The Nikon D300s adds video and other features to the already exceptional D300 model, but is it enough of an improvement or more of a minor upgrade? The What Digital Camera Nikon D300s review gives you the lowdown...
The Nikon D300s remains remarkably similar to the ever-popular D300. In fact, and as its name suggests, the new model is really more an extension of the D300 as opposed to something built from the ground up. Is this a good thing, or has Nikon missed a trick? The What Digital Camera Nikon D300s review…
Nikon D300s review – Features
The Nikon D300s introduces a movie mode – the main addition over the previous D300. As with Nikon’s other recent video-sporting DSLRs, this records 720p high-definition footage (1280 x 720p) as Motion JPEG (M-JPEG) at a rate of 24 frames per second, saved in AVI format – though, compared with its other models, Nikon has given the D300s user a little more functionality, most notably via a dedicated microphone port. This allows the camera to record stereo sound to accompany movie files; otherwise the camera records mono audio through a small microphone on the front of the body. Autofocus is possible during recording, and there’s also a basic option to edit movies, whereby any surplus footage from the start or end of the file may be discarded.
In contrast to the D300, activating the D300s’ live view function (through which video recording is accessed) is now achieved using a dedicated live view button on the rear, rather than through the release mode dial. In its place on the mode dial is a new Quiet Release option that dampens down the sound of the mirror as it flips up and down, and silences the beep when focus is confirmed. Potentially, this is useful in any environment where it is necessary for noise to be kept to a minimum, for example when shooting wildlife. And for those who do wish to make a lot of noise, Nikon has increased the maximum frame rate from the original D300’s 6fps to 7fps for the D300s, which may be boosted even further to 8fps when using the optional MB-D10 battery pack.
Nikon has also added a slot for SD media next to the existing CompactFlash one, and with it a number of options as to how these may be configured: using two cards, the camera may use the secondary one as an overflow; recording each file to both, effectively making one a backup; or recording JPEGs to one card and Raw files to the other. Copying files between the two is also possible, while through the movie settings you can choose to assign video files to one card, leaving the other one free for images.
Aside from these and a few other minor changes, the D300s is practically a carbon copy of the D300. The DX format CMOS sensor contains a total of 13.1MP, with an effective 12.3MP that applies a 1.5x conversion factor to the focal length of any mounted lens. The low-pass filter in front of the sensor vibrates itself to dislodge any dust that may have got inside, and may be set to activate either on start-up, shutdown, both or neither, as the user wishes.
The D300s has a sensitivity range that runs from a base of ISO 200 up to ISO 3200, with ISO 100 and 6400 extensions also available on either side of this. When shooting in the Auto ISO mode, it is possible to set a maximum sensitivity and a minimum shutter speed for the respective benefits of noise control and sharpness, while noise reduction is available for both long and high ISO exposures.
With Nikon’s Expeed processing system at the helm, a number of the company’s now-standard technologies are also present. The D300s has a 1005-pixel metering sensor which works with the Scene Recognition System to adjust focus, exposure and white balance prior to exposure, while the Active D-Lighting facility welcomes a new bracketing function, which takes up to five images with different degrees of the effect applied. The Picture Control System, meanwhile, comprises Standard, Vivid, Natural and Monochrome colour settings (as well as the further options of downloading and creating your own profiles).
Nikon D300s review – Design
Just as the D300s has specifications that closely mirror those of the D300, so does its design. The camera is constructed from a magnesium alloy frame, with rubberised panelling around its grip, thumb rest and sides, and various sealings around the body to prevent water and dust incursion.
The camera’s pentaprism viewfinder is identical to that of the D300, with a frame coverage of approximately 100% and a 0.94x magnification factor. The user has the option of overlaying an electronic grid to facilitate level shooting, and all of the key exposure information is viewable at its base.
Despite the fact that comparable models are constructed from similar materials, there’s something about the D300s that gives the impression it’s a different beast entirely. Nikon has not skimped on any part of the camera’s build quality; it could certainly give some of the more ‘professional’ models available on the market, such as Canon’s 5D Mark II and Sony’s A900, a good run for their money.
Aside from the dedicated live view button, the rear of the D300s also welcomes an info button underneath this for toggling between display options, as well as a multi-selector pad with a central button. This is similar to the type found on both the D3 and D700 bodies, and allows the user to start and stop video recording at short notice. I found it fiddly to use though, as the pad’s diameter is shorter than the width of my thumb. This can be problematic when you consider just how many options there are through the various menus and custom settings, and how accessing them quickly and easily is key. I am, however, glad to see Nikon has opted for a card door with a sliding mechanism as opposed to one with its own latch, as on the D300 – this makes it far easier to open in a hurry. The addition of dual CF and SD card slots is a nice touch too.
Performance, Image Quality & Value
Nikon D300s review – Performance
It should come as little surprise that the D300s performs to a similar standard as the D300. With the same 51-point AF system, the camera’s viewfinder is well saturated; even the outermost points find subjects with ease, despite not being as sensitive as the middle 15, which are all cross-type. However, although finding a subject causes the D300s few problems, it can be a little slow when initially bringing it into focus, when the performance of similar cameras is considered.
Using the Quiet Shutter mode, the two sounds made by the mirror during an exposure are split into three slightly shorter sounds with less definition. As such, it results in noticeably quieter operation than with the standard shooting mode – perhaps not quite as much as may be expected but I imagine some will still find it useful, given that its only price seems to be in how many frames you can rattle off continuously.
Something that makes a noticeable difference to the D300s’ image quality is the lateral chromatic aberration facility. Using the 16-85mm kit lens on a different Nikon body (one without the feature) showed it to suffer from moderate chromatic aberration towards the peripheries of the frame. Shooting the same scene on the D300s, however, revealed how effectively this worked at reducing chromatic aberration, without the image suffering otherwise because of it.
It takes a bit of practice to get right, but relatively good video quality is obtainable from the D300s, despite the feed being visibly affected by the same sensor-wobble effect seen on other video-shooting DSLRs. Finer details also show a rolling moiré patterning, though exposure shifts relatively smoothly from darker to lighter areas and vice versa. The biggest issue is more Nikon’s persistence with utilising the Motion Jpeg format, which is larger in size and therefore can only record for a shorter period (up to 2GB max, which is five minutes), and the quality is lower than the H.264 compression used by other cameras, such as the Panasonic Lumix GH1. The sound is also notably compressed, though there are no specific stated details of the compression type or amount.
Nikon D300s review – Value
Having already dropped by around £250 from its original RRP, the D300s can now be picked up for a body-only price of £1,250 – around £150 more than the current asking price of the D300. At this price it has few competitors; Canon’s 7D, which will no doubt be viewed as its closest rival, is still around £500 dearer, while Pentax’s K-7 can be had for just over £1,000. Although there have been a number of changes to warrant the ‘s’ over its D300 predecessor, given the overall similarity between the two, its value can be comfortably assessed by the addition of its video facility. However, if you are already a D300 owner then the D300s is more a ‘polishing-up’ of what’s already in your bag, albeit with the video functionality. If the latter’s not important to you then it’s money you may well debate spending, but for ‘first time’ buyers it’s a fair price point for what’s on offer.
Nikon D300s review – Image Quality
Nikon D300s review – Exposure
The D300s exposes consistently and accurately, though Active D-Lighting is recommended as certain images show a touch of underexposure, even when highlights aren’t particularly dominant in a scene.
Nikon D300s review – Colour And White Balance
Colour is good, though on a couple of occasions colours produced on the Standard setting seemed a little muted, and so switching to the Vivid mode where appropriate (for example, for a landscape) injected a little needed warmth. White balance is generally realistic and sympathetic to the subject. In line with some of Nikon’s other DSLRs, the system noticeably neutralises the effects of tungsten lighting.
Nikon D300s review – Detail and Sharpness
It’s clear that the camera can resolve excellent detail, despite the kit lens being a little soft wide open. When stopped down a little, detail is very good, as is default sharpness. Be cautious of overusing in-camera noise reduction however, as its results can compromise detail.
Nikon D300s review – Image Noise and ISO
Noise begins to be visible in midtones and shadow areas at around ISO 400. Without any noise reduction applied in-camera, noise is both textured and coloured (in contrast to the more film-like grain typical of the D700). Though the noise-reduction options make a difference to keep this to a minimum, they do also soften the image, with the highest noise reduction setting losing a notable amount of detail.
Nikon D300s review – Raw and JPEG
JPEGs straight out of the camera show excellent sharpness and detail, when compared with their Raw equivalents. In many cases it’s difficult to tell the difference between the two.
Nikon D300s review – ISO Quality
In general, image noise is kept to a minimum, with in-camera Noise Reduction a little over-zealous at the highest ISO settings causing image detail loss. With NR off, however, even images at ISO 3200 have a superb fine-grained finish.
Nikon D300s review pages:
- Nikon D300s review – Features & Design
- Nikon D300s review – Performance, Image Quality & Value
- Nikon D300s review – Specifications / Specs
- Nikon D300s review – Verdict / Conclusion
Nikon D300s links from What Digital Camera.com
- Compare the Nikon D300s with other products
- Nikon D300s review test sample images
- Nikon D300s product photos
The fact that the D300s is so similar to the original D300 really is testament to how highly specified the original model already was. Many of the changes Nikon has made seem more as justifications for bringing out a new model, rather than the result of any focus groups or market demand. This isn’t to say that the changes in themselves aren’t useful, but perhaps Nikon didn’t consider the few generally subtle additions – mainly that of a movie function – to be enough reason to introduce a whole new DSLR. As video is the main addition (and however obvious as it may be to state it), it’s clear that the D300s is designed for those who will be using the camera for both still images and video, particularly the latter in a more professional manner when connecting an external microphone. Overall, it adds subtle enhancements to an already rock-solid, excellent system.
Nikon D300s manual
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Nikon D300s manual – pdf
The Nikon D300s is available to download from the Nikon website
Buy a printed copy of the Nikon D300s manual
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For general help and advice in using a DSLR, see our techniques section
The fact that the D300s is so similar to the original D300 really is testament to how highly specified the original model already was. Many of the changes Nikon has made seem more as justifications for bringing out a new model, rather than the result of any focus groups or market demand. This isn?t to say that the changes in themselves aren?t useful, but perhaps Nikon didn?t consider the few generally subtle additions to the D300s ? mainly that of a movie function ? to be enough reason to introduce a whole new DSLR. As video is the main addition (and however obvious as it may be to state it), it?s clear that the D300s is designed for those who will be using the camera for both still images and video, particularly the latter in a more professional manner when connecting an external microphone. Overall, it adds subtle enhancements to an already excellent camera.