I got my D300 in december 2007, trading in the D200 I had before. Since this camera has so many features, I dont want to call this a review, it would be incomplete in many ways. I will simply write about my impressions and experiences in a somewhat random, unstructured way.
Overall, I think the D300 feels like a black “GTI” version of the D200, to use an analogy from the world of cars. Tighter – the body feels a slight notch above the already very good D200 in build quality and finish. Faster – in fps (6-8 vs 5), shutter response, autofocus. Higher performance – excellent image quality at high ISOs, more resolution (12 mp vs 10 mp). Just as a good GTI model can challenge far more costly sports cars, a D300 can be an alternative to more expensive gear for action and sports photography. And it is actually more black than the D200 – the paint is a shade darker…
Like the D200, the D300 is noticably beefier and heavier than all non-pro Nikon DSLRs. If you are planning on trading up from a D40/60 series, D50 or D80 you should be aware of this. Also – the 17-55 2.8 seems like a natural choice as a normal zoom for a D300. But the combo is heavy, and one thing to consider is adding a lighter alternative for a walk-around lens. I often use my 18-55 II for this.
NEF or jpegs with D300?
Here is a comparision between a NEF-file converted to jpeg in View NX and a jpeg direct from the camera. The image was made with the 70-200VR lens, bounce flash with the SB400, F 5.0 and ISO 1600 (the auto ISO function raised the ISO to compensate for the lack of flash power).
Larger image here, NEF to the left, jpeg to the right.
It is possible to see a small difference, but to me it is so small, that I for the most part shot jpegs with my D300. Of course I am aware that NEF/RAW files has a lot of other advantages besides resolution, with much larger latitude for post processing, adjustable white balance etc. In my film days I used slides and high sensitive black & white films, which have a narrow latitude, so I try to nail the exposure and bracket in tricky conditions.
The D300, like the D40, exposes on the bright side. My guess is that it is optimized for NEF/RAW files, which are tolerant of overexposure. I usually set mine to -0.3 or -0.7 to compensate.
The D300 has excellent high ISO performance. Much better than D200, compared to the very good D40 I think they are about equal to ISO 1600, at ISO 3200 and above, the D300 is better.
(A comparision at ISO 3200 in difficult light, 100 percent crops, D40 to the left, D300 to the right. NR off on both cameras. See here.)
One important advice: The high ISO NR setting on the D300 has four levels – none, low, normal, high. The default setting is normal, which is too heavy handed in my opinion. Setting it to low or none gives a better balance between controlling the noise and retaining details.
ISO 3200 with 100 percent crop:
For full size, click here.
More samples, larger images and crops here.
B&W in camera
If you use the B&W setting, you can experiment with even higher ISO settings, with a granular moody noise structure that reminds of high speed film.
ISO 12800 (6400 underexposed one stop, compensated in postprocessing):
Larger image here.
This feature protects highlights and lifts up shadows. The effect is subtle but noticable. Here is a comparision (ADL amount normal). The original scene:
Link to image without ADL. Link to image with ADL.
There is a difference in exposure, choosed by the D300. Without ADL the parameters are 1/60s, F4. With ADL they are 1/80s, F4.5. Yet the ADL-version looks brighter.
I often use ADL as a safety net in contrasty scenes. In this image I think the ADL made a good job preserving the white nuances.
Here I think the ADL helped with the balance between shade and sunlight.
The downsides to ADL is that it can increase noise and give somewhat washed out images in some cases.
Blue sky noise?
There have been some reports about blue sky noise at the lowest ISO settings, especially in combination with the Active D-Lightning feature. I cant say I have had any problems with this. Here are two samples with blue skies and ADL.
For full size with 100 percent crops, click here.
For full size with 100 percent crop, click here.
The advanced AF system is one of the major features of the D300. The first setting I tried for continous shooting with focus tracking was AF-C, 51 pt dynamic. It has worked so well with anything I have tried – running dogs, skiing, soccer, runners – that I havent seen any reason to change them. Predictably, the AF is very fast with the professional grade 70-200VR 2.8 lens, but also surprisingly fast with the low cost 55-200VR and the 18-200VR. (See my mini reviews of these lenses).
There are many AF-C tracking samples from that series here.
Cost efficient high speed shooting
With the optional MB-10 the D300 can shoot as fast as 8 fps, a speed previously reserved for top of the line sports cameras. The combo brings back memories of my old F3/MD4 combination from the 80s. At 5.5 fps it was the fastest pro camera at the time (excluding some exotic custom built solutions with fixed mirrors). The motor was not only fast, it was extraordinarily smooth, the feeling of high mechanical precision made it a joy to shot with. But of course the advances in technology has brought advantages, mainly the AF and high ISO performance. With skill and anticipation you could get great action shots also with the old gear, but there is no doubt that you get a lot more keepers on a session with todays tools.
If you add a 70-200VR 2.8 lens to the D300/MB-10 you have a very powerful tool for shooting almost any kind of sports. High speed shooting at 8 fps, fast AF with great tracking, fast focusing 2.8 sharp zoom with FOV 105-300 in FF terms, great high ISO performance, high resolution 12 mp with lots of room for cropping. Not much to complain about.
To illustrate the crop ability – the whole image:
Final usage- it looked fine on the finished product.
Well, there is a downside – weight. After about half an hour of a soccer game you may long for a minopod, although I personally never use one, prefering to be as mobile as possible.
The MB-10 is well made, of the same magnesium alloy as the D300 body. With the MB-10 attached and AA batteries inserted the D300 of course gains in quite a bit in weight, going up to 1429 g as you can see on the scale.
The weight seems comparable to pro cameras with integrated vertical grips (Nikon D3 1240g without battery, Canon 1D3 1335g with battery, Canon 1D2 1565g with battery). But personally, I really prefer lighter cameras (se my review of Nikon D40), so I only use the grip when I want to boost the fps. A note: If you use ADL or auto-ISO, the shooting speed goes down to 7.5 fps.
Image quality and build quality
I like the default colors, and have not the used the many customization options. The default gives saturated and punchy images – clearly more so than the D200. With the D200 I usually had to increase the punch in postprocessing, with the D300 it is often enough with just a small bit of sharpening. You can see a small sample gallery from the D300 here.
The D300 has a lot of settings. One way to simplify is by using the My Menu feature. I have ADL and Auto ISO there, for easy access.
So how could the D300 be better? It could be smaller, lighter and more quiet like the D40. But otherwise it is hard to fault. The market for semipro/pro crop DSLRs became a hornets nest with the releases of Olympus E3, Canon 40D and D300 roughly about the same time. Against its very worthy competitors the D300 offers the most solidly built core system in my opinion. A D300 system with a 17-55 2.8, a 70-200 2.8 VR, a TC17 thrown in for reach, and a MB-10, has more metal in it than anything similar from the competitors.
Another aspect that witness about Nikons ambitions with this model is the similarity of the controls between the D300 and the D3 (and likely the rumoured D700), which makes it easier to work in tandem or switch between the models.
Overall – a solid choice and a natural candidate for “The most advanced APS-C DSLR on the market”-title.