Choosing a DVD camcorder has typically meant sacrificing quality when compared to MiniDV models in the same price range. The Panasonic VDR-D300 breaks that mould by offering video quality that's noticeably better than that of many competing DVD camcorders, as well as three CCDs for excellent colour, even in low-light situations. It also produces decent stills all at a price that's not much higher than that of comparable tape-based camcorders.
The Panasonic VDR-D300 is extremely compact for a camcorder that boasts three CCDs and a mini-DVD drive. Weighing 584g with battery and disc, it's not a featherweight, but it's still light enough for extended shooting. The gentle curves at the top of the camera and the placement of all of the important shooting controls within reach of your thumb and index finger make the VDR-300 extremely comfortable to use.
Its unassuming silver-plastic shell gives it a plain appearance, but the camcorder has a sturdy, solid feel that should hold up well in the field. A chrome ring around the lens has ridges that tease you into thinking the camera is equipped with a focus ring, but they turn out to be purely decorative.
You'll find only a few buttons on the VDR-D300. Nearly all camera settings are adjusted via a small, five-way joystick on the back of the camera. This works very well with the menu system, which is clearly labelled and easy to navigate. The joystick also provides access to other functions that typically have dedicated buttons, such as macro, backlight compensation and Soft Skin mode. Accessing these functions isn't exactly obvious at first -- you press the joystick until the proper set of icons appears, then use the joystick to select the proper icon. The meaning of the icons wasn't always clear with some earlier Panasonic models, but the VDR-D300 clarifies them with text labels as you select each icon. Though this system takes some of getting used to, I found it easier to use than an array of buttons.
The Panasonic VDR-D300 lends itself well to tripod use. The DVD door opens at the top and the battery snaps on the back, so only the SD card slot is blocked when it's mounted on a tripod.
The Panasonic VDR-D300's Leica lens offers a mere 10x zoom. What it lacks in reach it attempts to make up for in image quality through the inclusion of three 1/6-inch, 800,000-pixel CCDs, the same trio found in Panasonic's MiniDV-based PV-GS300, which promises sharper pictures and better light sensitivity than single-CCD cameras. Along with its VDR-D250 sibling, it's one of the first three-CCD camcorders to feature DVD recording for less than £700.
Casual shooters will appreciate the VDR-D300's fully automatic mode, as well as the inclusion of five scene modes for special shooting conditions such as sports or sand and snow. Those who prefer more manual operation will find much to like in the VDR-D300, which offers full manual control of shutter speed and aperture, as well as manual focus and white balance.
The MagicPix mode uses slow shutter speed to bring out colour in low-light situations, creating a blurred, surreal effect. Though the VDR-D300 includes a flash for use with still shots, when shooting video, the only built-in illumination is the ability to flip the LCD around and use it as a poor man's camera light. It's extremely weak, illuminating objects within only 1.2m.