Aspiring photographers looking to make the jump from an entry-level digital SLR to something more professional have a lot of good options these days. But the best camera we've seen so far in the so-called "semi-pro" DSLR category also happens to be the most expensive: the 12.3-megapixel Nikon D300, which retails for $1,799--and that doesn't even include a lens. Though your wallet might not appreciate it, the photography lover inside you definitely will, as Nikon has developed a worthy upgrade to its popular D200 DSLR.
Professional Look & Feel
Just pick up the D300 and you'll know you have a serious machine in your hands. Weighing about 2 pounds without a lens, the D300 has a tough magnesium alloy chassis while its exterior is made of polycarbonate with a rubberized front section that wraps around the handgrip to the thumbrest on the back. It's hefty, but well balanced with good ergonomics that makes the camera feel great. The entire body is gasketed and sealed to prevent dust and moisture from seeping in.
We put this protection to the test while photographing wild turkeys during a snowstorm in upstate New York. Though thick snowflakes covered the camera body as we shot, the D300 kept on firing, getting us great photos of the turkeys as they ran through the woods. Later, all it took was a dry towel to wipe the camera down, and it was as good as new.
Like many professional-level cameras, most of the features and settings on the D300 are accessible via buttons, and while figuring out what each one does will have you thumbing through the manual, they're all clearly marked and easy to access. The camera's 3-inch screen is bright and sharp with 307,000 pixels and a 170-degree viewing angle, which is great for reading menu items, reviewing images in playback, and framing shots in Live View. The D300 also boasts an improved optical viewfinder over the D200 with nearly 100 percent coverage.
Plenty of Features
Unlike some competing models, select Nikon lenses feature built-in image stabilization. We took shots using a very nice AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 DX zoom lens ($680), which uses Nikon's Vibration Reduction (VR) image stabilization technology. A VR lens is an extra investment that will significantly increase the price of your overall system. However, results from this camera with the VR lens were superb.
The D300 also has a new autofocus system, which features 15 cross-type or 36 horizontal sensors that you can use individually or in groups of 9, 21, or 51. Plus, the camera has a 3D Focus Tracking feature, which automatically switches among focus points on the 51-point array to help you track a moving subject.
We stumbled a bit with the D300's Live View feature, which lets you compose shots using the LCD and comes in one version for handholding your camera and another for use with a tripod. As with other Live View modes on DLSRs these days, both types were too slow and cumbersome for the most active-shooting situations. If you have more time to shoot, such as when photographing a still life, Live View might help you better frame your shots.
Spectacular Image Quality
The images you'll capture with this camera are definitely high class. Like many recent semipro DSLRs, the D300 uses a CMOS imaging sensor designed to capture low-noise images with when shooting in low light at high ISOs. You can manually adjust the ISO from 200 to 3200 or expand the range from 100 to 6400 by selecting the Extended ISO mode.
Although images started to get a little noisy above ISO 2000, compared with competing DSLRs in this class, they were among the cleanest we've seen. Photos we shot of a Victorian house at ISO 640 and ISO 800 during the snowstorm had vivid colors, with the yellow wood siding of the house showing good punch, and the dark-red shutters looking deep and rich but with low noise.
In dull, flat light, however, such as during a day we photographed ice-skaters at Wollman Rink in New York City's Central Park, we needed help from the Vivid setting in the Picture Control System--which lets you preset the color and tone of your images--to pump up our shots. We also tried the Monochrome setting, and while we liked the dark, moody images of a duck pond we got in this mode, we usually got more artful, contrasted results when we converted our images to black and white in Adobe Photoshop CS3.
Speed and Battery Life
We especially liked the D300's fast overall speed, which is boosted by Nikon's new Expeed Image Processing System. The camera powered on in 0.13 seconds and had virtually no shutter lag. The D300's 6-frames-per-second shooting speed was a notch below the Canon EOS 40D's 6.5 fps but still impressive. You can add the optional MB-D10 Multi-Power battery grip, which will give you 8-fps speed but costs $249.
While the new autofocus system was fast and accurate, the 3D Focus Tracking was a little wonky, especially in low-contrast situations--such as with the wild turkeys--where it would sometimes focus around the subject but not directly on it. A new Scene Recognition System--which works in the background, unlike similar systems on point-and-shoots--automatically tweaks settings to optimize picture-taking for specific scenes, and it seemed to work well.
Battery life was strong. The D300 is rated at 1,000 shots per charge when using the optical viewfinder (Live View drains it more quickly), which is well above average. After a full weekend of capturing more than 100 images, using both the optical viewfinder and the Live View, the battery meter decreased only one notch.
Nikon D300 Verdict
If you're serious about photography and don't mind spending extra money to upgrade to a serious DSLR, the Nikon D300 is about the best investment you can make. While the 10.1-megapixel Canon EOS 40D and the 12.2-megapixel Sony Alpha A700 are good (and cheaper) semipro digital SLRs, the D300 is the all-around best camera in this category for image quality, speed, durability, and features. Along with the extra cash, you'll likely spend a lot of time learning everything this complicated but high-performing camera can do. But if taking great pictures means a lot to you, the D300 is worth it.