The best way to learn a camera is to take it out in the field, pushing the camera's limits as you shoot in both familiar circumstances and unknown environments. I had the opportunity to do just that with the new Nikon D300 digital SLR recently--and came away impressed by many of the usability touches I found.

The D300 represents Nikon's new midrange offering, falling between the D80 and the professional-level D3. This model replaces the two-year old Nikon D200.

In developing the D300, Nikon leveraged many of the technological evolutions it included in the Nikon D3. As someone who's shot with a pro-level camera (the Canon 1D Mark II), I hate making compromises when I step down to a lower-level SLR.

While I haven't shot this extensively with the D3, I can say that when I used the D300 last week, I didn't feel as if I was making too many compromises. What follows are five aspects of the D300's design that caught my attention.

Image Zoom: The D300 lets you zoom into an image but that's nothing special; that's expected of digital SLR. What was a pleasant surprise--and new to the D300--was how quickly and easily I could zoom in *and* pan around the image to check how clear the shot was--without first entering the playback mode. Press the + magnifying glass button (second up from the bottom, along the left side of the 3-inch, 920,000-dot LCD), and you move into the image. Hold the button in, and the zoom moves deeper still.

A picture-in-picture box appears at the lower left; a yellow box appears inside it, indicating how zoomed into the image you are. Panning around within the image was a breeze, thanks to the Nikon's multidirectional navigation pad control; for panning, I much preferred this control to Canon's stiff and small joystick control. What struck me here was how facile and speedy the camera's controls and internal processing made it to spot check the clarity of my 12.1 megapixel images.

Live View: Shooting with a point-and-shoot digital camera has spoiled me: There are times I want nothing more than to frame my image within the LCD screen, and not through the viewfinder. Don't get me wrong--I rely heavily on the viewfinder as well--but some shots, such as overhead shots looking down into a crowd or a group of people, or lower-surface shots that are not at eye-level, are just plain easier when composed through the LCD.

I haven't found all Live View functions on SLRs intuitive (Canon's EOS 40D requires you to make some adjustments to enable Live View), but the D300's worked quite well in hand-held mode (you can also use the Live View in tripod mode, but I didn't try that). Switching between Live View and the optical viewfinder requires a combination button press and dial turn, but I didn't find that presented a problem when I wanted to quickly switch from one to the other. If I were trying to switch in time to catch a split-leap on the balance beam while shooting pictures of gymnastics, I would have had a problem, but moving between modes was easier than menu-based switching.

Low-light Handling: While my tests have yet to be completed, in the field, the D300 seemed to do a solid job handling low-light situations. Whether I was shooting the gymnasts in a poorly lit gymnasium at Stanford University, or outside of AT&T Park at night, or inside San Francisco's iconic Ferry Building, I found the camera surprised me time and again with how it could capture an image without the flash -- with what appeared to be an reasonable degree of noise and sharpness (I used a 15-year-old 50mm 1.8 lens for the gymnastics, and Nikon's 18-200mm lens with Vibration Reduction for the latter two tasks).

The Auto ISO feature works in all modes, up to 3200 ISO--which means you don't have to think about what ISO is best when you're shooting.

Changing Auto-focus Points: In shooting, I found it notably simple to change the auto-focus (up to 51 on the D300, vs. 11 focus points on the D200) on-the-fly. Rather than cycling through focus points, I could instead use the multidirectional navigation pad to choose which spot I wanted the focus point. This proved a great convenience when I was shooting a mask with depth, and I wanted to both compose the image and have the focus be on a specific part of the mask.

Information Displays: I found the D300's information displays well-presented overall (as on the D200). Whether I was looking at the LCD on top of the camera, the large-type replication of that information display on the rear LCD (new to the D300: The rear LCD automatically changes color, depending upon whether it's dark or light, turns to a black background with white text for easier readability), or looking at an image's related shooting information--the pertinent info was clearly and concisely presented.

We'll know more when the camera comes out of testing and is the subject of a full review. Stay tuned.