Kodak EasyShare Z981 Review
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The Kodak EasyShare Z981 is a new super-zoom digital camera that looks and feels just like a DSLR. Replacing the Z980 model, the Z981 features an even bigger 26x, 26-676mm lens complete with built-in optical Image Stabilizer. The 14 megapixel Kodak Z980 also offers a feature that will instantly catch the attention of every serious photographer out there - namely RAW format support - plus 720p HD movies, a 3 inch LCD screen, macro mode of 1cm, full range of creative exposure modes (P/A/S/M), Smart Capture mode for beginners, and runs on four AA batteries. Available in black, the Kodak EasyShare Z981 has a recommended retail price of £399.99 / $329.95.
Ease of Use
When the first proper consumer level digital cameras started emerging in 1998 or thereabouts, film stalwart Kodak was at the forefront of the charge - and, incredibly, charging around £1,000 for a one megapixel camera with it. Times change though, the company failed to maintain its early lead and promise, and nowadays Kodak is probably fairly low down your list when weighing up which digital camera to buy. Hoping to re-assert itself in your conscience therefore is the new EasyShare Z981, a 14 effective megapixel, f/2.8, 26x optical zoom lens bridge model that resembles a DSLR, though the lens is fixed to the body. Also close to a DSLR proper, albeit an entry class one, is the price, at a high sounding £399.99.
This being Kodak, the EasyShare Z981 itself is not the most petite example of a model with this big zoom specification either. Overall it's nearly a third larger than Pentax's own similarly specified 26x zoom X90 rival. Partly due to the four AAs it utilises for power instead of physically slimmer lithium ion pack, this almost makes the Z981 bigger than some entry level DSLRs.
That said, compared with the weight (this Kodak is nearly 520g without accessories), bulk, and money required for a DSLR set up with a similar 'all in one' zoom range, equivalent here to 26-676mm in 35mm film terms, perhaps we shouldn't be overly harsh of this still more compact contender. Its four pre-charged NiMH rechargeable AAs come in the box with the camera, along with a compatible mains charger.
On a more positive note, though it lacks a certain amount of finesse, the Z981 includes features we've never found on this class of bridge camera before - including not one but two shutter release buttons, so the camera can more easily be used in either landscape or portrait fashion; like a semi pro DSLR in that respect, the second shutter release being located near the base of the grip. Raw capture is also offered alongside JPEG; often the case on bridge models perhaps, but not always guaranteed. And, this being an EasyShare camera, it attempts to live up to its name with a dedicated share button given prominence on the backplate, promising upload to the main social networking sites and Kodak's own online gallery service.
Whilst it also offers 1280x720 pixels at 30 frames per second HD video recording, surprisingly perhaps there's no dedicated record button though; the feature is selected via the shooting mode dial and filming commences and ends with a press of the shutter release button. A rubberized surround to the lens aids two-handed grip, adding much needed steadiness when shooting at extreme telephoto setting. The camera's comfortably rounded (if not particularly 'deep') grip also sports a nicely tactile rubber coating to prevent slippage in the heat of the action.
The Z981 comes bundled with what at first glance looks like a comprehensive hard copy manual, but in fact reveals itself to be merely a quick start guide covering the essential basics in just about every language under the sun.
Like the competing Pentax X90 ultra zoom we had in for review at the same time as the Kodak, the look and feel of the Z981 is obviously dominated by that whopper of zoom, extending some extra two and half inches from the end of its housing when at maximum telephoto setting. In use you can hear the AF constantly making adjustments (if left on the default continuous AF setting), and this is inevitably picked up by the built in mono microphone located top right of the lens when recording, video ritten along with stills to optional SD card or 64MB internal capacity. Over at the opposite side of the lens is a porthole -shaped window housing AF assist and self-timer indicator lamp, and directly above the lens a raised ridge hides the built-in pop up flash when it's not in use. Its fully automatic activation is prompted, in the absence of a dedicated pop-up button or lever, by the selection of an 'on' setting from among the flash options, which include a red eye reduction setting alongside auto, forced or off.
And whilst that's it for features and functionality on the Z981's front plate - largely because the optic swallows up most of the available 'real estate' - the top plate is slightly more interesting, extra room provided for operational buttons and dials because the depth of the camera is slightly broader than the norm due to its reliance on the aforementioned AA batteries rather than slender lithium ion cell. So, up top, nestling just behind an off/off switch which powers up the camera from cold in around two seconds, we get a familiar penny-sized bottle top style shooting mode wheel, with a choice of 10 capture options.
Ranged around this dial are a fully automatic smart capture 'intelligent' option, recognising common scenes and subjects and making the necessary adjustments, plus separate portrait and shutter speed boosting sports modes. There's also a separate two or three shot stitching panorama option and a collection of 16 scene modes that, showing the Z981's potential audience for young families, kicks off with a option for photographing children and further includes backlit, night portrait and candlelight options, along with the familiar fireworks, flowers and text settings. Indicated by graphical icons for the most part, these are all summoned up with a twist of the dial to the relevant setting and a press of the OK button at the centre of the camera's rear command/thumb pad. The dial itself has just the right amount of 'give' without feeling loose, whilst the thumb pad is equally responsive. Writing times are a bit sluggish though; top resolution JPEGS taking all of five seconds to be committed to memory whilst Raw files prompt the switching on of a kettle.
This being an enthusiast model at the same time, the Z981 also features a quartet of creative modes in program, aperture, shutter priority and manual exposure modes. Each of these options adds a live histogram to the screen display and bottom of screen toolbar comprising shutter, aperture, ISO and +/- 2EV exposure settings. These options are scrolled through and adjusted/implemented with subsequent downward press and twist of a small, top mounted jog dial. In practice it takes a period of familiarity to do this with accuracy - it's all too easy to scroll past the setting you actually want.
The final option on the shooting dial meanwhile is the one with which to select the camera's video mode. Here the user can flip between the default 1280x720p high definition setting and a standard definition 640x480 pixels resolution. Focus can also be switched from the default of continuous AF - with the lens constantly 'hunting' - to single AF.
Sitting in front of the jog dial on the top plate are a trio of identically sized buttons for, from left to right, summoning up on-screen the available flash settings, selecting focus mode (macro, infinity and manual focus options - the latter offering up a rudimentary slider running from '0' to infinity) plus, thirdly, the camera's self timer and continuous shooting options.
Just in front of this trio sits a smaller switch for swapping between the top-mounted shutter release button and activating the one at the base of the handgrip, should you be shooting portrait fashion. To be honest this second button feels a little unnecessary; it's much quicker - and most importantly, still manageable - to press the main top plate button (even) when turning the camera on its side. Shooting the alternative way feels slightly reminiscent of operating a medium format camera, whilst at the same time makes it tricky to maintain a firm grip when hand holding. If the camera was regularly placed on a tripod and flipped through 90°, the positioning of the second shutter release button would start to make more sense.
The back of the camera meanwhile looks approachable and unthreatening due to not being unduly crowded with buttons; indeed the most visible one here is the Kodak-unique 'Share' button to the right of the 3-inch, 230k dot resolution LCD, the composition/review screen that takes up almost two thirds of the available space. Like Pentax's X90 there's the option of switching to the use of an electronic viewfinder range immediately above; swapping between the two is as easy as pressing the dedicated button tucked away bottom left of the EVF. The resolution provided by the latter (if sunlight renders visibility on the larger screen difficult) is an identically average 230k dots, but at least the field of view offered is 100%.
Top right of the back screen is a narrow rocker switch for operating the zoom, which is so responsive that it requires some practice to be able to zoom in or out in a fluid motion. Getting from maximum wideangle to extreme telephoto takes a very speedy two seconds. This narrow switch could also have surely been made slightly larger and so more comfortable; there looks to be enough surrounding space.
To the right of the screen, immediately adjacent to the panel itself and running from its top to bottom we find four operational buttons. The top control, illustrated with an icon resembling a hot water bottle is the delete key, and the next one down, with a clipboard style icon is the menu button. Press this and in capture mode users are presented with two screens; the first naturally with the capture options - including picture size, image quality and natural or 'high' colour options - and the second full of the housekeeping-style set up choices, such as adjusting LCD brightness, date, camera sounds and time as well as calling up a compositional grid, which might have been better served by being located among the capture options. It's also among the latter selection that we find a means of formatting the memory.
|Battery Compartment||Memory Card Slot|
The third button down, right of screen and marked with an 'i', is the display or info button. Press this and the Z981's screen is cleared of any operational icons or text to leave only the one icon showing remaining battery life, plus of course a relay of the scene before the camera lens. The fourth button down meanwhile, and given less prominence perhaps than it ought to be, is the playback button.
To the right of these options, and bottom right on the back itself is a four-way directional control pad with OK button at its centre with which to affect any changes among settings. Additional functions aren't attributed to the directional arrows as on competing models; this is a navigation device pure and simple to be used in conjunction with the presented mode options and menu screens described above.
With lugs left and right of the camera's sides for attaching a strap and slide-on lens cap, on the Z981's right hand flank - as seen from the back - we find a protected compartment housing separate AV out and mains power-in ports. There's no separate HDMI connection for hooking the camera directly up to your flat panel TV here; unusual, when Kodak has provided such a facility on cheaper models.
The base of the camera meanwhile features a centrally located screw thread for attaching a tripod, and, in the base of the grip, the joint battery and card compartment.
The sliding catch for the door protecting this compartment was unusually stiff on our review sample, resulting in it having to be almost forced open and shut. We had to push down on the batteries, which were always threatening to break free, quite hard whilst sliding closed the door. Opening or shutting it became something we wished to do with the least frequency - which ultimately is not particularly conducive to picture taking.
So what of said images; does the Z981 cut the mustard as a reliable all in one that can cope with a variety of situations, or, in trying to be all things to all men, are there areas in which it inevitably perhaps falls below par for picture quality?