DigitalCameraReview.com
Nikon D300 Review
by Jim Keenan -  1/28/2008

These are exciting times if you happen to shoot (or want to shoot) Nikon's prosumer or pro-bodied DSLRs. After months of rumor and rampant speculation, Nikon formally announced the much-anticipated pro body D3 on August 23, 2007. Somewhat of a surprise was the concurrent announcement of what most folks assumed to be the prosumer Nikon D300, ostensibly the follow-on to the D200. Both cameras reached the market near the end of November, with the much more limited production D3 still being hard to find if you don't qualify as a Nikon pro or weren't on the pre-order bandwagon back in August. The D3 is a singularly significant camera for Nikon – their first full-frame (FX) sensor DSLR – but that's a story for another day.

Nikon D300
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The D300 retains the familiar Nikon DX format sensor, which results in a 1.5X crop factor for any lenses (35mm film equivalent). I've owned and shot Nikon's flagship D2X for several years, and the prosumer D200 for almost as long, but with the arrival of the D300 the hierarchy of Nikon's DX sensor DSLRs has undergone a dramatic change: the D300 is the best of these digital Nikons. Better than the now less expensive D200, and better than the pro bodied D2X/Xs at a fraction of the cost. The D2X/Xs and D200 are still the great cameras they always were, but the D300 is just better. Maybe that's why Nikon ad copy makes no mention of anything other than "professional" when talking about the D300.


A CLOSER LOOK

The D300 features a new 12.3MP CMOS sensor and a 3-inch, 920,000 dot tempered-glass monitor with a live view shooting capability. The camera can shoot at 6 frames per second (fps) at full resolution with the standard battery (and 8 fps with optional power sources), faster than the D2X/Xs and D200's 5 fps. There's a new 51-point autofocus (AF) system and a Scene Recognition System that incorporates a 1005-pixel 3D Color Matrix Metering II exposure system that provides better exposure, auto white balance detection and AF performance. The D300 also features an integrated sensor dust reduction system, the first Nikon digital to do so. The camera body is of magnesium alloy construction with dust and moisture sealing, and the shutter has been rated for 150,000 cycles.

Long-time Nikon users will note that the traditional flash sync and 10-pin terminal caps have been replaced by rubber covers attached to the camera body a la the Nikon F6 – no more easily lost caps that are a feature of virtually every Nikon SLR/DSLR since the "F" debuted in 1959.

Dimensions are about 5.8 x 4.5 x 2.9 inches, with a shooting weight (body, battery and memory card) of about 2 pounds. The trick setup for the D300 is to add the MB-D10 multi-power battery pack. This accessory bumps the D300's dimensions and weight to 5.8 x 6 x 2.9 inches and 2 pounds, 12 ounces, respectively. But the pack allows the D300 to mount a second standard battery, or make use of AA batteries, or even the large capacity battery for the D2X/Xs or D3. More importantly, the pack also features a vertical shutter button and command dial, and with the optional AA or the large battery the continuous shooting rate goes up to 8 fps from the standard 6.

Nikon includes an EN-El3e battery and charger, USB and video cables, camera strap, monitor cover, body cap, rubber eyecup and CD-ROM software with each camera. For a limited time, Nikon will also include their excellent Capture NX software with each D300 – a nice touch for folks moving to the D300 from other Nikon digitals, since the earlier versions of NX won't process D300 NEF (Nikon Electronic Format, Nikon's RAW file type) files.

The camera will capture still images as JPEG, TIFF, NEF or NEF + JPEG. The NEFs can be captured as 12 or 14 bit, lossless compressed, compressed, or uncompressed. JPEGs are 1:4, 1:8 or 1:16 compression.


CAMERA FEATURES AND LAYOUT

The D300 will be largely familiar to D200 shooters, and any Nikon DSLR shooter will quickly feel at home with the camera as well. Nikon SLRs dating back to the legendary "F" have generally been blessed with good ergonomics, and the D series digitals have followed suit. The D300 has contours and tacky material in all the right places, and the fingers of the shooting hand fall naturally to a firm, comfortable grip with the forefinger positioned at the shutter button. Front and back shots of the D200 and D300 show the strong family resemblance; a top shot of the D300 and its control panel is also included. The D300 with the MB-D10 battery pack and my 30 year old Nikkor 85mm AI lens follows.

Nikon D300
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D200 front

Nikon D300
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D300 front

Nikon D300
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D200 back

Nikon D300
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D300 back

Nikon D300
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D300 top panel

Nikon D300
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D300 side view

Nikon D300
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D300 with battery grip and Nikon 85 AI lens


SHOOTING WITH THE D300

The D300 comes with default settings of Programmed auto exposure, center focus point, JPEG normal quality in Large image size, auto white balance, 200 ISO sensitivity and sRGB as the color space. In typical high performance DSLR fashion, there are numerous options to modify this basic shooting mix, but don't expect to find any scene modes that are part and parcel of the entry-level DSLR: Programmed auto, Aperture priority, Shutter priority and Manual are your only exposure options.

I typically shoot a basic JPEG – NEF combination in Adobe RGB, and did so for most of the shots in this review. However, here are a couple of JPEG fine shots with all other values at the default settings.

Nikon D300
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Nikon D300
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In-Camera Editing Tools

The D300 features a Retouch Menu that provides D-Lighting, red-eye correction, trim, monochrome, filter effects, color balance, image overlay and side-by-side comparison options. Any changes implemented by these options are made to a second image saved on the camera's memory card – the original is saved as well.

Monochrome offers the choice of black-and-white, sepia or cyanotype; filter effects provides warm and skylight filters. The D300's 3 inch monitor is a welcomed asset when performing in-camera changes. The large files produced by the 12+MP sensor allow for some aggressive cropping should the need arise.

Nikon D300
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Nikon D300
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Exposure Compensation

Exposure compensation of +/- 5 EV in 1/3 EV increments can be selected via external controls. The exposure value selected by the camera can be fine-tuned separately for each metering method from +/- 1 EV in 1/6 EV increments via internal menu. Just as with the D200 and D2X, exposure compensation is said to be "most effective when used with center-weighted or spot metering".

Somewhat related is an "Active D-Lighting" feature that can be activated via internal menu. This is a different tool than the "D-Lighting" option in the retouch menu – Active D-Lighting adjusts exposure before shooting to prevent loss of detail in highlight and shadow areas while adjusting mid tones to prevent overall image underexposure. D-Lighting optimizes the dynamic range after shooting.

Light Metering

3D Color Matrix II, Nikon's traditional center-weighted method, and spot metering options are available, with matrix being the default setting recommended for most situations. Matrix II does an excellent job in this regard – particularly the high contrast situations that can sometimes result in lost highlights. The D300 can still lose some highlights in extreme cases, but overall performance looks to be better than earlier D-series cameras in these conditions. I used to shoot surfers using center-weighted metering with some underexposure because of the dramatic dark water/white water contrast, but the D300 seems to do quite well with matrix on these same scenes. Here are multi pattern and center-weighted surf shots, with the center-weighted additionally being 1/3 EV underexposed and shot in "vivid" color mode (more about that later).

Nikon D300
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Matrix Metering

Nikon D300
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Center-Weighted Metering

Unlike the entry-level Nikon DSLRs, the D300 will meter with virtually any Nikkor "F" mount lens - a big plus for those of us who just can't part with our old glass. The 3D color matrix II metering is restricted to Nikon's type G, D or AF-S and AF-I lenses; matrix metering works with other Nikon AF lenses as well as AI-P, AI, AI-S, AI-modified or E series lenses; center weighted and spot metering are available with every lens except the 120mm Medical Nikkor and the few lenses designed for the Nikon F3AF camera body.

The D300 will accept and store data on up to nine non-CPU lenses (non CPU lenses are those without a microchip in the lens that informs the camera of lens settings) – by specifying lens data (focal length and maximum aperture) a variety of CPU functions may be accessed when using a non CPU lens. These functions include color matrix metering, improved precision for center-weighted and spot metering methods, and i-TTL (intelligent through the lens) balanced fill flash.

Focus

The D300 has the new Nikon Multi-CAM 3500 focus system (as does the D3), which can utilize up to 51 focus points, 15 of which are cross-type sensors. Default value is 9 points, with 21, 51 and 51 points with 3-D tracking available for user selection. Nikon recommends 9 points for situations where there is time to compose the photo or the subject is moving predictably (runners, race cars on a track); 21 points for subjects moving unpredictably (football players); 51 points for subjects moving quickly (birds) and 51 points with 3-D for subjects moving erratically from side to side (tennis players). Even though there can be up to 51 focus points on the screen, only the active point selected by the user is displayed – the screen is remarkably uncluttered.

Focus acquisition speed is world class, although the D2X seems just a tiny bit quicker. The D300 in turn seems just a tiny bit quicker than the D200. "Tiny bit" might be misleading – the D2X/200 cameras will not disappoint with their focus speed, so the D300 is in good company.

Tracking moving subjects seems better with the D300 – those AF options seem to hold the target more consistently than the 11 point systems of the D2X and D200, which are pretty good in their own right. Shooting surfers with the D2X or D200, I'd occasionally have a shot go soft due to focus, but the D300 just doesn't seem to miss.

Monitor

The D300's monitor is the best I've seen, used, or heard of on a digital camera – it's big and bright enough to be of use for image composition and capture in direct daylight conditions that can play havoc with most other monitors. There are seven brightness levels available.

When using the monitor in "live view" to compose or capture images, there are modes for hand-held and tripod (tripod differs primarily in the focus system employed by the camera), and the camera can capture in single, continuous low, or continuous high speed shooting modes. The monitor goes dark during capture, and the camera returns to viewfinder mode after the shooting sequence is completed. Shooting via live view is a feature most users familiar with DSLRs will likely not employ often, but it does offer the ability to compose shots at awkward angles where the use of the viewfinder becomes problematic.

The monitor is excellent for image review and modification in good lighting conditions.

Flash

The D300 has a strong, manually-deployed built-in flash and hot-shoe. The typical high performance mix of flash modes includes front curtain synch, red eye reduction, red eye reduction with slow synch, slow synch, and rear curtain synch. As good as the built-in flash may be, serious flash users will want to consider Nikon's excellent SB series external flashes for the D300. The built-in flash carries a Guide Number of 56 feet at 200 ISO.

Recycle times are excellent for the built-in flash – using manual control to force a full power flash resulted in a fully recharged flash in about 1.5 seconds.

Color

Color reproduction in the D300 is accurate and pleasing at the default "standard" color setting. There are also "neutral" and "vivid" color options as well as "monochrome" (black and white). The color settings may be further enhanced with saturation and hue controls. The monochrome setting has yellow, orange, red and green "filter" options.

Here are examples of standard, vivid, and vivid with maximum (+3) saturation. The D300 can capture the scene "as is" or with almost surrealistic color should the user desire.

Nikon D300
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Standard Color

Nikon D300
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Vivid Color

Nikon D300
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Vivid +3 Color

Vivid color settings are probably best left to images where people are not a major part of the mix, such as landscapes – skin tones get too warm for my taste in vivid mode, particularly if you add in additional saturation. Overall, the D300 seems to have more appealing and broader range of color reproduction than the earlier cameras.

ISO

The D300 has a nominal ISO range of 200 to 3200, with additional 1 EV high (6400 ISO) and low (100 ISO) settings that can be reached in 1/3 EV increments. Compared to the D200 and D2X/Xs, the D300 offers better high ISO performance. I've felt for some time that the D200 noise levels were about 1 EV better than the D2X (a D200 shot at 400 ISO looked similar in noise to a D2X at 200), and the D300 looks to be about 1 EV better than the D200, perhaps a bit more. Suffice it to say the D300 is the best DX sensor Nikon to date, despite packing on 2 million more pixels than the D200 and essentially matching the D2X's pixel density.

Here's shots of a Gretag-Macbeth color checker card at various ISO sensitivities, and "real world" images at the same ISOs.

Nikon D300
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ISO 100

Nikon D300
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ISO 200

Nikon D300
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ISO 400

Nikon D300
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ISO 800

Nikon D300
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ISO 1600

Nikon D300
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ISO 3200

Nikon D300
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ISO 6400

 

Nikon D300
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ISO 100

Nikon D300
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ISO 200

Nikon D300
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ISO 400

Nikon D300
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ISO 800

Nikon D300
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ISO 1600

Nikon D300
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ISO 3200

Nikon D300
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ISO 6400

White Balance

Auto white balance is the default setting on the D300 and works well in a variety of situations using natural light or flash; there are also settings for incandescent light, seven sources of fluorescent light, direct sunlight, flash, cloudy, shade, color temperature and custom white balance settings. White balance of the individual settings can be further fine-tuned by means of amber-blue and magenta-green axes that appear when the settings are selected via internal menu.

The D300 shot a bit warm using Auto WB with incandescent lighting, but was spot-on with the incandescent setting under the same conditions. It always pays to try and match camera settings with light conditions, or to go the custom WB route if you're unsure of what you're dealing with. Here's a shot on auto WB with incandescent light, and the same shot with WB set to incandescent in the camera.

Nikon D300
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Auto White Balance

Nikon D300
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Incandescent White Balance

At least one reason why I shoot a JPEG/NEF combo is illustrated below: I got to the beach and started shooting in overcast conditions with WB set to incandescent. The uncorrected shot is the result. Because I had a NEF file as well, I was able to use Capture NX software to make "RAW Adjustments" to the shot in the computer, and quickly come up with the corrected version. Fixing my goof was a matter of pushing about three buttons and took maybe half a minute.

Nikon D300
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Uncorrected

Nikon D300
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Corrected

Battery Performance

In its standard configuration the D300 uses the same EN-El3e battery as the D200 – and some D200 owners reported marginal battery life with that power source. Nikon doesn't rate the EN-El3e for shot capability in the D300, and the D300 reportedly has lower power consumption than the D200, but folks using the stock D300 would be prudent to have a spare battery along (as would the user of virtually any camera).

For my D200 I've always used the optional battery pack that adds a second EN-El3e (and more importantly, a vertical shutter button and command dial). Battery power is not a problem with this configuration, and the D300 has a similar battery pack with an even more interesting option. The D300 carries one EN-El3e in the camera body, and the second battery(ies) go in the battery pack. You can use a second EN-El3e on the D300, or the EN-El4 or 4a battery from the D2X/D2Xs. I'm using the D300 with the second EN-El3e at present, but will switch to the EN-El4a once Nikon catches up with the backordered battery cover required to utilize the big battery. The D300 battery pack has a neat feature that allows you to select which battery the camera will draw from first.

As mentioned near the start of the review, with either AAs or the EN-El4/4a, the D300 produces an 8 fps high speed continuous shooting rate (at shutter speeds of 1/250th second or faster).

Shutter Performance

Any DSLR typically has excellent shutter lag – Nikon claims an industry-leading 37 millisecond lag time for the D2X/Xs and the D3. The D300 comes in at 45 milliseconds per Nikon, but it's doubtful anyone's going to notice those extra 8 milliseconds. Shutter speeds can range from 1/8000th to 30 seconds, along with a bulb setting and X synch (flash) of 1/250th second.

The D300 (and D3) are the first Nikon D series cameras to realize significant performance gains when using high speed CF cards like Lexar's UDMA 300x. I shot 12 JPEG fine/NEF files with the D300 using both the Lexar 300x and 133x cards – write times to clear the buffer were 18.8 seconds for the 300x and 28.35 seconds for the 133x. Download times to the computer are better with the 300x as well. 300x cards in the older D200/D2X didn't really change write times in-camera over the 133x cards.


MISCELLANEOUS

When I got my D2X a few years ago, the manual for what was then Nikon's pro body ran some 264 pages. Time and technology marches on: that the user's manual for the D300 goes 420 pages should give you some idea of the wealth of features being built into the latest generation high end DSLRs.

Additional Sample Images

Nikon D300
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Nikon D300
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Nikon D300
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Nikon D300
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Nikon D300
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Nikon D300
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Nikon D300
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Nikon D300
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CONCLUSIONS

While it seemed everyone was fixated on the arrival of the D3 in the weeks leading up to the August Nikon announcement, the D300 sort of slipped in under the radar. But any aspirations to being a Nikon stealth camera have been pretty much laid to rest now that folks have had their hands on the D300 for a while. With the D3 packing a full-frame sensor, the D300 has become Nikon's leading DX sensor model.

The improvements are incremental over the older DX cameras, not the ground-breaking jump realized by the D3. The D300 offers better ISO performance, by an EV or so; a better continuous shooting rate; better focus tracking; better color; a better monitor. "Better" comes at a price, however – the D300 body goes for about $1,800 USD, and with these things flying out the doors of camera stores everywhere, discounts are not to be had. If you already have Nikon glass, it will work with the D300, but folks starting out from scratch who opt for a "do everything focal length" lens like the Nikon VR18-200 will have to drop another $700 for that privilege.

If you're considering the D300 as your first Nikon, great choice! But look closely at the type of shooting you envision doing, and see if the D200 won't fill the bill for about $400 less. Folks shooting the entry-level Nikons would also be well advised to look at the D200 as a lower cost alternative that packs a lot of the punch of the D300. There are a lot of D200 shooters who looked closely at what the D300 brought to the table over and above their camera, and are perfectly content to carry on with the 200. I'm keeping mine, and planning to put it into a splash housing so I can start shooting surfers from in the water.

I'm keeping the D200, but the D300 is my new best friend...and worth every penny.

Pros

Cons