It has been a very busy winter and spring, with new camera models from just about every serious DSLR vendor and every wannabe vendor in the photo universe. One of the very nice things about reviewing camera equipment is you eventually get to try them all out, and in the process you sometimes end up finding a winner or two.

This time around there was a really unexpected surprise. Sometimes one camera or another stands out, or one lens strikes us a particularly great solution. This time one DSLR blew the socks off everything else in the DSLR universe.

A little drum roll please as our prejudices get aired with more truth than we normally care to share! The Olympus E3 is a truly remarkable camera and one that completely surprised us at AT. We were fully prepared to hate another iteration of the 4/3 sensor, but the E3 was far better than we had any right to expect. We did not see how Olympus could solve the terrible viewfinder problem or the archaic 3-point AF, but they solved them both in spades. It is true that Oly had to go to 110% magnification to get a great viewfinder, and they went to an 11-point double cross-sensor AF (that’s 44 discrete AF points for those that are counting), but they did it and the E3 is a simply terrific camera. 

Because the Olympus E3 is so good we read the Camera-of-the-Year issue of Popular Photography and decided it was probably typical Canikon bias that PopPhoto named the D300 “Camera of the Year” when the E3 was clearly the deserving recipient. Or it was an honor that was bought like automobile “Car of the Year” awards.

That conclusion was so certain that it took quite a few months for us to actually pay serious attention to the D300. Eventually that D300/D3 bi-umvirate could no longer be ignored. It is not without egg on our face that we report that we were absolutely blown away by the D300.

We tested it with the 18-200 AF-S (Silent Wave Motor) VR (Vibration Reduction – Nikon’s Optical Image Stabilization) lens and we finally understood why Nikon fans have waited in queues for this lens and this camera. Frankly the 18-200mm isn’t the best Nikon lens – far from it – but the combination of that incredible range in a single compact lens with Optical image Stabilization is incredible.  The D300 is the first DSLR we have tested that almost forces you to take better pictures, and the 18-200 VR lens on the D300 is a combo that almost will never miss a photo opportunity.

The D300 also features a completely reworked grip – one that leaves the battery in the camera like the Pentax K20D/K10D grip. The new MB-D10 is also fairly compact, unlike the Sony A700 grip, and incredibly lightweight for a Nikon grip with just one added EN-EL3e battery. The MB-D10 boosts the already remarkable 6 frames per second of the D300 body to 8 frames per second with the grip.  This compares to no speed boost at all with the Olympus or Sony or Pentax grips on their prosumer models.

We’ve always liked the high-end Nikon menus and the flash system that makes Canon flash look like a work in progress, but the lack-luster D60 had soured us toward Nikon this year. The D60 is much wanting compared to the Canon XSi which runs circles around Nikon’s entry model. In fairness the XSi costs a good deal more than a D60, but even the XTi which sells for the same or less than the D60 is superior.

However, moving to the top the D300 similarly makes the 40D look like a feeble effort at competition. We wondered what Nikon might do with their sensor supplier – Sony – now a competitor - and the answer is that Nikon does absolutely everything better with the same base sensor.

It still bugs me to mount Nikon lenses. It’s certainly familiar and a non-issue for the many Nikon shooters, but for others Nikon turns the opposite direction of every other camera maker. Nikon’s tiny and archaic looking lens mount also appears almost laughable today, thought the retained compatibility is certainly a partial raison d’être. In comparison the Canon, Olympus and even Sigma all-electronic mounts look like engineering masterpieces that are all grown up. But one run with a swift and silky smooth Silent Wave Motor lens makes you forget how goofy the lens mount looks. The motor lenses are fast, smooth, and superb in quality – and that’s what we are all looking for.

The front and rear dials also make sense – like those on the Pentax K20 – without requiring thumb gymnastics to do something useful as we often feel on the 40D. You will also find a real HDMI connector behind one of the side seals. It can even take a normal HDMI connector instead of the “mini” HDMI needed by the Sony A700 – the only other competitor to feature HD output to you HD TV or computer screen. 

We also have to wonder why the idea of a dedicated LCD cover and protector is such a mystery to Canon and some others? Nikon seems to have figured it out, and they supply LCD covers on many of their cameras – even the mid-entry D80.

The Nikon screen is truly hi-res at 920,000 dots in the 3” LCD – the same as the Sony A700. The Canon 40D and XSi by comparison only have 230,000 pixels in their low-res 3” screens. If you think the LCD is only about size you should compare the D300 and 40D side by side. The difference in image clarity is very easy to see.

There is also that new 51-point autofocus module shared with the full-frame D3 and the best, brightest, cleanest viewfinder since Nikon starting making DSLR cameras. The 51-points work very well and they are gorgeous for those who value bragging rights – which is certainly none of our readers. However, the 51-points are a bit slower than the older 11, but even here Nikon allows the user to select a super fast 11 point AF instead where speed is the main concern as in sports shooting.

Nikon is justly famous for their in-camera image-processing. With the same CCD sensor in past cameras they routinely outperformed the sensor manufacturer’s cameras using the same sensor. In the D300/D3 Nikon has performed major upgrades to the EXSPEED chp and the associated processing support electronics. This includes selectable 12 and 14-bit processing, significantly larger and enhanced scene recognition, and upgrades to AF, buffering, write speed and metering. 

Every top “prosumer” or Pro camera these days seems to pay attention to the limited contrast that is the Achilles heel of digital images, and Nikon calls their version Active D-Lighting.  What is welcomed here is the very wide range of adjustments with ADR, as this feature is called in the menus, and the fact that it works exceptionally well. 

The new CMOS sensor, manufactured by Sony, appears to have a wider dynamic range to start with than competing cameras. Add an effective and tweakable ADR and dynamic range of the D300 is stand-out. With a CMOS sensor there was also an opportunity for Nikon to lower power requirements and greatly extend battery life. We haven’t measured the difference, but the new battery just seems a little like the Energizer bunny – it just keeps on working. It is a good thing the battery is long-lasting because the D300 is a camera you want to use, refining and tweaking your camera settings, as much as possible

In fact the image control capabilities of the D300 are so tweakable that the manual is 421 pages, which certainly makes it the War and Peace of camera manuals. The extensive controls are not wasted efforts, however, because unlike some competing models the D300 tweaks work, and they allow any photographer to set up their preferences for shooting and image capture the way THEY want.

Handling and the multitude of tweaks aside, the end result – the reason for being – is the image. Here, Nikon makes us all believers. Un-tweaked, Un-manipulated, un-Photoshopped, un-RAW-processed images are gorgeous on the D300. They are so good out-of-camera you have less work to do to get the greatest image since sliced bread – and isn’t that what choosing a camera is all about? When you choose to tweak you can do even better, which is the incredible potential for growth the D300 brings to the DSLR user.

So is the D300 a PRO camera or prosumer model? Nikon calls it a new PRO model and certainly when you add the MB-D10 grip the combo displaces the current Nikon Pro D2x in just about every way. That comparison makes it very fair to call the D300 a Pro model. On the other hand the D300 also obsoletes the D200 prosumer model in almost every way and it only costs a little more than the D200 it replaces.

In the final assessment you are forced to conclude the D300 is a very expensive prosumer camera AND a very reasonable PRO model. The street price for the body has been around $1800.  Every other prosumer model – the Canon 40D, Olympus E3, Sony A700, and Pentax K20D sell for a street price range of a little less (E3) to the new $1000 price of the 40D with the current Canon Instant Rebate.

We prefer to view the Nikon D300 as the biggest bargain around in a true PRO camera. There is little to want from the D3 with a D300/MB-D10 combo except a full-size sensor and ISO sensitivity to 25,600 instead of the merely spectacular ISO 6400 of the D300. They clearly share the same breakout technology and features. The D300 is also so good it is very hard to recommend buying any other more expensive crop-sensor pro model. That leaves the PRO level competition above the D300 with two full-frame sensor models from Nikon and Canon, at least until the Canon 5D MkII and Sony A900 launch later this year.

Canon or Sony or Olympus/Panasonic or Pentax/Samsung will likely shock us all in the next round of camera introductions. If they do I will be the first to applaud their accomplishments. But from where I sit right now they clearly have their work cut out for them.

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  • alexdi - Thursday, May 29, 2008 - link

    "The 40D really lags behind most of the other prosumer models that have been recently introduced.. "

    Can you explain how this is? I have that camera. It's bad at nothing.

    While there's a case to be made for the addition of on-camera stabilization, weather seals, and similar tangential geejaws, the fundamental camera operations are extremely solid. AF speed, sensor noise, and speed of operation are all top-notch. You can rave about the E-3 all you'd like, but when push comes to shove, the 40D is a faster camera at everything. The flash system integration is second only to Nikon, and the lens line, better even than that company.

    These are kinds of things working photographers actually care about, which is why I think it's somewhat disingenuous to say the 40D lags. I won't dispute that the D300 is even faster in some ways, but at nearly double the price, it ought to be. For outright speed, the 40D still slots above every other DX DSLR.

    For my part, I'd like to see a rear LCD with higher resolution and in-body stabilization so I won't have to spend 30% more on a lens with IS. Otherwise, the 40D lacks for little. Integrated with the EOS system, it's the best choice available at its price.
  • Wesley Fink - Thursday, May 29, 2008 - link

    The 40D is a competent DSLR, but it is the flagship Canon APS-C camera and it doesn't stand out in any category. It is 10 megapixels and everything else is 12 to 14-15MP. That would be fine if the 40D still topped the IQ or noise charts, but the Pentax K20D or the Nikon D300 or the Sony A700 top all the resolution test charts, and at high ISO, which used to be Canon's forte, the D300 and A700 and K20D all go to higher ISO - some with lower noise. It's not a dramatic difference, but it is definitely there.

    The D300 is faster for sports and lower noise at higher ISO and better battery life, even though it is higher res. The K20D beats resolution by almost 50% and still manages higher ISO options. The E3 has MUCH better color balance, is much better built with incredible weather sealing, has a better viewfinder, faster autofocus in most light, and that useful tilt/swivel LCD. It is the same res as the 40D in a smaller MOS sensor. The 40D is lower noise than the E3 at 3200, but below that the image quality of the E3 is better, as is the working dynamic range optimization which works on the E3 and does next to nothing on the 40D. In fact, almost every other competitors dynamic range is better than the current Canon which is starting to become an issue.

    The 40D is not a bad camera; it is a very good update to the 30D and very solid and capable and easy to recommend as a great value. However, as a flagship model it doesn't stand out in anything except price, which is not what you expect from the biggest DSLR maker.

    The next Canon will either make us all say "wow", which I expect, or Canon will be in some serious trouble in prosumer space. I do think the XSi and XTi are the current best entry models, the Canon full-frames are superb and I can't wait for the 5D full-frame replacement, but the 40D is not a standout.
  • Deadtrees - Friday, May 30, 2008 - link

    D300 is the flagship Nikon APS-C camera as told by the Nikon rep but 40D is NOT Canon's flagship APS-C camera. So far, Canon does not have intensions to come up with flagship APS-C cameras. If you want flagship quality from Canon, your only option is 1D line.
    Those two companies come out with products to fill in the gap of others. They don't compete head to head in that market. It's no woder D300 outperforms 40D because D300 is intended to be like that whereas Canon 40D intends to capture different market. Again, 40D is a mid-range level camera. I don't know where you got that idea of x0D line of cameras being flagship model.

    D300 sure has lower noise but it is so with the great loss of detail.You've made a same mistake when you talked about Sony A350.
    Please, when you talk about noise, think about the detail. If you only think about noise level, even panasonic P&S would match Nikon D3.

    Dynamic Rage:
    When it comes down to Shadow area DR, only Fuji S5 Pro, Olympus E3 and Nikon D60 is better than 40D. 40D's weak point is highlight DR. In fact, D300 and 40D has same range of DR. The only diffference is that 40D is optimized for shadow DR whereas D300 is optimized for highlight DR. If you claim 40D's poor DR is becoming an issue, then all of the dslrs from all the brands beside Fuji are becoming an issue as well.

    Keep it mind that DR has two ends. Left and right. Don't just look at one side and come up with something silly.
    (BTW, E3 that you seem to praise is also optimized for shadow DR and has poor highlight DR, even worse than 40D)

    BTW, if you really want to maximize the DR of Canon cameras, use neutral picture style or step down contrast/saturation values of Standard picture style.
  • alexdi - Thursday, May 29, 2008 - link

    I'm sorry, but quite a lot of your information is wrong.">

    Here's dynamic range. The 40D leads the pack. "D-Lighting" is a tone curve. It has little to do with DR, it's just a convenience for people who don't post-process that you can emulate with a Curves preset. The highlight priority on the 40D actually expands the dynamic range by about a stop.">

    Those are the noise charts for the four cameras you list. The Olympus lags badly, the Sony lags somewhat, and the D300 and 40D differ only in processing priorities. I prefer Nikon's style of NR, but in RAW, the two cameras are indistinguishable.

    Nor would I place much stock in "ISO options"; Canon has more stringent parameters for the ISOs they allow than any other manufacturer. ISO 6400 isn't there because it would look like ISO 6400 on the D300 and the K20D; garbage. If you need that much speed, you underexpose a stop and bring it up in RAW.

    As to battery life, the 40D has more of it. Canon rates it for 1100 shots. Reichmann at Luminous Landscape attains 800 with his. Thom Hogan, 500 with his D300. I'd be happy with either number, and I have no idea why you brought this up.

    As to AF performance, you're literally the only person I've seen who asserts the E-3 has better AF. Here's Camera Labs:

    "...subjectively, it didn’t feel as consistent as rival AF systems. When the E-3’s AF system was happy, it could be astoundingly quick, but at other times, it would search a little while rival systems tested alongside had no problems. For example we found it less consistent when it came to tracking moving subjects than Canon and Nikon’s semi-pro models. In our test of tracking vehicles approaching face on at around 50kph, the E-3 only reliably locked-onto about half of them, when the EOS 40D and D300 enjoyed a much higher success rate."

    And DCResource:

    "The E-3 is a fast-focusing camera in most situations, though it doesn't necessarily feel like the "fastest focusing camera in the world", even with the much-vaunted 12-60 mm lens. Low light focusing was just the opposite -- sluggish -- even with the flash-based AF illuminator."

    As to the D300, the various reviews have found the 40D better at acquisition when the lights dim. Focus tracking is excellent for both. In fact, that's why I bought one; I shoot indoor ice hockey. My in-focus percentage is upwards of 80%, and that's shooting through plexiglass flat out.

    Anyway, what you've done is to list features from a collection of cameras. Half are inconsequential as above, and none appear in a single body. The K20D shoots at 3fps; resolution aside, it's automatically out of the running for people who shoot sports. The E-3 has the worst interface I've seen on any DSLR since the Kodak/Nikon amalgams from years ago, and focus tracking is again a weakness. Only the D300 is convincingly better on the whole, but again, rarely in areas that matter.

    I won't dispute that people who don't post-process would be better served by some other camera. The dividing line between a "professional" body and everything else, however, has always been speed. It's often the difference between getting a workable but imperfect shot, and missing the scene completely. Geejaws aside, nothing but the D300 can keep up.
  • jan3X5 - Sunday, June 1, 2008 - link

    I strongly recommend to verify these "reviews" by yourself (and there are also reviews, which shows you - exactly measured - how fast should be E-3 and A700).

    If you are interested, I had 40D, D300 and E-3 at same time in one place to try (for hours) what their AF's are capable to do in bright and dim light. In single AF, E-3 with 11-22/2.8-3.5 (without SWD) easily smokes away 40D with 17-40/4L and D300 with 17-55/2.8. And trust it or not, D300 was the slowest. In continuous AF, D300 was the clear winner, 40D and E-3 where pretty similar (and I trust that some reviewers found E-3 the slowest, but they probably do not configure it for best performance - settings of this camera is very complex and pretty difficult).

    It is true, that E-3 AF performance is sometimes inconsistent, but it means, that if you try "blind AF test" (random tries of AF lock-on everywhere), E-3 is sometimes the fastest and sometimes similar as 40D. But if you try to focus on edges (the right way for contrast detect AF), E-3 should be the fastest on each try. Last but not least, E-3 has (as only DSLR I know) user-selectable AF area. This means you could select, if AF works in surrounding area of AF point indicator (as standard everywhere) or exactly in (much smaller) area of AF point indicator. In real life usage this provides absolutely exact focusing and ability to fast focus in situations, where is AF by others "press-and-prey" (covering FG and BG - like face behind grass, repeating patterns, etc.) and this feature doesn't mean any performance decrease.

    So just talking about AF speed my results are clear - D300 is best in tracking subjects (works excellent!), E-3 in single AF, decision what camera has "better AF" is just about what you prefer. 40D is not bad at all, but I could not imagine, that somebody could find its AF speed or accuracy as something interesting in comparison.

    btw: I am pretty surprised, that - when discussing speeds - nobody mentioned write speeds. While both D300 and E-3 are stars here (both able to write at ~30 MBps using best UDMA cards and A700 should be the same), 40D is soooo slow.
  • Wesley Fink - Thursday, May 29, 2008 - link

    I'm glad you like your Canon 40D, and you have given us many of the reasons and logic you used in choosing the 40D. If you are invested in the Canon system the 40D is a very logical choice. It is also currently a great choice for value.

    I have just one simple question. If the 40D is so good and so competitive then why is Canon doing a $200 Instant Rebate right now on top of all their other 40D discounts that gets the price below $1000 and only a little more than the entry XSi?

    When the 20D was the top of the performance heap we didn't see discounts like this until the end of the model life. The 40D was already the cheapest of the prosumers, and now it is the cheapest by far, and far below its introduction price late last year.

    Car Dealers lower price to move product that isn't moving, so could it possibly be that the 40D is not selling as well as Canon would like in today's more competitive environment?
  • alexdi - Thursday, May 29, 2008 - link

    "If the 40D is so good and so competitive then why is Canon doing a $200 Instant Rebate right now on top of all their other 40D discounts..."

    Ask Canon. They also rebated the 5D in 2006, less than a year after it was introduced. That camera remains competitive even now. The 2008 rebates also encompass over a dozen Canon lenses and the most popular Canon flashes. I'm certainly not in a position to discern Canon's corporate motives. There's little point in staring at the tea leaves when I already know what the camera can do.
  • pinto4402 - Wednesday, May 28, 2008 - link

    Even though I am a happy owner of a 40D, I have no reason to doubt your impartiality just because you stated the obvious--the D300 is a better camera than the 40D. I am heavily invested in Canon pro lenses, which I'm very happy about, and I'm not about to switch to Nikon because it just came out with the latest hot camera. Camera bodies will come and go, but my lenses will last me a lifetime. It's a pity, though, other readers can't put things into perspective because they get so wrapped up with brand loyalty.

    This is inherently one of the problems with objective camera reviews. They appeal to pixel peeper types who probably can't take a decent photograph under any set of circumstances with any type of camera gear. Nonetheless, keep the good articles coming.
  • Lord 666 - Tuesday, May 27, 2008 - link

    It is not without egg on our face that we report that we were absolutely blown away by the D300.

    Wes - Thank you for making my day. After witnessing this column mature from the "what is a digital camera" to now, it is a pleasure to read this unbiased review.

    Disclaimer: Lord 666 is a happy D300 owner since it came out. Previous to that, the D70 and D80 filled my DSLR needs. But it was only until the D300 I could say "Wow!"
  • akers - Tuesday, May 27, 2008 - link

    I loved my two D70s but when the D200 came out I had to jump on it. The D200, while a great camera, it challenged your technique and made you really think about what you were doing. Still, I loved the D200 and purchased a second body about a year ago.

    About 5 months after D200 number two, I had an opportunity to handle a D300 for a few hours. Of course I now have two D300s. The D300 is a significant improvement ove the D200 and seems more forgiving (unless of course the D200 helped me get my technique back in shape.) Now I have to figure out what to do with two almost new D200s.

    If you are looking for a real serious DSLR the D300 should be on the top of your list, unless you want a full frame sensor and money is not an issue, then go for the D3.

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