Nikon D300 Review

 
Camera Reviews > Nikon Cameras > Nikon D i Full Review

Nikon D300 Exposure


Color

Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Slight oversaturation of strong red and blue tones, as well as some greens, but better than average accuracy and pleasing color overall.

In the diagram above, the squares show the original color, and the circles show the color that the camera captured. More saturated colors are located towards the periphery of the graph. Hue changes as you travel around the center. Thus, hue-accurate, highly saturated colors appear as lines radiating from the center.
Saturation. The Nikon D300 oversaturates reds, blues and some greens a little. It also undersaturates some magentas very slightly, but results are still pleasing, and overall color accuracy is considerably better than that of much of the field. Some may find overall saturation somewhat subdued, but this is typical of semi-pro and professional SLRs. (And as you'll see below, the D300's saturation adjustment gives good control, if you'd like a bit brighter color.) Most consumer digital cameras produce color that's more highly saturated (more intense) than found in the original subjects. This is simply because most people like their color a bit brighter than life.

Skin tones. In this case, the D300 did render skin tones slightly on the pink side in most cases. Still, results are quite reasonable, well within an acceptable range. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc.

Hue. Overall results here are pretty accurate, though some reds are pushed toward orange, and cyan towards blue. Still, overall color is quite good, with an average hue error after correction for saturation variation of only 5.44 delta-E units. This is closer to accurate than many DSLRs on the market. The other important part of color rendition is hue accuracy. Hue is "what color" the color is.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Saturation Adjustment
The Nikon D300 lets you adjust the image saturation, contrast, and sharpness in seven steps each. As can be seen below, the saturation adjustment worked very well, providing a reasonably fine-grained adjustment over a useful range of control. (Although we'd personally like to see just slightly smaller steps.) The saturation adjustment also has almost no impact on contrast. That's how it should work, but we've often found interactions between saturation and contrast (and vice versa) on the cameras we test.

Saturation Adjustment Examples

-3

-2

-1

Default

+1

+2

+3

Sensor

Exposure and White Balance

Indoors, incandescent lighting
Auto and Incandescent white balance settings were quite warm, but Manual white balance setting produced very good color; average positive exposure compensation required.

Auto WB
+1.0 EV
Incandescent WB
+1.0 EV
2,700 Kelvin
+1.0 EV
Manual WB
+1.0 EV

Color balance indoors under incandescent lighting was very warm with the Auto white balance setting, with a strong yellow cast. The Incandescent setting was a bit better, but still quite warm. The 2,700 Kelvin setting produced a slight magenta cast. The warm cast in the Kelvin white balance results would normally suggest that the light source had a lower color temperature than the value the camera was set for, but these lights are typically about 2,800 Kelvin: Perhaps an area for further test & experimentation. I felt the Manual setting had the most pleasing overall results. The Nikon D300 required an average amount of positive exposure compensation here, at +1.0 EV. Overall color is quite good, Marti's white shirt is almost perfectly neutral, although her face is a little pink, and the blue flowers looked purplish as they often do with this shot. Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a very yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.

 

Outdoors, daylight
Good color overall, though a tendency toward a warm cast. Slightly high contrast under harsh lighting, but good highlight/shadow detail preservation. About average exposure accuracy outdoors.

Auto White Balance,
+0.7 EV
Auto White Balance,
Auto Exposure

In the "Sunlit" test shot above, the Nikon D300 tended to lose highlight detail under harsh lighting while requiring a roughly average amount of positive exposure compensation of +0.7 EV. Contrast was slightly high, resulting in rather dark shadows when the highlights were well exposed, but the D300 does better than most in this regard, with almost no loss of detail in the strong highlights, and good detail present pretty far into the shadows. The outdoor house shot is slightly overexposed at default exposure, but with natural looking color.

Exposure accuracy?
Some Nikon D300 users have reported a tendency toward slight overexposure in web forums. We felt that some of the shots we took with the D300 showed this tendency as well, but the amounts we observed were pretty slight: Perhaps 1/4 of a stop of so. We don't have a theory on this yet, haven't found a consistent pattern to the overexposures that we observed.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Resolution
Very high resolution, 1,700 lines of strong detail.

Strong detail to
1,700 lines horizontal
Strong detail to
1,700 lines vertical

Our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 1,700 lines per picture height in both the horizontal and vertical directions, with extinction past 2,000.

Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail. Our interpretation of this standard is somewhat conservative. We watch for artifacts and color fringing then move back to the nearest pure part of the scale. In our opinion, detail with artifacts shouldn't be considered detail. You may see other numbers quoted elsewhere, but across the site, our reviews judge this parameter by the same conservative standard.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Sharpness & Detail
Sharp images overall, with excellent detail. Some noise suppression visible in the deep shadows, but relatively little at low ISO settings.

Excellent detail overall, though slight evidence of edge enhancement visible. Subtle detail: Hair
Noise suppression tends to blur detail in areas of subtle contrast, as in the darker parts of Marti's hair here.

Sharpness. The Nikon D300 captured fairly sharp images, though details tend to be just slightly soft overall. In the high contrast shot above, there's only slight edge enhancement visible along the edges of the white house trim and roof, as well as some of the larger branches This means that, while the D300's JPEGs are a little soft straight from the camera, they tend to take sharpening in image editing applications pretty well. There are some minor artifacts from the in-camera sharpening though: Sharpening on the computer does tend to bring out the slight halos that are present in the original images, but generally not noticeable unless additional sharpening is applied. (Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing colors and tones right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.)

Detail & Noise suppression. The crop above right shows little visible noise suppression in the shadows, with quite a bit of fine detail in the strands of hair visible. Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears.

 

JPEG vs RAW

JPEG vs RAW Comparison

Mouse over the links in the box above to compare the difference in sharpness and detail from camera JPEG versus a 14-bit RAW file processed with Nikon's Capture NX and Adobe Camera Raw 4.3. Camera settings for the JPEG settings were the defaults.

In our testing of many DSLRs, we're finding that there is often more detail locked up a the camera's RAW files than makes it out in the camera-produced JPEGs. This once again seems to be the case for the D300. It's in-camera JPEG processing is actually pretty competent, but you can nonetheless produce a sharper, more finely-rendered image by manipulating the RAW files in a good third-party RAW converter.

ISO & Noise Performance
Low noise at the normal sensitivity settings, higher noise with some blurring at the higher settings. Excellent performance though, roughly an EV or so better than the D200, to our eyes.

ISO 100 ISO 200 ISO 400
ISO 800 ISO 1,600 ISO 3,200
These crops taken from shots with
High ISO NR set to "Normal", the default.
ISO 6,400

Noise levels are quite low at the Nikon D300's lower sensitivity settings, although some noise is visible already at ISO 400. At ISO 800, noise is still low, but we start to see some loss in fine detail due to the camera's noise reduction. Noise levels increase at the 1,600 and 3,200 settings by quite a bit, with stronger blurring, "grain" and increased chroma noise, though results are still very good for a 12 megapixel sensor at such high sensitivity settings. ISO 6,400 is very noisy, and there's not much detail left after the standard level of noise reduction gets through with it. See the High ISO Noise Reduction page though, to see how the D300's high ISO NR settings impact image quality.

The Low and Off settings for High-ISO NR don't flatten the image details nearly as much at ISO 3,200 and 6,400 as you can see in the crops above, shot at the Normal setting. We suspect a good noise-processing program (Neat Image, Noise Ninja, etc) could produce very good-looking images from the D300's ISO 3,200 and 6,400 shots, if you just shot with the High-ISO NR turned off.

D200 vs D300 High ISO Noise Reduction
Simulated Daylight
D200 Normal D300 Off D300 Low D300 Normal
I
S
O

1
6
0
0
D200 Normal D300 Off D300 Low D300 Normal
I
S
O

3
2
0
0

The comparison table above shows crops from the D200 next to some from the D300, comparing the Normal NR setting of the D200 to the NR Off, Low and Normal settings on the D300. (Sorry, we didn't do as extensive a matrix of noise tests with the D200, so don't have examples of different noise settings on it to show you here.) Nikon claims a full EV of noise improvement for the D300 over the D200. Noise is such a multi-variate sort of thing that it's hard to reduce it down to a single number though, and the results also tend to vary somewhat with the subject matter and lighting. On some shots, we felt that there was definitely a full EV of improvement in the D300, in other circumstances we felt that it was a little less. There's no question though, that the overall high-ISO performance of the D300 is a good step beyond what the D200 was capable of, and shots even at ISO 3,200 held up surprisingly well when printed at large sizes.

Extremes: Sunlit and low light tests
High resolution with good detail in both the highlights and shadows. Excellent low-light performance, capable of capturing bright images under average city street lighting and much darker conditions.

+0.3 EV +0.7 EV +1.0 EV

Sunlight. The Nikon D300 performed well under the deliberately harsh lighting in the test above, and captured bright midtones without sacrificing too much detail in the highlights or shadows. Though Marti's face still looks a little dark at +0.7 EV, I preferred it to the image at +1.0 EV, which had a few too many blown highlights for my preference. That said though, even the +1.0 EV example did an excellent job of preserving highlight detail, in that only a few areas were completely blown out. Shadow detail was also exemplary, there's very good detail there, surprisingly far into the deep shadows. (In "real life" though, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown above; it's better to shoot in the shade when possible.)

Contrast Adjustment Examples

-3

-2

-1

Default

+1

+2

+3

The series of shots above show the results of the different contrast settings, all shots captured at an exposure setting of +1.0 EV. While it can be difficult to evaluate small differences in contrast on small thumbnails like these, it's pretty easy to see the impact of the Contrast adjustment in the images above. At its lower settings, the D300 did a really excellent job of handling the deliberately horrific lighting of this shot. The deep shadows are a bit noisier than I'd like, but I'd also much prefer that the noise be left in there, rather than flattening it out and taking all the subject detail with it. It's important to note too, that the areas where the noise becomes evident are way, way down at the extreme shadow end of the tone curve; RGB brightness levels of 20 and below. Like the Saturation adjustment, the control for Contrast is quite effective, and interacts very little with color saturation.

Active D-Lighting Examples

Off

Low

Normal

High

The series of shots above show the results of the available Active D-Lighting settings (once again, using a nominal exposure compensation of +1.0 EV), used to preserve highlight and shadow detail in high contrast images. This is different than the touch-up menu's D-Lighting, as it is performed during image capture instead of after. (It does affect only JPEG images though, Nikon very properly leaves RAW file data strictly as it comes from the sensor.)

The results here are very interesting: At the highest D-Lighting setting, highlight and shadow detail is as about as well preserved as with the lowest contrast setting, but midtone values are richer, not as flattened-out looking as they are when the overall contrast is dialed down. See the two images below for a closer comparison between the effect of low contrast and Active D-Lighting.

Low Contrast vs Active D-Lighting
(Same exposure setting in both images, +1.0 EV)

Lowest Contrast Setting

Active D-Lighting, High Setting

Note: Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here.)

 

  1 fc
11 lux
1/2 fc
5.5 lux
1/4 fc
2.7 lux
1/8 fc
1.3 lux
1/16 fc
0.67 lux
1/16fc
No NR
ISO
100
Click to see D300LL0103.JPG
2 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL0104.JPG
5 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL0105.JPG
10 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL0106.JPG
25 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL0107.JPG
30 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL0107XNR.JPG
30 sec
f2.8
ISO
200
Click to see D300LL0203.JPG
1 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL0204.JPG
2 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL0205.JPG
6 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL0206.JPG
10 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL0207.JPG
20 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL0207XNR.JPG
20 sec
f2.8
ISO
400
Click to see D300LL0403.JPG
0.5 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL0404.JPG
1.3 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL0405.JPG
2.5 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL0406.JPG
3 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL0407.JPG
8 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL0407XNR.JPG
10 sec
f2.8
ISO
800
Click to see D300LL0803.JPG
1/4 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL0804.JPG
0.5 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL0805.JPG
1.3 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL0806.JPG
2.5 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL0807.JPG
5 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL0807XNR.JPG
2.5 sec
f2.8
ISO
1600
Click to see D300LL1603.JPG
1/8 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL1604.JPG
1/4 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL1605.JPG
0.6 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL1606.JPG
0.8 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL1607.JPG
1.3 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL1607XNR.JPG
2 sec
f2.8
ISO
3200
Click to see D300LL3203.JPG
1/15 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL3204.JPG
1/6 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL3205.JPG
0.3 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL3206.JPG
0.6 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL3207.JPG
0.6 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL3207XNR.JPG
0.8 sec
f2.8
ISO
6400
Click to see D300LL6403.JPG
1/30 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL6404.JPG
1/13 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL6405.JPG
1/6 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL6406.JPG
1/5 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL6407.JPG
0.3 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300LL6407XNR.JPG
0.3 sec
f2.8
ISO
1600
AWB
Click to see D300LLawb1607.JPG
2.5 sec
f2.8

Low light. The Nikon D300 performed well here, able to capture usable images down to the 1/16 foot-candle light level (about 1/16 as bright as average city street lighting at night), at all ISO settings. Oddly though, color balance had a strong purple cast with the Auto white balance setting, as can be seen in the "ISO 1600 AWB" image in the bottom row of the table above, but manual white balance produced excellent color.

Noise is quite low up to ISO 1600, and even at ISO 3200 and 6400, there's still a lot of detail to work with when high ISO NR is set to "Off" (which still applies some filtering at ISOs over 3200). The D300 gives you 4 options for high ISO noise reduction: Off, Low, Normal and High, so you have some flexibility in deciding how much noise to trade for detail. Except for the "No NR" shots, these were all shot using the Normal NR setting, and Long Exposure NR was enabled, so was applied to exposures longer than 8 seconds. There are a few hot pixels visible at high ISOs and very low light levels when NR is set to Off, but not as many as we normally see.

The D300's autofocus system also performed well here, able to focus on the subject down to below the 1/16 foot-candle light level with its AF assist light turned off, and in total darkness with it enabled. Keep in mind that the longer shutter speeds here demand the use of a tripod to prevent any blurring from camera movement. (A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy.)

(Note: Focusing -- These shots were taken with the 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at 70mm and f/2.8. The depth of field was thus very shallow, so not all parts of the test box will be in focus at the same time.)

How bright is a foot-candle? The one foot-candle light level that this test begins at roughly corresponds to the brightness of typical city street-lighting at night. Cameras performing well at that should be able to snap good-looking photos of street-lit scenes.

NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) Digital SLRs like the Nikon D300 do much better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects.

Output Quality

Print Quality
Superb print quality, great color, good 20x30 inch prints, excellent 13x19 inch ones. ISO 1,600 images are surprisingly good at 8x10, even better at 5x7.

Output from the Nikon D300 was good enough to produce good-looking 20x30 inch prints, and tack-sharp 13x19 inch prints. At 20x30, its images were a little softer looking, but would be more than OK when seen at the viewing distances typical for such large prints. As noted elsewhere in this review, the D300 rewards RAW shooters with really excellent detail when its NEF files are processed through a good RAW converter. The difference between camera JPEGs and those from RAW isn't as stark as with some cameras we've tested lately, but the results are well worth the effort if you care about extracting every last bit of information from your images.

High ISO images were better than we'd expected, the D300 clearly has an edge on the D200 in terms of high-ISO performance (we'd estimate about a full f-stop's worth of improvement), despite the new model's smaller pixels. D300 images shot under incandescent lighting (always the tougher test) looked great when printed at 8x10 inches, all the way up to ISO 3200. At ISO 3200 and that size, there was a little bit of noise present, but we had to look close to see it (closer than you'd normally view a print of that size), and it was very fine-grained.

The Nikon D300's noise processing at high ISOs varies quite a bit, depending on the setting you're using. At the low setting (our personal preference), a little fine-grained noise creeps in at ISO 1,600 and 3,200, but it's pretty minimal, and fine subject detail is preserved very well. The Normal noise reduction setting almost entirely eliminates the noise (even at ISO 3,200), but loses a lot of fine detail in the process. The High setting leaves images very clean, but also very soft, with most fine detail gone. As noted, the Low setting was our favorite, it produced surprisingly clean images that still contained loads of fine detail.

Shots under daylight lighting at high ISOs looked even better, you could arguably make 13x19 inch prints from ISO 3,200 shots. There'd definitely be noise present, but when seen from normal viewing distances, it'd be hard to see. Very impressive!

Color-wise, the Nikon D300 did very well. At its default settings, its color (particularly reds) was a bit more saturated looking than that of the D200, but we think it'd be in an acceptable range for most shooters. Green and orange shades in particular were brighter than the D200's somewhat undersaturated handling of those colors, but the overall effect was pretty pleasing. (If you like less-saturated color, just take the saturation adjustment down a notch.) Hue accuracy was good, better than that of the D200 by a nose. A very good performance overall.

Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon i9900 studio printer, and on the Canon iP5200 here in the office. (See the Canon i9900 review for details on that model.)

 

The images above were taken from our standardized test shots. For a collection of more pictorial photos, see our Nikon D300 Photo Gallery.

Recommended Software: Rescue your Photos!

Just as important as an extra memory card is a tool to rescue your images when one of your cards fails at some point in the future. We get a lot of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. Memory card corruption can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobody's immune. A lot of "lost" images can be recovered with an inexpensive, easy to use piece of software though. Given the amount of email I've gotten on the topic, I now include this paragraph in all my digital camera reviews. The program you need is called PhotoRescue, by DataRescue SA. Read our review of it if you'd like, but download the program now, so you'll have it. It doesn't cost a penny until you need it, and even then it's only $29, with a money back guarantee. So download PhotoRescue for Windows or PhotoRescue for Mac while you're thinking of it. (While you're at it, download the PDF manual and quickstart guide as well.) Stash the file in a safe place and it'll be there when you need it. Trust me, needing this is not a matter of if, but when... PhotoRescue is about the best and easiest tool for recovering digital photos I've seen. (Disclosure: IR gets a small commission from sales of the product, but I'd highly recommend the program even if we didn't.) OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review...

Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Nikon D300 with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!

Print the exposure page for the Nikon D300 digital camera reviewPrint this Page

Note: For details, test results, and analysis of the many tests done with this camera, please click on the tabs at the beginning of the review or below.

Follow Imaging Resource

Purchase memory card for Nikon D300 digital camera
Enter this month to win:

1 $300 Adorama Gift Certificate

2 $200 Adorama Gift Certificate

3 $100 Adorama Gift Certificate