Nikon D300

D300

Edit: This blog has moved to http://dslr-video.com/blogmag. Please visit me there.

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).
nefjpg
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.

Noise performance
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.

Some samples. ISO 6400:
piano

ISO 3200:
bread
ISO 3200:
gura
ISO 3200 with 100 percent crop:
kran
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):
bw1
Larger image here.

Active D-Lightning
This feature protects highlights and lifts up shadows. The effect is subtle but noticable. Here is a comparision (ADL amount normal). The original scene:
adl
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.
whites
Larger image.

Here I think the ADL helped with the balance between shade and sunlight.
blad
Larger image.

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.
blue1
For full size with 100 percent crops, click here.
blue3
For full size with 100 percent crop, click here.

Autofocus
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).
af1
Larger image.

There are many AF-C tracking samples from that series here.

afb1
Larger image.
afc1
Larger image.
afd
Larger image.

Cost efficient high speed shooting
comboa
f3With 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.
combo1
To illustrate the crop ability – the whole image:
precrop
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.
pro
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.

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9 Responses to “Nikon D300”

  1. Jun Borromeo Says:

    I’ve been thinking of upgrading from D80 to D300. Your review has been very helpful. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Nice review/thoughts about the Nikon D300. This is what DPREVIEW should be about.

    I feel that to get the best out of the D300, you must master the picture controls, preferably in RAW. (Easier to make instant live changes).

    Regarding the overexposure, I find that the culprit is sometimes the brightness setting in the picture control. You can’t believe the difference this has on some images. You might require a third to half a stop of exposure with the brightness at -1.

  3. Great review of D300—Much more hands-on than most that I have read.

    Thanks for your effort.

    johnh

  4. RichardG Says:

    Hi. This blog has been very helpful. Your writing and photos are excellent. Your comments and analysis are well presented and informed. I have read this blog after I bought a D40, before I went on safari and as I have considered lenses.

    I am reading it now because I am thinking about a DX00 – and keeping the D40. A few questions, please. At ISO 1600, how does the D200 compare to the D40? Also was the D200 better at exposures than the D300. The D40 constantly requires an adjustment of -.03 to – .07 or more. I was hoping for a camera which has a more accurate meter.

    Also, I was wondering if you could comment on the numerous posts I have read about the skin tone of the D300 and D200.

    Thanks again. I have bookmarked this site, I like it so much.

    Richard

  5. Thanks very much for the nice words.
    As for the questions: The D40 is better at ISO1600. D200 is good to about ISO 1250 (IMO of course). The D200 has in my experience better metering than both D40 and D300, with less tendency to overexposure.
    Cant really say about the skintones, but since other colors are good, I think they should be ok.

  6. Jonathan Brayshaw Says:

    This is the best review of the D300 I’ve read and I include the usual suspect sites in this. Also, your images are absolutely mindblowing. As a very happy D300 owner myself, you have really done the product justice. In my opinion it is by far the best camera that Nikon has made and wipes the floor with all the Canon D-SLRs in the same price bracket.

  7. Per,

    a great review and I second the comments on the images.

    I had hoped the improvement on the D300 would have been the D90, but it is not 😦 The only thing I really wanted from the D300 in the D90 was the AF system. So now I am considering upgrading my D80 to a D300 or instead buy the 70-200 VR. I don’t think I can afford both.

    P.S. Skulle du kunna skicka mig ett e-mail, om det är ok för dig att mejla lite om 70-200 och D300? I en perfekt värld, skulle jag ha både 70-200 och D300, men det är att tänja budgeten väl långt, tror jag. Jag är trots allt bara en hobbyist.

  8. Hi Per,

    How is the performance of the MB-D10 on the D300 with AAbatteries in cold Scandinavian weather? Will they last all day outdoor when it’s freezing and doing action photography?

    kind regards,
    Fred
    The Netherlands

  9. I havent used them in cold weather really, only in warm conditions. The first time I used AA batteries I think they lasted a long time – a whole day of very intense shooting. The second time I thought they run out rather fast, after only an hour or so.
    For dependeable performance it might be better with NC batteries or probably best – the EN-EL4A/MH-21/BL-3 kit – a bit expensive though.

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