The 12.3-megapixel Nikon D300 digital SLR is finally here, but how does it improve on the already acclaimed D200?
Nikon D300 Review
Step up the Nikon D300, replacting the Nikon D200, which is aimed at ‘the semi-professional and freelancer’; the newer D300 model is targeted at ‘pros on a budget’ and is claimed to deliver resolution suitable for commercial and stock photography. As the DSLR market has matured, so the manufacturers have had to adapt their marketing. Traditionally, models such as the Nikon D100 or Canon EOS 20D were aimed at the semi-pro or enthusiast photographer, who could invest enough cash and commitment in their hobby/profession to spend over £1,000 on their camera. With so-called ‘entry-level’ DSLR cameras now available for around £300 to £400, even consumers with a passing interest in photography are buying sophisticated and capable cameras.
For the enthusiast too, the more hard-wearing cameras are generally available for less than £1,000 – just think of the Sony Alpha 700, Canon EOS 40D or Pentax K10D – which leaves a large gap in the market between those and the serious money pro cameras.
So how does the Nikon D300 justify its £1300 price tag, anddoes it cater for the entry level professional market? The What Digital Camera Nikon D300 review investigates all…
Features & Design
Nikon D300 review – D300 vs D200
Nikon has kept the essence of the D200 in the D300, offering a similar body constructed of tough but light magnesium alloy, which differs only minutely in dimensions and weight.
Nikon D300 review – New sensor
At the D300’s heart beats a new 13.1MP sensor that allows a shooting resolution of 12.3MP. This sensor uses the Nikon DX format, commonly known as APS-C by everyone else. It’s worth noting that Nikon now has two sensor sizes: DX, featured here and in previous Nikon DSLRs, and the new FX format, as found in the ‘full frame’ Nikon D3.
Nikon D300 review – The switch to CMOS
For the first time, with both these new cameras, Nikon has used CMOS type sensors instead of CCD. Typically CMOS sensors use less power than CCD, but Nikon has also added other new technologies to the sensor. First is a 12-channel parallel readout, essentially providing faster data transfer from the sensor to the processor, enabling a faster frame rate. In the case of the D300, the fastest shooting speed is 6fps, which increases to 8fps if the optional MB-D10 battery pack is used.
The second major addition is the design and construction of the micro lenses on the sensor. Optical lenses are used on all imaging sensors to help direct the photons of light to each photosite. On this chip those lenses are gapless, so any photons of light that would normally fall between the gaps are directed towards the nearest photosite. More information is therefore captured which should, theoretically, lead to better detail and less noise.
Nikon D300 review – EXPEED processor
The D300 also has a host of new features, as well as improved ones. Not least is the EXPEED processor. Obviously a switch in sensor type requires new technology to interpret and process the data, but EXPEED offers more than just that. The new processor, or ASIC, also allows lower power consumption and is a multi-functional engine, so offers more features than a standard processor including 14-bit A/D conversion with 16-bit image processing for finer and smoother tonal gradations. It also allows the use of Nikon’s Active D-Lighting and in-camera processing.
Nikon D300 review – New AF system
Other developments include a new AF system. Nikon has achieved a world first with the Multi-CAM 3500DX AF module. It features 51 AF points, including 15 cross-type sensors in the central patch. These types of AF points measure the subject using horizontal and vertical axes, so are better suited to detect small contrast changes in the subject and therefore focus more accurately.
For the 3D Matrix metering Nikon uses a 1,005 pixel RGB sensor in the pentaprism to analyse the data. This has now been greatly enhanced with a new feature called Scene Recognition, which recognises the subject and other details before the shutter is fired. This information is then used to improve the autofocus (along with the AF sensor), exposure and white balance. One way this works is in human identification. By recognising the shape and colours of a human face, the system recognises the important part to focus on.
Another example of the system’s improved performance is subject tracking. It appears that the AF tracks the subject as usual, but the RGB sensor can also track the subject based on its colour. This then allows the AF to predict the movement of the subject and provide accurate focus and exposure very quickly.
Nikon D300 review – White Balance
White Balance is also claimed to be more accurate. Typically the WB system will recognise an area with a high colour temperature and a high exposure value as white. In actual fact it could be a grey or blue sky. The new system can more accurately predict the white areas, thanks to the RGB sensor, which can detect the colour values of areas within the image, so is better equipped to register the pixel value of true whites over other bright objects.
Nikon D300 review – Custom Picture Control
A new Picture Control feature improves the previous Colour Mode and Optimise system. A choice of four settings is available: Standard, Vivid, Neutral and Monochrome. This is pretty much as before but you can now produce custom settings in the Nikon Capture NX software, or download them from Nikon’s website before transfering the new profiles to the camera. This allows personalised styles and looks to your images. Canon’s Picture Style is a similar tool, but Nikon’s lets you transfer the settings with other cameras, so a news photographer with two bodies can easily repeat the effect with both cameras, for example.
Nikon D300 review – Live View
One of the more noticeable upgrades is the 3in LCD screen offering 170° viewing and 920,000 dots, the highest resolution of any camera bar the Nikon D3. And, following models from Olympus, Panasonic and Canon, the D300 allows live preview through the LCD. It also offers two modes, tripod and handheld. In tripod mode the AF uses contrast detection, with full AF point operation, and includes the option to enlarge the view for precision focusing. It also allows viewing and focusing through a PC monitor using the Camera Control Pro 2.0 software. In handheld mode the focus options are more limited, with TTL phase detection AF, and the active focus point determined by the AF.
Unlike the Canon EOS 40D or the Sony Alpha 700, there are no scene modes to go with the PASM quartet. The top shutter of 1/8000sec matches that of any other pro spec camera, while the options of wireless transmission via the WT-4 transmitter and wireless flash using Nikon Speedlites.
Handling & Performance
Nikon D300 review – Durable Construction
The D300 body is tough and heavier than the polycarbonate entry-level cameras thanks to its magnesium alloy construction. However, if you’re upgrading from say, the Nikon D80, it won’t take you long to master the abundant controls and features. The large LCD on the top-plate allows for easy viewing of shooting info, though we prefer the brighter and larger rear LCD-based displays of Sony and Olympus models. Most of the essential shooting settings can be easily accessed via the body and its well-placed set of buttons and dials. A pair of front and rear command dials lets you easily change aperture, shutter, ISO and so on, which allow the right-hand thumb and forefinger to easily and quickly adjust camera settings without taking your eye away from the viewfinder.
Nikon D300 review – AF Speed
The new AF system is as fast as any camera we’ve seen. The options to control the AF points are situated via a dial on the back, with a thumb pad to move the selection around the frame. Autofocusing generally works very well, and on the odd occasion when it fails, it’s a cinch to change to single AF points and compose.
Nikon D300 review – Buffer Control
The fast frame rate is maintained almost continually, and when it slows down, due to the buffer filling up, simply taking your finger from the shutter release then resuming shooting brings everything back to full speed. In this way, the D300 will pretty much shoot at full speed until the card is full (based on highest quality JPEG settings). It’s a bit slower when shooting Raw or Raw + Jpeg, but still useful. Even in TIFF mode, We could shoot ten continuous frames at high speed before the buffer stopped us.
Nikon D300 review – Viewfinder
Another impressive feature is the viewfinder. With approximately 100% viewing coverage, this is one of the best we’ve seen: bright, clear and a high enough viewpoint for spectacle wearers to see the whole frame. An alternative to the viewfinder is the live view mode, accessed by the same dial on the left of the camera as the drive modes. We believe live view is at its most useful when the screen can be tilted or flipped, as on the Panasonic L10 or Olympus E-3. As the LCD is fixed, the live view works best when the camera is on a tripod. As for the LCD in general, it’s a corker. In playback or live view mode, the image is clear, while zooming in on details really lets you check sharpness.
The menus follow Nikon’s standard design, with a bright clear interface, enhanced by a useful set of help options to explain the features and settings. Simply pressing the ‘?’ button at whichever feature you’re looking at will bring up a brief explanation of its function.
Nikon D300 review – Function Button
An interesting and effective idea is a new function button on the front, situated on the right that allows, at default, quick exposure bracketing. It can also be customised for other functions via the menu. Placing it here is slightly fiddly, but with practice it’s easy to choose between three or five frame bracketing and ±0.3-5EV exposure bracketing.
Finally a word about battery power. We shot several hundred images over a couple of weeks and didn’t needed to recharge once – which, we think you’ll agree, isn’t bad at all.
Image Quality & Value For Money
Nikon D300 review – Image Quality
The Nikon D300 has a JPEG engine of the EXPEED processor and can produce some fantastic JPEGs, and there’s a definite improvement over earlier models. However, as expected, it’s the Raw files that offer the most opportunity for sparkling results, especially if using Nikon NX or Adobe’s Raw engine in Photoshop or Lightroom.
Nikon D300 review – Exposure
There aren’t many instances where the D300 gets it wrong, with consistent exposures time and again. There are times when bright skies can fool the meter, but I rarely had to resort to exposure compensation and when I did, it was during particularly tricky lighting.
Nikon D300 review – Image Noise
There’s little to criticise, with exceptional noise control throughout the 300’s ISO range. In fact, we would say that visually, this has the best noise control we’ve have seen yet on a DSLR.
Nikon D300 review – Tone & Contrast
There’s so much information recorded on the D300’s 12MP sensor that bringing out the full tonal range from the Raw files is easy, even in the deepest shadow areas.
Nikon D300 review – Colour & White Balance
Overall the WB is pretty spot on, though we wouldn’t say it’s perfect. Images shot in artificial light maintain a warmth rather than a neutrality, though some may like the look. The built-in flash, typically of these units, is too cold, though.
Nikon D300 review – Sharpness & Detail
Hooking the Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8 zoom lens up to the D300 body, we managed to produce exceptionally sharp and detailed images. Thanks to the high-resolution sensor, detail even in extreme cases is maintained and crisp.
Nikon D300 review – Value For Money
Nikon D300 review – Little to Criticise
Though the Nikon D300 isn’t a cheap DSLR camera, it has so much going for it that there’s little that can be criticised. Its nearest competitor in the current crop is the Sony Alpha A700 – which scored an impressive 91% in the December issue, is a lovely camera and £200 cheaper – but the Nikon D300 and its added value of access to the Nikon system adds a huge number of brownie points.
Nikon has really done proud with the D300. Finally here is a camera that surpasses the capabilities of the Nikon F6 film camera, and at a price that, while not cheap, is comparable to a pro film camera and relatively affordable. That?s important, because pros and enthusiasts can now get a decent quality camera without investing several thousand pounds and know it will do ? and stand up to ? the job. From the D300’s handling and performance to the final output, the Nikon D300 is an impressive camera and excels in recording detail, faithful colour and suppressing noise. All in all, the D300 is one of the best digital cameras ever put to review by What Digital Camera.