Review: Nikon D300

January 8th, 2008

Since I bought my Nikon D40 back about a year ago I’ve taken nearly 20,000 shots with it and could not be happier with the device. It does everything I had hoped it would and had a large enough feature set that I could grow into it a bit. I love it. It marks a real turning point for me in terms of becoming a ‘photographer’. One thing to be clear on though, spending money on cameras does not a good photographer make. What the D40 does do for me is allow the camera to get out of the way and let me take pictures.

As time has progressed however I’ve learned a lot and have begun to try taking some shots that my camera is not perfectly suited for. To that end, I started looking for a new device. As you can tell, I chose the Nikon D300. It was a tough decision for me but in the end I think the high cost will be worth it. The D300 is what Nikon positions as a semi-professional camera. It’s step down from their flagship D3 but still contains about 90% of the feature set. Truth be told the D300 cost me about the same amount of money as I have spent on all my other photography gear combined. This was not a decision I took lightly.

I was looking for a device that would allow me to do a number of very specific tasks but I also work professionally in the IT industry so I tend to be very forward looking, more on that later. Something that was of utmost importance to me was being able to focus Nikon’s older AF lenses. My D40 was able to focus AF-S lenses, lenses that have the focusing motors built in, but not the older style AF lenses, lenses that rely on a motor built into the camera to focus the lens. This is a problem that is not a real issue for most photographers, all new lenses are AF-S but, as I’ve written about before, Nikon’s fast ‘Prime’ lenses are only AF. Things like my much loved 50mm F/1.8 are manual focus only on the D40, though things like aperture and exposure work just fine. I find my self shooting more and more indoors or in dark auditoriums and having the speed of f/1.8 is very important but having to manually focus means I loose a lot of shots. The D300 solves this problem for me.

I also wanted a camera that I could set up to shoot a shot, lets say, every minute for 3 hours. This was impossible on my D40. There is a trade of here though. My D40 has the option of using a $15 dollar infrared remote to take a shot, dead simple to use not to mention small and cheap. My D300 requires me to spend $150+ to get the same ability, through with a larger (more feature-full) remote and a cable that connects an infrared receiver. Not cool.

I also have a tendency to shoot amateur sporting events. There is a softball league some family and friends play in and I enjoy breaking out the camera and monopod to shoot some of their games. My D40 worked great for this. For the first time I was able to get some decent action shots but at 2.5 frames per second I sometimes wished I have a few more shots. With the D300 I can shoot up to 8 frames per second, so that should help out there. Also being able to use a fast prime lens will help out too. Sports and manual focus don’t mix…

The D300 also supports something called a camera grip. Basically it’s an extra hunk you mount to the bottom of the camera. It offers two basic things. One is a second shutter release button that is more comfortable for use when taking portrait style shots, holding the camera vertically rather then horizontally. Rumor is it’s more comfortable and more balanced. The attractive part of the grip for me though is the space for a second battery. This means longer shooting days for one but most intriguing, the grip for the D300 will also accept AA batteries, albeit 8 of them. This is excellent for me. Ever been shooting and had the batteries die? Whoops.. got to go charge… Well now all I need to do is through in a handful and I’m off and running again. They may not last as long as the usual battery but they will last long enough for me to charge the other battery. Very nice indeed.

The addition of what Nikon calls ‘Commander Mode’ is excellent as well. Basiclly the camera has the ability to wireless control Nikon’s flash products. Specifically the SB-600 and the SB-800. It’s works fairly well if you are close and the sensor can see the flash. It adds a level of creativity you can’t otherwise get and being built into the camera as well as the flash already it’s not hard to use or setup. The D300 allows you to send the flashes to automatic or it allows you to manually change their settings, right from the camera. I can’t think of a better way to experiment and learn how to use flash for more then bouncing off the ceiling. (Read more about off camera flash at the Strobist blog, it’s an excellent resource)

With the D300 I was also looking forward to some comfort enhancements as well as a doubling in megapixels, from 6 to 12. These are nice but not make or break for me. My 6MP shots on the D40 look amazing and easily print giant 16×20″ shots without a problem.

Reading over this this now, and when I was considering my next body it’s clear to me that Nikon makes a number of other cameras that could do some of these tasks. I could have picked up a D80 for $800 and been able to focus my primes, still use a battery grip ect ect but when buying things digital I find it’s best to look forward and not back. The D80 is getting a bit long in the tooth and is, I’m sure, bound for an update in the coming months. There is nothing wrong with it, it’s a great camera but it’s built from yesterdays technology. Your mileage may vary…

So, lets talk trade offs, as I’ve made a number of them. The D300 is big, perhaps twice as large as my D40 in practical terms. It lacks any kind of automatic modes for shooting like night or portrait, and has a much more complicated user interface. For me having no auto modes is a non-issue. I honestly never used them on the D40. The user interface is more complicated but it also allows me to create my own custom menus to simplify things down and let me see just the controls I’m interested in. Plus, with Nikon exposing the more nit-picky features I can control things to a greater degree when I want to. The weight however is a loss for me. It’s is big and it is heavy…. coming from a guy who thought the D40 was heavy. Once you use an SLR though you learn very quickly that it’s worth it…

The flip side though is that I’m not getting rid of my D40. The D40 will still travel with me everywhere I go with the fantastic 24-120mm VR lens attached. I will keep the D300 at home unless I’m headed out for some shooting. I’ll bring the D300 to concerts and functions and on hikes in the woods but when I head out to work or out to run errands it’s the D40 that I will carry. Making it trivial for me to still get great shots no matter where I am but not be weighed down by a full bag of lenses and bodies. The weight off my mind of not having to worry about several thousands dollars worth of camera gear is motivation enough for me…

So, as you have likely noticed I’ve not really reviewed the camera. It’s great, don’t get me wrong but I’m not going to sit here and write a long drawn out review. I’ve created a D300 category here on the blog and over time I will post thoughts and comments on the camera. I’ve only had it for 5 days and haven’t taken the camera anywhere serious yet so my experience is limited. Keep you eyes peeled though and feel free to post comments with questions you’d like answered, if you have any. As you know I’m not a pro-photographer, I’m just a regular guy who likes to shoot and I would be happy to answer questions from that point of view instead of from a guy who needs the camera to make a living.


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