In this post, I attempt to compare and summarize the pros and cons, and differences between these two digital SLR cameras from Nikon and hopefully, this will help those deciding whether to get the D300S or D90.
For a quick side-by-side comparison of both cameras, see this page on DPReview. You might also want to download and read the Digital SLR Comparison Chart from Nikon (right-click to download the 213 KB Adobe Acrobat PDF document to your hard drive) for a more complete look at the specifications of both cameras.
You won’t be able to see any difference in image quality between the two cameras as they’re differentiated mainly in the areas of performance and features. The D300S is widely considered to be a semi-professional camera, while the D90 addresses the needs of the enthusiast photographer.
Nikon D90 Advantages
Smaller and Lighter
If you plan on doing lots of hiking or traveling where you might want to keep the weight of your photographic equipment to an absolute minimum, then the D90 is the logical choice as it is about 235 g / 8.29 oz / 0.52 lb lighter than the D300S.
Let’s look at some relevant figures.
Nikon D90: 132 x 103 x 77 mm (5.2 x 4.1 x 3 in).
Nikon D300S: 147 x 114 x 74 mm (5.8 x 4.5 x 2.9 in).
Weight (with battery)
Nikon D90: Approx. 703 g (24.8 oz).
Nikon D300S: 938 g (33.1 oz).
It’s pretty obvious how much less bulk the D90 has. West29 has experience with the D90 and the older D300 (which is slightly lighter than the D300S), and remarks:
Up front, I’m going to say that I really noticed the difference between a D300 and a D90 when lugging them around. How you are going to carry and use them may actually be a defining thing. Taking a D90 with a small prime to a restaurant is much less in the subject’s face than a D300. (Or for anyone else come to that which may be a security / privacy / embarrassment factor.) Obviously it depends on the coat but I can get a D90 into an outside pocket where there’s no hope with a D300 — that takes a bag or a strap or a firm hand. Unless you’re a proud possessor of huge hands for which the D90 is too dinky, I say D90 wins.
I recently upgraded from a D80 to the D300s and thought about saving half the cost by going with the D90 but I’m glad I didn’t. The size difference between the 2 cameras is not that noticeable visually — it’s the weight difference that jumps out at you [emphasis mine].
Now the visual difference between your D5000 and either of the other 2 cameras will be a little more obvious but you really shouldn’t be worried about that. I stayed with the D300s because of the improved feature set, durability, and performance
Works with the ML-L3 IR Remote
The D90 has an infrared (IR) sensor on the front. This allows you to remotely trigger the shutter using the cheap Nikon ML-L3 remote.
On the other hand, you’d need a third-party trigger such as the Phottix Plato or Phottix Cleon II, which are radio frequency (RF) shutter release triggers. These offer more advanced operations, but are definitely much bulkier than the ML-L3.
Incidentally, the D90 can also be operated with these RF remote units.
Presets and Scene Modes
The D90 has user-friendly modes such as Portrait, Landscape, Sports, Night Portrait, and Auto and Auto (Flash Off). Turning the dial to any of the scene modes allows for quick setup of camera settings to what Nikon thinks are optimal for a given scene.
Although aimed more at beginners, seasoned photographers would also appreciate the convenience of being able to quickly dial in various default settings when capturing images that are most suitable for post-editing is not paramount.
There are also occasions when you might need to just be able to hand off a camera to another person who might not be deeply experienced in operating an advanced camera. In that case, putting the D90 into Auto would do the trick of ensuring that photos of reasonable quality can be captured without fuss.
These modes are not available on the D300S.
Here’s a quote from Old Salt’s post about the Auto (Green) mode on the D90:
5. There is no green position on dial, in fact there is no dial. This is fine with me, but it sometimes discourages the rest of the family from using it. In fact there is a learning curve going from D90 to D300(s). If you do not mind or like that challenge, like I do, fine! If not be aware of the complexity of a semi-pro body. This also means a high level of flexibility.
No comparison here, the D90 is about $725 cheaper at the time of writing. The money saved can go towards purchasing additional accessories such as the SB-600 or SB-900 external Speedlight flash units, or a cheap but excellent lens such as the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D AF, or spend the amount saved on a nice but pricier lens (Nikon 35mm f/1.8G AF) or two (Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G ED AF-S DX Nikkor, Nikon 85mm f/3.5G AF-S DX ED VR Micro Nikkor, Nikon 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S DX ED VR Nikkor, Tamron AF 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC LD Aspherical IF Macro Zoom, Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S ED VR II Telephoto Zoom Nikkor).
I think you get the idea. salsero96 writes the following in a forum post:
I was in the same boat… My wife and I have been wanting a good DSLR for years now and we didn’t purchase one because of the cost. This year, we were in the position to buy one. I have never had a DSLR before, this would be our first one. I would have liked to have some of the features of the D300s, but i couldn’t justify the price difference considering my non-experience with DSLRs. The D90 has more than enough for me to learn and it has a lot of the features that the D300s has.
We decided to go with the D90 body, We purchased the Nikon 18-200 VR lens and a 50mm 1.8 Nikon lens. We also bought the SB600 Flash and 2 SD cards.
We are more than happy with our purchase… The camera takes great shots.
Nikon D300S Advantages
Dual memory card slots
The ability of the D300S to take in two storage cards (one CF / CompactFlash, and one SD / SDHC) gives additional peace of mind to the professional photographer who would like to have two simultaneous copies of images at the time of the shot.
Some photographers also opt to have still images be written to fast CF cards (such as UDMA CF cards) while video clips get recorded to the secondary SD card.
Page 72 of the D300S Manual has instructions on setting up the camera for using two memory cards:
When two memory cards are inserted in the camera, you can choose one as the primary card using the Primary slot selection item in the shooting menu.
Select CF card slot to designate the card in the CompactFlash card slot as the primary card, SD card slot to choose the SD memory card.
The roles played by the primary and secondary cards can be chosen using the Secondary slot function option in the shooting menu. Choose from Overflow (the secondary card is used only when the primary card is full), Backup (each picture is recorded to both the primary and secondary card), and RAW primary, JPEG secondary (as for Backup, except that the NEF/RAW copies of photos recorded at settings of NEF/RAW + JPEG are recorded only to the primary card and the JPEG copies only to the secondary card).
Page 62 of the manual walks you through the camera menus to select either the CF or SC card slot as the destination for movie files.
Olyflyer has a good summary of the options available to you:
The card slots can be set up to:
- Save NEF on one, JPEG on the other.
- Save still images on one, video on the other.
- One backup for the other, mirroring every file.
- The secondary used as overflow, when the main is filled the secondary will be used.
- Any one of the slots can be main or secondary.
I have mine as 4.
Frames per second (fps)
The D300S is rated at 7 fps (8 fps if you attach the optional MB-D10 grip) compared to 4.5 fps on the D90. If you frequently shoot action or sports photography where high frame rates is paramount, or even want to capture as many frames within the shortest interval of time possible, then the D300S is your camera.
AF Fine Tune for in-camera lens calibration
Got any autofocus lenses that exhibit minor front or back-focusing tendencies? You can make the necessary fine-tuning adjustments for each lens in the D300S to compensate for the error.
More AF options in Live View mode
One thing I liked about the older Nikon D300 (which I owned for nearly a year) was the so-called hand-held mode in Live View. What this does is to let you enjoy blazing-fast, phase-detect autofocus (the positions of the AF markers on the LCD are the same as what you see in the viewfinder) while in Live View, although the camera achieved this by flipping the mirror and causing the LCD to black out momentarily while the AF was working.
This was immensely helpful to me when photographing macros and I had to hold the camera at arms length. Once I had the general composition I wanted in place, I would just press the shutter button all the way down. The camera would flip the mirror up, focus the lens automatically and take the picture. This image of Lynx spider eating its own kind was taken using this technique.
The D300S has the same hand-held AF feature, which is missing in the D90. On the D90, only contrast-detect AF (tripod mode) is available. Tripod mode AF is also available on the D300S, but subjects you to a painfully slow AF process. By the time it completes, the subject may have moved away.
The D300S also lets you autofocus in movie mode (via the sensor-based contrast detect AF), something the D90 doesn’t do.
More autofocus points
The D300S has 51 selectable AF points (15 cross-type centers in the center) in the viewfinder, compared with 11 points (1 cross-type sensor) on the D90.
The additional focus points on the D300S offers added convenience when composing for your subjects. You’ll find yourself having to do much less focus-and-recompose on the D300S than on the D90. One example is when you’re shooting portraits of a person, and want to keep one or more AF sensors on the eyes, while composing such that the eyes are nearer to one of the upper corners of the frame.
Better autofocus performance overall
I have one of the new Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 VC Lenses and in AF-S mode the D90 misses the mark about 20% of the time, I switch to AF-C and it will nail it, so its not necessarily a lens-calibration issue but more of a precision issue. On the D300S the same lens would nail focus in AF-S. Additionally, when I used it, the 51-pt 3-D tracking is amazing.
SUPERHOKIE explains why he upgraded from the D90 to the D300S:
But anyways, the reason to upgrade is for continuous focus tracking. There is no comparison. If you are like me and like to shoot kids who move around, the upgrade is really a no brainer and is well worth the money.
Stronger AF motor
Older, non AF-S Nikon lenses focuses faster on the D300S due to the stronger focus motor.
Shooting movies — video quality and audio-recording options
The D90 was the first Nikon DSLR to incorporate a movie mode, and Nikon has made some improvements to the video capture quality algorithms since then, and implemented those improvements in the D300S.
Bad Dog Max, a D300S owner, writes:
The video from the camera is really nice 720p HD. It’s not a sharp as Canon’s DSLR 1080p video, but it’s film-like and plenty sharp when you need it to be. Sharper than a D90 due to lower compression rates. Sharper on simple subjects than on complex ones due to MJPEG (Motion JPEG) single-frame compression scheme.
Look at DPReview’s section on the Movie Mode of each camera, the D90 and the D300S. The D300S has slight better encoding which yields larger files, approximately 2.3 MB/sec (HD) compared with approximately 1.7 MB/sec (HD) on the D90. The D300S also has a 3.5mm jack lets you plug in an external mic for audio recording in stereo.
A More Rugged Camera
The D300S’ ruggedness is due to greater use of magnesium alloy in the construction of the body, in addition to having more weather-sealing features such as rubber gaskets, O-rings and seals that protect vulnerable entry points from dust and moisture.
The shutter mechanism on the D300S is officially rated to have a duty cycle of 150,000 frames, while shutter life on the D90 is specified at only 100,000 actuations.
Go with the D300S if you will be going on frequent trips into destinations with inclement conditions and require a camera that will last a longer time.
Meters with older, non-CPU, AI lenses
The D300S has an AI lever on the lens mount that lets you perform automatic exposure metering with many fine, older Nikon AI (Auto-Index) lenses.
The D90 does not have this capability.
The D300S offers considerably more convenience to photographers planning to shoot lots of images with older lenses.
Matrix metering exposure is more reliable
I have had both.
The main difference is the matrix metering.
With the D90 it is linked strongly to the focus point, leading to a number of over-exposed images (particularly in bright conditions).
The D300 metering gives a better exposure for the whole scene, not just the subject as is the case with the D90.
True mirror lock-up capability
The D300S has a Mirror up Mode (which is easily accessed by turning the release mode dial to MUP — see page 93 of the D300S manual) that allows you to reduce vibrations caused by mirror-slap by raising the mirror prior to the shot. You can then manually release the shutter at the exact time of your choosing within a 30-second window, after which the camera will automatically take the picture.
This is especially helpful when you’re shooting the D300S with super telephoto lenses while mounted on a tripod and you want to absolutely minimize the impact from the camera’s body vibrations, or if you’re shooting macros with the camera focused and primed for the photo and just waiting for the right moment or for the breeze to stop blowing.
In contrast, the D90 only has an option, accessed via the menus, to delay the shutter release by 1 second after the mirror is raised.
One important point to make is that your photographic interests and goals come first. Deciding which camera to buy comes second as both cameras will give you great performance and should satisfy most of your needs, but you must know what your needs are first. spbStan writes the following on which camera to choose (the D300 is mentioned, but all the principles apply equally to the D300S):
Actually they are pretty similar with equal image quality. Both have metal internal frames but the D300 has an external metal case which is why it is heavier. Neither can be considered flimsy or less likely to survive their date of obsolescence. With so many D90s out there now we surely would have heard of any complaints of not holding up.
If you are interesting in lighter weight as a walking around camera the D90 is better, if you are interested in fast action sports, the D300 might be better because of a little faster frame rate in burst mode. The D300 has a little better weather sealing but it is still not considered sealed against the elements like the D3 is. The D300 has more options in fine tuning the camera, used by more advanced users to compensate for lens characteristics. It can also meter on some old lenses the don’t on the D90
Both are very good cameras and best of class compared to other brands so cost and weight are the two main considerations.
Determine what your main photographic goals are, such as travel, nature, portrait, closeup, candid/street scenes etc and that will determine which is best for you. Either one is going to give great performance.
Soren47 has both cameras, and says it best:
OK…have both the D90 w/18-105 (the Nikon 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S DX VR ED Nikkor) and the D300s w/18-200VRII (the Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S ED VR II Telephoto Zoom Nikkor). As has been mentioned, either can be used in full auto mode or program mode (with a bit more flexibility). The D90 has scene modes on the dial (which I don’t use) and the D300s doesn’t (no dial just a mode change function). They both use the same sensor so IQ and high ISO are about the same. Interfaces are similar but D300s has a few more buttons, more menu options and seems more substantial.
Image quality on both cameras is excellent — you can’t go wrong with either model — just depends on your needs and budget. Look at both in a camera store, select which one feel best to you and go for it.
He adds the following points in another post:
I do have both the D90 and D300s and both are great cameras. IQ [image quality] is almost identical but AF [autofocus] is a bit better on the D300s. VFs [viewfinders] are great. Personally I like the heft of the D300s and the placement of controls. My wife, however, prefers the D90. Never had a problem with either camera.
Either camera would be a great choice — budget is of course a major factor.
Here’s RomeoD’s use case for both cameras:
I couldn’t decide so I bought both. Love em.
Nah, I got the D90 in late 2008 and the D300s just last month. The D300s is has better metering, AF, build, 2 card slots, 1/8000 of a sec shutter, 7 fps.
Even though I now have both, the D90 is still my main and the D300s when I am doing birds and animals in the wild or when the temp is just too cold.
Good luck with your decision!