by Shun Cheung, January 2008 (updated February 2011)
photography by Shun Cheung and Hannah Thiem
The Nikon D300 is a digital single-lens reflex (SLR) camera designedfor professional photographers and serious amateurs. The model numbersuggests that it is the successor to theNikon D200, (buy from Amazon) (review), which was introduced in 2005 with ametal chassis, weather sealing, a large viewfinder, and meteringcapability with all Nikon manual-focus lenses with auto indexing (AI)since 1977. The Nikon D300 retains all of those features plus a numberof significant improvements such as Nikons new auto focus (AF)system, 8 frames per second (fps) capture rate with the optionalMB-D10 battery pack, live view, and automatic sensor cleaning.
Nikon introduced the D300 on August 23, 2007, along with the NikonD3. The two cameras share a lot of features and some components. Themain difference is that the D3 has a larger 23.9x36mm sensor, which isessentially the same size as a traditional 35mm film frame. Nikon nowrefers to that sensor size as the FX format.
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The D300 is a highly responsive camera. Powering it up takes a mere13ms, which is instantaneous for all practical purposes, and theshutter lag is 45ms (compared to the D200, which has a 15ms powerupand a 50ms shutter lag). By itself, the D300 can capture 6 fps. Withthe MB-D10 battery grip attached and proper batteries inside, it cancapture at 8 fps. In that particular setting, if you quickly press onthe shutter release, the D300 will frequently capture two consecutiveframes instead of one; it is very sensitive.
The D300 has the very traditional Nikon AF-style controls since theintroduction of the F5 in 1996. The shutter release button is on thetop right side with the on/off switch around it. The main andsub-command dials are behind and in front of the shutter releasebutton, respectively, for controlling the shutter speed and apertureas well as various menu selections. AF point selection is controlledby a multi-selection pad on the back.
There are four exposure modes: M (manual), A (aperture priority), S(shutter priority) and P (program). Metering options are matrix,center-weighted and spot. Shutter release modes are S (single), CL(continuous low), and CH (continuous high). Anyone who is familiarwith Nikon AF SLRs from the last 10 years should be able to use thosewithout any adjustment.
Beyond that is a complex Shooting, Playback, Setup and Custom SettingMenus with more options than the previous D2 family and D200cameras. Both the Shooting and Custom Setting Menus have fourdifferent banks each so that the photographer can have differentoptions, e.g. portrait, sports, flash photography, etc.
Nikon has made a drastic change to enlarge a review image on the backLCD. On previous DSLRs, you press on the "Enter" button to select animage and then while holding down the thumbnail button, you rotate themain command dial to enlarge or shrink the review image. On the D300,there are separate magnify and reduction buttons.
The D300 comes with a new AF module, the Multi-CAM 3500,that is also used on the D3. The D300 has AF capability that can trackmoving subjects at 8 fps. My testing of two different D300 bodiesindicates that it can track flying birds and moving surfers withease. I would rate it slightly better than the auto-focus on the D2Xthat uses the last generation of Nikons AF module, the Multi-CAM2000.
For photographing still subjects, one can select any one of the 51 AFpoints from the Multi-Selector pad on the back of the camera and usethat to directly cover the subject in the viewfinder. Since those 51AF points are quite wide spread, there is almost no need to focus,lock and recompose any more. There is also no need to adjust thecomposition slightly in order to place an AF point on the subject, asI used to do with the 11 AF points on either the D2X or D200.
For photographing moving subjects, one can choose a cluster of 9, 21or all 51 AF points to track the subject, with the center of thecluster in any one of the 51 AF points. The general rule of thumb isthat the fewer AF points that are involved in deciding the focus, thefaster AF will be. However, using only 9 AF points, it is rather easyfor the D300 to lock onto the background when the subject brieflymoves off the covered area, causing the usual "back focus" problem.My experience is that using 21 AF points seems to be a bettercompromise.
The back side of the Nikon D300 is dominated by a 3-inch,922,000-pixel LCD screen. The large LCD is very convenient forreviewing images and magnified details. The display can be scrolled toreview exposure information (time stamp, shutter speed, aperture, ISOsensitivity, white balance, etc.), histograms, and blinkinghighlights. However, unlike previous Nikon DSLRs, the D300 does notprovide a large RGB histogram as one of the scroll options; it eithershares the LCD screen with the three RGB, channel-specific histogramsor with a small preview image and exposure data. In order to view afull-screen RGB histogram, you need to set Custom Setting f1, PlaybackMode to View Histograms, and you can view a full-screen histogram byholding down the center of the multi-selection pad. While the D300sLCD comes with a cover, the LCD itself is protected by tempered glassthat is scratch resistant.
One can duplicate the exposure and auto focus information on the topmonochrome LCD onto the back LCD by pressing on the "info" button,which is also the "key lock" button on the back of the D300. Since theback LCD has much higher resolution, it can provide additional detailssuch as which AF point is currently active and which group of AFpoints is used in Group Dynamic AF.
The D300 has a very good viewfinder - bright and large for a DX-sensor(small frame sensor) DSLR. It has the on-demand gridline feature(Custom Setting d2) that adds horizontal and vertical lines in theviewfinder to help the photographer keep the composition level. Thisis also helpful for figuring out where an 8 x 10 image will land. Keepin mind that even though the camera may be switched off, Nikon cameraswith the on-demand gridline feature require a trickle of battery powerto keep the viewfinder transparent and bright. If you remove thebattery from the D300, its viewfinder will become very dim andblurry. It should return to normal as soon as you insert a batteryagain.
Inside the viewfinder, below the image, is some essential camerasetting information. This includes the in-focus indicator, meteringmode, aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, ISO sensitivity,remaining frame count (capacity in the memory card), and flash-onindicator. If you press half-way on the shutter release button, theremaining frame count will change to a number with an "r" prefix. Thatindicates the remaining capacity in the image memory buffer. It is notan error code.
Until the D3 and D300 were introduced in 2007, high-ISO performancewas always a weakness in Nikon DSLRs. The D2X rated ISO is limited to800, and for the more demanding photographers, it is best not toexceed ISO 400, one stop below the rated maximum. The D200 improveseverything by one stop and the D300 is better by yet another stop. Onthe D300, the rated maximum ISO is now 3200. I would be comfortable touse ISO 1600 in essentially any dark conditions. As long as there arenot a lot of deep shadow areas, ISO 3200 is also very usable. Thatmeans I can hand hold an f/2.8 zoom under fairly dark indoorconditionsat 1/50 sec.
While the D300s rated ISO range is from 200 to 3200, it has anextended range on both ends from Low 1 to High 1, which is essentiallyISO 100 and 6400, respectively, and should only be considered anoption as a last resort. Using a DSLR in its extended high rangetypically introduces a lot of noise and a loss of details. On theother hand, the D300s minimum rated ISO is 200 because that is wherethe camera performs best. In some situations such as outdoor fillflash, it is better to have a lower sensitivity because of flash syncspeed limitations. I have tested the D300 at Low 1 (ISO 100) and theloss of quality from ISO 200 is negligible.
The D300 provides some rudimentary image editing capabilities oncamera, such as D-Lighting adjustment (similar to theshadow/highlights adjustment in PhotoShop to brighten up shadowareas), cropping, and red-eye elimination. If one does anypost-processing at all, it is much easier to edit on a computer with amuch larger screen and a computer mouse.
The D300 has a built-in pop-up flash which has all the commondisadvantages for pop-up flashes: lack of flash power, inability tobounce off any reflector, prone to red-eye, and the potential to beblocked by a big lens and/or lens hood.
However, the D300s pop-up flash can serve as the master to controlremote flashes such as the SB-800 and the SB-600 in Nikons CreativeLighting System (CLS). The pop-up flash can control all four channels(1 to 4) and groups A and B (but not C) in CLS.
For optional external flashes, the best ones are theNikon SB-800 AF Speedlight, (buy from Amazon) (review), andNikon SB-600 Speedlight, (buy from Amazon) (review). Both of them have swivel heads thatcan be tilted upward for bounce flash in both the horizontal(landscape) and vertical (portrait) orientations. The SB-800 has morepower and can serve as the master in a CLS set up. It can accept anoptional 5th AA battery and an external high-voltage power pack forfaster recycle time.
The D300 uses one Type I or II CF memory card ormicrodrive. The D300 is UDMA (Ultra Direct Memory Access) compatiblesuch that it can take full advantage of the high write speed of someof the latest memory cards.
The D300 has a 17-frame RAW buffer, which is fairly generous exceptfor action photography such as certain types of sports and wildlifework. Fortunately, the D300 can write approximately one uncompressedRAW file (about 20MB) per second onto fast memory cards such asSanDisks Extreme IV and Lexars 300x. Therefore, the RAW buffer freesup fairly quickly.
Similar to the earlier D200 and D80, the D300 requires one EN-EL3ebattery inside the camera. The EN-EL3e is a 7.4v, 1500mAhLithium-ion battery and an improved version from the earlier EN-EL3and EN-EL3a for the D100, D70/D70s and D50. While the new EN-EL3e canbe used on all cameras mentioned in this paragraph, the old non-emodel batteries cannot be used on the D300. With a fully chargedEN-EL3e, Nikon lists the life of the battery at 2000 images. Thisnumber will vary, depending on your use of flash and/or imagepreviewing on the LCD.
The D300 accepts an optional MB-D10 battery pack, which doubles as avertical grip. With the battery pack on, the internal EN-EL3e batterymay remain inside the D300 but is no longer mandatory. The MB-D10battery pack can be powered by one of three ways:
When the MB-D10 is attached, the D300 user may select to use the powerin the MB-D10 first or the internal EN-EL3e battery first (customsetting d11). However, batteries are required either inside the cameraor inside the MB-D10. In other words, one can attach an MB-D10 with nobattery. In that case the MB-D10 strictly serves as a vertical gripwith its own set of shutter release, command dials, andmulti-selection pad.
Similar to the top-line and prosumer Nikon SLRs in recent years, theNikon D300 has a metal chassis, a rubberized outer shell, and weathersealing on the button and switches. All control buttons, command dialsand selection pads have a solid, durable feel. The weak parts of thesimilarly-constructed D200 are the pop-up flash and the batterycompartment door. There have been complaints that in some D200samples, the battery compartment door does not press hard enough onthe EN-EL3e battery so that the battery is making poor electroniccontacts; as a result, the camera may suddenly lose power. I have notexperienced that on either my D200 or D300, but is something to watchout for.
The optional MB-D10 battery pack also has an all-metal outer shell anda rubberized grip area. That is a major improvement from the D200sMB-D200 battery pack, which is all plastic. The buttons and dials onthe MB-D10 are also solid. However, because of the lack of space, itsadditional vertical multi-selector pad is small and difficult to use.
The MB-D10 is securely screwed onto the D300 via the tripod socket atthe bottom.
A popular lens for serious photographers using Nikon DX-formatDSLRs is the Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S DX, (buy from Amazon). It covers a range frommoderate wide-angle to short telephoto, and its fast f/2.8 maximumaperture makes it ideal for wedding and event photography as well as ageneral-purpose lens. A much less expensive alternative is theNikon 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G ED IF AF-S DX, (buy from Amazon), which covers a similar zoom range buthas a smaller maximum aperture.
The Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED-IF AF-S VR DX, (buy from Amazon), is a "one size fits all" superzoom from moderate wide to long telephoto, and is included as a kitlens option with the D300. The optical quality is still quite good. Itis an ideal lens for those who would rather not change lenses and isexcellent for travel photography. The vibration reduction (VR) featureenhances the results from hand holding. However, at maximum apertureof f/5.6 at full zoom, it is quite limiting indoors.
The Nikon 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6G ED-IF AF-S DX, (buy from Amazon), is another kit lens optionincluded with the D300, which has a wide zoom range from moderate widetotelephoto with a consumer-grade construction and plastic mount. It ison the slow side at 135mm maximum f/5.6 and lacks vibrationreduction. Most D300 owners will probably prefer higher-qualitylenses.
A good telephoto zoom is the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR, (buy from Amazon).
For those who prefer a super-wide lens, Nikon has aNikon 12-24mm f/4G ED IF Autofocus DX, (buy from Amazon) (review), which spans from super-wide tomoderate wide. It is ideal for landscape photography and interiors ofbuildings. It has a relatively slow maximum aperture at f/4. For thosewho prefer an f/2.8 wide zoom, there is a newNikon 14-24mm f/2.8G ED AF-S, (buy from Amazon), that can cover the full frame sensor(FX), but is a much bigger and heavier lens with a metal constructionand a convex front element with no filter thread.
For those who would like a fisheye lens for wedding, architectural,andcertain sports photography, Nikon makes a high-qualityNikon 10.5mm f/2.8G ED AF DX Fisheye, (buy from Amazon), but that is not an AF-S lens. This ismore like a special effect lens.
Nikon has never changed the basic F mount since the originalNikon F from 1959. The D300 is fully compatible with almost all Fmount lenses, both manual focus and auto focus, since Nikon introducedautoindexing (AI) in 1977, with a few rare exceptions (such as the two AFlenses specially designed for the F3, AF version). Pre-AI lenses from1959 to 1977 must be AI converted before they can be mounted onto mostmodern DSLRs.
Similar to the D200, D2 and D3 family DSLRs, the D300 has thetraditional mechanical aperture setting linkage so that it can meterwith manual-focus lenses that have no built-in CPU, for both centerweighted and spot metering. Additionally, the D300 has a mini lensdatabase inside. If the information for manual-focus lenses ispre-programmed into the database so that the D300 body knows what themaximum aperture is, matrix metering is also available.
Based on the camera model number, the D300 is apparently the directsuccessor to the D200. The D300 retains all of the D200s featuresplus much improved auto focus, improved high ISO performance byapproximately one stop, a faster frame rate (8 fps with grip vs. 5fps), a much better vertical grip, in addition to other improvementssuch as live view, sensor cleaning, and two more megapixels, etc. Forthose who photograph sports, action, and in low-light conditions, theD300 represents some fairly significant improvements. For more staticsubjects under lower ISOs, the differences are subtle.
Compared to the Nikon D2Xs, (buy from Amazon) (review), the D300 has animproved high-ISO performance (by approximately 2 stops) and aconsiderably faster frame rate (8 fps with grip vs. 5 fps). Also, theD300 is less than half of the D2Xs initial selling price. Many D2Xowners are upgrading to the D300 as the D2X is a somewhat dated designand its main advantage over the D300 is higher build quality.
The more interesting comparison is against theNikon D3, (buy from Amazon) (review). The two cameras share the same AF moduleand many features. The D3 is Nikons first full frame sensor (FX)camera, and also features superior low-light performance with ISOrange 200-6400, and Nikons professional-build quality. For those whospecialize in indoor sports, news, and weddings, the D3 is the betterchoice. However, for wildlife and outdoor sports photographers whoneed the telephoto reach, the D300s smaller sensor and higher pixeldensity are advantages.
The D3 also has dual CF memory card slots so that eachimage captured can be recorded onto both cards, essentiallyeliminating all memory card failure concerns. While memory cardfailures are rare, this feature provides the extra peace of mind forwedding and news photographers who frequently have no second chances.
The D300 is a strong successor to the D200. The D300 maintains all ofthe D200s advantages as an excellent general-purpose, prosumer DSLRand improves on several key areas. For about $3000 less, the D300offers Nikons current best AF module, which is also featured in theirtop professional model, the D3. With the Multi-CAM 3500 and theability to capture 8 fps, the D300 also replaces the D2H and D2X asNikons top DX-sensor DSLR suitable for action and sports photography.
The D300 is a complex camera with numerous options and custom settingpossibilities. The behaviors for various settings and AF modes willalso take some time to fully master. Therefore, the D300 is not acamera for casual photographers who prefer a few simple beginner scenemodes rather than the need to customize a complex camera. For thoseconsumers, the user-friendly Nikon D80, (buy from Amazon) (review), andNikon D40x, (buy from Amazon) (review), DSLRs are more appropriate.
On the other end of the spectrum, for those photographers who demandthe absolute highest build quality, reliability, and low-lightperformance, the Nikon D3 is the best choice in the Nikonline. However, for less than $2000, the D300 provides professionalfeatures and quality.
Photo.nets partners have the Nikon D300 available. Their pricesare fair and you help to support photo.net. Also check out some of themore current models in the Nikon line.
Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S DX, set at 55mm (sameangle of view as 82mm on an FX sensor), aperture-priority mode atf/2.8, 1/500s, ISO 200. Bright, sunny, snowy day, perfect for tubingat a sledding hill. Almost no post-processing was done, as the cameraprocessed the blues and highlights in the snowy background correctly.
Nikon 300mm f/2.8 ED-IF AF-S (review), (same angle of viewas 450mm on an FX sensor), f/4, 1/1600s. Bird-in-flight images arealways a challenge for auto focus systems. I set my D300 to Dynamic AFwith 21 AF points, thus assuring a good coverage of the subject. Thisis my favorite lens for flight images. The rule of thumb for faster AFis to get fewer AF points involved. However, if I used the 9-AF-pointoption, since those 9 are tightly clustered together, with a movingsubject, it would be easy to have the AF points focusing on thebackground instead.
Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S DX, set at 20mm (sameangle of view as 30mm on an FX sensor), f/3.2, 1/40s, ISO 3200. OnChristmas night 2007, we were waiting in line to have dinner at thisnew restaurant that was open that evening. I noticed this interestingalley next to the new building. Even though I was only taking casualimages that evening and didnt have a tripod, I managed to set ISO to3200 and capture this image comfortably hand-holding the camera.
Nikon 200-400mm f/4G IF-ED AF-S VR II, set at 400mm (sameangle of view as 600mm on an FX sensor). This is my favorite lens forphotographing large animals. It has the flexibility from covering theenvironment to a tight image of the subjects. When there is animalaction, the 8 fps capability on the D300 provides a series ofslightly different images so that I can pick my favorites.
Text ©2008 ShunCheung. Photos ©2008 Shun Cheung and Hannah Thiem,except as otherwise indicated.
Article revised February 2011.