Adding an S to the D300
By TAN KIT HOONG - the star
Nikon updates its semi-pro D300S DSLR with video and some welcome tweaks.
With HD video recording suddenly becoming the feature to have in DSLRs, Nikon has been busy updating their DSLR line with new models featuring 720p video recording.
While the first Nikon DSLRs to gain HD video recording were the consumer models like the D90 and the D5000, the company has just started updating its semi-pro and professional models with video recording, starting with the D300S and now the D3S.
Similar but different
Since the D300S has many similar features carried over from the D300, we won’t repeat them in this review. If you want an extensive rundown of the features, check out our D300 review.
Externally, the D300S really does look practically identical to the D300 — even the image sensor has the same 12.21-megapixel count as its predecessor and the 51-point autofocus system is also carried over.
There are differences in the sensor, of course, but we’ll deal with that a little later.
The only thing we’ll say here is that 12-megapixels is definitely more than enough for all but advertising photographers or people who need to make larger than A3 enlargements.
However, physical and the basic feature set are where the similarities end between the D300 and the D300S.
In addition to all this, Nikon has tweaked a number of features and added some new features into the D300S to make an already good camera even better.
The most obvious new feature, of course, is the addition of 720p video recording.
Even here, Nikon has tweaked the way video recording works in the D300S compared with the D90 — most notably, you can now autofocus during video recording, although, like all cameras that do so the sound of the autofocus motor can be heard when focusing.
This brings me to the next new feature — the D300S has a port that accepts a standard external stereo microphone which means you not only get stereo audio recording, but since the microphone is external, it won’t record the autofocus motor sounds when recording video.
As far as video recording goes, the D300S does a pretty good job recording 720p videos, offering a much better level of detail than, say, the Olympus E-P1’s 720p video.
Of course, we’d like to see Nikon start introducing 1080p video recording into their cameras, if only because the company’s nearest competitor is already starting to integrate that into most of their cameras.
As it is, 720p video recording is fine — while we would use video on a DSLR occasionally, if we really wanted to shoot more professional videos, a camcorder is preferable.
The addition of video isn’t where the major tweaks have been made to the D300S, however — still image capture is where the camera features most of its major enhancements.
We’ll start with the minor, easier to explain tweaks first, the D300S now comes with 7fps (frames per second) continuous shooting speed, slightly up from the 6fps of the D300. No big change here.
One less obvious but welcome change is that this switch to the faster shutter mechanism also results in a much smoother, less clunky shutter. The shutter trips without much vibration at all and viewfinder blackout is also extremely short now.
Unfortunately, in my tests, I discovered that switching to 14-bit NEF RAW recording still slows down the continuous shooting speed though, to about 1.5fps.
This is fine for shooters who don’t use continuous shooting, but might be a problem for sports and action photographers.
One welcome addition is the excellent Virtual Horizon display that was in the D3 has now made into the D300S and you can overlay the Virtual Horizon over an image by pressing the Info button a few times in Live View mode.
Autofocus is practically unchanged — you still get Tripod mode which allows you to autofocus while in Live View mode using contrast detect, while Handheld mode autofocus will have the camera flip the mirror up and use the dedicated phase-detect sensors in the mirror box to focus, blacking out the Live View image for a second or two.
The only major change in autofocus is the ability to do so during video recording.
Oh yes, if you turn the drive mode dial, you’ll find a Q shooting mode nestled amongst the usual single shot and continuous shooting modes.
This is a relatively new addition to Nikon digital cameras, but anyone who’s owned a Nikon F4S for example, will probably be familiar with this mode, which stands for Quiet mode.
As the name suggests, the Quiet shooting mode attempts to lower the decibel level of the D300S’ shutter and mirror mechanism so that you can use the camera less obtrusively in quiet environments.
In our tests, Quiet shooting mode does indeed reduce the sharpness of the sound of the mirror returning to its down position, although the sound is still pretty noticeable to people sitting next to you.
However, you can delay the mirror return by holding down the shutter release button — while the shutter will trip and take a photo, the mirror won’t flip down till you let the shutter release button go, which I suppose makes sense in a concert where you can delay the louder sound of the mirror and wait for a period when the concert is louder to release the mirror.
Battery life is pretty good on the D300S and it lasted me several days of casual shooting and at least two days of heavy shooting with some video recording before the battery ran down. No complaints there.
As far as metering and shooting goes, the D300S seems to perform similarly to the D300 and we’d say there’s no real difference there — if you’re familiar with Nikon’s metering choices, the D300S is not going to surprise you.
In terms of picture quality, Nikon seems to have tweaked the sensor design or noise reduction a bit on the D300S, and it seems to offer slightly better noise performance than the D300.
From our tests, the D300S is practically noiseless at ISO 200 and only some noise is visible at ISO 400.
However, NR kicks in a bit harder at normal settings above ISO 400 and noise actually goes down a bit at ISO 800 and ISO 1600, although at the expense of a bit of detail.
Overall, though we were pretty satisfied with the noise performance of the D300S and would not hesitate to use it all the way up to ISO 1600.
Sharpness was excellent at lower ISO settings and still looked good even at ISO 1600 with the NR taking away most of the chroma noise (colour noise) without smoothing out the detail too much.
Noise was still well-controlled at ISO 3200 but sharpness falls quite significantly at this point and we’d use this setting only when there are no other option.
The D300S has a Hi-1 setting which is equivalent to ISO 6400 but it’s distinctly soft and there’s already a significant colour shift.
If you want to gauge high ISO noise for yourself, you can download our 100% crop comparison shots from
True to Nikon’s naming conventions, the D300S isn’t a major change from the D300 but the company hasn’t simply slapped on video recording on the D300 and called it a D300S either.
Although Nikon didn’t change what wasn’t broken, the number of small enhancements and additions to the feature set make it a much better and more robust camera overall.
Certainly, if you already own a D300, the changes (apart from perhaps the video recording) won’t make you run out and upgrade, but D200 owners for example, will find the D300S a major step forward as it improves on the D200 in every way.
If you’ve been holding on to a D200, hoping for a major new model with video recording, faster shooting, larger LCD, Live View, Virtual Horizonand such, then the D300S is what you’ve been waiting for.
Of course, if you’re holding out for a more affordable 35mm full-frame camera with video recording, then you’ll probably have to wait till Nikon updates the D700.
Pros: Faster shooting; Virtual Horizon feature; 720p video recording; stereo microphone port built-in; very short viewfinder blackout time; autofocus possible during video recording.
Cons: No 1080p video recording.
Sensor: 12.21-megapixels (4,288 x 2,848pixels)
Shutter: 30sec — 1/8,000sec, plus B
ISO range: 200 — 3200 (100 - 6400 in ISO boost mode)
Exposure modes: P,S,A,M
Viewfinder: Optical, 2.7in external LCD
Battery: 1,500mAh EN-EL3e lithium-ion 1,500mAh EN-EL3e lithium-ion
Storage: SDHC, CompactFlash
Interface: USB 2.0, mini HDMI, composite video out, stereo microphone in
Other features: Live View, 720p 24fps video recording
Dimensions (w x h x d): 14.7 × 11.4 × 7.4cm
Price: RM6,698 (body only)
Review unit courtesy of Nikon (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd, (03) 7809-3688.