With the Nikon D300 being as close to a classic digital camera as you can get, Richard Sibley looks back at seven years of shooting with it and considers what a possible D400 could offer

Nikon D300 at a glance:

  • 12.3-million-pixel, DX-format, APS-C-sized CMOS sensor
  • Nikon F mount
  • ISO 100-6400 (expanded)
  • 3in, 920,000-dot LCD screen
  • 51-point AF system
  • 147 x 114 x 74mm
  • 825g (body only)
  • Around £350 used (body only)

Image: I have taken the D300 all over the world, including a visit to Cuba

I had only been working at AP for a month when the Nikon D300 was released in 2007. Sadly, I couldn’t make the press launch for the camera because I was in New York. It was late summer, humid and stormy, and I was walking the streets of Manhattan taking photos on my Nikon D70. Remembering that Nikon was about to launch two professional cameras, one of which was rumoured to have an APS-C-sized sensor, I headed to a coffee shop near Madison Square Garden to view the AP website and see what had been announced. I was pretty sure that whatever it was would be my next DSLR – a reward to myself to celebrate my new job as technical writer.

As I sat and read the news story while avoiding the storm that was bouncing rain off the pavement outside, I knew that I would be ordering a D300 as soon as my feet were back on UK soil.

Nikon D300 – Features

Image: Modern raw processing has done an excellent job with this image of the New York skyline

A few weeks later my new camera arrived, and I instantly became a fan. Sometimes you just click with a camera because it just feels right. The D300 is one such camera, as is the recent Fujifilm X-T1. The D300’s magnesium-alloy body feels reassuringly tough – something that I would appreciate many times in the life of the camera. As far as I am concerned, it is close to perfect in terms of DSLR design, which is why, like me, so many D300 owners are hankering after an almost like-for-like replacement.

At its launch, the D300 was almost ideal for the enthusiast photographer. Its 12.3-million-pixel, APS-C-sized sensor was only matched in its class by the Sony Alpha 700, which was released around a month earlier. The D300 had a slightly better resolution compared to the 10-million-pixel Canon EOS 40D and Pentax K10D, and even its predecessor, the D200. For me, though, the doubling of pixel count from my elderly 6-million-pixel D70 was a huge leap.

All the camera’s buttons and dials are just where you want them. The front and back wheel controls make it easy to change exposure settings, and the exposure compensation and sensitivity buttons are easily within reach. Even today, the specification of the D300 holds its own. It has a shooting rate of 6fps – even 8fps if you use the optional MB-D10 battery grip – and the 3D matrix metering and AF tracking are still among the best systems developed for a DSLR. In fact, the 51-point AF system is still used in the current Nikon D7100.

With such a feature set, I have found that the D300 really can tackle almost any task I have thrown at it. Landscapes, low-light gig photography, macro, sports, landscape, travel, street photography – I’ve tried them all and the camera has always served me well. In fact, many professionals who used the Nikon D3 bought the D300 as a second body.

Image: The D300 has served me as well in the studio as it has on my travels

Of all my photographs, though, it was when travelling that I really put my D300 through its paces. I’ve been to Barcelona, Rome, Venice, Berlin, Cologne, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Malta, Greece, New York, and to Vancouver five times, and the D300 has always been my faithful travelling companion.

I have to hold my hands up and admit that most of my travel images have been taken on just two lenses: a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D that I bought for a very reasonable £50 from a former colleague, and the original Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR lens.

I know the 18-200mm lens is hardly the pinnacle of optical excellence, but it is perfectly acceptable when used correctly. And, of course, what the lens provides is convenience. With just two lenses I can take nearly all the travel images I could want, with the 50mm f/1.8D lens providing me with a great lens for low light, portraiture and landscapes with edge-to-edge sharpness. The two lenses have served me well, and combined with the Giottos Vitruvian tripod form a great travel kit.

These days, 12 million pixels may not seem like a lot – in fact, the closest current model in Nikon’s line-up, the D7100, has twice that pixel count on its sensor – but I have found this to be more than enough for my needs. I’ve printed images up to A3+ in size, and I have even printed quite a few A2 images. Having used the 36.3-million-pixel Nikon D800, I know what cameras like this are capable of in terms of resolved detail, but for making a nice print or two for a wall, the D300 does the job.

Commercially, too, the D300 has proved to be a good working camera. I have shot weddings for friends, had images printed in magazines (naturally), and have sold hundreds of stock images. Again, a camera with a higher resolution helps when shooting stock, because a larger image size makes more money, but most of my sales have been to people wanting images for internet use, and for this the D300 is a great tool.

Image: Taken with my D300 in a forest near Vancouver, this is surprisingly my best-selling stock image

The Nikon D300 – Key features

Many of the D300’s key features are still excellent today, despite the camera being nearly seven years old

Nikon D300S

In 2009, Nikon announced the launch of the D300S. Based on the D300, the new camera introduced an SD card socket alongside the original CompactFlash. It also added 720p HD video capture, with an external mic socket, a dedicated live view button, a virtual horizon feature, quiet release mode and a burst increase from 6fps to 7fps. Used versions of the D300S don’t cost much more than the D300, so are worth looking out for.

Nik Capture NX software was included for free when the camera was originally on sale. It is worth looking out for this, although all third-party raw-editing software should now be able to edit the D300’s NEF raw files.

AF system
The 51-point AF system features 15 of the more sensitive cross-type points in the centre, which are useful for sports and wildlife photographs.Wireless flash
The D300 is fully compatible with Nikon’s Creative Lighting System, with the pop-up flash capable
of being using as a commander to trigger and control other compatible flashguns.

The D300 has an impressive maximum shutter speed of 1/8000sec, and a start-up time of 0.13sec.

The D300 uses the 1,005-segment RGB metering system that has proved to be successful in a number of cameras.

Scrapes and repairs

My Nikon D300 has been through a few scrapes. On returning from Vancouver one year, I opened my hand luggage to find that the directional control on the rear of the camera had snapped off, no doubt after someone had crammed a bag against mine. A repair from Nikon sorted this out, but there were two repairs I made myself.

The first was replacing the battery door – a part that is notorious for breaking and falling off with heavy use. The second repair was more adventurous. The top-plate LCD glass had broken – although the LCD itself was fine, the glass had cracked. I sourced a replacement part and carefully used the heat from a hair-dryer and a scalpel to prise off the broken glass and replace it with the new self-adhesive piece. My D300 was like new again within about ten minutes.

Image: My D300 lies injured, having fallen on some rocks

However, the battery door again needed replacing after I dropped the camera when I slipped on some rocks in Hastings. I was out shooting images for an article on long-exposure seascapes when I clambered up some rocks after I had finished shooting. I slipped and my tripod quick-release caught on a rock, freeing the plate and causing my D300 to slip about 10ft down a rock onto the stones on the beach below.

It scratched the coating off the camera’s body, revealing the magnesium-alloy frame below. Sure, it lost some of its value, but it is these battle scars that tell a story. Amazingly, the damage to the camera was purely superficial, and the lens suffered only a cracked filter ring.

The Nikon D400

I’m in a fortunate position where I am never short of a new camera – it is one of the privileges of my job. However, the one camera that I would buy, should it materialise, would be the D400. It has been almost seven years since the D300 was released, and five years since the D300S, so it would seem the D400 is long overdue.

Time again, Nikon has said that the D7000 series is now the top of its APS-C-format line-up, and that anyone looking for a D300 replacement should turn to that camera. But while you can’t argue with any of the technology inside the D7000 and D7100, there are a few things that make the newer cameras feel different to the D300.

One of these is the buffer size. The D300 can shoot 45 12-bit raw images before the buffer starts to slow, compared to just nine raw images with the D7100. The build of the camera is also different: despite both cameras being made of magnesium alloy, the D300 feels sturdier – more ‘professional’, for want of a better phrase. Then there are the quick access buttons that are a feature of Nikon’s professional DSLR range. On the D300, these sit on the left of the top-plate. On the D7000, these are replaced with a mode dial, clearly announcing that the camera as targeted at the enthusiast and not the professional market.

So, what would we like to see on the so-far fictional camera? The D7100’s 24-million-pixel sensor would be my choice, along with its lack of an anti-aliasing filter, or even a 16.3-million-pixel APS-C sensor, which would make a D400 to the D4 what the D300 was to the D3. Whichever sensor is decided upon, I would like to see an improved design from the D300 sensor, offering lower noise levels and improved dynamic range.

The buffer and processing speed would have to offer at least the same 45 12-bit raw shots as the D300. The shooting rate should also be in line with the D300, perhaps even better – 8fps without a battery grip would be exceptional for an APS-C camera. In fact, Nikon could make it even faster at 10fps and target it at sports and wildlife photographers, for whom the 1.5x focal-length crop factor would be an interesting benefit.

A dual card socket for both SD and CompactFlash cards would also be desirable, although with read and write speeds of SD cards improving steadily, the CF card socket may not be as essential as
it was a few years ago. Also, while 1280×720-pixel HD video was one of the major additions to the D300S, any new camera would require 1920x1080p 50fps full HD capture. It is unlikely that Nikon would introduce 4K video for the first time in an APS-C-format camera, so that will have to wait until some time in the future.

The one thing I would not change is the build and handling. As I’ve said, for me, the D300 is as close to perfect as a DSLR body can get, and if Nikon could change the sensor, processor and buffer, but leave the body as it is, that would be great.

But will the D400 ever actually materialise? The honest answer is, I don’t know. There are constant rumours of a new professional APS-C-format DSLR to sit alongside the D7100, which may or may not be called the D400. Interestingly, the Canon EOS 7D is also long overdue an upgrade, so perhaps both companies are playing a game of chicken and seeing who will flinch first. Or perhaps the lack of a professional-level, APS-C DSLR from both indicates that the market has changed, and those who would have previously been looking at those cameras are now upgrading to full-frame DSLRs such as the Nikon D610 and Canon EOS 6D.

All I know is that I’m still happily using my Nikon D300, and will continue to do so for some time.