Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
The Nikon D200 is a digital single lens reflex camera for serious
amateurs as well as for professionals who want a backup body for their
D2Xs. The metal body, rubber-clad where needed, feels very solid and
suggests a very reliable camera. The only part that does not appear as
solid and that I would worry about if the camera gets knocked around,
is the built-in flash. After several months and several thousand
pictures, my Nikon D200 shows no sign of wear.
Key Nikon D200 features:
23.6 by 15.8 mm CCD sensor ("DX format", 1.5x multiplier)
10 megapixel output (3872 x 2592 pixels).
5 frames per second
ISO 100 - 1600, and "Hi" -- Nikon's ISO 3200.
Compact Flash storage
USB 2.0 interface
optional vertical grip
More detailed Nikon D200 specifications are available at
(click on "more technical details").
What are alternatives to the Nikon D200? The
Nikon D80, $1000, offers the same resolution at a
substantially lower price. Compared to the D80, the Nikon D200's main
advantages are better weather sealing, faster/better autofocus, and
faster frame rate. If you're photographing a soccer game on a rainy
day, the D200 is a much better machine. If you're tight on cash,
you're better off getting the cheaper body and spending the savings on
lenses. With money to burn, the Nikon D2Xs, $4600 (review) will
deliver slightly better image quality and let you drive nails when
you're not taking pictures.
The D200 is a fast camera that can take a picture immediately
after being switched on. When you are reviewing an image on the 2.5"
LCD display, or changing a menu setting, you can press the shutter
release and it will take a picture almost instantly.
At 5 frames per second, the D200 is certainly fast enough for most
situations. More demanding action photographers should take a close
look at the high-speed crop mode of the Nikon D2Xsf. That camera can
take 8 frames per second, at 6.8 megapixel, with a 2.0x
Tested with a Sandisk Ultra III 512 MB card, the camera captured up to
20 RAW ("NEF") images and 25 JPEG images before the buffer filled up
and it needed to write to the CF card. After the buffer filled, the
frame rate dropped significantly. It should be a little better with
faster cards, because the camera can write out a few more frames
before filling the buffer. You do not have to wait for the camera to
finish writing. As soon as some space is available, you can start
taking pictures again.
The 11-point autofocus system of the D200 is very good and,
particularly with AF-S lenses, is fast and accurate. It has no trouble
focusing on static subjects, focusing in dark situations or keeping
track of motor-cross action. Optionally, you can engage the focus
assist light. This is a bright white beam of light; it does not
project a pattern such as a flash focus assist light might.
I only encountered a problem when trying to photograph racing cyclists
coming round a corner. There just was not enough time for the AF
system to lock onto a cyclist before the next one raced into view.
If you are used to older film cameras, the AF system offers a
bewildering array of options. There is the usual S/C/M switch on the
front of the body. There is a game pad on the back to select an AF
point (can be locked, not functioning in all AF-modes). There is a
switch on the back to select between single-area autofocus and three
different dynamic-area autofocus options. Depending on the lens you
use, you may find a focusing range limiter and/or an AF/M switch on
All this does not mean that the D200 is difficult to use, but I would
recommend reading the manual and playing with the available options so
you will be familiar with them.
The controls on the D200 have a very sensible lay-out and
important functions are easily accessible. Many frequently used
settings, including ISO speed, white-balance, exposure lock, focus
lock, exposure mode (Program, Aperture-priority, Shutterspeed-priority
and Manual) and exposure compensation are accessed using one button
and the main command wheel, operated with your right thumb. You
usually do not need to enter the menu system during operation.
Specific cases where you do need the menu are: switching noise
reduction modes, entering data about a non-CPU lens, using the
interval timer, formatting a card and tweaking (JPEG) image
parameters. You also use the menu for basic set-up of the camera, but
you do not usually need to do that in the field.
The Depth of Field preview button is electronical and when depressed,
you cannot change the aperture of the lens. I prefer the older
mechanical button as found on several older cameras. For instance, on
cameras like the F100 and FE, you set the lens to its maximum
aperture, press the button and then gently close the aperture while
constantly checking the resulting depth of field. This allows you to
get used to the darkened screen and allows to continuously switch
between aperture values. This is a little trick from John Shaw's
Landscape Photography book. With the D200, you switch abruptly between
full aperture and the actual value set. If you want to see the effect
of a different aperture, you have to go back to full aperture first,
change the setting and press the preview button again.
Optionally, the D200 can be equipped with a vertical grip, the
MB-D200. It should allow for better handling with big lenses when
shooting vertically. I have not tried this accessory myself.
The D200 has a very good viewfinder: bright and large enough to
properly compose your photograph. It covers 95% of the image area. The
viewfinder is not as large as the one found on the F100, but I had no
problems using it wearing either contact lenses or glasses. It is
better than the D70 which, by comparison, feels like looking through a
Being used to an F100, I found the grid lines, which can be switched
on and off, a useful feature. I was less impressed with the focusing
assistant or electronic rangefinder. The F100 displays two arrows and
a dot; the arrows indicate which way to turn the lens and the dot
appears when the camera thinks you have achieved proper focus. The
D200 leaves out the arrows, making it a bit more of a guess. It is not
a big loss.
Strong points of the D200 viewfinder are the "low battery" indicator,
the ISO speed indicator and the "frames remaining" indicator.
Choosing a lens
The DX format sensor means that the image projected by your older
lenses (i.e., those designed for 35mm film) will be cropped. As a
result, the AF-S 17-35/2.8 is no longer an ultra-wide lens and you
should consider adding the Nikon 12-24mm f/4G ED IF Autofocus DX, $935 to your
kit. If you
are used to the angle of view of the AF 85/1.4 for portraits, then the
Nikon 50mm f/1.4D AF Nikkor, $270 is now probably your best option. If you
always felt that
the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR Zoom Nikkor, $1750 was a little short for sports
crop might help you out. A little vignetting by a lens will be less
noticeable. On the other hand, lenses designed for 35mm are bigger,
heavier and possibly more expensive than they need to be if you are
using them on a digital camera. To explore the rest of the Nikon lens
the photo.net Nikon index page.
For more information about depth of
field and digital cameras, read Depth
of Field and the Digital Domain.
Compatible with older lenses
The D200 is compatible with older, non-AF lenses. I had no trouble
focusing the AI Nikkor 24/2.8, 50/2.0 and 105/2.5 lenses with this
camera. Perhaps not as nice as the same-era FE, but very usable.
If you use the menu system of the camera to supply focal length and
maximum aperture of the non-CPU lens attached (such as the AI
Nikkors), you can use matrix metering. This is an improvement over
older film bodies where you would be limited to center-weighted and
The Nikon D200 uses Compact Flash cards, which fill up quickly when
capturing RAW files ("NEF" in Nikon-speak). Each RAW file is
approximately 15.5 MB in size and more than 500 exposures will fit on
SanDisk 8 GB CF
The LCD screen allows you to review your images on the spot, with an
excellent zoom feature that also works on RAW/NEF images. I have
found it more convenient to carry additional CF cards and sort through
pictures at home on a big computer display.
The built-in flash of the D200 works properly, but has all the
disadvantages of an in-camera flash: lack of power; inability to
bounce up off a ceiling or reflector; prone to red-eye due to
proximity to lens. Using the standard professional lenses, which tend
to be physically large, the lens or lens hood will cast a shadow on
pictures lit with the built-in flash.
The images below are 100 percent crops
from a larger picture. They were taken at ISO 100 through 3200, with
Long Exposure Noise Reduction and High ISO Noise Reduction both
Compare the last image, at ISO 3200, with the following to the see
effect of the D200 noise reduction (set to "Normal"):
White balance at exposure time is critical only to those who capture
JPEGs. If you capture RAW/NEF, you can pick the white-balance
afterwards and make sure it is consistent across a project. The Nikon
D200 auto white balance system delivers accurate results outdoors (see
the motorcross JPEGs) and under fluorescent light. Incandescent light
results in warm images.
You can adjust various properties of the JPEG output in-camera:
sharpening, contrast, saturation and hue. Illustrated below is
"maximum sharpening, maximum contrast and maximum saturation" versus
"minimum sharpening, minimum contrast and minimum saturation". With
RAW capture, these may be adjusted on a computer days later.
Compared to the D70
Does the 10 megapixel D200 resolve more detail than the 6 megapixel
D70? Click on the two thumbnails below to settle this question. Both
were taken with the AF Micro-Nikkor 105/2.8D, f/11, tripod,
self-timer. Both images were taken at each camera's lowest ISO
setting, which is ISO 200 for the D70 and ISO 100 for the D200. Images
where opened with Camera Raw default settings, converted to sRGB
profile, 8-bit per channel and saved as highest quality JPEG in
[Editor's note: photo.net's crack legal team has asked me to inform
you that the company (hereinafter referred to as "The Company") will
not accept liability for persons injured by listening to any of the
CDs depicted in these test images, notably the Stars Wars Episode I
and Stars Wars Episode III CDs. The United States courts have not
ruled on the legitimacy of forcing prisoners in Guantanamo Bay to
watch Star Wars Episodes I-III, but it is believed that the European
of Human Rights will soon outlaw the practice.]
Similar conditions apply to the next two images, except that I used
the AF Nikkor 35/2 at f/16.
Finally, with the AF Nikkor 35/2 at f/11, 1/10 sec, ISO 1600 (for both
cameras). Noise reduction options all set to default or normal.
The Nikon D200 uses a single EN-EL3e battery, which stores enough
energy for a full day of photography. It seems hardly warranted to buy
an extra battery except when you are going on a trip and may not be
able to recharge very often, or when you will be working in very low
temperatures (keep the spare one warm in a pocket). A quick
charger is included in the box.
If you add the MB-D200 grip, you can use one or two EN-EL3e or six AA
Back to the F100
I do not (yet) own a D200 and when I switched back to my F100 after
using the borrowed D200 exclusively for a while, I was somewhat
surprised that there was no big sigh of relief. Certainly, the
viewfinder is better, but not dramatically. The F100, probably because
of its film winding mechanism, makes more noise. On assignment, taking
pictures in a church, I realized I was at the end of the first roll of
film just moments before the priest would bless a sculpture. Had I
been working with a digital camera, I might have used a big card with
no need to change it, and if changing were required, it can almost
certainly be done quicker and more quietly than film. I missed the
focus-confirmation beep of the D200, that I initially thought of as a
gimmick. However, I did not miss the grid lines. I am happy
to have my 17-35 back as a true wide-angle.
I do have an MB-15 grip and an SB-28 flash for my F100, accessories
that I didn't have with the D200. However, I think it's safe to say
that Nikon came as close as possible in creating a "digital F100" with
The Nikon D200 is a very good camera and anybody making the switch
from a (high-end) film camera to digital should consider it. Take a
look at the image quality, decide if it makes sense financially (don't
forget extra lenses, memory etc.) and take into account that the low
operating cost of digital encourages to capture more, experiment