Nikon D300 Review
Usability - How easy is it to use?
The ergonomics of the Nikon D300 are good with plenty of external controls within easy reach of the thumb or forefinger. It has a deep hand-grip with a protrusion for the front command-dial and another protrusion on the rear along the edge. This shape gives a very secure grip but is not that comfortable because it can dig into the palm of your hand. The D300 has a size and shape that seems more suitable for large hands though. The camera feels very solid with a confidence-inspiring weight.
The D300 has a large pentaprism viewfinder which provides a bright and clear image and 100% coverage. This perfect coverage was previously reserved for much more expensive cameras. At this time, there is only one similarly priced DSLR with 100% coverage. Just below the viewfinder image is the status display which shows all the important camera settings. This includes the usual shutter-speed, aperture, ISO and EC but also the exposure mode and the metering pattern. The viewfinder can also overlay auto focus points and grid lines to aid focusing and composition. One good thing about the focus points in AF mode is that the D300 highlights all the points where focus has been established. In MF mode, the selected focus sensor lights up when the shutter is pressed halfway if focus is detected there.
While gripping the camera, the forefinger can easily reach the exposure-compensation and mode buttons which are located just behind the shutter-release. The AF-ON and the AE-L/AF-L buttons are located within reach of the thumb. Even though the metering dial is located around the AE-L/AF-L button, it is nearly impossible to change its position using the thumb. A short distance below the AF-ON button is the multi-way controller which is used to select the central focus point.
Two-control wheels allow direct control for exposure parameters. Nikon calls one of them the command dial and the other the sub-command dial. Although there is a setting to reverse them, their functions are not always reversed which is confusing at first - sometimes for logical reasons though! For example, the rear-dial, which by default is the command dial, is always used for mode and exposure-compensation, even in reversed mode. The obvious reason for this is that the sub-command dial would be hard to use in combination with the exposure-compensation and mode buttons due to their position. However, the command-dials become reversed when used to change aperture or shutter-speed when the reverse option is active. Another oddity is that A mode always uses the sub-command dial while S mode always uses the command dial. This does keep it consistent with M mode but it is strange that in A mode the aperture is not controlled by the main dial. Nikon could easily improve this by adding an option where both command dials work to change the aperture or shutter-speed, in A and S mode respectively.
On the top of the camera, on the opposite side of the shutter-release, there are 3 buttons. The QUAL button controls image compression in conjunction with the command dial and image resolution with the sub-command dial. The other two buttons are for ISO and white-balance.
The ISO button scrolls through fixed ISO values when used with the command dial and does nothing when used with the sub-command dial. Note that Auto ISO is not accessible through this dial. Instead, Auto ISO must be activated using the Shooting menu. When activated, the ISO is increased from its preset value until a user-specified maximum or until the shutter-speed is faster than the user-set limit, whichever comes first. The standard ISO sensitivity range of the Nikon D300 is 200 to 3200. A custom menu option allows this range to be expanded to ISO 100 to 6400 with the usual caveats of higher noise levels at ISO 6400. A minor point with respect to the expanded ISO range is that images taken outside of the normal range do not show the ISO value in the standard EXIF metadata. We are not sure if anyone but camera reviewers get annoyed at this.
The WB button controls white-balance. The command dial is used to select the white-balance setting and the sub-command dial is used to fine-tune white-balance on the amber-to-blue axis. Note that the D300 can fine-tune white-balance on the green-to-magenta axis too, but you have to enter the menu system to do that. Also, contrarily to ISO, AWB (Auto White-Balance) is selectable using the WB button in conjunction with the command dial.
Both control-wheels are usable during image playback and menu navigation. In playback mode, the command dial changes images while the sub-command dial rotates the information displayed for the current image. Zooming is done by two buttons to the left of the LCD. Menu navigation with the dials is possible but a bit weird. While you can use the main command dial to select between items within a menu-level, the sub-command dial can change menu levels and select options. The odd thing is that the sub-command dial only works one way sometimes. Specifically, you can enter a setting like Red-eye correction but you cannot exit from it, you can enter and exit from LCD Brightness, though.
The normal way to navigate the menu system is by using the multi-way controller. Instead of the usual 4-way plus OK control, this digital SLR uses a single control which can be tilted in 8 ways and pressed. The extra directions are useful for selecting a focus point. Because this control is made of a single piece, pressing it to activate a menu item is error prone as it often causes the control to tilt and activate something inadvertently.
Two small buttons between the hand-grip and lens barrel provide more customizable behavior. By default, the top one is DOF-Preview but can be reassigned to one of 11 functions by itself or one of 4 functions in conjunction with a command dial. The bottom button, called Fn, can be customized the same way. Useful options to assign include spot-metering and bracketing.
A switch on the front of the camera body selects between the 3 focus modes: single, continuous and manual. In single and continuous focus modes, a custom setting decides whether a picture can be taken without focus-lock. Continuous focus tries to keep the main subject in focus at all times. There is a clever custom setting called Focus tracking with lock-on which avoids losing the subject focus when something passes in front of it. With this enabled, the camera monitors sudden changes in focus distance and delays locking for a period specified by the user as short, long or normal.
There is an info button which can be used to display a status screen on the rear LCD. The status screen is very similar to the top LCD, only with a bit more information. In playback mode, the info button becomes the lock button. Speaking of buttons, the Nikon D300 has 4 of them which have absolutely no function in shooting mode: Delete, Zoom-Out, Zoom-In and OK. In playback mode, the AEL/AFL and AF-ON have no function, while the Mode and Exposure-Compensation buttons keep their normal function. To save real-estate, Nikon could have dropped the Zoom-In and Zoom-Out buttons in favor of assigning those functions to the AEL/AFL and AF-ON buttons. Or, they could have provided customizable functions for these buttons.
Since no DSLR has a truly usable live-preview yet, it is common to leave a setting such as white-balance or exposure-compensation incorrectly set. While the Nikon D300 remembers all settings while being powered off, it shows a number of them on the top LCD, thus informing the user of the camera's status.
The rear LCD is incredibly sharp with a good viewing angle and controllable brightness for easy viewing under most conditions. Nikon also supplies an LCD protector with the camera.
Nikon D300 Highlights
Sensor-Size: 24 x 16mm
Actual size when viewed at 100 DPI
|12 Megapixels DSLR||ISO 100-6400|
|Nikon F Mount|
|Full manual controls, including Manual Focus|
|Weatherproof||Custom white-balance with 2 axis fine-tuning|
|Built-in Dust Reduction||Spot-Metering|
|6 FPS Drive, 100 Images||Hot-Shoe & Sync-Port|
|3" LCD 920K Pixels||Lithium-Ion Battery|
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