Nikon D200 Image Quality
Nikon D200 Imaging Characteristics
Imaging and file quality are where the rubber meets the road for digital cameras. The imaging story with the Nikon D200 is a complex one, with both strengths and weaknesses to be found. As we'll see, Nikon took an extremely conservative approach to both anti-aliasing and in-camera sharpening, with the result that JPEG images straight from the camera are quite soft-looking. The upside though, is that they take sharpening on a computer very well, with a great deal of fine detail recorded. Noise-suppression processing is blessedly minimal at low ISOs, but high-ISO images lose significant subject detail. All in all though, a very competent photographic tool. Read on for all the details.
Resolution & Detail
High resolution, 1,600 ~ 1,800 lines of strong detail.
Our laboratory resolution chart revealed distinct line patterns down to about 1,800 lines per picture height horizontally, and 1,600 lines vertically, with extinction past 2,000 lines. (The camera also produced very slight color artifacts at lower line frequencies, visible in the full-sized res target shots.) You could perhaps argue for a horizontal resolution as high as 1,900 lines, and vertical of 1,700 or more, but in both cases aliasing and artifacts rise to levels that nearly obscure the target lines themselves, so we don't feel that the camera can legitimately be said to be properly resolving detail at those levels. Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail. Beware that while you might be able to make out what looks like distinct lines at numbers higher than those we've mentioned here, the camera is just doing its best to continue interpreting the lines. If you zoom in and follow them from the wider portions, you'll see the lines converge and reappear several times, so the lines you see at 1,900 and higher are really only artifacts generated by the camera's imaging system.
|Strong detail to 1,800 lines horizontal
|Strong detail to 1,600 lines vertical
Sharpness & Detail
Rather soft images overall, but no over-sharpening.
Because it takes a very conservative approach to in-camera sharpening, the Nikon D200's images shot with its default settings appear rather soft overall. The good news though, is that because of this conservative approach, the D200's image take subsequent sharpening on the computer very well, and there's essentially no loss of fine detail to sharpening artifacts. (Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing colors and tones right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.) Equally good news is that the D200's noise suppression loses very little detail in areas of subtle contrast at low ISOs.
The next set of shots take a closer look at the D200's handling of fine detail, both from the camera and after processing with unsharp masking in Adobe Photoshop and with the sharpening algorithm in Adobe Camera Raw (which seems to do a noticeably better job than unsharp masking). Since voluminous emails from our readers indicate that many people are weighing purchasing the D200 against the Canon EOS-5D (despite the 5D's significantly higher price point), we also compare the same shots with crops from the 5D.
Several things are clear in the shots above. First, it's easy to see just how much more detail you can pull out of the D200's images (shot with default settings) with just a little work in post-processing. Second, although it only has roughly 25% more pixels than the D200 (which in turn should only translate to about an 11% difference in resolution, the Canon EOS-5D's rendering of fine detail is clearly superior. (Important to remember though, that as of this writing (late July, 2006), the street price of the D200 was only 55% that of the 5D.)
How about one last comparison of detail handling? Another obvious competitor to the D200 is the Canon EOS-30D. An 8-megapixel dSLR, the 30D sells for much closer to the price of the D200. (At this writing, average street price for the 30D body was $1,350 vs the D200's $1,670.) The crops below compare shots from the 30D and D200, both straight from the camera and after processing through Adobe Camera Raw (ACR for short):
D200 from camera
D200 via ACR
EOS-30D from camera
EOS-30D via ACR
Here, the contest is much closer. Straight from the camera, the D200's image is softer, but the 30D introduces annoying diagonal artifacts in the fine lines of the scale. Processed through ACR, the diagonal artifacts go away, but the D200 continues to hold a slight edge in resolution.
So how should you shoot the D200? Let's take a quick look at straight-from-the-camera results with its various sharpness settings:
|Nikon D200 In-Camera Sharpening Settings
The crops above show the importance of looking at large high-contrast edges as well as fine detail when evaluating sharpening algorithms. While the numbers and lines on the scale do look somewhat sharper at settings of +1 or +2, the crops of the bottle top below show that this is occurring at some cost of increased sharpening artifacts, in the form of "halos" around larger edges. Ultimately, best sharpness from the D200 is going to be achieved by shooting in raw and processing the images to JPEG after the fact. If you want to work in JPEGs, your best bet will be to shoot at Sharpness -2 and then apply very strong/tight unsharp masking in Photoshop (400-500% at 0.3 pixels, for instance). If you want to use the JPEGs straight from the camera, for prints to 8x10 inches or smaller, then go ahead and shoot at Sharpness +1 or even +2. (At those print sizes, the halos we see above will be very small, and will produced the desired sharpening effect.)
Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Very good overall color and hue accuracy, though some oversaturation in strong reds.
|In the diagram above, the squares show the original color, and the circles show the color that the camera captured. More saturated colors are located towards the periphery of the graph. Hue changes as you travel around the center. Thus, hue-accurate, highly saturated colors appear as lines radiating from the center.
The plots at right show color error at various points throughout the spectrum, plotted by Norman Koren's Imatest software, measured from test shots of a MacBeth Color Checker. The top plot shows color error in the sRGB color space, the lower plot shows results for the Adobe RGB color space. For more larger plots and detail, refer to the Imatest Results page of this review.
Most consumer digital cameras produce color that's more highly saturated (more intense) than found in the original subjects. This is simply because most people like their color a bit brighter than life. Professional cameras tend to do this less, but most still oversaturate somewhat. The Nikon D200 is fairly typical in its response, with moderate oversaturation in strong reds and blues, but slight undersaturation of yellows and some greens. Saturation is a bit higher in sRGB mode than in Adobe RGB, but both are within what we'd consider to be acceptable limits.
The other important part of color rendition is hue accuracy. Hue is "what color" the color is. Here, the D200 pushed some reds toward warmer, more orange tones, and pushed cyans a bit toward blue, and yellow-greens towards yellow a bit, but overall results were still quite good. Average color error after correcting for saturation variations was 6.69 delta-e units for sRGB and 5.22 for Adobe RGB. The former is higher than some other dSLRs, but not too bad, while the latter is very good, in the upper rank of all cameras we've tested.
Exposure and White Balance
Indoors, incandescent lighting
Warm cast with both Auto and Incandescent white balance settings, but good results with Manual option. About average exposure compensation required.
|Auto White Balance +1.0 EV
|Incandescent WB +1.0 EV
|Manual White Balance +1.0 EV
|2,700K WB +1.0 EV
Color balance indoors under incandescent lighting was warm and reddish in both the Auto and Incandescent white balance modes. On a professionally-oriented camera, you'd expect the Incandescent white balance to be set to match the 3200K of professional studio lighting, so it's not at all unreasonable for the D200 to turn in a rather warm-hued result with the nominally 2,700-2,800K household incandescent lighting used in this shot. We're disappointed with the inability of the D200's auto white balance system to handle this common light source though.
Results were quite good with the Manual and 2,700 Kelvin settings, with the most pleasing color achieved in Manual mode, although the slight warmth seen in the 2,700K sample is very appealing as well. The Nikon D200 required a +1.0 EV exposure compensation boost to get a good exposure, which is about average for this shot. Overall color looks very good, though the red flowers are a little oversaturated and the blue flowers slightly dark and purplish. (A common outcome for this shot, and the D200 did better than most.) Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulb, a very yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the US.
Good color balance, very bright colors. Good exposure accuracy as well.
|Auto White Balance, Auto Exposure
|Auto White Balance, Auto Exposure
Outdoor shots generally showed accurate exposure with good detail in the highlights and shadows. Colors were bright and accurate, though bright reds were a bit strong. Still, very good results overall.
ISO & Noise Performance
Very low noise at the normal sensitivity settings, and only slightly high noise at the highest, but significant loss of subject detail there.
The Nikon D200 produced very low noise levels at low ISO settings, with very little loss of fine detail in areas of subtle contrast (where anti-noise processing takes its toll). Images stayed pretty clean as high as ISO 800, but with a progressive and noticeable loss of subtle detail as the ISO increased. At ISOs 1,600 and 3,200, noise increases further, but the biggest impact is in the loss of subject detail. ISO 1,600 shots under daylight-balanced lighting will be usable for many applications at print sizes as large as 8x10, but noise is definitely visible and the images are softer than at lower ISO settings. In our opinion, ISO 800 is about the limit for high-quality work to be presented at an 8x10 inch print size.
Extremes: Sunlit and low light tests
High resolution with good detail in both the highlights and shadows. Excellent low-light performance, capable of capturing bright images under average city street lighting and much darker conditions.
Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here.)
The Nikon D200 performed well under the deliberately harsh lighting in the test above, and captured bright midtones without sacrificing too much detail in the highlights or shadows. (The shots above were captured using the D200's "Less Contrast" tone adjustment.) Amateur shooters would probably select the +0.7 EV adjustment as having the best midtone values, while pros would doubtless go for the +0.3 or even unadjusted exposure, for better preservation of detail in highlights.
The D200's in-camera tone control works pretty well, but we'd like to see more steps and a range that extended further in the low-contrast direction. The shots above (all shot at +0.7 EV) show the results with the three available settings. (Ignoring Auto, which presumably just adjusts over the same range as the manual adjustments.) The contrast adjustment behaves pretty much as you'd expect, with little or no impact on color saturation. It seems to affect highlights and shadows about equally, another desirable characteristic. Well done.
The Nikon D200 performed very well here, capturing bright, usable images down to the darkest light levels we test at, with all ISO settings. The Auto white balance system produced good overall color as well. The camera's autofocus system worked surprisingly well too, able to focus on the subject down to the darkest light levels we test at, unassisted.
NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. The camera's AF system may not be able to achieve a lock on the subject at low light levels if the camera is hand held.
Very good print quality, very nice color, very usable 13x19 inch prints. ISO 800 images probably acceptable for most users at 8x10 inch print size, ISO 1600 ones start to become marginal there.
Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon i9900 studio printer, and on the Canon iP5200 here in the office. (See the Canon i9900 review for details on that model.)
As we noted elsewhere, the D200's images are quite soft right out of the camera when shot with the default sharpening setting, but they take post-capture sharpening on a computer very well. Carefully sharpened, the D200's images make very good-looking 13x19 inch prints, and prints as large as 20x30 are more than acceptable for wall display. At large print sizes, the D200's images hold together very well, with no sign of pixellation or roughness.
Color-wise, the D200's images print up bright and colorful, without looking the least overdone. Strong reds and blues are pushed a little, but overall saturation is well-controlled, and important "memory colors" such as Caucasian skin tones are handled very nicely.