Nikon D300s: a videographer’s review

Posted: September 15, 2009 in News Videography, Nikon, Photography
Tags: , , ,
Pictures or video? Why not both!

Pictures or video? Why not both!

CORRECTION: I write that the D300s offers zero manual control over exposure in video mode, which is incorrect. It just took me a while to figure out the somewhat complex series of adjustments needed to control exposure. Please refer to my updated post: Nikon D300s: Advanced shooting techniques – Iris control

There are plenty of great reviews of the new Nikon D300s. But, as a news videographer I found them lacking in the juicy details I needed to fully assess the D300s’ potential as a tool for the quintessential backpack journalist.

So, here’s a run down of my experiences with camera from the videographer’s perspective.

I’ve been shooting with the D300 for over a year now and love that camera, but when the “s” came out this month, I just couldn’t wait to upgrade. As a news photographer-slash-videographer (…reminds me of the “actor-slash-model” moment in Zoolander), I just knew the combination of HD video and high quality DSLR was a match made in photojournalism heaven. But, I wondered if the camera could truly perform well as a more traditional HD “prosumer” video camera.

It does.

…with a few footnotes.

My first week with the camera I shot a photo/audio slideshow story about a 9-11 prayer vigil some local churches were hosting and a video news story about the Minnesota Zoo conducting an animal escape drill with local law enforcement. The slideshow was pretty standard, great photos as I had come to expect with the D300, but the addition of audio (when the camera was in video mode) helped me put a little pep in my photo slideshow. Watch it here.

Audio is key to video

The D300s offers limited control over mic sensativity. Settings 1, 2, or 3. I found setting 1 worked well when using an external wireless mic.

Audio control

It was the video news story about the Zoo escape drill that helped me put the D300s to a proper test. I was able to easily hook up a wireless microphone and hand hold the camera the whole time (though I could have used a tripod I wanted to see what handheld would be like with this camera). My interviews went well, nice color, focus, clarity and no problems with audio. The D300s does allow some adjustment in terms of audio. You can select a mic sensativity setting of 1, 2 or 3, with 3 being the most sensative. I used the “1″ setting with my subject wearing the wireless mic in the middle of his chest and got very clear audio. There is also a “automatic” and “off” setting for the microphone. The internal mic provided decent sound, but does pick up any camera noise. The internal mic is also mono while the wireless mic was stereo.

Exposure

The D300s offers zero manual control over exposure in video mode. It auto adjusts white balance and exposure according the light conditions while recording so you’ll always get fairly accurate exposure and a crisp balanced video, but you won’t necessarily have full control over how you see it. In tripod mode using aperture priority or manual you can control depth of field with a selectable aperture of up to f/16. In Handheld mode, the D300s can automatically adjust the aperture setting to match changes in the brightness of your scene. You can adjust the brightness of the display while recording, but this does not affect the appearance of the video clip, it simply helps you see the display better.

Handheld vs. Tripod

The shoe holds the wireless mic transmitter nicely, but it's a curious sight on a DSLR.

The shoe holds the wireless mic transmitter nicely, but it's a curious sight on a DSLR.

Holding the camera by hand didn’t work out all that badly, though normally I recommend always using a tripod whenever possible. The weight of the camera (with the MB-D10 battery grip attached & wireless mic transmitter) lended well to steadying the video, though it quickly becomes tiresome to hold and should not be handheld for long periods of time.

Video Formats

I also shot the video in the VGA 640 x 424/24 fps mode to test out quality of the D300s’ standard def video. After all, this is most likely the format I’d use for most of my web stories and if this worked well, I knew the HD 1280 x 720/24 fps would be fantastic. Granted, I haven’t made a DVD version of my news video, but the online version looked great at  , as good as anything I shot on the Sony HDR-FX7. Shooting in VGA 640 x 424/24 fps also means a 20 min. limit per file vs. the HD 1280 x 720/24 fps‘s 5 min. limit per file. This camera also offers a QVGA 320 x 216/24 fps format.

Shortcomings

D300s as a video camera shortcomings: Though it does allow autofocus while recording (in tripod mode), you’ll catch the sound of the focus ring every time unless you’re using an external mic. It’s also missing a headphones jack to monitor audio. And, there is no manual control over exposure (iris). These last two are key for any pro videographer. I hope that DSLR manufacturers figure out how to include these two functions in future incarnations of DSLR video cameras.

Advantages

I found the quality and versitility of the Nikon lenses to be a great asset in getting those close-in shots. Though I didn’t focus on getting any extreme close ups, DSLR lenses with a 1.8 or lower f-stop are an amazing asset in shooting extreme close ups that most camcorders lack. Unlike the prosumer HD cameras, the DSLR’s ability to change out lenses, from ultra-wide-angle and fisheye to super-telephoto does allow you to go places and see things from new and unique perspectives. You can also use the D300s picture control adjustment options change the tone and color of video clips, black & white video for example.

It’s also an obvious plus to have a great DSLR AND HD video camera in one package. Many backpack journalists carry around at least three essential pieces of technology: a video camera, DSLR & audio recorder. The D300s performs the functions of each of these admirably. However, it doesn’t need to replace these devices. I plan to use the D300s when I need to consolidate my gear and shoot photos and videos on the run. I’ll still plan out my video story shoots with my Sony HDR-FX7 in mind for the most part.

All things considered, the D300s and Nikon counterparts D5000 and D90 as well as competitor DSLRs in the Canon line up of cameras are, in my opinion, the future of digital photography. Photographers are feeling the move, and many of them leading it, to the photographer/videographer hybrid. DSLR manufacturers are beginning to produce the tool of choice of this new breed of photojournalist.

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Comments
  1. Dawn says:

    Great…now I want one too! As more people become aware of the dual-functionality, parents may drive demand for this type of all-in-one to document special times with their kids while still retaining a quality end result. Too many times I wish I had my video camera with me for a quick vid even though I had my DSLR.

    I look forward to reading more!

  2. Hudson Henry says:

    Thanks so much. I’m taking a new D300s with me to East Africa for two months and your review helped me out a ton in my thinking about how to integrate the new video capability into my toolkit. -hudson

  3. jeffachen says:

    Great to hear that my review has been helpful. Have fun on that Africa trip! Be sure to share your photos/videos with me and my readers!

  4. Bart Ah You says:

    Just received my D300s. After connecting my Sennheizer transmitter/receiver I had to play with the audio settings before getting some really sweet results! FYI, the sensitivity setting on my transmitter/microphone had to be dumbed down to -30dbs. The receive on the camera was zeroed out (AF OUT, level @ +00), and the sensitiviy setting on the D300s was adjusted to 1. Perfect results. No background noise from the camera focusing or handling of the camera. Thanks for the info.-Bart

  5. flavio says:

    Hi
    can you please tell me the brand and model of the micro transmitter/receiver?
    cheers

  6. Hello – Thank you for the great review. Have you discovered a way to listen to the live recording with headphones? I have a D300S and am getting a very high pitched buzz through my headphones (connected to the camera via AV Out). I have spoken to Nikon and they couldn’t give me any direct advice on how to address this – although they indicated that I possibly needed an additional adapter.
    Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
    Cheers
    Neil

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