Editor's note: Changes in the competitive landscape for digital SLRs as well as the release of a newer model have prompted us to adjust the ratings for this camera--dropping the Features rating to 7, for a new overall rating of 7.8--and subsequently remove its Editors' Choice designation.
The Nikon D200, a long-awaited successor to the company's D100, offers serious amateur photographers and value-minded professionals a compact, sub-$2,000 digital SLR with many of the specifications, features, and build characteristics of Nikon's high-end pro cameras. Although not quite the junior version of the top-of-the-line D2X that some had hoped for, the D200 offers a significant step up from Nikon's low-end D70s and D50 models, with 10.2-megapixel resolution, a rugged moisture- and dust-sealed magnesium-alloy body, a large viewfinder, a 5fps drive mode, and bountiful fine-tuning and customization options. Accessories including Nikon iTTL external flash units, a Wi-Fi transmitter, a burgeoning line of digital optics, and third-party GPS units give the D200 enough versatility to compete effectively with its pricier midrange competitor, the full-frame Canon EOS 5D.
Overall, the Nikon D200 raises the bar a notch in the midrange digital SLR class, providing extra features and a more robust body than those of the Canon EOS 20D for only a few hundred dollars more, and most of the good stuff found in the 12.8-megapixel Canon EOS 5D--with the obvious exception of the full-frame sensor--for a lot less money. Experienced SLR users will feel right at home with the midsize 5.8x4.4x2.9-inch Nikon D200 in their hands. Its 2-pound body has a more solid, professional heft than the low-end D70s but is a lot less bulky and easier to wield than the top-of-the-line D2X. That model has a built-in vertical grip, while the D200's MB-D200 grip/battery pack is optional. Pros who want to use the D200 as a backup camera to their D2X will find just enough difference in control layout to slow them down.
Most surfaces are dotted with controls, and the control placement is logical and easy to master. Once we learned the layout, we were able to change many settings in near-total darkness at a blues concert we attended during testing, including ISO, focus and exposure modes, and playback with zoom.
Many controls fall within reach of your left or right fingers when you hold the camera in a comfortable shooting position. For example, with your right hand curled around the grip, it's easy to press the depth-of-field and user-definable Function buttons located on the front next to the lens. With your right index finger, you can turn the camera on or off, release the shutter, and change shooting modes or EV settings by pressing dedicated top-mounted buttons while operating the rear-panel main command dial with your thumb.
To the left of the hotshoe on the top panel is a lockable mode dial similar to the one found on the Nikon D2X. It rotates through single-shot, low-speed and high-speed continuous shooting, self-timer, and mirror lockup settings. On top of the mode dial are buttons that you use in conjunction with the main and subcommand dials to set resolution, white balance, and ISO. (Although the D2X uses a similar layout, the quality button is in a different location, while flash mode and bracket buttons replace the white-balance and ISO buttons on the D200.)
In addition to the shutter release with its concentric power/LCD-lamp switch and shooting mode and EV buttons, the top panel hosts a monochrome LCD with readouts showing the current settings. It's a crowded view because Nikon had to squeeze in ISO, white-balance, and resolution/quality information, which are shown on a secondary status LCD on the D2X.
To the left of the 2.5-inch, 230,000-pixel LCD is a stack of buttons that activate picture review, the menu system, review layout options, and image protection. The image-protection button also serves as a Help key when a menu is displayed, and there's an Enter button that activates scrollable and resizable zooming during playback.
On the right flank of the LCD is a knob that prevents you from accidentally changing the autofocus zone. There is also a switch with autofocus area mode options that include single-area autofocus (the user chooses between 11 or 7 focus zones), dynamic area (the camera can override the selected focus zone), group dynamic autofocus (a cluster of zones is used), and dynamic AF with priority given to the closest subject. We found the Nikon D200's autofocus options excessively complex to master, but the system was extremely accurate once we deciphered the correct settings for a given situation.
The camera's main connectors are located near the left side and include a standard PC/X socket, Nikon's proprietary 10-pin jack for flash and other accessories, plus USB 2.0, DC power, and A/V connectors hidden under rubber covers. A hotshoe for dedicated and third-party external speedlights sits on top of the pentaprism.
The big, bright viewfinder offers 0.94X magnification with a 50mm lens focused at infinity, and shows 95 percent of the image in the frame. There's a full array of status information available in the finder, which includes optional grid lines and highlighted indicators that show which of the 11 focus-area zones (or 7 wide-area zones) are active. We missed the D2X's built-in internal eye-piece curtain, which improves metering accuracy for tripod-mounted shots, and this model doesn't accommodate interchangeable focusing screens. Nikon also cut a corner by eliminating the D2X's antireflective LCD coating, which makes the D200's screen subject to glare. During the vigil that preceded the introduction of the Nikon D200, speculation was rife as to exactly which features would be trimmed from the D2X to arrive at this midlevel design. Considering that its price is about one-third that of the D2X, Nikon has been able to retain a surprising amount of features and functions.
A 10.2-megapixel CCD subs for the pro Nikon's 12.4-megapixel CMOS sensor, and the 8fps cropped-burst mode has been ditched, along with the built-in vertical grip, the ability to save photos in TIFF format, and a few miscellaneous features such as voice recording, specialized color-space options, battery calibration, and interchangeable focus screens. The D2X also uses a faster, more-advanced Multi-CAM 2000 autofocus system, instead of the new Multi-CAM 1000 system that the D200 uses.
However, the Nikon D200 virtually matches its pro sibling in many other areas. It has the same 30 seconds to 1/8,000-second shutter-speed range, four separate banks for storing any of 45 different custom settings, a 2.5-inch LCD, and a rugged body. Unlike the low-end D70s and D50, this camera has an aperture coupling ring that allows autoexposure functions in Aperture-Priority mode and manual exposure metering with most older AI or AI-S manual-focus lenses produced since 1977.
As with other digital SLR cameras in this class, the Nikon D200 offers a multitude of user options and is eminently customizable. Although the scene modes found in the D70s/D50 are absent, most users of cameras in this class don't rely on them anyway. The D200's 3D Color Matrix Metering II is a versatile exposure system, but you can opt for spot metering (using a 3mm-diameter circle) or center-weighted (which gives 75 percent of metering emphasis to a user selectable 6mm-, 8mm-, 10mm-, or 13mm-diameter circle.) Exposure compensation ranges over a full five exposure values in 1/3EV, 1/2EV, or full EV increments.
White balance can be set automatically via six factory-preset values, Kelvin temperatures, warmer or cooler fine-tuning, or four presets captured from scenes or existing image files. You can assign names to user white-balance presets for convenient retrieval later. If color balance is especially critical and you don't want to fiddle with white-balance adjustments in your raw processing software later, you can bracket the white balance for as many as nine successive shots. The D200 can also bracket exposure, flash, or both simultaneously.
ISO direct settings go from ISO 100 to as high as ISO 1,600 (instead of ISO 800 with the D2X) plus a one-stop boost to ISO 3,200 (the D2X has one- and two-stop boosts to ISO 1,600 and 3,200). Image tweaks include six preset looks: Normal, Softer, Vivid, More Vivid, Portrait (low contrast), Black-and-White (which is not found in other current Nikon digital SLRs), and Custom, which allows setting contrast, sharpness, color, saturation, and hue individually.
This camera has a built-in flash similar to those of the D70s and D50, but with two cool added features: a modeling-light option and a repeating-flash function, both similar to features found on recent Nikon external flash units. The modeling light fires a low-power flash for several seconds, allowing you to preview the flash illumination on your subject. In repeating mode, the flash fires over and over while the shutter is open. You can select output levels (from 1/2 to 1/128 power), the number of flashes (2 to 15), and frequency (from 1fps to 50fps).
As with the D70s (but not the D50), the Nikon D200's flash can function in Commander mode to wirelessly control additional external flash units such as Nikon's SB-600 and SB-800. The flash has an ISO 100 guide number of 39 and integrates smoothly with Nikon's iTTL flash exposure system, whether used alone or with compatible external speedlights. Action photography might be hampered by the 1/250-second top flash sync speed, which can cause ghost images under high ambient light conditions, but the low-end SLRs in the line are still the only Nikon models to offer 1/500-second sync.
Nikon Capture, which includes useful features such as tethered time-lapse photography, "defishing" of fish-eye photos, and advanced raw file manipulations with batch capabilities, is an additional $99 option that's far superior to the supplied Picture Project tool. The Nikon D200 doesn't deliver quite the speed-demon performance of the D2X, especially during continuous shooting, but it's still an impressive machine. You won't wait to shoot under most normal conditions; if it's powered on, this camera is ready for duty. It was difficult to measure the D200's scant 0.6-second wake-up-to-first-shot time, and thereafter we were able to snap off pictures nearly as fast as we could press the shutter release, about 0.75 second between shots. Capturing raw files was nearly as fast at 0.89 second between snaps. The flip-up flash slowed things down a smidge to 1.13 seconds per shot. The flash tended to overheat after about a dozen quick shots when using the modeling-light feature, forcing us to pause a few seconds before continuing.
Both high-speed and low-speed continuous-shooting modes are available. The camera snapped off 30 full-resolution JPEG Fine shots in 7.32 seconds, or roughly 4fps. It was nearly as fast with raw files, capturing 20 shots in 5.2 seconds before the buffer filled. To get the D200's rated 5fps capture rate, we had to switch to high-speed continuous mode. Using the highest JPEG compression setting and 2.5-megapixel resolution, we squeezed off 81 pictures in a little more than 16 seconds.
The complicated but efficient autofocus system helped reduce shutter lag enough that it was almost undetectable at 0.1 second under high-contrast lighting conditions. The D200 didn't even need its autofocus-assist lamp to lock in focus in about 0.3 second under challenging low-contrast lighting. Even those who were hoping the Nikon D200 would have the same 12.4-megapixel sensor as the Nikon D2X won't be disappointed by the results they'll get with this camera. Its image quality is clearly an upgrade from that produced by the 6-megapixel D100 it replaces, as well as that of the low-end Nikon digital SLR cameras. Some early adopters have expressed concern over high-ISO performance and excessive banding under certain low-light/high-contrast conditions, but we had few problems in these areas. We were surprised at the effectiveness of the D200's noise-reduction feature at the equivalent of ISO 3,200 and didn't see significant banding in any of our test images. We couldn't find much difference between the D200's images and those generated by the D2X, and even preferred the less expensive camera's images at high ISOs under low light levels.
Indeed, the D200 performed very well at ISOs ranging from 100 to 800. We've never really gotten an image with our D2X at ISO 1,600 or ISO 3,200 that we were happy with--and we still think the Canon EOS 5D's noise control is a bit better--but the D200 produced quite acceptable images at both ratings, especially when we set the High Exposure Noise Reduction adjustment to High. Speckles were reduced with only a little loss of detail. The D200 also has a separate Long Exposure Noise Reduction setting that worked well.
We tested this camera with the new 18mm-to-200mm, f/3.5-to-f/5.6, G ED-IF AF-S VR DX Zoom-Nikkor, as well as with a variety of other Nikkor lenses. The new VR lens worked well, providing good sharpness throughout its range, albeit with moderate chromatic aberration (chiefly some cyan fringing around the edges of backlit subjects) and a little barrel distortion at the edges at the wide-angle end of its range. The vibration-reduction system let us shoot at shutter speeds about two increments slower than would be required normally, although this lens's f/5.6 maximum aperture at 200mm would have severely limited its use at an indoor concert had the D200 not performed so well at high ISO settings.
Image defects stemming from nonoptical causes weren't overpowering, except for the JPEG artifacts that cropped up even with minimal (Fine) compression. Our images had good exposure and dynamic range, although reducing exposure to limit blown highlights also tended to produce flatter, low-contrast images. Colors were accurate and neutral, but the warm tones produced under incandescent illumination helped us appreciate the D200's white-balance adjustment tools.