Nikon D200 SLR Review
By Movable Type Admin
It has been nearly four years since our review of Nikon's last enthusiast digital Single Lens Reflex camera (dSLR), the D100. Four years is nearly an eternity in this business, and Nikon loyalists have been awaiting the next generation of enthusiast dSLR; those who have been patient have been rewarded with a camera that leapfrogs the D100 in every respect, including resolution, image quality and responsiveness. The D200's 10.2-megapixel images have 2/3 more resolution than its predecessor. That's a lot of resolution by any measure, exceeding its 8-megapixel competition 25%. But the D200 is not only about resolution; it enjoys a host of features that have trickled down from Nikon's professional cameras, blurring the distinction between it and Nikon's more expensive professional dSLR, the D2X. In keeping with it's more professional feature set, Nikon eliminated Scene modes from the D200.
The D200 is no lightweight, weighing in at just over 3 1/2 pounds including battery and the Nikkor 18-200mm f/2.5-5.6G ED AF-S VR lens we used for testing. The body construction if of professional quality, with a magnesium alloy chassis and body cover, and enhanced environmental sealing. The D200 is ergonomically designed; its deep grip was comfortable for my large hand to hold, but may be less comfortable in smaller hands. Its wealth of controls are well-placed on the body, and have a solid, professional feel. The 2.5-inch 232,000 pixel LCD provides a clear view of menu's and image playback, and its 170-degree viewing angle makes it useable from positions other than head-on. The Playback options mimic those found on the consumer cameras with zoomed playback and pan, thumbnail review and several screens of camera and exposure data as well as a histogram display. In capture mode, the top LCD control panel and viewfinder are the only sources of shooting information, the LCD monitor providing no information display.
The D200 is powered by Nikon's EN-EL3e 7.4-volt, 1500mAh Li-ion battery. The camera manages its battery with intelligence, displaying the battery's state of charge, number of images captured (Pic meter) and charge life from within the setup menu. A fully-charged EN-EL3e yielded about 500 images during our testing, including use of the lens Vibration Reduction in normal mode and a lot of LCD use exploring the menu system and reviewing images.
The eye-level viewfinder was a pleasure to use, providing a bright 94% view of the frame and plenty of exposure information, allowing you to keep your eye at the viewfinder while changing most exposure settings. The viewfinder can display grid lines to help with shot composition; they are momentarily illuminated during autofocus.
The D200 is a very responsive performer. You'll notice its performance when you first turn it on, capturing an image only 4/10 second later. Shutter lag, the time delay between depressing the shutter and capturing an image, was imperceptible when pre-focused; the almost absent shutter lag helped in capturing sports at the height of the action. Auto focus shutter lag ranged from 2/10 to 6/10 second, depending on the degree of focus change required of the attached Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 ED AF-S VR lens. In single-shot mode, I was able to capture images at 4/10 second intervals without flash, and between 1 and 3 seconds with flash, depending on subject distance.
The continuous shooting performance of the D200 is impressive. Shooting Large Fine JPEG images with a SanDisk Extreme III 8GB CF memory card, Continuous high speed mode captured 30 images in 5.4 seconds (bettering Nikon's claim of 5fps), and took 30 seconds to clear its buffer. The D200 continues to shoot at a reduced rate once the buffer fills, slowing to about 4/10 second intervals between shots. Shooting uncompressed NEF (RAW) format, the D200 captured 22 images in 4 seconds, with subsequent shots coming at 1.6 second intervals; buffer clearing took 44 seconds. Shooting compressed NEF, 22 images were captured in 4 seconds, with subsequent images coming at 9/10 second intervals; it took only 30 seconds for buffer clearing. The D200 also has a low speed continuous mode, trading off capture rate for depth. At a setting of 4fps, the D200 captured 35 Large Fine JPEG images before slowing with a full buffer; at 3fps capture depth increased to 42 images before slowdown, and at 2fps depth increased to 80 images before slowdown. At 1fps the D200 could capture 100 images, that being the D200's maximum capture depth.
The breadth of the D200's feature set nearly matches that of the professional D2X. ISO sensitivity is variable from 100 to 1600 with a variation between ISO steps of 1/3EV, 1/2EV or 1EV. The H0.3, H0.5, H0.7 and H1.0 settings provide ISO equivalent sensitivities of 1/3, 1/2, 2/3 and 1 EV over ISO 1600 respectively for those times when you're willing to sacrifice image quality to get that special shot. There are a myriad of options for focusing; single or continuous servo AF, single focus area or dynamic or select one of the eleven focus points on the fly, and of course full manual focus as well. Custom Settings are provided to specify Release or Focus priority for both single and continuous AF modes.
The D200 provides a wide range of exposure options, including Manual, Program AE with shift, Shutter speed priority up to 1/8,000 sec, Aperture priority, AE Bracketing, WB bracketing, exposure compensation of +/-5EV in 1/3EV steps, single frame drive mode or continuous at 1 to 5fps. The D200 offers three metering modes: 3D Color Matrix, Center-weighted averaging (with your choice of the weighted area: 6mm, 8mm, 10mm, 13mm or the entire frame) or 3mm Spot. Each of the three metering methods can be individually fine tuned as well. White balance options are also numerous with presets for Auto, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Direct Sunlight, Flash, Cloudy and Shade which all can be fine tuned +/-3, direct selection of color temperature, plus five manual white balance presets you can save and later recall.
The number of permutations and combinations of shooting parameters you can set is mind-boggling. Fortunately, Nikon has provided a Shooting Menu Bank consisting of four independent areas in which you can store and later recall frequently-used settings, banks A through D. The Bank Select menu allows you to assign a meaningful name to each of the four banks, helping you to recall their purpose. The D200 also provides Custom Setting Banks to store 4 unique combinations that can be later recalled, simplifying the management of the camera's 45 Custom Settings.
The D200's flexible exposure system is complemented by an extremely robust auto focus system that rivals the features of professional cameras. It offers a choice of Normal Frame with 11 focus area, or Wide Frame with 7 areas. It can be set for Single or Continuous servo AF and provides plenty of flexibility in the selection of AF area. In Single-area AF, the D200 focuses only on the subject in the selected focus area. Dynamic- area AF focuses on the subject in the selected focus area, but detects subject movement and tracks it as it moves from one focus area to another. Group-dynamic area AF allows you to limit focus tracking to a smaller group of focus areas, while Dynamic-area AF with closest subject priority chooses the focus area containing the closest subject. The D200's predictive focus tracking feature worked quite well, able to produce a high percentage of in-focus images of moving race cars. The D200 provides another AF feature normally reserved for professional cameras, Focus Tracking with Lock-On; it enables the camera to ignore abrupt focus changes for user-specified periods of Short, Normal or Long, maintaining focus on your subject when it is briefly obscured by another object passing through the frame. It was able maintain focus on a moving race car while panning through an area that had intervening objects like poles and other photographers; you'll have to experiment with the Short, Normal and Long parameters to find the most effective setting for your subject and shooting conditions.
Image noise was essentially absent at sensitivity settings lower than ISO 400. Noise begins to appear at ISO 400, but the D200 provides in-camera Noise Reduction that is controlled by the camera's menu system. High ISO NR can be set to Off, providing minimal cleanup at ISO 800 and above; Low, Normal and High settings control the degree of Noise Reduction at settings of ISO 400 and higher. The higher the level of Noise Reduction the greater the loss of fine image detail; the D200's Noise Reduction settings allow the photographer to balance image noise and detail as he/she sees fit.
With High ISO NR Off, image noise becomes detectable in shadow areas at ISO 400, detectable in highlight areas at ISO 800, and noticeable throughout the image at ISO 1600. At H1.0 (one EV over 1600, or 3200), image noise can be objectionable. High ISO NR was effective throughout the sensitivity range, even able to process well-exposed H1.0 shots into useable images, although with a loss of fine detail. Underexposure exacerbates high ISO noise; if don't cheat on your exposures, you'll be happier with its results. Please see our D200 Sample Photos for examples of High ISO NR results on images taken throughout the ISO range. While it's likely that the D200's in-camera noise reduction will meet some photographers needs, I would still prefer to use a 3rd party application such as Neat Image or Noise Ninja; they provide a great deal of user control over the noise removal process and generally better results. I have just processed one of the D200 raw NEF files with the new Bibble 4.7 update which adds Perfectly Clear® One-Click image correction and it also has Noise Ninja built-in, the results were simply stellar!
We were happy to have Nikon's 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR lens to test with the D200. It offers a very versatile focal length range of 27-300mm in 35mm equivalent field of view, moderate wide angle to telephoto. The 18-200 is not a professional lens, and image quality suffers a bit at its operating extremes. It exhibits a bit of vignetting, or light fall-off at the corners at full wide angle and wide open aperture. At full wide angle, it exhibits a moderate amount of barrel distortion, and from 32mm through full telephoto moderate amounts of pin cushioning. The corner softness present at wide open apertures generally disappears at f/8 and smaller, and overall image sharpness suffers at apertures of f/22 and smaller. Chromatic aberrations were well controlled throughout the zoom range, with only a very slight amount of purple fringing evident in very high contrast areas. That said, the 18-200 is a good match for the D200, both in terms of its $750 street price and image quality; within an aperture range of f/8-f/18 is produces very sharp and contrasty images.
JPEG image sharpness at the Normal setting is rather soft. I was happier with the results of the +1 Medium High sharpness setting, but even that frequently required the use of Unsharp Mask in an image editor to produce the degree of sharpness I was looking for. RAW images sharpened up very nicely in Nikon Capture. Sharpening is a process that once done can not be undone; Nikon correctly erred on the side of sharpness being a product of post processing on this enthusiast camera. Be sure to examine the several images of the red brick building in our D200 Sample Photos to compare the results of various sharpness settings and the result of sharpening in Nikon Capture 4. The D200's best results are obtained by post-processing RAW images.
Nikon Capture 4 software is offered as an option for an MSRP of $99. Its use is essential if you want to take full advantage of the D200's raw NEF files; it offers a rich set of image editing functions on its Tool Palettes, including White Balance, Noise Reduction, Curves, Color Balance and Unsharp Mask. As you use these tools, the original data from the NEF file is preserved, and your changes are recorded as processing instructions that you can later modify without degrading the content of the original image file. Images can be transformed into TIFF or JPEG formats, allowing them to be processed by other applications, printed at a lab, or simply shared with your friends and family. Nikon Capture 4 completes the D200's total imaging package, and I don't understand why Nikon did not bundle it with the camera. Note that the D200's raw NEF files can also be processed by Adobe Photoshop CS2's Camera Raw 3.3 update as well as Bibble 4.7.
The D200 has a regular PC flash sync connector so it can be used with any type of studio lights or external flash units. It also has a flash hot shoe to accommodate Nikon Speedlights, and Nikon claims compatibility with its SB-80DX/50DX/28DX products only in non-TTL mode. When paired with a Nikon SB-800 or SB-600 Speedlight, the D200 supports the features of its Creative Lighting System, including i-TTL flash control, Flash Value Lock, Auto FP High-Speed Sync (allowing flash with shutter speeds up to 1/8000 second), Wide-Area AF Assist Illumination, Flash Color Information Communication (providing the camera with the color temperature of the flash for white balance adjustment), and Advanced Wireless Lighting (allowing the built-in flash to be used as a commander unit for remote SB-800, SB-600 and SB-R200 Speedlights). The D200 offers five flash sync modes: Front-Curtain Sync (normal sync), Red-Eye Reduction, Red-Eye Reduction with Slow Sync, Slow Sync and Rear-Curtain Sync.
The D200's built-in flash is adequate for every day use, having a useful range of about 15-feet at ISO 100 at full wide angle on the 18-200mm lens. It doesn't quite illuminate the entire frame at the lens' 18mm focal length, exhibiting a bit of light fall-off at the corners. The lens hood should be removed when using the internal flash to prevent shading the flash output at the bottom of the image.
As with any digital camera, even the professional ones, there are a few gotchas. The most common and annoying problem is keeping the CCD imager clean. It's a problem with all interchangeable lens digital cameras, it's not specific to the D200. No matter how careful you are when changing lenses there's always the chance of dirt or other contaminants getting onto the imager. You know you have this problem when you start seeing little dark spots in your photos, most noticeably in the large areas of blue sky in outdoor scenics. Those of us that use these digital SLRs always keep a can of compressed air handy to "blow" away most of those contaminants but it doesn't always work. Nikon Capture 4 software has a feature that removes the effects of dust on the Image Sensor from NEF (RAW) images by comparing them with a reference image taken by the D200 "Dust Off ref photo" function. But sooner or later the camera has to be sent in to a service center for a thorough cleaning.
With the release of the D200, Nikon have climbed to the top of the enthusiast dSLR market.
With a host of features typically reserved for professional cameras, 10.2-megapixels
of resolution and excellent image quality, Nikon has not only surpassed Canon in
the enthusiast market, they have blurred the distinction with their own professional D2X.
If the D200 were an entry-level dSLR, I'd complain about the softness of its JPEG
images. But this is an enthusiast dSLR, and the need to apply a bit of USM in
post processing is preferable to having an over-sharpened JPEG out of the camera.
High ISO image noise can be an issue, but it is most pronounced when images
are under exposed; proper exposures complemented by Nikons in-camera High ISO NR
feature or post-processing noise reduction result in quite useable images at the highest sensitivity settings.
It has been a long time coming, but patient Nikon loyalists have been rewarded
with a new benchmark enthusiast dSLR; their patience may be tested more while
waiting for their orders to be filled as Nikon struggles to keep up with the
demand for this very fine camera. At an MSRP of $1700 it's not inexpensive, but
the D200's features and image quality justify its price early in the product cycle.
D200 Sample Photos
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