The digital SLR market is getting pretty crowded these days, with electronics companies muscling in on territory that once belonged to a handful of optical specialists. But although Sony and Samsung are producing increasingly competent budget and even enthusiast level cameras, the top-end prosumer field still belongs to Canon, Nikon and Olympus.
The Nikon D300 straddles the consumer and professional markets, offering the raw power and image quality that pros demand, alongside more popular features such as a large screen, hi-def support and Live View framing.
The price reflects its top-end specification: a body-only D300 will currently set you back around £1,050. We tested it using the Nikon AF-S DX 17-55mm f/2.8G lens, and you'll need several 2GB memory cards and possibly a Nikon SB-800 Speedlight flash in addition.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. The design of SLRs hasn't substantially changed in the last 50 years, and the D300 shouldn't flummox anyone who's ever used a mid-range film or digital reflex camera. It's on the large and heavy side -- well over a kilo by the time you attach a lens -- and key controls are pretty much where you'd expect them, scattered over the water-resistant magnesium alloy body in themed areas.
The Release Mode dial to the left of the viewfinder gives instant access to quality, white balance and sensitivity controls. It also has a (locked) rotating dial that flips between single shot, self-timer and burst modes -- plus, somewhat surprisingly, the Live View function and mirror lock.
To the right of the gorgeously bright and spacious pentaprism is a mono LCD control panel. Many budget dSLRs now use the main LCD to display key camera settings but this is a much better option, giving a one-glance summary without you having to move the camera away from your face, and saving power to boot. Beneath the display are exposure zone and lock controls, and there are a brace of command dials to whizz through menus and options.
The main nav-pad is perhaps the only control that's less than impressive. It's fast enough moving through menus but a little sloppy and imprecise compared with Canon's zippy control wheel. Also on the back is a selector for focus points, and playback, zoom and delete buttons. Around the front, there's the usual flash pop-up and depth of field preview buttons, plus a switch for single, manual or continuous focusing. A lonesome programmable Function button looks lost beneath the lens mount.
The main event though, has to be the D300's new LCD screen. Not only is it a generous 76mm (3 inches) in size -- quickly becoming the standard in digital photography -- but it has a quite amazing 920,000 pixels - that's four times as many as you'll find on most cameras. Playback images look stunning, of course, but the high resolution really comes into its own when you activate Live View framing, helping you check that scenes are in focus. Live View is a useful but ponderous, multi-stage affair, involving much clacking of mirrors and pre-focusing -- it's best reserved for awkward angled and still life shots.
Another consumer-friendly feature is the D300's HDMI port. Plug in a HDMI cable (although none are supplied) for next-generation 720p or 1080i slideshows on hi-def TVs. More traditional is a defiantly old school Compact Flash slot, instead of the SD slots that are cropping up on cheaper models.
At the D300's core is a 12.3-megapixel CMOS sensor. Although it's not quite a full frame chip, it's large enough -- and Nikon confident enough in its noise reduction systems -- to offer sensitivities ranging from ISO 200 to 3,200, with additional Low (down to ISO 100) and High (up to 6,400) settings if you want to push it. Like most new SLRs, it has a cleaning system to prevent dust sticking to the sensor. Set this to activate on shut-down to avoid it slowing any snapshots.
The EXPEED processing engine on board allows burst shooting up to around 6 frames per second. That's as good as any camera in the price range and, together with a top shutter speed of 1/8000-second, should be sufficient for any but the most frantic sports photographer.
Naturally, the D300 can shoot raw images as well as JPEGs. Nikon's NEF format raw files can be saved as either 12-bit or larger 14-bit files, which hold increased colour depth information. Be warned, though -- top quality uncompressed files can be as large as 32MB in size. You'll also sacrifice speed, with a maximum continuous shooting speed of just 2.5fps.
To enumerate every manual feature on board the D300 would take longer than downloading a multi-gigabyte card full of its raw files, but there are a few that are worth singling out. While you don't get the simple scene modes found on cheaper cameras, the D300 does have fully customisable Picture Controls to tinker with contrast, colour and sharpness. There's also Active D-Lighting, a system that analyses scenes when you shoot and almost instantly adjusts them to preserve details in both highlights and shadows.