Since 2006 I have owned a D200 for serious shooting situations and I got a D40 in early ’07 for everyday shots (an awesome camera – I give it SIX stars! – a whole separate review is needed!), and after hearing about the D300 release in late 2007 I debated over whether to get one.I was really happy with my D200, which I took on some overseas trips and it performed perfectly.After demo-ing a D300 in stores and reading some online reviews, I decided to take the plunge.It was a big investment but now I have no regrets – if not for the entire package, then for one thing: COLOR!Or one more thing: what Nikon calls ‘Active D-Lighting’ (translation: a significant change in the processor’s realistic rendition of contrast, highlights, shadows, etc. – the entire package of “TONE”).Also – can an LCD rear-screen get any better than this??In Jim Cramer-parlance I have to say that this model is definitely “best of breed”.
Pluses and minuses: (note: edited every once in a while since I’ve used it for almost 6 months now and thousands of captures – last edit was done on 4/9/08)
- Incredibly vivid, pleasingly, really surprisingly saturated color reminiscent of Velvia (high-saturation Fuji film used in slides, etc.) is now made possible by selecting the “Vivid” option in the “Picture Control” menu and cranking up the “Saturation” option – there are three levels beyond the default “0″ – which sets it just about at the highest possible saturation that could be set in the D200.Even boring photos of things around the home, outside, etc. seem interesting and… well, exciting and vivid… with it set at +2 or +3 (although the +3 setting is a bit extreme for people photos, and renders their skin color a bit more intense than appears naturally).At the +3 setting even blase photos of ordinary things approach purposely-understated “art” in a MoMA-like way.For people I am finding Vivid+1 or Vivid+2 a bit more natural indoors with natural light, as the Vivid+3 saturates just a bit more than I prefer.Just like Velvia, these settings also do not warm the cool colors – one of the minuses of other cameras’ ‘vivid’ settings – this is what’s best (your cool blues, greys, greens, etc. stay cool, while the reds, yellows, oranges, bright blues/greens/etc. – watch out!)(Edited note: after about 3,000 shots I saw that indoors it might be best to do a manual white balance preset off a white wall or carpet or something and then shoot in vivid mode, since in the automatic WB mode the reds tend to get boosted quite a bit under typical indoor light and some of my subjects looked like they had a very dark suntan, or even a sunburn, in the middle of December!Careful with this… also tried standard – i.e. not vivid – color settings with +1 or +2 saturation, and these were very realistic, although the backgrounds can be dull if you’re intent on vivid colors all-around.Maybe best to use those on portraits only.Try them all out and see what works best.)
- On-board so-called “Active D-Lighting” renders shadows and highlights in an very realistic manner, with no raising up of delicate shadow tones to mid-levels (as my outstanding, near-perfect-in-its-class Nikon D40 tends to do) – this really must be seen to be believed.Coupled with the color quality (and deep saturation noted above), the detail in the highlights is excellent.The D40/D200 have this feature in post-capture (i.e. you adjust the captured image yourself) but this seemed rather crude; here it is said that the Nikon actually computes the needed adjustment and does it specifically for the scene you’ve captured.No more blown or off-color highlights in those ‘rare’ occasions when overexposure seeps into a shot in a very contrasty frame.
- The new LCD screen is 3″ in size and has a whopping 920,000 pixels (versus 230,000 for the D200, D80, D40, etc.) of resolution – which means image review to check focus, color, etc. is impossibly accurate and well beyond the already very high quality of Nikon’s 2.5 inch screens and way, way beyond that of the Canons with the greenish-greyish-tinted LCDs even on expensive models like the much-venerated full-frame 5D.Doesn’t even come with a LCD protector cover like the D200 did because it’s made with tempered glass and is super resistant to scratching, damage, etc.No more looking through plastic – however transparent – when reviewing shots or setting colors, lighting, etc.(Kind of always bothered me, that.)
- 100% coverage viewfinder – excellent, and not cluttered up, making composition cleaner; nothing engraved in the viewfinder to get in the way (although you can optionally set the horizon-level grid to be on all the time, which I do, since it leaves an open space in the middle anyway, and those off-balance shots are a pain to fix).
- 51-points of autofocus available – at first I didn’t really care much as I tend to do the old-school method of using one point for focus, then recomposing – but I started using the 51-point AF mode (the full-rectange setting that uses all sensors) and found that I don’t need to do this as the D300 always seems to pick the object I wanted to focus on – making things much, much easier – although for really unusual shots with a subject in focus and others way out of focus, I move to the manual mode; the AF system is excellent in speed and accurate tracking of the object of focus as well (i.e. a running child, etc.)The 51 points make this very easy to do.Fiddling around in the store I saw on the big $5k D3 the points are better looking (little red spots) and less intrusive when composing than these large-ish black rectangles on the D300, but I can live with that (although it reminds me “hey, you don’t have a D3!…”).
- There were issues about firmware and exposure on the D40, D80, where they tended to expose too brightly, and we had to set it manually to -0.3 or -0.7 to get back to normal exposure.Not on the D300.Perfect all-around.Still, adjusting WB and exposure can make or break the shot.Especially nice is the cloudy or ‘shadow’ setting for indoor shots in bright sunlight; everything looks pleasingly warm, even if just a tinge more than natural.Give it a try if you like warm colors.Interesting shots can be had using ‘tungsten’ outside in the snow – a blue-grey monochromatic world.(If you have snow, that is.)Manual WB setting is easy off of a wall, or carpet, or napkin, etc. as usual with the Nikons in this range, and makes quite a bit of difference in odd-lighting situations (i.e. very dim room, etc.) where the automatic presets, although excellent, don’t work well (especially that ‘tungsten’ – in normal home incandescent lighting in the evening everything is medium-blued-out – who uses this?Or am I using it incorrectly?I set WB in that situation off the wall or rug.)
- other than the full-frame sensor (no small difference, that is) and high FPS, there appears, from what I am reading, to be no major differences (unless you’re a sports or news shooter) from the highly-lauded D3, which costs 3x what the D300 costs; the D3′s awesome high ISO performance can be mimicked by turning off the high ISO noise reduction set “on” in the default mode in the D300 (see below)Of course, the D3 has many other features that make it best for pro sports shooters, etc. who need that size and power, and of course, full-frame has no comparison – but I have a bag full of DX lenses (and some non-DX primes) and not ready to put out $10k+ for a D3 plus a 14-24, the new 24-70 and the 70-200, etc. that I’d want.The differences in picture quality due to the full-frame sensor (and other features I wouldn’t need as I don’t shoot sports or news) are outweighed by the cost involved and the marginal nature of the difference overall.Image quality is essentially the same – except for the pluses of the full-frame, especially noticeable in really big prints.Also the usual full-frame focal length versus DX issue remains alive here – yes, that “35mm on a DX is equivalent to a…” continues, and probably will as long as DX lenses remain in our bags.Edit: I have tried the D3 for a shooting session and it does focus incredibly fast, much faster than the D300 in some cases.The speed of the focusing and the shutter itself are unbelievable; that camera is the Ferrari or Lamborghini of Nikons.The D300 may be the Porsche – hey, not a bad compromise – it’s unlikely that the average pro-sumer will need the power of the D3 (or of a Ferrari – ever try to do 140mph on the NJ Turnpike?).
These were my big main pluses which justified the transition from the D200, but there are a few more which don’t really appeal to me but will for some:
- Live View (you can see the image on the LCD screen) – perhaps this might appeal to a tripod-user setting up a photo, but I doubt I’ll ever use it.Smacks of “point-and-shoot”, I think, but could be handy in some cases where it is hard to position the eye at the viewfinder (behind the sofa?…)(Edited note: should not have panned this – gave the camera to my 21 year old niece, who tried to take a Christmas portrait of my family and I together – and got half of us in the bottom of the frame, and an empty top half of the frame! – for those who basically grew up using live view digital cameras, this feature is very useful – just set it and let them shoot – I think the weight of the D300 and the fact that she had to use a (gasp!) viewfinder (as opposed to the RAZR internal cellphone camera) threw her off.Some creative cropping may save the shot, anyway.)
- Ultrasonic Sensor Cleaner – like the Canons and Pentaxes, Sonys, etc., Nikon finally offers a sensor cleaner (which is user-operated, not constantly running at each power-up if you set it that way).Might be useful after hard shooting in dusty or otherwise camera-unfriendly environments, but I never had the need for it on any camera I ever had up to now.Just one more thing to possibly go wrong someday?
- HDMI output (if you’re lucky enough to have one of those big-screen HDTVs and want to show your photos to all on the screen; I don’t and won’t)
- 12MP versus 10MP (for the D200) – great marketing material but MP beyond 6-8MP or so has only marginal effect on the quality of the image and doesn’t really matter ultimately since all it does it highlight the limitations of the lenses or the technique of the shooter; I suppose it is nice to have that much more information recorded ultimately if you choose (via the size/compression settings) but I shoot with “large normal” JPG and don’t want 10MB+ file sizes when I’m making 5×7 or 8X10 prints at most (or way, way more MB for RAW files) – I am reminded by a post/commentor that the higher MP will be beneficial when cropping a photo considerably for printing – good point – if you’re taking 25% of that shot and cropping it, printing it out to 8×10, those 12MP will keep your image nice and sharp even at such extreme crops (provided, of course, you’re using the big filesize settings and have lots of storage space in the form of CF cards, hard disk space, etc.)I don’t do a lot of cropping and prefer to create in-camera since I have practically no time to fiddle with Photoshop and the rest.
- the new grip (sold separately, of course) that goes with it doesn’t stick far up into the camera, so you can use the camera’s battery as well as those in the grip as well, and decide which to drain first, etc.With the grip you get more FPS for action photography but I don’t do much of that, and for me the grip makes the whole package too big to fit in my current Lowepro bag (trivial but hey, it’s one more thing).
- if you’ve had any Nikon DSLR before, especially a D200, you will feel immediately at home, with no ramp-up period; you don’t even need to open the sealed manual, since the new features are so easily located and adjusted that all you do is adjust your settings and start shooting; what won’t feel immediately familiar is the super-bold color you’ll notice on the intricately detailed 3″ LCD.Of course, ergonomics are nearly perfect; this camera is like a brick wrapped watertight in rough-textured rubber, perfect to grip and hold for long periods of time.
- Capture NX software is included – get this – free! – in a selected number of initial sales of the D300.It’s panned by some but, if you don’t have another software package, it’s not a bad thing to get a reasonably pro-quality image software package for free.The easy-to-use three-point pinpoint adjustment tool is excellent.Edit update – there is a Mac Leopard (OS 10.5) version now available – yeah! – so all computing formats are supported.
- Quite a bit more expensive than the D200 – naturally, since it’s a new model, but is it worth it? – for me it was for the top two reasons; for others, the D200 (or the D80, or the D40) will be way more camera than is enough – also still appears to be hard to get at the right price initially; some supply issues reminiscent of the D200 were being seen but appear to have levelled off; now it’s hard, I hear, to get the D3.
- When I initially got it I thought that for some reason the highest ISO settings (i.e. 6,400) seemed to lead to somewhat hazier shots, likely due to high ISO noise reduction that is set ON to ‘Normal’ in the factory default – but who shoots up to ISO 6,400 anyway, unless you’re shooting hand-held at faster shutter speeds in very dark environments?I had my D200 set for maximum 1,600 in Auto ISO and that was always more than enough.You can always turn the high ISO noise reduction completely off (or set it to low for just a touch of clean-up) and get back to the D200′s, and close to the D3′s, level of quality.I did this and had no more issues that initially concerned me, but a side-by-side comparison of a very magnified crop might yield otherwise.The ISO settings are also odd in that there is no stated ISO 100 but the camera does have ISO options which Nikon calls various degrees of “LO”, confusingly; just need to learn the terminology and adapt.High ISO noise is also really only visible, however, if you make 3-foot-wide prints, mural-size images or crop and magnify on your computer screen to unrealistic levels and look really, really closely.You won’t even notice on a 5X7 or 8X10, or bigger, print in normal circumstances.The fact that there is Auto ISO at all (versus not having it in the Canons) makes shooting a breeze; no fiddling around with ISO settings when you’re trying to capture an image.(Edited note: lots of high ISO shots without NR on have been excellent throughout the holidays, including plenty of dark, candlelit tables, Christmas trees with onboard lights only on, outdoor shots of decor, etc.Not sure how noisy these would look blown up to big poster or mural-sized prints but for 8X10 or less, I am sure these are perfectly fine.)
- Wish the flip-up flash would have a rotating bulb enclosure which you could point upward and get a bounce-flash for indoor people photographs; fairly sure no other DLSRs have this but it would eliminate me having to (buy first and) carry around a Speedlight for indoor shots (i.e. Christmas present-opening by the tree in low light, etc.) lest I get the white-ghost effect of direct flash from the onboard unit.I rarely use the onboard flash except for fill-flash outdoors, so it is somewhat less useful than I would like.Then again, Nikon needs to sell Speedlights, so… the SB-600 is a perfect match.The SB-400 is also a nice one if you’re not doing shots with far-off subjects, and it fits nicely on the D40 as well.
- I don’t know if it’s my imagination but it feels like the two spinning dials (on the front and back, for setting aperture, shutter speed, etc.) are a bit more recessed into the camera body than those on the D200; when I spin them I get memories of cheap 1970s electronics when I would push a button, and it would wind up moving itself inside the radio (or whatever) and getting stuck in there – I sampled other demos on the store floor and they felt the same as mine – maybe this is to prevent accidental movement when shooting?It’s as if they are not at exact 90 degree angles to the camera body.Nice feel on the fingers, but I get memories of those “stuck buttons” when I use them sometimes.
- it probably would be nice to be able to stuff a CF card and an SD card in the camera for memory options; I prefer CF cards for their durability, but dislike having to invest in two types of cards – CF and SD – for the D300 and the D40, respectively.Don’t know who could possibly shoot so much to fill a full 8GB card (maybe if you shoot RAW+JPG, etc. for sports) but a two-card capacity would also be nice just to know it’s there.
- It’s still not full-frame – I know, it’s not supposed to be, and most DSLRs aren’t, but I might have paid another $500 (maybe $750?) if they’d made it full-frame.However, that means another $5Gs+ on 2 or 3 aforementioned full-frame wide-zooms (and effectively making obsolete my big 12-24mm wide, awesomely versatile 18-200mm, and sharp 70-300mm DX VRs) so probably better for the wallet that it’s not.
- No PC button: The new D3 pro version only available to select press members (the D3P, they’re calling it) has a “PC” button for “Picture Control” – that is, you can quickly switch between your own custom settings you set up in the menu for different picture parameters – say, for landscapes, a high-saturation setting (i.e. “Vivid” with saturation cranked up), and for people, a medium-color setting (“Normal” with moderate saturation), etc. – but on the D300 (and the normal D3, for that matter) you have to fiddle around with the menu.A button to be able to switch between picture settings would be a godsend for this camera; otherwise you might miss a shot switching from, say, a high-saturation, white-balance adjusted setting for a beach landscape, then trying to quickly capture your kids on that same beach – which would give them instant sunburns (on the image!) due to the oversaturation and WB adjustment – unless you go pressing buttons to get into the menus (with the sandy fingers) and fiddle around, making the change.I believe Canons have a button dedicated to this, which makes me wonder why Nikon isn’t thinking ahead and, in typical Japanese fashion, copying the best ideas and features from its competitors.
Other than these few minor (for me) minuses, this camera’s new color capabilities, wildly improved highlight-renditioning and other features more than justified my investment in it.I’m getting great captures from it.Naturally a lot of that is subjective – best to try it out yourself and judge before taking the plunge.One look at the images, the LCD, and the other features, and this one might be the one that makes all the Canon owners squirm in their chairs and wonder what to do with all those expensive “white lenses” now that they will want this Nikon!(Not that I myself wouldn’t mind having a 5D and a few of those white-bodied Canon L-series teles, of course!…)
Disclaimer: for quick shots around the house of my kids, etc., I still grab my D40 – soon to have a new 18-55mm VR lens shortly shipping from Nikon! – and capture away – it’s got to be the best camera in its class, and the images rival the D300 under normal conditions.It’s when things get a little complex (low light, action, the saturated colors, high ISO situations, etc.) that the D300 excels.Especially the saturated colors!Never seen anything like this in a DSLR and I’ve had ‘em all (Nikons) or tried ‘em all (Canon, Pentax, Sony, Olympus…).
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