Nikon D300S Performance, Timings and Image Quality

by Jerry Jackson Reads (639)

PERFORMANCE
The D300S is intended to replace the D300 on the semi-pro and professional end of Nikon’s DX-format SLR offerings. That said, the D300S only offers some fairly modest performance improvements over the D300.

Shooting Performance
Like most current-generation Nikon SLRs, the D300S is ready to go as soon as you hit the power button. Likewise, shutter lag and auto focus lag aren’t an issue. Here are a few figures showing the timings in our lab:

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon D300S 0.02
Canon EOS 5D Mark II 0.02
Olympus E-30 0.02
Pentax K20 0.04

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Olympus E-30 0.14
Nikon D300S 0.15
Canon EOS 5D Mark II 0.18
Pentax K20 0.28

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Nikon D300S 14 6.9 fps
Olympus E-30 9 5.0 fps
Canon EOS 5D Mark II 8 3.8 fps
Pentax K20 38 3.0 fps

* Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera’s fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). “Frames” notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

We were favorably impressed in our lab testing with the D300S’s continuous shooting capabilities. It hovered just under the advertised 7 fps mark regardless of burst length. Using the D300S and the 32GB SanDisk Extreme Pro, we could clear a buffer worth of 20 RAW images (11.6MB per image) in approximately 8.5 seconds. A Lexar Professional UDMA CompactFlash card rated at only 300x was able to perform the same task in about 10 seconds.

Overall, the performance of the D300S is a modest improvement over the already impressive D300.

The D300S uses the same Nikon Multi-CAM 3500 focus system used in the D3 and D300, which can utilize up to 51 focus points, 15 of which are cross-type sensors. Default value is 9 points, with 21 and 51 points (with and without 3-D tracking) available for user selection. Nikon recommends 9 points for situations where there is time to compose the photo or the subject is moving predictably (motorsports, track and field events, etc.); 21 points for subjects moving unpredictably (football players); 51 points for subjects moving quickly (birds) and 51 points with 3-D for subjects moving erratically from side to side (tennis players). Even though there can be up to 51 focus points on the screen, only the active point selected by the user is displayed … a good way to prevent clutter in the viewfinder.

Focus acquisition speed is among the best in class. Tracking moving subjects seems noticeably better with the D300S than when attempting the same shots with the D90 — which is pretty darn fast for a mid-tier DSLR. Shooting moving subjects with D300S proved remarkably easy, and the only times I didn’t get a tack-sharp image it was due to shallow depth of field or photographer error. The D300S is one of those cameras that just doesn’t miss when it comes to autofocus as long as you’re using a good lens.

The D300 has a powerful, manually-deployed built-in flash and hot-shoe. The built-in flash carries a Guide Number of 56 feet at 200 ISO. Recycle times are excellent for the built-in flash – using manual control to force a full power flash resulted in a fully recharged flash in about 1.5 seconds. The typical high performance mix of flash modes includes front curtain synch, red eye reduction, red eye reduction with slow synch, slow synch, and rear curtain synch. As good as the built-in flash may be, serious flash users will want to consider Nikon’s excellent SB series external flashes for the D300S. I used the SB-800 during most of the testing period, but the newer SB-900 offers some nice improvements if you’re looking for a good external flash for use with the D300S.

Nikon D300S

In its standard configuration, the D300S uses the same EN-El3e battery as the D200 and D300. Battery power wasn’t a problem during the review period, and I was actually able to complete the review with several weeks of serious shooting and only needed to recharge the battery once. If you decide that you need more power, the previously-mentioned MB-D10 battery grip allows the use of a second EN-El3e battery or the EN-El4 or 4a battery from the D2X/D3/D3X. The MB-D10 also has a nice feature that allows you to select which battery the camera will draw from first (the one in the camera or the one in the grip.

Lens Performance
As mentioned earlier in the review, the D300S uses the standard Nikon F mount which allows the complete range of Nikkor F lenses to be used on this camera. The 3D color matrix II metering is restricted to Nikon’s type G, D or AF-S and AF-I lenses; matrix metering works with other Nikon AF lenses as well as AI-P, AI, AI-S, AI-modified or E series lenses; center weighted and spot metering are available with every lens except the 120mm Medical Nikkor and the few lenses designed for the Nikon F3AF camera body. The D300S also fully supports the use of the aperture ring found on old AI lenses.

Video Quality
If you just want a quick overview of the video quality from the D300S, rest assured that the video capability of this camera is quite good. If you’re used to the video quality in a compact point-and-shoot camera or even an entry-level HD video camera, then the D300S will certainly exceed your expectations in terms of color, smoothness, and detail.

The D300S, like its little brothers the D90 and D5000, can capture movies at 1280×720, 640×424, or 320×216 sizes, all at a 24 fps (the same speed as theatrical film). The fact that many different Nikon lenses can be used with the D300S to shoot video means that the D5000 actually has a substantial advantage over consumer-grade video cameras. Zoom lenses can be zoomed while capturing video, fast prime lenses allow you to shoot in extreme low light, VR lenses function to reduce camera shake.

The only major limitations to using the D300S as a video camera are that videos are limited to 5 minutes in length or a maximum file size of 2GB and you can’t use auto focus. That’s right. The camera won’t auto focus while shooting video – you use the AF sensor to lock focus before you start recording video and you hope that the camera-to-subject distance remains constant … otherwise your video will be out of focus. On the bright side, the use of large aperture lenses and manual focus means professional videographers can do creative effects with depth of field … keeping part of the frame in focus and making either the foreground or background out of focus.
The video below shows a waterfall and highlights the shallow depth of field and manual focus of the D300S.

The other thing to keep in mind is that video has to be done via Live View mode (using the monitor). This isn’t inherently good or bad. Folks who’ve shot video with compact digital cameras may feel right at home (at least until they have to go to manual focus). Still, it’s a safe bet that at least a few seasoned SLR users will want to shoot video with this camera using the viewfinder.

The next potentially negative issue about the video performance of the D300S is the effect of what’s known as rolling shutter when capturing video. The “rolling shutter” effect essentially causes vertical objects to take on a distorted tilt when a camera is rapidly panned across a field of view, such as tracking a running subject against a stationary background.

The sample movie below shows some obvious effects of rolling shutter as the camera is rapidly panned back and forth. The “rolling shutter” or “tilted vertical lines” won’t be obvious if you pan the camera slowly. Again, the video quality is pretty impressive, but the need to pre-focus or use manual focus might be a little frustrating for some users.

The D300S can produce high quality video, assuming the camera-to-subject distance remains relatively constant (or you use manual focus) and avoid situations that give rise to the rolling shutter effect. Bottom line, if video is your primary concern, buy a video camera. If you want a pro-level still camera with video capability, the D300S is arguably the best choice currently on the market.

Image Quality
Although I use cameras and lenses from a number of different manufacturers, Nikon SLRs consistently deliver images with solid color, good white balance, and excellent metering. Since the D300S packs essentially the same sensor as the D90 and D300, it’s easy to assume you’ll get similar image quality out of all these cameras … and that assumption would be very accurate.

Images made at default settings with the D300S were pleasing to my eye in terms of accurate color reproduction, contrast, and sharpness. I did notice an odd tendency for JPEGs from the D300S to show more obvious color cast in shadows than the same images from NEF RAW files, but that was a pretty minor issue. Overall, the Picture Control menu offers fantastic control over sharpness, contrast, brightness, saturation, and hue. The Active D-Lighting feature (which is on by default) does a fantastic job of bringing out shadow detail while preserving highlights. That said, if the Active D-Lighting feature is on, you cannot adjust contrast and brightness in the Picture Control menu.

The D300S produces images that look nearly identical to the D300 in terms of exposure, in-camera processing, and color reproduction. The 1005-pixel RGB 3D Color Matrix Metering II system works with the Scene Recognition System to evaluate various elements of the scene to produce a near perfect exposure. It is noticeably better than the lower resolution RGB 3D Color Matrix Metering system found in the D90 and D5000, but don’t expect miracles.

In addition to the standard Picture Control menu options for changing the way the camera processes images, the D300S also offers a Retouch Menu, including D-Lighting, red-eye correction, trim, monochrome, filter effects, color balance, small picture, image overlay, quick retouch, straighten, distortion control, fisheye, and NEF (Nikon Electronic Format) processing – Nikon’s RAW file format. The in-camera NEF processing is particularly valuable if you’re using non-Nikon software to edit your images. NEF processing allows the user to make a JPEG copy of these files in camera while retaining the original NEF files for later editing.

As previously mentioned, color reproduction is good in the D300S. The following are examples of standard, neutral, and vivid color options; each has more modifications available via sub menus.

Nikon D300S
Standard

Nikon D300S
Neutral

Nikon D300S
Vivid

Auto white balance is the default setting on the D300S and works well in a variety of situations using natural light or flash; there are also settings for incandescent light, seven sources of fluorescent light, direct sunlight, flash, cloudy, shade, color temperature and custom white balance settings. White balance of the individual settings can be further fine-tuned by means of amber-blue and magenta-green axes that appear when the settings are selected via internal menu.

The D300S produces a bit of a warm color cast when using Auto WB under incandescent lighting, but was spot-on with the incandescent setting under the same conditions. It always pays to try and match camera settings with light conditions, or to go the custom WB route if you’re unsure of what you’re dealing with.

Nikon D300s
Auto white balance, 3200K incandescent light

The studio shots from the D300S look unsurprisingly like the D300 and D90 – low ISO noise through ISO 800 with some noise and fine detail loss at ISO 1600 and 3200. ISO 6400 is still usable when there’s no other way to get the shot, but don’t expect to capture as much fine detail as you’ll see in an image from the D3X.

Nikon D300s
ISO 200

Nikon D300s
ISO 200, 100% crop
Nikon D300s
ISO 400
Nikon D300s
ISO 400, 100% crop
Nikon D300s
ISO 640
Nikon D300s
ISO 640, 100% crop
Nikon D300s
ISO 800
Nikon D300s
ISO 800, 100% crop
Nikon D300s
ISO 1250
Nikon D300s
ISO 1250, 100% crop
Nikon D300s
ISO 1600
Nikon D300s
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Nikon D300s
ISO 2500
Nikon D300s
ISO 2500, 100% crop
Nikon D300s
ISO 3200
Nikon D300s
ISO 3200, 100% crop

Overall, the D300S does pretty well in the ISO department. Current D300 users probably won’t notice any improvement since the signal-to-noise ratio seems largely identical to the D90 and D300.

Additional Sample Images

Nikon D300S Nikon D300S
Nikon D300S Nikon D300S
Nikon D300S Nikon D300S


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