It’s been a while since I wrote anything about the Nikon D200 camera I want, so I figure many of you are asking yourselves, “How’s Mark doing with that new Nikon D200 camera he ordered?”
I don’t have it yet. There were rumors about the new Nikon D200 well before the official announcement. So on November 1, when retailers announced they were taking pre-orders, a lot of Nikon fans place their orders immediately. I wasn’t so quick to make up my mind, but I finally decided to get in line for a D200 on November 16th.
Nikon released the first batch of D200 bodies to the world in mid-December, fulfilling the Christmas wishes of those who managed to order early on November 1. The rest of us have to wait a while. I had heard that Nikon would be shipping cameras in large batches every month, and a supervisor at Adorama told me that Nikon doesn’t commit to a particular delivery schedule, but that he expected my camera would ship in mid-January. So if all goes well, I should get it any day now.
All is not well. It’s not unexpected. Whenever a new high-tech product is released to the market, early users always uncover problems that squeaked past the quality testing. So far, people have reported four problems with the D200.
First, people reported that the battery pack ran down really fast. With a larger viewscreen, larger files, and the accompanying release of the battery-sucking 18-200 VR lens, nobody expected wonderful battery life, but some people were only getting a couple hundred pictures before running out of power.
That turned out to be no big deal. The D200 uses a the new EN-EL3e battery which seems to have a “learning curve.” After the first few charging cycles, it begins to last much longer.
Second, people were reporting “hot pixels.” That’s when one random pixel is much brighter than those around it. This is not unusual in a camera sensor. It’s a matter of yield: For every flawless sensor to roll out of the fab plant, there might be 5 sensors with one bad pixel, 15 sensors with two bad pixels, 10 with three, and so on. If you ever try to buy a high-quality CCD imaging sensor directly from the manufacturer, you’ll probably have to choose between several different levels of quality, with the flawless ones costing a lot more.
Computer hard disks are the same way: Most of them have a bunch of bad sectors. They’re tested at the factory and the list of bad sectors is written to a special place on the drive. The operating system on your computer knows how to find that list, so it simply doesn’t use the bad parts of the disk. I once worked on a project using an operating system that couldn’t do that. We had to buy a flawless disk drive for three times the price of a normal one. It’s far easier to just not use the bad sectors.
Nikon does the same thing with camera sensors: They program the camera to not use the bad pixels. The image processing software just fills in that pixel with a value that blends well with the surrounding pixels.
Sometimes Nikon doesn’t get all of them, and that’s what people are complaining about. They still have bad pixels in the image. When the image is viewed normally, filling a computer monitor or printed at 8×10, the hot pixels get combined with neighboring pixels and are pretty much invisible. You only really see them if you zoom in and look. And even then you can Photoshop them out. Or if that’s not good enough, you can send the Camera to a Nikon service center and they’ll map out the bad pixels so you don’t see them any more.
The third problem is more serious. People were reporting somewhat mysterious vertical “banding” in some of their images: Thin vertical lines of alternating light and dark tones. All hell broke lose in the on-line forums. People posted pictures of banding, other people didn’t see it and accused them of being Nikon haters, people who saw banding declared the D200 a dud, people accused them of not knowing how to take good pictures, other people accused them of being Canon partisans, people who didn’t even use Nikon equipment declared the D200 a failure because they hated Nikon users…
Amid all the noise and temper, I started to wonder if a D200 was worth waiting for. How bad was this banding? Was it a sample defect in some D200s, or was it just the way D200s took pictures? How often would it appear, and over how much of the image? Very frustrating.
Eventually, the answers started to come out. The problem was real, and tended to show up in certain extreme exposure conditions. If there was an overexposed bright patch in the picture, such as a light bulb or the open sky seen out the window of a darkened room, the nearby dark areas might show very fine banding.
Photographers being photographers, this was cause for a fight. People who had the banding problem posted 200% blow-ups showing the banding. Others who didn’t have the problem at all claimed the original banding photographs were faked. Others responded that because banding that was only visible at 200%, it wasn’t a big deal and wouldn’t show up on the web or in prints. Stock photographers pointed out that stock agencies have no idea what their customers are doing with the images, so they don’t buy images with defects that their customers might notice. This was met with the response that stock agencies also don’t buy poorly exposed images. Some photographers started posting pictures with banding all over without exposure problems. Artistic photographers pointed out that they use overexposure and other forms of technically bad photography to achieve artistic effects, but everybody ignored them. Sports photographers pointed out that they can’t always control exposure either (especially when shooting winter sports with all that bright snow) but that their photos are often used huge or tightly cropped.
While that argument was raging, Nikon engineers diagnosed the problem as something to do with the “compression module” and started repairing cameras people had sent in. The “banding” issue is apparently a quality control problem that Nikon will fix under the warranty in about a week.
For the type of photography I do, banding won’t be a problem unless it occurs on good exposures, and even then I might not care much because I don’t do big prints very often. So if my D200 has banding, I’ll just live with it (or fix it in Photoshop) until I feel like giving up the camera to Nikon for a week or so.
As I write this, a fourth D200 problem may be emerging. Because the lens on a digital SLR is removable, dust can get inside the camera. When the shutter opens to snap a picture, that dust can get on the imaging sensor where it will appear as a small spot in the image. To clean the dust off, you have to put the camera in a special cleaning mode in which it raises the internal mirror out of the way and holds the shutter open. Then you can use an air blower to remove the dust. If that doesn’t work, you have to use a cleaning pad or brush to wipe the sensor clean. (The Nikon manual says you’re never supposed to touch the sensor with anything but since the alternative is to send the camera to Nikon for cleaning, everybody does.)
I’ve read two reports of the shutter snapping shut unexpectedly while people were cleaning the sensor, in both cases causing damage to the shutter when it strikes the obstruction. Replacing the shutter is a $250 repair job. If this ever causes a scratch on the image sensor, it’s going to be a lot more. At this time, even the people who had it happen to them admit it might just be user error—accidentally hitting something that closes the shutter.
In any case, I still don’t have a D200, so it’s not a problem for me.
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