When Nikon launched their pro-bodied, DX-format D300 in 2007 it marked something of a revolution for Nikon. At last, Nikon cemented their top-level cameras into two categories: FX (cameras packed with 35mm full-frame image sensors) and DX (cameras using APS-C sized image sensors with a 1.5X crop factor). But as far as the rest of the world was concerned, the real revolution came a year later with Nikon's introduction of the D90 -- the first DLSR capable of recording HD video. It's no wonder that Nikon was so eager to take the new high resolution sensor and video mode from their mid-grade D90 and put it into a higher-priced DSLR ... the new Nikon D300S.
We'll explore the video performance of the D300S later in the review, but rest assured, if you liked the video quality from the D90 then you'll feel the same way about the D300S.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The D300S features the same 12.9 megapixel (12.3 million effective pixels) APS-C sensor and Nikon's latest generation EXPEED processor found in the D90. But there aren't many more similarities between Nikon's newest king of the DX format and the older, cheaper D90. The D300S is packed with the same 51-point AF system with color and distance tracking as well as optional viewfinder gridlines from the original D300. In fact, there is little that changed between the popular D300 and the D300S other than the ability to record video, a faster 7 fps continuous shooting speed (8 fps with MB-D10 battery grip), and the inclusion of an SDHC card slot in addition to the CompactFlash card slot.
The D300S marks Nikon's third DSLR camera to be equipped with a 12 megapixel image sensor capable of HD video recording. The mid-tier D90 and the entry-level D5000 offer amateur and enthusiast photographers a still camera that can capture video, but the D300S is Nikon's first pro-level body that doubles as a video camera.
The D300S shares the same 200 to 3200 nominal ISO range (with ISO 100 and 6400 options available), and the ability to use "Active D-Lighting" (Nikon's proprietary feature that boosts shadow details and helps prevent overexposed highlights so you don't have to spend as much time editing your photos after you take them).
The improved EXPEED image processor (inherited from the D90) allows you to capture video at 1280x720 pixel resolution and 24 frames per second (theatrical film speed). The built-in microphone works as well as the built-in microphones on the D90 and D5000, but the D300S includes a mini-jack stereo input that lets you attach an external microphone for better audio recording. There's also a menu option that allows you to control the volume levels for the video recording.
Of course, the EXPEED processing also improves speed for still shooters as well. The continuous shooting speed received a nice boost to 7 frames per second when using the standard EN-EL3e battery compared to 6 fps with the original D300. If you want even more speed, you can connect the optional MB-D10 battery grip ($299 MSRP) for a full 8 fps. When you consider that Canon's 50D is limited to 6.3 fps, the D300S makes a compelling solution for sports photographers.
As previously mentioned, the D300S adds a second memory card slot for SD/SDHC memory media along with the standard CF slot seen in the D300. The SDHC card slot allows photojournalists to quickly transfer images using the built-in SDHC card reader in most laptops. Another convenient benefit to the SDHC slot is that you can use an Eye-Fi card to wirelessly upload images to a computer or the internet whenever you're within range of a Wi-Fi network.
Ergonomics and Controls
The design of the D300S looks virtually identical to the D300, and it requires a keen eye to spot the external differences to these cameras. The D300S will be largely familiar to current D300 and D200 shooters, and Nikon D90 shooters will quickly feel at home with the camera as well.
While not physically different from the D300 in any major way, the new D300S features the same rugged magnesium alloy construction and rubber gaskets for extreme weather proofing seen on the D300 and is a step up from the plastic construction of the D90.
The D300S has contours and thick rubber grip material with just the right amount of "tacky" texture in all the right places. The deep handgrip provides a firm hold while at the same time maintaining acceptable clearance from the lens barrel, the thumb/palm rest at the rear of the body is nice and large for cradling the thumb and gives you a place to keep your thumb near the controls. The index finger falls naturally onto the shutter button.
The button layout is extremely similar to what was used on the D300, so anyone familiar with that camera should have a relatively easy time learning the control interface on the D300S. Live view (using the monitor to compose/capture still images or movies) can be accessed quickly via the live view button.
Menus and Modes
Unlike Nikon's consumer-oriented cameras that are loaded with a variety of user-friendly scene modes, there are only four primary shooting modes on the pro-level D300S:
In addition to the four primary shooting modes the D300S also offers:
Unlike the entry-level Nikon DSLRs, the D300S will meter with virtually any Nikkor "F" mount lens - a major benefit for photographers who own old glass. 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. During the review period I tested the D300S with the Nikon 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S DX ED VR, Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G ED IF VR, Nikon 85mm f/1.8D, and the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX lenses.
The D300S features a 3.0 inch, 920,000 dot monitor identical to the one used on the D300 and D90. The monitor offers 100 percent frame coverage and is adjustable via the internal menu for seven levels of brightness. This high resolution screen really has to be seen to be appreciated, it offers much greater detail than most DSLR monitors because the tiny gaps between dots are too small to be seen with the human eye. The extra detail comes in handy when using Live view and when zooming into still images in playback mode to confirm focus.
The viewfinder offers 100% frame coverage and a magnification of 0.94x with a 50mm lens. The built-in diopter provides multiple levels of adjustment between -2 and +1m. In short, this is the same fantastic viewfinder seen in the D300.
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