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Nikon D300S review: Nikon D300S

Nikon D300S

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Lori Grunin
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Lori Grunin

Senior Editor / Advice

I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.

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9 min read

Editors' note, October 10, 2012: In light of changes to the competitive landscape, we've decided to adjust the rating of this camera by dropping the features subrating from 9 to 8. Though it's still an excellent camera, its 3-year-old feature set can't match that of more modern units; many of the features that were novel at the time are now standard for its price class.

OVR
8.2

Nikon D300S

The Good

Outstanding performance for its class; excellent photo quality; solidly built; flexible custom settings architecture; video capture; onboard wireless flash controller; dual card slots.

The Bad

Some annoying design and interface quirks; no significant improvements in high ISO noise performance.

The Bottom Line

The Nikon D300s is a great camera, especially if you need the burst speed or slightly improved low-light focus, but if you don't care about video you might consider looking for a really good deal on a D300 and using what you save to splurge on a good lens.

When a camera has an 18-month product cycle, it's hard to squash some disappointment when its follow up has only a few enhancements, despite the fact that it's common to only make a major update with every other generation. When it's a great camera to start with, like the Nikon D300, the ambivalence quotient increases even more. In some ways, I wish Nikon would have simply (or additionally) dropped the price on the D300 rather than make the few changes it did: adding video support and tweaking performance. Even the median street price hasn't changed significantly on the D300 since the D300s' announcement, at least at the time of this review, and as far as I can tell, Nikon has no plans to drop it. Just as Canon had a competitive gap in its line for the D300 for years until it announced the EOS 7D this summer, Nikon has nothing facing off with the 50D. (Note: I'm reserving judgment on how the D300s stacks up in its segment until I get a chance to test the 7D.)

Nikon's offering a body-only box of the D300s, though so far a kit has also surfaced with the 18-200mm f3.5-5.6G ED VR II lens (27mm-300mm equivalent), an updated version of this lens. I tested primarily with that kit, as well as the ubiquitous 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 VR model. If you're considering the kit, the 18-200mm model represents a very convenient focal range in a relatively compact body that balances well on the D300s, but it's simply not as sharp as I'd like for the money, the zoom ring has an annoying, inconsistent rotation feel, and it still suffers from lens creep (Nikon put a lock on it to prevent creep when it's not in use, but that doesn't help while you're working with it). Ironically, I feel like I get better results with the relatively cheap 18-55mm lens, which can also focus a lot closer--10.8 versus 19.2 inches.

  Nikon D90 Nikon D300 Nikon D300s Nikon D700
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.3-megapixel CMOS 12.3-megapixel CMOS 12.3-megapixel CMOS 12.1-megapixel CMOS
23.6 mm x 15.8mm 23.6 mm x 15.8mm 23.6mm x 15.8mm 36mm x 23.9mm
Magnification factor 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x 1.0x
Sensitivity range ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 3,200/6,400 (expanded) ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 3,200/6,400 (expanded) ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 3,200/6,400 (expanded) ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 6,400/25,600 (expanded)
Continuous shooting 4.5fps
n/a
6fps
n/a raw/100 JPEG
7fps
n/a raw/100 JPEG
5fps
17 raw/100 JPEG
Viewfinder
magnification/effective magnification
96% coverage
0.94x/0.63
100% coverage
0.94x/0.63x
100% coverage
0.94x/0.63x
95% coverage
0.72x/0.72x
Autofocus 11-pt AF
center cross-type
51-pt AF
15 cross-type
51-pt AF
15 cross-type
51-pt AF
15 cross-type
Live View Yes Yes Yes Yes
Video 1,280x720 at 24fps No 1,280 x 720 at 24fps No
LCD size 3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
Shutter durability 100,000 150,000 cycles 150,000 cycles 150,000 cycles
Battery life (CIPA rating) 850 shots 1,000 shots 950 shots 1,000 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 5.2x4.1x3.0 5.8x4.5x2.9 5.8x4.5x2.9 5.8x4.8x3.0
Body operating weight (ounces) 26.0 32.6 34.2 38.7
Mfr. Price (body only) $999.95 $1,799.95 $1,799.95 $2,999.95

The body design and interface haven't changed substantially since the D200: that's both good and bad. It's still built like a tank, dust- and weather-sealed, though it's put on a couple of ounces. Despite its heft, it's comfortable to grip and operate, with one of the nicest viewfinders in its class--big and bright with 100 percent coverage and an optional grid display--and a usable streamlined layout for the traditional shooting controls. As with its predecessor, I really like the switch for the AF-Area modes, and would have liked a similar feeling control for the metering selector, to allow for thumb-only operation, such as with the D3.

As time goes on, however, certain aspects of the camera's operation have begun to annoy me. For example, Nikon carries over the ultraflexible user-settings menus that consist of two banks--shooting settings and custom settings--with four nameable slots each. But I found myself wishing they were more easily accessible, such as sitting on the mode dial a là Canon.


One of the fastest ways to access the custom settings banks is via the information display, and it still requires at least four button presses (two to get into the interactive display, one to get into the menu bank, and at least one to navigate to the desired setting with the multiselector). However, the capability to access less frequently used settings via the information display is a welcome addition to the D300s.

This may be because the multiselector used for navigation feels so mushy and imprecise that using it feels like extra work, even if only for a couple of button presses. I also wish Nikon had separated the movie settings somehow, as well as adapted the information readout to display or access movie setting information.

Also, I'm not crazy about the Live View/movie interface implementation. It may seem trivial, but in that mode, Nikon switches the function of the playback button to handle volume and display brightness, which means that to review videos or photos shot in LV you need to first exit.

One of the best new features is the addition of an SD card slot and the fairly flexible dual card slot implementation. You can configure the camera to use whichever card you deem secondary to be used for overflow, backup, and JPEG only (when shooting raw+JPEG), though only for stills; for movies, you can only pick a primary, with no alternate behaviors. (A PDF of the D300s' manual was not available online in English at the time this review published, but you can check back here, or download it in Spanish now from the same page.)

  Nikon D300s Canon EOS 7D Olympus E-3 Pentax K-7
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.1-megapixel CMOS 18-megapixel CMOS 10.1-megapixel Live MOS 14.6-megapixel CMOS
23.6mm x 15.8mm 22.3mm x 14.9mm 17.3mm x 13mm 23.4mm x 15.6mm
Magnification factor 1.5x 1.6x 2.0x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 3,200/6,400 (expanded) ISO 100 - ISO 6,400/12,800 (expanded) ISO 100 - ISO 3,200 ISO 100 - ISO 3,200/6,400 (expanded)
Shutter speed 1/8,000 to 30 sec; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 sec; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 60 sec; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 sec; bulb; 1/180 sec x-sync
Continuous shooting 7fps
n/a raw/100 JPEG
6.3fps
16 raw/90 JPEG
4fps
16 raw/unlimited JPEG
5.2 fps
40 JPEG/15 raw (PEF)
Viewfinder
magnification/effective magnification
100% coverage
0.94x/0.63x
100% coverage
1.0x/0.63x
100% coverage
1.15x/0.58x
100% coverage
0.92x/0.61x
Autofocus 51-pt AF
15 cross-type
19-pt AF
all cross-type
11-pt AF
all cross-type
11-pt AF
9 cross-type
Metering 1,005 pixel 63 zone 49 point 77 segment
Live View Yes Yes Yes Yes
Video 1,280x720 at 24fps 1,920x1,080 at 30fps; 1,280x720 at 60fps; H.264 MOV No 1,280x720 at 30fps Motion JPEG AVI
LCD size 3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
2.5 inches articulated
230,000 dots
3 inches fixed
921,000 dots
Wireless flash controller Yes Yes Yes Yes
Shutter durability 150,000 cycles 150,000 cycles 150,000 cycles n/a cycles
Battery life (CIPA rating) 950 shots 800 shots 610 shots 740 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 5.8x4.5x2.9 5.8x4.4x2.9 5.6x4.6x2.9 5.1x3.8x2.9
Body operating weight (ounces) 34.2 30.7 (estimated) 31.6 26.5
Mfr. Price (body only) $1,799.95 $1,699 $1,399.99 $1,195

Nikon managed to tweak the performance so that the D300s is speedier across the board--except for start-up time--than the already fast D300. The AF system is the same as that of the D300, and the advanced technology it incorporated at the time holds up well and, theoretically, should still fare well compared with the new AF system debuting in the 7D.

Numbers simply don't reflect how fast this camera feels for its class; as with many higher-end pro cameras, you press the shutter in continuous-shooting mode and it just drags you along for the ride. Single shot mode feels very responsive as well. The camera takes 0.3 second to power on and shoot, and it takes the same amount of time to focus and shoot in good light; in lower-contrast light, it takes 0.7 second. Typically, two nonburst JPEG shots in a row require about 0.4 second; that bumps up to 0.5 second when shooting full raw. With the on-camera flash, it takes about 0.9 second from shot to shot. And it produces a D3-class continuous-shooting rate of 6.8 frames per second.

The D300s incorporates the same video engine as that of the D90 that, at 720p resolution but limited to 24fps, isn't the greatest video we've seen. However, it's still pretty good, with no significant artifacts to speak of. Yes, if you shake the camera you can induce the Jell-O wobble some people have complained about, but it doesn't occur under normal conditions. Unfortunately, the D300s' implementation suffers from the same flaws as most dSLR-based movie capture. It supports AF during movie capture, but it's highly impractical. It only works in the Live View Tripod (mirror up) contrast AF mode, which is extremely slow and hunts quite a bit. You can always focus manually, but I find the LCD isn't quite sharp enough for focusing (there's no zoom magnifier for focusing while shooting). This is especially true with the cheaper lenses with designs that aren't really optimized for manual focus--focusing while shooting a movie handheld can be quite cumbersome. The built-in mic also picks up the lens noise. However, there's a stereo mic input to get around that. You can use the Picture Controls to adjust the tone and color in movie mode, which is nice if you want to shoot black and white videos.

While the photo quality remains excellent, it doesn't have any better noise reduction at the high ISO sensitivity settings--something you'd expect, given that it uses the same sensor. Given that we're two years on since its introduction, the rapidly changing competitive landscape, and the camera's continued high price, I've rated the image quality as an 8 rather than the 9 of its predecessor. Images begin to look "processed" at ISO 800; you can begin to see some sharpness degradation starting at ISO 1,600, but it doesn't become obtrusive until ISO 3,200. By Hi 1 (ISO 6,400) you can see luminance and color noise as well as distinct softness. Nikon seems to have brightened its exposures between the two models and that change results in the D300s' noise at ISO 6,400 (Hi 1) becoming more noticeable.

However, the colors look even better than before. They are bright and saturated, but still accurate. Nikon seems to have changed the camera's exposure parameters; all the exposures seem brighter, regardless of metering setting, then they were with the D300. In our lab tests, the same aperture and shutter values produced brighter exposures with the D300s than the D300, and the D300s produces generally brighter exposures than Nikon's midrange and pro dSLRs have rendered in the past.

Fast, with a flexible feature set, durable body, and excellent photo quality, the Nikon ably fills its predecessor's shoes, though it fails to blaze any significantly new trails in them. If you don't need or want video, slightly faster low-light AF, or a bump in continuous-shooting speed, current D300 owners needn't get upgrade envy and new purchasers might want to consider the older model if they can find it at a significantly lower price--though that may be difficult.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time to first shot  
Raw shot-to-shot time  
Shutter lag (dim light)  
Shutter lag (typical)  
Nikon D3
0.1 
0.3 
0.6 
0.3 
Olympus E-3
1.3 
0.5 
0.8 
0.3 
Nikon D300s
0.3 
0.5 
0.7 
0.3 
Canon EOS 50D
0.2 
0.3 
0.9 
0.4 
Nikon D300
0.1 
0.5 
0.9 
0.5 

Typical continuous-shooting speed (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Nikon D3
6.8 
Nikon D300s
6.8 
Canon EOS 50D
6 
Nikon D300
5.8 
Olympus E-3
4.9 

OVR
8.2

Nikon D300S

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 9Image quality 8
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