Nikon D300 verdict
It’s not surprising to learn the Nikon D300 is a highly capable semi-professional DSLR which succeeds in both traditional respects and the latest gadgetry. Like its predecessor the build quality and ergonomics are superb and while the look and feel are subjective, we’d say Nikon continues to lead the pack in this respect.
The handling is excellent with swift and accurate autofocus, no shutter lag to speak of, and quick continuous shooting. The new 51-point AF system sounds like overkill, but in practice effectively tracks erratically-moving subjects without compromising the view. The D300 is certainly a confident camera for sports and action photography.
Composition and playback are also highlights with the excellent viewfinder and wonderful-looking screen. It’s great to have a viewfinder with 100% coverage without having to buy a top-of-the-range pro model and the continued use of on-demand grid lines makes the interchangeable focusing screens of rivals look prehistoric. The VGA screen won’t improve your picture quality, but it’s a delight to see this amount of fine detail in Live View and playback; even the menus look great.
Live View is a mixed bag though. We liked composing with the detailed screen, but it was difficult to see at high angles or in direct sunlight. The manual focus assist was good especially zoomed-into 1:1, but the contrast-based AF was very slow; Panasonic’s Lumix L10 was noticeably quicker in this respect. We also found the lack of self-timer in Live View annoying, but in the truly unforgiveable category was the absence of a live histogram. Nikon says it involved too much processing, but that hasn’t stopped rivals from implementing it.
In terms of image quality, the D300 produces very natural-looking results using its default JPEG settings which have few if any electronic artefacts to speak of. Some may find them lacking a little in sharpness and contrast, but both are easily fixed in-camera or with RAW files. In terms of exposures, the D300 meters to protect highlights from burning-out, which sometimes comes at the cost of the image subjectively appearing a little dark overall. Check the histogram though and there’s no complaints.
Active D-Lighting can go some way to retrieve shadow and mid-tone details, but in our tests it was a subtle effect and one you could easily replicate with careful exposure and subsequent processing. The in-camera reduction of optical chromatic aberrations was certainly apparent on our DX 17-55mm f2.8 lens, although not 100% effective. Speaking of RAW, there was a noticeable tonal benefit to the 12-bit files, and a further subtle increase when switched to 14-bit.
On the downside beyond the annoyances in Live View mentioned above, the new anti-dust system didn’t prove effective in our tests, but to be fair that’s no different from many rivals. The GPS connectivity would also have been nicer with a direct USB option for modern units.
Nikon may also now bundle Capture NX – on initial shipments anyway – but the Capture Pro 2 software required for PC remote control is an optional extra, and sadly not even released at the time of writing. In contrast, PC remote control software comes free with Canon’s EOS 40D. Finally, for anyone with, say, a D80 or D200, the D300 isn’t a significant step-up from 10 Megapixels in terms of resolved detail – you’d be upgrading for build, handling and features. So as always before our final verdict, how does the D300 compare to its predecessor and rivals?
Compared to Nikon D200
The Nikon D200 remains on sale at a tempting price and features pretty much the same build quality and design as its successor. The difference between 10 and 12 Megapixels is also not significant when it comes to real-life detail. The big differences are in terms of features, with the D300 boasting 100% viewfinder coverage, a 3in VGA screen, slightly faster 6fps continuous shooting, a much more sophisticated 51-point AF system, 14-bit processing, Live View and an HDMI port.
All nice features, but the final image quality won’t be much different. So if you don’t want or need the D300’s new features, you could go for a D200 and put the rest towards a decent lens. See our Nikon D200 review for more details.
Compared to Nikon D80
Early adopters of the Nikon D80 may be considering an upgrade, and with a successor not expected until at least September 2008, the D300 is the natural choice. The D300 represents a significant upgrade in almost every respect. The build quality is far superior, the handling and continuous shooting much quicker, the AF more sophisticated, the viewfinder has 100% coverage, the screen is bigger, more detailed and supports Live View, and the list goes on.
If you’re looking to upgrade for better image quality though, you’re unlikely to find much difference with the D300, and it has to be said the body will be bigger and heavier than you’re used to. So like the D200, the upgrade to the new D300 is mostly about deciding whether you want or need the new features. See our Nikon D80 review for more details.
Compared to Canon EOS 40D
Canon’s EOS 40D may come in at around two thirds the price of the D300, but as Canon’s semi-pro model, it’ll inevitably be compared against the D300. In the 40D’s favour it features slightly quicker continuous shooting, Live View with a smoother refresh rate and live histogram, environmental sealing around the hotshoe, and comes bundled with both RAW conversion and PC remote control software.
In the D300’s favour it features two extra megapixels, a VGA screen, 51-point AF system, HDMI port, and arguably superior ergonomics. As we’ve seen the extra megapixels don’t make a huge difference, so it really boils down to whether the other features are worth paying the extra. The D300 certainly makes the 40D look quite affordable. See our Canon EOS 40D review for more details.
Compared to Canon EOS 5D
For only slightly more than the Nikon D300 you could buy the Canon EOS 5D. The D300 trumps it in every respect bar one: the full-frame sensor. As you can see in our Nikon D300 Noise results, the full-frame Canon 5D may share the same resolution, but the bigger sensor allows it to out-perform both the D300 and Sony A700 at higher sensitivities. So if you’re looking for an upgrade in image quality and aren’t bothered about other features, the EOS 5D remains a contender, but be aware many are expecting a successor early in 2008. See our Canon EOS 5D review for more details.
Compared to Sony Alpha A700
Sony’s Alpha A700 is another big rival for the D300, even though like the Canon 40D, it comes in at about two thirds the price. It shares the same resolution, 3in VGA screen and HDMI port of the D300 and additionally boasts built-in anti-shake facilities which work with any lens you attach.
But again the D300 out-features it with Live View, a 51-point AF, 100% viewfinder, an optional Wifi transmitter, and again arguably superior build and ergonomics. Like the Canon 40D, the decision will involve carefully weighing up the features of both cameras against their prices – and of course their respective lens ranges. The absence of Live View and a Wifi option are strange for the A700, but its anti-shake is a compelling benefit. See our Sony Alpha A700 review for more details.
Compared to Olympus E-3
The Olympus E-3 is the long-awaited successor to the camera which launched the Four Thirds standard back in 2003. It costs slightly less than the D300, but is another feature-packed model with built-in stabilisation, Live View, a flip-out screen and the SuperSonic Wave Filter, which in tests has proven to be the most effective at reducing dust – or at least making it hard to see. Olympus is also making a big noise about AF performance, claiming it’s the fastest in the world – with the right lens.
In the D300’s favour, are two extra Megapixels, faster continuous shooting, more AF-points, a VGA screen and an HDMI port. We look forward to reviewing the E-3 when a final production model becomes available, but in the meantime, check out our Olympus E-3 preview.
Nikon D300 final verdict
There’s no denying the Nikon D300 is a highly capable DSLR which will delight enthusiasts and satisfy the demands of pros looking for a backup or ‘budget’ body. Certainly no-one does ergonomics like Nikon and despite a handful of annoyances, it’s also the most feature-packed DSLR of its class. But there’s also no denying it’s also comfortably more expensive than many rivals while not delivering significantly better image quality. Indeed in the case of the Sony A700, the image quality is essentially the same. If you’re after a big step-up in image quality from the Nikon system, you’ll need to look at the D3.
So it’s a case of weighing up the D300’s features against its higher price. The D300 is undoubtedly a great camera to use, but are its features worth 40-50% more than the Canon EOS 40D or Sony A700? Only you can decide, but don’t go for the D300 over these models expecting significantly better image quality. The extra cash is buying you superior build, handling and features.
The higher price also makes the downsides that bit more annoying, like the lack of a live histogram or self timer in Live View, and the requirement to buy remote control software and a special serial cable for GPS units when Canon includes the former for free and the latter could be solved with a direct USB link. It’s also a shame the anti-dust system didn’t prove effective in our tests.
But ultimately the D300 remains a superb DSLR and one of the best we’ve tested at Camera Labs – it’s certainly a model we can Highly Recommend. But unless you’ve already bought into the Nikon system, we’d advise closely comparing it to the rivals mentioned above. The D300’s features may on the whole be a step-ahead of the competition, but you may not personally need them, in which case your money is better spent on a cheaper body with better glass.
(relative to 2007 semi-pro DSLRs)
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