The D300s updates the D300 with some major and not so major features. Obvious among them is the addition of a 720p movie-shooting mode with contrast detection AF while shooting in Tripod movie mode. Hand-held movie shooting the focusing is fixed or you manually focus.
You also get Live View too (from where the HD movie mode can be accessed), no self respecting DSLR would be without that today. Dual memory card slots include one SD and one CF Type I/II port beneath a clip out flap on the camera’s deeply sculpted handgrip.
The D300s includes a socket for use of an external stereo microphone when recording movies, so you can avoid the distraction of the whirring and clicking noises from the camera’s internal working associated with movie shooting using the built-in mic and get vastly improved sound quality to boot.
You get faster continuous AF shooting, now at 7fps rather than the D300’s 6fps; ergonomics are excellent, as with the D300, but now the back plate jog buttons sport a dedicated central “OK” button that activates movie recording and “okays” your menu choices for example. In fact the back of the D300s, with its large 3-inch colour and 920k-dot screen resembles that found on the D700.
An info button brings the camera’s interactive information display to the fore with a comprehensive set of data on camera settings and their control including direct control of the AF point in use, from the 51 on offer. In Live View the info button changes the head-up display between the virtual horizon, framing marks and composition guides to name a few.
Another addition for the D300s is a quiet drive mode that, as you might imagine, reduces the noise made when a frame is captured. However, it makes the whole exposure process very slow - from pressing the shutter button to its release, which is the point at which the mirror is returned - so while the noise is reduced, there’s still a distinct click from the shutter assembly.
A small speaker is also included on the camera’s back, at the base of the rubberised rear gripping surface, allowing you to listen to movie audio, however, the memory card hatch locking mechanism from the D300 becomes a casualty here, the speaker is positioned where the memory card lock is situated on the D300.
That’s about it for new kit compared with the D300 and so much of the rest of the camera is much the same as the D300, including the former camera’s handling.
The camera has a reassuring weightiness that comes from the solid build and the deeply recessed handgrip, well placed controls and dials all allow you to quickly get to grips with key features on the camera. The shutter button resides within the camera’s on/off data LCD illumination switch; behind sit the mode and exposure compensation control.
A small pop-up flash sits forward of the hotshoe (onto which an external mic can be mounted) and which can be plugged into a port on the camera’s side along with the HDMI, USB, DC and AV ports. Reassuring to hold and use the D300s comes with a nice 16-85mm F/3.5 to F/5.6 zoom DX VR lens providing an excellent focal range for most subjects, equivalent to 24 to 127.5mm with the 1.5x magnification factor needed for the DX format sensor.
There are two kit variants available for the D300s, the above kit and an AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-200mm F/3.5-5.6G ED VR II zoom kit, providing a 27 to 300mm zoom range.
In short there are two good kit options available, I had the 16-85mm lens kit to play with and just like the D300, the upgraded model is very nice to use indeed. Menu systems are clear and although necessarily comprehensive, because the layout of the menus are kept in relevant sections such as shooting, playback, custom modes to name three, you always get a relevant list of options for the mode you want to tinker with.
Some settings got at within menus for shooting particularly, can also be adjusted via direct controls on the camera with the image quality, ISO, white balance (WB) and drive modes all accessed from the control dials and buttons on the top left of the camera top plate.
The large (backlit) data LCD that hogs the right side of the camera’s top displays the settings being altered that can be adjusted from the front and back controls wheels on the 300s’ right side.
AF, exposure and AF locking, Live View and focus modes all have their own buttons on the right of the large back plate screen.
To its left, the menu, magnification, protect/help and OK buttons rest with both the protect/help and OK buttons being of some novelty. Protect/help locks images to prevent deletion in playback, but significantly for more novice users, when using menus, the same buttons provide a series of explanations on what the modes/settings you’re looking at do and how they can be set.
The OK button provides confirmation of changes when using, say, the retouch tools that also reside with the camera's body allowing you to remove redeye, crop, resize and add filter effects, such as warm and skylight effects. You can also manage colour balance, process the NEF RAW files in camera, apply D-Lighting retrospectively (you also have active D-Lighting if you choose to turn it on when shooting) so that you can pull additional detail from the highlights and shadows within a shot.
In terms of shooting options that you have to play with, sensitivity runs between ISO 200 and 3200 (expandable from 100 to 6400), shutter speeds of 30-1/8000th sec and Bulb give a pro level range, as you’d expect, while WB control is handled by a 1005-pixel sensor, you get seven presets such as sunlight or shade and a range of Kelvin adjustments from 2500k to 10,000k and you get white balance bracketing of 2-9 frames.
Image processing control provides the “usual” setting such as neutral, monochrome and vivid and the number crunching is handled by Nikon’s EXPEED image engine. Here RAW and JPEG capture, TIFF and compressed RAW files (lossless of lossy) can be fed off to two memory cards in a variety of ways. You can assign one card for RAWs, the other for JPEGs, save stills to one, movies to the other and so on.
The Nikon Picture Styles system provides the aforementioned settings but can be customised, as you’d expect, but oddly two presets, portrait and landscape, must be downloaded from Nikon’s website. Needless to say, you can also customise the “looks” provided by the Picture Styles adjusting specific selections and adjustments to image sharpening, contrast, brightness, saturation and hue. These settings can be swapped between compatible Picture Style cameras as well, so fun and creative and very similar to the Pic Control system used within Canon’s DSLRs.
All good stuff then, and all making the camera very deft to use and offering a great level of creativity. Another thing that helps with the camera’s deftness is the viewfinder, it’s bright and clear, provides a 100% field of view (ditto the Live View function) and is great to use for both composition and in terms of the head-up display for focus point selection, camera settings across the bottom, all of which are easy to view even wearing spectacles thanks to the good 19.5mm eyepoint.
The built-in flash is, as you might expect, underpowered for more than a fill-in or close up work in lower lighting, however it’s designed to cover a 16mm lens angle of view, perfect for the kit lens I used on the test. The consideration you need to put into play here is when shooting movies using an accessory stereo mic: you’ll not be able to mount a flash on the hotshoe. However, you’ll be unlikely to need a still flashgun for movie work, so perhaps it’s a moot point after all?
Most of the camera’s other attributes are similar to the preceding model and so, running out of room here, I shall move swiftly onto the image quality assessment and performance. The latter first.
The D300s is responsive indeed, switch on to shooting and image is pretty much instantaneous and the improved frame rate is also a bonus. Still image focusing is fast and the AF viewfinder confirmation display is superb, the improved frame advance rate helps with fleeting subjects but seems to suffer when shooting uncompressed RAWs.
Metering and white balance are almost flawless. In terms of WB, there is some orange colour cast that seems to creep into mixed lighting shots in auto WB setting, but pick the correct WB setting for the scene, or set and use a custom setting and the D300s is characteristically good. Metering is excellent with the 3D Color Matrix being particularly strong but I found images captured in centre weighted metering mode offered a better balance for darker subjects (for me) as dark areas and shadows seemed to fill in too quickly loosing detail, even with D-Lighting active.
In terms of image noise here things are looking good too and shots in near darkness at ISO 1250 provides images with an excellent balance between image detail and noise; noise taking on the appearance of fine film grain, making it less intrusive. However, pushing ISO to the 3200 and 6400 settings makes images with a distinct level of noise that takes on a distracting black speckled effect and combines blotchy grey pixel areas as well, detail in both these settings also suffers heavily, but put into context, the noise is no worse than, say, a 10-megapixel compact set to ISO 800!
And so the D300s marks a neat upgrade to the D300, but the £1499.99 price tag might mean you think twice about upgrading. Because, if you already own the D300, then unless you desperately need the HD video capability, the slightly improved frame rate or the stereo audio capability, then the D300 would probably be perfectly adequate. If you’re buying into the Nikon DX system for the first time, or are trading up anyway, then on balance, the extra couple of hundred quid (the D300 popularity means it still retails for around £1300, though you’ll find it for less by shopping around) might make sense.
The Nikon D300s updates the excellent D300 as Nikon’s flagship DX format DSLR. While superficially very similar to the D300, there are major additions “borrowed” from other models such as the virtual horizon system introduced on the D3 and HD movie capture from Nikon’s D90.
Another stunning new Nikon DX format DSLR that combines the performance and handling panache of its predecessor with HD video and other neat toys that may just make it worth your reaching for your cheque book.