We review the Nikon D300 and ask whether this model, clearly targeting the enthusiast, lives up to its predecessor’s title as the best semi-pro camera on the market?
“The screen of the Nikon D300 now shows practically 100-percent coverage, a feature usually only found on pro-level cameras costing two to three times the price”
The Nikon D300 follows the successful 10-megapixel D200 model. Boasting superior ergonomics, tough build and a high-resolution sensor, the D200 was widely acknowledged as being the best semi-pro DSLR model on the market. And in spite of it being around 40 percent more expensive than arch-rival Canon’s excellent 8-megapixel EOS 30D, it was a hugely popular model.
Compared with the 30D’s successor, the 40D, the differences had become less tangible. Even so, while news of the replacement for D200 seemed premature, by arriving so soon after the 10-megapixel Canon model, the 12-megapixel D300’s timing keeps it a step ahead of Canon’s equivalents.
Viewed with a sceptical eye, it may seem like there aren’t many new features, but that’s not the case. While it’s true the new Nikon carries a similar APS-C size CMOS sensor and 3-inch VGA resolution screen to the Sony A700, the D300 has a lot more besides.
As well as the new sensor and image processor, it has 12 or optional 14-bit colour capture, live view and anti-dust features, as well as a completely new 51-point AF system. The action-orientated theme also continues with shooting up to 6-frames-per-second (12-bit only), or up to 8-fps with the optional MD-B10 battery pack.
In the hands, the Nikon D300 feels every bit as solid and comfortable to hold as the D200. Although slightly redesigned, the D300 still boasts a carved-from-stone magnesium-alloy body, complete with weather-proof sealing and a shutter mechanism rated in excess of 100,000 cycles.
Not only are the ergonomics surprisingly good but it also feels incredibly quick and responsive. If you’re upgrading from the D200, most of the controls are in the same position, but even if you aren’t, the layout is pretty intuitive.
Like most rivals at this level, with the possible exception of the A700, the D300 sports a top plate LCD and button and dial-shift arrangement to select features. If there’s a niggle it’s the lack of a shooting mode dial, but it’s the same arrangement with other pro-level offerings from the maker.
Held up to the eye, the viewfinder image is impressively large and clear, permitting easy composition. Unlike its predecessor, the screen now shows practically 100-percent coverage, a feature usually only found on pro-level cameras costing two to three times the price.
Boasting 15 ultra-sensitive cross-points, and 51 focus-detection points in total covering much of the width of the screen, the new AF system is far ahead of rival offerings at this level. With a suitably equipped AF-S lens, it’s fast and accurate, though it requires a good deal of patience before the user becomes fully accustomed to its operation.
The huge 3-inch VGA resolution screen is a real plus for all menu selection and playback duties and performs reasonably well in live view mode. As with a lot of rivals, the screen refresh rates drop but the D300 can use the 51-point auto-focus system when used in hand-held mode, with the usual double flap of the mirror.
A handy tripod option adopts the main image sensor to use the slower phase detection focusing method with the mirror locked up. A single focus detection bracket can be guided to any point on the screen, and a handy zoom option allows magnification up to 13x, permitting highly accurate focus either automatically or manually.
Sensor cleaning is a first on a Nikon body and it can be engaged at start-up, power down or both, which is a nice touch. Like rival systems, we doubt if it’s infallible but we didn’t notice any distracting particles during our review period.
In our tests, the resolving power of the new CMOS sensor is slightly higher than the CCD of the D200 with the same lens when photographing test charts. But, it’s barely noticeable in real life.
Compared with the Alpha 700 with its similar sensor and the budget Sony 18-70mm kit lens, the D300 revealed similar levels of fine detail in the labs. And that’s in spite of the Nikon’s softer-looking JPEGs. More detail can be obtained from Raw files, but even camera-processed JPEGs sharpen up well in an image editor.
Noise levels from in-camera, EXPEED-processed JPEGs are slightly lower than the Alpha’s at ISO 800 and above. And unlike the Alpha, there’s almost a complete lack of the unsightly colour blotching at ISO 3200, and it’s still low at ISO 6400.
Instead, images display fine, almost film-like, grain and reasonably accurate colour but with noticeable loss of detail. More detail can be revealed by turning the NR option from the default normal to low or off, with only a slight increase in colour noise.
The only real downsides are the increase in ticket price over rivals and the lack of image stabilization in the standard package. Both the cheaper Alpha 700 and Olympus E-3 score valuable points over the D300 with their built-in anti-shake systems.
Don’t underestimate the choice of lens though. Ideally, you would need to pair the pricey but optically superb CZ 16-80mm f/3.5-4.5 with the Sony and the excellent ZD 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 with the Olympus E-3. At £1,500 for the former, and £1,700 for the latter, respectively, it puts the D300 in a slightly different perspective.
For just £50 less than the Olympus package, the D300 can be paired with the highly regarded all-in-one 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR. Even so, at £1,650 all in, that’s still a considerable sum, especially as the EOS 40D is being bundled with the 17-85mm f/4.0-5.6 image stabilized lens for under £1,000.
Despite that, the D300 is a great camera for enthusiasts and, arguably, the maker’s most tempting APS-C size DSLR to date.
Nikon D300 Info
Typical price: £1,100 body only; £1,335 with 18-70mm lens
Low-noise at high ISOs
Fast auto-focus operation
Excellent viewfinder experience
Flash accuracy and control
No anti-shake in standard package.
No mode dial
Tardy refresh rate in Live View mode
Verdict: With few real downsides, except price, the D300 is the maker’s most compelling DSLR to date.
Rating: 4 and a half stars
More info: Nikon Website
- The huge 3-inch screen is ideal for accessing the D300’s menu options and reviewing your captured photos
- The top-plate LCD is standard for cameras of this class, but the lack of a shooting mode dial is something of an oversight