Consumer-level DSLRs such as the A-Listed Canon 400D and Nikon D40x offer an excellent route into serious digital photography but, after a certain amount of time, users are likely to outgrow their entry-level equipment. This is where DSLRs like the D300 step in: it’s a marked step above the D40x, but any lenses Nikon users have bought will still be compatible.
The D300 is a mixture of consumer and professional specifications. It has a built-in flash, for instance (although this is badly obscured by the lens hood that accompanies the 17-55mm f/2.8 lens, pictured), and its 12.3-megapixel sensor isn’t full frame.
Instead, it’s Nikon’s DX format, which at 23.6 x 15.8mm is almost exactly the same size as the APS-C sensors found in Canon’s consumer range and the Sony A700. But, like Nikon’s professional range, the D300’s body is magnesium alloy and weighs 964g with no lens. This is heavy, but with the lens pictured it weighs 1.8kg.
The payback is ruggedness – during the course of testing, our luckless D300 was rained and trodden on, yet survived both. The areas of the camera you’ll actually hold are covered by thick tactile rubber, and the doors hiding the ports and sockets are covered in the same – dust- and moisture-proofing the D300. Beneath the rubber flaps are sockets for video-out, including HDMI, in a nod to those with modern TVs. There’s also a socket for DC-in, plus an array of sockets for external lighting rigs and remote shutter-release cords.
The viewfinder is comfortable, bright and spectacularly large, besides offering 100% coverage, so an image framed through the viewfinder is precisely what the sensor captures, rather than the 95% of the Nikon D80
and Canon 40D
. The image review screen is equally enormous, measuring 3in diagonally. It’s also unusually high resolution: the Canon 40D provides 230,000 pixels in the same amount of space, while the D300 has 920,000.
The result is that reviewing images is a joy, and you can tell almost at a glance whether focus is as you want it, without zooming in. The D300 also supports live view, in which the image is relayed directly to the screen. The extra resolution helps here – manually focusing an onscreen image is much easier with the D300 than with the 40D’s near-identical feature.
Otherwise, you need only refer to the top-mounted LCD to make the more technical changes. Everyday settings – including white balance, ISO and bracketing – are accessed by holding the relevant button on the camera’s left and flicking the command wheel to cycle through the options. To make changes as fast as possible, a top-mounted monochrome LCD shows current shot and focus information.
It would be more convenient on the back, but provides a wealth of information. Also, nudge the power switch an extra stop after turning on the D300 and the backlight pops on – useful when shooting in the dark. Finally, a prod of the Info button displays all the current shooting information on the main LCD.
Performance is the name of the game. Out of the box, the D300 shoots at up to 6fps, rising to 8fps with the optional MB-D10 battery pack. This doesn’t tell the whole story, however.
While the Canon 40D can shoot effectively forever in continuous mode (in our tests, it managed 188 images before running out of buffer), the D300 has a fixed buffer of 12 shots in all quality modes. This is generally enough, but sports photographers should beware the potential limitation, particularly when bracketing. Its quality modes are at least expansive: besides standard RAW and JPEG modes, you can select RAW plus any JPEG mode, as well as TIFF.
It’s fair to expect excellent image quality from such expensive hardware, and the D300 doesn’t disappoint. Our test shots produced superb colours and fabulously low noise. In the dark it was revolutionary: shooting people and places at ISO 3200 with no flash produced impressively sharp images.
For those looking to upgrade from a Nikon D40 or a D80, the D300 is an obvious choice. But the Canon 40D still worth considering. The 40D’s build quality, handling and body-mounted controls are similar, it’s better at handling continuous bursts and the body is $800 cheaper. But you lose the 12-megapixel resolution and it can’t match the D300’s low-light performance.
A final word of note also goes to Canon’s full-frame EOS 5D, which you can now pick up for less than $2400. Performance takes a hit (the 5D’s maximum continuous shooting speed is 3fps), but noise levels are lower.
This may be a superior choice for people with many Canon lenses but the D300 is more modern and will suit professionals and amateurs alike.