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I’ve spent the past two weeks, many hours, had two meetings with Nikon Professional Services staff, and taken thousands of photos with my new Nikon D300 and I’m ready to spill the beans and let you know what’s hot (and what’s not) about Nikon’s new arrival. Here’s the straight scoop:

First, Why I Bought a D300:
I hate to admit it, but the main reason I bought a D300 in the first place is because of the bigger LCD screen on the back. I know that sounds silly, but it’s true (I had only actually held a D300 once; at Photoshop World, and then only for about three minutes. I spent much more time with the D3, as I actually got to shoot with it on location in Montana). Of course, I tried to justify the purchase by telling myself that there were other new features, but basically in my mind it was a D200, with a bigger screen and a few new bells and whistles, so I ordered it. Here’s the thing; I was wrong. Way wrong. The D300 is MUCH more camera than I was giving it credit for.

What kicks butt about the D300:

  • The 51-point (and 21-point) autofocus rocks. It’s much better, faster, and more accurate than the D200′s, that it made the D200′s focus seem clunky by comparison. This I did not expect.
  • The Live View (which I totally dismissed as something I would never use), has a feature I never knew existed; you can turn on Live View, look at a live preview of your shot and (get this), change your White Balance setting, and the preview updates live. That’s right—you can scroll through the different settings and see how different white balance settings look in real time. It’s very responsive, and it’s just plain fun to use. Also, the image on screen is crisp enough to actually use for getting shots above your head, down low for macro shots, and anywhere where your head won’t fit. Much cooler than I expected.
  • Press the Info button the back of the camera, and the camera’s shooting settings (which usually appear in the tiny LCD on the top of the camera), now fill the screen in big bright letters; and (that’s right), they’re live! So you can change Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO, and actually see the settings big and bright (really handy when you’re shooting on a tripod, which I do most of the time). I now use this to check my WHIMS settings in just a quick glance, even in low light situations.
  • Lower noise. Not low noise; but lower (don’t confuse the D300 with the D3. It’s the D3 that’s the low noise miracle machine). That being said, I have found that to me, the noise level when shooting at 800ISO on a D300 is like shooting at 400 ISO on a D200. That’s an appreciable difference, but I’ve been so spoiled at shooting at 6400 ISO on a D3 (whose noise looks more like the D300 at 800 ISO, to me anyway). So, lower noise for sure, but not D3-ish low noise. But any amount of lower noise is a big plus for me.
  • I love the way the front dial changes the LCD display readout to toggle between your full image and Histogram view, and your back sub-command dial scrolls through the images (leaving the still clunky Multi-Selector Dial on the back of the camera free for other tasks).
  • I love that you can assign the center button of the Multi-Selector Dial to jump to any magnification (to quickly jump in and check sharpness) with just one click.
  • I like that it has built-in sensor cleaning (I might actually love this feature, because I generally live in a dirty sensor state, but so far; my sensor hasn’t been dirty. Of course, I’ve used the built-in sensor cleaning three times now already, so maybe that’s why, but the only way to tell if you love this, is to one day realize your sensor is dirty, then run the built-in cleaning, and then see that it worked.).
  • The LCD monitor is as big and bright as I had hoped (I did check this out when I held that initial D300, and right then I was sold). I also like how big and easy-to-read the menus are on this new screen (it makes a bigger difference than you’d think).
  • The Auto White balance seems much improved, and you can use it in more lighting situations without a “gotcha.” In fact, I think it’s easily the best Auto White Balance I’ve ever used.
  • I really like the HDMI output, and if you’ve got a high def television, once you see your images on that baby, you’ll think this was how photos were meant to be shown.
  • I was surprised (pleasantly), at how many new features, tweaks, and enhancements were hidden among the menus, including much more robust control over White Balance, a nice built-in GPS menu (if you have a GPS unit connected), a “My Menu” where you can put your most used menu commands so they’re one click away, and a clever built-in Help menu that actually works quite well.
  • There are lots of little tweaks and enhancements that you uncover that make you just smile and nod. I dig that.
  • But more important than all of these very nice features, is the fact that I love the images the D300 produces. The color is outstanding (better than any Nikon I’ve ever used, and the color rendering is nearly on par with the D3′s). This camera just produces beautiful images, plain and simple, and if you want really saturated colors, you can pump up the saturation with some amazing results (perfect for the Velvia freak deep inside us all).

What Didn’t I like:

  • The main thing that’s driving me crazy is a little thing (but it’s always the little things, right?). When your image appears on the LCD monitor, there are two rows of info readouts, which appear at the bottom of the image window, and if you have the Highlight Warning turned on, it adds a very short third row. I want the option to hide this junk so I can see just the full image, full screen, without all the data taking up room.
  • I’d like the ability to see one big Histogram. Not a postage stamp sized Histogram; not individual RGB Histograms; just one big Histogram as big as they can fit it on the screen. Admittedly, I’m a “Highlights Warning” man myself, and I hardly use the Histogram that much, but when I do; I want it big.
  • I wish the noise was lower still. Don’t get me wrong; being able to actually shoot at 800 ISO and not cringe is a good thing, but I’ve been spoiled by the incredibly low-noise of the D3. I would trade some of the bells and whistles for lower noise.
  • If you get the optional battery grip (which I recommend), the way they’ve implemented the two-battery use is much clunkier than in the D200. Thankfully, the battery life seems better in the D300, than it was in the D200, but the D200′s battery grip was easier to swap out batteries with by far.
  • I wish Nikon had done something better with the Focus Mode Selector Button, that appears to the right of the lens, and constantly gets switched by accident during the course of taking your camera in/out of your camera bag. Just make it much stiffer, so it doesn’t switch so easily, or position it somewhere else, so for goodness sakes—do something to make it stay put.
  • Shooting tethered with the D300 requires buying the Nikon Camera Control Pro 2 (which ain’t cheap, at around $160, or you can upgrade from the first version for around $65). Canon users get to shoot tethered for free. Hey, I’m just sayin! Oh, and Mac OS X Leopard users; it doesn’t work with Leopard yet. Believe me, I’ve tried.

The Bottom Line:
Nitpicking above aside, the D300 is a much better, more fully featured update to the D200 than I had ever imagined it would be. How much so? Well, needless to say, I’m selling my D200 (through the EquipmentLady.com), but I guess what I’m most shocked about is that I’m going to sell my Nikon D2Xs now, too.

So, is my D300 actually replacing my D2Xs? Absolutely! I know Nikon will probably hate to read this, but here’s why:

  • The D300 and D2Xs are both 12 megapixel cameras, so there’s no pixel advantage there.
  • The noise at 800 ISO and higher on my D300 seems noticeably lower than the noise on my D2Xs.
  • The LCD Monitor on my D300 is bigger and brighter than on my D2Xs.
  • The D300 has better control over White Balance, has better Auto White Balance, has better Auto Focus capabilities by far, and I think it takes better photos all around (I could stop right here).
  • The menus on the D300 are bigger and easier to read, and the Info button that shows my settings (and lets me set them in real time), is just too handy.
  • With my D300, I get Live View (with live white balance changes displayed as I make them).
  • With the Battery Grip, I can shoot up to 8 frames per second.
  • I didn’t mention the D300′s Active D-lighting controls (which adjust for tricky exposure situations in camera), but the D2Xs doesn’t have anything that can touch it.
  • In fact, the only thing that I can think of that my D2Xs has, that my new D300 doesn’t have, is High Speed Crop Mode. When I need to use it, that rocks, but I don’t need to use it very often.

I think perhaps the most telling sign was when I realized yesterday that I just don’t want to shoot my D2Xs anymore. To me, that speaks volumes, and that’s why I’m selling it.

To me, the D300 doesn’t feel like an upgrade; it feels like a whole new camera from the ground up. The improvements are that significant.

One last thing: if you have a D300 (or are thinking of getting one), Nikon has an interactive D300 Digitutor web site with movies on how to use the D300′s new features. You can find it by clicking here.

I encourage anyone who’s bought a D300 to share your own experiences (good and bad) here on the blog by posting a comment. (I’ll save you one post; yes—I still want a D3; it is the next level of camera up from the D300, and it is just remarkable, but at its price; it should be). Thanks everybody (and thanks for your patience while I put the D300 through its paces, so I could post this review).