The Nikon D300 DSLR


Nikon D300

First Impressions

Welcome to my thoughts and feelings about the new Nikon D300. As with all of my reviews this will not contain much technical jargon or specifications for the camera as they can be found elsewhere. Instead it will concentrate on how the camera actually performs in the field and whether it does what is says on the tin. Specifically for this camera I will concentrate on exposure, autofocus, image quality, high ISO performance and some of the new features included on the D300. It will also be a review in two stages, a First Look which is the results of my first day with the camera and then a more in-depth look at everything after a few days of working with it. The D300 is without doubt the most feature rich camera that Nikon have produced (excluding its big brother the D3 of course). Flicking through the manual I was amazed at the feature list and I think that on paper it gives most Nikon photographers everything that they need. So let’s see how it measured up.

First Look

Nikon kindly sent me one of the new 70-200 f2.8G VR lenses to use with the D300 which is great except that this is a much shorter lens than I would use at this time of the year for wildlife. I know that Nikon Pro Services are particularly busy now and all longer lenses are out and about so will have to make do with this lens for now, wex photographic have supplied me with a 1.7x teleconverter to help a little.

I shot for the day at WWT Slimbridge which I thought would give me a good chance to get close to some willing subjects and test a few things about the D300. Never really having used a Nikon before it took me a few minutes to get used to all of the controls but then I found that they were second nature, they are placed in a very intuitive way. I particularly like the multi-selector on the back which controls, amoungst other things, the autofocus point selection. The camera felt very good in the hand, not light by any means but I like a camera to have some weight behind it. One thing that became apparent during the day was the need for a vertical grip and my advice is to buy this when you get the camera as it makes shooting vertically so much easier. In fact I would consider it an essential accessory.

Picture info – all the pictures shown here are displayed as shot from the D300 and no colour manipulation has taken place. The D300 was set to a Picture Control of neutral, lossless NEF, colour space Adobe 1998 and no sharpening has been applied anywhere. The images were all processed using Adobe Lightroom 1.3.1 and again no colour corrections have been made. I just needed to get that off my chest!

Exposure

Exposure was predictably spot on and I never moved from matrix metering all day long. Initially though I found that the camera had a slight tendency to over-expose so dialed in -1/3rd stop compensation which corrected it. I should say that the range of exposure produced by the camera, as evident on the histogram, was generally perfect and when I look at the several hundred shots under Lightroom there are not many that I would delete because of the exposure. I know that experienced Nikon users will hardly be surprised by this but for me it is the first time I have used matrix metering and I see why so many photographers rely on it. No more needs to be said, the images all look darn good. I do want to test the new 14 bit option to increase the dynamic range of the NEFs but did not do so on the first day as the frame rate falls to 2.5 fps.

Image Quality

There has been a lot of hype surrounding the good quality of the D300 image and I was interested to test it for myself. The first object of my affection is a NeNe Goose and at Slimbridge they are the friendliest of geese and always the first to come up for the chance of some grain. Anyway here is my uninspiring shot of a beautiful bird:

Since I only had the 70-200 at my disposal I could not get so close to have to resort to cropping the main image as shown:

Now I have left the image at full size and remember this has not been sharpened, so look at all the detail and how sharp it is. I can see every hair at the top of the neck, an incredible amount of detail for ISO 400. This image was taken of a static goose with the autofocus set to AF-S and Dynamic Area AF so the camera did a decent job of picking the right focusing point. For some fun I set the camera to AF-C and found a more challenging subject, a wood pigeon that just would not stop moving. Again here is the full image:

And the extreme crop into the eye:

Again an amazing level of detail, this time at ISO 200, and with a constantly moving subject to boot. So what about the noise? Well I have not conducted any high ISO tests yet but I can say that at ISO 400, with the image exposed using the shoot right technique, I saw no noise to worry about in the darkest areas or blue skies, both usually a happy home for our noise friend. I will be testing this more at length but I can say that the quality of the images from the D300 is excellent.

Autofocus

The autofocus system is extremely customisable, in fact there are so many options that it pays to sit quietly and go through them all in the manual first. For the tests yesterday I primarily used AF-C continuous tracking together with Auto-area AF, in other words I put the camera in total control. I find that this is always best for any find of flight photography but unfortunately yesterday I had little chance to try it. I also set option a1 AF-C Priority Selection to Focus as I only want the camera to fire when it has achieved focus; I can see applications where some photographers just want to fire whatever but for this test I wanted to get sharp images. The great thing here, Nikon give you the option and it is explained in very simple English in the manual. This is the best result I had (yes if only I had a bigger lens to test with) using AF-C all day, which is a hunting short eared owl:

Note the sharpness of the owl but also how the AF system has managed to keep the focus despite distracting elements in the background. This was taken with the 1.7 converter attached and it did tend to hunt a bit when focus was not achieved, I suspect that this was a combination of the falling light and my inexperience with the AF settings. I did manage to get some geese and swans in flight and the AF seemed to lock on and hold quite well with the AF-C and Auto-area AF combo. I also had a couple of glorious misses too where the D300 focused on the water behind two interlocking swans, but that was partly my fault for not selecting my own autofocus point (which I would do normally). Clearly more testing is needed however after I read the manual a bit more thoroughly!

I like the way that you can customise the autofocus area to either be 9, 21 or 51 points with the latter having the extra option for 3D tracking. I did not get to test these but you can bet that I will. If you don't want to be on full auto of course you can set the D300 with the flick of a switch to allow you to select individual focus points; this uses the multi-selector on the rear and I found it obvious from the start and quick to get the point that I wanted.

Not Tested Yet

I deliberately tested only the most obvious functions as these are what 99.9999% of photographers will use, but of course the D300 provides many more. When I get the chance I will explore Active D-Lighting, Live View, 14 bit mode and all of the AF options.

Initial Thoughts

So far I feel that the D300 is a great camera and certainly worth the money. Image quality is excellent, the AF system performs well and the D300 provides a level of customisability that all genres of photography will find useful. I certainly feel that the D300 can cope with most things that I would throw at it and I would have liked the opportunity to see how it coped with a longer focal length lens. Yes I sound like a broken record so come on Nikon give me a longer lens to test with!

So there it is my first day’s shooting results with the camera and a good basis from which to form a full review over the coming weeks.

Copyright

This review is the copyright of Andy Rouse Wildlife Photography Ltd and Wex Photographic. No part of this review may be emailed, quoted or in any other way reproduced without the written permission of Andy Rouse. All opinions expressed are those of Andy Rouse and no third party has been consulted.

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