Nikon D200 Digital Camera Reviewed

by Bjørn Rørslett  

4. Image Quality

The Nikon D200 gives almost the same image quality as the D2X. Given that this is seen at one-third the price of the bigger camera, this is really good news.

The keen reader probably would prefer to have my assertion of the previous paragraph supported by "hard" evidence. So we go on to provide this. First out is the point that the D200 can record amazingly fine detail, even given very adverse shooting conditions,

D200: The Bringer of Minute Detail

Distance to this factory is measured to be 3.250 m, slightly more than 2 miles (for the metrically challenged) away. Given the drizzle in the air reducing the scene contrast, line of sight across open water adding atmospheric turbulence, and the remote subject demanding a really long lens for capturing it, nobody in full possession of his senses would dream of getting any good detail in the ensuing image. Guess you have to guess again.

Left: 100% crop,
Right: 200% detail

D200 @400 ISO equivalency,
1200 mm Nikkor ED-IF f/11 @f/11, 1/4 sec

To exploit fully the potential of D200 imagery, using raw (NEF) files is the optimal approach. However, few converters besides Nikon Capture 4.4 at this time of writing supports D200 NEFs. I've tested with BibblePro 4.5 and Capture One 3.73 (only beta support for D200). Nikon Capture 4.4 itself has a user interface marred by a slightly vulgar "XPish" quality, and it isn't a superfast performer in any way. Although improvements have been made to Nikon Capture in its later incarnations, this program is a memory hog if ever there was one, needing at least 1 GB of memory on the PC to run smoothly. Converting a NEF from the D200 is best done on a dual-CPU machine with 2 GB RAM or more. Do a few zooms into the image and your machine almost stops responding. Batch processing features are poor and rudimentary compared to those of my preferred Bibble Pro software. However, image output quality is superb both from D1-series as well as D2-series NEFs, so I won't complain more than I already have.

Setting up valid comparison tests shots for film is quite straightforward, because recorded image magnification and the order of secondary magnification after processing and enlargement are identical, provided the setup incorporates a stationary subject and a camera position which is fixed at a given distance to the subject itself. My test subject typically is the brick wall outside my office premises, and this part of the world is little troubled by earthquakes, so the stationarity criteria should be fulfilled.

With digital cameras, things act a little differently. Thus, you can easily get a setup giving identical magnification of the image projected onto the CCD/CMOS/LBCAST chip inside the camera. However, because chip size may differ, so might angle of view for the end image, or chip pixel counts may differ to result in non-identical angular resolution of the pixels. A sound and basic principle underlying scientific tests is that you should be able to have full control of the variables involved and preferably change only a single variable independently of the others.

For tests with the D200 set against the D2X, I ran the whole gamut of procedures to ensure valid comparisons between the contenders. To compare pixel quality directly, I ran a separate setup in which the subject-camera distance was changed to give the pixels equal angular view. This approach is valid given that the performance of the test lens is constant across the distance range involved, which I'm very certain applies to my AFS 300 VR lens between 3 and 5 m. Since this lens has a focal length which gradually shortens as the lens is focused closer, and the alteration of focal length itself is undocumented from Nikon, it is frustratingly difficult to get a perfect match in pixel angular coverage, but I got within a fraction of a percent of the target anyway so that'll do for this time.

Nikon D200 vs D2X, or CCD vs CMOS imager
(equalised angular view of pixels)
D200 100% crop D2X 100% crop
D200 D2X

Test images of my "favourite" subject, a brick wall. Shot with AFS 300/2.8 Nikkor at f/5.6, 1/40 sec, D200 and D2X at 100 ISO equivalency. Both crops shown at 100% magnification, NEF files processed in BibblePro 4.5 with later sharpening applied in Photoshop (USM: 500,0.3,6). Sharpening applied here to make any difference stand out better.

Besides the fact that auto white balance gives slightly different results with these cameras, the images otherwise are virtually identical.

Images © Bjørn Rørslett/NN

I have earlier shown that the D2X is capable of better image rendition than any recent Nikon DSLRs. The test images depicted above indicate that the D200, despite some 20% (planar) lower pixel number (10% linear) compared to the D2X, holds up very well indeed. In fact, when we equalise angular coverage of the pixels, the images are virtually indistinguishable. So the inherent imaging quality of D200 matches that of the bigger D2X.

Now, let's move on to a real-world situation in which we cannot that easily move back and forth. For landscapes and suchlike subjects, you are pretty much stuck with the perspective given by your shooting position, so how does the lower pixel count of the D200 fare compared to that of the higher-resolving D2X?

Nikon D200 vs D2X, or CCD vs CMOS imager
(equal image magnification of detail)

AFS 300 mm f/2.8, f/5.6 1/20 sec
ISO 100 equivalency, auto white balance

AFS 300 mm f/2.8, f/5.6 1/20 sec
ISO 100 equivalency, auto white balance

My favourite landscape spot for camera and lens testing. Distance to the subject (red houses) is exactly 2 km, and I employed the AFS Nikkor 300 mm f/2.8 ED-IF (Mk.I) on a Sachtler ENG 2 series tripod for these shots. (Norwegian weather this time of the year ensures only a "half-light" will exist, so getting 1/20 sec exposure is really good, but given a tripod up to the task, critically sharp images nevertheless result).

It is readily apparent that both cameras deliver images with crisp detail and nicely rendered colours, but the D200's automatic W/B is just slightly warmer than the D2X's, which utilises its external sensor to get an even better balance.

Images © Bjørn Rørslett/NN

"Pixel-peeping" being the current fad, I'll try to satisfy the cravings of that frenzied mob by some crop depictions. To show any difference at all, the ordinary 100% crops wouldn't suffice at all, so herewith you can gorge yourself with 200% crops. Just keep in mind that these crops equal looking at poster-sized prints at point-blank range.



All images © Bjørn Rørslett/NN


Here, the crop is 200% (from pixel size), corresponding to a print size of some 50 x 70 cm (20 x 30"). Do keep in mind you now are in the same position as looking on a poster-sized print placed almost at the tip of your nose.

The image coherence is high, detail is smooth although some softening inevitably occurs, and grain is invisible on both 100 "ISO" images. There is a considerable increase in graininess at 1600 ISO equivalency concomitant with a beginning loss of shadow detail, but again, the image quality is surprisingly good for both systems. The D2X has the slight advantage with 10% more image resolution (linear scale) due to its 12.2 MPix sensor compared to the D200's 10 MPix.

Skin tones are claimed to be inaccurate with Nikon DSLRs, and many studio photographers swear by the Fuji models instead. So did my friend Ola-E. Hofshagen, who on my request ran a studio session with a fair lady to investigate the performance of D200. He told me afterwards that he'll never use his Fuji S3 again for this kind of work.

D200 Skin Tones

Fair Lady, by D200

D200 with Tamron 90 mm f/2.8 lens, 100 ISO equivalency
© Ola-E. Hofshagen

Skin tones are superb with D200, here recorded in a studio setting and running the camera on default options. The original, full-sized image can be downloaded as a jpg here (courtesy Ola-E. Hofshagen). Note this image shows an example of mild Type II striping (discussed in the Noise section)

The crop above is at 100% (from pixel size).
The image coherence is high, detail is smooth although some softening inevitably occurs, and grain is simply not visible. 

My conclusion is that you will get image quality from the D200 to satisfy even the most critical needs, for any application to which 35 mm systems can be used. While the D2X might just yield a trifle higher image quality, we are truly nit-picking in order to place one of these cameras before the other.

Questions of image noise and imperfections including the hotly debated "striping" (aka "banding") issue are addressed in the next section, so keep on reading to find out more.

Nikon D200 Reviewed

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Last update 21 January, 2006