Nikon D300s at a glance:
- 12.3 million effective pixels
- 720p HD video recording
- ISO 100-6400 (equivalent)
- 3in, 920,000 dot LCD screen
- RRP £1,499.99 (body only)
Nikon D300s – Introduction
The Nikon D300 was released very nearly two years ago, and since its introduction it has become one of the most popular DSLRs on the market. It has won a host of awards, and positive reviews from magazines and websites all over the world.
Nothing lasts forever, though, and two years on the D300 has retired, to be replaced by the new D300s. The ‘s’, following Nikon’s standard nomenclature, designates an upgrade to an existing camera, rather than a completely new model, and accordingly, the D300s is very similar to the camera it replaces.
In many respects, in fact, it is identical. The key additions to the feature set are some subtle ergonomic changes, and a new HD (720p) video recording mode. The addition of a video option reflects the changes in the DSLR marketplace since 2007, and means that the D300s joins the D90 and D5000 in Nikon’s burgeoning ‘convergence’ range.
Today’s enthusiast photographers have started to expect HD video, even if they don’t necessarily intend to use it. To this end, Nikon’s decision to include a stereo input jack for an external microphone sets it apart from the D90, and places it in a more serious (at least as far as keen videographers are concerned) category, alongside the Pentax K-7 and Canon EOS 5D Mark II.
Although the lack of any additional major new features to the D300’s basic specification has surprised some industry watchers, Nikon will be hoping that by adding video – one of the few features that the D300 lacked compared to its peers – it can ‘futureproof’ the camera in the medium term.
Inevitably, the D300s shares much of its specification with the now discontinued D300. However, because it is a new camera, I will still go over the key features of the D300s in full, albeit with more emphasis on the new aspects of the specification.
Nikon D300s Sensor and ISO
Key to the Nikon D300s specification is its 12.3-million-pixel CMOS sensor, which is the same unit as that fitted to the D300, and (minor tweaks notwithstanding) the D90 and D5000. Its ISO sensitivity range spans ISO 200-3200, with ‘lo’ and ‘hi’ extension settings adding ISO 100 and 6400 (equivalent) to the range. However, obviously the sensor in the D300s does something that its predecessor could not – it records video footage.
Nikon D300s Video
The video mode of the D300s has the same basic specification as the D90, allowing 720p (1280×720 pixels) HD video at 24fps, for a maximum duration of five minutes in best-quality capture mode. An in-built monoaural microphone serves to record sound for ‘grab’ clips, but for more considered video shooting the D300s also offers an option to record sound to an externally mounted stereo microphone, via a conventional audio jack.
Images and video are recorded to conventional SD or CompactFlash media, both of which have dedicated slots inside the card bay. We’ve seen dual-format card slots in DSLRs before, but one thing that makes the D300s unusual, and which will no doubt appeal to videographers, is that the D300s can be programmed to shoot video to one card bay and still images to another. This might not sound like anything to get excited about, but it makes organising the different file types much easier.
Nikon D300s Level horizon and viewfinder
Something else that has been made easier with the D300s compared to the D300 is getting a level horizon. The popular virtual horizon feature of the full-frame D3 and D700 is now included in the D300s.
Annoyingly, though, unlike the D3 and D700, the camera cannot be customised to activate the virtual horizon in the camera’s viewfinder, but only on its rear LCD screen. This disappointing omission makes the feature useful only when the D300s is used on a tripod.
However, the viewfinder on the D300s shows 100% of the image captured. This is still relatively unusual in APS-C format DSLRs, and coupled with the 100% frame coverage in Live View mode it means that with the D300s what you see on or through the camera is – literally – what you will get in the final image.
Nikon D300s Autofocus, metering and white balance
The D300s keeps the core AF, metering and white balance systems from the D300, and adopts them without any obvious tweaks or differences. These systems are linked by the innovative scene recognition system, which was introduced by the D300 and D3 in 2007 and has since been included in every DSLR in Nikon’s current line-up.
The scene recognition system serves many purposes, but all are to the same end – it links the AF, white balance and metering systems, allowing them to share information based on the analysis of the scene in front of the camera, captured in real time by a dedicated 1005-pixel CCD sensor.
The image captured by the sensor is compared to an in-built ‘library’ of representative images, and analysed according to its tonal and colour distribution. In this way, the D300s can recognise and track a subject around the AF array in ‘3D tracking’ mode, and even detect human faces, recognise landscape images, and so on. It then biases the metering and white balance systems accordingly.
Build and handling
As the D300s shares almost exactly the same chassis as the D300, its build quality and handling experience are virtually identical to that of the earlier camera.
Nikon D300s Live view button
There are some differences, though, and Nikon has decided to update the ergonomics of the basic D300 chassis to incorporate some of the changes introduced in other recent Nikon DSLRs. To this end, the D300s has a dedicated ‘LV’ button to initiate Live View, and the all-important multi-controller on the rear of the camera has a separate (unlabelled) ‘OK’ button at its centre.
In my first look of the D300s I suggested that this change constituted a great improvement to the ergonomic experience of using this much-accessed control point. Since then I have spoken to several photographers who have expressed a preference for the ‘old’ D200 and D300 multi-point design. With this in mind I will reserve judgment, but for better or worse the change has been made, and in effect, the D300’s ergonomics are now identical to the D700.
Less controversially, the addition of the separate ‘LV’ button is convenient in two ways – the first being that Live View is now easier and quicker to activate. This is more important in the video-equipped D300s than it was in the D300 because setting Live View is the first step in initiating video capture. The second benefit is that moving Live
View from the shooting mode dial frees up the self-timer allowing it to be used in combination with Live View.
Nikon D300s Other buttons
In all other respects, the D300s is identical to the D300. On the camera’s top-plate to the left of the prism is the lockable shooting mode dial, which provides access to the continuous shooting modes, mirror lock-up and self-timer, and above this are three dedicated buttons for setting ISO sensitivity, ‘quality’ and white balance.
Exposure mode and exposure compensation are both selected with dedicated buttons adjacent to the shutter release, and like the D300 and D700, automatic focus modes are dealt with by a three-way switch on the rear of the D300s, and the three metering modes – spot, centreweighted and 3D Matrix – are selected by a dial to the right of the viewfinder, at the centre of which is the exposure/focus lock button.
Nikon D300s Menu and functions
Although most of the D300s’s key shooting parameters are changed using dedicated buttons on the body of the camera, the D300s can be easily customised. The otherwise slick ergonomics fall down a little at this point, and the myriad options in the menu system can be rather bewildering.
Fortunately, a ‘my menu’ tab can be customised to allow often-used functions to be corralled into a separate area, but there are a few inconsistencies in how functions are arranged in the main menu system.
I was hoping that Nikon would take the opportunity to do a spot of ‘spring cleaning’ with the menu of the D300s. However, it seems Nikon thought otherwise. To pick one example, the various different ‘image-quality’ parameters are still split over four sub-menus.
This means it is
necessary to go back and forth through four neighbouring
tabs to set (respectively) the desired file format, JPEG output resolution, JPEG compression and raw bit depth/compression. You may only need to do this once, but even so, it is oddly complicated, and more time consuming than necessary.
White balance and colour
The D300s didn’t present me with any surprises during my shooting for this test. For most purposes, and certainly in daylight, AWB is perfectly capable of providing a natural-looking colour balance.
As always, switching to Daylight WB ensures that images take on a more realistic hue that represents the actual temperature of the light, but the very warm Cloudy WB preset should be avoided except in very overcast conditions. In direct sunlight, there is very little difference between the AWB and Daylight WB settings, and if anything, AWB tends to give a slightly warmer, more atmospheric result.
In artificial light, the D300s has a tendency (again, shared with the D300, D700 and D3/x) to ‘overneutralise’ images, especially under tungsten lighting. In a purely technical sense this represents good performance, but it can lead to skin tones, especially, looking grey. As with all cameras, I would recommend switching to a custom white balance under artificial light, and experimenting with the D300s’s colour temperature adjustment feature to fine-tune the colour response if necessary. Alternatively, shooting in raw mode allows the ultimate control.
There is little discernable difference between AWB and ‘Daylight’ WB, but in natural light, AWB can deliver a slightly warmer result. Using the ‘Cloudy’ WB preset on this moderately overcast day has resulted in an atmospheric, but wholly inaccurate warmth
The D300s features the same range of standard ‘Picture Control’ settings as all current Nikon DSLRs. Here, the ‘Neutral’ setting has given an atmospheric, if rather subdued colour tone, while ‘Vivid’ has injected a lot more vibrancy and saturation
The D300s gives very good metering performance in its 3D Matrix metering mode.
Unlike earlier Nikon DSLRs, the D300s tends to deliver a relatively bright midtone, which, when a medium grey test target is photographed, measures around 128, exactly midway between 0 (black) and white (255). While this helps to keep JPEG files nice and bright straight from the camera, it increases the risk of highlight detail burning out in scenes with a wide tonal range.
As ever, the histogram is the best tool for preventing this from happening.
In general use, the metering system of the D300s is very capable, and I was impressed at the consistency of exposures in a range of different situations.
I photographed an air show during my shooting for this test, and normal practice when shooting dark subjects (such as aircraft) against a bright background (the sky in this case) is to set a moderate amount of overexposure from the off, to prevent the subject from becoming a silhouette.
However, where other cameras might have struggled, the D300s managed an almost 100% success rate without any intervention.
The D300s features the same 51-point AF system as the D300, which is shared by all Nikon’s current high-end DSLRs, from the D300s to the £5,000 24-million pixel D3x. After extended use of all these cameras, I can confidently say that when used properly, this system is the most capable currently available.
In good light, all 51 AF points can be relied on to deliver accurate focus, even when used in ‘3D Tracking mode’, in combination with continuous AF. When the light drops, the accuracy of the peripheral AF points drops slightly, but using the central group of 15 points, reliable AF is still possible even when it is impossible to judge through the viewfinder.
It is worth pointing out, too, that of all the many cameras I have used for performance photography, the D300s is one of the few that can accurately track a moving subject in this environment.
One of the reasons the D300s’s 3D AF tracking is so reliable is its integration with the Scene Recognition System, which is discussed in the ‘Features’ section of this test. I took the D300s to an airshow, and it was able repeatedly to accurately track fast-moving aircraft against an cluttered, contrasty background. My success rate wasn’t 100%, but after a full day’s shooting I went home with far more shots in focus than out of focus.
Contrast detection AF is available in Live View and video modes, and although it is slightly more responsive than the ‘first-generation’ D300 and D3, it is still no match for phase-detection AF of the type described above.
In Live View mode, Nikon calls phase-detection AF ‘Quick Mode’, and when Live View is activated the mirror flips down momentarily to expose the AF sensor before an image is captured. In contrast detection AF mode the Live View image is uninterrupted.
I find Live View most useful for studio and tripod-mounted photography, at which point manual focus, coupled with the powerful screen magnification options, is more practical.
Resolution, noise and sensitivity
As we can see from the images of AP’s test chart above, the Nikon D300s offers excellent resolution for its pixel count, on a par with the best of its 12-million-pixel com petition. At low ISO settings the D300s can also compete with the full-frame D700 and D3, although as the sensitivity is pushed higher, performance drops off a little.
That said, even at ISO 6400 the D300s can record an impressive amount of detail, albeit accompanied by considerable chroma and luminance noise.
Chroma noise is more of a problem in the D300s’s files than luminance, which takes the appearance of a subtle grittiness. Chroma noise is dealt with successfully in JPEG files by in-camera processing, but high ISO noise reduction should be set to ‘off’ or ‘low’ by preference, since it can have a significant impact on detail resolution.
The noise graph shown here displays noise in JPEG files with high ISO noise reduction turned ‘off’. For small prints, high ISO noise reduction can safely be set to ‘high’, and it will deliver smooth noise-free results without any visible penalty in detail reproduction.
For optimal resolution, however, shooting in the NEF (raw) format and applying careful noise reduction and sharpening is the best option. This workflow is more labour-intensive, but with a little care and attention the D300s can deliver excellent, highly detailed results right up to its maximum ISO sensitivity setting.
These images above show sections of images of a resolution chart, still-life scene and a grey card. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.
Dynamic range and Gamut
The dynamic range of the Nikon D300s is excellent, at around 12.5EV at base ISO sensitivity in AP’s test conditions. This puts it on a level with the best of the APS-C and full-frame competition, and realistically, this figure represents a plateau in the capabilities of conventional sensors. A dynamic range much wider than this would risk a significant contrast loss.
At the D300s’s lowest ISO sensitivity setting of 100 (equivalent) dynamic range is reduced, because rather than being a ‘native’ setting, ISO 100 is achieved by underexposure, followed by adjustment to give a ‘correct’ exposure. This process clips highlight detail significantly.
Although it doesn’t increase dynamic range in the strictest sense, Nikon’s Active D-Lighting allows you to make the most of the sensor’s ability to record detail in midtone and shadow areas.
This graph shows the brightness values recorded by the test camera when it is used to photograph a stepped graduation wedge. The wedge has transmission values in 1⁄2EV steps ranging from 0 to 12EV. The camera’s exposure is set so the 12EV section in the wedge has a brightness value of 255. Software analysis of the image then determines the recorded brightness values of all the other steps and calculates the camera’s dynamic range.
Nikon D300s Gamut
When set to the Adobe RGB colour space the Nikon D300s is capable of reproducing a wider range of red, magenta, purple and blue tones than is contained within the sRGB gamut. However, although it still covers more than sRGB, it struggles to record all of the green and emerald tones in the full Adobe RGB colour space.
LCD, Live View and video
Shooting mode dial
The shooting mode dial provides access to the advance modes, as well as self-timer, mirror lock-up and the new ‘Q’ quiet shutter release mode
3in LCD screen
The D300s features the same 920,000 dot LCD screen as the D300. Detail reproduction is excellent, although the lack of anti-reflective coating
can make screen glare a problem in bright light
This control point has been remodelled, and the D300s now features the same type of multi-controller as the D700 and D3. A separate button in the middle of the controller serves as an unlabelled ‘OK’ selecter for confirming settings and menu options
The D300s features dual card bays, for both Secure Digital and CompactFlash media. The door to the card bays is now of the D700 type, and slides back and out to open, rather than using a D300-style latch
The D300s has a 3in, 920,000-dot LCD screen, which is identical to that used in the D90, D700 and D3/x. Its detail resolution and clarity are on a par with the best of the competition, but images on the D300s’s screen are rather hard to see in bright light. The Canon cameras feature multiple anti-reflective layers built into the screens, but the LCD of the D300s lacks even a surface coating, which makes it more prone to glare when used under direct sunlight.
This isn’t necessarily a major limitation when shooting stills, but quickly becomes frustrating in Live View/video mode.Except for the way in which it is activated, the Live View mode of the D300s is almost unchanged from the D300. The only significant addition is a new aeroplane-style tilt indicator that can be displayed on the Live View image (above right). It works well, but a simple horizontal tilt indicator of the sort that can be activated in the viewfinder of the D700 and D3 would have been less obtrusive and more useful.
In video mode, the D300s performs in much the same way as the D90. The only real difference is the provision for an external microphone. With a Sony stereo mic plugged in, I found that audio quality from the footage is very high. Image quality is excellent, too, and although it is not possible to alter the shutter speed and aperture when shooting, it is at least possible to bias the exposure using exposure compensation.
Like the D5000, though, I would not advise using automatic focus when shooting video. With the in-built monoaural microphone activated, the handling and AF noises are overpowering, and even with an external microphone plugged in the incessant fidgeting of the D300s’s contrast-detection AF makes for jerky footage if you need to refocus the scene.
With the D300s, Nikon has taken a good camera and made it better. Although there are few ‘new’ features, those that have been added, like a video mode and quiet shutter release, are of value, and make the D300s a more convincing option when viewed in a shop window beside cameras such as the Canon EOS 7D and Pentax K-7D.
Everything that was right about the D300 remains right in the D300s, and core to its performance are AF, white balance and metering systems that are currently second to none. However, there are some things that the D300s cannot do. Its resolution of 12 million pixels might be enough, but it is starting to look rather low compared to some of the competition.
Its screen offers excellent resolution, but Canon’s latest DSLRs provide much better anti-reflective coatings, which makes a huge difference when using Live View or shooting video in bright light. Speaking of video, the inclusion of an external microphone jack makes the D300s more satisfying to use in this mode than the D90, but contrast-detection AF is still slow and jerky, and without an external mic handling and focusing sounds still overpower video footage.
At its current price point, the Nikon D300s is undoubtedly a very compelling camera, and represents a better value proposition now than the D300 did a few weeks ago, but has Nikon done enough? The only way we can determine that is with more testing against the current crop of APS-C format DSLRs.
Nikon D300s Focal points
The D300s features two histogram displays – luminance and the RGB channels separately. In the latter mode, if the image on the screen is zoomed, the histogram changes to show the luminance level of the enlarged area.
At its ‘auto’ and ‘standard’ settings the effect of Active D-Lighting is often subtle to the point of being unnoticeable, but the effect at its ‘high’ and ‘extra high’ settings is profound, if a little too much for most purposes.
Fine-Tune Optimal Exposure
The D300s’s ‘fine tune optimal exposure’ custom function allows the camera’s metering system (in any or all of its three metering patterns) to be universally biased up to ±-1EV in 1/6EV increments.
The D300s can shoot JPEGs and 12-bit raw files at 6 frames per second with its included battery, increasing to 8fps on AC power or with the optional MB-10 grip. 14-bit raw files are captured at a lower rate of 2.5 fps maximum.
The D300s is essentially an updated D300, and until midway through writing this test I had thought that it was competing with the same cameras faced by its predecessor, namely the Canon EOS 50D and the Sony Alpha 700.
However, in the past few days Canon has released the as yet untested EOS 7D and Sony has discontinued the Alpha 700.
Compared to the Canon EOS 7D, the Nikon D300s offers an AF system that will be hard to beat, but cannot compete with the 7D’s 18-million-pixel resolution.
Also, on paper the EOS 7D should be better in low light, offering an ISO 12,800 (equivalent) setting as well as a range of new and improved features.
Apart from the EOS 7D, the Pentax K-7 is a compelling, if flawed mid-range contender, but the only area in which it unarguably betters the D300s is in terms of resolution, offering 14, as opposed to 12 million pixels.
The Canon EOS 7D will be subjected to a full AP test as soon as possible, with a dual test to follow soon afterwards.
Until then, the D300s remains an excellent camera, but I must reserve judgment for now about how it compares to the competition.