D300s–New DX Dynamo

Photo courtesy Nikon USA

I’ve been lucky enough to get my hands on a D300s, and I thought I’d share some of my impressions of this formidable camera. Please notice that I said “impressions” and not “review.” I am not, repeat not, a qualified camera reviewer.

I just, you know, shoot assignments and sell pitchers for a living.  So what I can give you is a working photographer’s brief take on the camera. For a quick lineup of what’s cool about the D300s and different than the D300 (or the D90). Hit the jump.  If I’ve left anything out, I’m sure you’ll let me have it know!

1. Even better high ISO. They don’t mention this in the literature, but it’s pretty much a given that each new generation of camera has better high ISO noise-abating algorithms (or whatever the hell they are). To me, the ISO 1600 files from this camera look really nice, like 800 or better on its predecessors.  Maybe no D700 or D3, but the best high ISO performance of any DX camera I’ve handled.

Remember, I’m a Kodachrome 200 survivor, so my noise standards may be different that yours, but with this camera I can stay happily in DX-land till the cows come home (even if they come home in very low light).

2. Even better video. The video feature is really starting to become a viable tool, and not just a quirky novelty. It’s easier to focus the D300s, you can change focus while shooting (in the tripod mode), the focus is smoother and more sure. The picture quality is marvelous.

Yes, it still has the “jello-ey” look if you shake the camera or shoot stationary scenes from a moving platform (hint for the solution? Don’t shake the camera or shoot stationary scenes from a moving platform!). Remember, it’s still not a full featured camcorder, but, damn, it’s getting close.

And oh that bokeh with your fast Nikkors! Yes, that is the thing that makes these video DSLRs the darlings of DV-using documentarians everywhere. It’s funny that most still photographers are pretty blase about video-enabled DSLRs, but the DV video community is absolutely over the moon about them because the bigger chips and wide lens array give them looks they could never achieve with anything short of a $30,000 camera.  One man’s meat is the other man’s foie gras, I guess.

3. Excellent, but not perfect, audio. The 300s has a nice mic jack, and an ability to adjust the sensitivity of your external, or the camera’s built-in, mic. I tested it using my Sennheiser MKE-400 baby shotgun mic and it produces a much better sound than the built-in.

But, and I’m still experimenting so this is a conditional finding, whether the mic is in the hot shoe, or out on a boom stand close to the subject, there is, what the audio geeks call, a highish “noise floor.”

This particular “noise floor” sounds like a veeeerrrrry, very faint outboard motor waaaaaaaaay in the distance,  like something you might hear underwater when you’re snorkeling (I know, an obscure, but I assure you, a very accurate description of the almost imperceptible sound); or (less descriptive but more accessible) the faint hum of a near-silent air conditioner a few rooms away.

It’s like you’re hearing the very, very faint, low hum of the camera’s innards working (of course there are no moving parts….at least I think there are no moving parts. So this is probably some kind of electronic noise or interference).

It’s not terrible, or even noticeable, in street shooting or any similar type of noisy environment, But if you were shooting a video interview in a quiet room (one of my test situations), I’d double cover it with a digital audio recorder like the Olympus LS-10 as well. I cleaned up my interview test clips simply by running them through Soundsoap 2. And that’s another way to go.

Since I am not an audio or video expert (then why, you might be asking yourself, am I reading this!), I expect that when this camera hits the streets and gets into the hands of video documentarians, they will come up with a better fix that might involve the use of a different mic, or a pre-amp setup like the Beachtek or something like that. So my findings and fixes are strictly preliminary.

As I said, “impressions,” not “review.” And remember, “totally unqualified.”  It says so, right in my resume on Craigslist!

4. Two card slots, CF and SD—Wow is this nice. You can split them up (i.e. Jpeg on one, Raw the other, stills on one, movies on the other), or use one as backup, or overflow, for the other.

5. Virtual horizon—-Level horizon-impaired people of the world (charter member right here) unite!  The virtual horizon feature, once available only to those high-falutin’ FX types, helps you get straight. You no longer have to worry about losing those overpriced hot shoe bubble levels…why, if I had the $30 or so for every one of those I’ve lost and replaced, I’d be Donald Trump!  Very cool feature.

6.  Copyright embedding. –We’ve had “Image Comment” for a while as a place to bury our copyright notice, but this feature puts it where it belongs in the IPTC scheme of things. No more worries if you forget to add a copyright notice in your captions…like that famous oven, with this, you set it, and forget it! Orphan Works Act be damned!

7. You can bracket your Active D lighting. That Active D lighting is the cool “fill” feature that helps your jpegs handle high contrast. There’s a setting now where you can bracket the strength of the effect, and pick the most pleasing version after the fact. This will be useful to JPEG shooters, for sure.

Well, that’s it so far. This camera is going to cause me heartache, because I promised Peggy that I wouldn’t be upgrading any camera gear for the foreseeable future, and then this cupcake walks into my life. (Cue up The Godfather III soundtrack… prepare to channel Pacino, and here goes….)

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

Really, Peggy, it’s Nikon’s fault!

This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. The reaction to the Nikon addiction is almost like the junkie scratching his arm for a fix. If things work out as planned, I’ll be shooting with a loaner D3X very soon. You wanna talk about a thought crossing my mind about selling an internal organ for one of those and not telling my wife. She’s a great woman when it comes to equipment, but there are boundaries which most married men dare not tread!

    1. You know it, David!

  2. Bob,

    Your “impressions” of the new camera are terrific.

    David, there’s a huge market for lightly used kidneys. Google “Kidney Now”

    Bob, I’m a very longtime Canon user, going back to 1968. I remember fondly when we Canonians could sit back and mock Nikon’s digital efforts. But Nikon has done an amazing job of reinvigorating their brand. Starting with the D90 but they really hit their stride with the D3/D700/D300 – their bodies have been outstanding.

    Now Canon is scrambling to catch up. We’ll see if the 7D lives up to billing. I’m still using my 5D Mark II (and loving them) but now when folks ask “what camera should I get?” I tell them whether it’s Canon or Nikon they can’t go wrong. If they have lots of Canon glass go with Canon. Lots of Nikon glass stay with Nikon. But it really grinds my gears that Canon can’t equal Nikon’s flash wizardry. And Nikon does need to come out with some new primes to take advantage of the D3/D700 sensors. A 28mm f2 or 24mm f2 would be sweet.

    And seriously, google Kidney Now.


    1. Kidneys, eh…I never thought of that. Who needs two, anyway?

  3. Hi Bob! Just catching up on your posts. Sounds like you had a great trip out west. Sorry you posted this one, however. I am fighting the urge to buy any new gear. Have to admit I could really use the virtual horizon feature. For some reason my problem with this seems to be getting progressively worse – is it another one of those pesky age related issues? ugh!

    1. Hi Renee: Welcome back! Bob

  4. Hi Bob,

    Thanks for this fill in on info. Iam considering upgrading my beat and near broken D70s. But am on the…
    *Stay with DX (possibly D300s) and upgrade my lenses
    *Or go the whole hog to FX (D700 or D700x/s) and upgrade my lenses.
    You take amazing travel photos and would like to know why do you stick with DX? Is it the fact that the body is lighter? Or something else that Iam missing.

    Your ideas or help on this would be appreciated.


    1. Scott: I stay DX because for travel, I really like the smaller bodies (D90 size) and the smaller lenses. I have a bad back, and it is much more important for me to be able to go 12-14 hours with a bag on my back than it is to have the difference in what the FX image might give me. It’s a compromise, like everything in photography is.

      So, I just ask myself, which is better, the small cameras and lenses that you actually carry, or the big “pro” jobs you leave back in the room because they’re too heavy to lug all day. For me, it’s an no-brainer….and none of my clients care one way or t’other, so I don’t have that excuse either! BK

  5. Bob, I know you normally shoot with a D90 — isn’t the D300 in the “too large” category? When I was looking at them, they just seemed way too bulky for a DX sensor. I wound up with a D90, which I’m very happy with.

    1. Hi Warren: Yes, I still prefer the D90 size. But if I needed the additional capabilities of this body—the video, or whatever, I might take it as a backup. I have four bodies—2 D90s, 2 D300s, and I take whatever pair fits the bill.

      Yesterday, for instance, I shot a local job with an assistant, and we had bigger strobes along (which we didn’t use), so I packed the 300s. Size and weight wasn’t a consideration.

      But the D90s are what I’m taking with me overseas next week. The 300s too, just to play with the video etc.

  6. Interesting article, but I think I’ll stick with my Nikon F6 awhile longer – I don’t feel the need to fix that which isn’t broken.

    1. Robert: That’s great. It’s nice to be in that position! BK

  7. Hello Bob,

    Tanks for a great D300s impressions article. I think you’re spot on and being very informative whereas most of the “reviews” of the D300s as of today are all missing the fact that the D300s video quality smokes the D90 and puts D-movie into a whole different league (except the jello-effect that some users complain loudly about, I don’t have a problem with it) it’s a fantastic reportage hybrid cam attached to a Rode SVM mike and a 70-200 VR for example.

    It was very interesting to find that you’ve experienced the same hissing, kind of fluttering noise in the mic amplifier that I have just verbosely reported to the Nikon Pro support team here in Sweden, and it’s now escalated to Nikon UK as far as I heard. I provided them with abundant sample material and enough troubleshooting facts to actually solve the problem electronically. 🙂 I am an electronics engineer and tend to get involved in troubleshooting things to molecules once they bother me. 😉 I did find out that the “flutter” that I hereby call the issue, is evident only when there is an external microphone attached. The actual source of the fluttering noise is the internal ground terminal to the mic input that seems to be missing a filter component of some kind, either it has been left out or went missing in the construction phase. The annoying thing is that the microphone needs to be attached to the ground wire in order to transmit the audio to the input wire. But if you leave the input pin unconnected, but with a 3,5mm plug in the hole, the noise is gone! The noise comes from the ground pin/wire. There is most likely a component close to the 3,5mm jack that transmit the noise onto the ground signal. I am eagerly awaiting Nikon’s response to the issue. I suppose there might be a possible solution in a future firmware upgrade is the noise could be filtered out on a DPS level…

    Lastly Bob, did you ever notice the SD card indicating as “full” with a blinking SD icon on the top LCD after shooting video and using the LiveView several times in a row? It has occured several times for me and it’s rather annoying, needs an immediate firmware update from Nikon, or it’s just my D300s acting up… I also have noticed a very slight vertical banding issue on the sensor when shooting low-light HD-footage on the highest ISO gain… it shows mostly on smooth backgrounds like mid greys in real dark situations. It’s nearly invisible on ISO6400 stills but if you know it’s there, you’ll see it lurking… I’ve reported all this to Nikon, of course.

    Keep up the good work!
    Martin Wallgren

    1. Martin: Thanks for the report on the audio issues…I hope they work it out. Very nice startrails on your site, by the way. I haven’t had the SD card issue, nor have I noticed the banding, but I haven’t shot any movies at very high ISOs. Keep us posted! thanks, Bob

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