Nikon D300: First Impressions

Photography May 28, 2008

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On August 23, 2007 Nikon introduced two new pro-level cameras: the top-of-the-line D3 and the more modestly priced D300. Both cameras offer weather-sealed bodies, 12.3 Mpix sensors, high-speed photography, 51-point autofocus, 1,005 point exposure sensor but the D300 offers all this in a small body form-factor with a DX sensor (1.5x EFOV) for only $1,799 USD.

I was a lifelong Canon shooter. My first Canon was an AE-1. I then moved up to a T90 which served me well for many years. I traded in my beloved T90 for an EOS 10S, my first autofocus SLR. Later I purchased a Canon EOS D60 and then sold it to get a Canon EOS 1D Mk II. Canon’s digital offerings were fine cameras but I found that the photos taken by even a pro level camera like the EOS 1D Mk II required lots of massaging to get to a final form.

Then, through my other websites (PlanetAMD64 & PlanetX64), I was offered a chance to try out a Nikon D40x as part of a “Ready for Windows Vista” campaign. The Nikon D40x is an entry level DSLR recently superceded by the Nikon D60. Still, it is an excellent little camera. More importantly, it gave me a taste of the kinds of files Nikon DSLRs can produce. I was hooked.D300 with 18-200mm lens and optional MB-D10 grip

I decided that the D300 was more to my liking and after some tests at my local camera dealer (always support your local camera dealers), I picked up the D300 + 18-200mm VR kit.

Build quality

The D300 can be considered a bottom-of-the-line Pro camera which puts it above a top-of-the-line consumer camera. The D300 shares many build features with it’s big brother, the D3.

Magnesium chassis of the D300 and MB-D10 gripThe chassis is made of solid magnesium, which is lightweight, yet very strong. Even the optional MB-D10 grip is made of the stuff. The body is weather-sealed against dust and moisture. Mind you, this does not mean that it’s waterproof! Dunk this camera in the water and your off to get it repaired/replaced. In my hands, the camera feels solid. Even the optional MB-D10 grip feels like it’s been welded on. This solidity comes with a price, albeit not a great one: weight. The D300 weighs in at 825g (1.82 lbs) without the battery. More if you add the MB-D10 and its second battery. However, this is positively svelte compared to my old Canon EOS 1d Mk II that weighed in at 1565g (3.45 lbs). Leica M8 with Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 + External viewfinderClamping a decent sized zoom lens turns the 1D Mk II into a ticket to the chiropractor. Mind you, these cameras are elephantine compared to my Leica M8. I can walk around with my M8 all day long and never feel it.

features

Whereas my Leica M8 presents the minimalist view of photography, the Nikon D300 has more bells and whistles than the Wizard of Oz. The manual included with the camera is over 420 pages long. In one language. I’ve had smaller textbooks in grad school.

To cover every feature in detail is the perfect insomnia cure, so I won’t do that. I will, however, touch upon those features that most impressed me and made this my DSLR of choice.

12.3 megapixel DX sensor – even though this sensor has a crop factor of 1.5x, the resolution and improved high-ISO performance gives the D300 the flexibility to work in all kinds of lighting situations with ease. ISO 1600 images are totally usable from this sensor.

Auto ISO adjustment – this is the ultimate “PHD” feature (Push Here, Dummy). Set the camera to Program Mode (which adjusts the shutter speed and aperture) and Auto ISO will bump up the sensitivity to keep shutter speeds above a minimum value. Deep within the menus are located the screens for setting minimum shutter speed desired and min/max ISO values accepted. I currently have mine set to 1/125s minimum speed and ISO values from 200-1600.

Six Frames per Second (or more) – the D300 can shoot up to six frames per second. These are full resolution 12.3 Mp images. Add the MB-D10 with ENL-4e battery or a set of eight (8) AA alkalines and you can bump that up to 8 frames per second!

Live View – Ok this one is huge. Live View is actually fairly old-hat in the Point-and-Shoot camera arena, but is a enormous leap forward in the DSLR world. Live View allows you to use the DSLR’s LCD screen to focus and compose the picture.

Big deal.

It is, actually. DSLR have a mirror located just behind the lens. This mirror is what enables you (in combination with some other optics) to see what your lens is seeing (DSLR, for the uninitiated, stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex). To enable Live View, the camera flips the mirror up and opens the shutter allowing the sensor to capture images and display them on the back LCD. Typical applications are for overhead composition, however, in the realm of macro and product photography, this feature turns the D300 into a mini View Camera of sorts, allowing precision focusing and framing. You can even use the built-in digital zoom to control the focus even more tightly.

Well that’s about it for this entry. As I run across more interesting things, I will post updates to this review.

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