Nikon D300s £1500
18th Aug 2009 | 15:11
The latest 12 megapixel DSLR snapper from Nikon
Nikon D300S: Overview
The Nikon D300s is the latest 12 megapixel snapper in Nikon's DSLR range.
The top end of the amateur DSLR market has never been so tempting. For those willing to forgo the luxury of a full-frame body such as the Nikon D700, Canon 5D MK II or Sony Alpha A900, you'll save more than £500 if you opt for a cropped-frame monster such as the Nikon D300S.
For instance, our D300S came with a 16-85mm lens and will cost £1,500. For a full-frame camera from Nikon, Sony or Canon you'll have to spend nearly £2,000 to get just the body.
And to the untrained hand, it's very hard to see why the D300S is so much cheaper.
Compared to Nikon's gorgeous D700, for instance, it feels nearly exactly as well-built. The body is made from magnesium alloy and is shelled in exceptionally tough-feeling rubber at every point you're likely to hold it.
The natural trade-off is weight: the D300S weighs nearly a kilogram before you even attach a lens, but for dedicated photographers – particularly those who like to tote their camera everywhere they go – the extra build-quality is reassuring. The D300S feels like it will take all sorts of abuse before it gives up.
It's not just the grips that feel good: every point that opens, such as the thick rubber flap guarding the USB and HDMI ports, plus the memory slot cover, have rubber seals, theoretically protecting the D300S' fragile innards from downpours.
To say we'd be happy to take it into a jungle is an understatement: the D300S feels positively bombproof. And it isn't just tough on the outside: Nikon claims the shutter mechanism has been tested to 150,000 actuations.
That's enough to take more than 100 shots every day for the next four years before you get close to the D300S's theoretical minimum. Indeed, the only weak point on the camera we could identify was the plastic backing on the manually activated pop-up flash.
Nikon D300S: Features
Every control on the Nikon D300S feels assured and tough. The shutter button has a particularly fine feel to it: you still depress it halfway to activate autofocus, of course, but it doesn't "click" halfway down.
There's a smooth hint of a detente at the halfway stage instead. We've always been fans of the control system on Nikon's top-end cameras, and the D300S owes much to its big brother, the Nikon D700.
The mode dial on the left hand shoulder of the camera has a release button next to it, which makes it all but impossible to switch between shooting modes by accident.
The sheer number of features, settings and modes you can choose without needing to dip into the menu system is what made us fall in love with the D300S, though.
The mode dial allows you to choose from single shot, low-speed continuous (which itself has seven different settings available via the custom settings menu) and high-speed continuous shooting.
PORTS: they include mini USB, audio and HDMI
You can opt for mirror-up shooting and self-timer modes, as well as a "Quiet" mode, which turns off the auto-focus beep and minimises the return "clack" from the shutter mechanism. It still doesn't make the D300S stealthy, but it's a useful feature for a quiet museum, for instance.
There are ISO, white balance and quality control buttons on the left hand shoulder – just turn the command dial on the right hand side while pressing one of them.
With a bit of practice it's possible to get up a serious head of steam using the D300S, making minor or major alterations to every shot. It makes taking pictures exactly how you want them an absolute joy.
Nikon D300S: Image quality
Inevitably, the Nikon D300S impresses when it comes to picture quality, but it's here that owners of current top-end Nikon cameras face a problem – the D300S is by no means a no-brainer upgrade.
The 12.3MP APS-C (DX-format, in Nikon-speak) CMOS sensor is the same as in the D300S, and the 51-point Multi-CAM3500DXAF system is identical too. Still, we couldn't fail to be impressed.
Colours were accurate and the 16-85mm, f/3.5-5.6 VR lens proved itself at both wide angles and zoomed-in.
Impressive ISO performance
The D300S, like the D300, can be pushed to a maximum of 6400 ISO. Images at this extreme were hit and miss, but at virtually every other level the D300S was superb. Even at ISOs of 2000 to 3200 we found only a few unusable shots, but the D300S really comes into its own at ISOs of 1600 and under.
Pure colours and nigh-on invisible noise mean you're unlikely to put the L 1.0 mode – equivalent to ISO 100 – to much use.
Nikon's trademark bells and whistles are present. The useful auto-ISO mode, for instance, allows you to set a minimum shutter speed that you want the D300S to start bumping the ISO, and Active D-Lighting is also present.
Nikon claims the latter gives images greater range, and it's true that you'll see some improvement in high-contrast shots.
The D300S is the first Nikon to allow you to configure Active D-Lighting – you can pick from four levels of aggressiveness, plus Auto and turning it off altogether. We didn't notice a significant difference in every single one of our shots, but it offers improved lighting in some situations.
Active D-Lighting: off
Active D-Lighting: low
Active D-Lighting: normal
Active D-Lighting: high
Active D-Lighting: extra high
Active D-Lighting: auto
And when it comes to helping you get the pictures you want, the D300S offers an extraordinary amount of power.
Nikon reckons the D300S will manage up to 7 frames per second in its high-speed continuous mode, but our tests revealed even better performance. Timed with a stopwatch the D300S took 13 frames in 1.65 seconds – nearly 8fps.
It's so fast, in fact, that the low-speed continuous shooting mode becomes a necessity: the D300S is so fast it's hard to get your finger off the shutter release without it firing multiple times. In high-speed mode it took 13 shots before slowing down: with the low-speed mode set to 3fps it took 18 before running out of buffer.
Nikon D300S: Sample shots
We took a variety of test shots in order to put the Nikon D300S through its paces. Here are some examples - click the links to download full resolution versions.
Nikon D300S: Video
If you want the D300S' performance from a full-frame camera you're looking at spending a huge amount.
The biggest difference between the D300S and the older D300 – and any other camera at this price – is the addition of HD video.
720p HD video
The D300S can shoot at 320 x 216, 640 x 424, and – the headline mode – 1,280 x 720 at 24fps. Even better, the D300S is currently the only HD-capable DSLR except the Canon 5D MK II with a stereo-in port, which allows you to attach a stereo microphone to improve audio quality and cut down handling noise.
Results in our tests were as good as we've come to expect from HD-capable DSLRs. The 16-85mm lens produced sharp results and the CMOS sensor recreated colour beautifully.
Frequently we'd frame up a shot, then switch to live view mode and capture a few seconds' video too. It's a tempting feature that will likely see lots of use.
Nikon has put serious thought into the D300S' video mode beyond the inclusion of the mic-in port. It's the only amateur DSLR to offer twin memory card slots – not even the 5D MK II has these.
The slots in question are a Compact Flash port and an SDHC port. With Compact Flash cards supporting up to 48GB and SDHC cards up to 32GB, there's a huge amount of storage potential, but the handiness of the two slots goes much further.
For a start, you can set up a kind of in-camera RAID, in which every shot you take is saved to both slots in case one card fails. Or, you can set it up so a RAW image is saved to one slot and a JPEG to the other. Alternatively, one card can simply act as overflow.
Finally – and most usefully – you can set one card up for stills and the other specifically for video, making it easy to keep track of files. It's a professional-level feature and its inclusion is a massive plus.
It's not all rosy, though. For a start there are some technical limitations. In 720p HD mode, for instance, you can only shoot up to five minutes' video.
For amateurs this won't be a problem, but if you want to shoot time lapse footage you'll hit the barrier.
Likewise, anyone shooting a documentary or an interview will quickly wish the D300S had the 30 minute limitation of the 5D MK II.
And, although the D300S is Nikon's first HD video-capable camera able to focus during recording, it remains limited. Changing focus mid-video requires you to recognise that the video is out of focus in the first place on the screen, and to push the AF-ON button to change it.
The D300S then tries to change focus using contrast detection. In our tests we found this takes a relatively long time, is comparatively inaccurate, and will lead to a lot of noise from the lens' motor as it hunts for the right distance.
In fairness, the 16-85mm lens that came with our model was quiet when hunting for the right focus, but other results will vary depending on the quality of the lens and whether you're shooting in bright light.
Finally, Nikon hasn't quite solved the problem of the rolling shutter causing distortion. Some of our film, shot from a train, shows vertical lines looking skewed as they move from one side of the frame to the other.
The screen on the back at least makes the video feature easy to use. Like the Canon 5D MK II's, the 3in LCD has 920,000 pixels, which makes manually focussing while recording video a snap. Otherwise, the high-contrast menu system makes perfect sense and is quick to use, and flicking through shots – even hundreds – takes no time at all.
Nikon D300S: Verdict
If you're looking to upgrade from a bargain-basement DSLR, the D300S is a superb choice. Absolute beginners might be out of their depth (there's no "green square" mode, for instance), but for someone beginning to build up some technical and creative experience the D300S offers a huge amount of power and flexibility.
It's very fast to operate and offers the fastest continuous-shooting mode this side of £3,000. It's the perfect stepping stone between an amateur and professional DSLR. It's more expensive than the Canon 50D, but it's also faster and, to our hands, more solid, besides offering 720p video recording.
If you already have a top-end amateur DSLR things are less clear-cut.
There's also the minor consideration of the price: £1,500 for the D300S with its reasonable 16-85mm VR lens is a bargain. Compare it, for instance, with the D700, which costs nearly two thousand pounds body-only – and you'll need to spend around half as much again to get a lens good enough to withstand the exacting quality of the full-frame sensor.
In terms of absolute image quality the D300S doesn't offer much improvement over older models such as the Nikon D200 or D300. Its noise performance is good, but not as good as full-frame cameras such as the D700 or Canon 5D MK II. But it will probably be faster than your current body and the inclusion of HD video recording is something we think you'll grow to love.
The bottom line is that we loved taking pictures with the D300S. Quite apart from image quality, it's so quick to use and adjust that you'll hardly ever miss a shot. The build-quality is extraordinary and the inclusion of (admittedly limited) HD video recording is a sleeper feature that grows on you over time. The deceptively good value is the icing on the cake.
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