Kodak EasyShare Z980 Review
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The Kodak EasyShare Z980 is a new super-zoom digital camera, sporting a 24x optical zoom that provides an incredible focal range of 26-624mm! This covers every imaginable subject, from wide-angle landscapes to close-up action and nature shots, with the built-in optical Image Stabilizer thankfully on hand to help keep your pictures sharp. The 12 megapixel Kodak Z980 also offers a feature that will instantly catch the attention of every serious photographer out there - namely RAW format support - plus a 3 inch LCD screen, hotshoe for an external flash, 1280x720 pixel HD movie mode, macro mode of 1cm, full range of creative exposure modes (P/A/S/M), and Smart Capture mode for beginners. Available in black, the Kodak EasyShare Z980 has a launch price of $399 / £379.
Ease of Use
The Kodak EasyShare Z980 is bigger and heavier than all of the other super-zoom cameras currently on the market, measuring 90.5 × 123.7 ×105 mm and weighing 415g without batteries, with the massive lens barrel dominating the overall design. In hand, the Z980 feels quite good, with a deep rubberised grip that provides a secure hold and good resting place for your fingers. The shutter release is in a natural location for your index finger, with the rear zoom buttons falling under your right thumb. Despite the plastic body, everything feels fairly well built, although it doesn't match the build quality of the Olympus SP-590UZ or the Nikon P90. The Z980 comes with a very brief quick start guide in 10 different languages - there's not even a full PDF manual on the product CD. Not much use at all if you're taking pictures and need to find out what a particular option does. You'll have to download the Extended user guide from Kodak's website (presuming you have internet access).
The Kodak EasyShare Z980 is powered by four rechargeable AA-sized batteries (supplied in the box along with a recharger). The battery compartment door is located on the bottom plate and has an awkward plastic lock which often resisted being moved into place. The SD / SDHC memory card slot is also located here, so you need to be careful not to spill the 4 batteries all over the floor when changing cards. In an emergency, you can save about 6 Fine JPEG images in the Z980's 64MBs of internal memory. Next to it is the tripod socket, which is unfortunately made of plastic and not aligned with the lens' optical axis. You can attach the supplied plastic vertical grip via the tripod mount, to make it easier to take pictures in the vertical, portrait orientation. It does make the second shutter-release button (see below) easier to use, but also makes an already large camera even bigger. The vertical grip's own tripod socket is usefully inline with the lens' optical axis though.
There are no controls on the left side of the camera body (looking from the rear). On the right side of the body is a rubberized plastic flap protecting the DC In and USB/AV Out ports. Despite the Z980 being able to record HD video footage, there's disappointingly no HDMI socket for connecting the camera to a HD TV. In addition, at the base of the hand-grip is what at first glance looks like a second shutter-release button - and this is actually what it turns out to be. The Kodak EasyShare Z980 is the first ever camera that we've reviewed with two built-in shutter buttons, the top one for use when the camera is horizontally aligned in landscape mode, and the second when you turn it on its side to use in portrait mode. Unfortunately, that's about as clever as the system gets, because the camera can't actually auto-detect which orientation is currently being used. Incredibly, you actually have to move the switch located next to the top shutter button to manually toggle between the two shutter buttons! Even worse, the LCD display remains in landscape mode, even if you're shooting or playing back images in portrait mode, making it difficult to change the camera's settings. It's almost as if Kodak got half-way through this feature's implementation and then just gave up, despite the fact that many rival models can seamlessly switch between landscape and portrait orientations.
The rear of the camera is dominated by the large 3.0 inch monitor, which despite being described by Kodak as "high-resolution" actually has a relatively low resolution of 201K, dots, resulting in a rather grainy display. Directly above it is the electronic viewfinder and a button that toggles between the LCD and EVF. There's no dioptre adjustment available and after a short period of use the EVF actually made my eyes hurt - I soon gave up and exclusively used the main LCD screen. Vertically aligned along the right-hand edge of the LCD screen are four buttons - Delete, Menu, info and Playback. To the far right of the LCD is the ubiquitous navigation pad with four arrow buttons and an OK button in the middle. Unlike most digital cameras, there are no functions mapped to the arrow buttons - instead they are used to navigate through the menu system and playback of images. Directly above the navigation pad is the small orange Share button, which you can use to set pictures as Favourites and / or tag them for upload to your preferred online service.
The Kodak EasyShare Z980's 24x optical zoom lens spans 26mm up to an incredible 624mm. It's not quite as far-reaching as the 26x zoom of the current world leader, the Olympus SP-590 UZ, but is more than enough for almost every subjects that you'll ever encounter. The lens' maximum aperture is a fast f/2.8 at wide angle and a respectable f/5.0 at telephoto. As mentioned previously, the lens is operated via the rather spongy zoom buttons on the rear of the camera. The supplied lens-cap which clips into the front of the lens barrel is annoyingly ineffective, simply falling off the camera whenever I stored it in a pocket or camera-bag.
Taking hand-held photos with any super-zoom camera, especially in the longer half of the zoom range, carries the risk of your photos being ruined by camera shake. This is where the Z980's optical image stabilizer comes to the rescue. The Z980 counteracts camera shake by automatically shifting the sensor in the opposite direction. Image stabilisation can only be activated via the Setup menu, and is turned on by default. When set to On, image stabilisation kicks in whenever you depress the shutter release halfway, giving a faint, continuous sound. The live view on the LCD or EVF shows the stabilisation effect - the image appears to be floating in an almost surreal way. With image stabilisation, you can use about two times longer exposure times to take blur-free hand held shots than without it. This also means that image stabilisation is no cure-all - you will still have to mind your posture and hold the camera properly if you want sharp results, especially at the telephoto end. Using the EVF instead of the LCD and pressing the eyepiece firmly against your head is also an advisable technique.
The Kodak EasyShare Z980 offers a comprehensive range of shooting modes, accessed by the DSLR-like Mode Dial on top of the camera. Smart Capture mode is Kodak's take on the automatic, do-it-all mode aimed at complete beginners. It automatically detects faces in the frame, analyzes the scene for other content and for lighting, and applies KODAK PERFECT TOUCH Technology to enhance the image. Moving slightly beyond Smart Capture, you can turn the mode dial to the SCN setting and choose from the 16 scene modes available. None of these require you to know anything about f-stops, shutter speeds, white balance or depth of field - all you have to do is tell the camera what type of scene you are planning to take a picture of by picking the appropriate scene mode.
The P, A, S and M modes are for those who already know the basics of photography - or are at least willing to learn them, giving you more control over how the picture is taken. The small Jog Dial, located to the right of the Mode Dial, is called into action when working in these modes. Five key settings are displayed along the bottom of the LCD and EVF - aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, flash compensation and ISO speed. Depending on the mode chosen, you can move between them by scrolling the Jog Dial left or right with your right fore-finger, then press it in to access a specific setting, and scroll again to change that setting's values. It works quite well in practice, giving quick access to the camera's key creative settings, although people with large hands will find the Jog Dial a little on the small side.
The Movie mode allows you to specify the resolution (1280x720 HQ, 640x480 HQ or 320x240) and the AF Control (Continuous or Single). The frame rate is set at 30fps for all three movie resolutions. Video is recorded in the QUICKTIME MPEG-4 format with stereo sound. You can record up to 29 minutes of 1280x720 HQ footage and 80 minutes in the 640x480 HQ and 320x240 modes. You can use the optical zoom during movie recording.
The Kodak EasyShare Z980 offers a variety of auto-focusing modes. You can toggle between Single and Continuous AF, turn Face Detection On or Off, set the AF Zone to Center or Multi, and choose from normal Auto Focus, Macro, Super Macro and Landscape. There's also the welcome option of Manual focusing. In the MF Focus mode you focus the lens manually using the left and the right arrow keys on the navigation pad. To aid you in achieving focus, the camera displays a horizontal distance scale and also magnifies the entire frame, but not by enough to make it easy to tell if the subject is in focus or not.
The Z980 starts-up in about three seconds - just don't forget to remove the lens cap, which will be knocked off by the lens zooming out slightly. Once powered up, the camera is reasonably responsive. It takes about 4 seconds to zoom from the widest to the longest focal length. The auto-focus system is quick in good light and the camera achieves focus most of the time indoors or in low-light situations, helped by the AF assist lamp. It takes about 1 second to store a JPEG image, allowing you to keep shooting as they are being recorded onto the memory card - there is a very brief LCD blackout between each image.
|Memory Card Slot||Battery Compartment|
The Kodak EasyShare Z980 has two continuous drive modes, accessible via the Drive button on top of the camera (the self-timer options are also accessed via this button). Full-resolution shots can only be captured at a pedestrian 1fps for up to 6 frames, but the camera also offers a faster 5fps High Speed mode for up to 9 frames, albeit at 3.1 megapixel quality. This sounds more exciting, but the quality is not what you'd expect, even when you consider the reduced pixel count.
The Z980 is one of the few superzooms to offer a RAW capture mode, in addition to the standard JPEG format. This initially sounds promising and a real attraction if you want to edit your pictures in post-production without affecting the image quality. Unfortunately, there are a number of caveats which will ultimately put most people off. You can only record a RAW file or JPEG, not both at the same time, and the camera completely locks-up for about 5 seconds while the RAW file is processed. At the time of writing, there is no software that can actually edit the Z980's RAW files, not even the Kodak EasyShare 7.1 image editing application that ships with the camera. You're limited to a few quick fixes, such as changing the noise suppression, sharpness, exposure, shadows and highlights and white balance, and then saving the RAW file into another format (BMP or JPEG). You can also "develop" the RAW files in-camera and save them as a JPEG copy, but it offers even less settings than Kodak EasyShare 7.1 and it kind of defeats the main purpose of shooting in RAW and editing later on a bigger screen. Third-party vendors like Adobe may add support to Photoshop, Lightroom et al in the future, but at the moment editing the Z980's RAW files is a frustrating experience.
When it comes to flash photography, the Kodak EasyShare Z980 has a good range of options. It has a pop-up flash which offers a wide range of shooting modes, and flash exposure compensation is also provided in the PASM shooting modes. The flash pops-up automatically when a particular mode is selected. There's also a dedicated hotshoe on top of the camera for use with an external flashgun. The user guide states that the Kodak P20 Zoom Flash is compatible with the Z980's hotshoe, but it should accept other third-party flashguns.
Once you have captured a photo, the Z980 has a reasonable range of options when it comes to playing, reviewing and managing your images. You can instantly scroll through the images that you have taken, view thumbnails (up to 28 onscreen at the same time and in Favourites, Calendar and Tagged views), zoom in and out up to 8x magnification, view slideshows with music and effects, delete, protect, crop, tag, copy and add a sound clip to an image. You can also select favourite images, apply Kodak's Perfect touch Technology to instantly improve the image, and set various print, email and share options. The Info button toggles you to set the image as a favourite, edit tags, and view thumbnails. Annoyingly you have to go into the Playback menu to view detailed settings information about each picture, such as the ISO rating and aperture / shutter speed. There is a small brightness histogram available during both shooting and playback. In addition, for movies you can choose a single frame and print it, trim the beginning or end, set bookmarks within a movie for easy navigation, and make a 4-, 9-, or 16-up picture from a video clip.