Image stabilized (IS) ultra-zoom digital cameras are currently one of the best selling products in the high tech marketplace. Kodak's first foray in this highly competitive arena is the Kodak Easyshare Z612, specifically designed to compete with Canon's S3 IS, Sony's H5, and Panasonic's FZ7. All four cameras share remarkably similar features -- compact SLR like bodies, good ergonomics, long zooms, and a broad range (Auto, Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual modes) of exposure options. The Z612, like its competition, tries to balance point-and-shoot convenience and enhanced usability with prosumer-level flexibility and creative control. The Kodak Easyshare Z612 features 6 megapixel resolution, a 12X Schneider-Kreuznach Variogon optical zoom, and a 2.5 inch LCD screen.
NUTS & BOLTS
The Z612's relatively high eye point EVF (electronic viewfinder) is bright, sharp (202,000 pixels), and color correct. A faster refresh rate would have provided a smoother and more fluid display. The EVF shows 100 percent of the image frame, and provides the same info display as the LCD screen.
Big LCD screens are very popular with digital camera buyers because framing is easier and more precise and larger displays make it easier to share saved images. The Z612's 2.5 inch (6.4 centimeter) hi-res (230,000 pixels) is bright, sharp, and hue accurate.
Ultra-zoom digital cameras are an obvious choice for action fans because longer lenses allow shooters to zoom in on what's happening, but tracking high speed action requires a fluid LCD/EVF display. Rapid movement on the Z612's LCD/EVF is jerky and the LCD freezes briefly when the shutter fires. A faster refresh rate (at least 60 fps) would have allowed for smoother movement, but higher refresh rates shorten battery life and that's a real problem for camera manufacturers because consumers consistently demand better power depth. Kodak should have either developed a battery that was a better match for such a power hungry digital camera or opted for cheaper and universally available AA power. Some compromises are unavoidable, but using a large hi-res LCD screen with a substandard refresh rate to track action is like driving a Mustang GT fitted with a Smart Car engine - it just doesn't make much sense.
Screen usability outdoors is about average at the Z612's default setting, but brightness can be adjusted manually. The Z612's LCD gains up (brightens automatically) in low/dim light and there's a live histogram display for assessing dynamic range and spotting over/under exposure in real time.
The Z612's slow refresh rate probably won't be a deal breaker since the competition doesn't do much better in this critical area. The H5's super bright 3.0 inch LCD is not very fluid and rapid movement is jerky. The FZ7's lo-res (114,000 pixels) LCD is grainy looking (read - not very sharp). The S3's hi-res LCD tilts and swivels, but its 2.0 inch screen is the smallest of the current crop of ultra-zoom IS digital cameras.
The Z612's f2.8--f4.8/5-60mm (35-420mm 35mm equivalent) Schneider-Kreuznach Variogon all glass optical zoom covers approximately the same optical range as the Canon S3 IS, Panasonic FZ7, and Sony H5. Interestingly, each of the current ultra-zoom digital cameras (with the exception of the S3 IS) sport zooms adorned with the name of the prominent Old School German optical firm that DIDN'T make the lens -- all were manufactured (under license) by the company that produced the camera. When the camera is powered up the zoom extends and when the camera is powered down the zoom retracts into the zoom well. Kodak provides a nifty embossed metal lens cap to protect the zoom's front element.
The Z612's zoom is relatively fast and operation is fairly smooth and quiet. Center sharpness is excellent and corners are surprisingly sharp for a lens this complex. I didn't notice any vignetting (darkened corners), but barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center of the frame at the wide-angle end of the zoom) is appreciably above average. Pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center of the frame) at the telephoto end of the zoom is very well controlled. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is remarkably well controlled. Close-ups are sharp as a tack, but minimum focusing distance is 3.9 inches/10 centimeters (at the wide angle end of the zoom) and 4 inches is just not close enough to capture dramatic bugs and flowers, anything smaller than a dessert plate is going to be lost in the frame. If macro capability is an important consideration, check out the Z612's competition.
Image Stabilization (IS)
Ultra-zoom digital cameras permit shooters to get much closer to the action, but it's almost impossible to handhold a long zoom camera steadily enough (even in good light) to get tack sharp shots. Image stabilization substantially reduces the effects of camera shake by gyroscopically shifting lens elements to compensate for minor camera movement during exposure. This allows photographers to shoot at shutter speeds up to 3 f-stops slower than would have been possible without IS. For example, if a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second is required to avoid the effects of camera shake (without image stabilization) the Z612 can capture a reasonably sharp image of the same subject at 1/60th of a second. IS also allows shooters to obtain sharper images in dim/low outdoor light and when shooting indoors where higher shutter speeds may not be possible or would result in dark images with poor shadow/highlight detail.
Image stabilization could easily make the difference between capturing that once in a lifetime shot rather than missing it, but IS is not a magic bullet - it won't neutralize sharp camera movements or reduce blur caused by rapidly moving subjects or too fast panning. The Z612's IS function can be set to either Exposure mode (IS is activated immediately prior to exposure) or off. IS is a very useful feature, but there are costs. IS is a very power hungry feature and appreciably shortens battery life. IS is NOT instantaneous - in other words the IS process adds to the time interval that passes between pushing the shutter button and the moment when the shutter actually fires. With pre-focus, IS lag is between 1/4 and 1/2 second. From scratch, combined IS lag and AF lag are about 0.75 - 1.5 seconds (depending on lighting). Based on my experiences with the current crop of ultra-zoom IS digital cameras, the Z612's IS system is marginally slower than those found on the Canon S3 IS, Sony H5, and Panasonic FZ7.
(view large image) I noticed this urban bunny just about dusk, so the light was starting to fail. The Z612's IS allowed me to capture (in fairly dim early evening light) this sharply focused shot (handheld at full telephoto).
Auto Focus (AF)
The Z612's Contrast Detection Auto Focus system is accurate, even in fairly dim light. The default AF mode (TTL 5 AF point multi-zone) utilizes 5 AF points to quickly isolate and lock focus on the nearest subject (closest subject priority). More advanced shooters will appreciate the Center AF point and selectable zone AF (5 zones selectable)
The Z612's AF is pretty quick, but I could count only 6 steps (the Sony H5's AF has 45 steps) and that makes it harder to frame images precisely and requires lots of unnecessary zooming with your feet.
If that's not bad enough, the Z612's AF is not fast enough to keep up with really rapid action. But it is possible to capture impressive action shots with the Z612. Photographers who can pre-visualize their images, frame their compositions carefully, pre-focus (press the shutter button half-way after composing the shot), and anticipate the moment of peak action (trip the shutter about a half a second before all the elements of the composition come together) will have no problem capturing dramatic action shots. Capturing wobbling toddlers and nascent soccer stars should be relatively easy.
(view medium image) (view large image) I watched this exuberant young lady showing off a bit (on a very hot day) turning cartwheels around the edges of this child-friendly Central Park water feature. I pre-focused on the water tower and framed my vertical composition on the spot of bright light breaking through the trees slightly to the left of the tower and waited for her to decide to cool off by cartwheeling through the mist. I tripped the shutter just as she started her cartwheel (about 1/2 second before the peak moment). Cropped slightly to remove an extraneous detail.
(view medium image) (view large image) I couldn't pre-focus on this young Mexican folk dancer (she and her partner were all over the place) at the St. Joseph's Summer Picnic, so I had to track her through the viewfinder and try to trip the shutter when she started to do something interesting -- I was lucky enough to peg this fancy move (after failing to get anything interesting in 11 earlier shots). Cropped slightly to remove an extraneous detail.
Manual Focus (MF)
In Manual Focus mode, Z612 users can shift focus incrementally using the compass switch (4 way controller) buttons. The central portion of the image frame is enlarged as an aid to more precise focusing and the LCD/EVF displays a distance scale. MF can only be used in the camera's Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual exposure modes.
The Z612's built-in multi mode (Auto, Red-eye Reduction, Fill, and Off) pop-up flash is positioned directly above the zoom which provides for even illumination for flash shots, but virtually guarantees redeye problems. The flash is fully automatic and pops up when the camera's CPU determines it is needed (when flash options are set to any on position and the shutter button is pressed half-way). The Z612 features a dedicated flash button (direct user access to flash options) which is a nice touch.
Kodak claims the maximum flash range is 11 feet/3.5 meters (at ISO 100) which seems pretty accurate. Flash output power can be adjusted by +/- 1 EV in 0.5 EV increments.
The Z612 saves images to SD/MMC memory cards. The Z612 also provides users with 32MB of on board (internal) image storage.
Image File Format(s)
The Z612 saves images in JPEG format only. It would have been nice if Kodak had provided a TIFF or RAW mode.
USB 2.0 out and A/V out
The Z612 is powered by a rechargeable Kodak KLIC-8000 Li-ion battery. Kodak claims a fully charged KLIC-8000 is good for 225 -- 300 exposures. I didn't keep track of exposures so I can't provide any specific numbers, but based on my shooting style - I rarely use the LCD for framing and composition (I prefer the eye level finder), I shoot each subject from a variety of perspectives, use the flash only occasionally, review often, and delete ruthlessly) the Z612 comes in about average in the power management department.
The Z612 provides users with a comprehensive range of exposure options including: Auto (P&S mode), Program (P&S mode with user input), Shutter Priority mode (users select the shutter speed and the camera selects the appropriate aperture), Aperture Priority mode (users select the aperture and the camera selects the appropriate shutter speed), and Manual mode (users select all exposure parameters). The Z612 also provides a nice selection of Scene modes including: sport, night portrait, portrait, landscape, night landscape, self-portrait, flower, sunset, backlight, candlelight, manner/museum, text/document, beach, snow, fireworks, and children. In all Scene Modes the camera's CPU automatically optimizes all exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed, white balance, sensitivity, etc.) for the specific photo genre selected. The Z612 delivers dependably accurate exposures in virtually any outdoor lighting, but there is a slight tendency toward over exposure and burnt-out highlights in all auto modes.
(view medium image) (view large image) The Z612's auto mode properly exposed this flower shot despite the wide dynamic range (from deep shade to full sunlight). There is surprisingly good shadow detail (note brick wall behind planter) and very good highlight detail (note incised border at the top of the planter).
The Z612 is a bit above average in the video department. Users can capture video clips at 640X480 @ 30fps (with monaural audio) AND use the Z612's big zoom during filming, but (very minor) lens motor noise is audible. Consumers will love Kodak's Freeze Frame feature -- users can extract any selected individual frame from a video and save it as a still image.
The Z612 provides three user selectable metering modes -- Multi-Pattern (default), Center-Weighted Averaging, and Spot. The Multi-Pattern (default) metering mode is consistently accurate and dependable, even in demanding lighting.
(view large image) The Z612's Default Multi-Pattern metering mode nailed this panhandling Central Park rodent in very tricky lighting (mixed full sun and deep shade) and rendered a correctly exposed subject with amazing detail (even though the background is a burnt out).
Savvy shooters can switch to the Spot metering mode to ensure precise metering on the single most important element in a composition - like the eyes in a head and shoulders portrait. The Center-Weighted metering mode is good for group shots, travel images, and classic style landscapes.
White Balance (WB)
The Z612's Auto White Balance mode is very precise -- colors are hue accurate with no visible color casts, although Auto WB images tend be a bit on the cool side. Other (user selected) WB options include: Daylight, Tungsten, Fluorescent and Open Shade.
The Z612 provides an adequate range of sensitivity options including: TTL Auto, ISO80, ISO100, ISO200, ISO400, and ISO800 (ISO800 is only available at 1.1 megapixel resolution). The Z612's Auto Sensitivity setting does an excellent job in all but the most demanding lighting. It would have been nice if Kodak had started out at ISO 50 or ISO 64, since there is very little difference between the Z612's ISO 80 setting and its ISO 100 setting.
In-Camera Iage Adjustment Options
Z612 users can adjust (via the Picture Effects Mode) color (high color, natural color, low color, black & white, and sepia tone) and sharpness (high, low and normal/default), but not contrast.
Very light or very dark subjects can sometimes trick digital camera light metering systems into underexposing or overexposing images. The Z612's exposure compensation function allows users to subtly adjust exposure over a 4 EV range (+ /-2 EV in 1/3 EV increments) to compensate for difficult lighting and subject/background reflectance or non-reflectance problems and to adjust for environmental exposure variables (by lightening or darkening exposures).
The Z612's Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) feature allows users to automatically capture a series of images of the same subject at slightly different (+/-0.3 EV, +/-0.7 EV, or +/- 1.0 EV) exposure settings which markedly improves the chances of getting at least one correct exposure in tricky lighting or with subjects that are noticeably darker or lighter than their surroundings.
DESIGN, CONTROLS, & ERGONOMICS
The Z612 is the ugly duckling of the current crop of ultra-zoom IS digital cameras; a distinctly unfashionable retro look camera that is so tacky flashy geek chic (much too shiny) that you can't help but root for it. After users get past its somewhat un-cool appearance, the Z612 handles like an ultra compact dSLR. Build quality is very good (chrome and silver polycarbonate body shell over a metal alloy frame) and the camera seems to be quite sturdy.
The Z612 is remarkably simple to use (even for neophyte photographers) with dedicated buttons for most functions and menus that are straightforward and easily navigated. Controls are laid out logically and come easily to hand - with one exception. I disliked the thumb wheel jog dial at the top right corner of the camera's back deck. The idea is great - a sort of rotating func button to easily access the most commonly changed camera settings (shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and exposure bracketing/compensation) but I found it fiddly and imprecise. Finally, I shoot lots of vertical compositions and the Z612's orientation sensor is the most consistently dependable that I've seen to date.
Kodak KLIC-8000 Li-ion battery and wall type charger, USB and A/V cables, Neck strap, Insert for optional KODAK EASYSHARE Camera and Printer Docks, Lens Cap (with tether), Software CD, Quick start guide, and printed users manual
Auto WB images tend to be a bit on the cool side, as opposed to the warmer Auto WB of the Z612's competition. The Z612's native (default) color interpolation is actually pretty close to neutral, (except for red which is highly saturated in sharp contrast to the rest of the Z612's color spectrum). Caucasian skin tones are very accurate (neither ruddy nor sallow) and Z612 images show a broad dynamic range and consistently good to very good shadow/highlight detail. The S3 IS, FZ7, and H5 all display punched up (highly saturated) native color interpolation.
The Kodak Easyshare Z612 does an excellent job outdoors in good light, but indoor images tend to be a bit flat. ISO 80 and ISO 100 shots are consistently very good to excellent. ISO 200 shots show minor levels of noise and slightly decreased detail (darker colors showed some minor blotching and noise is visible in shadow areas). ISO 400 shots are much too noisy for anything beyond e-mail and 3x5 prints. Chroma/Luminance noise (blotching) is a bit above average and Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is also above average, but very well controlled. I didn't try the 1.1 megapixel ISO 800 option.
(view large image) Heirloom President Tyler Morning Glories planted for their vibrant old-fashioned royal purple color show a distinct color shift - from deep purple to dark blue. Many digital camera sensors have trouble rendering purple accurately, so this isn't a problem unique to the Z612.
The Z612 is the slowpoke of the big four ultra-zoom IS digital cameras. Timing/shutter lag performance is slightly below average (for cameras in this class). Start-up time is about 2 seconds, which is pretty good for a camera that has to extend such a long zoom. AF lag is about 0.5 seconds to 1.0 seconds from scratch and virtually real time with pre-focus - however IS lag times run from about 0.25 second to 0.5 second Shot to shot times are very good (about 1.5 seconds). Overall, the Z612 is pretty quick, but not as quick as the competition.
A Few Concerns
From a strictly competitive standpoint, the Z612 really drops the ball in the White Balance department. This camera's single most glaring fault is the lack of a custom/manual white balance mode. Prosumer digital cameras are designed to appeal to photography enthusiasts -- just the sort of folks who would appreciate a custom/manual WB mode. The other players in this highly specialized quartet do provide a custom/manual WB mode.
Many photography enthusiasts enjoy shooting close-up studies of bugs and flowers. The Z612's minimum focusing distance (in macro mode) is 3.9 inches/9.9 centimeters - not nearly close enough for dramatic macro shots. Minimum focusing distance (in macro mode) for the Canon S3-IS is 0.0 inches, for the Sony H5 is 0.74 inches, and for the Panasonic FZ7 is 1.0 inches. Macro shooters and close-up photography fans should look elsewhere, the Z612 simply doesn't measure up to the competition in this area.
Who is the Z612 best suited for?
First time ultra-zoom buyers who are a bit intimidated by the Z612's competition, casual shooters who want sharp pictures (in all lighting conditions), family photographers who want a versatile easy to use camera that is kid and pet picture friendly, and nature and wildlife photography enthusiasts on a budget.
The Kodak EasyShare Z612 offers users a nice balance of prosumer flexibility, advanced features, and P&S (point and shoot) ease of use. How does the Z612 stack up against its competition? Overall, the Z612 has more warts than a bullfrog, but in the end it's all about the pictures and when it counts and where it counts (except for macro) the Z612 delivers.
Pros: Very good image quality, image stabilized 12X zoom, 2.5 inch LCD screen
Cons: No RAW or TIFF format, too shiny, No manual white balance option, poor macro/close-up capability
|Kodak Easyshare Z612||$399/$329||6 mgpxls||2.5"|
|Canon Powershot S3 IS||$499/$399||6 mgpxls||2.0"|
|Sony Cybershot DSC-H5||$499/$429||7 mgpxls||3.0"|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC FZ7||$399/$349||6 mgpxls||2.5"|
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