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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Remembering the Pentax K200D


Remembering the Pentax K200D
August 2018, Carl Garrard


It's hard to think that it has been seven years since I reviewed the Pentax K200D. Since then I cannot count how many cameras have come across my desk, or that I have bought and sold. Very recently, my local national forest suffered a huge loss because of arson. A particular area called Trabuco Canyon up near Holy Jim trail and Trabuco Road, have been devastated by this fire. It is (was) the most beautiful hiking area for locals, now burned down because of a singular self centered act. As a result, I had desired to review some images I made of Trabuco Canyon and the surrounding areas over the years, and forgot I had made many with this remarkable camera. I was stunned to see how well the raw images held up, and relived the magical quality of its 10.2mp CCD sensor. Consequently, more memories came back to me about how much I liked using it too. The K200D ended up being everything I wanted my first DSLR to be (the Sony A100), but ended up being much more than I expected.



Such a well laid out design. Even the ample (even by today's standards) rear screen is centered to the viewfinder eyepiece. All the exposure and other adjustments to the right side, and menu/viewing and info to the left. Very easy to remember, perfectly sized camera. The rubber thumb pad is so comfortable. Yes I like that the shake reduction has it's own switch. The K200D will turn it off automatically in bulb mode (smart!) but its great to have a switch than dive into a menu.

Taken with my Canon 6D and 24-70mm f/4. Note the excellent color and gradation of the images, plus the excellent dynamic range overall. Just kidding, this is from my K200D and kit lens. This area is just ashes now. So sad.

Call it timing, call it gear lust, or call it progress, all of those things contributed to my relatively short lived time with this camera. Pentax was quickly improving its lineup, sending me cameras to review, and I was quickly outfitting myself with a full blown Pentax set up. I quickly acquired a K20D, then the K7 and K5 shortly thereafter, and several lenses. I was totally hooked on Pentax, they were different than every other manufacturers' products. Somehow, the K200D ended up gathering dust and not getting any practical use. Not because I didn't like it, but because I was so busy during this time reviewing cameras, being a new father, and so many other things were all taking my precious time. Honestly, I don't even remember selling it, and I wish I hadn't. I still have my K20D (and my K01 ironically) to this day, but no other Pentax DSLRS, and only two small prime lenses hanging around.

Camera's in this price class never came with a top mounted LCD at all, so you have to give it a pass that it isn't illuminated. A very clean top panel, with the EV button right where it needs to be.

To me the K200D was a DSLR I took my time with. It was, in a way, sort of the Leica M version of a DSLR. I used it slow and deliberately, I did so because I liked to earn a good photograph. It was compact, weatherproof, comfortable as  hell, and very easy to operate. It didn't impress my photographer friends at the time, and I'll be the first to admit that I was a bit impressionable and intimidated by all the "pro level" cameras around me. But I really enjoyed using it, and that reason alone was this intangible quality that those other cameras didn't have. Those cameras were big, complicated (albeit impressive) beasts. It's one of the cameras I look back on with fond memories, offering much more capability than other cameras in its class ever did, and more impressive in use than a glance or two at a spec sheet would imply.

With its combination of winning features and ease of use, the K200D offered a sense of value- a sort of hidden secret amongst the raft of newer cameras that hit the market at that time. For an avid hiker and outdoorsman, it was a compact and reliable companion that I didn't fear taking with me anywhere, nor in any type of elements. For a short period of my life it became my sidekick, I knew it like the back of my hand and it always rewarded me with an excellent experience and excellent images.
This kind of weather sealing (over 60 seals total) was unheard of in most DSLR's let alone in a camera of this price. Even today, good luck finding a weather sealed DSLR from any maker but Pentax under $699.00


A particular quality that I liked about it, was the way it rendered images from its 10.2mp CCD sensor. At the time photographers were in debate about CMOS and CCD, and to this day I know for a fact that owners of CCD cameras knew more about what they were talking about than those who owned CMOS only. But this particular camera had something special about it, even when compared to the K10D that supposedly used the same 10.2mp CCD. I had both cameras, and I still preferred the output on the K200D. The images seemed progressively more refined, and unique amongst all 10mp DSLR's at the time.


And there were many 10mp DSLRS at that point in time! Something about how the raw images looked, with great rich color, excellent grain characteristics, good dynamic range, and a realism that looked wholesome, untouched, almost virgin in appearance. And prints, oh my goodness, don't get me started on how good 20x30" prints looked, I mean wow. The way the 14 bit processor and sensor worked together, were near perfect harmony. Pentax Japan did a great job at trying to explain the magic behind the images, much more so than Pentax did in the USA.




Although the output was technically 12bit raw files, something special was being done at the processing level that seems to jive with the technical information above from Pentax Japan. Please click on the images I've included further in this review below, you'll see what I mean.


Now burned to the ground, but least I've got some great images of Horsethief Canyon with the K200D. The raw files really hold up tremendously.

If the image quality alone were good enough reason to get the K200D, then everything else it had going for it was a supreme bonus. I can't recall a DSLR that had better handling and ease of use than the K200D. Although it lacked a lot of bells and whistles, this camera had all the absolute essentials located in the perfect place. It's grip is absolutely fantastic, its buttons well spaced and easy to use with gloves, its viewfinder- more than adequate (especially with the O-ME53 magnifier) and loaded with the right essential information, exceptional battery life with lithium AA's, and its eager focusing in good light with its SAFOX XIII focusing system, all added up to making a very pleasurable and reliable little workhorse. It was also wrought with thoughtful little design decisions everywhere about it, reminders that photographers just like myself had designed it just for me.

At the time the K200D was loaded, and this is only one small section of a full sales brochure on it.

You may laugh, but I fall in love with good cameras. Photography is hard. It's a challenge of the mind, and of the body sometimes to the absolute extremes. Last thing that I want then, is to use a camera that momentarily frustrates you, or obstructs your ability to take advantage of those fleeting moments. When a camera like the K200D becomes second nature to use, a literal extension of  the self, and has been there with you working hard all day without ever frustrating you- well, yeah, I begin to love it. In a way, it's this silent companion, that at the end of a hard day's work you look at sitting on your desk and say "way to go buddy, thanks for not letting me down". I wanted to high five my K200D every time I used it.

This area is all ashes now. And I still remember using my K200D on this 21 mile hike with my good friend Keith who's no longer with us (R.I.P bud...). I remember coming home exhausted and putting my K200D on my desktop, getting a shower and something to eat, and coming back to some very gorgeous images. I just looked at the camera and said, "thanks, we're going to have some fun together".

Compared to my Sony A100, it was quieter, faster focusing, had better "intangible" qualities, better image quality at higher and lower ISO's, it was weather proof, it had more interesting features that supported creativity (hello, catch-in focus!), better battery life, and in many ways it was downright much more fun to use. Heck even compared to my more advanced DSLR's, it was much more of a pleasure to use, and by sheer capability in some respects, their equal. It even had a battery grip option, wireless flash capabilities, and a wireless remote! For the time, the K200D had incredible value compared to it's peers, and even today it can still hold its own.

The little big guy with the battery grip installed. The K200D could do so much other DSLRS in its class could only dream of. I felt its image quality was definitely better than the 20D which cost more and is bigger and heavier too.
On top of all that, it was built like a fricken tank. Many DSLR's in its price range at the time felt like they all were trying to save production costs on build quality, but not the K200D. As you can see below, the small image at the bottom left is the stainless steel chassis of the K200D. Yeah its weather and splash proof and they still made the steel out of stainless. Talk about over building! The rest of the body was a thick, high grade, fiber reinforced composite with no cheap feeling buttons or dials. Clearly the K200D was built to last a lifetime or two.


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So, why the heck did I let it go? Of all the reasons I cited earlier, none of them really make a whole lot of sense now. I have a weather proof DSLR and lens, but its a bigger, heavier, and more expensive set up. I worry about how much I spent on it and the lens every time I take it out of the house for a photo trip or for a hike, and its too big and heavy to put in my Camelbak for my mountain bike rides or trail run outings. With fall fast approaching, and winter shortly thereafter, I desired a more compact, lightweight, and yet very capable DSLR set up.

But I don't want to spend a lot of money, not because I don't have it, but because I don't want to worry about the camera. I looked into a few options, tempted with some newer ones. And of all the used Pentax options for smaller bodies, there was only one decision to be made. I bought a K200D, again.

Yeah a camera from 2008. I also purchased a couple lenses I liked back then too, the 18-55mm WR, and 50-200mm WR. These two lenses were excellent performers then, and quite affordable. Bang for the buck, they didn't really get any better, and they still perform really well by today's standards.The whole package is much more affordable now; the entire set up cost me less than 300 bucks. A fully capable weatherproof semi-pro DSLR set up for less than 300 bucks, all like new. Boy photographers are a spoiled lot.

And I thought the K200D was a steal back then, hah, I feel like I'm shoplifting it now. This is a set up that I literally don't have to worry about bringing with me anywhere, for any reasons. And it's small, and very lightweight. The two lenses will give me a 27-300mm equivalent field of view, and both are excellent for close up work. No macro lens is needed. Besides ultra wide angle, that pretty much covers most compositions and such.


Note the indentation on the left side of the camera by the D badge, that helps you  hold the camera for portrait composition. Thoughtful. And isn't it a simple looking camera? This kit lens isn't weather proof, but you can get one that is for under 100 bucks.

K200D Secondary Impressions

So what are my impressions of the K200D seven years later? Well first of all, I covered most of my impressions already in the review I posted here in 2011. Not much has changed from my initial impressions and review (surprisingly), but I do have a few more things to add considering I've got a bit more experience with newer and more capable cameras.

First of all, lets talk auto focus. It's better than I thought it was in terms of its tenacity. Even though it's relying on a body motor  to focus lenses, it's rather spunky and spirited in good light, and persistent (if much slower) in lower light. I like that it's persistent, just like my first review I noted the same. I found that it will lock on pretty well on quick moving subjects so long as you are using the center AF point and the subject has good contrast and reasonable size. Using newer lenses like the HD 55-300mm seems to help matters even more. For landscapes, just aim for a good contrast point, and focus. Easy peasy, and reliable.

This wild garden spider (not in a garden, but in my local hills) kept bouncing her web in a defensive stance, but the K200D's AF tenaciously (D) kept trying to keep up with her.

Size and weight, well, its both bigger and heavier than I remember. It's like a mini K20D,  not much smaller, and not that much lighter. However, its noticeable enough for me to want to bring it instead. Besides that it weighs less and is smaller, it seems to fit my hands better too. It's not too small for larger lenses at all, but smaller lenses make it feel super compact. With that said, I love how the K200D feels in hand. It  has this just right size and weight feel to it that make it a reassuring camera to use. It's first generation built in image stabilization works just fine too, and it does make a difference for the positive that you will notice if you turn it off.

Handling is fantastic. It's a simple camera that is easy to put to memory by feel. There are a couple menu dives necessary at first till you get used to it, but when you do its an organized and simple experience there too. I want more readers to try out older cameras because they give you a real perspective on just how complicated new cameras have become. Simple can be better at times, and for me that's more often than not when it comes to photography. Here the K200D will not disappoint, it handles extremely well.

One area that I noticed about the K200D that makes it challenging to use at times, is the lack of live view. It's viewfinder isn't especially bright, but it is large enough and magnified enough for normal shooting, even indoors. I use the magnifier I discussed earlier, and that helps for manual focusing. But, for one handed shooting opportunities you may be doing some guess work on your compositions and focus point. That's normal for older cameras without live view however, its a challenge that sort of makes you have to get a bit more creative and engaged in the photographic process. So if you lack patience, you may not like the K200D in this area. I do however.

Sure there is some noise at ISO 1600, but it's well controlled and Raw files look really good.

Image quality is better than I recall too. Especially through the ISO range up to ISO 1600. Noise is so good at 1600, it makes me wonder why they didn't include a 3200 option, but that's in the past now. It likes to protect highlights, and rightfully so because they will blow out pretty quickly if you aren't careful. It's a bit of a CCD ISO invariant sensor in a way because the noise is minimal and you can shoot to protect highlights and bring up shadows without a lot of penalty. Pretty darn good for an old 2008 camera with a CCD! Speaking of,  I love that it has in camera raw conversion on such an old camera, and it includes several effects such as IR etc to boot.

ISO 100, Raw. Rich colors and gradations. Such a pleasant CCD!

Related to image quality is metering. Metering is interesting with this camera, having only a 16 segment metering system, its a bit more finicky than current systems. Yet I find when it nails exposure, it really nails it. Let it underexpose by 2/3rds of a stop, its okay, it's designed to protect highlights and you can raise your shadows either in camera, or on your computer later.
K200D Final Synopsis

Will the K200D be a camera that stands the test of time for digital SLR's like few digital cameras have, and so many older film cameras have? I think it has a good chance too. It has a very reliable nature, it’s simple, it has a CCD which puts it in less abundance than CMOS DSLRS, a limited but very good performing ISO range (having a classic appeal), and a very capable overall feature set. Just enough of what you need, and not much of what you don’t. For those that like CCD, this is a camera to covet. The image quality reminds me of my Leica M8 at base ISO, only with much better ISO performance beyond that. Also its reliance on AA batteries helps to future proof it too.

As a compact, all weather solution, the K200D fits the bill. Find a good used one, put on a weather sealed kit lens (or higher priced 16-80mm), and have a go. You'll find it to be a more capable camera than you might think. It's not as fast or convenient as the newer cameras, but that's part of its charm and you cannot beat the price. Plus it has that CCD look that new cameras just can't give you at all, and to me that's one of its biggest charms. Also, using rechargeable AA eneloops gives you absolutely stellar battery life. If you want to hone your photography chops, then this is a good camera for the task. You will not be distracted with live view or video, or any other of the more modern features. Instead you'll have to focus on being creative, and working your exposure and compositions. Wait, they call that photography.

Overall I love the K200D and I'm glad I got it again. Sure its a challenging camera compared to newer models in some ways, but it's loads easier to use than my Leica M's (8,9 and M-D), and I love those cameras. Also, it's not complicated, and feels like a camera, not a multi-faceted electronic device. If you need a camera for pro use, this probably isn't it. But as far as an opportunistic freelancer's camera goes, it's quite excellent if you aren't in a rush to make images.

Stay Focused,

Carl Garrard

Heal fast Horsethief Canyon, you were my favorite local hike. Down with arsonists, make them pay.





















4 comments:

  1. Coming to Pentax after Olympus quit making DSLRs, my first camera was the K20d, made about the same time as your K200d. I loved that camera. I never found fault with it but nevertheless bought the K7, K5, etc and later on when my son needed a camera I gave him my K20d. (later I gave him my K7 & K5 as well, but by that time I had the K5iis, K3, and K3ii. I've since acquired other Pentax cameras but after reading your article decided there was no reason I shouldn't get another K20d, and so just this evening ordered one from Japan with a shutter count of 4591.

    I don't know how much I'll use it, but I value it more than other cameras I have sitting on my shelf. Will it seem as magical to me now as it once did? I look forward to finding out.

    Lawrence Helm

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    1. Lawrence,

      I still have my K20D and I have the upgraded focusing screen and eye level magnifier for it too. Its still a fun and surprisingly capable camera to this day. I find using the DR setting for ISO to be very helpful on the Samsung chip. To me the K20D is still one of the finest bodies in terms of the left and right grips while not being too big. I love the attention to detail on the portrait orientation style grip on the left, its very unique, helpful, and a thoughtful design addition. Take it out for a spin, with a newer lens (18-135 or 20-40mm LTD are ideal on it).

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  2. Nice write-up. I still have my K200D, my first good digital camera, and would use it more if I could get batteries to work in it reliably. It has a Katzeye focusing screen in it too, so is perfect for use with old lenses.

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    1. I use Sanyo (now Panasonic I believe) eneloops, never had one issue. Try them they are the white ones :). Its a fun camera to use, still to this day.

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