Nikon’s D300; 12.3Mp, Live View, Picture Control & More

The new flagship model of the Nikon advanced amateur (or semi-pro, if you will) line-up, the 12.3-megapixel DX-sensor (1.5x multiplication factor) D300 incorporates all the latest features in the D-SLR realm, and then some. Sporting a new digital image processor, dubbed EXPEED, and a 3" monitor, the D300 can create 12-bit or 14-bit NEF images and capture up to 8 frames per second (fps) when using the accessory battery pack or AC adapter (6 fps without). The first Nikon DX camera to feature a LiveView system, the camera also has a self-cleaning, Nikon-developed CMOS sensor and a host of in camera effects and options. The D300 is clothed in a magnesium-alloy body and has the look and feel of a rugged, pro-caliber camera with a 100 percent frame coverage viewfinder. It shares numerous features found in the new pro D3 (a review of this full-frame camera is in the works) and a 51-point AF system with 15 cross-type sensors. Impressive specs, no doubt, but not inexpensive at $1799 list, body only.

(Above) Externalization of controls is evident here, and appreciated for field shooting, though strangers to Nikon and this degree of sophistication will need to spend time playing with controls with the 400+ page instruction book handy. You can take it easy, too, and rely on the camera's uncanny metering and focusing system to handle many shooting situations as you learn the nuances and options offered.

Front to back and top to bottom, the D300 will be very familiar in terms of controls and setup to those who have worked with just about any Nikon advanced D-SLR in the past. The larger 3" monitor does not seem to cramp the control buttons on the back, due to Nikon's sticking with the toggle-type control on the back rather than a knurled dial. At 1.82 lbs it is not lightweight, but choosing magnesium alloy for the body helps cut down on what might have been a heavier body. It's also appreciated that Nikon has stuck with CompactFlash (CF) memory cards, rather then the SDHC cards of its amateur cousins, the D40 and D40X. We have noted that other makers have tended to stick with CF in their advanced amateur models as well.

Playback, menu, information, lock buttons, and the ever-helpful trash button are all highly accessible and in familiar locations. And, most of the controls you'd want to call on in the field are handily placed on the camera body, including quality (format and size), ISO (ISO 200 to 3200, expandable to ISO 100 and 6400), white balance, exposure compensation, metering pattern (Matrix CWA and Spot), AF mode and pattern, framing rate, etc. And yes, there is a built-in flash; manufacturers have learned that pros and advanced amateurs indeed want one even in their elite camera bodies. This one has the usual GN of about 48 (at ISO 200).

Look familiar? It should, as the camera has the profile, controls, and look of past Nikon advanced D-SLRs. All the key controls you ordinarily use in the field are right at hand. The buttons on the left include ISO, format and size, and white balance menu items. Underneath via a push-button release and turn dial are the drive commands as well as LiveView menu activation.
(Above) Magnesium-alloy construction, a tempered glass 3" monitor, and numerous gaskets and seals give the D300 a pro-style build and feel. At about 1.82 lbs without battery and card it still seemed very portable, though the 3" monitor inevitably makes the camera feel larger than you might be used to.

There are a number of interesting new features that come with the package, such as linkage of exposure, focus control, and white balance that Nikon dubs their Scene Recognition System (SRS). This is an extension of their 3D Matrix Metering II setup, where the framed shot is analyzed by the 1005 segment sensor for light and color and then referred to a look-up table for an exposure solution. Now, the analysis includes subject motion and highlights, as well as being able to "infer" light sources for white balance settings. Nikon of course keeps how this works close to the vest, but for me the proof is always in the pudding, and I have to say that the Matrix meter and SRS delivers some of the most intuitive exposures I have yet to see from an evaluative-type system. In some cases it matched what I accomplished with some very careful spot metering and exposure compensation techniques.

Fill Balance
One thing that immediately impressed me about the D300 was exposure accuracy even in tough conditions. Mist was playing around the woods in this shot and light was low. I set the camera to Aperture-Priority, Matrix pattern and popped up the small fill flash on the camera. The system delivered exactly the amount of fill I would have wanted here without having the background go dark. ISO 400 at f/9. All shots in this report were made with the AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED lens.
All Photos © 2008, George Schaub, All Rights Reserved

There's also an "active" D-Lighting option that can be chosen to deal with highlight control, said to yield improved contrast rendition and wrestle with the bane of digital photography, too-hot highlights. You set this before making the shot or shots, not as a Retouch menu item after exposure and review (which is still available). My tests show that this works quite well, but it should not lull you into thinking that this in any way expands dynamic range of the sensor. That remains what it remains. But it does change the tonal curve enough to give you some advantages in high-contrast lighting situations.

For LiveView fans there are two modes--Tripod and Handheld. For the most part these can be helpful for close-up macro shooting with a tripod, where you can magnify the subject up to 10x for fine focus control on the 3" screen, and when you can't look through the finder for the shot, like when you hold the camera up over your head. Of course, this introduces shutter lag back into the scheme so while useful don't think you can do any action shooting with this setup. And the inclusion of 15 cross-type sensors, which are decidedly a more accurate way to focus, make this a snappy focuser indeed. We'll take a closer look at these items shortly.

Live View - Handheld Mode
This mode can come in handy when you find that holding the camera at arm's length is the only way to get the shot you want. Otherwise, as far as I am concerned, stick with eyepiece viewing. And both LiveView modes bring back shutter lag to the D-SLR experience. The docks in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, were fenced off for the shot I saw, and the fence was about 7 ft high. Lacking a milk crate or similar, I held the camera aloft and after a few tries got a level horizon line for this shot. ISO 200, AV mode, f/9.

For a camera with all the options the D300 offers, the buttons and dials seem seductively simple, until you begin to explore what's in store inside. Opening a menu on any D-SLR these days is like peeling an onion, with layer upon layer of options. Included is Nikon's new Picture Control System, a renamed Image Optimization menu that can be customized to the nth degree. There are also 48 Custom settings to help you set up the controls and options of the camera to your heart's content and assign various functions to however you want the camera to handle.

Speed & Noise
One of the biggest improvements in image files in the past year has been the clean, fairly noise-free shots you can get in the higher ISO settings of 400 to 800. This really opens up photo ops. This candid shot was made in dim, overcast conditions without flash. The white coat would have really caused havoc with flash, so I set the camera at ISO 640, which kept it out of NR filtration range. Exposure was f/4.5 at 1/60 sec.