.
However, if you're willing to take the time to learn, just as I said about the D200, the Nikon D300 will be a faithful, eager, and ingenious servant to your photographic endeavors. It won't just serve you, it will teach you. I'm not talking about help menus, I'm talking about image results. I love the Nikon D300 for how demanding it can be, as well as how forgiving in its RAW files. But for teaching, there's no better tutor than the image you'll see on the high-res LCD screen. That is, if you remove the screen protector. I found that when light came at it at an angle, it ruined my impression of the image, and I often underexposed shots that I didn't later with the cover off. I believed the image I saw rather than checking the histogram during that sunrise shoot, and paid the price.
I am disappointed that the useful 51-point AF system isn't as fast as it could be, but when you consider what it takes to look at 51 points with an affordable processor, you just forgive that and move on, switching to single point when speed is important. Having 51 points to choose from is nothing to sneeze at, offering greater positional accuracy than any other digital SLR camera in this price range. I also wish you could get 14-bit RAW at 6 fps instead of 2.66. I know many pros are going to want both, but it's going to cost an additional $3.2K for the Nikon D3 to get it, I'm sorry to say.
We have spent a lot of time looking at the Nikon D300, taking over 2.5GB of photos that you can peruse in the Samples tab. Be sure to see our extensive analysis of the D300's image quality in the Exposure section, whose subtabs also explore the D300's high ISO noise reduction, its Imatest results, and allow you to download RAW files of our standard test shots so you can see for yourself how the D300's NEF files work with your own RAW software.
My favorite part about taking pictures with the Nikon D300 is knowing that with just a quick check of the settings and careful attention to composition, I'm going to get a great shot. If you've done your homework, this fine camera will deliver just what you're looking for, and can prove it to you with its fine LCD screen right there on the spot. It'll even surprise you with more than you thought possible.
Nikon has established itself as the premier digital SLR manufacturer in just a few short years, and I'm hoping that the new optics I've mentioned are a sign of more to come. Nikon is now a better camera manufacturer than they've ever been in their long history. And that is saying something.
In the Box
Included in the box with the D300 are the following items:
- Nikon D300 body with body cap, eyepiece cap, eyecup, and LCD monitor cover.
- EN-EL3e lithium-ion battery and MH-18a quick charger.
- AN-D300 neck strap.
- UC-E4 USB cable.
- EG-D100 video cable.
- Nikon Software Suite CD-ROM.
- User's Manual and Quick Guide.
- Registration kit.
- Large capacity CF memory card
- Camera case for protection
- Accessory lenses
- Accessory flash: SB-600, SB-800
Nikon D300 Conclusion
Saying that the Nikon D300 has a solid build and excellent design isn't really necessary. Its D200 heritage is all you need to know about its construction and durability. The same goes for its utility. All of the controls are right where you want them to be for quick access and easy adjustment. There are a lot of great cameras on the market, but the D300 more than any of them is designed for the serious photographer. Though the menus are deep enough to get lost on occasion, the D300's My Menu function helps you cluster the most important items where you can find them in a hurry.
The Nikon D300 acknowledges that all optics are not created equal with its Fine Tuning function, a welcome addition in a camera that seems to know the market better than others. 51 autofocus points cover almost as much area as the meter, allowing you to position your subject wherever you like. And the two systems work together to better track moving subjects in the frame. Chromatic aberration correction built right into the camera takes care of this common problem in every JPEG you save.
Active D-Lighting automatically adjusts the tone curve to rescue highlights and shadows without making the image look odd, and this too can be applied to each shot. In addition to fixing common problems, though, the Nikon D300 just performs better than any camera before it, especially in terms of high ISO performance. Its ISO 800 shots are not far different from its ISO 100 and 200 shots (with 200 being slightly better than 100). Low light performance was also excellent, with the Nikon D300 able to make good exposures at all ISOs down to 1/16 foot candle.
I could go on and on, but the bottom line is this: If you need a great digital SLR camera and the price is no issue, the Nikon D300 will exceed your needs. Those requiring a faster frame rate and greater autofocus speed should consider a D3, provided they can handle the extra size and weight. I won't call it a compelling upgrade for happy D200 owners, but it sure wouldn't hurt if you're in the market for something even better than the D200. Nikon's D300 is an amazing machine, well worth the $1,799 price tag, and a rare five-star Dave's Pick.