Nikon D300 Digital SLR Camera - Review

Nikon D300 Digital SLR Camera - Review

Nikon D300 Digital SLR Camera - ReviewPros: Huge Live View LCD with 920,000 pixels; high speed focusing and shooting; impeccable 12-megapixel photos; built to last

Cons: Heavy; expensive

You might also need: Nikon AF-S DX 17-55mm f/2.8G lens; several 2GB memory cards; Nikon SB-800 Speedlight flash

Bottomline: While it doesn't have any truly revolutionary features, the Nikon D300 incorporates hot new technologies -- a stunning Live View screen, advanced autofocusing, digital lighting -- and faultless image quality into a rock solid, high speed shell. The result is a camera that, although a touch expensive, is capable of taking on rivals both more and less sophisticated

The digital SLR market is getting pretty crowded these days, with electronics companies muscling in on territory that once belonged to a handful of optical specialists. But although Sony and Samsung are producing increasingly competent budget and even enthusiast level cameras, the top-end prosumer field still belongs to Canon, Nikon and Olympus.

The Nikon D300 straddles the consumer and professional markets, offering the raw power and image quality that pros demand, alongside more popular features such as a large screen, hi-def support and Live View framing.

The price reflects its top-end specification: a body-only D300 will currently set you back around £1,050. We tested it using the Nikon AF-S DX 17-55mm f/2.8G lens, and you'll need several 2GB memory cards and possibly a Nikon SB-800 Speedlight flash in addition.

Design of the Nikon D300 Digital Camera

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. The design of SLRs hasn't substantially changed in the last 50 years, and the D300 shouldn't flummox anyone who's ever used a mid-range film or digital reflex camera. It's on the large and heavy side -- well over a kilo by the time you attach a lens -- and key controls are pretty much where you'd expect them, scattered over the water-resistant magnesium alloy body in themed areas.

The Release Mode dial to the left of the viewfinder gives instant access to quality, white balance and sensitivity controls. It also has a (locked) rotating dial that flips between single shot, self-timer and burst modes -- plus, somewhat surprisingly, the Live View function and mirror lock.

To the right of the gorgeously bright and spacious pentaprism is a mono LCD control panel. Many budget dSLRs now use the main LCD to display key camera settings but this is a much better option, giving a one-glance summary without you having to move the camera away from your face, and saving power to boot. Beneath the display are exposure zone and lock controls, and there are a brace of command dials to whizz through menus and options.

The main nav-pad is perhaps the only control that's less than impressive. It's fast enough moving through menus but a little sloppy and imprecise compared with Canon's zippy control wheel. Also on the back is a selector for focus points, and playback, zoom and delete buttons. Around the front, there's the usual flash pop-up and depth of field preview buttons, plus a switch for single, manual or continuous focusing. A lonesome programmable Function button looks lost beneath the lens mount.

The main event though, has to be the D300's new LCD screen. Not only is it a generous 76mm (3 inches) in size -- quickly becoming the standard in digital photography -- but it has a quite amazing 920,000 pixels – that's four times as many as you'll find on most cameras. Playback images look stunning, of course, but the high resolution really comes into its own when you activate Live View framing, helping you check that scenes are in focus. Live View is a useful but ponderous, multi-stage affair, involving much clacking of mirrors and pre-focusing -- it's best reserved for awkward angled and still life shots.

Another consumer-friendly feature is the D300's HDMI port. Plug in a HDMI cable (although none are supplied) for next-generation 720p or 1080i slideshows on hi-def TVs. More traditional is a defiantly old school Compact Flash slot, instead of the SD slots that are cropping up on cheaper models.

Features of the Nikon D300 Digital Camera

At the D300's core is a 12.3-megapixel CMOS sensor. Although it's not quite a full frame chip, it's large enough -- and Nikon confident enough in its noise reduction systems -- to offer sensitivities ranging from ISO 200 to 3,200, with additional Low (down to ISO 100) and High (up to 6,400) settings if you want to push it. Like most new SLRs, it has a cleaning system to prevent dust sticking to the sensor. Set this to activate on shut-down to avoid it slowing any snapshots.

The EXPEED processing engine on board allows burst shooting up to around 6 frames per second. That's as good as any camera in the price range and, together with a top shutter speed of 1/8000-second, should be sufficient for any but the most frantic sports photographer.

Naturally, the D300 can shoot raw images as well as JPEGs. Nikon's NEF format raw files can be saved as either 12-bit or larger 14-bit files, which hold increased colour depth information. Be warned, though -- top quality uncompressed files can be as large as 32MB in size. You'll also sacrifice speed, with a maximum continuous shooting speed of just 2.5fps.

To enumerate every manual feature on board the D300 would take longer than downloading a multi-gigabyte card full of its raw files, but there are a few that are worth singling out. While you don't get the simple scene modes found on cheaper cameras, the D300 does have fully customisable Picture Controls to tinker with contrast, colour and sharpness. There's also Active D-Lighting, a system that analyses scenes when you shoot and almost instantly adjusts them to preserve details in both highlights and shadows.

Another impressive innovation is 3D tracking autofocus. Activate this and the D300 will lock on to subjects in the focus frame and keep them pin-sharp, however erratically they're moving. All you have to do is hold the subject within the generous 51-point autofocus zone and keep your finger on the shutter.

Of course, you can also adjust white balance, exposure, focus zones and much more besides, using themed areas within the shooting menu. That programmable Function button is worth using too, if only to save time delving into deep menus for settings you might adjust once or twice a day -- it's set for bracketing by default.

The D300 ships with Nikon Transfer software that's fairly basic apart from its ability to automatically save files in two locations; one as a back up. You also get Nikon ViewNX, a photo viewer that lets you apply simple exposure, white balance and Picture Control tweaks to your NEF raw files. If you want a more sophisticated raw file editor, Nikon's Capture NX (£85) is well worth the investment.

Performance of the Nikon D300 Digital Camera

Despite its size, the D300 is one speedy camera. Power up is virtually instantaneous and there's no discernible shutter lag. Autofocusing is quick but not the absolute fastest we've seen on an SLR -- that honour probably rests with Olympus's compact E-3 camera, launched last year. Again, this is unlikely to be an issue unless you're really chasing micro-seconds.

The Nikon D300 ships body only, and it would be crazy not to marry it to some decent optics. We tested it with the AF-S 17-55mm f/2.8G lens, which has the DX mount designed to work with the D300's size of sensor.

Photos are predictably first rate. If you want to really feel like a pro, rattle off a handful of images and marvel at the razor sharp edges and rich, textured detail. Colours leap off the screen and smart exposure (plus that D-Lighting technology) reliably finds every scrap of visual information lurking in the shade.

Battery life is simply the best on the market: you'll get up to 1,000 shots from a single charge of the hefty lithium ion battery. Once more, that's about four times the performance of most cameras (although Canon's EOS 40D gets close).

Image quality of the Nikon D300 Digital Camera

We would probably edge up the sharpening and saturation a touch on the default settings but there's really nothing here to complain about. What's particularly impressive is the D300's performance in low light, indoors. The automatic white balance neatly sidesteps the painful orange colour casts you can see with some cameras in artificial light, and the high sensitivity options are breath-taking. There isn't a hint of grainy digital noise until ISO 800, and even ISO 3,200 images are perfectly usable, albeit at smaller sizes.

The built-in flash, although unlikely to be used by pros for anything more than filling in shadows, has the grunt to illuminate a good-size room, and can be dialled down for more subtle shots.


The D300 is an excellent all-round camera, but the SLR market is full of great cameras. The similarly priced 10-megapixel Olympus E-3 is lighter, smaller and boasts built-in image stabilisation. Or you could save yourself £250 with the Canon EOS 40D, sacrificing only a couple of megapixels, the 3D autofocusing and HDMI. In fact, Canon's spanking new EOS 450D has 12-megapixel, a 76mm (3-inch) screen with Live View and 14-bit processing for around £650.

Nikon has built the D300 up to a quality level, instead of down to a price -- and it shows in its rock solid weather-proof build, flawless ease of use and immaculate results. It may be expensive, but it's worth every penny.