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Nikon D300S Review
by Jerry Jackson -  9/23/2009

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.

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.

Nikon D300s

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.

Nikon D300S

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.

Nikon D300S

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.

Nikon D300S

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.

Nikon D300S
Nikon D300S

Display/Viewfinder
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.

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 1280x720, 640x424, or 320x216 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

CONCLUSIONS
When Nikon released the D300, working photographers quickly found their new favorite workhorse. The D300S takes the rugged popularity of the D300 and adds some of the bells and whistles from the D90 to give photographers a modest, but much appreciated, upgrade. Current D300 owners might not find the new D300S particularly tempting unless they've been lusting after the ability to shoot video, but I get the feeling that wasn't Nikon's intent. After spending several weeks with the D300S I can't shake the feeling that the D300S was really meant to give current D90 owners a reason to upgrade.

Sure, there are plenty of photojournalists who will appreciate the SDHC card slot on the D300S because it means they can use the built-in card reader on their laptops when they're out in the field. Likewise, I'm sure more than a few working pros are eager to shoot HD video with their DSLR. However, consumers (not pros) are the ones who have really embraced DSLRs with video capabilities. The overwhelming success of the D90 meant that Nikon needed to give D90 owners an obvious choice for their next camera purchase, and the D300S is that camera. Entry-level DSLRs make up about 80 percent of Nikon's DSLR sales, and Nikon would love to see some of those consumers spend some extra cash on higher-end bodies.


Regardless of whether you're a seasoned professional who needs a rugged DX-format camera or merely a shutterbug looking for the next level of photographic equipment, the D300S is a very attractive camera. The D300S combines high-speed performance, exceptional image processing, rugged build quality, and great video capabilities in a very familiar package. Add to that Nikon's extraordinary collection of lenses, fantastic speedlights like the SB-900, and a huge variety of accessories and the Nikon D300S becomes the obvious centerpiece to a top-quality photographic kit.

Pros:

Cons: