Nikon D300 Digital SLR Camera
At a Glance
My first impressions of the Nikon D300 digital SLR camera may rekindle my fondness for Nikon SLRs. It's not a perfect 10, but it's interesting and nicely built, and it performed better than I expected.
In Video: Five Reasons to Love the Nikon D300
The D300 is not for the casual photographer. It's big, it's heavy--the body is just over 2 pounds with the battery--and it costs $1800 (as of 03/18/08) without a lens. It's also a complex camera that offers 12.3-megapixel imaging and straddles the line between professional and consumer.
When you pull the D300 out of the box, one of the first features to catch your eye is the 3-inch color LCD. More than just a way to review your photos, the LCD has a Live View mode that lets you compose shots while viewing the screen; the setup is ideal for those times when it's difficult to use the eye-level viewfinder, such as in studio work and tripod-based macro shooting. (The D300 and the top-of-the-line D3 are the only two cameras in the Nikon digital SLR lineup that have Live View.)
Nikon's implementation of Live View, however, is a bit more complicated than that of the Olympus E3, which I reviewed at the same time. You switch a mode dial on the D300 to 'LV', press the shutter release once to lock the mirror up and turn the LCD on, and press the release again to focus the lens and trip the shutter. Setting Live View on the Olympus, on the other hand, requires a simple press of a dedicated button on the back of the camera and flipping another lever to close off the eye-level viewfinder so that light entering through it won't affect the exposure. More important, the Olympus E3's LCD panel is hinged, so you can tilt it toward you when you're holding the camera very low or high overhead.
One of the D300's strong suits is its array of options for tailoring its controls to your liking; the 421-page paper manual gives you an immediate clue to its complexity. That said, the documentation is excellent--readable, well organized, and without the squint-print found in the manuals of too many other brands.
You can program many of the buttons, as well as the dual front and back selector dials, to handle other functions; by default, for example, the FN button near the lens mount sets bracketing options, but you can reassign it to control depth-of-preview, to enable or disable the flash, to select metering modes, or to enable auto-focus or auto-exposure lock. Fine-tuning is a common theme throughout the D300's controls. Take bracketing, for example: Instead of the usual three to five bracketed shots, the D300 is capable of taking up to nine frames with different exposure settings, or nine frames with varying white-balance values. The only drawback is that you cannot use exposure bracketing and white-balance bracketing as the same time. (I had to cruise through the manual just to locate the camera's bracketing control, which lives under the somewhat hidden FN button.) Like many other digital SLRs, the Nikon D300 has picture styles (Standard, Neutral, Vivid, and Monochrome) that let you quickly change the timbre of your images. In addition, the D300 allows you to fine-tune each of those styles with custom saturation, contrast, brightness, and hue settings. You can store up to nine custom configurations and give each its own descriptive label--an outstanding feature, and a real help to those of us with poor memories. One other interesting capability: If you have more than one D300 body, you can copy your custom setting from one camera to another.
The ability to tweak the camera becomes essential when you dive into the menu system. Dense and complicated, the D300's menus are, at first, a nightmare. Fortunately, you can arrange the menus in the order you prefer to see them, though the task is somewhat laborious.
The images this camera produced surprised me. Past Nikons have had a strong tendency to underexpose images, requiring fixes later in software. But of the three cameras I tested together--the D300, the Olympus E3, and my Canon 30D--the Nikon did by far the best job of capturing difficult, high-contrast landscapes. In scenes with vast amounts of snow, sky, and water, the Nikon was the only camera that came close to capturing accurate color and brightness. Both the Canon and Olympus produced shots that were substantially underexposed and far too blue. When I tried shooting less-complex subjects such as structures, objets d'art, and more-balanced landscapes, the image quality among the three models was a wash. The only knock on the D300 is its images' sharpness: Many of the landscapes seemed soft when I viewed them in Photoshop at 100 percent magnification. On the other hand, in our lab tests, where depth of field isn't as much of an issue, the D300 earned very high scores--in all likelihood due to the camera's exceedingly high resolution.
The D300 is quite fast: It can capture an impressive 6 frames per second in burst mode, and 7.5 fps with the addition of an external battery pack. My test unit came with Nikon's capable image editing and RAW-format processing application, Capture NX.
The Nikon D300 is not a camera that you can simply pick up and run with. Its high resolution, exceptional flexibility, excellent exposure accuracy, and useful Live View function make it worth the effort of working through a longish learning stage. It should fare well against its two strongest competitors, Sony's Alpha 700 and Olympus' E3.