Together with the new D300 came a free copy of Capture NX, Nikon's dedicated RAW converter software. Apparently Nikon wants to push the use of this program. First, after trying it a little let me say that this program still has by far the worst user interface of anything I have ever encountered. In its current form it is a major disaster. The side panels are horribly designed and the way everything works is designed as an 80's X-windows program. Horrifying to say the least. What Nikon does know very well is how to deal with the data coming from their cameras. By default it gives great color and contrast. One other thing it does well is high-ISO noise. I shot the following image at ISO 6400 with the D300 and loaded it as a .NEF in both Lightroom (2.0 beta) and Capture NX. This is the default conversion (the camera was set to Vivid picture style and Capture picks that up, Vivid adds some saturation some sharpening and some contrast)
You see this camera is usable at this ISO. There is a little noise in the dark blue sky but pretty nice. Amazing how far this has come, the image is better than film at ISO 800. Now for some 100% comparisons. This is Capture default conversion
Pretty amazing if you ask me. The noise is very grain like as if it is film.
Now Lightroom. Left, default Lightroom conversion, right optimized noise reduction (about 50/50 in both luminance and chroma)
As you see, Lightroom's conversion is far noisier by default and it is typical digital noise. The more optimized conversion is still noisy and becomes splotchy. Not very good. You also see strange speckling around the lights in both images that is not present in the Capture conversion.
Conclusion: Not surprising since the software comes from the camera maker, Capture NX deals very well with high ISO noise. If only the program were not so horrible in its use that I dread opening it every time, I would use it all the time and import tiffs or jpegs into Lightroom from it.
EDIT: because of a request below, I added the Mac OS X (i.e. identical to Aperture - my trial license for Ap 2 expired) default system RAW library conversion. It looks like this:
Very similar to Lightroom default version but not as good as Capture NX's. Somehow the noise seems to be a little more even than in the Lightroom conversion, so perhaps it would be easier to deal with, but I digress.