In the last three years, there have been a slew of advances in the realm of digital SLRs, and Pentax's K200D includes a lot of them. We've seen the megapixels grow to the point that entry-level models now sport 10MP sensors. Advanced color controls let you shift the white balance to add a little warmth or compensate for especially strange lighting. In some entry-level dSLRS, including this one, you can even find wireless flash control. That doesn't mean that advanced amateurs and pros don't have reasons to step up to fancier models. It does mean, though, that SLR newbies have access to cameras that can keep pace with their growing photographic prowess.
The K200D sports a compact body design with an understated and comfortable grip. It has a slight arc inward at the top and protrudes far enough forward to give you something solid to hold onto. Four AA batteries find their home inside the grip and, if you use lithium batteries, they'll last longer than rechargeables or alkalines. According to Pentax, lithiums will give you 550 shots, assuming that the flash was fired for half of them. NiMH rechargeables will give you 400 shots under the same conditions, while alkalines only serve up 80. The environmentalist hippie in me says that you should use the rechargeables. Pentax also says that the K200D's body includes 60 rubber seals, making it water and dust resistant, though not waterproof, so don't try using it underwater without a proper underwater housing. You can feel a little better about taking it skiing with you, though.
Like most entry-level SLRs, the K200D keeps a lot of the controls in the menus. Recognizing that there will be a fair number of users stepping up from compact cameras, Pentax includes the Fn menu, which is organized much like the four-way rockers found on compacts. Of course, the menu button brings you to more intense setup and custom settings menus. The Fn menu gives you access to things you'd need to change regularly, such as ISO, white balance, drive mode, and flash mode/flash compensation. As you'll find on most SLRs of this class, there's only a single thumb wheel to change shutter speeds and aperture, instead of both a thumb and finger wheel, as you'll find on pricier models. I tend to like having two wheels, but the single wheel is an acceptable concession for this camera's low price. When in full manual-exposure mode, you'll have to hold down the exposure compensation button (just behind the shutter button) to change apertures.
One of the niftier shooting modes Pentax includes is the Sensitivity-priority mode, which lets you select the ISO sensitivity you want while the camera selects the shutter speed and aperture you need based on your selection. This is useful if you know you have to raise the ISO to get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze a subject that's in motion, but want to keep the ISO as low as possible. Even if you have the Fn menu set to select ISO in full stop increments, Sensitivity-priority mode offers 1/3-stop increments, so you can quickly get a finer sensitivity scale if needed.
Cementing a trend in dSLRs this year, Pentax includes an Enhanced Dynamic Range mode, which tweaks the tone curve to eke out some extra detail in the highlights of an image. It's a subtle effect, but it does work. There's an example of the effect in the slide show that accompanies this review. The K200D's version is a little more subtle than Canon's Highlight Tone Priority--at least the version I saw in the 1Ds Mark III--though that camera is an unfair comparison, to say the least. Olympus also offers a similar type of feature that they call Shadow Adjustment Technology, though they group it with metering modes, while Pentax puts it in the ISO section of the Fn menu. Sony's Dynamic Range Optimizer and Nikon's D-Lighting also work to eke out detail in the darkest and the brightest portions of images, though they function more as software-type adjustments made to images after capture, rather than during capture.
The kit lens is the typical 18-55mm focal length range and f/3.5-5.6 maximum aperture range as most kit lenses, especially in entry-level models. It's not the sharpest lens ever, but it is good for a lens of its price and I like that it has a decent focus ring. Both Canon and Nikon make you rotate the front edge of the lens barrel instead of offering a real focusing ring on their entry-level kit lenses. Also, this Pentax kit lens has a metal lens mount, while Canon and Nikon use plastic for theirs. I noticed some barrel distortion at the lens' widest setting, but that's to be expected on a lens of this class, and a little distortion isn't always such a bad thing.
One of the nice things about Pentax's K lens system is that you can use the vast majority of the lenses the company has made with the K200D. If you're willing to buy an adapter on eBay (but I'd stick to the official Pentax-made adapters), you can even use screw-mount (aka M42) lenses dating back to the 1960s. I recently found a very nice 28mm f/3.5 screw-mount lens on eBay for about $100. I have to focus manually when I use it, since it wasn't made for autofocus, and you have to compensate the exposure manually for the decreased light that smaller apertures let in (modern lenses don't close the aperture blades until you press the shutter button fully), but it's a nice bargain if you can deal with those limitations.