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Nikon D200
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D-SLR

Way back when, setting up and taking a picture in natural light was quite easy; just workout the light, set the f-stop and shutter speed, and blast away, cranking the film advance with each successive click. GONE! The new century is upon us, and so comes the Digital SLR. The Nikon D200 is one of the latest such systems. It's a third generation Nikon digital single lens reflex (D-SLR) system, and one that is, to put it frankly, extremely feature rich. Taking a photo is now so much simpler, and at the same time, so much harder.

Nikon D200

Nikon D200

The goodies start with a magnesium chassis intended to reduce weight, and go on and on. Gone is the opening film back, replaced by a 2.5" LCD screen. A popup flash unit lives a top the penta-prism (not actually sure a prism is in there, but its not just an electronic viewfinder, as an image is visible even with the battery removed). The control layout is reminisent of the F100, though I have to say some controls like the autofocus sensor selector/menu cursor work much better than on the older camera. There are many more buttons and levers on this than on a film camera; there is a lever to release the memory stick, for setting the autofocus type, for setting the metering mode, and selecting lens manual or autofocus.

The menu system (shown on the big 2.5" screen on the back) is used to configure the myriad settings. It is bright and easy to read, even for me and my reading glasses prone sight It's a good job the screen is big though, there are a lot of options to disply and set.

The default settings for the camera are pretty good, though I soon turned off, or down, some of the bells and whistles that sound as you try to take pictures. I did particularly like the guidelines in the viewfinder option, it really helps with straightening pictures up. One thing you have to work out is what mode you are going to save images in. By default the camera saves in high res Jpeg format. This allows a pretty reasonable number of shots. I got a 2GB card with this system, which saving a RAW file at full resolution and a low resolution Jpeg, allows me some 109 shots (according to the counter, and presumably this is dependant to a small extent on the compression that is achieved on those jpegs). One option I have not set up yet, it to save the RAW files in a compressed form.

Taking a picture is certainly a lot like it is on an F100. Select the mode you want to operate in (manual, aperture, shutter, or programmed), set up your metering, select an autofocus point and then blast away.

The big change comes in being able to view those images on the back screen. It's big enough to tell you if you messed up (mistakes are cleaned up with two swift taps on the garbage bin button). If you hunt through the menu settings you can also enable the various histograms that start to give you an idea of how the white balance is working out, (White balance? There's something new to learn about) and where you are loosing detail. These are all new aspects to using a digital camera that I have yet to master, in any way, manner or form. (Go to Play back menu [top menu, like a play button], then Display Mode, then select each of the types of data you want to see when you review the image.)

Having got a bunch of images, you now need to so something with them. This is where digital photography deviates so much from film. You have 2 choices to get the images out: either hook up the USB cable and dump to your computer, or pop out the memory card. put it in a card reader and load the images directly to the computer. Both seem to work well enough, though I think using the card reader is quicker, if less convienient.

To mess with the images you now need a program that can manipulate them. There are several good applications out there. I chose to update my Photoshop to the latest CS2 version, and use the latest RAW file plug-in (which you need to get from the Adobe web site - the one on the CS2 CD does not recognise the D200 format.)

Getting the camera.

It's not such an easy deal getting one of these new cameras, there is a great deal of demand for them. I tried to find sources for the camera but most were out of stock. What I did notice was that the camera comes in one of three offerings: a body only; a kit body with 2 lenses; and a kit with body and a single lens. I found the single lens kit available at B&H camera, and ordered it. As the photo sensor is smaller in area than 35mm film, it changes the effective focal length of your lenses, I therefore needed to get a decent wide angle lens, and the single lens kit offered an 18-70mm lens. The lens has a good focal range. The other lenses I have will do fine, just being effectively a bit longer.

The camera was delivered inside a week. Don't expect this if you (back) order the body only.

There is a lot to learn in using this camera. The instruction manual (about an inch thickness of English and Spanish manuals) looks detailed, and will take some time to read. It looks to have a good index though. The nature of digital photography lends itself to learning, with easy image creation and disposal as a hallmark, and which allows us all to experiment without dramatic film costs.

9 Months, 1800 images.

So far so good. I recently even upgraded the firm ware on the camera to v2 standard, though I have to say that I haven't noticed any difference. After 9 months of clicking away, I have found that I really like this camera. It handles well, it takes photo's well, and it does everything it should. What I never realised is what it would do to my enjoyment of taking photographs. With no cares about film costs, I have been blasting away. Disk space is not yet an issue, as I have barely scratched the surface of a 250GB drive. It is humbling though that I can't get more than 3 months onto a Dual Layer DVD-R though!

Using the ability to just take photos I have got into doing things that I never used to do with photos, that is doing much more bracketing, though not one or two stops here or there, but way off the scale to see the effects. Hey, there is no film, and if they look really terrible I can delete them on camera.

I messed around with the ability to take Black and White shots, but in the end reverted to just using RAW as the output format. It's much more entertaining to mix the channels in Photoshop, to build the contrast and blacks, than rely on either Nikons version, or for that matter just turning the images to grayscale.

As I said, I decided to use only RAW as the output - with exceptions on a couple of occasions - simply because the picture quality is maintained. I know it's a bit more effort to get something out at the end, but it's what I want, not what the camera gives me in JPEG mode (which is not bad, either.) One aspect to this is that RAW images tend to be quite large even with the image compression on, for that reason I got myself a couple of SanDisk 4GB Ultra III cards. These allow me to take about 240 images to a card. One feature of the card that comes out when shooting in JPEG, is that it is FAST. Shooting at full speed, at full resolution, I was able to capture 20 - 30 images in one blast. Not that I do this much, but it does come in useful when the subject is trampolining.

I also bought the MB-D200 power pack, and an extra Li-ion battery. This makes the camera very much larger. It is useful in some circumstances, but in general I think I like the camera without the battery pack on. One useful thing about the battery pack is that you can go out at night and shoot lots of terribly long exposures without running out of juice.

On the subject of night time shooting, the D200 does an admirable job of capturing night scenes. It may not be as good as the competing Canon models with their 35mm sensor, but it's not bad. Really long exposures have an odd side effect of taking ages to get processed to the card. It seems that the sensor just takes far more time to do its noise reduction on really long exposures (2 or more minutes.)

To get those long exposures I shelled out for the MC-36 remote cord. This allows many exposure options. My one gripe with this device is that there is no off switch, so you either have to remember to take out the batteries (2 * AAA's), or accept that they will die sooner rather than later. The cord does fit and work on my F100, which is a good thing should I ever want to blast off all the remaining film in the house at night!

Type Autofocusing Digital Single Lens Reflex with Automatic exposure modes
Lens mount Nikon Bayonet mount
Standard Lens 18-70mm (f3.5-4.5) zoom
Shutter 10.5 megapixel sensor, lockable mirror, 1/8000 sec to 30 seconds. ISO sensitivity from 100 to 1600 with some grain optimization modes.

High ISO Noise

Last weekend I was at the NYC motorcycle show, I took over a 100 shots in the some what low light of the inside of the cavernous Javits Center. I set the camera to it's highest sensitivity (ISO setting), H1.0, This equates to about 3200 ASA. I was able to shoot pretty much all photos without resorting to the flash, or artificial stabalization (using a tripod or resting on another display.) The lens was not an internally stabalized item either. So you can imaging my sorrow when I looked at the images to notice, instantly, that they were hideously 'grainy'; technically noisy. So I have tried to take some snaps that try to show the level of noise that you can get at the higher ISO settings. These snaps are all of the same mess, my desk, at the top three ISO settings, all at f3.5, then decreasing the shutter speed by a stop for each reduction in ISO.

Note these are edge images, they are intended to show sensor noise, not the sharpness, or lack thereof, of the lens.

ISO H1.0 (3200 ASA) 1/60th @ f/3.5

This is full height and about 1/4 image width, reduced to 250x400-ish pixels.

Enlagement of top left corner of whole image : lots of noise

Lots of noise

This is 400x600 pixels of the actual image.

ISO 1600 1/30th @ f3.5

Enlagement of top left corner of whole image : some noise

Some noise

ISO 800 1/15th @ f3.5

Enlagement of top left corner of whole image : much reduced noise

Much reduced noise

So the moral to this story is to be aware of how noisy you want your photos. For a lot of low light photography you can use a tripod, if so, use a lower ISO setting. But if you are looking for the grainy shot, which looks quite good in some black and white shots, take a look at the highest ISO setting.

I think next year though, I will stick to ISO 1600!


© Copyright A. Maclean 2006
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