Nikon D300 SLR Review
Many of us have been patiently awaiting the successor to the ever popular D200 from 2006. Now, almost two years later, Nikon has delivered with their latest enthusiast dSLR (digital Single Lens Reflex) model, the 12.3 megapixel D300. Those of us who have been waiting for this next generation "enthusiast" dSLR, have been rewarded with a camera that betters the D200 in every respect, including resolution, image quality and responsiveness.
The D300's 12.3 megapixel images have more resolution than its predecessor, and this model uses a CMOS type DX format sensor compared to the D200's CCD type. But, the D300 is not only about resolution; it enjoys a host of features that have trickled down from Nikon's professional cameras like the new D3, including the use of a new 51 point autofocus sensor. In addition to these, the D300 also offers a variety of new features over the D200, including a self cleaning sensor, Scene Recognition metering system, ISO speeds up to 6400 with boost (in 1/3 stop increments), new image processing algorithms, sophisticated focus tracking using subject color, faster write speeds to memory cards, a much nicer 3-inch LCD and more.
Like its predecessor, the D300 is no lightweight, weighing in at just 5 grams lighter than the D200. The D300 weighed a hefty 3 - 3 1/2 pounds when we added the battery and the Nikkor 18-200mm f/2.5-5.6G ED AF-S VR lens we used for testing. The body construction is of professional quality, with a magnesium alloy chassis and body cover, and enhanced environmental sealing. The D300 is ergonomically designed and was very comfortable to hold, with the controls being positioned well over the body. This is a solid camera that offers a nice professional feel. Nikon upgraded the display used on this model to a new ultra-high resolution 3.0-inch (922,000 pixel) TFT LCD. A larger display also means a larger, more legible font size, making menu navigation a breeze (even for those with fading eyesight). The playback options include the ability to zoom in up to 27x and scroll to any desired location on an image, view multiple histograms (including RGB), detailed shooting info with a comment option, etc. Overall this new display is a welcomed addition and was a joy to use.
We found the upgraded eye-level viewfinder provided 0.94x magnification combined with 100% frame coverage. Past models only covered about 95% of the captured image. The viewfinder displays a wealth of exposure information, allowing you to keep your eye on the action while changing settings. You can also display grid lines to help with shot composition.
The D300's shooting performance is very robust. Shutter lag, the time delay between depressing the shutter and capturing an image was approximately 2/10 of a second when prefocused; with Autofocus Shutter lag running between 0.3 seconds to 0.8 seconds, depending on the degree of focus change required of the attached Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 ED AF-S VR lens. Live View slows this process, with the fastest observed AF time being approximately 0.9 seconds, usually running around 1 second. Shot to shot delay in Single shot mode averaged between 0.4 and 0.5 seconds without flash, and anywhere from 1 second for a closer subject, to as long as 8 seconds for a further away subject (when using the D300's built in flash).
The continuous shooting performance was also impressive. Shooting Large Fine JPEG images with a Kingston Elite Pro 133x 16GB CompactFlash card, we were able to capture 22 frames in 3.7 seconds before the camera started slowing down, leveling out at around 1.4 frames per second with a full buffer. Shooting raw using the default 12 bit setting with lossless compression, we were able to take 16 raw photos in 2.6 seconds before any slowdown, averaging approximately 1.4 seconds between photos after that with a full buffer (0.7 frames per second). A full buffer took approximately 15 seconds to clear using this Kingston 133x 16GB CF Card.
Although not available in 16GB size yet, if you want an even faster 266x card, we found the Sandisk Extreme IV to be a great performer in the D300. This card offered more photos in a burst, with faster full buffer frame rates and buffer flush times compared to the 133x cards we tested. We took over 65 Large/Fine JPEG images using a 2GB Sandisk Extreme IV card averaging 6.1 frames per second with no slowdown. This is a fast camera, and it's always ready to take another photo, even after shooting action using high speed bursts. It is always best to check the owners manual for the manufacturers' recommended memory cards for optimal performance from any camera.
Shooting raw using the same settings as above, with the Sandisk Extreme IV card, we were able to take 18 raw photos in 3.2 seconds before any slowdown, still taking 32 raw photos in 6.2 seconds, leveling off at approximately 3 frames per second with a full buffer. A full buffer took approximately 7.2 seconds to clear using this card. Nikon claims that by using the MB-D10 Grip or an AC Adapter that the additional power allows the camera's frame rate to increase to 8 frames per second. We were not able to test this for ourselves but if true, WOW that would be fast!
Note, if you want to use the new Live View feature, be aware that the LCD remained blacked out when shooting in continuous mode (in both hand held and tripod live view modes), limiting its usefulness. Given the slower Autofocus in Live View, display blackout using continuous mode, and a slower refresh rate than we're accustomed to seeing (compared to the Live view on some of the advanced point and shoot cameras), we don't see the current implementation of this feature as being much of an advantage; especially since the LCD is fixed and does not tilt.
The D300's ISO sensitivity is variable from 200 to 3200, with a variation between ISO steps of 1/3EV, 1/2EV or 1EV. The available ISO boost settings provide ISO equivalent sensitivities of ISO 4000, 5000, or 6400, which are very useful in lower light; with an extra setting for ISO100 available too (the base ISO speed in the normal range is ISO 200).
There are many easy to use options for focusing, including single or continuous servo AF, single focus area, dynamic AF, or select from either 11 or 51 focus points on the fly. Of course full manual focus is available, too. Custom Settings are provided to specify Release or Focus priority for both single and continuous AF modes.
There's a wide range of exposure options available, including Manual, Program AE with shift, Shutter speed priority up to 1/8,000 sec, Aperture priority, AE Bracketing, WB bracketing, exposure compensation of +/-5EV in 1/3EV steps, single frame drive mode or continuous at 3 to 6fps. The D300 offers three metering modes: 3D Color Matrix II, Center-weighted averaging (with your choice of the weighted area: 6mm, 8mm, 10mm, 13mm, entire frame) or 3mm Spot. Each of the three metering methods can be individually fine tuned as well. White balance options are also numerous with presets for Auto, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Direct Sunlight, Flash, Cloudy and Shade, direct selection of color temperature, plus five manual white balance presets you can save and later recall. The pre-programmed WB presets can also be fine tuned.
With a wealth of exposure settings and combinations of shooting parameters, the D300 can be a bit overwhelming. Thankfully, Nikon has provided a Shooting Menu Bank consisting of four independent areas in which you can store and later recall frequently-used settings, banks A through D. You can also rename these banks to fit the situation in which you use them (like Portrait for example), helping you to recall their purpose later. It also provides Custom Setting Banks to store unique combinations that can be later recalled, simplifying the management of the camera's Custom Settings. New to this model is the Picture Controls function, which allows you to share image processing settings with other D300 bodies (great for those professionals that have backup bodies) and software. Overall, this is a highly customizable camera.
The D300's predictive focus tracking feature worked quite well, and was able to produce a high percentage of usable in-focus shots of moving race cars in dim light; even shooting through fences. We found the same thing to be true shooting a baseball game through the fence, with the camera's AF system handling a moving subject just fine. The Focus Tracking with Lock On feature allows you to tune the camera so that it ignores abrupt focus changes for user specified periods of Short, Normal or Long. This helps the camera maintain focus on your subject when it is briefly obscured by another object passing through the frame (as we experienced shooting baseball and race cars through fences with posts and spectators briefly obscuring our subjects). Focus Tracking using Color information is another feature found in the D300, adding to the Autofocus System's reliability in tough conditions.
Our images showed that noise was scarce at sensitivity settings lower than ISO 400. Noise begins to appear at ISO 400 or higher, but the D300 provides in-camera Noise Reduction that is controlled by the camera's menu system at ISO 800 and up. High ISO NR can be set to Off, providing minimal cleanup at settings of HI 0.3 and higher; Low, Normal and High settings control the degree of Noise Reduction at settings of 800 and above. Just remember, the higher the level of Noise Reduction used, the greater the potential loss of fine image detail. We were pleased with the results and found this system to work extremely well using the camera's default Normal Noise Reduction setting. Please see our Samples page for examples of High ISO NR results on images taken throughout the ISO range. While it's likely that the D300's in-camera noise reduction will meet most photographers needs, those wanting the best quality may prefer to use a 3rd party application which will provide a great deal of user control over the noise removal process and generally better results.
Like the D200, we were happy to again have Nikon's 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR lens to test with the D300. It offers a very versatile focal length range of 27-300mm in 35mm equivalent field of view, moderate wide angle to telephoto. The 18-200 is not a professional lens, and image quality suffers a bit at its operating extremes. It exhibits a bit of vignetting, or light fall-off at the corners at full wide angle and wide open aperture. At full wide angle, it exhibits a moderate amount of barrel distortion, and as you zoom in more towards the full telephoto end, you can see some pin cushioning.
The corner softness present at wide open apertures generally disappears at f/8 and smaller, and overall image sharpness suffers at apertures of f/22 and smaller. Chromatic aberrations were well controlled throughout the zoom range, with only a very slight amount of purple fringing evident in very high contrast areas, mostly in image corners. Overall, we found the 18-200 to be a very good match for the D300, offering a versatile focal range from wide to long, usable in a wide variety of conditions; thanks to the built-in Vibration Reduction and the D300's excellent higher ISO speed performance.
Nikon has continued to improve image processing with newer generations of cameras, and we were pleased with the JPEG image quality using the camera's default settings. It's also obvious to us that Dynamic Range is improved over previous generations of Nikon dSLR models, with better ability to maintain highlight detail in difficult lighting.
The D300 has a regular PC flash sync connector so it can be used with any type of studio lights or external flash units. It also has a flash hot shoe to accommodate Nikon Speedlights, and Nikon claims compatibility with its SB-80DX/50DX/28DX products only in non-TTL mode. When paired with a flash like the Nikon SB-800 or SB-600 Speedlight, the D300 supports a variety of Nikon's Creative Lighting System features, including i- TTL flash control, Flash Value Lock, Auto FP High-Speed Sync (allowing flash with shutter speeds up to 1/8000 second), Wide-Area AF Assist Illumination, Flash Color Information Communication (providing the camera with the color temperature of the flash for white balance adjustment), and Advanced Wireless Lighting (allowing the built-in flash to be used as a commander unit for remote SB-800, SB-600 and SB-R200 Speedlights). The D300 offers five flash sync modes: Front-Curtain Sync (normal sync), Red-Eye Reduction, Red-Eye Reduction with Slow Sync, Slow Sync and Rear-Curtain Sync.
We found the built-in flash did well for most snap shots, with a useful range of about 16 feet at ISO 200 (full wide angle on the 18-200mm lens). It does not have enough power to illuminate the entire frame at the lens' 18mm focal length, exhibiting a bit of light fall-off at the corners. The lens hood should be removed when using the internal flash to prevent shading the flash output at the bottom of the image. Using an external flash unit, like the SB-600 we used during our testing, is highly recommended.
D200 owners looking to upgrade will be glad to know that the newer D300 is powered by the same Nikon EN- EL3e 7.4-volt, 1500mAh Li-ion battery. The camera manages its battery with intelligence, displaying the battery's state of charge, number of images captured (Pic meter) and charge life from within the setup menu. We did not fully deplete the EN-EL3e during our testing, despite taking over 900 images at one point between charges, even though we were using lens based Vibration Reduction, with frequent LCD use exploring the menu system and reviewing images.
Bottom line - Nikon's new D300 further raises the bar in the enthusiasts dSLR category. Offering a wealth of
features, plenty of customization options, 12.3 megapixels of resolution, upgraded 51-point Autofocus System,
a fast frame rate (when using a recommend 266x CF card) and excellent image quality, this model represents
Nikon's best effort so far in this market niche. At a price of approximately US$1799, it's not inexpensive,
but the D300's features and image quality justify the lofty price. We have no issues giving this camera our
highest recommendation; Well done Nikon.
Nikon has announced updated firmware versions for the D300
Details - Nikon Firmware A version 1.03 ; B version 1.03 for the Nikon D300
This A and B v.1.03 update incorporates the following improvements and fixes:
Details - Nikon Firmware Version 1.02 for the Nikon D300
This firmware update incorporates the following improvements and fixes:
For more information or to download v.1.02, please visit Nikon's Support site.
Sample Photos Page
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