This summer, nearly two years after the introduction of the D300, Nikon announced its successor, the D300s. The new model adds 720p HD video capture with optional autofocus, in-camera video editing, an on-board mono microphone and a stereo microphone input, a dedicated button for Live View access, dual memory card slots, faster continuous shooting, a new Quiet drive mode, a Virtual Horizon to aid you in keeping the camera level, a redesigned eight-way controller with a centred set button, plus an all-new Info button and on-demand screen tips for new users. Pretty much everything else is unchanged from the D300, including the environmentally sealed magnesium-alloy body, the twelve-megapixel DX sensor, the large optical viewfinder with 100% frame coverage and the fixed 3 inch rear screen with 921,000 dots. The Nikon D300s costs £1499.99 / €1821.00 / $1799.95 body only.
Pick up the Nikon D300s and you'll instantly feel that this is a tool designed for serious work. The body is extremely well made, and fits your hands like the proverbial glove. Based on the published specs, I expected the camera to be quite heavy – but in real use, it didn't weigh me down at all. It's dense with metal, but its excellent weight distribution and superb ergonomics prevent it from feeling like a burden. At first I thought this was only so because Nikon supplied it with the compact and lightweight 35mm f1.8G lens (which we recently reviewed), but now, having used the D300s with a number of other lenses as well, I still think that it feels much less heavy than you would expect based on the specs alone.
The body shape and dimensions are nigh on identical to the D300, and most of the controls are in the same location too. And there are many of them – respecting the requirements of the working pro, Nikon has provided dedicated external controls for almost all of the frequently used functions, and there are a couple of customisable buttons as well. All this makes for quick and easy operation in the field (once you have familiarised yourself with the camera, that is).
One thing that may surprise users trading up from a consumer-oriented model is the lack of an exposure mode dial. Like the other pro cameras from Nikon – and Canon too, for that matter –, the Nikon D300s has a Mode button instead, which you need to hold depressed while spinning the rear control wheel in order to change the exposure mode. There are two main reasons for this: firstly, it prevents inadvertent changes; and secondly, a button takes up much less real estate than a conventional mode dial. Given that the Nikon D300s offers no scene modes, it would have been almost foolish – though not entirely unheard of – to dedicate an entire dial to just four settings; P, A, S and M.
On the other hand the drive mode options, which are often buried in a menu on cheaper and smaller cameras, have their own dial on the D300s. It is located left of the pentaprism housing on the top of the camera, but it won't be immediately obvious to those unfamiliar with top-end Nikon cameras. This is because the drive mode dial – called the release mode dial by Nikon – is in fact found beneath a cluster of three large buttons that provide quick access to the ISO, white balance and image quality settings. A locking pin prevents the dial from accidental bumps – you need to hold it down in order to turn the dial. The available drive modes include single-frame advance, low-speed continuous capture (with the ability to customise frame rate between 1 and 7fps) , high-speed continuous shooting (7fps, up from 6 in the D300; or 8fps if the optional MB-10 battery pack is attached), self-timer, mirror up and a new Quiet mode. The last of these, first seen on the Nikon D5000, allows the photographer to delay the mirror return and the cocking of the shutter until [s]he lets go of the shutter release button. Also, the focus confirmation beep is automatically silenced in this mode, even if you haven't turned it off via the menu. Given that the D300s' mirror is inherently louder than the D5000's, the Quiet mode is still not as quiet as it is on that camera, but neither is it as loud as the other modes.
Speaking of which, it has to be noted that we are unsure if having mirror lock-up (MLU) separated from the self-timer was a wise idea. This implementation requires the photographer to press the shutter release button twice: once to lock up the mirror, and once again to actually release the shutter. As this can cause unwanted vibration, it kind of beats the point of mirror lock-up, unless one uses a separately sold, proprietary remote cord (which connects to a 10-pin remote terminal hiding behind a hinged rubber flap on the front of the camera). There are two workarounds: you can wait about thirty seconds taking no action after raising the mirror, in which case a picture is taken automatically, or use the so-called Exposure Delay Mode instead (accessible via Custom Setting d10 in the menu), which introduces a fixed one-second delay between mirror up and exposure. While either of these solutions work – and arguably the kind of folks who will actually use mirror lock-up are likely to purchase a remote release cable anyway –, we still think it would have made more sense to combine MLU with the self-timer, whose duration can be specified by the user.
Live View is no longer treated as a drive mode option, and is thus no longer accessed via the release mode dial. Instead, it now has a dedicated button on the rear panel – a logical and welcome improvement over the D300, although it's one of only two buttons that we feel are a little too recessed to operate easily (the other one is the also-new Info button). Live View comes in two flavours, 'Hand-held' and 'Tripod'. In 'Hand-held' mode, you can use either the AF-ON button or a half-press of the shutter release to initiate autofocus, whereby the mirror is lowered and the AF sensors are engaged. This interrupts the live view, which does not even resume automatically when focus is acquired; only when you let go of the shutter release (or AF-ON) button. The whole procedure is cumbersome and involves lots of mirror slapping, but at the end of the day, it's still the faster way if you want to use AF in live view. Because in the aptly named 'Tripod' mode, it takes a lot more time for the camera to acquire focus, as it uses a contrast-detect method which Nikon's lenses are not optimised for. The undeniable advantage of this mode is that focusing does not interrupt the live view feed, and there is less mirror slapping. Note though that in 'Tripod' mode, you can only use the AF-ON button for autofocus; there is no other option.
Obviously you don't have to use AF when using live view – in fact, one of the key benefits of this feature is that it's an excellent manual-focus aid. There is a red rectangle in the middle of the screen, which you can move practically anywhere in the frame. In manual focus mode, you can magnify into this rectangle simply by repeatedly pressing the button marked with a loupe icon. Using this function, I got the impression that the view at full magnification was less fuzzy than on the D90 I reviewed last year.
The availability of a Virtual Horizon is one of the few improvements the Nikon D300s boasts over its predecessor. It is a levelling tool that debuted in the manufacturer's FX cameras – the D300s is the first DX body to offer it. The Virtual Horizon is a useful aid to avoid slanted horizons and bevelled verticals, although given that it only indicates left/right tilt, it is ultimately less sophisticated than the dual-axis electronic level gauge found on the Olympus E-30 and E-P1 cameras.
One thing I found strange about Nikon's live view implementation was that you could not switch directly to playback mode, as the Playback button is idle until you exit live view. Another oddity is the lack of a live histogram, which makes Live View much less useful than it could be. Finally, while the three-inch, 921,000-dot LCD is extremely nice to look at, there will inevitably be people who wonder why it isn't articulated.
Perhaps the most important new feature is the D300s' movie mode. Whilst the D300 was strictly a stills camera, the D300s can also shoot 720p high-definition video at 24 frames per second. Its movie mode is thus quite similar to that of the D90 and the D5000, with two notable differences. One is that apart from the built-in monaural microphone, the D300s also offers a stereo sound recording option via an all-new stereo mic input. The separately sold external microphone can be mounted to the flash hot-shoe – a sensible design solution given that you don't use flash while recording video anyway. The other difference versus the D90 and the D5000 is that you can use autofocus while filming, by way of pressing the AF-ON button. Don't get too excited about this option though – the contrast-detect autofocus method employed is so slow that there is no way it can keep up with anything that moves; which makes it completely useless for video. Really, it seems as if Nikon took an “if-that's-what-you-want-you-can-have-it” approach to providing AF for movies, without doing anything to make it actually useful.
All these new features shouldn't distract from the fact that the Nikon D300s is, first and foremost, an SLR camera – so let us now take a look at how it performs at its more traditional functions. The optical viewfinder, which is one of the most important parts of any SLR, is about as good as it gets with a cropped-sensor camera: it's fairly big, very bright and 100% accurate. Also, I found it very good for manual focusing; at least in reasonably decent light. The D300s' 51-point autofocus module, unchanged from the D300, is also a true pleasure to use. Thankfully, the AF points aren't engraved on the focusing screen, so you only see the one in use. Selecting the active AF point is done by way of the eight-way pad, unless the focus selector lock is in the L (=Locked) position. I have found this multi-controller to be a little too small for my tastes, and not as dependable as I would like it to be – but at least the centred button is a nice addition.
Still on the topic of autofocus, the D300s has three distinct AF area modes, auto-area, in which the camera decides what to focus on, dynamic area and single-point AF. The latter is what you will want to use most of the time, as it gives you the freedom of choosing which AF point you would like the camera to use, depending on where the main subject falls within the frame. Dynamic-area AF is the best solution when using continuous autofocus to track a moving subject. In this mode, you also select the focus point manually, but after that, the D300s attempts to track the subject even if it leaves the selected focus point. The number of AF points used for this can be selected from 9, 21 and 51 via Custom Setting a3. If '51 points (3D tracking)' is selected, the camera will track the subject across the entire frame using colour information from the 1005-pixel RGB metering sensor. In the field, it was quite astounding to see 3D focus tracking in action. Acknowledging that minor misalignment between certain lenses and bodies can occur and may lead to front- or back-focussing issues, Nikon has provided an option to fine-tune focus for up to 12 lens types. This is not a new feature, but an important one nonetheless.
Unlike the manufacturer's cheaper DSLR models that are more or less restricted in terms of compatible optics, the Nikon D300s can be used with most any F-mount lens produced since 1977, with very few exceptions that are all listed in the manual. To get matrix metering with lenses lacking a built-in CPU, you need to manually enter the lens' focal length and maximum aperture via the 'Non-CPU lens data' menu item in the Setup menu. This will not only give you open-aperture colour matrix metering, but also allow the D300s to display the working aperture on the status LCD as soon as you change it via the aperture ring on the lens, and record both the focal length and the actual aperture value in the EXIF. I tested this feature using an old Horizont branded F-mount lens, and it was quite astounding to see the f-number change on the top LCD while I rotated the aperture ring on the old lens. Not only that, the pictures themselves came out perfectly exposed, with no need to tweak exposure compensation in Aperture Priority mode. And while manual-focus lenses obviously won't autofocus, the D300s' AF sensors remain active, and the green focus confirmation dot will light up when the subject is in focus. Neat!
Using newer lenses is completely straightforward; all you need to do is mount them. All AF lenses will autofocus on the D300s, not only those with a built-in AF motor. This is again something that sets this camera apart from the entry-level offerings.
As opposed to the D300, which recorded images to CompactFlash Type I and II cards and Microdrives, the D300s takes only Type I cards, but adds a very welcome secondary card slot for SD/SDHC media. The implementation of the dual card slots is exemplary: you can tell the camera to record every image simultaneously on both cards for instant backup, or designate one card to store raw files and the other for JPEGs, or use the secondary card for “overflow” - you name it. Thumbs up to Nikon for executing this the right way. Speaking of memory cards, we need to note that the card compartment door is now of the “slide-and-open” variety, which inspires a bit less confidence than the sturdier solution found on the D300; though to be fair it did not cause any issues during the review.
The Nikon D300s draws power from the same EN-EL3e battery as the D300, with Nikon claiming a battery life of approximately 950 shots as per CIPA standards. This is without any Live View use or movie shooting though, so expect a lot less from the battery if you plan on using these functions on a regular basis. Excessive chimping and a few other factors can also reduce the number of shots that can be taken on one charge. By default, the Nikon D300s displays the remaining battery life using a five-segment battery icon, but you can also view it in a much more accurate percentage format via the menu. The battery compartment door is located sufficiently far away from the tripod socket to allow for a battery change even when the camera is mounted on a tripod.
This concludes our evaluation of the handling and feature set of the Nikon D300s. It's time to take a look at the other side of the equation – image quality.