Until recently I had a D80 and I also wrote a review about it. So I think it would be useful for you, D80 owners and D300 prospect buyers, to have some clues about what this D300 is about from a former D80 user. I will update my review as I’ll be getting into more and more of this camera.
First noticeable difference is the size. The D300 is bigger and heavier than the D80, but the size it is not a problem for mid-sized hands like mine are. About weight: I bought a neoprene strap some time ago for my D80. I use it also on the D300. The strap which is included with the camera is a bit too rough for my skin and the weight of camera can be a real pain if you carry it on too long. Any neoprene strap will do, just choose one which is a bit more elastic and has a smooth internal layer (touch it, it is important to do that BEFORE you buy it).
You won’t notice any important difference in the feeling of the grip size, although it is a bit bulkier, because the body has been reshaped in the back of the camera so it is easy to hold it even with one hand. On the back, there is a handy AF-ON button which is completely in the reach of your thumb and the AE-L/ AF-L button is not far from it either. The body has a rubbery feel which is different than the D80 (more plastic) and lays comfortable in your hands giving you the sensation of a good grip.
One thing that annoys most photographers is to have to lower the camera from their eyes very often when they change some settings. You will not have a mode dial, like in D80, just a button and only 4 modes that will be displayed in the viewfinder; this is a pro camera, the amateur-like modes (portrait, night etc) are gone. It will be very nice for you to know that you don’t have to change white balance, ISO and picture quality settings by looking at the back of the camera (like on the D80) to find the buttons. They are on the top, like on D200, which I think it is very convenient because they are arranged in a triangle shape and you can get to your needed button without removing the camera from your eye, because you will remember quite quickly the location of each button: front the quality, left the white balance, right the ISO. Moreover, ISO setting is displayed in the viewfinder and you’ll be quite amazed to find how useful this little feature is ! On the D80 I had to use and push the custom function button to see this or to look on top, on the LCD display. On top right are only two buttons: to the left is the mode, to the right is the exposure compensation (use this with caution with matrix metering). Voila, with four buttons you control the most important settings for taking pictures, and, best of all, you know their location without having to look at them. What needs special attention is the release mode dial, is the one you have to look at when changing modes. The rest of lever controls have only three positions so it’s very easy to know which one position is which.
The build quality is outstanding, it looks and feels like a tank. Remember that, with camera, you are getting an environmental sealing which is not the case for the D80/40/40x. Combine that with a sealed lens like the 17-55DX f/2.8 and you’ll gone have a very nice combo even in bad weather. Is that important ? Yes, it is. Otherwise you have to take care all the time and protect your camera from water drops, dust and snowflakes. The sound of the shutter is softer (more silent) than on the D80, probably because of some other materials were used for building the mirror holder and the shutter.
ISO and Noise
The noise at high ISO is outstanding. When I purchased the D80 I found myself very often wanting to shoot in lowlight conditions and I got a Nikon SB800 for that. However, using flash to some extent annoys people and high ISO was mandatory in such situations. Now you can use ISO 3200 with 100% confidence and getting low noise, well-detailed photos with good saturated colors will be a rule. ISO 1600 is almost noise free, you can see it at pixel peeping but for prints it is non-existent. More important than low noise is detail preservation at high ISO. The 2 more megapixels also help. What helps most on the field is the Auto ISO feature, something that I have never used on the D80. I took shots using a minimum shutter speed of 1/50 s and ISO as high as 2000. That gives you a very wide range of exposure options without being afraid of noise and lost details. One advice, though: be sure to set high ISO noise reduction to low or none (in the menus). You can always remove any noise with a software but never can recover lost details. For noise removal I strongly recommend Nik Software Dfine 2.0 plugin for Adobe Photoshop or Imagenomics Noiseware. In my opinion, the ISO 3200 is a blessing. That means you can take photos in rooms lit with 60W light bulbs without having to cry for blotchy images. If on the D80 ISO 3200 was good (in my opinion) for 6×4 prints and black and white larger images, with D300 you can go far beyond that. Image quality wise, ISO 6400 on the D300 is almost on par with ISO 1600 on the D80, and, more important, using a noise reduction software you can get very good looking images out of ISO 6400 pictures.
No more complaints for “matrix overexposure” fans, although I always felt that this “overexposure” is more related to poor usage of this metering mode on the D80. On D300, the matrix is spot on, and you’ll like it as much as I do, on sunny, cloudy, evening and artificial light, including the TTL mode on flash.
Focus: this will hit you. Actually nobody could understand (neither did I) what a pro-level focusing system means until you’ll be using one. No more hit and miss, no more problems on portrait compositions, no more problems of focusing with AF points other than the central one. The settings menu will give you a plethora of possible focus combinations, and memory banks to save your settings for quick selection. When you’ll get your D300, do this test: on continuous servo high speed, track a car. You could make a movie with those sharp images.
I have a habbit, I always shoot in Adobe RGB mode. It is the best way to do when you are after the most color information from one scene. Moreover, even if you have aRGB jpegs, you can always assign a different lower-gamut profile in Adobe Photoshop CS3 or other image editing software. The colors ARE different than the D80’s: closer to the warm side of the spectrum, gone is the sometime-magenta cast that you once noticed on your D80 especially under bright sun. The colors ARE PERFECT. So perfect that you can distinguish between subtle tonalities on flowers, skin tones and complexions, to a much better extent than with the D80. The shadows won’t have any bluish creep anymore, dark is dark, black is black, maroon is maroon etc. Even at high ISO, the noise is more luminance than bluish. Again, you have a entire army of in-camera settings for colors, brilliance, contrast, hue … you can customize your preferences for image rendition, you can save more than neutral-vivid-black and white modes personal settings for color and luminance settings. There is only one single exception to this perfection which you have to consider: when using dynamic D-lighting mode, colors tend to get more saturated as high as you get with your D-lightings settings. On RAWs (NEFs) this is easily corrected in your raw processing software, but on jpegs and tiffs, quite difficult.
Please, please use Nikon Capture NX Software for Windows and Mac or ACR from Adobe Photoshop CS3. The results with Lightroom are horrendous in terms of noise reduction. I don’t know why, it should have the same RAW engine as Photoshop CS3. UPDATE: These problems seem to come from preproduction firmware NEFs. I found no more problems opening NEFs in Lightroom with a production firmware camera.
Please remember that the first 300.000 D300 sold also have a license for Capture NX included in the box (I also got it) so you won’t have to spend on licenss. I like the way this software renders colors and noise even if it does not have the most impressive interface one ever built. One more advantage with Capture NX 1.3: you have a new “Picture Control” menu under “Camera Settings” which you can use to add custom picture settings to the D300 (and name them as you want “less vivid”, “more neutral” etc) and a custom-curve editor that you can use to add more control to your custom picture preset. Moreover, the 1.3 version of NX picture control options come with some D2x-image-like presets that are great for rendering skin tones in portraits.
If you shoot in 14-bit mode (recommended if you shoot RAW or TIFF and have to shoot high dynamic scenes), please remember that the RAW files, uncompressed, are somewhere around 25 MB each. Get a fast card. I bought a SanDisk 4 GB Extreme IV CompactFlash Card, that supports 40MB/s transfer. It runs smoothly, the camera buffer will not clog. Take care: 25 MB NEF file will stress your computer out and squeeze all resources from it. You need at least 2 GB of RAM (I have 4), and a fast processor. I have a Core2Duo 6300 plus win XP 64 bit edition to avoid RAM limitation. Update May 7, 2008: I bought also a 8GB 300x UDMA Lexar CF card to have another CF card for my camera and it seems to me that the write and read speed on the Lexar is inferior to the Sandisk Ultra IV. So my advice is to stick with Sandisk.
I won’t go into details, but I just want you to know that I have this camera for less than 24 hours, I already shot >100 photos (Update May 7, 2008: >3,000 photos; no hotspots, dead pixels, nada), and I love all of them. It is a perfect upgrade for my needs.
Promise to come back with further news.
Update (22 Jan 2008 – after two months of use):
No problems whatsoever. The camera works like a charm. I’m delighted.
Update (7 May 2008):
No problems encountered. Meanwhile I purchased a Voigtlander APO Lanthar 90mm f/3.5 for Nikon which is an amazing lens – manual focusing – for its price, and a Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 EX DC HSM Lens which is quite a fun to use a get photos with it. Is nice to have the added possibility of using metering with an AIS-like lens.