Reviewed by Shawn Barnett, Mike Tomkins,
Dave Etchells and Zig Weidelich
Review posted: 02/16/10
Nikon updated one of the most well-received digital SLRs on the market with the Nikon D300S, a digital SLR with the same 12.3-megapixel sensor, a slightly faster frame rate, and HD Video capture capability, among other improvements, all for the same $1,799.95 price tag.
In August 2007, Nikon launched the D300, which offered 12.3-megapixel resolution from a DX format image sensor roughly equal in size to a frame of APS-C film. Sensitivity could be extended as high as ISO 6,400 equivalent, and the Nikon D300 featured a weather-sealed body, 100% viewfinder coverage, a 920,000-dot LCD display with live-view capability, plus six frames-per-second burst shooting. The Nikon D300's feature set was robust enough not only to serve the enthusiastic amateur photographer, but also to prove attractive to pros looking for an extra camera body without breaking the bank.
Two years down the road, Nikon refreshed the D300 design with the Nikon D300S, incorporating almost the entire feature set of the previous camera plus several must-have features to compete with the latest cameras.
D300S vs D300 Differences:
- 1280 x 720p HD video recording at 24 fps
- Built-in mono microphone with adjustable gain
- External 3.5mm stereo mic jack
- Contrast-detect AF during videos
- 7 fps vs 6 fps top burst speed (8 fps for both with battery grip)
- Slightly faster AF performance
- Dual CF Type I and SD card slots vs single CF Type I/II
- Wider built-in flash coverage (16mm vs 18mm)
- Dedicated Live View button
- Dedicated Info button
- Multi-selector center button
- Quiet shutter release mode
- Sliding memory card door vs locking swing type
- Mini HDMI Type-C vs Type-A connector
- Composite A/V output vs composite video only output
- Virtual horizon display
- Optional framing grid in Live View mode
- Icon bar menu below Shooting Info display for quick access to some settings
- Extra-high and Auto Active D-Lighting settings
- Active D-Lighting bracketing
- Face detection during playback
- In-camera RAW processing and image resizing
- In-camera movie trimming
- 72-image thumbnail view in playback mode
- Battery life CIPA rated at 950 shots per charge vs 1,000
- Other minor changes
Design. Weighing about 1.85 pounds (840g), the Nikon D300S is only a half an ounce (15g) heavier than the D300. Dimensions and overall appearance are essentially the same, with only a few differences, noted below.
We're greeted with a familiar face, save for the smaller D300S logo in the upper right corner of this shot. The major addition is the monaural microphone right below the logo, marked by three holes. (See the Design section of this review for a full outline of each control.)
There are no noticeable differences on the top deck of the Nikon D300S. The only noticeable change isn't visible in this shot, and that's the lack of a Live view (Lv) setting on the Drive mode dial.
Most of the changes are visible here, though not overly obvious. First is the Live view (Lv) button that rests somewhat awkwardly just right of the LCD and upper left of the AF point selector switch. They also added an Info button just below that. The formerly clumsy Rear multi-selector disk has been graced with a center button, first seen on the Nikon D3. The memory card door omits the cumbersome switch in favor of a sliding design. Those who use both Canon and Nikon cameras on a daily basis will be pleased with this change. And finally, the nine-holes for the speaker peek out from the lower right corner, a good location that still allows you to hear while holding the camera.
The thumbgrip pad is a little smaller, and there are other minor tweaks here and there to angles and surfaces, but those are the major changes, just enough to get the job done for the real changes in the Nikon D300S.
The D300S has a strong magnesium alloy body for a rock-solid feel. It is sealed to keep dust and moisture out, and the optional battery grip is built of the same material. The Nikon D300S is a handful, but its greater surface area allows more room for all the buttons and dials I find so useful when taking pictures. It may not be the best camera for portability or casual travel, but if your purpose for traveling includes photography, you won't mind the extra bulk.
Movie mode. It seems like camera manufacturers are grafting HD movie mode into all but the least expensive digital SLRs. Indeed, the Nikon D300S seems to have been created for this very feature, given the D300's continued relevance as a still camera.
Operation is similar to that of the Nikon D90, but with a couple of key differences. Movies are captured as Motion JPEG compressed AVI files, with a frame rate of 24 frames per second. At the full movie-mode resolution of 1,280 x 720 pixels, the Nikon D300S can capture clips as long as five minutes. At a reduced resolution of either 640 x 424 or 320 x 216 pixels, the clip length is limited to a maximum of twenty minutes. Maximum movie file size is 2GB, but may be limited by recording time.
Unlike the Nikon D90, which was restricted solely to an internal monaural microphone, the D300S offers the ability to connect an external microphone, courtesy of a 3.5mm stereo input jack located under the rubber flap on the camera's left side (as seen from the rear). Also unlike the D90, the D300S's microphone amplifier has adjustable sensitivity (3 levels), along with Auto and Off settings. Contrast-detect autofocusing is also now possible during movie recording, although it should be noted that this will probably require the use of an external microphone, since lens motor noise during focusing will be picked up by the camera's internal microphone. It is possible to apply Nikon's Picture Controls to videos while recording with the Nikon D300S, allowing for the tone and color to be altered, for example. Picture Controls and color space must be set prior to recording.
Another difference from the D90 is that the Nikon D300S offers limited in-camera movie editing capabilities. It is possible to set both start and end points on an existing movie clip, and then discard everything beyond these points. The result can be saved as a separate video file to either the CF or SD card as desired, while the full-length original video is left unchanged.
Dual card capability. Another bit of big news is the Nikon D300S' dual memory card slots, with one slot accepting Type-I CompactFlash cards, and the other compatible with Secure Digital media, including the higher-capacity SDHC cards. Interestingly, the latter slot is compatible with Eye-Fi's Wi-Fi capable SD cards, giving the D300S the ability to transfer images across 802.11b/g networks. To offer dual card slots without increasing the size of the camera, the Nikon D300S has dropped support for Type-II CompactFlash cards and Microdrives. With Type-I CF cards offering huge capacities at very affordable prices, and only a few adapters available in Type II, this compromise is sensible.
Either card slot in the Nikon D300S can be set as the primary at the user's option, and data can be copied between cards in-camera. Once configured, the secondary card slot can serve as an overflow when the primary card's capacity is reached, or images can be simultaneously recorded to both cards to provide an immediate backup. Alternatively, the Nikon D300S can be set to record NEF RAW image files to one card, and JPEG compressed images to the other. It is also possible to configure the Nikon D300S to record still images to one card, and movie clips to the other.
New HDMI port. The high definition HDMI output connector has been changed from the larger Type-A jack to a smaller Type-C jack. The standard definition composite video port is now a combined audio/video output.
Frame rate. When shooting with the Nikon D300S's internal EN-EL3e battery, the still image burst-mode shooting rate has increased slightly to seven frames per second, up from six frames-per-second in the D300. If Nikon's MB-D10 multi power battery grip is fitted with an EN-EL4a battery and attached to the Nikon D300S, the burst mode rate improves further to eight frames-per-second -- a top speed that is unchanged from that of the D300. When shooting in 14-bit RAW mode, the top capture speed is about 2.7 frames per second.
Flash. According to Nikon, the wide-angle coverage of the built-in popup flash strobe has improved to 16mm, although the guide number of the flash is unchanged. The flash can still be used as a master controller in the Nikon Creative Lighting System.
Autofocus. The Nikon D300S retains the same 51-point Multi-CAM 3500DX phase detection autofocus sensor module found in the original D300, but Nikon is describing both autofocus speed and accuracy as having been improved in the D300S. The D300S also gains a new Quiet Shutter release mode, which separates firing of the shutter from advance of the shutter mechanism to reduce the noise level generated during shutter release.
Battery. The Nikon D300S uses the same EN-EL3e battery, which is CIPA rated at 950 shots on a single charge (down slightly from the D300's 1,000 shots). The optional MB-D10 Multi-Power Battery Pack adds about one frame per second (with a higher capacity lithium-ion battery), taking the D300S to 8 fps. But it also allows a battery to be kept in the camera body to supplement the battery grip's input. Other designs use a tower that goes up into the battery compartment, which introduces a few problems, including packing an L-shaped grip in a camera bag when it's not in use. The MB-D10 is easier to use, and packs well.
The reason it's called a Multi-Power Battery Pack is that takes multiple types of batteries, including an EN-EL3e, 8 AA cells, or an EN-EL4a, the same lithium-ion battery that the Nikon D3S and D3X use. Now we're talking power: 11.1v 2500mAh to be exact.
Active D-Lighting. Nikon's Active D-Lighting technology has also been updated for the D300S, with two new settings available on top of the previous Off, Low, Normal, and High positions. Active D-Lighting can now be set to Extra High, or to Auto, which will allow the camera to choose which level it feels is appropriate to the scene being photographed. Active D-Lighting can now also be bracketed with anywhere from two to five frames.
Processing and playback. It is now possible to process .NEF Raw image files in-camera. The rear-panel LCD's function menu has also been improved, and the Nikon D300S now offers the 72-image thumbnail display option in Playback mode, which was previously seen in the Nikon D90. The Nikon D300S's Playback mode also offers the ability to automatically zoom in on human faces in playback mode, allowing subjects to be quickly checked for accurate focus and exposure. IPTC info can now be recorded in EXIF metadata, and the Nikon D300S offers a virtual horizon indicator function as well.
One final change relates to the product bundle and addition of a video mode -- the Nikon D300S now comes with an EG-D2 audio/video cable, rather than EG-D100 video cable that was included with the D300.
The Nikon D300S started shipping in the USA in late August 2009. List pricing is set at US$1,799.95.
by Shawn Barnett
Ease. I can't put it any clearer than to say that the Nikon D300S is one of a few quintessential photographer's cameras. Even after a few months without shooting a Nikon D300 or D700, I feel right at home when I pick up the Nikon D300S. I flip on the power, press the WB and ISO buttons on the left and verify status of each on the Status LCD, make changes, verify resolution, and start shooting. The buttons are all clearly marked on the back, and the Nikon D300S just feels like a serious camera, as ready to take pictures as I am.
I appreciate a few of the changes Nikon made to the D300S, but just as much I'm thankful for what they didn't change. The grip is fantastic, with a clear indent for my fingertips, and an aggressive thumb grip on the back. I am glad they put a button in the center of the nav disk, and moving Live view to a button instead of the Drive mode dial makes more sense overall. And though it's slower than the CF card slot, I'm glad Nikon added an SD-card slot.
As I set out to gather my usual Gallery shots, I left the nice 70-200mm f/2.8G II lens behind to save weight. Instead I mounted the DX 18-200mm that's sometimes bundled as a kit lens, expecting only the same old subjects I shoot all the time. The first bit of my walk was spent among dozens of robins rummaging loudly in piles of fallen leaves, but before long the woods around me fell quiet, and I was about to find out why. As I rounded a corner at a slow pace, I felt a forceful presence pressing on my left shoulder: it was that primitive reflex that tells you you're being watched. I slowed my pace and looked left. My eyes landed right on him: a large Broad-winged hawk, only about 25 feet away.
I slowly brought up the Nikon D300S, zooming the lens even before it reached my eye, and pressed the shutter button to focus. I took eight shots, hoping for slightly different head positions, also hedging my bets on focus. I got the various head positions, but needn't have worried about the focus, as each shot was spot-on. I wish I'd had the presence of mind to switch to video mode and get a movie of him as he took off, but I'm still not good at remembering that option with an SLR. Instead, I got some terrible, blurry shots as he flew to another tree, then another. There wasn't time to switch to continuous focus at this point, I was lucky to get the eight shots I did before he tired of my attention. He sure was cool to look at, though, especially so close. The photo you see here is cropped and manipulated to bring up the color from the Nikon D300S's remarkably true color rendering.
The 70-200mm f/2.8 would have given me better bokeh to be sure. This was shot at f/7.1, so I could have opened it to 5.6, but I wanted the extra depth of field to ensure focus. The Nikon D300 performed beautifully, and the 18-200mm lens didn't disappoint. The sensor's 12.3 megapixels also allowed an easy crop that still produced a very sharp 8x10-inch print.
ISO Sensitivity Auto control?! I learned a tough lesson when sitting down with the studio lights: Don't leave ISO Sensitivity Auto Control on after you've explored the mode. You can set the ISO as low as you want via the top Status display, but if you're shooting studio shots under modeling lights with ISO Sensitivity Auto Control set to On, the camera will automatically raise the ISO as high as you told it to go to meet the needs of the relatively dim modeling lights, making you think your strobes have gained a whole lot of power. In my case, I had set it to go as high as 3,200. Let's just say the images were too bright and quite grainy. The good news is that the Nikon D300S's ISO 3,200 setting still allows a good 8x10-inch print; and if you shot NEF (RAW) you can recover the image, convert it to a black and white, and make it look like you were trying for a grainy black and white look.
I eventually figured it out, and won't make that mistake again. It would indeed be useful to set when shooting a sporting event in bright daylight where you'll also need to grab some shots in the shadows thanks to nearby buildings or trees, but limiting it to ISO 800 would certainly be wise. It's one more aspect to remember to check, and one that you forget at your peril. There's actually an icon that appears in the viewfinder and LCD when the setting is on, and flashes when it's actively adjusting the ISO, but it disappears when you press the ISO button to check or change the setting. The current ISO sensitivity is also shown in the viewfinder. I didn't notice it; I'll add it to my mental checklist from now on. On other recent cameras I've used, Auto is one of the settings in the ISO listing as you make changes, so you can't set an ISO and have it change on you. There are plenty of other cameras that work just like this, though, so my mistake.
Autofocus. According to our test results, autofocus is a little faster on the Nikon D300S than on the D300, but I still found it a little slow or unresponsive in low light. Even locked to a single point, the full-autofocus shutter lag was 0.225 second, just a hair faster than the D300's 0.227 second, both using the same f/2.8 prime lens. Turn on the 51-point Auto area mode, and capture time slows to 0.370 second, but that is an improvement over the D300's 0.419 second.
Of course, I'd just finished reviewing the Canon 7D, whose AF performance is considerably faster, so that was part of the impression: The 7D scored 0.131 and 0.149 second in single-point and 19-point AF tests. Overall, though, the Nikon D300S's autofocus performance is excellent in most situations. As I mentioned earlier, each of the Broad-winged hawk shots were quite sharp, and I managed to pin down some squirrels with the 70-200 f/2.8 later as I searched in vain for the hawk again, and each of those shots was consistently sharp. It's an excellent AF system, it's just not quite as fast as more recent designs. And we had more trouble with various aspects of the 7D's AF system than we did with the Nikon D300S's. I still think the multi-point AF is too slow to acquire focus, so I stick to a single AF point. Give it good light, and the multipoint speeds up in the D300S, but low light takes a little longer.
Live view and Movie mode. As I mentioned, I kept forgetting to think of the Nikon D300S as a movie camera when presented with a suitable subject. The novelty of movie mode in SLRs has worn off for me, and perhaps it's a sign that I'm more of a photographer than a videographer; or else the Nikon D300S doesn't make me think of taking video like the E-P1 does. We shot our usual test suite of videos of Charlotte the ISO Standard Austrialian Shephard, which you can see on our Video page.
Shooting video with the Nikon D300S is fairly easy, but there are a few things worthy of note. One, you can't go back to Playback mode until you leave Live view mode. That's just inconvenient. Two, you don't get an exposure preview in Live view mode before recording a movie or a still unless you shoot in Program mode and adjust exposure via the EV Compensation button. (See the Live View page for details.) You also don't get any indication of shutter speed or aperture after you've captured a video, which can also be frustrating. Other features that would be nice while recording video include an EV Compensation scale and a live histogram, something many other cameras have at this point. I would also prefer that the Live view button be in a better position, like under the AEL and AF-ON buttons, because pressing the Lv button and then pressing the multi-selector center button can be a little awkward while trying to keep your subject framed on the LCD.
SD card. I enjoyed using the Nikon D300S's new dual card feature, which came in handy when out shooting with my netbook in tow. My usual netbook/camera combo is the Olympus E-P1, which uses SD cards that slip right into my Acer Aspire One, so having the netbook along with a semi-pro camera that uses SD cards was a nice plus. I tried all three modes, including Overflow, Backup, and Raw primary/JPEG secondary. Overflow just switches from one card to the other when the first fills. Backup copies an image to both cards, something you'll appreciate if a card fails. And the last mode copies a RAW image to the main card and a JPEG to the second card. It all worked without a hitch, though having the SD card in there did slow down buffer clearing times.
Capture NX2. I was fortunate to attend a Nikon School class on Capture NX2, the optional RAW editing software that Nikon sells for translating and editing NEF files. It's not included in the price of the camera, but can be downloaded from the site via a link in the software that is included. After your 60-day trial, the program costs $179.95. But this seminar made a believer out of me. Taught by Terrence Campbell, the class goes through a few of the myriad options offered by the program. Of particular interest are the color and selection control points that allow you to almost magically make adjustments to specific objects in your photos without having to make tedious paths in Photoshop.
Before you watch an expert use the tools available in Capture NX2, the possibilities seem almost as vast as those found in the depths of Photoshop itself: a bottomless pit of potential if there ever was one. I've seen and used the program before, of course, but watching really helps you dig more deeply into the program. The class was $79.95, and most of the attendees were pretty pleased. More than a few were asking in-depth questions, and seemed ready to give the new information a try.
This was one of a few experimental Nikon School classes on NX2, but it struck me as a great idea to help connect Nikon customers with Nikon cameras in a meaningful way. You could see how much more you could get out of your camera with just a few simple edits. Nikon Capture NX is a lot like a darkroom, but less messy. If you're interested in seeing whether a class might appear near you, visit http://www.nikonschool.com. Nikon School offers other classes, like "Introduction to Digital SLR Photography" and "Next Steps: Color, Light, Technology."
Incidental notes. The Nikon D300S's Users Manual is 400 pages large, and its filled with intelligently worded explanations of just about everything the camera does. It's a great place to go when you run into something like I did with the Auto ISO deal. We can't say that of most manuals. The sliding card door that I liked so much initially did come loose once or twice while I was holding the Nikon D300S, something that's never happened to me with a Canon, and certainly not with the D300 or D200, both of which used a separate switch to release the door.
One thing's still true about the Nikon D300S when compared to its predecessor and siblings: Image quality is excellent. In order to compare the D300S to other cameras, I like to look at the ISO 1,600 images, as you'll see below.
Image Quality Comparisons
Nikon D300S vs Nikon D300 at ISO 1,600
Nikon D300S vs Canon 50D at ISO 1,600
Nikon D300S vs Canon 7D at ISO 1,600
Nikon D300S vs Pentax K7 at ISO 1,600
Nikon D300S vs Nikon D700 at ISO 1,600
Nikon D300S vs Canon 5D II at ISO 1,600
Nikon D300S vs 50D, K7, D700, 7D and 5D II.
Printed results. Peeping at pixels onscreen is only worth so much. It's when we print the images that we get to the relevant performance of a camera's lens and sensor.
The Nikon D300S's printed output is really impressive, producing usable 16x20-inch prints at ISO 100 with no sharpening at all. They're slightly soft on close inspection, but really quite good at arm's length. 13x19-inch prints are more like what we'd call sharp, though.
ISO 200 shots print the same as 100, producing a good 16x20 or great 13x19.
ISO 400 images also look just fine at 16x20, and of course are better 13x19.
ISO 800 shots show a noticeable improvement over the D300's performance, turning out acceptable prints at 13x19 inches. And of course it tightens up quite nicely at 11x14 inches.
ISO 1,600 shots are soft at 13x19, but much better at 11x14. Only low-contrast areas are too soft, and that's being picky.
ISO 3,200 shots are where quality takes the first real hit, but this setting still makes a decent 8x10-inch print.
ISO 6,400 shots lose too much detail in the low-contrast and transition areas to make a usable 8x10-inch print, but they still make a good 5x7.
Overall a great performance from the Nikon D300S.
See below for Pro/Con listing and Conclusion.
In the Box
The Nikon D300S comes with the following items in the box:
- Nikon D300S body with body cap, eyepiece cap, eyecup, and LCD monitor cover
- EN-EL3e lithium-ion battery
- MH-18a quick charger
- AN-D300 neck strap
- UC-E4 USB cable
- EG-D2 audio/video cable
- Nikon Software Suite CD-ROM
- User's Manual and Quick Guide
- Registration kit
Nikon D300S Conclusion
The Nikon D300S brings the enthusiast flagship up to the standards of more recent Nikon models, including the D90 and D5000, as well as taking on the Canon 50D and Pentax K7 with their HD movie modes. Though the upgrade didn't include an increase in resolution, there's no question that the Nikon D300S continues to serve as an excellent photographic tool, one now capable of video as well. Competing designs have caught up with the D300S in terms of overall printed output, and some have surpassed it. That doesn't diminish the Nikon D300S at all, but it does widen your choices a bit.
As for speed, the Nikon D300S is faster, but this greater speed is only available at the camera's 12-bit setting, while both the Canon 50D and 7D are capable of their fastest rates at the full 14-bit setting. We're not able to see much of a difference in JPEG files, at least, so whether it matters to you is an open question.
Save for the Nikon D300S's HD movie mode and dual card slots, there are few compelling reasons to upgrade from the D300, but the D300S is a great choice for the intermediate photographer looking for a more serious photographic tool. The Nikon D300S presents a more capable 720p HD video solution than the D90, but it doesn't quite rise to the level of HD video capture found in the extremely popular Canon 5D Mark II and 7D, both of which can record up to 1080p, and capture a full-resolution still image while recording video. Those looking for an SLR for shooting video might want to consider some of these other options, especially if their needs include 1080p capture.
But I can't help considering the Nikon D300S as a still camera, and in that space it still stands pretty strong. Though autofocus was slower in Auto Area mode, I stuck to Single-point mode and was perfectly happy with the Nikon D300S's autofocus speed. I was even happier with its accuracy shot-to-shot. Overall I found the Nikon D300S an extremely capable camera with a very refined design and a great demeanor, an excellent tool for making great photos quickly. Like its predecessor, the Nikon D300S is an easy Dave's Pick.