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The excellent control layout provides a very high level of control over all shooting functions. Both of the command dials, the D-pad and the special function button on the front of the camera can be programmed by the user with a wide range of operations, while the most frequently used settings of quality, ISO, white balance and drive mode are controlled by the large dial on the top left of the body.
There is a degree of colour and image processing control available onboard, but for a camera in this class it is surprisingly restricted. The default JPEG setting is very soft, while the pre-set vivid and more-vivid setting are over-sharpened, over saturated and rather harsh. There is a custom setting available, but again the available options are quite restricted. The best option is of course to shoot in RAW mode and then process the picture after shooting, but the supplied RAW conversion software provides virtually no control at all. Converting RAW images using Adobe Photoshop CS2 with its camera RAW plug-in showed just how much detail it was possible to get out of the pictures, and produced excellent results. If you haven’t got Photoshop you’ll have a hard time getting the best out of this camera, but that best is very good.
Other than that, picture quality was generally excellent, with superb dynamic range and precisely accurate exposure. Image noise control was good from 100-400 ISO, but getting rather shaky towards 800, and quite bad at 1600. There is also the option to go up to 3200 ISO in high-speed mode, but the results were very poor.
As to the crucial question of how it compares to the new Sony Alpha, which uses the same Sony-made 10.2MP APS CCD, it’s tricky one. The Sony is certainly a lot more accessible for the less experienced user, and is of course a lot cheaper and considerably lighter. The D200 however has the edge on build quality, performance and robust durability. As for image quality, I’m still waiting for the Sony RAW processing software, so a conclusive analysis will have to wait, but for camera-processed JPEG images I’d have to give it to the Sony Alpha for sharpness, dynamic range, colour reproduction and image noise control.
The D200 plugs a wide gap in Nikon’s DSLR range, and provides a bridge between the consumer-oriented D50, D70 and venerable D100, and the giddy heights of the D2x and D2h. It is big, heavy and expensive, but it provides the kind of build quality and performance that the serious amateur or semi-professional will be looking for. The lack of in-camera processing control is surprising, but with the right RAW conversion software it can produce truly stunning results.