So what do you get for your £2,000? Well, pretty much everything an enthusiast photographer or even most professionals could feasibly want. With so many features and options it's difficult to know where to start, because there's no way I can realistically cover every aspect of this immensely capable camera even if I double my usual 1,000-word review. It is a physically imposing camera, measuring 147 x 114 x 74 mm and weighing a hefty 825g without lens, battery or memory card. Add the 755g weight of the 17-55mm lens and you've got three and a half pounds of camera hanging round your neck, which can get pretty tiring on a long day's shooting. It is larger and heavier than the Sony A700 (141.7 x 104.8 x 79.7mm, 690g) and heavier even than the chunky Canon EOS 40D (146 x 108 x 74mm, 740g). However that weight translates directly into solid durability. The body and chassis is magnesium alloy, and it is built to survive a fair amount of abuse.
The body is environmentally sealed against moisture and dust, and it is classified as water resistant. It is certainly a camera you can take out in the field without worrying if it will come back in one piece. Despite its bulk and weight the D300 is a comfortable camera to hold and use, although you will very definitely need both hands. The handgrip is slightly smaller than that of the A700, and most of the body is covered with a textured rubber coating that provides a secure grip as well as a certain amount of impact protection. The base plate of the camera is also rubber-coated, and even with a heavy lens attached it grips tightly onto the mounting plate of a tripod.
The layout of the controls is very similar to the D200, which itself was derived from the layout of the D2x. There are a lot of external controls, but the grouping and positioning is logical and sensible, and they are all clearly labelled. Adjustments to white balance, ISO and image quality, as well as exposure mode selection and exposure compensation are made by holding down the appropriate button and turning one of the two input dials, with the mode selection appearing on the large backlit LCD data panel. The two input dials, one on the front of the handgrip below the shutter button and the other under the right thumb, are also used for exposure adjustments, in a manner common to most high-end SLRs.
As with previous Nikon pro cameras, the operation of the controls can be extensively customised via the menu. In fact the menu itself can be customised via the menu. To be honest, it's possible that the D300 may have just too much user-customised adjustibility. When you start delving into the menu system you can quickly get lost in a jungle of options and settings, and a thorough reading of the manual is essential. Without it, it took me several minutes of searching just to find the option to turn on the AF assist lamp. However there's no doubt that the designers of the D300 have thought of everything. There's an option to fine-tune the AF system to the peculiarities of particular lenses, for example, that I've never seen on any other camera.
If the D300 has a stand-out feature, it is the remarkable 51-point Multi-CAM3500DX autofocus system which it shares with the D3, arguably the most advanced AF system in any currently available camera. It can track objects in three dimensions, and works in conjunction with the equally advanced 1,005-segment RGB metering and advanced Scene Recognition system to ensure optimum focus in a wide range of lighting and movement conditions. The 51 sensor points are closely packed together in a grid in the centre area of the frame, but the system can track the movement of subjects outside of this area. The central 15 AF sensors are cross-type, which are more sensitive and better able to cope with low light conditions, and the system can also be set to 9-point or 21-point mode. In actual use, in good light the system proved to be virtually infallible, bit I did notice that it slowed down noticeably in low light and had an inclination to hunt backward and forwards at longer focal lengths. It is also not as fast as some less complex rival systems, in particular the extremely quick AF system of the Sony A700.