Friday, October 23, 2009

Nikon D300 Review

Nikon D300
Just a quick note before I present my thoughts, there are many reviews of the D300 that cover the technical details of the camera, so I wont be doing that here. As with my other reviews the idea is to give a users perspective on camera or equipment use in practice. So my thoughts are less about the technical details, and rather on how the camera fares out in the woods, or wherever someone might use the camera. Another quick note, my testing and speed impressions are based upon using Sandisk Extreme III (30 MB/s edition) compact flash cards.

Review of using the MB-D10 Battery Grip with the D300 added, January 2010
If you ever have a chance to pick up the D300, you might find it hard to use another lower end DSLR again, not that it keeps me from using my E-410. The grip is a perfect fit for me, keep in mind I have average sized hands, and the rubber covering the body makes it comfortable even in cool conditions. When you hold the D300, your fingers fall right where the buttons are without any effort at all. Compared to the D80/D90 body the D300 is a big step up in terms of pickup and go comfort. Unlike the lower end body you will not have your fingers getting squished between the camera bodies grip and your lens. For me the biggest challenge was remembering that the depth of field preview button and the function button switched positions, but after I got used to the change, I liked the position of these buttons more. I say that because I used the depth of field preview button often, and having it higher on the body makes it much easier to operate. On the D80/D90 body I often found it a bit of a stretch to reach the preview button.

Moving onto some other features of the D300 that make it a pleasure to use in practice. The dial that controls the shooting mode, which allows for choosing between single, two continuous shooting modes, Liveview, the self-timer and mirror lockup, is one of the biggest improvements of the D300 over the consumer models. This is a another case where the D300 allows you to quickly change settings via one dial, vs. pressing a button and turning the command dial. This mode dial replaces the standard model dial on the entry level and consumer models, so you need to be aware that there are no scene modes on the D300, which is fine for me because I have not used a scene mode since moving to a DSLR. The ISO, WB and Quality buttons are also well placed on top of this mode dial. One of the nice touches about using this controls on the left side of the body is how Nikon designed the grip, which allows you to comfortably change those settings with one hand. Are the dedicated buttons on top for ISO, WB and Quality a big improvement over the D70/D80/D70 buttons that run down the side of the body? I would say yes and no. I find that I have to look away from the viewfinder more with the D300, but once you get used to the change it is no faster or slower.

The shutter button is more comfortable, and is softer, which I really like. The lower end consumer camera shutter buttons have a very solid click between the half press and a full release, while on the D300 it is soft and easy to move between the half press and releasing the shutter. For someone first learning to use an SLR, it is very different from a point and shoot camera. One of the first options I changed when I received my D300 was to turn off the feature that allowed a half press of the shutter button to activate auto focus. The Auto focus on button is well placed, and much easier to use, especially when you are using continuous auto focus. I use a half press of the shutter button to lock exposure, and find that far more useful, as I programmed the AF-L/AE-L button to do something else. One other feature of the D300 that I find very nice to have over the lower end bodies is the small dial around the AF-L/AE-L button that controls the metering mode. The dial is so much quicker than having to press a button and turn a command dial, such as on the D80/D90, or dive into menus on the entry level models.

As for overall build quality, all I can say is wow. I've not held a better made piece of hardware, period. The pop up flash does leave a little to be desired, and is a weak point on the body, but otherwise everything is rock solid. I know some people do not like having the release on the card slot, but I love it. I often found that as I was moving my hand around on the body that I would pop open the SD card slot on the D80/D90, but never on the D300 thanks to the release mechanism. In fact I was sad to see the slot release lever removed in the D300s upgrade. There is of course one big downside to the D300's build quality, and as I have mentioned this issue here before, weight. Yes you get one of the toughest cameras on the market today, but with that tank like build quality, you also get tank like weight. That being said, the tank light weight is worth carrying to me, simply because the controls and build quality more than make up for that one, and in my option, only downside to the D300. If I am out specifically to take photographs, the D300 is the camera in my bag, no questions asked. On the other hand, if I am out with friends and family, times when photography is not the focus of my outing, then I grab the Olympus E-410.

Now, I'm going to shift into the more practical part of my review, using the camera in the field. So far I have used the D300 mostly for bird photography, to which it is well suited. The fast frame rate (6 FPS) makes the D300 a big step up from my older cameras, although I did find the 4.5FPS of the D90 to be good enough in most situations. That being said, there have been times where I most likely would have missed the shot if I had not been holding down the shutter and getting a fast burst off. For that reason I use UDMA compact flash cards in my D300, and they work as advertised. The D80 and D90 would quickie bog down, after 5 or 6 RAW images, while the D300 motors on, often allowing me to take 15-16 (12bit loss-less compressed) RAW images before the buffer cannot flush fast enough to keep up with the camera. Auto focus on the D300 also helps me obtain better results, it is slightly faster to react, and achieves focus in far less time. Being a few seconds, or milliseconds faster does not sound like a lot, but when you are shooting moving subjects it can mean the different between getting the shot or an empty frame. For anyone who is thinking of moving up to the D300(s) from a D70/D80/D90 or other consumer body, be prepared for a big change in terms of the auto focus system. Even after a month of use I still find times when I'm not sure what auto focus mode is best for a given situation. That being said, for bird photography I find dynamic, continuous, 21 point zone, auto focus the most affective. Using all 51 points to auto focus on something small and extremely quick, such as small birds, is not ideal, which is why I use the 21 point mode, which is generally much faster. The best part of having 51 auto focus points is flexibility in terms of framing, you do not have to limit yourself to framing based the sparse 11 AF points. That being said, 11 points are just fine in many situations, but when you are dealing with live moving subjects, it is a lot easier to achieve the desired results with the 51 AF points of the D300.

There are many advantages to the auto focus system of the D300 over the lower end Nikon cameras, but it still is not perfect, and there are still some situations where auto focal fails to work. The 15 cross type sensors in the middle of the frame do better than the rest, but I have still encountered a few subjects that the system could not focus on. Now my issue with auto focus is most likely not a common problem. The problem arises in low contrast settings on distant subjects, and only seems to effect my telephoto lenses. The issue seems strange to me, but the D80 did not seem to have trouble, or at least not as noticeably, under the same conditions. Considering how often I encounter this problem, I'll say it is troubling to me, but many users may not even notice this. At this time I am still considering taking the camera into Nikon to be checked, as I would expect the higher end auto focus system of the D300 to out perform the D80s

As for Image quality of the D300 matches the D90 for the most part. The D90 does have a slight, but hardly notable edge in terms of high ISO noise. That said, that edge can be negated by shooting in 14bit mode and using high end noise reduction software. It is a big leap up from older Nikon cameras in the high ISO department, but otherwise noise is very similar to older models. Resolution is slightly better than the D90 from my point of view, RAW images do seem sharper.

The D300 is a great DSLR, no questions asked. The build quality and speed in operation leaves you wondering if you will ever need another camera again, and why you didn't just buy it as your first camera. That said, I do not think the D300 would make a good first DSLR, because there are so many features to learn over the entry level or consumer DSLRs. The lack of scene modes may also turn off first time buyers, or people who do not have a lot of knowledge about photography, but still want the quality that a DSLR system offers. For people who want those features the Nikon D3000, D5000, D90 or Canon Digital Rebel XSi and T1i would be a far better options. For people who need a tough, more weather resistant body, and demand a camera that can handle just about anything you throw at it the D300/D300s is in the running. I say that because Canon does offer some nice cameras, the 50D and the 7D in the same prosumer range. I chose the D300 simply because I was already invested in the Nikon lens system, and because I find the Nikon camera bodies to be better made and the interface is nicer to use. Of course the Canon cameras do have the advantage in mega pixels, having 15MP and 18MP, vs the 12MP of the D300, but I find 12MP to be more than enough for the kind of work that I am doing. The only issue I have with the D300 is the auto focus problem I encountered, and that may only be an issue with my D300, as I've not heard of any wide spread issues with auto focus.

Use of the D300 with the MB-D10 Battery Grip 
As for the MB-10 battery  grip for the D300/D700, I like it, for the most part. On my D300, I like the added grip it provides for horizontal shooting, along with the improved balance given with longer telephoto lenses, like my 300mm F4 AF-S. The added weight of the grip, doesn't seem that much, and it is hard to believe the grip itself weighs almost as much as my E-410 camera body. The construction of the MB-D10 is solid, although I think the battery door on the grip should have better weather/dust sealing, though I'm not sure how Nikon could improve it.
When I use the grip with my mid-range zooms, griping the lenses can be a little bid challenging, but the camera does balance out very well. You do have to be careful, because you cannot just put your camera down with a lens attached, you need to lay the body down on its side or your lens will some down. With shorter prime lenses, like the 28mm F2.8D or 50mm 1.8D, that is not a problem, and I like working with them on the D300 + MB-D10. As noted before, longer lenses balance much better with the grip attached, and makes hand holding them far easier.
As for the vertical shutter release itself, I find it to be a little bit more sensitive than the shutter on the D300 body, but not by much. I've heard that the D700 shutter release is more like that of the MB-D10, and since those bodies also work together I can see them being a good combination as well. The AF-ON button on the grip does not feel as solid as the one on the D300 body, but it is equally as responsive, so no change there. I do like having the multi-selector on the grip, vs. the MB-D80 that I used with my D80, on which you had to use the D pad on the camera body. The multi-selector is a little stiff and it is extremely hard to use as anything more than a 4 way controller, as the other directions are very stiff and it almost feels like it could break the pad if you try to use the other directions very much.

Overall, I like the grip. Even though the grip has some minor issues, none of them are to great to be overcome. The grip itself, for vertical shooting is extremely comfortable, and the rubber feels very nice in your hand, in fact it seems a little bit softer than the rubber on the D300 itself.

Upgrade fever?
Is the D300 a lot better than the D90, is it worth switching? Yes and no. If build quality, and the ability to quickly change settings on the fly are important to you, the D300 may be worth getting. If you are looking for an improvement in image quality, there is not practical difference. If you need a better auto focus system for the types of photography that interest you, the D300 has that. If weight is a concern for you, stick with the D90, as the build quality of the D300 comes with a price. If you have big hands and find the smaller bodies to cramped, the D300 may be an option, but unless you need the higher end features you may still want to stick with the D90. If you want video the D90 and the D300s have it, but not the original D300. The D90 would make for a good backup body for a D300 user, but only in cases when you don't have cash to have two D300 bodies.

What kind of photographer is the D300 best suited for? The D300 is for serious photographers who demand a lot from their camera in terms of build quality, speed and who need the ability to control important features quickly.

What kind of photographer is the D300 not well suited for? The D300 is most likely not a good camera for someone who moving to an SLR system from a point and shoot camera, simply due to the complex nature of the camera itself. Not that a beginner couldn't use the D300, but the learning curve would be extremely steep.