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The new Nikon D300 seems to live up to all its hype and even exceeds it in a couple of cases, especially high ISO shooting.
I say seems because I have only had the camera for 10 days and because of deadlines, have not been able to work with the camera as much as I would prefer. So please consider this as a quick report with more details to follow in the February issue when we will also review the full-frame Nikon D3.
The D300 is a major upgrade from the D200. A new 12.3 megapixel DX format CMOS sensor coupled with the Nikon ESPEED image process and 14-bit A/D conversion add up to great images.
Also new is the Multi-CAM3500DX Auto-focus sensor with 51 points (15 of them cross-type sensitive) and Auto-focus tracking by color that uses information from the 1005-pixel AE sensor.
Its really quick start-up, 13 ms, shutter lag of only 45ms, mirror blackout of 100ms coupled with a six-frames-a-second continuous shooting (up to eight a second if you add the optional improved battery pack) is pretty impressive.
Speaking of impressive, that describes the new high-resolution 3-inch 922,000 pixel LCD monitor on the back that is the clearest, sharpest LCD on a camera that I have ever seen. The new separate up and down magnifying buttons on the back of the camera work quickly and the clarity of the screen allows you to "really see" if the image you just made is as sharp as you want it to be.
Add to this Live View, with both hand-held and tripod settings, that let you play view camera guy if you bring along a dark cloth to throw over your head to cut down on reflections. Interesting features of the Live View are being able to watch the effect of changing the white balance settings on the screen and the ability to focus precisely using the magnify buttons and the Multi Selector to zero in on the subject. I'm sure that there will be times that Live View will save the day but since the monitor screen does not articulate, it's not the help for hail marys or low-angle shots that I wish it could be.
I should mention that the view through the viewfinder pentaprism is now 100% and it's bright, clean, a pleasure to look through and, of course, has a built-in diopter adjustment.
One thing for previous owners of Nikon DSLRs to look out for is that the buttons on the rear of the camera have been re-arranged and the preview button has been moved to the top left of the camera where the bracket button used to be and the menu button is now where the preview has been since the D1. For this user that means that I am looking at a menu on the screen much more than planned but I'm sure that I will get used to it.
One other thing that will take a little bit of time to go through is the 421-page instruction manual. There are an incredible number of choices that allow you to customize your camera for almost any assignment and there are four banks for each of the Shooting and Custom function menus that you can save, name and easily access when you need them.
The D300's ability to produce very usable images at high ISO speeds without using a noise reduction program is the best I have encountered in a digital SLR and I had a great time seeing what it would produce.
My first try was a walk around San Francisco's Union Square snapping away at the Christmas decorations at twilight with the camera set at ISO 1600. It produced beautiful, almost noiseless hand-held images easily and the same held true for the picture of members of the Calistoga Camera Club getting ready for their fall slide show under less than perfect available light.
Calistoga's Lighted Tractor Parade called for upping the ISO to 3200 to capture the feel of the street and so did the wine glasses discreetly snapped without flash in a St. Helena restaurant.
The ISO speeds are numbered from 200 to 3200 with three 1/3-stop boosts to 6400 and, interestingly, the same three increments below 200. Nikon says in the manual that the L-1 setting, ISO 100, produces less contrast than ISO 200 and they really mean it. It will take a bit of experimenting to find out if and when to consider using it.
As I mentioned above, I only had a short time with the camera so I appealed for a little help from two of my East Coast buddies who have actually had their cameras a few days less than I have.
Walter Calahan, a freelancer from Maryland, had this to say about his recently purchased pair of D300s: "I made 1,120 images yesterday on one of the D300 cameras. The other camera never came out of the bag. Fantastic. You need to scrap all plans to buy anything else. I shoot RAW. The auto white balance is the best I've ever seen; 51 points of focus is a must. The LCD screen is better than any digital camera I've used. The art director could see everything he needed without downloading a file to a laptop, or shooting tethered. Fast, fast camera with beautiful files. Of course I was shooting at 200 ISO. I almost never push the ISO. That's my first impression."
Another older, and I mean that both ways, friend and lighting guru, Jon Falk of Lights Limited and UnderDog fame, has this to say about his: "This camera is fabulous. This D300 is absolutely the choice if the D3 proves to be too much camera for some people. One step down to a D300 and life is good. I set my D300 immediately to my comfy zones for shooting . . . Adobe color space, RAW + JPEG Fine, Auto WB and then I move the ISO selection around depending upon what I'm trying to test. I like the ISO/WB/QUAL locked dial on the top left. It's very handy for making changes on the run. Further simplicity of setting my shooting and reviewing (chimping) choices are right there on the back of the camera . . . meter mode, auto focus mode, review and trash. I'm used to the sub menu wheel and the main menu wheel so this is just as easy."
So the preliminary conclusion is that there are at least three of us who are very impressed with the capabilities of Nikon's new Pro Level D300 and I will update this report in February.
© Chick Harrity
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