Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/01/25/review_nikon_d200/

Nikon D200 digital SLR body

A long time coming, is it worth the wait?

By Gordon Laing

Posted in Hardware, 25th January 2006 15:04 GMT

Review Nikon's D200 is the successor to the D100 launched way back in the Summer of 2002. Back then the D100 went up against Canon's EOS-D60, a model which Canon has since replaced twice, with a third successor expected to be announced by March. Yes, it's sure been a long time coming, but at least Nikon's pulled out all the stops for its latest digital SLR...

Nikon D200 digital SLR body

The D200 is positioned between the D70s and D2X, targeting the serious amateur through to the professional photographer. It features 10.2-megapixel resolution, superb build quality, a wide array of features and fast handling. Many of the D200's features are actually taken direct from the top-of-the-range D2X.

In this review we'll take an in-depth look at the Nikon D200, which in the UK is available body alone, or bundled with either the Nikkor AF-S DX 18-70mm f3.5~4.5 G IF-ED or the premium Nikkor AF-S DX 17-55mm f2.8 G ED lenses. We performed the bulk of our tests with the 17-55mm f2.8 lens which is an ideal match for this higher-end body. For our studio resolution tests we used the Nikkor 50mm f1.8 lens. The unit tested was running firmware version 1.01.

We believe there will be two distinct groups of photographers considering the D200: serious amateurs who are looking for a step-up from bodies like the D70s, or professionals who either want a backup body for their D2X or perhaps can't justify the cost of Nikon's high-end model. As such in this review we'll compare the D200 against Nikon bodies positioned both above and below it. We'll also compare it against its major rivals from Canon, the EOS-20D and 5D.

Is the D200 merely an upgrade for D100 and D70s owners, or a genuine professional-spec workhorse which can hold its own against the D2X?

It's clear from the first moment you pick up the D200 that you're holding a very serious piece of kit. It feels incredibly solid and a world apart from the plastic bodies of budget digital SLRs and its predecessor, the D100. Like the D2X, the D200's grip features a hooked inner area for your finger tips allowing both comfortable and secure operation. Ergonomically it's a great design. Like most higher-end digital SLRs, the D200 employs a magnesium alloy shell, although in your hand it feels tougher than Canon's EOS-20D and 5D bodies. Indeed, the build quality feels more equivalent to Nikon's top-of-the-range D2X which is impressive for a body costing almost one-third the price.

There are, of course, several key differences between the D200 and D2X, the most obvious being the latter's sheer heft. The D2X measures 15.8 x 15 x 8.6cm and weighs in at 1.07kg excluding its large battery. In contrast, the D200 measures 14.7 x 11.3 x 7.4cm and weighs 830g excluding its smaller battery.

Nikon D200 digital SLR body

While larger in every dimension, the biggest difference is the vertical height, with the D2X's portrait grip and battery housing responsible for an additional 37mm. Indeed, you'll have a fair idea of the size, weight and build quality of the D200 if you picture the D2X with its portrait grip sliced off.

That said, it's important not to discount the finer physical advantages of Nikon's high-end body. Bereft of a popup flash or any poly-carbonate components, the D2X is ultimately a tougher camera which can also claim a higher degree of environmental sealing. If you're a professional who works in very demanding conditions, the D2X will remain a superior choice, but for everyone else, the D200 will prove more than tough enough.

Anyone familiar with Nikon digital SLRs, whether higher or lower-end, will feel immediately at home with the D200. Most settings are adjusted by holding a button and turning either the thumb or finger wheels, but unlike many of its rivals, key controls have buttons dedicated entirely to them - these include the quality, ISO and white balance settings.

Additionally, where many cameras bury other settings within menus or require multiple key presses, Nikon has applied its traditional physical approach of dedicated switches and dials. Like the D2X, the drive modes are quickly and easily selected using a dial on the upper left surface below the quality, ISO and white balance buttons. The focusing and metering modes both have small switches on the back, and all buttons are a decent size, allowing easier operation while wearing gloves. The position and operation of the controls is very intuitive and clearly designed by a team which use cameras in professional environments.

Nikon D200 digital SLR body

As a higher-end body there's no scene presets, just the traditional Program, Manual, Aperture and Shutter Priority modes, which like the D2X are selected by holding the mode button and turning the thumb-wheel. Shutter speeds range from 1/8000 to 30 seconds plus Bulb, while the fastest flash sync speed is 1/250.

The mode and exposure compensation buttons are positioned alongside the main shutter release. Again like the D2X, the shutter release button is surrounded by the power switch which can be twisted clockwise to illuminate the status LCD screen backlight.

The LCD status screen is huge, occupying almost the entire upper right-hand surface of the body. Unlike many status displays which limit themselves to little more than basic exposure information, the D200's is packed with a wide array of shooting details. Alongside the shooting mode, shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation, battery life and shots remaining, you'll find details on the resolution, compression, white balance, flash mode and even focusing point.

Nikon D200 digital SLR body

The latter also indicates the current position of the focusing point, which in three of the four focusing modes can easily be adjusted using the four-way multi selector on the back of the camera. The only details missing are the ISO and metering mode, both of which are always shown in the viewfinder itself. It's great to see all this information at a glance without having to either enter menus or hold down a button.

Unlike the D2X, the D200 features a popup flash, and while many professionals deride their effectiveness, we feel they're a genuinely useful feature to have for basic shots, syncing or fill-in opportunities - certainly it's one of the aspects we missed most on Canon's 5D. Suffice it to say the D200's also equipped with a flash hotshoe for SB-series Speedlights and a standard PC-sync port for studio lighting. By holding down a button near the popup flash you can use the finger wheel to adjust flash compensation, or the thumb wheel to cycle through front curtain, red-eye reduction, slow-synchro (with or without red-eye) and rear curtain options.

In terms of connectivity there's (PictBridge-compatible) USB 2.0, DC-in and video-out ports, although unlike the D2X no facility to record voice clips; you can input text comments to images though. The ten-pin remote terminal on the front supports several optional accessories including the MC-35 GPS adaptor cord which allows latitude, longitude, elevation and UTC (Co-ordinated Universal Time) to be stored in the image header. Many consider this a key advantage Nikon has over Canon digital SLRs.

The adapter is compatible with Garmin and Magellan GPS units which conform to version 2.01 or later of the NMEA0183 protocol; these include the popular Garmin eTrex series. Unlike the D2X though, there's no handy storage for the PC-sync and remote terminal screw caps behind the port doors.

Support for wireless connectivity is becoming a standard option for higher-end digital SLRs, and Nikon's optional WT-3 transmitter allows the D200 to wirelessly transfer images over 802.11b and 802.11g 2.4GHz networks.

Nikon's developed a new Lithium Ion battery pack for the D200 which offers a Fuel Gauge system, delivering real-time feedback on the battery's charge. This remaining percentage, along with the number of shots since the last charge and details on the actual long-term condition of the battery itself can be viewed by choosing Battery Info from the Setup menu.

Nikon D200 digital SLR body

It's a useful feature and reminiscent of Sony's InfoLithium batteries, but unlike Sony's system the precise remaining charge information isn't shown at all times. Nikon could have implemented this either on the status screen or in the viewfinder, or even on the main colour screen with a single button press rather than forcing you to delve into the menus to find it. That said, the information is used to drive a six-segment battery indicator on the status LCD screen, and like the D50 a low-battery warning can also be configured to appear in the viewfinder itself.

Nikon claims the EN-EL3e should be good for 1800 shots per charge, but if you need longer, there's the optional MB-D200 battery grip which can accommodate a pair of EN-EL3e battery packs (or six AAs), along with providing a portrait grip. One final note: the new EN-EL3e battery may look exactly the same as the EN-EL3 and EN-EL3a packs of earlier Nikon digital SLRs, but Nikon warns they are not compatible with the D200.

The D200's optical viewfinder delivers a wealth of shooting information. Details on view include the metering mode, shutter speed, aperture, exposure mode, exposure compensation, number of shots remaining and the ISO sensitivity; the latter is useful to have on view at all times, as most cameras force you to first hold a button down or check a menu.

Following earlier Nikon digital SLRs, a number of items can also be optionally overlaid on the main viewfinder frame itself. In the lower left corner is an indicator for Black and White mode, and like the D50, there's also icons for low battery and card not present; all three can be disabled using a custom function. Also in the custom function menu is an option to overlay a three-by-three grid like the D70 series, which can greatly aid composition; this is a feature we'd like to see on every digital SLR and makes the physical swapping of a focusing screen (as required with higher-end Canons) seem almost prehistoric.

The viewfinder also shows the 11 focusing points of the newly developed Multi-CAM 1000 AF sensor, each of which becomes ringed or lit red when active, depending on the focusing mode. It's also possible to configure the focusing system to a seven-wide area for better tracking of moving subjects. The viewfinder itself is bright and like the D70s offers 95 per cent coverage, compared to 96 per cent of the Canon EOS-5D and the full 100 per cent of the D2X and Canon 1Ds Mark II.

Following a welcome trend for digital SLRs, Nikon's fitted the D200 with a large and bright 2.5in colour monitor, sporting 230,000 pixels for sharp, detailed images. The benefit of extra pixels goes beyond image playback though, as Nikon has redesigned its user interface to feature large, smooth fonts with graduated backgrounds. And before you have any concerns over presentation, it's a very clean and classy design which makes navigating the wide array of menu options and the 45 custom functions much more pleasant. The display itself is also protected by the traditional (and removeable) Nikon plastic cover.

Nikon D200 digital SLR body

During playback, up to five pages of information can be cycled through, any of which can be enabled or disabled using the Display Mode menu. Two pages provide the choice of either a conventional brightness histogram, or separate red, green and blue histograms; unlike a combined histogram, separate RGB graphs can uniquely reveal if only one channel is responsible for clipping, when the others may in fact be fine.

Like other Nikon digital SLRs, image magnification during playback is achieved by first pressing the magnifying button, before holding another and turning the thumb wheel to adjust the size of a marquee. When you let go, the image is magnified and the multi-selector used to pan around. While standard practice on Nikon digital SLRs, we personally feel it's unnecessarily complicated compared to just having simple zoom-in and out buttons like most digital SLRs. Sensor and files

The D200 is equipped with a new 10.2-megapixel CCD sensor which measures 2.4 x 1.6cm and conforms to Nikon's DX format - this means any lenses you attach effectively have their field of view reduced by 1.5 times, so the 17-55mm f2.8 lens we used for most of our tests effectively performed like a 25.5-82.5mm lens on a 35mm body.

The maximum image size measures 3872 x 2592 pixels, which is a big step up from the 3008 x 2000 pixels of the D100, D50 and D70 series. If you're reproducing at 300dpi, this allows the D200 images to be printed around 3.5in larger on their diagonal. The difference between the D200 and D2X is much closer though, with the D2X images only allowing an extra 1.5in diagonally beyond the D200 at 300dpi. This is roughly equivalent to the step-up from the D200 to Canon's 5D.

Images can be recorded at three different resolutions, each with the choice of three different JPEG compression levels: best quality JPEGs typically measure between 3 and 6MB, with most working out around 4.5-5MB each. Images can also be recorded in Nikon's NEF RAW format, either with or without compression, although the former does introduce minor losses. RAW files can be recorded with or without an accompanying JPEG at any quality setting.

The D200's supplied with Picture Project software which can process NEF files, although to make the most of them you'll need additional software such as Nikon Capture 4. Along with RAW processing and remote control of the camera over a USB cable, Nikon Capture 4 supports the D200's dust reduction option where a reference frame is taken and used to automatically remove dust from subsequent images. It's not 100 per cent effective, but any active approach to combating dust is welcomed. A 30-day free trial of Nikon Capture 4 is available to download from Nikon's website.

Nikon D200 digital SLR body

Sensitivity is offered from 100 to 1600 ISO in one-third EV steps with three further extended options known as H0.3, H0.7 and H1.0 - these correspond to sensitivities of 2000, 2500 and 3200 ISO respectively. A custom mode allows you to change the ISO increments to half or one EV steps. Four noise reduction modes are available: the default Normal setting applies reduction automatically at 400 ISO and above, High and Low adjust the degree of reduction, while Off disables it at or below 800 ISO, although minimal noise reduction will still take place at 1600 ISO. There's additionally a long exposure noise reduction option for shutter speeds longer than eight seconds which employs dark frame subtraction.

Along with Auto and manually preset white balances, the D200 offers separate Incandescent, Fluorescent, Direct Sunlight, Flash, Cloudy or Shade options, or the option to manually enter a temperature from 2500 to 10000K.

A selection of Image Optimisation modes offer presets for sharpening, tone, colour, hue and saturation. Modes include Normal, Softer, Vivid, More vivid, Portrait, Black and white, and finally, Custom for your own choices. We used the default Normal preset for our Results and Gallery pages and it produced well-balanced JPEGs out of the camera, although those who wish to apply sharpening to JPEGs afterwards will be better served by a softer option. Colour space can be switched between sRGB and Adobe RGB.

The D200 sports a number of additional built-in features. The Multiple Exposure option allows up to ten exposures to be combined into a single image, while the Image Overlay function lets you create a composite image in-camera from two RAW NEF files - the opacity of each can be adjusted and the result stored as a new file, leaving the originals untouched.

The Interval Timer Shooting option allows you to program the D200 to take shots at preset intervals. You can enter the start time, the interval in hours, minutes or seconds, the number of intervals and the number of shots to be taken at each interval.

The D200's sensor features four-channel output which allows it to share the same image processing engine as the D2X. This allows the D200 to enjoy high speed continuous shooting, and in our tests with a SanDisk Ultra II 1.0GB CF card, it certainly performed very close to Nikon's quoted specification of 5fps.

Nikon D200 digital SLR body

With the D200 drive set to Continuous High and the quality set for Large Fine JPEGs, we managed to shoot a burst of 27 frames in 5.5 seconds before the buffer filled; this equated to a speed of approximately 4.9fps. Letting go of the shutter release at this point then took 32.5 seconds to clear the buffer and finish writing data to the card, although as the buffer was being emptied it was of course possible to fire off shorter bursts. If the shutter release was held beyond the buffer's capacity, the Large Fine JPEG shooting rate reduced to around 1.5fps.

With the D200 quality set to uncompressed RAW mode (without an accompanying JPEG), we shot the same composition and captured a burst of 21 frames in 4.5 seconds before the buffer filled; this equated to a speed of approximately 4.6fps. Letting go of the shutter release at this point then took around one minute to completely empty the buffer, although as before you could fire off shorter high speed bursts during this process. If the shutter release was held beyond the buffer's capacity, the RAW shooting rate reduced to around 1.5fps.

In terms of overall handling, the D200 is a dream: it starts in just 0.15 seconds and responds very quickly to any request or operation. The AF systems snap static or moving subjects into sharp focus, while the excellent 3D-Colour Matrix Metering II rarely requires manual compensation.

To compare real-life performance we shot the same scene with both the Nikon D200 and D2X using the 17-55mm f2.8 lens within moments of each other. The cameras were set to their best quality JPEG settings (Large, Fine and optimised for quality), the metering set to Matrix and the aperture set to f8 using Aperture Priority mode.

Both cameras were also set to their default sharpening and tone options: for the D200, Optimise Image was set to Normal, while the D2X was set to A for Image Sharpening and Tone Compensation.

Nikon D200 digital SLR body

The image above was taken with the Nikon D200 using the 17-55mm at 38mm (equivalent to 57mm); the original JPEG measured 5.37MB. The crops below are taken from a portion on the far right side of the originals and presented here at 100 per cent.

Nikon D200 digital SLR body
Nikon D2X with Nikkor 17-55mm f2.8 G ED - 1/320, f8, 100 ISO

Nikon D200 digital SLR body
Nikon D200 with Nikkor 17-55mm f2.8 G ED - 1/250, f8, 100 ISO

The crops clearly show the D200 applying greater sharpening for this composition with its Optimise Image setting at Normal than the D2X did with its Image Sharpening set to A (Automatic), but even with that taken into consideration, both images recorded very similar levels of detail. The D2X image of course has more pixels, but in real terms there's little difference.

For the complete D200 outdoor, resolution and noise-level results, visit Camera Labs here

The following images were taken with the Nikon D200 using the Nikkor 17-55mm f2.8 G ED lens. Each image was recorded using the Large Fine JPEG mode, optimised for quality rather than size. The D200 was set to Matrix metering and its Optimise Image parameter set to the default Normal for sharpening, tone, colour, saturation and hue.

Nikon D200 digital SLR body

Nikon D200 digital SLR body

For the full set of D200 sample images, along with detail crops, visit Camera Labs here

Verdict

There's very little to fault about the Nikon D200. It's very robust, has great ergonomics and a wide array of features, while handling superbly and delivering excellent image quality. In use it performed very well and we struggled to find any downsides to list at the end of the verdict - indeed we felt almost churlish criticising Nikon for the way it zooms-in on images during playback, although it has to be said, simple zoom in and out buttons really are much more intuitive.

The D200 really is a world apart from its predecessor the D100 and is measurably superior to Canon's EOS-20D. Of course to be fair, the 20D is now showing it's age, and following Canon's track record we'd be very surprised if a successor isn't announced for the PMA show at the end of February.

The more recent Canon 5D is a tougher rival though, boasting higher resolution, lower noise levels at high sensitivities and of course the expensive full frame sensor. In the D200's favour, it's cheaper, handles quicker, has greater features and feels more robust too. Ultimately though, we believe the 5D is a unique proposition which will be bought by people who really want its full frame sensor and can justify the price difference. The D200's true competitor from Canon is surely the yet-to-be announced 20D successor - and without anything other than speculation on that front, we'll have to move on.

So if it's better than the 20D, and the 5D isn't really a direct competitor, what is the D200's closest rival? As far as we're concerned, it's actually the Nikon D2X. From the first moment you pick up the D200, you know you're handling something which can truly be described as a professional camera. The build quality and overall handling are quite simply superb, there's little in terms of extra features or accessories you could ask for, and the results are excellent. So why would you spend almost three times as much on the D2X?

The main advantages of the D2X are its slightly higher resolution, built-in portrait grip and high-speed 8fps cropped shooting mode. Beyond this the differences are more subtle, with the D2X featuring an external white balance sensor, voice note recording, 100 per cent viewfinder coverage, and slightly superior build quality. While these all make it a no-brainer for the most demanding professionals, almost everyone else will quite simply find the D200 represents a much more compelling purchase. Many will also prefer its more discrete, compact dimensions and be happy to swap the external white balance sensor for a popup flash.

Ultimately until the market responds, Nikon has delivered the best mid-range digital SLR yet, boasting professional quality at a highly affordable price point. It'll appeal equally to those wanting a step-up from a budget model as it will to Pros wanting a back-up body. Indeed we wouldn't be at all surprised to find many Professionals using D200 as their primary body, and that's high recommendation for a camera at this price.

Review by
Camera Labs