Nikon D300s Review

Nikon D300s

The Nikon D300s is a 12.3-megapixel DSLR that can also capture video at 720p resolution and 24 frames per second.  The D300s is a follow up to the D300 and serves as more of a refreshed version of the D300 as opposed to a totally new product.  It has most of same components and features as the D300 with a few new bells and whistles thrown in for good measure.

Since the recent announcement of the D3s, Nikon appears content in offering video capture at 720p for this generation of cameras.  All of the Nikon DSLRs that offer video only allow a maximum resolution capture of 720p at 24 fps.  Canon has stepped out of the box from its initial video limitations in the 5D Mark II by offering serious firmware updates to it (and promising more to come) and additional video options to its other new DSLRs like the Canon 7D, which offers 1080p HD video capture at 30fps, 25fps, and 24fps, as well as 720p HD video at 60fps and 50fps.  While Nikon has received much criticism on the video limitations of its recent DSLRs, it has shown no signs of stepping up the game in this generation of cameras.

That said, the Nikon D300s (and every other DSLR for that matter) is first and foremost a still image capture device.  Sure, video is relevant nowadays; however, performance for still image capture and quality is still our golden measuring stick.  With this in mind, let’s take a brief look at the key features and jump into the rest of this review.

Nikon D300s Key Features

  • 12.3-megapixel sensor
  • 51-point autofocus
  • 720p HD video recording
  • 7 fps continuous shooting
  • Dual CF and SD card slots
  • Quiet drive mode

Nikon D300s Handling and Ergonomics

Nikon D300s

Like most other Nikon DSLRs, the D300s is a very comfortable camera to hold and has an intuitive button and controls layout.  Of course, the control layout is the same as the D300 with a handful of minor changes.  The second memory card slot of SD cards is a welcome addition, which you find when open the card door.  Other additions include a dedicated live-view button, quiet-shutter setting is found on the mode dial, and a dedicated info button on the back of the camera.

The body, grip and feel of the camera is just the same as the D300, which is fine since the camera feels so good in your hands.  I have always been a big fan of Canon’s grips; however, the more I use the D300s, the more I appreciate the little things that make the camera so comfortable to hold.

The small indention on the inside of the right-hand grip is a nice touch that helps the grip fit in the hand a little better.  Additionally, the ridge that the trigger finger rests on at the red Nikon triangle is just right.  Smaller hands might not be so fond of the camera’s size, but the D300s is just the right fit for me.

Nikon D300s

If you shoot a lot of portraits, you’ll appreciate the MB-D10 battery grip that adds capacity for a second battery, higher frame rates and additional controls, including a shutter release, 2 scroll wheels and a thumb stick for moving your focus points around when in portrait orientation.

I have always preferred shooting with a battery grip attached.  I like the extra grip because it keeps my elbows down and in whenever shooting in portrait orientation.  I also feel like there’s a better overall balance of the camera with a battery grip attached.  This proved to be true with the Nikon D300s and MB-D10 as well.

Nikon does the battery grip attachment a little different than Canon.  With the Canon cameras I’ve used in the past, you have to remove the battery door and insert a portion of the battery grip into the battery well of the camera.  After the grip is attached, you insert 2 batteries into the grip in order to power the camera.

With the D300s and MB-D10, the battery stays in the camera and the battery door stays closed.  Just remove a small rubber gasket on the bottom of the D300s to expose a couple of contact points and then attach the battery grip using the tripod mount.   Then you just drop an extra battery in the grip and the D300s now has twice the juice.  It’s a simpler operation with the D300s and MB-D10 when compared to Canon’s method.

While I prefer the MB-D10 grip attached to the D300s, that doesn’t really take away from the great handling of this camera.  All in all, Nikon gets big kudos for what we already knew handles well and has a solid layout scheme.

Nikon D300s Performance

Nikon D300s

Autofocus

First, we’ll talk about autofocus.  I love a camera that can reliably focus in low light, which is one of the things that I love about the D300s.  It took most everything that I threw at it and focused quickly and accurately, even in crappy light.

Generally, I am a big fan of choosing my focus point and framing prior to shooting.  Of course, the Nikon D300s gave me plenty options to choose focus points way out near the edge of the frame (something that I curse my 5D Mark II for on occasion due to its lowly 9 AF points).  As a result, I found little need to focus and recompose with the D300s.  Additionally, it’s a breeze to move the focus points around using the integrated multi-point wheel (or joystick on the MB-D10 grip) without taking your eye off the viewfinder.  You just use your thumb and choose your AF point while you frame.

As I said, I like picking a single focus point and rolling with it since it’s my pick and I know where focus will be in the frame. Whether it’s a still image or action shot, I have my composition in mind when choosing an AF point.  However, the D300s has a cool AF feature called 3D focus tracking, which works pretty darn well in many situations (but not all).  I was really impressed at how well the camera keeps up with a subject as it changes position in the frame.  It actually changes the way I shoot moving subjects a bit because I felt like I could trust the camera to help me out in continuous AF mode when tracking a subject.

I found that the 3D focus tracking worked best when I had a background that was easily contrasted from my subject and lighting was even.  For instance, an open sports field with players wearing colorful uniforms, or cars on a race track, would be suitable for 3D focus tracking.

One of my biggest tests for the 3D AF tracking was motorcycles and sports cars traversing Deal’s Gap (aka Tail of the Dragon) on Highway 129 near the Tennessee and North Carolina border.  Bikers and sports car enthusiasts travel from all across the country to drive on this stretch of road, which serves up 318 curves in 11 miles.  I spent the better part of an afternoon shooting Buells, GSXRs, Porsches and one red Lotus Elise with the D300s and its 3D AF tracking system coupled to Nikon’s excellent AF-S 70-300mm VR lens, and found that the 3D focus tracking couldn’t keep up.

There were a couple of key things working against the 3D AF tracking on The Dragon that you don’t find in a sports arena or on a race track – an ever-changing background and lots of shadows.  These two things combined to really cause problems for the D300s’ 3D focus tracking.

It makes sense that this would be the case though, given how 3D tracking works in the D300s.  When you press the shutter button halfway down to begin focusing, the colors in the area surrounding the focus point are stored in the camera.  As a result, you are going to experience problems whenever the subject is in the shade and moves to a sunny area because the colors will appear much brighter.

Without fail, the 3D tracking would move the AF point back to the shade as I panned out to a sunny area with the subject, and vice versa.  The eclectic background of bright greens from the foliage and red clay on the banks didn’t help the situation either.  For 3D tracking to work properly, your subject has to contrast from your background and the colors of your subject have to remain consistent.

Aside from the limitations of 3D focus tracking, I was very impressed with the D300s’ autofocus abilities.  I don’t think the 3D focus tracking limitations are necessarily a point against the D300s – it does what it’s supposed to and these are just technical limitations in the state of the art right now.  Again, the 3D focus tracking works when you have the right shooting environment.  It’s just that every environment isn’t right for shooting this way.

When I moved back to my standard, single AF-point selection, the camera performed great on the vehicles moving in and out of shadows.  At that point, my own technique was the biggest limitation to capturing critical focus.  If I was on the mark with my panning, the D300s nailed it.

Metering

I give the D300s plenty of kudos for metering.  This is the same 1,005-Pixel 3D Color Matrix Metering II found in the pro cameras like the D3 and D3s.  The metering system includes RGB color information to help produce more accurate exposures.  Nikon has been doing quite well with this metering system in all of its recent prosumer level and up DSLRs.

Obviously, there are situations where you have to move away from matrix metering to more tailored center-weighted and spot metering, which was the case of shooting bikes and cars up on Deal’s Gap.  And, in that case, spot metering worked pretty good for me.  The lighting was complete crap and I thought the D300s did about as much as I could ask for mid-day and late afternoon sun.  The spot meter on the D300s meters a 3mm circle on the selected focus point, which covers approximately 2% of the frame.  However, if the D300s is set to Auto-area AF, it will meter the center focus point.

In most other situations though, I simply let the D300s do its thing with matrix metering while I just pushed a button.  I can’t really complain about that.

Frame Rate

Oh, boy.  This thing can chew through some memory cards.  My personal camera is a Canon 5D Mark II, so the D300s was a big change for me.  For continuous capture, you can set the D300s to either “continuous low” or “continuous high” speeds.  I found myself choosing the “high” setting more often than not, because sometimes you should do things just because you can.  And, of course, there’s always the ability to delete the memory card and start afresh.

Kidding aside, this setting is important to consider because things can really get away from you at 7 fps and you’ll have a full memory card before you can say “SanDisk Extreme Pro.”  That said, it’s surprising how many moments are in between the action when moving from a camera that shoots 3 or 4 fps to the 7 fps of the Nikon D300s.  There’s a good reason why sports photographers like this camera so much.  It manages to capture the action that another camera would have missed.


D300s & 50mm f/1.4 – Processed in Lightroom 2.5 from NEF file

Out of a dozen images in a burst, the above image was the one that counted because the expressions on both faces were just right in that fraction of a second.  A slower camera would probably have missed this moment.

Of course there are faster cameras out there; however, many of them are much more expensive – with the big exception being Canon’s recently introduced EOS 7D, which captures 8 fps.  If you attach the MB-D10 grip to the D300s with an EN-EL4a battery inside, the D300s frame rate spec jumps to 8 fps.

The gotcha with the D300s frame rate, however, is that these specs apply only to 12-bit RAW and JPEG images.  If the D300s is set to record 14-bit RAW images, which are approximately 1.3x larger than 12-bit files, the maximum frame rate drops to a sluggish 2.5 fps.  While everyone won’t need the 14-bit RAW files from the D300s, if you demand the utmost color reproduction, this could be a tough pill to swallow.  Canon one-ups the D300s here, since the Canon 7D manages to capture its 14-bit RAW images at 8 fps.

Nikon D300s Image Quality and ISO Performance

The following images were captured at night using the Nikon D300s and AF-S 50mm f/1.4 lens.

Below you’ll find several handheld shots at ISO 3200 and ISO 6400, which were captured using auto white balance and JPEG large / fine quality.

Feel free to click on any of the images for the original files to inspect for personal use (or, right-click and choose “Save as…”).  Please do not reproduce any images on the Internet or elsewhere without permission.

Nikon D300s
ISO 3200 – f/4.5 @ 1/80s

Nikon D300s
ISO 6400 – f/2.8 @ 1/25s

Nikon D300s
ISO 3200 – f/2.8 @ 1/40s

Nikon D300s
ISO 3200 – f/2.8 @ 1/60s

Nikon D300s
ISO 3200 – f/2.8 @ 1/125s

Nikon D300s
ISO 3200 – f/1.4 @ 1/1250s

As for noise control at various ISO levels, I previously published an ISO Test alongside the above sample images.  If the below chart taken as 100% crops of the respective images files is not enough for your evaluation, please see the previous Nikon D300s ISO Test.

Full Scene at ISO 100 of Below Crops

The following chart compares the D300s images with and without Noise Reduction.

Generally speaking, I feel that the Nikon D300s does OK with handling low light and high ISO.  I think that it should probably do better though.  Several pundits have criticized the Nikon D300s’ high ISO performance in light of the lower-priced and lower-spec’d D90 producing cleaner images at higher ISOs.  Although I have not personally reviewed the D90, I tend to agree with these sentiments based on the results that I have seen.

In real world use, I found myself cringing a bit more when I got up around ISO 2000 and 2500, particularly when looking at the shadows in these images.  Like it or not, the Nikon D700 and Canon 5D Mark II are the current measuring stick for high ISO quality.  Defenders of the D300s will remind us that it has a DX image sensor, which is smaller and by every account should be noiser than those full frame cameras.  True, but it should not be noisier than the Nikon D90, and it should be that much nosier than the D700 and 5D Mark II.

So, would I feel comfortable shooting the D300s at higher ISOs when someone is paying me for those images? It depends on what results I needed.  I would prefer the full frame Nikon or Canon noted above, but there are a lot of situations I would feel comfortable with the D300s’ performance.  I think a lot of wedding shooters could make this camera work for them – even up to ISO 3200 at a reception for some of the shots.  Smaller album shots should be plenty safe at ISO 3200; however, I wouldn’t fill an album with them.  The more I use this camera though, the more ISO 6400 scares me.  I think I would have to cap it at ISO 3200 for most situations, preferably around ISO 2000 though.

The good thing is that most of us don’t use ISO 3200 and above for the majority of our shooting.  Grab some fast lenses like the 50 f/1.4 and an f/2.8 zoom or two and you’re in a very good position to leverage the best aspects of this camera, even in low light.

Nikon D300s Video

Nikon D300s from ABAKU on Vimeo.

As noted in the introduction, Nikon has stayed with the 720p maximum resolution for recording video.  Movies are captured at 24p and have a maximum recording time of 5 minutes or 2GB in file size, whichever is smaller.

The process to record a movie is relatively simple; however, it’s not intuitive.  In order to begin, the Live View button must be pressed, which brings up a live view on the display.  At this point, recording may be started by pressing the center button on the rear thumb dial.  To stop recording, simply press this button again.

Minor adjustments may be made to exposure by up to +/- 3EV by using exposure compensation.  Otherwise, the D300s handles the metering on its own.  It is possible to use the AE-L/AF-L button to lock exposure and customize your exposure in a sort of DIY way; however, the D300s offers nowhere near the manual options that you will find on Canon’s 5D Mark II, 7D and 1D Mark IV.

As with other video-capable DSLRs, focusing the D300s must be performed manually.  While it is possible to use autofocus during video recording in “tripod mode” on the D300s, it is impractical, noisy and distracting.  Professionals and serious enthusiasts who use the D300s to capture video will understand this and will prefer to shoot with manual focus anyway.  Casual video shooters will likely be frustrated by this feature (or lack thereof).

If you are buying this camera so you can have a still image camera and a video camera for your vacation, heed this warning – this is not a casual vacation video camera.  It is a professional tool that can work magic in the right hands.  For everyone else, it will only be a frustrating experience from video capture, to post-production, to final output.  If you’re looking for a convenient video camera for your vacation, try something small, cheap and simple like the Flip Mino HD or another dedicated video camera.

Nikon D300s Flash System


Nikon CLS – D300s & SB-900 @ camera right with baby placed in light tent – processed in Lightroom 2.5 from NEF file

As with the D300, the D300s allows you to operate the on-camera flash in commander mode in Nikon’s Creative Lighting System (“CLS”).  As a Canon shooter, I found this to be a blast.  By just popping up the flash, I was firing off an SB-900 and SB-600 from a variety of locations.

While I only began to scratch the surface with Nikon’s CLS, I now see what all those Nikon shooters out there are bragging about. (ahem, Joe McNally)  This is really the way a flash system should work.  For those not familiar with the system, you can add an unlimited number of flashes to three different groups and then adjust the output of those groups directly from the camera (with each group having a different output).  While using this system, I’ve been digging my way through Mike Hagen’s book The Nikon Creative Lighting System, which has helped tremendously.  Another great book for Nikon CLS users is McNally’s The Hot Shoe Diaries.

Aside from the wireless communication of the flashes with the D300s, I was very impressed with the overall performance of the Nikon SB-600 and SB-900 that I used in conjunction with this test.  Having never used either of these before, it’s amazing how much a modern Speedlight can do.  I have a few older Nikon Speedlights that I use in manual mode as remotes sometimes, but these new Speedlights are something else.

Both are very reliable and consistent.  The one quibble that I have with the SB-900 is that I experienced a few instances of overheating, at which point the SB-900 shut down until it could recompose itself.  After cooling off a bit, it would fire fine.  Every instance of this occurred in portrait sessions where the SB-900 was used as a main light.  I have heard others complain of similar overheating problems with the SB-900.  Other than these 2 or 3 occasions of extended shooting, everything else worked like a charm for both flashes.

The SB-900 carries a decent price tag at around $470; however, the SB-600 is an affordable option at $219 to use in the CLS system if need be.

Nikon D300s Accessories

Based on my comments in the introduction, you know that I’m a big fan of battery grips and the MB-D10 is no exception.  Nikon did a great job with the ergonomics of this grip to make it feel like an extension of the camera.

Again, this is a personal taste item.  If you like a more robust, professional feel to a camera, then you’ll probably like the MB-D10 too.  Additionally, the extra juice from the second battery means that you’ll rarely run out of power.  I never managed to completely drain both batteries – even after a couple thousand frames in one outing.  Big kudos to Nikon on the MB-D10.

Other accessories that are worth considering would be some fast CF and SD cards, which the SanDisk Extreme Pro and Lexar Professional 600x series are some of the fastest out there.  However, I had very acceptable results with SanDisk Extreme IV and Lexar Professional 300x CF cards.

Nikon D300s Books and Resources

I think you should probably read your camera’s manual and the Bryan Peterson book recommended below before you decide upon an additional guide for your camera; however, I know that there are some who prefer to follow a step-by-step walk through of your camera’s features. As a result, I’ve listed a couple of offerings from popular publishers that may be up your alley. I encourage you to read the reviews on B&H Photo and elsewhere before you decide on which resource is right for you.

Nikon DVD: Understanding Digital Photography

The Digital Photography Book Kit (2-books) by Scott Kelby

Finally, if you’ve never used a DSLR before (or even if you have and you don’t fully “get it”), I recommend that you pick up a copy of Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Exposure with your new camera. It is a priceless guide to learning and growing with any DSLR. At around $15, it’ll be the best bang for your buck that you ever spend on photography.

Conclusion

Nikon D300s

The Nikon D300s is a great camera overall.  And, really, it’s hard to find a bad DSLR today.  Most DSLRs are really good cameras and many of them are great cameras.  Some, like the D300s, are better than others.  The D300s occupies the space of a prosumer DSLR very well.  It matches up nearly perfect to its intended market.

Many professional photographers are making a living with the D300s, which helps justify the current $1800 price tag, and the D300s is serving them very well.  Amateur enthusiasts have an option with the D300s as a professional tool that is within reach of many budgets.

The D300s is not without its flaws though.  A couple of downers, which may vary in gravity depending on your needs, are the lower frame rate with 14-bit RAW image capture and the elevated noise at higher ISOs.

There’s no doubt that the D300s is worth recommending with these minor caveats.  Whether it bests the Canon 7D is a question that remains to be answered.  Stay tuned as I should have a 7D on hand soon to pit head-to-head with the D300s.

Where to Buy the Nikon D300s

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Comments

  1. saleem shahid says

    I have bought one 3 weeks ago,up grade from D8O. I use ps cs2 and can,t use raw[NEF]files.I dont want to fork out mony for cs4,can any body sugest how can I proces NEF FILES IN PS CS2.Will be greadful.

  2. says

    I bought one in August 2010. It wasn’t really an upgrade per se, since I owned the D300. But my D300 ended up taking a swim :( and I had to replace it.
    Since I wish I had the D300s once the camera came out, I decided to buy it to replace my D300. Love everything about it.
    I love how it takes both CFII cards and an SD card at the same time. I can keep all my videos on the SD and leave the CFII for my NEF files