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Nikon D300S Review

by Shun Cheung, November 2009 (updated February 2011)


Nikon’s D300S is a mid-2009 update to the very popular D300, originally introduced two years earlier in 2007. The physical appearance of the camera remains the same; both cameras can use the same quick-release plates, the same BM-8 LCD cover, and the same MB-D10 vertical grip. The features and controls are also largely the same with some significant additions that we’ll discuss in the following section. For a thorough discussion of the features that are in common, please reference photo.net’s Nikon D300 Review from early 2008.

Where to Buy

The Nikon D300S is available from Photo.net’s partners. Their prices are fair and you help to support photo.net.

New Features and Improvements on the D300S

  • Capture 720p HD video at 24 frames/sec with stereo audio. There is a built-in microphone and the D300S has an external stereo microphone jack. There is also a very basic video editing feature.
  • Similar to other Nikon DSLRs with video capability, the D300S has a dedicated Lv (live view) button to switch it on quickly. It also has a dedicated Info button to display the important camera settings. To make room for those new buttons, the switch to open the memory card door on the D300 is gone; you simply open that door itself as it is on the D700.
  • Accept dual Compact Flash (CF) and high-capacity Secured Digital (SDHC) memory cards. However, Type 2 CF cards (microdrives) that were compatible with the original D300 cannot be used any more.
  • Without the MB-D10, the D300S can capture 7 frames/sec, slightly up from 6 frames/sec on the D300. With the MB-D10 and either the Nikon EN-EL4/EN-EL4a battery or 8 AA batteries, both the D300 and D300S can capture 8 frames/sec.
  • Quiet release mode.
  • Virtual Horizon, a feature previously only available on FX-format Nikon DSLRs
  • In the center of the multi-selection pad, there is a dedicated “ok” button similar to the D700. On the original D300, you just press on the center of the pad.

Among those changes, video is the most significant addition. Some photographers consider themselves as pure still photographers. However, video is a much better medium to present certain actions. Upon using the D300S or other DSLRs with the video feature, some of those photographers may change their mind.

For whatever reason certain photographers have a lot of concerns about memory card failures. For those photographers as well as those who capture news, sports, and wedding where they cannot afford to lose any image, having the ability to write image files simultaneously onto two memory card should be greatly welcome. In reality, memory card failures are quite rare. Since using digital DSLRs since 2002, I have only had memory card failures twice: once with a brand new card was dead out of the box and another time, a card gradually failed over a few weeks, but I had plenty of warnings. I never lost any image in either occasion.

Another advantage for having an SD memory card slot in additional to CF is to make it easier for owners of DSLRs using SD cards to upgrade to or use both cameras side by side and share cards.

Similar to other Nikon DSLRs that can accept two memory cards, such as the D3 family, the two memory card slots on the D300S can be configured into either:

  • Overflow: Fill up the primary memory card first and then start using the secondary.
  • Backup: Record image files onto both cards simultaneously.
  • Record RAW files onto the primary memory card, JPEGs onto secondary.

The user can set either the CF or the SD card slot on the D300S to be the primary.

Video Capture

Most new Nikon DSLRs introduced since the beginning of 2009 have the video capture feature (the only exception is the lowest-end D3000). When a DSLR already has the live view capability, adding video becomes fairly simple technically.

Like other Nikon DSLRs with video capability, the D300S has a dedicated live view (Lv) button. Pressing on that engages live view immediately and then pressing on the center button of the multi-select pad will start video recording. Another press will stop the recording. The controls are very simple and in fact there are not a whole lot of controls to use. For example, once the video capture starts, one cannot change the shutter speed or aperture any more. Any video exposure adjustment is only via gain changes.

Since the regular phase-detection AF is not usable during live view, AF during video capture is via contrast-detection AF, which is much slower.

While the quality of the video image from the D300S is quite good, the built-in microphone is very inadequate; outdoors it tends to capture a lot of wind noise. Using high-quality external microphones is pretty much a must if you want good audio to accompany the video.

In order to capture high-quality video, one must use a dedicated video tripod with an appropriate fluid head for smooth panning (or use a hand held “Steady Cam” type support). If one uses the D300S on a tripod designed for still capture, video panning can be very jerky and zooming while panning can also be difficult. Overall, it is very clear that the D300S remains to be a camera primarily designed for still capture.

On the D300S, there are hard limits for the duration of video captures. In HD it is limited to 5 minutes and 20 minutes for non HD.

High ISO Results

While the images captured by the D300 and D300S at low ISOs are indistinguishable, a few people have pointed out that Nikon has provided improved high-ISO results on the D90 and D300S. While I have never tested the D90 myself, I have tested a D5000, which shares a lot of the electronics with the D90. Based on my comparisons at ISO 1600, 3200, and Hi 1 (approximately 6400), high ISO results from both the D300 and D300S are largely the same. In properly exposed areas in a high-ISO image, there is little difference between the D300’s capture and the D300S’. In the deep shadows, the D300S and D5000 may be a bit less noisy in areas that are almost completely dark with little image detail.

Nikon D300S vs. D300

We have thoroughly discussed the new features on the D300S. If you need to capture video or need to use dual memory cards, the choice is obvious. Otherwise, if you are mainly a still photographer, there are very few differences between the two, although having dual memory cards can be a major advantage. For someone in the market for a new DSLR, one might as well get the newer D300S, as brand new D300 should be very difficult to find by now anyway. If one wants a used DSLR, the D300 remains a viable option. For those who already have a D300, I think it’ll be very difficult to justify an upgrade unless you really need some of those new features.

Nikon D300S vs. Canon EOS 7D and Nikon D3S

Back in 2007, the competition did not quite have a DSLR to match up with the D300. In the fall of 2009, Canon added the 7D to its line up. It is also an APS-C format (1.6x crop) DSLR featuring an 18MP CMOS sensor that can capture 8 frames/second (fps). Its AF module has 19 AF points that are all cross type. Its sensitivity goes up to ISO 6400 and it too can capture HD movie. The 7D is clearly designed to be a head-on competition against the D300/D300S as a prosumer DSLR for action photography and is priced very competitively.

The D3 was introduced simultaneously with the D300 as a news, sports, action, and wedding camera. The D3 uses an FX-format sensor and has about one extra stop of high-ISO capability over the D300. In October 2009, Nikon upgraded it to a new D3S that features an improved sensor that yields yet another 1 to 1.5 stops better high-ISO results. Therefore, there is now a clear gap between the D300/D300S and the top DSLRs in terms of high-ISO results, but the D3S is a $5000+ DSLR and in a totally different price category.

Lenses for the D300S

Since we reviewed the original D300 almost two years ago, Nikon has updated a number of its lenses. Here is an new list of some popular lenses for the D300S. Some of these lenses are sold as a kit with the D300S body.

A popular lens for serious photographers using Nikon DX-format DSLRs is still the Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S DX, (compare prices). It covers a range from moderate wide-angle to short telephoto, and its fast f/2.8 maximum aperture makes it ideal for wedding and event photography as well as a general-purpose lens.

A less-expensive alternative is now the Nikon 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S DX ED VR, (compare prices), which covers a good zoom range but has a smaller maximum aperture. Vibation reduction (VR) helps reduce camera shake at slow shutter speeds. The 16-85mm DX is available as a kit with the D300S.

The Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED-IF AF-S VR DX, (compare prices), Version 2, is a “one size fits all” super zoom from moderate wide to long telephoto and is included as a kit lens option with the D300S. For a 11x zoom, some compromises in its optical quality is inevitable, but it is still quite decent. It is an ideal lens for those who would rather not change lenses and is excellent for travel photography. The vibration reduction (VR) feature enhances the results from hand holding. However, at maximum aperture of f/5.6 at the 200mm end, it is quite limiting indoors. The newer Version 2 of this lens has a lock to keep it at 18mm to prevent the common “zoom creep” problem on the original version. Otherwise, there are few differences between the two versions.

A popular telephoto zoom is the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR, (compare prices). There is also a Version 2 for this lens, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II AF-S, (compare prices). The new version is sharper and has improved corner performance.

A more affordable tele zoom is the Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED IF AF-S VR, (compare prices), lens, covering the short tele to super tele range. It is on the slow side on its long end, but it is rather compact and light. This lens is available as a kit with the D300S.

For those who prefer a super-wide lens, Nikon has a new Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G ED AF-S DX, (compare prices) (review), which spans from super-wide to moderate wide. It is a bit wider than the previous Nikon 12-24mm f/4G ED IF Autofocus DX, (compare prices) (review), and is ideal for landscape photography and interiors of buildings.

For those who would like a fisheye lens for wedding, architectural, and certain sports photography, Nikon makes a high-quality Nikon 10.5mm f/2.8G ED AF DX Fisheye, (compare prices), but that is not an AF-S lens. This is more like a special effects lens.

Conclusion

When the D300 was introduced back in 2007 (simultaneously with the D3) for $1800, it was a huge step forward from the D2X/D2XS, which was until that point Nikon’s top-of-the-line DSLR at close to $5000. As a result, the D2X’s value in the used market has sunk like a rock. However, since the D300 was so ahead of its time then, it is still very good now in 2009. Other than the new video capability and dual memory card feature, the D300S is largely the same camera with a few minor improvements. For “prosumers,” serious amateurs, and those who prefer the DX format, the D300S remains to be an excellent choice. In particular, for wildlife photographers and especially bird photographers who use very long lenses, the DX format has a major advantage.

The D300S, like all other Nikon DSLRs with the video feature, is primarily a still-image camera. The video capability is a very nice bonus to have, but if your objective is to capture video, a dedicated video camera is still a much more versatile and convenient tool.

Where to Buy

The Nikon D300S is available from Photo.net’s partners. Their prices are fair and you help to support photo.net.

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Original text ©2009 Shun Cheung.

Article revised February 2011.

Readers' Comments


Add a comment



CC Chang , December 23, 2009; 10:33 A.M.

Shun,

Glad to see that the video capacities on pro level dSLRs are well appreciated by your review. It is really fun to use, and I wish more people can at least give it a try before dismissing it all together as a feature that they will never use.

Anyway, I have a question, have you tried a VR lens with video and does the VR help to reduce camera shake for video?

Shun Cheung , December 23, 2009; 10:42 A.M.

CC, most of my attached videos with wildlife were captured with the 70-200mm/f2.8 AF-S VR (older version 1) and 200-400mm/f4 AF-S VR. However, it is best to capture videos from a tripod or the video would look bumpy on TV (or computer monitor). Therefore, typically I use my tripod and simply switch VR off on those lenses.

Richard Williams , December 28, 2009; 06:42 A.M.

Just curious about how well the camera held up in the cold over an extended period - did you have any problems related to the conditions, and roughly how low did the temperature get?

Shun Cheung , December 28, 2009; 08:23 A.M.

First of all, I was in the Antarctic during their spring time, mid October to early November. The temperature was mainly around freezing to a bit above. So it wasn't that cold to begin with. The D300S and my D700 had no problems at all. That trip was full of serious photographers with lots and lots of Nikon D3 (the D3S had just been announced but not yet available at that time), D300 and D300S plus various Canon 1D family, 5D Mark II, 40D and 50D. I don't think any camera had any problems.

Generally speaking, modern DSLRs deal with cold very well. Battery life may get shorter but the cameras work fine. If anything, it is harder for humans to deal with cold. Therefore, if it is fine for the photographer, it should be fine for the cameras.

Srikanth Kondeti , December 30, 2009; 03:36 P.M.

I really appreciate for posting your review to know much more about new DSLR. I am not sure WHY Nikon releases S versions and X versions instead of new good model. Few years back I bought Nikon D40x with passion and that was my first DSLR. Just in few weeks later D60 has been released with almost same features. Then I returned 40x and bought the latest D60 during that time. So if Nikon thinks that Upgrade is needed, they can very well for 1-2 years and release new model. So customers won't feel unhappy. But if they release version changes, its not good as per my feeling.

Hannu Soini , February 25, 2010; 05:01 A.M.

..yes so true- full format body with the video feature and improved sensor with reasonable price would sweep the market. Then again "volume cameras" are making the profit to companies...let's hope for the best anyhow.

Jeroen Wenting , June 21, 2011; 05:24 A.M.

As to memory card failures, they're pretty random. Since 2006 when I started shooting digital I've had 2 failures, both catastrophic and without warning, both in a space of just a few months, both major brand cards (in fact the second failure was a warranty replacement for the first failed card, go figure).

In both cases I lost several hundred shots, some of them probably impossible to ever replace (as they were one-off events). As a result I've resulted to preferring multiple smaller cards over a single large one, so that if another card fails that way the loss will at least not cover as many images. A camera that could take 2 CF cards would be ideal, with one as a backup for the other (think RAID in computer terms), but I don't like the SD format for its relative fragility.

Kitster Yuen , June 08, 2012; 03:13 P.M.

Thanks Shun for your work! I've just bought a D300s and will be selling my D300 soon. I couldn't wait for the D400 any longer!


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