The 12.3-megapixel Nikon D300 digital SLR is finally here, but how does it improve on the already acclaimed D200?
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.