1st Mar 2006 | 00:00
Is the 'semi-pro' D200 the missing link in Nikon's range?
How would you like to profit from photography? Maybe start selling your pictures through an online library or getting them published in magazines, calendars or greetings cards?
It's perfectly feasible. Many amateurs do - and with some success. Some even go on to become full-time professionals. All you need is the ability to take a good picture, a little knowledge of the market, and the right kind of camera.
While it is possible to sell photographs taken with a digital compact, what you really need is a digital SLR - and one with a decent resolution. That's been a bit of a problem until recently; there weren't that many to choose from and the few that were available were too expensive for many enthusiasts looking to take the next step up.
Happily that situation is changing, as prices fall and specifications rise - and some manufacturers are now actively targeting this market. One such company is Nikon, who say their new D200 is 'the perfect camera for the semi-professional and freelancer', and that it will also suit 'professionals looking for a second camera to complement their Nikon D2X or D2HS'.
In theory, the D200 is a replacement for the D100, the camera Nikon launched way back in February 2002 - an eternity in terms of digital photography - which has not really been a viable purchase for some time.
The D200, though, is a different proposition altogether. Based largely on Nikon's D2X, it shares much of the styling and many of the features of the flagship model. Most importantly, with a street price of £1,200 and falling, it's relatively affordable for a D-SLR that captures 10.2-million pixels.
While you want as many pixels as you can get when you're trying to sell your pictures, in practice the difference between the D200's 28.7Mb and the D2X's 34.9Mb is neither here nor there. So a lot of prospective freelancers and even working professionals may decide to pocket a saving of over two grand and go for the D200.
There is, however, one important reason why a professional may steer away from the Nikon range of SLR. The D200 isn't a fullframe digital SLR. There's a lens magnification factor of 1.5x, which severely limits the wideangle coverage available.
Those regularly shooting subjects such as landscapes, groups and buildings, where a large angle-of-view and dynamic perspective are essential, may find the lens magnification factor limiting. But for those tackling portraiture, still-life and sports, it may be less of an issue - even an advantage.
When it comes to features, you really are spoilt for choice. The D200 has everything the serious photographer needs and then some. An accurate metering system is essential, and here the camera really scores, with Nikon's highly regarded 3D Colour Matrix Metering II.
In addition there are spot and centre-weighted options, plus a comprehensive exposure compensation system, bracketing and an exposure lock.
You get a standard range of exposure modes, but no subject-based modes - photographers knowledgeable enough to buy a D200 would be unlikely to use them. Sensitivity ranges from ISO 100 to 1,600, rising to ISO 3,200 in H-1 mode. Shutter speeds go up to 1/8,000sec and the flash sync - which is important in some areas of freelance photography - is 1/250 sec.
The D200 also has a built-in flashgun, with a guide number of 13, that's extremely useful where you want a little fill-in or to get you out of trouble when you don't have a more powerful accessory gun with you. There's also a PC socket - a lamentable omission on the D100 - which allows the camera to be connected to studio flash equipment.
A wide range of white balance tools gives precise colour control, including direct selection of Kelvin settings as well as a number of pre-sets. In addition, a number of 'optimisation' modes enable the user to refine the colour, tone, saturation, hue and sharpness of the image to suit their personal preferences.
There are also lots of options on the focusing front, including selecting any of the individual focus points of the 11-Area/7-Wide Area autofocus system, in addition to setting the way in which the camera chooses the focusing point automatically.
Speed of capture is important in many areas of photography, and here the D200 puts in an impressive performance. Up to 37 JPEGs or 22 RAW files can be captured at a creditable rate of 5 frames-per-second onto a CompactFlash card.
It goes with saying that images can be recorded in RAW format, to maximise quality, as well as a range of JPEG compressions. The NEF (Nikon Electronic Format) RAW files are intended to be processed in Nikon's Capture 4 software but this isn't bundled with the camera - presumably for reasons of cost.
There are too many features to list them all, but it's worth mentioning the 40 Custom Settings, wireless transmission and GPS support, depth-of-field preview and mirror lock-up.
With so many features, inevitably there are lots of controls on the camera - 11 buttons, two input dials, one multi-selector, five selector switches, and one mode dial, in fact. Now that could easily be confusing and complicated - making the D200 difficult to use - but happily it isn't.
Everything is perfectly placed, and the overall impression is of a camera designed by a team that understands the practical needs of the more advanced photographer.
The most commonly used controls, including White Balance, ISO, Mode, and Exposure Compensation, are sensibly placed on the top of the camera, and with a little practise they can all be adjusted without the need to remove the eye from the viewfinder.
Some things that are fiddly on other SLRs are a doddle on the D200. Deleting images, for instance, can be done with just one finger or thumb - a task that on some cameras is a double-handed operation.
The 2.5-inch LCD - increasingly the standard on top-end cameras - is a delight. It boasts 230,000 pixels, so the image displayed is crisp and detailed. A 170-degree viewing angle means you don't need to be square to the camera to see the picture clearly. It's possible to zoom in on images at 25x to check for sharpness.
Pressing the Menu button brings up the various menus. The lettering, white on black, is large and in a typeface that's easy to read. The multi-selector control to the right of the LCD enables you to navigate your way around quickly, because there aren't endless sub-menus to get lost in.
The wide top-plate info panel is traditional in design, and displays shutter speed, aperture, mode, number of pictures remaining etc. The viewfinder is bright and clear, and shows 95% of the actual picture area - so what you see is pretty much what you get.
The D200's body is constructed around a magnesium-alloy core, which makes it strong without being excessively heavy. At 830g it's 240g lighter than the D2x, which makes it more comfortable to carry around for extended periods. The body is sealed against moisture and dust, making this a robust camera that can survive active use in some challenging environments.
Well, it all sounds good on paper - but how does the D200 perform in practice? In a word: magnificently. It takes in its stride virtually anything you throw at it. Switch it on and it's ready for use virtually instantly. The start-up time is just 0.15 sec and the shutter lag time only 50-milliseconds.
The autofocusing is fast and accurate, whichever of the four possible ways you've set the camera to. The focus-assist light allows correct focusing when levels are extremely low. We've been impressed by Nikon's 3D Matrix metering in the past, and once again on the D200 it demonstrated its worth. Virtually every image was usable straight out of the camera - though most benefited from some minor tweaking to get the best from them.
Our test shots were taken in a wide range of lighting situations, and once again the White Balance system coped extremely well, and we suffered no serious colour casts.
The D200 has the same advanced processing engine as the D2X, along with an optical low pass filter to help prevent moiré patterning and colour fringing - and it shows. Image quality overall is excellent. At ISO 100 and 200 there's no visible noise at normal degrees of enlargement. Even at ISO 400, you have to be looking for the noise to find it.
When you hit ISO 800 quality does start to deteriorate, but images are still perfectly usable. Crank it up to ISO 1,600, and noise becomes apparent - but the quality is still way better than we ever got from ISO 1,600 film. But we wouldn't particularly recommend the HR-1 ISO 3,200 setting unless you really need the speed.
The faults and limitations of cameras often hit you the first time you try them - and become more annoying after that. But when your first impressions are favourable, your appreciation deepens the more you use it.
That's the way it was with the D200. There are no major faults. In fact, there are barely any niggles worth mentioning. The more we used it the more we fell in love with it. At £1,200 it isn't cheap, but you get a lot for the money, and it could easily pay for itself if you decide to make a living from photography. Steve Bavister