Konica Minolta DiMAGE A200 Review
Konica Minolta's A200 is a refinement of the 8-megapixel DiMAGE A2 we reviewed earlier this year. The A200 offers improved shooting performance and a new fully-articulating LCD monitor/viewfinder, but discards the A2's 3-D Predictive Focus, Subject Tracking and EVF articulation. The A200's construction is also different, previous models (A2, A1, D7Hi, etc) have lightweight magnesium bodies, the A200's exterior is polycarbonate with a metal under-chassis. Modern polycarbonate construction is extremely tough and durable so we don't see a problem here but felt it needed to be mentioned. The A200 retains the high-quality Minolta GT 7X optical zoom lens and the effective Anti-Shake feature of its predecessor. The A200 offers operating modes simple enough for beginners to use, yet provides the rich features demanded by the advanced photographer.
The A200's flexible exposure system is very similar to the A2. If you want simplicity, just turn the exposure-mode dial to Auto or one of the several Digital Subject Programs (Portrait, Sports, Sunset or Night Portrait); the A200 becomes a point-n-shoot that will produce pleasing results with no fuss. Care to get creative or photograph challenging situations? The A200 will offer you everything the experienced photographer needs, including exposure modes of Program (with shift), Aperture and Shutter priority and Manual. Is the scene lighting challenging? Exposure compensation settings of +/- 2EV including Flash are available, plus a choice of Multi-segment, Center weighted or spot metering, which can be linked to the A200's Flex Focus Point. White balance can be automatically detected, selected from one of seven presets, or one of two custom settings you can calibrate to the exact lighting conditions. Bracketing is available for both exposure (3 frames at .3 or .5 EV increments) and white balance (2 settings, wide or narrow bracket). You can adjust contrast, color and saturation from the FUNCtion menu, and those changes are visible on the viewfinder before the image is captured. With such versatile controls, making changes to camera settings could become difficult and tedious, but the A200 allows you to save five sets of camera settings that you can later recall, reducing the chore of camera setup and helping you get it right every time.
One of the A200's most impressive features is its zoom lens. It's a joy to move the lens continuously through its range using the mechanical zoom ring rather than the buttons that actuate the motor-driven stepped zooms included with most consumer digicams; it is both faster and more precise. Minolta chose a versatile range of 28-200mm for the 7x GT lens, offering a wide field of view for interiors and landscapes while providing enough telephoto magnification to bring your subjects close. There is a noticeable amount of barrel distortion at full wide angle, becoming a moderate amount of pincushioning as you zoom to telephoto focal lengths. I noticed a slight amount of Chromatic Aberration (purple fringing) at the wide angle end of the zoom range, decreasing towards the telephoto end. The lens produced sharp results throughout its range, with only a slight loss of edge sharpness at full telephoto at its widest aperture.The A200's shooting performance was good except when using Continuous Autofocus. A shot can be captured about 3.5 seconds after powering-on the camera or waking it from its power-saving sleep mode. Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter button and capturing an image, measured a respectable 1/10 second when pre-focused, and 7/10 second including autofocus in Single-AF mode. Autofocus lag increased to a leisurely 1 second in Continuous-AF mode. The LCD viewfinder contributed under 1/10 second to shutter lag. In single shot mode, the A200 could capture one image every 2.2 seconds without flash, or at intervals of between 2.5 and 4.5 seconds with flash, depending on subject distance.
The A200 has three continuous capture modes. Continuous advance captured 5 frames in 2 seconds in single-AF mode, but that rate slowed to 5 images in 4.3 seconds in Continuous-AF mode as the camera re-focused between shots. The LCD viewfinder displays the live image only briefly between shots. While 5 images could be captured in 2 seconds at all quality settings, the rate at which subsequent shots could be captured in Continuous mode varied. Fine mode imposed a 6-second wait before capturing more shots at 2.3 second intervals, Extra fine imposed a 6.3 second wait then captured an image every 2.6 seconds, and RAW mode captured subsequent shots at 8 second intervals following a wait of 20 seconds. RAW & JPEG quality could not be used in any of the A200's Continuous advance modes.
High-speed Continuous advance captured 5 frames in 1.7 seconds in all quality modes, a slight increase over Continuous but at the expense of viewfinder usability - it goes blank for the entire image capture sequence. The waits and intervals of subsequent shot capture in High-speed Continuous was the same as in Continuous advance. UHS Continuous advance captured 40 640x480 images at 1/10 second intervals, the LCD and EVF viewfinders displaying the live image briefly between shots.
With its high-quality 28-200mm zoom and continuous capture capability, the Minolta DiMage A200 would seem to have the ingredients of a sports shooter, but its promise is compromised by the long shutter lag when using Continuous-AF, a momentary freezing of the viewfinders live image during autofocus, and its interrupted or blank viewfinder when using Continuous advance; these shortcomings make it difficult to capture images of a moving subject.
The moderate 28mm (35mm equivalent) wide-angle end of the zoom range provides enough field of view to compose shots in cramped quarters. Its builtin, manually-raised flash covers the field of view with the lens at 28mm well, and produces well-exposed portraits; its red eye reduction mode proved effective. A problem we noted with the A2, warm skin tones using flash and Auto White Balance, appears to have been fixed in the A200.
The autofocus system worked very well, although slowly, in conditions of low ambient light despite the absence of a focus-assist lamp. Overall its autofocus system outperformed the Nikon Coolpix 8800 in dim ambient light, even though the 8800 is equipped with a focus-assist lamp. But in conditions of near darkness, the Nikon 8800's focus-assist lamp gave it the edge. Both the LCD and EVF "gained-up" the viewfinder image in dim lighting, allowing you to compose the shot in such conditions. If you need more range or versatility than the builtin flash provides, you can attach the Minolta Maxxum Program Flash 5600 HS, Program Flash 3600 HS or 2500D to the camera's hot shoe. The A200 controls the motorized zoom head of the flashes with that feature but it does not make use of the AF-assist illuminator. The A200 can also be used with studio strobes via the accessory PCT-100 flash adapter.
The A200's manual focus options are both flexible and effective. The Direct Manual focus function allows you to make adjustments after the AF system has locked focus, while manual focus mode disables the camera's AF system and puts you in charge. Both manual focus modes make use of he A200's Flex Digital Magnifier to enlarge an area of the subject to check critical focus. Manual focus is stepped, not continuous, with focus distances of .5 meter, .7 meter, 1 meter, 2 meters and infinity, steps of 2 cm in telephoto macro mode, and 5cm steps in wide angle macro mode.
The A200's macro mode will allow you to take close-ups of objects as near as 5.1 inches, but Minolta advises that the builtin flash should not be used; in our testing, however, we obtained good macro exposures using the internal flash with the lens at both its telephoto and wide angle settings, but don't forget to remove the lens hood! I particularly liked the ability to macro focus at telephoto focal lengths (167-200mm), allowing a good working distance to the subject; many consumer digicams limit focal length to the wide angle end of the zoom range in macro mode, putting the front of the lens very close to the subject, possibly casting a shadow onto it. The A200's Anti-Shake feature was also effective in macro mode, allowing hand-held macrophotography in lighting conditions that might otherwise require flash or the use of a tripod. Minolta's accessory Macro Flash Controller can be coupled with the Macro Ring Flash 1200 or the Macro Twin Flash 2400 lighting sets to better illuminate your macro photography subjects.
Our outdoor test shots were richly saturated, and virtually noise-free at ISO 50, but tended to be about 1/3 EV overexposed. Image noise was detectable at ISO 100, noticeable at ISO 200, prominent at ISO 400, and objectionable at ISO 800. Extra fine quality produced fewer JPEG artifacts than Fine quality, but at the cost of file size; Extra quality images averaged close to 4-megabytes, while Fine quality averaged about 2-megabytes. The Normal sharpness setting produced images that were a bit softer than the competition, but applying a bit of unsharp mask sharpened them right up. Its better to have original images somewhat on the soft side - you can always sharpen them, but you can't soften an image that's been made overly sharp in the camera. We found the LCD viewfinder extremely usable outdoors, even in the bright Florida sun. The EVF was also quite usable in all outdoor conditions.
The A200's Anti-Shake feature was very effective. Minolta claims AS provides stability at up to three shutter speeds slower than cameras without such a feature, and my experience with this camera is in agreement. Using the Anti Shake feature, you'll be more concerned with subject movement than camera shake. While the SLR world has image-stabilized lenses to overcome camera shake issues, the cost of a single lens in many cases exceeds the cost of the A200 - lens included! If you are in need of a high-quality digicam capable of being hand-held in conditions of low ambient light, the Minolta DiMAGE A200 is a very cost-effective solution. See our Sample Photos for two examples of the effectiveness of the A200's Anti-Shake feature, the boats with holiday lighting.
The A200 has a versatile movie mode, with resolutions of 800x600 at 15fps, and 640x480 or 320x240 at 15 or 30fps. In addition to standard movies, it can record a Night Movie under conditions of low ambient light. The A200's movie mode goes beyond automatic, allowing you to set exposure compensation, white balance, contrast and color-saturation, as well as allowing the use of manual focus and macro focusing. Continuous autofocus is used during recording, and the zoom, of course, can be used.
The A200's ergonomics were good. At 1 pound 4 ounces ready to shoot, it is no lightweight, but it compares favorably to its competitors. Its large grip is comfortable to use for extended periods, and its controls have a professional feel and are well organized with two exceptions:
Bottom line - the DiMAGE A200 is a worthy competitor in the prosumer digicam market. Its excellent image quality, 8-megapixel resolution, flexible exposure system, Anti-Shake feature and manually-operated zoom lens are combined into an attractive and durable package that photographers of all skill levels can use. With a street price of under $800 at the time of this review (December 2004), the A200 is a good value that will also compete with consumer- class dSLR's. If it's features you crave, the family-friendly prosumer digicam like the A200 is your answer; you'll not find a dSLR with the A200's smooth VGA-sized 30fps movies, built-in macro capability, or flexible vari-angle LCD viewfinder. But if you need the versatility of interchangeable lenses, dSLR shooting performance, an optical thru-the-lens viewfinder and superior image quality (especially at high ISO), the dSLR will better meet your needs. With the exception of Minolta's Maxxum 7D, dSLR's implement Anti-Shake (Vibration Reduction or Image Stabilization) in their lenses, and at considerable cost. The A200's Anti-Shake feature is built into a camera that in most cases costs less than an image-stabilized dSLR lens, making it a great value if you shoot a lot of natural light images at low shutter speeds. Please have a look at our Sample Photos to see what the A200 is capable of.
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