Nikon D300s Gordon Laing, September 2009
 
   
 

Nikon D300s verdict



The Nikon D300s is a powerful semi-pro DSLR which builds upon the already highly capable D300. In use the camera exudes confidence with superb build quality and handling. Whatever you’re shooting, the D300s feels utterly at ease, whether working in a studio, grabbing portraits of kids in constant motion, or capturing fast action in challenging conditions.

Like its predecessor the build quality and ergonomics are excellent, and while the look and feel are subjective, we’d say Nikon continues to lead the pack in this respect. The handling is quick with swift and accurate autofocus, no shutter lag to speak of, and quick continuous shooting. The 51-point AF system sounds like overkill, but in practice effectively tracks erratically-moving subjects without compromising the view. The D300s is certainly a confident camera for sports and action photography.

Of course all of this was available on the earlier D300, and certainly the new model shares a great deal in common with its predecessor including the body, viewfinder, screen, AF system and sensor. While the image processing has been tweaked to deliver punchier output by default, the quality characteristics unsurprisingly remain essentially unchanged. As such, noise becomes faintly visible at 400 ISO and quite apparent by 1600 ISO, but always remains grain-like and natural-looking in appearance. There’s no denying its presence in images at higher sensitivities, but manages not to be obtrusive.


Nikon D300s

Some may be slightly disappointed to see Nikon recycle this 12.3 Megapixel sensor once more, and the company is certainly getting good use from it across several models, but the image quality speaks for itself with a good balance between resolution and noise handling. It stands up well against Canon’s older EOS 50D and we look forward to performing more comparisons with the EOS 7D when final production samples become available.

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As for the new features, the HD movie mode has been seen before on the D90 and D5000, so there’s few surprises here, although it’s great to finally be able to connect an external microphone such as the Rode model, left. The new AF capability during video isn’t particularly useful though, as like the EOS 5D Mark II it takes several seconds to refocus. So it’s back to manual focus for most of us.

The quality is unsurprisingly similar to the D90 and D5000 before it, so if you avoid too much wobbling you can enjoy good-looking results, but handle it like a consumer camcorder and you’ll soon suffer from the infamous jello effect. To be fair it seemed milder than previous models, but with the threat remaining and the lack of continuous AF, it’s still no replacement for anyone who wants typical camcorder handling.

The 1fps boost in continuous shooting didn’t bear-out in our tests with the D300s shooting at pretty much the same speed as its predecessor. Since the D300 slightly exceeded its 6fps specification in our tests, perhaps Nikon felt justified in claiming a bigger figure here. Either way, it wasn’t any quicker in our tests, but the bottom line is it’s still fast enough to successfully capture most action sequences. Just watch out when shooting RAW files though, as the top speed is only available in 12-bit. Switch to 14-bit and, like its predecessor, the shooting rate plummets to around 2.5fps.

The new Quiet mode was certainly quieter than normal shooting, but not by a huge degree – it could still be useful in very quiet environments though, such as inside a Church or photographing jittery wildlife.

By far the most important and successful of the new features though are the dual memory card slots. These allow you to backup images as you take them (or after the event), or record RAW files to one card and JPEGs to the other. Pro shooters will appreciate being able to hand a card to a client or asset manager knowing they already have a backup in place, and obviously if you’ve ever suffered from a corrupt card, it’s extremely reassuring to know your images are already duplicated in-camera. It’s a highly valuable feature that’s normally reserved for top-end Pro bodies, so it’s great to find it filtered-down to a much more affordable model.

What you won’t read in the brochures are a number of minor but useful tweaks to Live View which improve the experience. Live View has sensibly been removed from the Release dial to its own dedicated button, which means there’s no conflict with other drive modes. So if you want to use the self-timer or continuous shooting in Live View, simply turn the Release dial as required. It’s crazy to think on the D300 you had to select continuous shooting from an additional menu, and that a self-timer during Live View wasn’t even possible without reassigning function keys. And rather than forcing you to enter a menu to enable an alignment grid, it's simply another view when cycling through the Info options.

Nikon does talk about the new Virtual Horizon feature though, and it’s certainly a useful facility in Live View. Unlike the D700, it may not be available in the optical viewfinder, but we didn’t miss that aspect. So again, another useful feature inherited from the higher-end models.

It’s still a shame Nikon doesn’t offer a Live Histogram though, considering they’re present on even budget Canon DSLRs. And speaking of other stuff that should really be included as standard, we’d like to see the Capture NX and Camera Control Pro software to be bundled with a higher-end DSLR like the D300s – remember Canon supplies its equivalent of both programs free with every DSLR, including its cheapest models.

Which brings us to our comparisons with its key rivals.

Compared to Nikon D300

 
 
     

As its predecessor, Nikon’s D300 is the closest model to the D300s, and the one with which it shares most in common. Both cameras share the same 12.3 Megapixel CMOS sensor, tough body, large viewfinder, 3in VGA screen, powerful 51-point AF system, Live View and HDMI port.

To this the D300s adds HD movie recording with an external microphone input, the claim of slightly quicker 7fps continuous shooting (versus 6fps), dual memory card slots with backup facilities, a new Quiet shooting mode and a handy Virtual Horizon.

These are all solid enhancements, but most of the core features that make the D300s a great camera remain present in the earlier D300. Many photographers can live without the movie mode and in our tests the continuous shooting actually worked out the same speed, leaving the dual memory card slots as the main difference.

If you can live without these enhancements and are happy with a single memory card slot (albeit one with a latched door), then the D300 remains a superb choice, and one that will hopefully find itself increasingly discounted as supply increases on the new model – as always, keep an eye on prices for potential bargains, and see our Nikon D300 review for more details.

 

Compared to Canon EOS 50D

 
 
     

Canon and Nikon traditionally positioned their higher-end DSLRs in-between each others, so the older EOS 50D finds itself roughly between the D90 and the D300s, although all three share VGA screens and HDMI ports. The EOS 50D is comfortably cheaper than the D300s, and while some features are unsurprisingly lower in specification, others are actually higher.

Most notably in its favour, the 50D features three extra Megapixels and double the maximum sensitivity. There’s a live histogram in Live View, along with more detailed magnified manual focus assistance, supplied remote control software for PCs and Macs (including Live View on your computer’s monitor), and in-camera Vignetting correction (although the D300s offers in-camera chromatic aberration correction).

In its favour, the D300s claims slightly quicker continuous shooting (7fps, boostable to 8fps versus 6.3fps, although the 50D doesn't slow when shooting 14-bit RAW files, and coincidentally the D300s typically shot other files at 6.3fps in our tests), a bigger viewfinder (almost 100% coverage versus 95%), more sophisticated AF (51-points versus nine), and the key new features of HD video recording and dual memory card slots, along with Quiet shooting and Virtual Horizon options.

Canon also continues to look old fashioned by forcing you to buy and fit an optional focusing screen to see a grid in the viewfinder, while Nikon offers on-demand LCD markings which can simply be switched on and off. The D300s additionally offers more professional features like 9-frame bracketing, a built-in intervalometer and a shutter block rated for 50% more shots (150k compared to 100k on the 50D).

The Nikon D300s is undoubtedly the better-featured camera overall, but you’re paying comfortably extra for it, while missing out on higher resolution and a better bundled software package. To exploit the 50D's higher resolution, you'll need to equip it with a decent lens, but the difference in price between it and the D300s will certainly go some way to buying one. With the launch of the EOS 7D, prices on the EOS 50D could also become steadily keener and more compelling. See our Canon EOS 50D review for more details.



Compared to Canon EOS 7D

 
 
     

Canon's EOS 7D is without a doubt the biggest rival for the D300s. Unlike previous strategies where the two companies placed models inbetween each other, the EOS 7D is targeting exactly the same high-end cropped-sensor market as the D300s – and with very similar features and pricing, both cameras are absolutely going head-to-head.

There’s a lot of similarities between the two rivals. Both have tough build quality, APS-C sized CMOS sensors, 100% viewfinders with roughly the same apparent size (the 7D’s fractionally greater magnification off-set by its fractionally smaller sensor), both have 3in screens with VGA resolution, built-in wireless control of flash guns, HDMI ports, on-demand LCD graphics in the viewfinder, electronic levelling gauges, metering systems which take colour information into account, and shutter blocks rated at 150k actuations. Both models also sport HD video capabilities with external mic inputs, very fast continuous shooting, sophisticated AF systems and optional battery grips or wireless transmitters, but it’s the fine detail within each where the differences really emerge.

Starting with the most obvious difference though, the EOS 7D boasts 18 Megapixels to the D300s’ 12 Megapixels. Depending on how the 7D’s sensor handles noise and dynamic range though, not to mention its demands on optics, this could of course be a disadvantage. Certainly Nikon’s 12 Megapixel sensor (now used extensively throughout its DSLR range) is a known quantity proven to deliver excellent results. We’ll just have to wait for final production samples to really compare image quality, but in terms of numbers, the Canon's resolution looks very strong.

Sticking with the numbers, the 7D has more than just higher resolution in its favour. It has double the maximum sensitivity (12800 ISO versus 6400 ISO), slightly quicker continuous shooting (8fps versus 7fps for the bodies alone and the advantage of maintaining this for 14-bit RAW files when the D300s falls dramatically in speed), and the choice of HD video at 1920x1080 or 1280x720 pixels and at either 30 / 25fps or 24fps (when the D300s only offers a maximum of 1280x720 fixed at 24fps). The 7D also offers live histograms in Live View and comes with both decent RAW processing and remote control software for free.

In its favour, the D300s boasts dual memory card slots allowing you to record duplicate images to both cards for instant backup, or RAW files to one and JPEGs to the other for easier management. It also features much better exposure bracketing (up to nine frames compared to just three on the 7D) and many more auto-focusing points (51 versus 19) although we’ll have to wait for final models to compare their relative effectiveness – certainly the EOS 7D has some neat AF options including zoning.

It’s certainly a tough battle, and a lot will also boil down to individual preferences on ergonomics, brand loyalty and existing investments in lenses and accessories. But one thing’s for certain: Nikon no longer has the high-end APS-C market to itself. Look out for our Canon EOS 7D review coming in the future.


Also consider:

Well-heeled photographers may be willing to spend around 50% extra for the leap to full-frame and the benefits of a larger sensor. This budget brings Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II, Sony’s Alpha A900 and Nikon’s own D700 into the frame. See our reviews of each model for more details.

Alternatively if you love Nikon’s style but can’t stretch to the D300s (or indeed the older D300), then the mid-range D90 still represents a great buy for the money. Remember it has the same sensor, and the same quality movie mode, albeit without the microphone input. See our Nikon D90 review for more details.

Nikon D300s final verdict

With the D300s, Nikon’s taken the already highly capable D300 and further enhanced it with a number of features – some expected, others less so. The inclusion of a movie mode was a predictable, although welcome upgrade, and the microphone input a very useful addition. The Virtual Horizon and Quiet mode are minor but handy gadgets, and we’re also pleased to find Live View now relocated from the Release dial to its own button, allowing you to easily select drive modes whether composing with the screen or viewfinder.

By far the most useful new additions are the dual memory card slots, allowing you to backup images or organise RAW and JPEGs on separate media. These are arguably the D300s’ key highlight (and indeed key differentiator with rivals), equipping it with facilities not normally seen outside of much more expensive professional DSLRs. It’s slightly disappointing the 1fps boost in continuous shooting wasn’t measured in our tests, but the camera’s still very fast.

So once again a very strong camera has become even better, but unlike its predecessor, the D300s now has a direct rival from Canon. The EOS 7D is targeting exactly the same high-end cropped-frame market as the D300s and shares a great deal in common with Nikon’s latest. Crucially it also sports a number of key benefits including 50% more pixels and Full HD movie recording with adjustable frame rates.

Indeed by recycling the still and video capabilities of the year-old D90, the D300s comes across as standing still in some important regards when its arch rival ploughs forward. To be fair, Nikon makes no attempt to hide the fact the D300s is simply an enhanced version of an earlier model and not an entirely new camera - it is after all called the D300s, not the D400. But the important point is it's now up against a brand new rival at much the same price point.

Certainly if you’re influenced by Megapixel count and need 1080p video or different frame rates, then the Canon already looks like the better bet, but of course these figures don’t tell the whole story. We’re yet to test a final production sample of the 7D so can’t pass final judgment, but we do know what the D300s offers right now, and it remains a highly compelling camera.

One thing is for certain: Nikon no longer has the top-end cropped-frame DSLR market to itself. But regardless of how the 7D measures-up, the D300s will remain a superb photographic tool which is a joy to use, and ideal for the high-end enthusiast or pro wanting a backup body. It easily comes Highly Recommended, but unless you’re 100% committed to the Nikon system, be sure to compare very closely with the EOS 7D.




Good points

Tough build and superb ergonomics.
Quick 51-point AF and burst shooting.
3in VGA screen with Live View.
720p HD movies with microphone input.

Bad points
12 Mpixels looking low next to EOS 7D.
No 1080p video or live histogram.
PC control software not bundled.
Continuous shooting same as D300 in our tests.



Scores

(relative to 2009 semi-pro DSLRs)

Build quality:
Image quality:
Handling:
Specification:
Value:

Overall:

19 / 20
17 / 20
19 / 20
18 / 20
17 / 20

90%


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