In the fickle world of digital SLR photography, it's not long before a good old workhorse is led out to pasture. In the case of the top of the line Nikon DX-crop cameras (ie, smaller than full frame sensors) the grass is now being tended to by the D300s. Just 18 months on, the D300s emerges with a similar feature set to its predecessor, the D300, but now includes such novelties as HD video recording. The D300s retails for AU$2999 as body only.
Design and features
There's a solid reassurance to the look and feel of the Nikon D300s, even if it hardly differs from the D300. Looking at the configuration, just under the shutter button rests the first of two control dials, the other at the top right of the rear panel. Buttons to toggle between shooting modes and to customise exposure compensation are all within convenient reach.
The D300 and D300s share the same 12.3-megapixel sensor, ISO sensitivity rating and 51-point AF system, of which 15 are cross-type. Dust and weather sealing is once again the norm here, plus the heft (840g) lends a particular gruffness and seniority to the shooting experience.
Dual-card slots? Put your hands up! (Credit: Nikon)
Around the back is the 3-inch 920,000-dot screen (again remaining unchanged from the older camera) as well as the AF selector dial, a host of other buttons, and a new addition of the one-touch live view button. The viewfinder still covers 100 per cent field of view and is just a pleasure to use thanks to its brightness.
At either side of the camera, things start to get a bit more exciting. There's now a dual-card slot, with provisions for shooting with SD/SDHC and Compact Flash. This can be configured in a number of ways — for the secondary slot to act as an overflow buffer, to backup the primary card, or to write RAW files to the first card and JPEGs to the second. This is a really innovative feature that will definitely prove its worth to professionals or those always wanting to make sure they have enough memory. On the other side, a rubbery flap covers the extra outlets and inputs: an external mic input, HDMI out, AV out, USB and power input. The in-built mic is only mono, but it's pleasing to see the 3.5mm jack supporting stereo audio input.
Nikon's menu system is — as with any semi-pro set up — either a love it or hate it thing. The interface takes a little getting used to, particularly in setting up custom shooting options. As for the physical dials on the body for selecting the metering mode, these are just great for quickly shifting shooting options.
The quiet shutter release, which was first seen on the D5000, is accessible from the top rotating dial ("Q" for quiet) and prevents the mirror noise from intruding onto your low-key moments. As you keep your finger on the shutter it prevents the mirror from locking back into position, thereby reducing the loud slapping noise; however, it's not that quiet which is disappointing, but it certainly seems louder than the D5000.
Well, if there's one thing to say about the D300s, is that it's fast. Switch the dial into continuous shooting and Nikon rates the D300s at 7 frames per second — one faster than the D300. As for actual real-world performance it clocks in at around 6.8 frames per second in our tests. It takes just under 0.3 second to power on and take its first shot, and overall it doesn't make that much difference shooting in RAW or JPEG in terms of performance — the numerical difference is fairly minor. The AF system is (just like the D300 and D700) excellent, making light work of tracking and hunting for focus even in dim situations.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Time to first shot||Raw shot-to-shot time||Shutter lag (dim light)||Shutter lag (typical)|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
It's hard to go wrong during "golden hour", but the D300s makes it look effortless with its tones. This shot was taken with the following settings: 1/200, f/7.1 and ISO 200. Click image to enlarge. (Credit: Alexandra Savvides/CNET)
We found that the D300s produced some lovely, vivid images in pretty much all shooting situations. As for the 18-200mm lens, it counterbalances the weight of the camera nicely but it's a seriously heavy proposition to cart around — we will have our review of that up shortly so stay tuned for details on its performance. All tests on the D300s were done with either the 18-200mm lens or a 50mm f/1.8.
Exposures are bright; indeed they're a lot brighter than equivalent shots on the D300 and a number of other mid-range Nikon digital SLRs like the D90. Colours have also benefited from the re-working of the exposure algorithms too, as they are a lot more vivid than before and exhibit some great tonality. They aren't over saturated though and retain a natural feel. The on-board flash is incredibly bright but does a good job of filling shadows in high contrast light.
Noise profiling hasn't improved significantly from the other camera, which is no surprise given the sensor hasn't changed. Throughout the native (ISO 200-3200) sensitivities, there's little to complain about. Visible chromatic noise begins to occur at ISO 1600 and 3200 at full magnification but certainly nothing out of the ordinary. The Hi-ISO settings are pretty messy though.
As the video system is the same as that which first appeared on Nikon's D90 (720p, 24fps) there isn't anything surprising here. AF is now possible during video capture, though it is pretty slow and cumbersome to use in all but the most static circumstances — most likely you'll spend more time getting the lens to find the point of focus than you would spend filming. Lens noise is also picked up by the internal microphone too. There's not too much in the way of tweaking video options, but picture controls do let you manipulate the look of the image so it's possible to shoot in black and white if this is your cup of tea.
The D300s is a fast, reliable workhorse for the semi-professional or amateur photographer who's not quite ready for the D700 or the D3/D3X. It feels great to use and makes picture taking a real pleasure. That said, if you don't need the addition of HD video you might want to look at trying to pick up a D300 seeing as they are so similar. The price difference between the D300s and D700 is also not too much if you shop around for prices, so many might be tempted by the full-frame sensor rather than sticking to the DX crop.
The D200/300 range from Nikon has traditionally had a stronghold in the top-of-the-line DX/APS-C crop sensor end of the digital SLR market, but Canon's EOS 7D has come bolting out of the gates and we'll wait to see how that camera fares against the D300s — we're looking forward to the challenge.