Nikon D300S Review

 
Camera Reviews / Nikon Cameras / Nikon D i Full Review

Nikon D300S Image Quality


Color

Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Very good overall accuracy and saturation, with only minor shifts in hue and intensity.

In the diagram above, the squares show the original color, and the circles show the color that the camera captured. More saturated colors are located toward the periphery of the graph. Hue changes as you travel around the center. Thus, hue-accurate, highly saturated colors appear as lines radiating from the center.
Saturation. The Nikon D300S pushes strong reds and oranges, dark blues, and some greens just a little, but actually undersaturates some cyan tones slightly. Its overall color saturation is a bit higher than average for a semi-pro SLR, but results are pleasing and didn't seem at all overdone. Most consumer digital cameras produce color that's more highly saturated (more intense) than found in the original subjects. This is simply because most people like their color a bit brighter than life.

Skin tones. Here, with the color balanced properly for the light source, the Nikon D300S's skin tones looked just about right. There were some slight pink tints in places, but overall skin tone looked very natural. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc.

Hue. The Nikon D300S showed a few small color shifts relative to the mathematically precise translation of colors in its subjects, but its overall color accuracy was close to the best we've tested. Reds shifted very slightly toward orange, and cyan shifted a bit toward blue, as there were slight shifts in some oranges, greens, blues and purples. At the end of the day, though, color accuracy was very good and the camera did a good job distinguishing between hues in the orange-to-yellow range, countering what appears to be an increasingly common tendency in cameras we've tested lately. Hue is "what color" the color is.

Saturation Adjustment
The Nikon D300S lets you adjust the image saturation and contrast in seven steps each, and sharpening in ten steps. As can be seen below, the saturation adjustment worked very well, providing a reasonably fine-grained adjustment over a useful range of control. (Although we'd personally like to see slightly smaller steps.) The saturation adjustment also has almost no impact on contrast. That's how a saturation control should work, but we've often found interactions between saturation adjustments and image contrast (and vice versa) on the cameras we test.

Saturation Adjustment Examples
Click to see D300SOUTBSAT1.JPG Click to see D300SOUTBSAT3.JPG Click to see D300SOUTBSAT4.JPG Click to see D300SOUTBSAT5.JPG Click to see D300SOUTBSAT7.JPG
-3 -1 0 +1 +3

The table above shows results with several saturation settings, see the Thumbnails index page for more (look for the files named D300SOUTBSATx.JPG). Click on any thumbnail above to see the full-sized image.

Click to see D300SFARI0200.JPG Click to see D300SOUTBAP2.JPG Click to see D300ShSLI0200_NR_NORM.JPG
See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Sensor

Exposure and White Balance

Indoors, incandescent lighting
Good color with Manual and 2,600 Kelvin white balance settings, though warm results with Auto and Incandescent white balance. Average exposure compensation required.*

Click to see D300SINBAP1.JPG Click to see D300SINBTP1.JPG
Auto White Balance
+0.3 EV
Incandescent White Balance
+0.3 EV
Click to see D300SINBMP1.JPG Click to see D300SINBMP1.JPG
Manual White Balance
+0.3 EV
2,600 Kelvin
+0.3 EV

The Nikon D300S's auto white balance had a difficult time with the very warm color balance of the household incandescent bulbs used in this shot, something we find disappointing in a camera in this price and performance range. But the D300S is by no means alone in this: Most cameras we test have trouble with this light source, and it's important to note that this is far from the worst we've seen. The camera's incandescent white balance setting is obviously tuned for the cooler-hued 3,200K color of professional studio lighting, so produces the slightly warm cast you'd expect here. The 2,600K and Manual settings produced much more accurate results. Skin tones and white values looked best with the manual option, as the 2,600K setting was just a hint cool (though still nearly accurate -- and we could obviously have chosen a slightly higher Kelvin setting if we'd wanted to fiddle with it more). The Nikon D300S required +0.3 EV exposure compensation for this shot, which is about average among cameras we've tested. Overall color is quite good, though the blue flowers looked a touch purplish as they often do with this shot. (Many digital cameras reproduce these flowers with a darker, purplish tint, so the Nikon D300S actually performs a little better than average here.) Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.

* Note: These shots were captured with a Sigma 70mm f/2.8 macro lens, one of the sharpest lenses we've ever tested on SLRgear.com. We use Sigma 70mm lenses in most of our studio test shots because they are so sharp and are available on all major platforms with the exception of Four Thirds. For some reason, though, on some (but not all) Nikon bodies, the Sigma causes the camera's exposure system to overexpose by somewhere between two thirds of a stop and a full stop. The D300S is one such body (as was the D90), as the exposure compensation settings used in the images above are lower than normal for this shot. Accordingly, the comments regarding exposure compensation required have been adjusted to match results we achieved with a Nikkor lens. Other than this exposure shift, the Sigma 70mm performs very well on Nikon bodies, so we continue to use it as our "reference" lens, due to its excellent optical qualities.

Outdoors, daylight
Good exposure and color outdoors, though slightly high contrast at the default setting. Very good highlight/shadow detail preservation, though, and options like D-Lighting, and Contrast adjustment are a help when faced with tough conditions like these.

Click to see D300SOUTBAP2.JPG Click to see D300SFARI0200.JPG
Auto White Balance,
+0.7 EV
Auto White Balance,
0 EV

The Nikon D300S handled tough outdoor lighting under harsh sunlight pretty well, and produced good overall color and exposure. The default contrast setting was a bit on the high side, but shadow and highlight detail in the "sunlit" Portrait shot shown above was excellent. Only a few highlights were clipped in the model's shirt, pendant and some of the flowers, and only a few very deep shadows were lost as well. The +0.7 EV exposure compensation required to keep the model's face bright was about average for this scene. The house shot was just slightly overexposed at 0 EV, but lost very few of the highlights or shadows. Color looks good outdoors as well, just a touch cool.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Resolution
Very high resolution, 1,700 lines of strong detail.

Strong detail to
1,700 lines horizontal
Camera JPEG
Strong detail to
1,700 lines vertical
Camera JPEG
Strong detail to
1,750 lines horizontal
ACR processed RAW
Strong detail to
1,700 lines vertical
ACR processed RAW

Our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 1,700 lines per picture height in both the horizontal and vertical directions in JPEGs. Complete extinction didn't occur until around 2,600 lines in both directions. We were able to eke out a bit more resolution (perhaps 1,750 to 1,800 lines) in the horizontal direction with RAW files processed through Adobe Camera RAW, but not in the vertical direction. The ACR processed RAW images were crisper (thanks to strong/tight unsharp masking in Photoshop), but didn't contain much more detail. Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Sharpness & Detail
Very good detail but a hint soft straight from the camera, with relatively minor edge-enhancement on high-contrast subjects. Minimal noise suppression artifacts at base ISO.

Good definition of
high-contrast elements,
with only minor evidence of
edge enhancement.
Subtle detail: Hair
Noise suppression tends to blur
detail in areas of subtle contrast,
though detail remains strong in
the darker parts of the model's hair here.

Sharpness. The Nikon D300S produced very good detail, but there's a slight softness overall, even when using the sharp Nikon 35mm f/1.8G prime lens at f/8 as was used for the house crop above left. f/8 is slightly beyond the diffraction limit on the D300S, but our testing on SLRgear showed that the sharpness loss from f/5.6 to f/8 was very slight: So the slight softness here is almost certainly the result of the camera's low pass filter and its image processing, rather than any loss optically. Some minor edge enhancement artifacts are visible on high-contrast subjects such as the crop above left, but overall results are still quite good. Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing color and tonal differences right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.

Detail. The crop above right shows only minimal detail loss due to noise suppression, as the darker areas of the model's hair show a lot of detail. Individual strands are still distinguishable even in the lighter shadows, though they begin to merge as shadows deepen, and in places where the tone and color of adjacent strands is very close. All in all, a very good performance here. Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears.

RAW vs In-Camera JPEGs
As noted above, the Nikon D300S does a pretty good job at capturing lots of detail, but JPEG images are slightly soft at the default settings. A little more detail can be obtained from carefully processing RAW files, though, without introducing additional artifacts. Take a look below, to see what we mean:

In the table above, mousing over a link at the bottom will load the corresponding crop in the area above, and clicking the link will load the full resolution image. Examples are all shot at ISO 200, and include in-camera Fine JPEG, the RAW file processed through Nikon's free ViewNX software, the RAW file processed through Nikon Capture 2.2, and the RAW file processed through Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) version 5.5, then sharpened in Photoshop. We used default settings for ViewNX and boosted the sharpening a little in Capture NX. For Adobe Camera Raw, we found best results with strong but tight 250% unsharp masking with a 0.3 pixel radius.

As is frequently the case, the demosaicing and sharpening in Adobe Camera and Photoshop deliver finer detail than either the camera or the manufacturer's own software. Looking very closely at the images, ACR doesn't actually extract any detail that wasn't present in the JPEGs from either the camera itself or either of Nikon's software packages; the main difference is in the fineness of the rendering. Fine details (the tree branches against the sky, for example) look a little coarser in the various Nikon renderings than in that from ACR/Photoshop. This isn't without cost, though: While they don't look as crisp, the Nikon renderings are smoother-looking. We'd personally go the Adobe (or other high-quality third-party RAW converter) route here if we were concerned about making the sharpest-looking print possible from the D300S's files, but that approach would also require some color calibration and management to better match both reality and what the camera itself sees.

ISO & Noise Performance
Low noise at the lower sensitivity settings, with very good results up to ISO 800. However, detail loss to noise reduction takes a jump at ISO 1,600 and above.

Noise Reduction = Default
ISO 100 ISO 200 ISO 400
ISO 800 ISO 1,600 ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400

The Nikon D300S produced sharp, detailed images with low noise at its lower sensitivity settings, with noise increasing and detail degrading as you move to higher ISO settings. Detail was very good up to ISO 400, with very little lost to noise or noise reduction. At ISO 800, we see some minor smudging as high ISO noise reduction kicks in, but detail is still pretty good, and chroma noise is low. At ISO 1,600, subject detail takes a bigger drop, with stronger blurring and more visible noise "grain." Chroma noise is still pretty low, though. Images at 3,200 and ISO 6,400 are notably less detailed than those at lower sensitivity levels, and ISO 6,400 in particular shows a lot of chroma noise as well, in the form of yellow and purple blotches. Of course, the impact of noise and detail loss are highly dependent on the size the photos are printed at, and pixel-peeping on-screen has surprisingly little relationship to how the images look when printed: See the Print Quality section below for recommended maximum print sizes at each ISO.

A note about focus for this shot: We shoot this image at f/4, using one of three very sharp reference lenses (70mm Sigma f/2.8 macro for most cameras, 60mm f/2.8 Nikkor macro for Nikon bodies without a drive motor, and Olympus Zuiko 50mm f/2.0 for Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds bodies). To insure that the hair detail we use for making critical judgements about camera noise processing and detail rendering is in sharp focus at the relatively wide aperture we're shooting at, the focus target at the center of the scene is on a movable stand. This lets us compensate for front- or back-focus by different camera bodies, even those that lack micro-focus adjustments. This does mean, though, that the focus target itself may appear soft or slightly out of focus for bodies that front- or back-focused with the reference lens. If you click to view the full-size image for one of these shots and notice that the focus target is fuzzy, you don't need to email and tell us about it; we already know it. :-) The focus target position will simply have been adjusted to insure that the rest of the scene is focused properly.

Extremes: Sunlit and low light tests
Very high resolution with excellent highlight and shadow detail. Very good low-light performance, capable of capturing bright images in near darkness.

Click to see D300SOUTBAP1.JPG Click to see D300SOUTBAP2.JPG Click to see D300SOUTBAP3.JPG
+0.3 EV +0.7 EV +1.0 EV

Sunlight:
The Nikon D300S handled the deliberately harsh lighting very well in the above test. Though contrast is a little high, shadow and highlight detail are both very good. The camera's contrast adjustment also did a good job of decreasing overall contrast without producing strong color variations; see the section below. The +0.7 EV exposure did the best job here, as the model's face was a bit too dim at +0.3 EV and we thought that too many highlights were lost at +1.0 EV. At +0.7 EV, only a few highights were blown in the bright flowers and the model's shirt, while good detail was still preserved in the shadows. The very deepest shadows were a bit plugged, but we'd still call this a very good performance overall. These shots were captured with the Nikon D300S's Active D-Lighting control set to its default of "Off." (Also see our earlier note about exposure variance with the Sigma 70mm used for this shot: The EV adjustments described here are relative to nominal exposure with the Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 lens.)

Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here. In actual shooting conditions, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown here; it's better to shoot in open shade whenever possible.)

Contrast Adjustment
We really like it when a camera gives us the ability to adjust contrast and saturation to our liking. It's even better when those adjustments cover a useful range, in steps small enough to allow for precise tweaks. Just as with its saturation adjustment, the Nikon D300S's contrast setting meets both challenges, the contrast steps actually being a little finer than those for saturation, and thus even more to our liking.

Minimum Contrast
Click to see D300SOUTBCON1.JPG Click to see D300SFARCON1.JPG
Contrast set to lowest,
+0.7 EV
Contrast set to lowest,
0 EV

At its lowest contrast setting, the D300S did a really excellent job of preserving highlight detail, maintaining natural-looking skin tones, and holding nice detail in the shadows. The D300S captures good color outdoors, though just slightly on the cool side. Overall, very good results here, especially when the contrast setting is tweaked. (This is a really tough shot; the Nikon D300S does a better than average job handling it.)

Contrast Adjustment Examples
Click to see D300SOUTBCON1.JPG Click to see D300SOUTBCON3.JPG Click to see D300SOUTBCON4.JPG Click to see D300SOUTBCON5.JPG Click to see D300SOUTBCON7.JPG
-3 -1 0 +1 +3

The series of shots above shows results with several different contrast adjustment settings, showing the minimum step size around the default, as well as both extremes. While you can see the extremes, it's hard to really evaluate contrast on small thumbnails like these, click on any thumbnail to go to the full-size image.

One very nice feature of Nikon's contrast adjustment is that it has very little effect on color saturation. Contrast and saturation are actually fairly closely coupled, it's a good trick to be able to vary one with out the other changing as well. Nikon did a good job here.

Nikon's Active D-Lighting
The series of shots below show the results of the available Active D-Lighting settings (once again, with an exposure compensation of +0.7 EV), used to preserve highlight and shadow detail in high contrast images. The Nikon D300S offers two additional options over the D300, which are the Extra High and Auto settings. Active D-Lighting is different from the touch-up menu's D-Lighting, as it is performed during image capture instead of after. (It does affect only JPEG images though, Nikon very properly doesn't apply tonal adjustments like this to RAW file data.)

Active D-Lighting Examples
Click to see D300SOUTBADL_OFF.JPG Click to see D300SOUTBADL_LOW.JPG Click to see D300SOUTBADL_NORM.JPG
Off Low Normal
Click to see D300SOUTBADL_HIGH.JPG Click to see D300SOUTBADL_EXHIGH.JPG Click to see D300SOUTBADL_AUTO.JPG
High Extra High Auto

Nikon's Active D-Lighting does a good job at preserving highlights while bringing up detail in the deep shadows. Not surprisingly, though, more noise is visible in the darker areas of the test shots above, and the shadow end of the tone curve is choppier and less smooth. (Active D-Lighting's effect is a little subtle in shots like those above, that have broad areas of both very bright highlights and very deep shadows -- You'll notice more impact in shots that are over- or underexposed overall, or where the central subject is in shadow from significant backlighting.)

More Active D-Lighting Examples
Click to see D300SFARDR_OFF.JPG Click to see D300SFARDR_LOW.JPG Click to see D300SFARDR_MED.JPG
Off Low Normal
Click to see D300SFARDR_HIGH.JPG Click to see D300SFARDR_EXHIGH.JPG Click to see D300SFARDR_AUTO.JPG
High Extra High Auto

Here are the results with our Far-Field House shot. Again, the effect of Active D-Lighting is pretty subtle because not much of the image was overexposed to begin with. Also note the slight blue cast in the white trim of the house as the strength of Active D-Lighting is increased.



  1 fc
11 lux
1/2 fc
5.5 lux
1/4 fc
2.7 lux
1/8 fc
1.3 lux
1/16 fc
0.67 lux
1/16fc
No NR
ISO
100
Click to see D300SLL01003.JPG
2 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL01004.JPG
4 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL01005.JPG
8 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL01006.JPG
15 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL01007.JPG
30 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL01007XNR.JPG
30 sec
f2.8
ISO
200
Click to see D300SLL02003.JPG
1 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL02004.JPG
2 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL02005.JPG
4 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL02006.JPG
8 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL02007.JPG
15 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL02007XNR.JPG
15 sec
f2.8
ISO
400
Click to see D300SLL04003.JPG
0.5 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL04004.JPG
1 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL04005.JPG
2 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL04006.JPG
4 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL04007.JPG
8 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL04007XNR.JPG
8 sec
f2.8
ISO
800
Click to see D300SLL08003.JPG
1/4 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL08004.JPG
0.5 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL08005.JPG
1 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL08006.JPG
2 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL08007.JPG
4 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL08007XNR.JPG
4 sec
f2.8
ISO
1600
Click to see D300SLL16003.JPG
1/8 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL16004.JPG
1/4 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL16005.JPG
0.5 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL16006.JPG
1 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL16007.JPG
2 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL16007XNR.JPG
2 sec
f2.8
ISO
3200
Click to see D300SLL32003.JPG
1/15 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL32004.JPG
1/8 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL32005.JPG
1/4 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL32006.JPG
0.5 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL32007.JPG
1 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL32007XNR.JPG
1 sec
f2.8
ISO
6400
Click to see D300SLL64003.JPG
1/30 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL64004.JPG
1/15 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL64005.JPG
1/8 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL64006.JPG
1/4 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL64007.JPG
0.5 sec
f2.8
Click to see D300SLL64007XNR.JPG
0.5 sec
f2.8

Low light. The Nikon D300S performed well here, able to capture usable images down to the 1/16 foot-candle light level (about 1/16 as bright as average city street lighting at night), at all ISO settings. Color balance with auto white balance ended up being rather bluish, so we shot the images above using the D300S's Manual white balance setting. Noise was quite low up to ISO 800, and even a higher ISOs, there's still a lot of detail to work with when high ISO NR is set to "Off" (which still applies some filtering at ISOs over 3,200). The Nikon D300 gives you four options for high ISO noise reduction: Off, Low, Normal, and High, so you have some flexibility in deciding how much noise to trade for detail. Except for the "No NR" shots in the table above, these were all shot using the Normal NR setting, and Long Exposure NR was enabled, so was applied to exposures longer than eight seconds. There are a few hot pixels visible at high ISOs and very low light levels when NR is set to Off, but not as many as we normally see. We did not detect any banding issues.

The Nikon D300S's phase-detection autofocus system also performed very well here, able to focus on the subject down to well below the 1/16 foot-candle light level with its AF assist light turned off, and in total darkness with it enabled. Even in Live View mode with contrast-detect autofocus, the D300S was able to focus down to below 1/16 foot-candle, which is very good. (Keep in mind that the longer shutter speeds here demand the use of a tripod to prevent any blurring from camera movement. A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy.)

How bright is this? The one foot-candle light level that this test begins at roughly corresponds to the brightness of typical city street-lighting at night. Cameras performing well at that level should be able to snap good-looking photos of street-lit scenes.

NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) Digital SLRs like the Nikon D300S do much better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects.

Output Quality

Print Quality
Great print quality, good color, sharp 13x19-inch prints.

The Nikon D300S's printed output is really impressive, able to output 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, improving on its predecessor.

Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon Pro9000 Mark II studio printer, and on the Pixma MP610 here in the office. (See the Canon Pixma Pro9000 Mark II review for details on that model.)

 

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