D300 At a Glance

I’ve had the D300 for a couple weeks, and I’ve only spent a few days shooting with it; so this review will certainly not be exhaustive. Nevertheless, there are some things that stood out right away that have definitely caught my attention. Good or bad, here’s my first impression of the D300. (Note, this review assumes moderate familiarity with camera terminology –nothing overly technical, but well beyond what the dude at Best Buy would tell you.)

I’ve shot with a D200 several times before, so most things were familiar to me. One of the first things I noticed (and liked) about the D300 was that you can change the direction of the +- exposure scale. For reasons unknown to me, Nikon puts the positive values on the left and the negative values on the right. That just seems completely backwards to me, so I was thrilled to find an option to flip the scale the other way.

On that same note, I also liked being able to switch the rotation directions of the two dials. Because I naturally think “Left=negative, right=positive” I found myself constantly setting the Exposure Compensation the wrong way. A simple switcharoo and now it feels intuitive and natural to me. (The caveat about switching the dials is that I now have to turn them the opposite way to shrink/increase the aperture/shutter. That, however, doesn’t bother me much at all.)

With the D300 Nikon has made some strides at separating focus from exposure, but it’s still not quite perfect. If I had it my way I would get ride of the useless AF-On button and make it an AF-Lock button instead. As it is, they have AE-Lock and AF-Lock in the same button –sure it works fine most of the time, but there are plenty of times when I’d like the extra control of locking the exposure separately from the focus.

As I see it, the single most frustrating thing about most cameras is that “It won’t take the picture! … Yes, I’m pressing the button all the way down, but it won’t take!” The problem is that the shutter won’t release unless it can establish a focus. The AF-Lock is a convenient way to override the settings in the camera and let you take the picture. The D300 does have an AF-Lock, but it’s one and the same with the AE-Lock. Yes, you can adjust various setting in the menu to change this, but the AF-On button cannot be customized. I think that is the single biggest shortcoming of the D300.

For the record, you can set the shutter to Release Priority rather than Focus Priority. However, when that setting is chosen the camera won’t give you the audible “beep beep” to let you know when it’s found a focus.

Even though I wish there were more things that could be customized I’ve got to give Nikon credit for the options that they have made available. For better or worse, I’ve customized my camera to the point where someone who is used to shooting with the default settings would not feel comfortable at all with mine. The beautiful thing though is that you can save your settings directly to a memory card, and then load them into another D300 and instantly be up and running the way you like. * I did this when I rented a D300 recently and it worked like a charm. Thanks for the time-saver, Nikon!

*You could conceivably copy those settings from the memory card, and then email them for someone else to plug into their D300. I haven’t tried this, but I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t work.

Just like the D200, you can save four different user-settings within the camera itself. Though the settings are more ideal to be used between different users, you could potentially create different setups to be used in different shooting environments like a studio, weddings, and sporting events.

Given my background with Minolta, I’m used to having a tactile control for everything. With the exception of creating folders and setting the flash to wireless, everything had a physical control, button, dial, switch, or knob. The D300 relies a little bit more on menu navigation, but it allows you to create a customized menu for easy access to those features you need to pull up every once in a while.

Perhaps the thing that surprised me the most is the battery life.  …it’s ridiculously awesome!  I shot a wedding for nine hours on a single battery. It didn’t even start giving me the low-battery warning.  The picture below shows the “Pic meter.”  It tells you how many pictures you’ve taken since you last changed the battery.  My Minolta gets about 400-450 shots per battery.  The D300 gets four times that!

NikonBattery-7697

It should be noted that I was shooting with the highest quality setting (14-bit RAW) for the above-mentioned 9 hours.  Speaking of RAW, I’m a huge fan of the “Lossless, Compressed” option for the NEF files.  It uses a reversible algorithm to store information, giving you considerably more mileage from your memory cards. In my experience, I can get about 550 compressed RAW files with no loss of quality on an 8 GB card.  The same card can only hold 303 uncompressed files.

As can be expected, the maximum frame rate drops to 2.5fps when you shoot at 14-bit RAW.  I did notice the frame-rate lag at times, but I’ve found the extra data to be well worth it.  I feel like I can pull much more information from the NEF files than I can out of Minolta’s MRWs.  I have yet to do some side-by-side comparisons though.

I don’t think this is new to the D300, but I love the White Balance Bias (or Fine Tuning). I often shoot in Auto WB, but I usually warm up the images in Lightroom just a hair.  The Fine Tuning option on the D300 allows me to shoot in Auto, but push the temperature up or down a little bit.  My initial reaction is that the AWB tends to err on the side of being a tad blue, but I haven’t shot with it enough to really give it a fair estimate.

Now for the playback screen.  It’s big and it’s crystal clear!  The increased resolution of the screen is truly remarkable. No longer do you have to wonder if the shot is really in focus, or how different it will look on a computer.  I was amazed at how much detail I could see in someone’s hair, and I’m also amazed at how big of a difference it makes.  Prior to using this camera I wouldn’t have thought the screen resolution mattered that much, but man, it comes through in a big way!

Also, the screen is more versatile on the D300.  Sure you can do the Live View mode, but I personally don’t think I’ll use it much.  It’s a bit too cumbersome for critical shooting anyway.  I do however really like being able to see my camera settings on the screen. Just like the control panel, it shows your shutter, f/stop, white balance, ISO, and all the other settings right on the back of the screen.  It’s most helpful when doing freestyle shots or when the camera is above eye level.

The Playback and Delete buttons have been moved right next to each other.  It’s a small change, but it feels much more intuitive.

My only request pertaining to the screen would be an option to see the Highlight warning along with a histogram. As it is, you can turn the Highlight notifications on or off, but they only show up on top of the full-screen image.  I would prefer to be able to see the image by itself, and then be able to view the image with highlights along with a histogram.

There are a host of new features that I’ve not mentioned here primarily because they don’t mean anything to me.  The 3D tracking is a nice idea, but I will probably always shoot with single-point autofocus.  Same with the Live View.  Picture Controls and Active D Lighting are probably great for people who don’t edit photos, but I use Lightroom extensively in my workflow.  I do like the Low-Pass filter, auto sensor cleaning; but I haven’t used it yet, so I can’t really say anything more about that.  And I’ve been impressed by it’s high signal-to-noise ratio, though I haven’t really pushed its limits yet.

Conclusion: the D300 is an amazing camera.  It doesn’t feel like last year’s camera with a new name.  It’s truly a new, better camera.  The battery life is extraordinary.  The screen is a thing of beauty.  The dynamic range of the 14-bit files is impressive.  And the options for customization allow you to make it your camera.  Sure there are a few things I would change if I could, but it really boils down to personal preference.  The added features and high price tag will ultimately save time and give me much greater creative control.

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