Nikon d300s Impressions from a Canon 7D and 5DM2 shooter.

I’ve rented the Nikon d300s this past week, along with the Nikon 17-55 2.8, the SB-900 flash and the SB-600 flash (to experiment with off-camera lighting). I’ve been considering a switch from Canon to Nikon for a long time. Here is a link to some pics I shot with the Nikon. Below are my impressions:

What I like about Nikon:

• Auto ISO. You can set your ISO range based off a specific shutter speed you select. I wish I had realized this sooner in my rental period (it’s due back tomorrow after having it for a week) to get the most out of it with live shots, but I “discovered” it’s ability just in time to get extensive shots with it yesterday. With Canon’s Auto ISO, well…it just seems to set the ISO on its own volition, based off nothing I really understand. Oh, and if you’re shooting with a flash it automatically sets to 400 with no variation (the Nikon seems to prefer 800, which, while I couldn’t determine if it varied, is still more usefull to how I shoot, in low light situations where I want to bring out details in the background). You cannot adjust max ISO for Auto mode on the Canon, nor can you adjust the minimum shutter speed before Auto ISO kicks in, which is why I initially ignored this feature on the Nikon, assuming it was similar and useless to me; knowing how it works now is a gamechanger.

Update: In other words, you can set the max ISO to be 1600, or 3200, or even as low as 400 or 800, and the Auto ISO will never go above that; while you can set the minimum shutter speed required before the Auto ISO kicks in. Example: You have the camera set to Aperture priority mode, with the Auto ISO turned on and set to a max of 3200 ISO and a minimum shutter speed of 1/125th. The amount of light available tells the camera to shoot at a shutter speed of 1/200th. In this case the ISO stays at whatever base you had it at (probably 200 in most cases). If the next shot tells the camera it needs 1/60th to get the exposure…instead of allowing the shutter speed to do that, it will bump up the ISO from 200 to 400 to compensate, yielding the proper exposure. If the amount of ISO needed for the correct exposure exceeds the max ISO you have set, then it will allow the shutter speed to go below your minimum setting.

UPDATE 2 (Oct 6, 2010): I take it back about Canon’s auto ISO being a mystery. Obviously if you’re shooting manual it’s easy to set the shutter and aperture and to let the camera set the ISO accordingly. I do remember attempting this approach but being unsatisfied with the results, though. Aperture-wise it’s hard to tell whether it priorities the shutter speed or the ISO. I still prefer the Nikon approach.

• Easy to use and highly effective Continuous Shooting mode. Granted, I have to caveat that with an admission of dealing with a serious learning curve to become proficient with it, but again, coming from the Canon side–which I’ve never been able to effectively or satisfyingly use their AF Servo mode–I tended to ignore it initially.

I got a series of 9 shots of this fireblower (the rest can be seen here).
I have never been able to achieve that on the Canon.

• Autofocus was consistent and reliably took in focus shots. Very reliable, especially after my maddening frustrations with the Canon 7D from the moment I bought it.

• Balances foreground and background lighting well. The Canon tends to blow out the background for the sake of exposing the main subject properly, while the Nikon finds a nice middle ground in properly exposing the subject while retaining details in the background.

• Flash exposure is consistent. However, I noticed a tendency to overexpose, especially looking at it on the computer afterward, but I would expect with more time that I’d be able to fine tune it to my liking. Despite that, a great feature on the Nikon flashes are TTL-Balance, which further softens the amount of flash on the subject and balancing the background with the foreground well.

• Nikon’s flagship flash, the SB-900, includes a diffuser and colored gels for ambient lighting. This is huge, especially the included gels. What’s especially awesome about the gels is that you insert them into the included gel holder and snap it in place, and the gel has two tabs with the flash detects. The camera then automatically adjusts the white balance accordingly. This is amazing. My only caveat is that the pics tended to be slightly over-magenta. Again, this may be something that maybe compensated for with a few tweaks in the settings. Yes, it is about $20 more expensive than the Canon 580 EX 2, but when you spend the money on a separate diffuser and gels, then suddenly you’ve just spent more to get the same gear for the Canon. And you still have to manually adjust the color balance on the Canon.

Update: This only works on advanced models like the d700, d3 and d300s. Lower entry-level cameras do not adjust the white balance automatically when the SB-900 is attached with a gel.

• Useful customizable buttons. I think Canon may have one or two customizable buttons–and the later models do have custom options on the control dial that you can turn on at will–but something about them never enticed me to use them often. I think a lot of it has to do with me being a more manual settings shooter who likes to switch maybe just one variable at a time. The main example that got me excited was being able to customize the Function button on the front to open the screen to quickly be able to turn the Auto ISO on and off. (It would have been better to set it to directly be able to turn it off just by pressing the Function button, but as it is, it’s better than having to navigate Nikon’s less-than-great menu system; see my dislikes below.)

What I didn’t like about the Nikon:

• Menu system is clunky and inferior to Canon’s. This kind of ties into the Multi-Selector button as another dislike, especially compared to Canon. Canon’s menu system is more streamlined and its horizontal layout, combined with the joystick (my name for it, Canon calls it a Multi-Selector like Nikon) and rear wheel are two big Canon advantages.

• Nikon’s vaunted ergonomic advantage is overrated. At least compared to the Canon 7D, the best ergonomically designed Canon camera to date. I’m not saying it’s bad, but different. I like the way the 7D feels in hand, but I also really like the way the d300s feels. It’s about equal as far as comfort, although, again, very different feeling. My main problems with the Nikon control layout is with the white balance, image quality and ISO buttons set on the top left control knob. Maybe I’m just not used to it yet, but it’s cumbersome to reach up with my thumb or finger (as well as having to look up from the viewfinder) to make sure I hit the correct button before adjusting. With Canon’s you hit the corresponding button with your right pointer finger and adjust with with the top dial or the  rear wheel, also with your right hand, which is much easier. In this respect the new Nikon d7000 looks to be better designed than the d300s in that its ISO, WB and image quality buttons can be reached with the left thumb next to the LCD screen. I also had a couple of incidents where I’d inadvertantly switch the focus mode from Single Shot to Continous Mode with the left hand while turning the zoom ring on the lens. And another couple of times when I inadvertantly turned off the camera while trying to adjust a setting on the top dial. However, as I got used to the camera this was less of a problem.

• Nikon’s image playback was S-L-O-W. Glacially slow, sometimes. There were several times I’d take a pic and go to look at the image and stand there staring at the hour glass icon for several seconds before the image would finally appear. I often had similar problems navigating the menu, with it hanging for a couple of seconds before responding. Again, issues with navigating the Nikon menu system could be Nikon’s less-than-great Multi-Selector button not reacting to my thumb pressing. The last time I experienced this slow of a playback was on the Canon 10D when I briefly owned one back in 2004.

• High ISO is inferior to Canon 7D. At images up to 1600 the pictures the Nikon d300s produces are great. So are the Canon 7D’s. At 1600 ISO and above, the Canon easily and undeniably separates itself from the Nikon. Despite having a more densly packed sensor (18mp crammed into a slightly smaller sensor than the Nikon’s 12mp), the images are cleaner and more detailed on the 7D. I avoided using 3200 on the Nikon, while I am generally fine using it on the Canon.

• The Nikon “set” I used — the d300s, the 17-55 2.8 and SB-900 — are quite heavier than the comparable Canon set that I own (the 7D, 17-55 2.8 IS and 580 EX2). Furthermore, the Canon lens has image stabilization, while the Nikon lens does not (Nikon calls it vibration reduction, but it’s the same thing). To top that off, the Nikon lens is over $300 more expensive, not to mention the rubber band zoom ring had a tendency to slip off the lens if I wasn’t careful while zooming.

• Nikon’s video abilities and video quality are inferior to Canon’s. Admittedly I only shot a couple of clips with the Nikon, but I could easily tell it’s of poorer quality than the 7D. This was one of the biggest potential dealbreakers for me as I’ve very casually dabbled in video, and the 7D is even better than the full-frame 5DM2 in that regard. If you plan on doing a lot of video, go with Canon or hang on a couple weeks and check out the new Nikon d7000 to see if they’ve improved their video.

Those are some of the major points I’ve noticed. Some things are more important than others. I am close to a final decision as to what I’m going to do (make the switch or not), but I am especially curious to see how the d7000 measures up, despite technically being in a lower class than the d300s and 7D. I am also very curious to try out the full frame d700, though it’s price may be prohibitively expensive for me.

Here is that link again to the aforementioned gallery I shot with the Nikon.

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