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The D300 feels solid and is comfortable to grip.
The Nikon D300 splits the difference between full-frame, professional cameras and entry-level DSLRs. We wouldn’t recommend it for first-time SLR buyers because its price, features, and controls are beyond beginners. Instead, it more closely mimics a pro-level camera, but its smaller sensor size differentiates it from its pricier siblings. (High-end pro models use a sensor that duplicates the size of 35mm film; the D300’s smaller sensor causes a relative 1.5x magnification of lenses.) Delivering sharp details and bright colors, the responsive D300 is a perfect crossover camera for graduating intermediates or advanced photographers expanding their arsenal.
Hoisting the D300, we immediately appreciated the solid-feeling body and rubber grip handles. The magnesium-alloy housing keeps light mists and dust out of the body, and all of the doors have tight, rubber fittings. We were impressed with the tightly closing CompactFlash door that swings open on a spring-loaded hinge. We tested it with Nikon’s 18-200mm VR lens bundle, in addition to other lenses. The meaty body feels balanced against this weighty lens, although the camera weight still feels manageable with smaller, lighter optics.
We had mixed results trying to access all of the camera’s buttons. Most of them are useful, immediately adjusting the ISO, metering point, and other settings beyond exposure, but we felt like typists as often as photographers, trying to peck at all of these keys. Thankfully, a customizable menu screen on the 3-inch LCD gives quick access to all of the camera settings.
The most important manual controls, two wheels easily adjust the shutter speed and aperture size. Clear meters in the viewfinder and the top-mounted LCD show the current settings and relative over- or underexposure. The viewfinder even tracks ISO settings and other details, reminding photographers of complete settings.
Manual- and autoexposure pictures look great. Our 12.3-megapixel test images showed a lot of fine details in both close-up and distant textures, such as plants and faraway buildings. We shot mostly in RAW or JPEG, but TIFF was also supported. The bundled lens produces sharp image edges across its big zoom-range. Auto white balance usually set accurate colors, snapping smooth, even skin tones (though in shady outdoor shots, colors sometimes had a blue tint, and dark indoor pictures often had a yellow cast). Indoor shots looked better, as the flash evenly lit the room and produced more accurate colors. While midly annoying, these color casts can be corrected with manual white balance or in-Mac processing.
The D300’s high-ISO performance, which is often a challenge for a camera, impressed us. This setting emulates traditional film’s rating, making photos more sensitive to light. In poorly lit indoor tests, we shot occasionally usable photos all the way up to ISO 2000, although our consistently good results were all below ISO 1000. Spackles of noise began to appear around ISO 500, but they stayed subtle until about ISO 2000. If desperate, you can try to get shots at up to ISO 6,400, but that’s more of a marketing spec than a useful setting. The VR (vibration reduction) lens also saved some shots in darker situations with longer exposures. We captured handheld, in-focus pictures all the way up to 1/3-second, which works great for stationary subjects in low light.
The D300 feels fast. It powers on and takes pictures almost immediately, which is perfect for unexpected snaps. We also clocked its burst mode at about 21 pictures per 10 seconds of constant shooting. In fact, we never found a real-world situation where we needed to shoot and the camera wasn’t ready. Even menu navigation and photo previews felt responsive and immediate, with instant review of recent images.
While the D300 includes extras that are sometimes useful—a fun time-lapse mode to record photos at intervals and a vibrating blast that knocks loose dust off the sensor—we regularly relied on the live-view mode. This pocket-camera throwback lets photographers sight shots with the LCD instead of the optical viewfinder. We tested this feature in overhead shots with crowds, easily reading and tuning exposure with onscreen feedback. Low-angle shots also benefit, where we could see the lens framing even when the camera was on the ground.
The bottom line. The D300 fits nicely between professional and beginner digital cameras. Complete manual control and excellent images make it a great backup for pros or an upgrade after intermediates outgrow their starter DSLRs.
PRICE: $1,800 for body only; $2,540 with 18-200mm VR lens
REQUIREMENTS: Mac OS X, USB or CompactFlash reader
Great image quality. Substantial, comfortable body. Snappy response time. Live-view LCD mode. Gives complete image control. Good high-ISO performance. Useful stabilizer in bundled lens.
Every surface seems covered with buttons.