initial review: 2/24/06
first post: 3/19/06
eBook available: 4/3/06
fixed commander mode: 4/30/06


  Nikon D200 Review

The average man's D2x? The Pro shooter's D2x backup? Or just more megapixels for amateurs?

  Add a comment or send Thom feedback on this article.

Six months ago Nikon seemed stuck in the consumer DSLR marketplace. D100: 6mp. D70: 6mp. D50: 6mp. D70s: 6mp. All cameras used the same basic Sony sensor, and all shared a wide range of features and performance. Indeed, up until late 2005, all four of these bodies were pretty much still available here in the US, but it didn't seem like there was enough distinguishing traits to clearly differentiate between them. A lot of folk picked one of these bodies either solely on price or solely on a specific feature that one had that the others didn't (e.g. D100: MB-D100 vertical grip or mirror lockup; D70s: wired remote; D50: clean, saturated JPEGs right up to ISO 1600).

Meanwhile, Canon had shown more differentiation in their low-end DSLRs, going from 3mp to 6mp to 8mp, and having a pretty clear delineation between the Digital Rebel 350DX and the 20D (now 30D).

As time passed, we saw more and more "is Nikon ever going to get off 6mp" posts on active DSLR forums. And more people switching to Canon simply because they thought that 8 must be better than 6 (it is and it isn't--for most folk 6mp is actually more than they need if they never print beyond 8x10").


The D200 front and back, with the Nikkor 18-200mm lens mounted. And before people start emailing me about what's that bar on the side of the camera, that's a Really Right Stuff L bracket, which I use for mounting my cameras to my tripods.

In November 2005 Nikon answered those posts by announcing the D200. And what an answer it was. On paper it looked like it might be a mini-D2x at a Canon 20D price. The relevant statistics that caught everyone's attention: 10mp for US$1699. Beyond that, 5 fps, a new 11-point AF system, a new vertical grip, wireless support, GPS support, and a host of other more pro-like features made the D200 look like a very big step up over the D100 it replaced in the Nikon DSLR lineup. The question on everyone's mind was "would it perform?"

The first D200 cameras shipped on December 16, 2005, which happened to be the day before I headed off to South America for a three week trip to scout workshop locations in Patagonia. Abandoning my usual conservative nature when it comes to traveling with new cameras, I took a D200 with me as my primary camera (I took a Fujifilm S3 Pro as my only backup). Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, since they weren't available to distract me), not all the other goodies announced with the D200 made it to my offices in time for that trip (I didn't get my MB-D200, R1C1, or 18-200mm lens until after the trip, and the WT-3 still hasn't shown up as I write this initial review).

This review will tackle all the usual things I touch on in my reviews, and benefits from three weeks of having a D200 hanging round my neck almost constantly and thousands of real use images to review for hints of capability.

Is the D200 perfect for you? Maybe, maybe not. As usual, there is much to discuss and, even more than a few previous reviews, this evaluation is not going to be an easy one once we get down to the image quality discussions. You're perhaps already glanced at my quick ratings in the upper right. Well, don't get too excited; this camera has some liabilities, too.

Highly Recommended

features
performance
build
value

What would Nikon have to fix to get perfect marks across the board? Hot pixel tendencies, amp noise, and how high contrast edges get handled (banding), primarily. I'd also like to see the AF performance boosted a bit to earn 5 stars.

The definitive D200 eBook is here!
Click on the cover, below, for more information.



 

The Basics

The D200 is a completely new body design that seems almost a perfect hybrid of the D50/D70 and D2 series. It has the size, pop-up flash, and battery heritage from the D100/D70/D50 progression, but the feature set, button layout, and menus of the D2 series. The D200 body construction is more like that of a D2, including metal framing and gaskets for weather protection, but in your hands it feels much more like the lower-end cameras due to the smaller size and some external construction cues. The one new thing not shared with other current Nikon camera body is the autofocus system, which we'll get to in detail in a bit. Compared to the D100 it replaced, the D200 has gone way upscale. The D200 is better built, better specified, has many more features, and is much more "pro-like" than "consumer." We've got a lot to talk about, so let's get started.

The sensor in the D200 is a CCD made by Sony that appears for the first time in the D200. 10.2 effective megapixels mean 3872 x 2592 pixel images, enough to produce straight-from-camera prints up to about 11x16" without resizing. The base ISO of the CCD is 100, with third-stop increments up through ISO 1600. You can also boost ISO one more stop, up to an effective ISO 3200.

One aspect of the new CCD that is now controversial (more on the controversy in a bit) is that it supports a four-channel analog-to-digital converter (ADC) to get data off the sensor faster, thus allowing the 5 fps frame rate of the D200. By four-channel, I mean that each of the repeated green photosites as well as the red and blue photosites of the Bayer pattern get dedicated off ramps to a separate ADC. Previous Nikon CCDs used single row transfer mechanisms, meaning that a single ADC processed all information.

It's not known if the CCD is unique to Nikon or whether it will appear in other DSLRs (an important question now that Sony has bought Konica/Minolta's DSLR assets and is about to begin selling DSLRs under its own brand name; both Sony and Pentax have "leaked" that they'll have a 10mp DSLR later this year). However, the four-channel trick appears to be a Nikon-designed one, so it may be that the base sensor appears in other DSLR designs, but not with the high-speed transfer ability. As I write this, the D200 is the only camera using this new sensor, though.

Noise in the D200 sensor stems from four design elements: the four-channel transfers, the smaller APS frame size, the smaller overall size of the photosites, and the lack of in-sensor NR electronics. Had we not had the D2x preceding the D200, there probably would have been a lot of pondering about how well noise would be handled by this new sensor. Specifically, the reduced frame size of the Nikon D200 (compared to a full frame camera) leads to a photosite size of about 6 microns. That works out to about 36 square microns available for light collection. Compare that to the D2h's 9.5 micron size, or over 90 square microns available for light collection. Smaller light capture area means fewer light photons are collected; fewer light photons mean that inherent noise properties of the underlying silicon are higher in relationship to the photon count, which means more noise. On the plus side, CCD sensors tend to have less noise than CMOS sensors, all other factors equal.

Nikon chose to address noise in a number of ways. For example, once again data appears to be kept in 16-bit space right up until the final compression to an 8-bit JPEG (or uncompressed TIFF). Second, data is manipulated in the analog space (electrons) prior to amplification and digital conversion. This is most prevalent where individual channels are amplified prior to the ADC to adjust white balance, but I wonder if it applies to higher ISO values, as well. Finally, the internal digitization engine has a noise reduction component in it (well, actually two different components, one for long exposure noise and another for high ISO noise). When we get to the results section of the review, we'll talk about whether or not Nikon was successful, but note that multiple techniques are once again being employed here rather than a single one.

Other sensor-related items have changed, as well. Once again the anti-aliasing filter seems to have been tweaked. It doesn't seem quite as relaxed as the D70 and D2h, but it isn't as aggressive as the D1 series or D100. The D2x and D200 seem to both be smack dab in the Goldilocks spot of antialiasing: not too much, and not too little. However, note that by not being lax in antialiasing, unsharpened D200 images will look decidedly soft. Meanwhile, the infrared and ultraviolet filtration has been increased yet again--the D200 is a terrible IR or UV camera. Each successive Nikon DSLR seems to have more and more IR and UV filtering. If you want to shoot that type of image, you're either going to have to hold onto those old D1's and D100's, or have a newer DSLR modified to remove that filtration.

Outside the sensor, the D200 feature set is also state-of-the-art. With only a few exceptions, essentially it's the D2x feature set. Really. So much so, that here's a fairly complete list of the differences between a D2x and D200:

  D2x D200
Sensor 12.2mp CMOS 10.2mp CCD
Motor Drive 5 fps at 12.2mp, 8 fps at 6.8mp (high speed crop) 5 fps (no high speed crop)
Vertical grip Built in Optional MB-D200, includes additional battery options
Autofocus 11 sensor CAM2000, widely arrayed 11 sensor CAM1100, tightly arrayed
Viewfinder 98% view, viewfinder shutter curtain, uses round screw in accessories 95% view, missing a few visible settings (e.g. WB), no viewfinder curtain, uses rectangular slip-in accessories
Flash None Pop-up flash supports 2-group Commander mode for i-TTL
Other Back setting LCD (ISO, WB), Voice Annotation, Lock button Optional viewfinder grid lines, special wide area AF setting

Shocked? You should be. Yes, this means that the D200 has most of the high-end D2x features:

  • GPS support (requires the optional US$95 MC-35 Connecting Cable).
  • Wireless support (requires optional WT-3).
  • AI and AI-S manual lens support (can be used with the matrix meter after a bit of data input, though only in Aperture-priority and Manual exposure modes).
  • User assignable FUNC button.
  • Multiple exposures, assembled exposures.
  • Multiple shooting banks, multiple custom setting banks.
  • 10-pin and PC Sync connections.
  • Extensive bracketing options (up to 9 frames).
  • Mirror-Up and Mirror prerelease.
  • NEF and JPEG files can be written simultaneously for each image, and you can choose the size and quality of the JPEG file to be written.
  • An interval timer.
  • A CF door interlock (though not as sophisticated).
  • Channel histograms.
  • Recent Settings tab.
  • Gaskets throughout for weather sealing.

Heck, the D200 even adds intelligent battery life tracking ala the D2x (but to a different base battery, the EN-EL3).

Personally, the feature list of the D200 was a shocker. It really does appear that Nikon took virtually everything they could from the pro bodies (D2hs, D2x) and put them into a more consumer oriented package. Heck, Nikon even took one of my suggestions for the D2x ("...really should allow cleaning with a battery if remaining power is greater than XX%") and implemented it with the D200! Given the price tag of the D200, Nikon could have easily left off a handful of the features I've just mentioned and no one would have really complained. That they didn't is testament to Nikon's intent to produce highly competitive products and get back some of the digital mojo that Canon stole with the 1D series.

The US$1699 price tag puts the D200 a bit above the Canon 20D and its recently announced replacement, the 30D, but given the feature set, this price differential is not excessive. Indeed, even at its discounted price these days, the 20D is looking pale feature-wise compared to the D200. Of course, Canon recently announced the 30D, which adds a number of minor tweaks to the 20D to up the ante. But this ain't a penny ante game anymore, folks. Nikon is playing high-stakes poker now. As I write this, the Canon 5D is the closest competitor to the D200 in terms of features and performance, but not in price (which is one explanation why the 5D price is dropping faster than we've seen on any other Canon body to date). The 20D (and I assume 30D at the moment, as I don't see anything in its feature or change list that would impact image quality enough to change my impression) isn't quite the performer the D200 is, though much closer than any of the other under US$2000 DSLRs. Sony (nee Konica/Minolta), Pentax, Fujifilm, Sigma, and Olympus now all have a much higher bar to get over for their next mid-level products.

Handling

We all asked for the F100 equivalent for digital. With few exceptions, we got it. What did most people mean by "F100-equivalent?" Modest size and weight, pro-specifications, no consumer-only bells and whistles (e.g. no Scene exposure modes), and a body build that would stand up to rough and constant use.

First, let me say that this body feels and looks right. Lines are clean, markings are clear, and there's less of an impromptu design feel to it than we had in the D1 series. The hand grip curves are just a little "off" for my hands, but nonetheless comfortable. Some of the right-hand buttons are a longish reach (FUNC and AE-L/AF-L buttons, for example), but still within the realm of acceptable even for small hands. On the plus side, keeping the DOF and FUNC buttons separated as much as they are, you don't accidentally hit the FUNC button while feeling for the DOF button. Likewise, glove users will appreciate the separations. Just note that Nikon still isn't designing for small hands.

Most of my comments about buttons and controls are identical for a D200 as they were for the D2x. That's because many of the controls are the same. For example, shooting method is controlled by a dial under the left top button cluster. You've got S (single), CL (continuous low), CH (continuous high), self timer, and M-UP (mirror up) positions, all with a lock just as on the D2 series. Exposure modes are controlled by the left-hand button behind the shutter release. Most of the buttons and controls are just like on a D2. A few have moved, though. Instead of flash, lock, and BKT on the top button cluster, we get QUAL, WB, and ISO (the D2 series has a second back LCD with a button array that the D200 doesn't have, thus the controls that were there have migrated). The D200 BKT button is where the D2 Playback button is. The metering method dial moves from the side of the prism to the back (around the AE-L/AF-L button ala the N80). You'd think that little bit of button moving would be more confusing than it is when switching back and forth between a D2 model and a D200, but it really isn't. Indeed, there's far less handling difference between a D200 and a D2 than there was between an F5 and an F100 in the film world, so Nikon's made great progress here.

The optional vertical grip, however, is a bit of a different story. The reach for the Autofocus Direction pad feels even greater when holding the camera vertically than it does on the D2 series, even though the distance is about the same. I think that has to do with the notch on the front where your index and middle fingers are going to rest--it's shallower on the D2 bodies than it is on the D200 vertical grip, which reorients your hand position slightly. The vertical grip does have the full array of controls that the D2 series does, though.

The Autofocus Area Mode Selector is going to confuse even more folk on the D200 than it did on the D2 series. That's because some of the selections also add Closest Subject Priority when selected, some don't, and we now have wide area autofocus versus individual area autofocus. Some settings show the active sensor in the display, some don't. The wide area autofocus isn't well described by Nikon, which complicates matters more. And these all interact with Custom Settings, which control the release-priority versus focus-priority choice, and the pattern that's used in Group Dynamic AF. If you were confused by Single Area AF versus Dynamic Area AF, you're going to need to carefully study these new controls--they add a great degree of choice to your autofocus options, but they are not obviously intuitive, even to veteran Nikon users.

The new orientation of the AF sensors is not the same shape as the D2 series. The 11 D200 sensors are in a diamond, the 11 D2 sensors are in a rectangle with two outliers. One problem is obvious while using Single Area AF, for instance. With the D2, I’m used to particular up/down, left/right patterns of moving the AF sensor. Let’s say I’m on the upper left sensor and want to be on the lower middle: press across, down, down on the Direction pad; or down, down, across; or down, across, down. All three work to get me to the new position. With wrap turned on, down always takes me to a new sensor. That navigation feels natural, and now that I’ve used the D2x for most of a year, I’m quite comfortable with it.

With the D200, the diamond pattern gets in the way. Let’s say I want to move from the leftmost AF sensor to the bottom one in the diamond. Down, across (unexpectedly) gets you there in two moves. But why doesn’t down, down work the same way? It’s a subtle thing, and one that’s less likely to bother someone who’s only used a D200. But for D2x users who use a D200 as backup, I think it is a real issue. It certainly frustrated me.

The other problem with the new AF sensor orientation is that the overall diamond layout certainly gets in the way of a photographer like me, who very often puts his subjects considerably off center. Even if you're composing with the one-third rule (which I don't use--I'm often more extreme than that) you're going to find the sensors aren't quite where you want them to be. I find myself resorting to focus-and-reframe much more with the D200 than I do with my D2x.

Overall, I still like all the new autofocus additions, but trying to teach them to others isn't as simple as it used to be. Heck it's not even as simple as teaching the D2 autofocus system, which is difficult. The end result, though, is a camera that pretty much focuses the way you want it to, so slog through Nikon's manual (or get my eBook), test, and use all the settings to refine the focusing to the way you want it to perform.

One handling aspect that D100 users will welcome is that the ISO is now displayed in the viewfinder. What isn't welcome is that there's no indication that you're holding down the ISO button and able to change the value in the viewfinder (e.g., the value doesn't blink or isolate or otherwise tell you that you're in "setting it mode.") The white balance setting is not visible in the viewfinder, which I find to be a lapse from the otherwise pro-oriented controls.

White balance is more flexible and more easily controlled than on the D50, D70, and D100. Custom white balance can be done from a gray card. Kelvin settings can be set directly (though at pre-determined values). White balance settings can be named. White balance settings can be "obtained" from images already on the storage card. A nice step forward overall, almost matching what we have on the D2.

Also like the D2, Custom Settings have been grouped in a meaningful way, getting rid of the old scroll-through-30+-functions method of locating what you want to set. Custom Settings banks can be named, making it easier to remember what's different about Bank B than Bank A.

The new battery ought to be a plus. It's essentially the same battery as the D50, D70, and D100 use (EN-EL3), but with an extra pin. That pin means you no longer have to guess whether the half-full battery indicator means you're about to have a dead battery or you've still got some life left in it. That's because the pin gives the camera access to the cell info inside the battery. It's accurate: I can routinely can run my battery down to <5% before the camera shuts off. But there's a big downside: you can't use older EN-EL3's in the D200, only this new EN-EL3e variant. You can use the EN-EL3e that comes with your D200 in your older body, but that's less useful than vice versa would have been. The EN-EL3e is gray instead of black so that you can easily distinguish them (a thoughtful touch on Nikon's part), but that just means that you'll end up with a box full of black batteries you're not using anymore (yes, you're right to infer the implication I just made: once you start using the D200 you really won't want to go back to your D50, D70, or D100). From a charger standpoint, you can charge either type of battery in either the MH-18 or the MH-18a charger--the extra pin has nothing to do with charging (it's only used to get a reading of cell status).

Most connections to the camera (video, AC in, USB 2.0) all attach via connectors on the left side of the camera. The rubber doors that sit over these connectors seem to stay closed, and provide an adequate weather seal. Moreover, a side location is better than the previous front location if you hold cameras in the traditional manner (left hand under lens, right hand on grip). While we're talking about weather sealing, be sure to take a close look at Nikon's drawing in their D200 brochure and technical sheets. Yes, the D200 has gaskets in many key positions. But it isn't fully gasketed. I expect the gaskets will hold out the minor annoyances of wind-blown grit and light rain from most of the major parts, but the D200 isn't bomb-proof against the elements.

The D200 also sports a left-facing (from the back) PC Sync socket and a front facing 10-pin connector. All of Nikon's 10-pin remotes work with the D200, which is nice, but note that they are much more expensive than the ones for the consumer cameras.

Sensor cleaning is not much different with the D200 than previous DSLRs, though there's plenty of "landing space" for swabs on one side of the imaging area. Nikon disclaims all but blower bulb cleaning. You can get to the sensor area by using a menu-based mirror lockup function if you have a full battery, but be careful about that--the camera comes with a failsafe: if the battery goes below a certain level you'll get an audible warning and the shutter will close shortly thereafter. There's been at least one report of someone not getting that warning. Always use a freshly charged battery, and don't dally in your cleaning.

The new viewfinder is much better than the D50/D70 viewfinders. It's bigger and brighter, uses a better eyecup, yet still supports all the consumer goodies like overlaid grid lines.The downside is that eyeglass wearers are going to have a more difficult time simultaneously seeing both the frame area and the data area underneath. I can, but I also have very thin lenses in my glasses and a thin frame. I suspect that people with large prescription corrections and thick frames won't be able to see everything in the viewfinder at once. One other nice touch on the viewfinder: the diopter adjustment is a small knurled wheel just to the side of the viewfinder--it's easier to adjust the position, keep it, and even see what that position is in than it was with the D50/D70/D100 diopter adjustment.

Multiple exposures and overlay exposures work pretty much as advertised. It's rare that I want to do either in camera, but it's nice to have those functions back in the camera. In particular, doing moon montages is a snap with the overlay function, though you need to have a truly black sky to get a nice look on the moon.

Nits are few. Some folk won't like the compact flash access door at the right side of the camera (yes, Nikon, there's a reason: some of us use rain gear that has back access, but not good side access). The Autofocus Direction Pad seems "loose", and it's very difficult to hit the center-press position on my sample (though less so on two other samples I borrowed for my testing). We're still stuck with that poorly positioned and annoying Autofocus Assist light from the consumer models.

My major handling complaint is the new autofocus system. It's not nearly the step up that the D2 series AF is from the D50/D70/D100 AF. It does add the complexity of the D2 series AF, but it just doesn't "drive" as well. Oh, I'm sure I'll get used to it over time, but it is not a joy to move back and forth between the D2x and D200 when it comes to autofocus. Despite the availability of many of the same custom settings and AF settings, you will end up setting your D200 differently than you do your D2x. And you'll find yourself using different focusing strategies. That's a step backwards I wish we didn't have to take. (Note that I'm not talking about autofocus performance here, just handling issues.)

Readers of my D2x review might have noted the following comment: "As an aside, I do think Nikon should seriously think about making a version of this camera without a few features: drop the vertical grip (ala the F6) and you have a more comfortable camera (smaller and lighter) for long periods of shooting while traveling. I'd be willing to part with a other features to get the price down some more (High speed crop, WT-1/WT-2 support, etc.). In short, a D2x Jr. would be an incredible addition to the lineup, and every pro that's got a D2x would be purchasing one as a backup body. Are you listening Nikon?" The answer to that question was clearly yes.

 

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Birthing Problems

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Nikon's recent quality control problems on new products. With the D70, D2h, D2x, and now the D200 there have been initial quality issues in the first manufacturing run. Some of those took time to discover, others were immediately seen. For example, some initial D70 and D2x bodies had autofocus issues, usually back focus. The D2h and D70 both had parts in their metering system that eventually died, requiring replacement. My initial run D70, like a few others I know of, had a flash that didn't work.

I'll talk about banding issues--the primary problem reported with initial D200 shipments--in the performance section. But my D200 had another quality problem from the get-go: the pop-up flash wouldn't. When I first got the camera, every time I pressed the button to pop up the flash, the flash head would leisurely take its time to raise into position. Within days of use, this could be measured in seconds. By the end of my South American trip, the pop-up didn't pop up at all (I had to manually raise it). Moreover, from the beginning the frame advance dial was balky and appeared to have grit or something under it. It, too, got balkier as I shot. (In defense of Nikon, I was also shooting in the middle of nowhere, where dust and grit could manage to add to the woes the camera already was experiencing.)

There seems to be a pattern emerging. The first shipment of any new Nikon DSLR seems to have an easily observable higher-than-normal problem rate than do subsequent shipments. Given that Nikon had to produce over 40,000 D200's just to fill initial orders (and 70,000 in the case of the D70), I'll cut them some slack. Still, I'd like to see more progress on curing this than I have. Only the D50 and D70s intro seem to have come off without a hitch, and that very well may be because they're both basically a D70 with minor changes in parts. New designs seem to have a real learning curve in manufacturing quality control. Nikon needs to get in front of that problem, not behind it.

Cleaning the Sensor I've posted an article on how to clean sensors.

What to do about Banding
Let's assume for a moment you were one of the unlucky few that got a camera that shows the banding issue (see section in Performance). What should you do?

1. Document it. Make sure that you have clear and obvious banding samples you can include with your camera.
2. Contact Nikon and send your camera in for repair. Make sure to send the samples.
3. Upon receiving the camera back, make sure you test it thoroughly immediately. Shoot high contrast, backlit scenes in mixed lighting. If the camera shows any signs of continued long-banding, again document it, contact Nikon and insist they get the fix right.
4. If for some reason this doesn't do the job, I'd insist on a replacement camera. Non-banding D200's most certainly do exist in the wild. You should have one.

On the other hand, there are things that Nikon should do about this issue, too. You've never known me to pull punches, so here goes:

1. Nikon needs to clarify their explanation of the problem, show users exactly how to detect it, and better document what to do when they encounter it.
2. Nikon needs to identify the serial numbers after which the problem should not appear (i.e. the serial numbers at which the factory should have caught the problem on subsequent shipments).
3. Nikon should pick up the shipping costs both ways on affected cameras.
4. Nikon needs to work harder to make sure that all their tech service personnel worldwide can make this repair/adjustment right the first time. (There is evidence that they're doing this.)
5. Nikon needs to tighten initial manufacturing quality control. There have been too many first-ship problems with their DSLRs. Not that you can ever be perfect, but Nikon is doing slightly less well at this than Canon. Nikon needs to aspire to be better than Canon at all things, including initial shipment quality.

 

Performance

Battery Life
Battery performance is either good or fair, depending upon how you shoot. If you're a JPEG shooter, you'll get pretty good battery performance--I easily got more than 800 shots per charge on all my batteries every time I shot JPEG only. If you shoot NEF or NEF+JPEG, you won't be happy. My range of shots per charge in actual use has ranged from a low of 180 to a high of 450 in the course of shooting over 10,000 such images. My norm seems to be about 300 (the median for the first 3000 NEF+JPEG images in the field was actually 295 if you're interested). Granted, I've got a VR lens mounted a lot of the time, but I suspect so will most D200 users since the 18-200mm seems like such a good match for the body for general shooting. Still, 300 shots per charge means that I have to carry at least one extra EN-EL3e battery with me for a day's worth of shooting. If I were shooting events, I might need many more batteries to get through the day. Good thing they're small and light.

Writing to Card
CompactFlash write performance can be superb. I use the words "can be" because I have encountered a few older and oddball cards that don't achieve the ultra fast write performance the D200 is capable of. While the D200 is slightly slower than my D2x with the same cards, the difference usually isn't enough to talk about, and the D2x is stellar with the fast cards. You certainly can achieve 8MBs per second write speed with the D200 if you choose the correct card and are shooting NEF. Rob Galbraith has tabulated CompactFlash write performance on his site, and my results are again pretty much in line with his. Even with my sluggish 6GB Microdrive, my D200 is still faster than any of my D1's or the D100. If you shoot RAW+JPEG and need the camera to stay responsive as possible, get the fastest card you can--you've got to save a lot of data, and even at the very fast sustained write rates of the D200 that can take measurable time. And if you shoot NEF, make sure whatever card you use is at least 2GB in size--10mp sensors generate a lot of data. A 2GB card shooting NEF will net you about 120 images per card (shooting JPEG L only will get you about double that). One of the joys of digital is not having to stop and change film every 36 images--be careful not slip back to that by using small cards.

Autofocus System
Autofocus performance is very good, but not excellent. The number in the part name (CAM1100 versus CAM2000) indicates the number of overall points that are sampled for focus information, so it should be obvious that the D200 should be better than a D70 but worse than a D2 series camera. Indeed, it is just that, though I'd put the performance more towards the D2 series end than the part number would indicate.

Tracking flying birds, for instance, works about the same on the D200 as it does on my D2x unless the tracking mechanism starts to use the outlying sensors instead the central ones. The D2 series will track motion across a wider range of the frame, and more accurately. But assuming your bird pretty much fills the central area of the frame and you can keep it there, the D200 holds its own against the D2 in bright light.

Like the D50/D70/D100, the D200 works best in low light if you can keep the central AF sensor the active one. The outlying sensors aren't quite as bad as the ones in the earlier cameras, but there is a decided drop-off in performance as you move outwards from center in low light.

The D200's autofocus system is actually very difficult to describe clearly. I've come up with a number of interesting observations and idiosyncrasies that are too elaborate for this review (obviously, they'll be in my eBook). Most of those derive from the fact that the AF sensors in the D200 are just much different than you'd expect from Nikon's description of them. First, there are only seven (not 11), though at least two of these apparently have multiple personalities, which is where the wide versus narrow AF area mechanism comes from. The shape of the sensing areas is also much different than you'd expect from Nikon's descriptions. This is almost certainly going to cause the all-automatic users some grief, as the AF system will do things they aren't expecting. However, once I finally tuned into the subtle differences the underlying AF part makes, I found my own focusing performance improved dramatically.

Overall, I'll stick by my initial statement: very good, but not excellent. The demotion comes primarily due to the fact that AF on the D200 works better the closer to the center of the frame you're trying to focus. This actually may not be a problem for most amateur photographers, as they either center their subjects or focus-and-reframe. But for the more sophisticated user AF performance degrades as you move outward, and compared to the focus-almost-anywhere aspect of the D2 series, is obvious.

Color
Color integrity is very good in Imatest's color checks, with a consistency across the ISO values that is excellent (99% at ISO 100, 96% at ISO 1600, for example). Saturation is a little lower than I expected, always being just a tad under 100% for AdobeRGB images, slightly higher for sRGB images (though it can be much higher if you set Vivid in the camera settings, select Enhanced Saturation, and use the alternate Color Modes). There's not a lot to talk about in terms of color drift. If I had to characterize it, yellow, cyan, and magenta tend to drift inward a bit, but not enough to get excited about. Again, at the ISO extremes, there isn't a big change, something that shows that Nikon's JPEG rendering engine is once again working hard to combat the contrast and color changes you would normally see as you boost the ISO.

White balance is less accurate than I expected, especially in low color temperature lighting and in my "wicked test" of mixed lighting (incandescent, fluorescent, reflected ambient off colored walls, indirect daylight through a window, plus flash). The error on the wicked test seems to be consistently on the low side across all tonal values though (some other cameras I've tested in this lighting had highlights going above the actual Kelvin and shadows going below). The direct Kelvin settings once again didn't exactly match my Minolta Color Meter, but they seem to be consistent to it, so once you've figured out how to set the D200, you'll be okay (hint: I'm setting consistently higher Kelvin than I or my meter sees). Even PRE white balance tended to be low in value, though almost always less than 4 MiREDs off (the "gentlest" color correction filter you can get for color balance would be 9 or 10 MiREDs by comparison).

Overall, color is good in testing. In practice, it's better than good. I've run a lot of difficult-to-get-right colors at the D200, and it handles them well. For example:


Note: some of the colors in these examples on the Web are out-of-gamut. That's because I've converted and reduced the original to sRGB, not because the D200 didn't get it right.

Noise
Let's start with amp noise. You'll see very visible amp noise along virtually all the edge boundaries of the frame on a 15 minute exposure. Indeed, in almost all ways, the D200 amp noise is worse than the D70 amp noise, as it extends to many parts of the frame (the D70’s is mostly in the upper left). And after the excellent amp noise of the D50 I was expecting more from the D200. I didn’t get it. Long exposure noise reduction does reduce the visibility of amp noise considerably, but the D200 won’t be making its way into astrophotography circles, I think.

For general noise once again we have some good news, bad news to report. The good news is this: overall, the D200 is less noisy than you'd expect in almost any testing procedure I throw at it. But there's a caveat: shadow noise is high. At ISO 100, the D2x puts in a better noise performance as it's excellent noise characteristics extend down into the shadow zones. The D200 has noisy shadows by comparison. As RGB values drop under 50,50,50 you'll see a decidedly different noise characteristic than you do above that value.

At high ISO values, the shadow noise problem starts to sneak in at values of 75,75,75, though there's still good news to report here. Even with NR off the D200 manages the higher ISO values somewhat better than the D2x (the charts here are from such a test: basically tested the way I set up my D200 most of the time, also with a higher sharpening level than normal, which would emphasize noise a bit). Of interest at ISO 1600 is that the variance of noise across channels is extremely low, which indicates to me that even if NR is off there's some form of NR running in the JPEG engine. Indeed, when you examine the results for individual ISO values, you can almost see this kicking in at ISO 800. Below that value, the blue channel is consistently producing higher noise levels than the other channels in my wicked test. Above that value and suddenly the blue channel looks just like the other channels.

ISO 100:

Gray zone Y-noise  R-noise G-noise B-noise
1 0.404 0.408 0.425 0.507
2 0.361 0.652 0.376 0.614
3 0.415 0.412 0.412 0.79
4 0.592 0.629 0.618 0.827
5 0.706 0.838 0.718 0.939
6 1.444 1.587 1.448 1.627

ISO 1600:

Gray zone Y-noise R-noise G-noise B-noise
1 0.697 0.707 0.699 0.7
2 0.764 0.764  0.764 0.777
3 0.981 0.996 1.032 0.976
4 1.69 1.707 1.716 1.77
5 2.158 2.195 2.168 2.216
6 2.989 3.046 2.983 3.047

As you crank up the ISO, the noise levels do go up and noise becomes visible. Like the D1x and D2x, I'd say that the line between "ignore" and "pay attention to" is somewhere between 400 and 800. I'm very comfortable with ISO 100 to 400 without making any changes to my shooting, without overly worrying about small exposure or white balance misses, without considering the level of in-camera sharpening, and so on. By ISO 800 I would be thinking about small adjustments to camera settings if I was shooting JPEG. Like the D2x, there's a low amount of chroma noise when noise does rear up. Unlike the D2x, the D200's noise pattern looks less random and less film like.

Once again I decided to run some worst case images in the basketball arena where I play, which has horrid light conditions. As with my D2x, this is a worst case image: ISO 3200, underexposed a bit (the light is dim and terrible and trying to keep any sort of reasonable shutter speed is impossible), Auto White Balance, no in camera NR turned on.

Frankly, not as bad as the D2x, which I found passable though not particularly great. There's a bit of chroma noise here, but not enough to worry about, especially considering we're at ISO 3200. Here's the same image with Neat Image noise reduction applied:

Remember, you're looking at images that have some JPEG compression added to them (to conserve bandwidth on my Web site). Both originals are a teeny bit better looking than what you see here, but not enough to get excited about. For those of you who want technical details: we're at 120mm and f/5.3 with the 18-200mm Nikkor, and I'm standing off the side of the court. You're looking at a 100% view of a 665 x 690 pixel crop from just a little off center of the frame. The brightest pixel values here are at about 179, which indicates significant underexposure. I have not corrected the exposure or modified the images in any way other than cropping, adding noise reduction to the second one, and then using a slightly higher JPEG compression for the Web.

If noise is going to pop up in big and nasty ways, it should have here. NEF is a different matter on the D200 than it was on the D2x. On the D2x noise gets a bit out of hand with NEF images at the extreme ISO values (e.g. 1600). Not many raw converters can do as good a job as the internal JPEG engine on the D2x, even with post processing noise reduction added (you may get the noise out, but at severe loss of detail). The D200 is much more friendly in this respect.

One area where the D200 isn't friendlier: hot pixel noise. I see more tendency to produce hot pixels on the D200 than on any other Nikon DSLR since the D1x. Turning on Long Exp. NR takes care of the problem, but that comes at the expense of buffer space and potentially slows down your shooting.

Resolution
Which brings us to resolution. You just looked at what would be about a 2" square section printed at 300 dpi (I don't know about your monitor, but it's about 7" square on my big screen). That's less than 1/24th the total pixels the camera produces. If this image weren't at ISO 3200 you'd might be able to read the print on the ball (assuming the print were turned to us; it isn't on this shot, but it was on some others I took). Remember, I'm standing off-court and I'm not fully zoomed in.

There's a serious amount of resolving power in this camera, though not quite at the D2x level. Still, some folk are actually going to have a difficult time with the D200 because of that. What do I mean by that? You need to watch for mirror vibration, wind vibration, sloppy hand-holding techniques, and be using excellent quality lenses or else you'll find that you don't get "sharp" images.

The D2x ends up at around 180 pixels/mm, while the D200 is in the mid-160's, both of which are higher pixel densities than previous DSLR bodies from any company. Assuming that your lens is good enough to out resolve the sensor, this could come into play in, say, wildlife photography, where you might not be able to get as close to your subject as you'd like. I'd still rather have my D2x for this kind of work than my D200, but the D200 is respectable as a wildlife camera.

Likewise, it's respectable as a landscape camera. Again, even the small number of pixel difference from the D2x makes the D200 second fiddle in my book, but not enough so to justify the difference in price between the two cameras. If you're really looking for every last bit of landscape detail, you probably need to be doing stitching of multiple images or graduate to a MF digital body, though.

I don't know of any way to reliably make a perfect calculation of when the airy diffraction disc begins to rob acuity from edges. But I can usually visually see the break point. On my D200 it seems to be around f/13. Up to f/13 and the D200's acuity appears as you'd expect. Beyond f/13 and you'll likely start saying to yourself that the results don't look like you're getting the full impact of more DOF. And at certain settings, the diffraction, noise reduction, and sharpening all start to make hard edges look soft. So stick to f/13 or wider if you can.

All these things all add up, though. Put a D200 on a light tripod, set a shutter speed of 1/15 without mirror lockup and an aperture of f/22 and though you might think you should get plenty of focus depth, you instead get acuity results much less than you expected. As I said about the D2x: the D200 is more camera than some casual users will be able to handle. Suffice it to say that the D200 packs plenty of pixels, the camera acquires and produces them well, and unless noise levels are high enough to be visible, you'll have more than enough detail to work with in your D200 images as long as your shot and work discipline is high.

Banding
And now we come to the final and most contentious issue: banding.

Some of the initial shipment of D200's from Nikon showed obvious signs of striped noise when used at higher ISO values and shooting high contrast scenes. A lot has been written about this by various reviewers. And Nikon has posted an infuriatingly incomplete and vague "FAQ" on its Web sites worldwide. Let's see if I can explain things in layman's terms.

First, the D200 uses a unique method of getting data off the sensor. While Nikon has used four-channel ADCs (Analog-to-digital converters) before, these were with CMOS sensors. CMOS is unique in that each photosite on the sensor is addressed directly and can have additional circuitry at the photosite. That means that photosite-to-photosite data interference is usually well dealt with in CMOS. CCD technology normally uses what's called "row transfer" mechanisms to shift the data off the chip for reading. That means that data travels past other photosites on common paths to get to the edge of the chip. The D200 is the first CCD I know of that handles multi-channel row transfers, and it does so in an interesting way. Of most interest is that the repeated green photosites are shifted out to the edge through different lines and into different circuitry. Green photosites are integral to the integrity of the imaging quality of a Bayer-pattern camera, as they provide the primary luminance data for every pixel.

But what happens if the two green channel ADCs are slightly off from one another in linearity or response? Well, you'd get every other luminance data point being slightly off from one another. (That's not exactly what's happening in banding D200's, but the example is illustrative of the integration problem when using two different circuits to get one common set of data.)

We still have a ways to go. Why a "band" instead of a "diamond" pattern of noise if the two channels are slightly off? (Remember, the green photosites are arrayed in essentially a diamond pattern, with blue and red photosites at the pitcher's mounds.) Well, I think it has partially to do with blooming (over saturation of a single photosite) and partially with the row transfer mechanism. Since data is being driven across the sensor in rows, the effect of any electron spill is going to show up as a unidirectional noise component if there's any spillage. And the effect of any mismatch in ADC is also going to show up as a unidirectional noise component. The former tends to show up as small comb-like spikes at high contrast edges; the latter tends to show up as faint lines in all shadow areas. And the two clearly interact.


Here's a sample of banding supplied to me by Seb Rogers, and is used with permission. Look at the high contrast edge between the light and the shade around the light in this 100% view. You should see clear stripes going from the bright portion through the shade, and you can see a bit of blooming impact where the bulb intersects the shade edge. But there's banding elsewhere, too. On the arm that holds the lamp (upper right corner), you can see vertical noise stripes where there shouldn't be detail, and a really close examination shows the same pattern pretty much throughout the image, though it's masked a bit by the brighter values. Such banding can often be reduced to nearly invisible in prints by rotating the image 90 degrees and running the De-Interlace filter in Photoshop, at a slight loss of acutance and detail.

So is the D200 design flawed? No; D200's showing the problem may have had parts out of spec or were calibrated incorrectly. Did Nikon have some way of dealing with this? Yes; there appear to be calibration capabilities in the ADC mechanism. But apparently Nikon wasn't expecting cameras coming out of the end of assembly to exhibit any problems. I suspect that's because they did initial QC on the ADC parts and thought they were correctly matched and set their factory build adjustments accordingly. It does not appear that Nikon initially did a final QC on all finished cameras to check the channel balances (they apparently do now). So some number of the initial D200 production run managed to get into user's hands with clear channel imbalances. From what I can tell, all of those affected bodies can be repaired to the new factory spec, either through adjustment and/or adjustment and parts replacement. (For those following along with scorecards, that's Bjorn Rosslett's Type II and Type III banding and Nikon's "long-banding".)

I also suspect a channel issue with the banding reports. While I've described a potential green channel problem, the red and blue channels have another potential issue: they are transferred via the same row transfer mechanism (i.e., adjacent blue and red photosite data travels alternatively down the same path to the chip edge, while adjacent green photosites don't). Essentially, this is a timing issue: the blue and red data gets onto the row transfer mechanism much like cars get onto the freeway via on ramps, and just as tightly packed as a busy freeway. But it's also a spectrum issue. I noticed almost immediately that most of the shots posted exhibiting severe banding were taken in lighting that would produce channel imbalances (usually low Kelvin color temperatures or light sources like fluorescent, where the red or blue channel may be driven to over saturation but the other one isn't). I'm not exactly sure how channel imbalance exacerbates and triggers the visual banding problem, but it clearly seems to. Moreover, this explains how a D200 could appear to be operating just fine and then one day suddenly show banding in shots (the lighting changed to one that triggered the underlying misadjustment to be more visible).

So, if you have an early D200 (delivered in December 2005 or January 2006) you need to do testing in extreme lighting conditions to absolutely determine whether your camera needs adjustment. Whatever the cause, Nikon has procedures in place at their service facilities to fix long-banding. If your camera has it, it needs to go back to Nikon service to be fixed. Depending upon the cause Nikon detects, this may simply mean recalibrating (adjustment) or a parts replacement and recalibrating. Properly done, this repair takes care of the problem.

The controversy continues to live, however, due to Nikon's use of words like "minimize" in their statements about the problem. At some level, virtually every digital camera can be induced to show banding. The classic scenario for that is high ISO use, underexposure, and later post processing to bring the exposure up. It usually takes high ISO use because of the way data is "amplified"--rounding errors can and do occur in the data. The reason we call it banding is because the regular row and column layout of photosites on sensors always forces a visible pattern on noisy data. With film, overlapping and randomly aligned grain kept any single recording flaw from showing up. We now longer have that. So, can you induce a "fixed" D200 to "band"? Yes, though not with normal usage and balanced lighting, and certainly not with the obnoxiously clear visual striping pattern seen in misadjusted cameras. Indeed, I have to underexpose by so much at a high ISO to show anything I'd call banding on my samples that I'd be happy if I got any usable image from the camera. With underexposure, my D200 bands less at high ISO than did my Canon 20D under the same situation. The one difference between the D200 and the 20D is that with severe overexposure of a light source, most D200's can be induced to some form of mild (type I) banding in the mid-range ISO values. The problem is worst at around ISO 400, and goes away at ISO 100 and above ISO 800. It appears most often in unbalanced lighting, and it usually takes at least a three stop overexposure of the light source to trigger. In actual shooting situations, I've yet to encounter any visual banding in my images; I have to set up an artificial situation and really push my exposures where I normally wouldn't in order to trigger any artifacts on both my D200 bodies.

So, overall I consider the banding issue mostly a non-issue. If your D200 is a new one (post manufacturing change) or a fixed one or an originally good one, to see any banding you'll generally need to be doing something wrong, not the camera.

I'd like to say the D200 is perfect when it comes to banding, but it's not. Very few digital cameras are, actually. The D200 is simply unique in that, when it does show banding, it tends to produce it in the opposite situation than previous digital cameras (overexposure as opposed to underexposure). But in terms of overall impact on shooting, I'd say the issue is way overblown (pardon the pun) by most complainers, at least if you have a properly adjusted D200. If you're worried about it, avoid ISO 200 to 800 and try to avoid blowing out point light sources when you do use those ISO values.

Final Comments
Was the wait for the D200 worth it? Absolutely yes. D100 owners especially should be very happy with their upgrade. Better-than-35mm resolution? Check. Better color? Check. Better metering, AF, and white balance? Check. Improved handling? Check. More pro features? Check. Anything broken in the process? No.

But I need to address some other groups.

First, there are the folk that tend to use DSLRs in all-automatic modes and rarely print above 8x10". These people are better served by a D50 or D70s. You may want a better, more elaborate camera, but you don't need it. Indeed, the menu system and extensive feature set of the D200 is going to overwhelm most of those people. For what? Some more resolution? That's not necessary if they're not printing large on a regular basis. If you shoot all-automatic and only JPEG, I'd intensify my statement: buy a D50 instead. The D50 is the closest thing to a DSLR you can set on all-automatic (including Auto ISO) and get decent pictures most of the time, at least in JPEG settings.

Second, we have the D2x wannabees: serious shooters who really want a D2x but either can't afford one or don't want to pay so much extra for what appears to be a few added features. Don't delude yourself into thinking that the D200 is the equivalent to a D2x. It isn't. It may come close in many ways, but if you were to ask me which I prefer to shoot with from an image quality standpoint, my unqualified answer would be the D2x at ISO values up to 400. There's an intangible quality to the D2x images that I'm not able to reproduce with my D200. At ISO 100 the D2x image looks "less digital" and has higher acuity. Then there's the AF system and viewfinder: the D2x wins both those areas hands down, at least if you take the time to master the two AF systems. Battery life also factors in: I shoot for days without changing batteries with my D2x, but hours with my D200. The one shining gem in the D200's pocket: the built-in flash, which works wonderfully for wireless flash control, where you'd need to carry another full flash unit (or an SU-800) with the D2x.

Which brings us to our final group: those that want to use the D200 as backup to a D2x. Despite what I wrote in the last paragraph, the differences aren't so great that the D200 doesn't make a usable backup body for a pro who normally shoots with a D2x. It does. The handling (other than AF) is close enough to ignore. The image quality is close enough that it's not a significant step backwards. The money you save from having to buy another D2x body for backup is enough to buy another good quality lens. The only niggling problem is the battery: you'll need to carry two types of batteries and chargers.

Drawbacks

  • Wide isn't wide. If you do scenic work, as I do, you need DX lenses to restore your wide angle due to the 1.5x angle of view change. We've now got enough pixels that the flaws of wide angle lenses, particularly chromatic aberration, are more apparent. The 12-24mm is a decent mate with the D200, but you'll see that it has a bit of CA you weren't seeing with the 6mp bodies.
  • Noise at higher ISO values. While I'm perfectly happy with the ISO 100 to ISO 800 performance, some will want even better results. High ISO noise is definitely there, though JPEGs are mostly free from chroma noise.
  • Does it or doesn't it band? Clearly, some early samples had clear and persistent problems that can be corrected by Nikon repair facilities. Certainly a nuisance if you got one of the bad bodies.
  • White balance encryption. Despite being dealt with by the mini-SDK, it still is a lurking thorn (see my D2x review for more details).
  • Diffraction. Being diffraction limited at f/13 or so is a bit limiting.
  • Battery lack of life. NEF shooters are going to be disappointed. You'll be lucky if you can reach 500 images shooting NEF+JPEG, especially if you're using a VR lens.

Positives

  • Sufficiently Fast. For a consumer camera, the frame rate, mirror return, shutter lag, and autofocus are fast enough to feel snappy.
  • Flexible and Controllable. New controls, more options, and improved user control all around. Some of the stuff is modest (like the Most Recently Used Settings tab), but it still adds up to making for the most flexible and controllable consumer DSLR yet.
  • Rugged enough. Nicely built. Decently weatherproofed, not much sticking out to get clipped off in abusive handling, controls that are designed for use with gloves, magnesium alloy body with padding in the right places. Worthy of pro aspirations; beyond consumer aspirations.
  • Flash Dance. i-TTL works, and it restores multiple flash ability. Having a built-in flash that can do the Commander mode thing for two remote flash groups and settings is slick, and unequaled in the marketplace.
  • Excellent Image Quality. 10mp is a lot of data, and the D200 gets it pretty right. Acuity is good with sharpening, color is excellent, and noise performance is excellent at low ISO values and acceptable at higher ISO values. With the right settings and discipline, this camera performs near the state-of-the-art.
  • Value. Okay, I'll say it: yes, it's the average person's D2x, at a little over one-third the price. There are reasons to have a D2x, but they just became fewer.

 


 

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