The Nikon D300

Everyone who had followed the Nikon and Camera brands of SLRs over the past several years expected that Nikon would bring out models to compete with the new Canon models. So it is no surprise that they have with the Nikon D3 and Nikon D300. The D3 is the first full frame (that is, the sensor is the size of a frame of 35mm film) that Nikon has produced. And that is all I am going to say about it, because lusting after it (price $5,000) will not get me one, and the D300 has many features that make it interesting and desirable in its own right.

Features of the Nikon D300
It has 12 megapixels compared to the 10 megapixels of the D200, so the change in image quality from the pixel count is so small as to be discounted. But the sensor uses CMOS technology, unlike the D200, which has a CCD sensor. And it is a proprietory Nikon sensor. And the image processing is 14-bit.

These three features imply that the image quality will be substantially improved over the D200, that the high ISO image quality will be tremendously improved and that battery life will also be improved.

The extra bit depth of 14-bit technology (rather than the 12-bit that Nikon and Canon employ at the moment) should mean fewer blown highlights. Blown hightlights occur where an overdose of light hits all or some of the microlenses and reduces the image on those parts of the image to blank white, from which no detail can be recovered.

Small areas of blown highlights are often not a problem, but it’s a different story if it affects all the white petals on a flower, or the bride’s white dress, or the side of someone’s face that is turned to the sun. Compact cameras are notorious for blowing highlights, mainly because each microlens in the array is so small that it is easily overcharged in a high contrast scene.

14-bit technology means more steps are capable of being read between dark and light, which should result in a smoother gradation from dark to light areas.

Whether this increase in bit depth translates into images that looks good depends on the processing technology within the camera. That is something we will have to see when the first images are taken and the samples posted. I hope to post some samples. The potential is there – it remains to be seen how well Nikon (and for that matter Canon with their offerings) translate this into images that have the pzazz of a well-converted 8-bit jpeg.

Thankfully, photography is still at the mercy of the light striking the sensor chip. Which means that attractive lighting – early morning light on a dull day, late afternoon winter’s light, gentle north light filtering into a room – still drives the photographer’s quest for what will make a good image.

CMOS and CCD technology
With a CMOS sensor chip, the electronic charge generated by the light hitting the microlenses is amplified via transistors on each microlens and the values are read individually. With CCD technology, the charge across the whole array of microlenses on the sensor chip are read at one corner of the array. Both technologies are capable of making high-quality images but Canon, using CMOS technology, has shown that this seems to have a distinct edge at high ISO.

And this for me is the real break with traditional 35mm photography, because the ability to shoot at ISO 3200 and get clean images, takes the opportunities for where and when one can photograph, into a place that was unknown to film photography.

With a fast lens – say something between f1.8 and f2.8, one can think of taking atmospheric portraits in low light that were not possible with film – at least not without flash (which changes the scene completely) or without using very high speed film that had its own limitations.

One of the other advantages of CMOS technology is that it is less demanding on power. This should mean improved battery life for the D300.

More features
Add to the features of the D300, a self-cleaning sensor, an LCD that has an astounding 922,000 pixels (the D200 has 230,000), liveview in the LCD (so you can see what you are going to shoot, rather than just what you have shot), and dimensions and weight more or less the same as the D200, and Nikon have probably held on to their lead. The lead they have built over the past six months is that they have outsold Canon SLRs.


Whether it is the big guns like these cameras that are making the difference, or whether it is the D40 that is giving Nikon its lead, I don’t know. One thing that is clear though, is that both manufacturers are still in the game, which benefits consumers of all stripes. It would have been a pity if one or the other failed to make advances in technology, for that would only mean the market would stagnate.

And as for images of the new cameras from Nikon, well Nikon is kind enough to supply a whole page of web-ready images for people to use. Which strikes me as a sensible sign of the times when a manufacturer gets everyone who wants, to be an ambassador and advertiser for its products.

D300 top

D300 back

Nikon D200 and Nikon D40 comparison shots – testing for color quality

An open book laying in long grass is a good subject for a test of sharpness in the lettering on the page and of the tonal values and color quality of the plants and leaves.

I shot the scene with the D40 with the 18-55mm kit lens, with the focal length set to 24mm, and at SO 200.

I then took a similar shot with the D200 with the 12-24mm lens, with the focal length set to 24mm, and again at ISO 200.

I shot both images hand-held as I was primarily interested in the overall image quality and the fact is that I shoot almost all my images hand-held. The rare occasions when I use a tripod substitute is when I find a convenient wall or table for low-light shots.

Moreover, I have already tested these two camera and lens combinations for sharpness (see earlier posts) and I have determined that for all intents and purposes the differences in sharpness are so small as to be ingnored.

Of course the 10 megapixels of the D200 as against the 6 megapixels of the D40 determine how large a print can be made before the appearance of the image starts to degrade. But there are such good image-upsizing products on the market now that even the maximum size one can print to is no longer written in stone.

I shot both images in RAW and opened them in CameraRaw 4.1 in Photoshop CS3. One of the nice things about Camera Raw 4.1 is that you can open two images at the same time and apply the same settings and go back and forth between the two images to see what the effects are. The settings I applied were to increase exposure by a little under half a stop, and to increase sharpening from 25 up to 92 in each image.

The full frame shots are 1000 pixels wide so I have only posted the thumbnails on this page. Click on the thumbnails to see the full-size shots.

D40 full frame

D40 crop

D200 full frame

D200 crop

Over a range of images I have taken with these cameras, my conclusion is that the D200 produces richer color and a more natural look. But in these two images I leave you to draw your own conclusion about the quality of the color in both full frame images.

I am going to put some more comparison shots up in the next few weeks.