|Nikon D200 Digital Camera Reviewed|
|by Bjørn Rørslett|
2. Appearance and Handling
The appearance of the D200 draws on a familiar similarity to the earlier "non-pro" Nikon DSLRs, such as the D100 and D70/D70s. However, that similarity is quite deceptive, and under the hood lurks an entirely different machine. Just lift the camera to understand there is more inside than meets the naked eye. Its sturdy magnesium-alloy chassis surely adds heft to the body.
Nikon's D200 offers many of the features of a truly professional calibre camera, but at a fraction of the price. Now, that's a recipe for volume sales if there ever was. So, let's have a deeper look into the qualities of the D200. The journey will be a bit jumbled and have a non-linear progress to it, just like the user when someone explores a new camera and its hidden potential.
Nikon D200: Following the design trend set by D100 and current D70 cameras, but beefier and much more robust in its build and workmanship. This shows the basic configuration without the extra power grip MB-D200, the addition of which makes the camera slightly bigger than the D2X itself!
The finder prism head includes a pop-up flash (this to soothe the keen, new users arriving from the P&S arena - plus it serves as a remote controller for something out of my mental grasp; refer to the flash section later). Personally I'd just put some epoxy glue* into the flash to make it stay put forever, but since the camera wasn't owned by me I had to constrain my actions.
* A lot of people were shocked by this suggestion, so if your needs are different from mine, don't consider this action mandatory
The 10.2 MPix sensor of the D200 is the CCD type 'traditionally' offered by Nikon in their digital cameras (D2X however is CMOS type and the D2H/D2HS is LBCAST). It has the 4-channel read-out just like the D2X. We will probably never know whether the CCD was initially planned for this camera, or simply replaced the CMOS or LBCAST technology at a later stage of camera development. Anyway, CCD it is.
The handling of D200 is nearly as intuitive as with the D2X, since the layouts of each camera share so much in common. Without the added power grip MB-D200, the D200 however lacks the duplicated AF-ON button, extra command wheel, and vertical release, all found on the D2X. This is offset by the camera being smaller and neater, and probably easier to bring along on extensive hikes if size and weight matter. The camera does up to 5 fps, but shooting at this maximum speed isn't mandatory! I presume most pictures will benefit from a slower workflow; however, if you ever need the speed and fast response, it is there for the taking. The shutter and mirror make somewhat less noise than the D2X when the camera is fired. My impression from shooting with tripod-mounted long telephoto lenses is that the initial mirror slap of the D200 is a little less dampened than on the D2X, so it is prudent to engage mirror lockup to ensure sharp images. Still, I managed to get critically sharp images with 400 - 1200 mm lenses, so the D200 isn't bad at all.
The rear view of the D200 exposes its huge LCD display (normally covered by a plastic protective screen).
The layout of the controls is quite similar to that of the D2X. Main differences are the placement of the AE-L/AF-L and AF-ON buttons, the first of which serves a dual purpose as selector of metering modes and has a higher-profile standout, plus the release catch for the CF card. The CF card is inserted from the side, less convenient than the rear door on the D2X.
The dioptre control is located close to the square ocular instead of being on the side of the finder prism like the D1- and D2-class models. This makes it slightly less easy to reach during actual use, but at least it isn't buried behind the rubber eyepiece such as on D70 and the like.
The viewfinder shows lots of information to be processed by the user, but in practice the layout looks very uncluttered and informative. The overview is enhanced not only by increased magnification (0.94x compared to 0.86x of the D2X), but also a slightly reduced eye-point position (19.5 mm on the D200 vs. 19.9 mm on the D2X) so you get a wider view. All digits and numerals in the finder were easy to read, and stray light into the finder is quite well controlled. Having the ISO speed shown in the finder display is a bonus. Unfortunately, the D200 skimps on featuring a built-in ocular blind, and this can incur metering inaccuracy if the camera is run on "A" mode for tripod-mounted work and long exposure durations. There is also another price to be paid for the reduced eye-point and higher magnification, and this is felt by people needing to wear spectacles, since you then have to press a little against the ocular to allow the entire finder to be comfortably seen. Nikon provides magnifying accessories to rectify the situation, but these were not available to me.
While the viewfinder has slightly greater magnification than in the D2X, it will not show a 100% frame (as in the D2X), only 95%. The general impression is of a bright and clear view, vastly improved from the dim peep-holes of D50 and D70. Manual focusing is easy with fast lenses such as the 50/1.2 Nikkor, but very long and slow telephoto lenses pose much more of a challenge. Thus my 1200 mm f/11 Nikkor ED-IF lens was nearly impossible to focus unless you took a long time to accomplish proper focus. The same problem occurs with photomacrographic setups once the magnification rises above 2X. In both cases, a feeling of "tunnel vision" develops. Seems there is a mismatch between the exit pupil of the lens and the mirror, which is reduced in size and may not be able to collect all light projected from the optical system. Most modern cameras are inferior in this respect to any old-timer such as the venerable F2, so that the D200 fails to be up to that level, or even that of the D2X, isn't surprising.
The customary "green dot" of the electronic rangefinder of the D200 lights up when focus is achieved with any lens having f/5.6 or larger aperture. This should occur for all lenses whether or not they possess a CPU in them, but I had some problems observing the dot occurring for some manual-focus lenses, even though they fulfilled the f/5.6 requirement. The dot just flickered without coming to a permanent on or off condition. This occurred irrespective of which AF spot had been selected. A small bug, or rather an indication of how hard hitting perfect focus with high-speed lenses really is?
The upper flight deck of the D200 shows its commitment to emulate the pro-type models such as D2H/Hs and D2X. Gone are all the flower-power symbols of D70 and its ilk, and what remain are just the basic controls. Also note the huge LCD display window; I really wonder how long this is going to last under heavy field use? The panel is protected by metal protrusions on the right hand side of it, but almost nothing to protect on the left. Illumination is switched on by turning the collar around the release beyond the "On" position and provides a comfortable green light unlike the strong blue-green cast on D2X, which however is a bit easier to read.
Focusing with my AFS lenses was very fast and responsive, thanks to the capable AF sensor technology (Multi-CAM1000) of the D200. Focusing tracking performed as it should, according to my brief test shootings (this is not a feature I normally use, though). Of course all the trendy new AFS and VR technologies are supported by the D200. In direct comparison with the D2X, I could detect no significant difference in focusing speed unless the light levels became very low, in which case the more advanced CAM2000 module of the D2X showed off its superiority. I don't own many AF "screwdriver"-type lenses, but the one I tried (AF 50/1.4 D) focused very fast on the D200, again no difference from the D2X.
The 11 AF spots are concentrated too much towards the centre of the viewfinder for my taste. You can combine various AF sensors into groups, too. The area covered by each sensor is clearly delineated and in my experience they are fairly precise as well. The shape of the AF spot varies from horizontal to vertical, with a single crossed sensor in the middle of them all. Since the AF areas are smaller than on D2X, the chance of getting proper focus without the camera latching onto the background (the dreaded "back focusing" issue) is higher provided you place the AF point judiciously over your subject. I had absolutely no focusing issue with the D200, focus was always spot on even with my widest lenses (just for the record, I haven't had focusing issues with my D2X cameras either). You can move AF action away from the shutter release to be performed by pressing the AF-ON button on the rear only; this is my preferred setup for all Nikon DSLRs.
The D200 lacks the external white balancing sensor (the "third eye") of the other D2-class cameras, and automatic W/B is done in software in camera. This solution is less accurate than using an external sensor, but overall the Auto W/B was pretty good despite this limitation for outdoor subjects. I was not equally impressed with the auto W/B or dedicated Incandescent W/B under incandescent lights, even when using AF or AFS lenses. As this kind of light is very deficient in blue, there are obvious limits to what can be achieved in terms of proper white-balancing anyway. The end user should be aware of that fact, although many aren't. If optimal results are sought, it can pay to experiment with adding light-compensation (blue in this case) filters to the lens. However, this solution easily costs you several stops of speed.
The LCD monitor on the rear is huge and brighter than the already nice screen found on the D2X, and the readability has been remarkably improved. The menu system itself provides navigation through a combined pressure on the multi-selector pad to the rear with manipulating various command dials and buttons on the camera. Navigating through all the menu options takes some time, mainly because there are so many selections available. I guess the new user coming into the age of DSLRs from a P&S camera will be bewildered by all the choices available. Reading the Manual concurrently with trying out the various alternatives is the way to go. However, it does take considerable time to get a real handle on all the options. I ran my sample D200 at the standard settings I deploy for my D2X bodies, so shot almost exclusive with Auto white balance, uncompressed NEFs, Adobe RGB (1998), Mode II, Exposure Fine-tune set to -1/6 EV, and Image Contrast Low. As the case is with D2X, some basic pre-processing and NR take place in the camera when you shoot high-ISO images. Compressed NEFs are written very fast to the card, if you are in need for some extra storage space.
A very nice touch is the display of "Recent Settings". When this menu is opened, you have direct access to the navigating history and this obviates much browsing though the menus. The hood covering the LCD is very clear and transparent and stays reasonably well (but not perfectly) in place. It will, like the D2X's, scratch easily, and I wonder how long its transparency is going to last. My D2X hood isn't very clear after nearly 1 year of heavy use, but at least I haven't lost it yet. Being a left-handed person, I often lift my cameras using my left hand, and this was much easier with the old D1-series than with the D200 and D2X. This is because the LCD now is moved into a central position and offers less grip than before. Oh well, I guess I can live such small inconveniences down.
A distinct advantage of the LCD screen is the ability to zoom into the image, up to 30X magnification, just like the D2X. This facility is by the way also available on D2H with the latest firmware update. However, on that camera the magnification is too high for the limited resolution available, not so on the D200 and the D2X where you in near real-time can decide whether or not you have got the sharpness right on target. A nice and useful feature indeed. It gets even nicer when you program the multiple-control pad on the rear to give instant 100% zoom of the image - a pixel-peeper's dream come true.
The D200 has Multiple Exposure and Overlays available, just as with the D2X. While I have used Overlay mode, I'm a staunch supporter of the Multiple Exposure Feature. A very useful feature in my opinion, although it takes some time to master properly. I followed the same set up as with my D2X cameras and used Auto-Gain setting Off for the multiple exposures.
There is improved weather sealing on all access points, although the one around the battery chamber door seems a little weaker. However, I have used the camera literally immersed in snow without any battery issue, so the door sealing does do its job well enough. Again I think the photographers are more sissies than most modern cameras when it comes to enduring rough weather.
Data transfer is over a USB2.0 port, safely but - in my opinion - not conveniently placed on the camera's left hand side. You can also remotely control the camera over the USB link. Nikon officials stated that the decision to replace Firewire connectivity with USB had been based upon the wider occurrence of USB-enabled computers and laptops. USB is deemed hot, Firewire is not. On an old PC/Mac, the connection falls back to USB1.x to ensure full backwards compatibility. I prefer FireWire to USB of any kind, but realise my voice isn't heard here. And I can still transfer images using my CF-cards of course. Since the D200 is FAT32-aware, I believe there is no practical upper limit to the size of the cards you can deploy with it.
Adjacent to the USB port we find the ports for connection of AC mains and video, just as on the D2X and D2H/Hs. Again they are inconveniently positioned compared to the D1-models. The relocation of the ports means I have to redesign my "L" bracket for the D2-series, and I won't be able to get equally solid support when the camera is mounted for taking vertical shots. Rats. The PC flash outlet, which was lacking on the D70, returns to a position near the left shoulder of the camera, very awkward in my opinion, I'd rather see it placed in front of the body. However, the 10-pin connector for remote control and data input is still found in front, at its usual position. Nikon provides a rebadged AC mains adapter named EH-6E for the D200, while at least my manual claims EH-6 is the one which is to be used. Since I've run D200 for days on end off the older EH-6, I can assure this solution works and there is no need to purchase yet another gadget if you already have the EH-6. With the EH-6, or most probably EH-6E as well, you can run any D2-class camera (including D200) from the mains. Nifty.
Gadgetry is of course taken to the next level, with the D200 supporting wireless image transmission with the WT-3 WLAN unit (sold separately, not available at the time of the review), but thankfully this feature is an add-on and not incorporated in the body itself. I cannot see myself using FTP data transfer to my car if I ever venture more than 100 meters away from it, but realise a lot of sport photographers covering big events could fall head over heels in love with this gadget. Oh well, once the feature is available, somebody is certain to come up with a novel and exciting use of it.
Support for GPS, a very nice feature of the D1X and the D1H, regrettably removed from D2H to once again become available for the D2X, is present on the D200. This is a surprising and to some users (me, for example) highly welcome feature. The specification states that the D200 communicates over a standard NMEA protocol and it uses the same interface cable (MC-35) as the D2X for GPS connectivity. I find the MC-35 a huge improvement over the tiny and inconveniently located serial port on the D1-class cameras. The MC-35 also provides its own 10-pin cable port to make up for the one of the camera it connects to. In practice GPS recording is children's play: you just hook the receiver into the camera through the MC-35 and wait until a GPS symbol shows on the upper LCD panel, and that's it. The GPS information is automatically recorded in the EXIF header whether you shoot NEF or jpg.
One feature I personally miss on the D200 is sound recording, found on the D2X and D2H/Hs. Nikon probably saw the need to remove some less central features, otherwise the camera would be hardly perceived as different from the flagship rank. Still, I regret this decision.
Digital flash technology has long been a source of frustration for the end users: no problem when everything works, lots of grievance when you're left in the literal darkness or the entire energy load of your batteries make a giant pop - and that's it. Obviously digital flash technology is currently making great strides forward, thus, I no longer understand the flash manuals or how the setups work. I felt coerced into purchasing the newest SB-800 i-TTL device. However, I have scrutinised the SB-800 pamphlet but still haven't a clue as to how this differs from my existing d-TTL flash. I'm a dimwit in this department, obviously my holding a Ph.D. doesn't help much for practical chores like these. Notwithstanding my misery and to show I'm not a complete moron, I duly put my SB-800 on top of the D200 at all default settings, fired away and was rewarded with well-exposed flash pictures. So the system by a kind of black magic might just work after all. When I tried close-ups with flash, and the SB-800 was on a cable removed from the camera, flash images were back to their normal sordid state, meaning all it takes to screw up the ingenious technology is using a "D" lens (the 70-180 Micro-Nikkor) in conjunction with that not-so-clever-after-all SB-800 unit. To be fair, when a non-D or non-CPU lens replaced my 70-180, flash exposures returned to the normal again. The issue here obviously is that "D" technology presumes the flash is positioned on the camera, not somewhere else. When I "break" the rules, my images suffer. Or, even worse, I might not have "upgraded" to the latest XPYZ cable version, which is about equally insane. Thus flash with DSLRs continues to be an enigma, at least to me.
A point worth mentioning in this connection is that pressing the DOF preview on the camera, with the flash unit attached, elicits a number of modelling pre-flashes. Very surprising and unexpected and the non-aware users get a true jolt out of this, until they locate the appropriate option buried deep into the menus and turns this light show off.
Battery performance of the D200 has been very variable, and since a digital camera in effect is dead without battery power, I've devoted an entire review chapter to the testing of this aspect. See that section of the review for more details.
The final, and to me most remarkable, improvement of the entire D2-series is the ingenious backwards compatibility with older, manual-focusing (MF) lenses. For years now, commencing with the introduction of the F5 in 1996, Nikon has crippled the metering compatibility even of the pro-level cameras. Many long-term Nikon aficionados take exception to this practice and some, myself included, have had CPU modifications done to older lenses to make them more amenable with newer cameras. Nikon officially claimed this kind of modification wasn't "feasible", but in silence some of the European Nikon outlets could offer the spare parts for a conversion. So much for closing the ranks.
With the introduction of the D2H, D2X, and now the less prestigious D200, I feel our voices have been listened to and the support for older lenses seems firmly entrenched. Any AI'd, AI, or AIS Nikkor not needing the reflex mirror to be swung aside can be mounted on any of these models and will give full metering features including matrix* and colour. I have literally hundreds of lenses fulfilling that score, Eureka! Using the nifty FUNC button* (lower front left, below the preview control), it's simplicity itself to give the camera needed details about lens speed and focal length. You can dial in the data for all your MF lenses, and the camera will recall the maximum aperture if you rotate the dial to get focal length. If you have several lenses with the same focal length, you do have to select amongst them, but most people won't even notice this because having duplicate lenses in a given focal length is uncommon. In practice setting or selecting the lens data only takes a fraction of a second, and the initial entry has to be done just once. Best of all, the D200 remembers the data for the MF lens last used, so when you swap a single MF lens with AF/AFS Nikkors in a shooting session, there is no need to repeat the setup of the manual lens. Very, very clever. Very, very nice.
* Matrix metering needs user input on lens maximum aperture and focal length in order to function; otherwise the camera defaults to centre-weighted metering. Spot metering is however always available. If the camera has colour matrix metering it will be enabled as well by this procedure.
Nikon has not gone all the way with the MF compatibility, however, because you cannot use exposure modes other than "A" or "M" with them, but matrix metering will work. Since setting the actual aperture of any Nikkor can be done from the camera, as long as the camera identifies the lens in use, I was in the beginning a little surprised that "P" or "S" modes wouldn't work (not that I would fall into the trap of using these "exposure for dummies"-modes, of course). Neither is it possible to set apertures for MF lenses by the command dial. My analysis is that Nikon could implement these features if they wanted, but refrained from doing so as not to run into trouble with inaccurate exposure if an AI'd or AI lens was used. These lenses have a non-linear response to stopping down the aperture, and you should always set the aperture directly on the lens, not with the camera's controls. Saved by the bell as it were, Nikon to the user's rescue.
* * *
So, what isn't working properly with the D200 in terms of its controls, features, or functionality? Not much, really. I managed once to solicit a flashing "Err" message when I removed the SB-800 under power from the D200 and concurrently pulled out the EN-EL3e battery to switch over to mains operation. Probably the camera got blasted with a severe static shock. The "Err" message cleared after switching the camera off and on again, then tripping the shutter to release the hung mirror inside. With this single exception, the D200 has happily fired away more than 10,000 shots during the testing period.
Like the D2X, the battery meter in the Setup Menu is extremely reliable and also very inconveniently hidden within the menu system. You can't even access this information through the Recent Settings menu. A true pity and something Nikon should address when a firmware update is available. Another annoyance, again shared with the D2X, is the conflict arising when you set the camera for a "B" exposure with Mirror Lockup, and release the camera through a MC-20 Remote Cable set to "T" (Time). This combination simply won't work*. Either you have to use a non-timed release with the MC-20, or avoid using mirror lockup. While this annoyance may not be a problem to all users, it is a source of irritation for me, since I often work with this kind of setup and tend to forget the issue, until I trigger it again. Unspeakable and unpronounceable Norwegian words, often with the odd Finnish phrase inserted, then rip apart the darkness around me.
* It has been suggested to me to circumvent this issue by "tapping" the release of the camera to initiate mirror up instead of using the cable release. Whoever suggested this hasn't tried high-magnification work in which touching the camera is the deadliest of all sins.