In 2003 I bought my first digital camera, a chunky, two megapixel Kodak CX6230. I wasn't interested in anything too demanding - just a reliable snapshot camera - and the Kodak met my needs well. Its pictures were bright and colorful and it was easy to use. The 12 megapixel Kodak Easyshare Z950 is a much better camera and has many advanced features, but it still has an ease of use that was important to me back when I was first becoming interested in digital photography.
The Z950 is Kodak's attempt to tap into the market for compact ultrazoom cameras begun by Panasonic with its popular TZ camera line and lately joined by virtually all the major digital camera producers. While the Z950 may lack some of the polish of the more sophisticated (and expensive) compact ultrazooms, it has a lot going for it, including a 10x optical zoom, a high-quality Schneider-Krueznach lens, HD video, an Intelligent Auto mode (which Kodak calls "Smart Capture") and manual exposure controls.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The Z950, with dimensions of 4.3x2.6x1.4 inches and weight of about 8.6 ounces, is definitely not an ultracompact, but it fits comfortably into a pocket (as long as there's nothing else in there). It's roughly comparable in size to other compact ultrazooms such as the Panasonic ZS3 and the Canon SX200 IS. While largely plastic, the body feels solid enough. However, this is not a camera you'd want to drop on a hard surface, even from a foot or two.
Ergonomics and Controls
The controls are recessed, which, combined with the camera's slightly rounded corners, enables it to fit well into a pocket or purse. I really liked the grip, which consists of a rubberized overlay that felt good in the hand. There's another rubberized area at the back of the camera that's made for the thumb. The grip enabled me to easily shoot with one hand.
The top of the camera contains a mode dial with icons for Smart Capture, a sport scene mode, a panorama mode, other scene modes, manual mode, shutter priority, aperture priority, a program auto mode and a movie mode. Next to the dial are buttons for the on/off switch, timer, flash control and the shutter, which is encircled by a zoom control. I was pleased to see the zoom control located around the shutter button, as all the other Kodak cameras I've seen have the zoom control in the form of a rocker switch, which I find much less convenient to use.
When looking at the rear of the camera the first thing you notice is the large, 3.0 inch LCD. Instead of the usual button layout, Kodak has arranged its controls next to the LCD in a vertical line of four rectangular buttons. The topmost button is the delete, the second is for menu functions, the third is an information button that explains the various menu options, and the bottommost is a playback button. Next to the buttons is a prominent joystick, which controls the menu functions. While these controls seemed awkward at first it didn't take me long to get used to them and they proved to work well.
The bottom of the Z950 contains two things worth noting. First of all the tripod mount is centrally located and is made of metal, both of which are good to have but are not always present in smaller cameras. Secondly, and not so good, is that the door of the battery/memory card compartment is made of thin, flimsy plastic which could easily break off.
The Z950 comes with only a very cursory user guide. If you intend to use the more advanced features of the camera, you'll need the more extensive, and useful, extended user's manual, which is contained online and can be downloaded.
Menus and Modes
The menus are well thought-out and easy to understand. They consist of two columns (in Smart Capture mode), Capture and Setup, and add another column, Capture plus, in the more advanced modes - program auto, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual. The joystick is used to scroll down through the columns and the joystick button is pressed to select a function. The menu graphics are bright and sometimes animated. Although there is an option for changing the sound effects for various camera functions, I found the sound level to be too low at even the maximum setting. I had trouble hearing the beep for locking focus and the click for taking the picture.
In Smart Capture mode, the Z950 will automatically select a scene mode based on its analysis of scene conditions, pick the appropriate focus, exposure and ISO, and use "intelligent image processing" to reduce noise and adjust the dynamic range. Program auto, aperture and shutter priority, and manual exposure modes give the user more control over the camera's operations. When the scene mode icon is selected on the top dial, the menu gives the user a choice of 17 scene modes - high ISO, portrait, night portrait, landscape, night landscape, flower, sunset, backlight, candle light, museum, text, beach, snow, fireworks, children, self portrait, and stage. I usually shot in Smart Capture mode, which did a good job in most situations.
As is the case with most small cameras, the Z950 lacks an optical viewfinder. This is not a major problem, however, as I found that the 3.0 inch, 230,000 dot LCD worked well. It was a bit hard to see in bright sunshine, but generally usable. The LCD can be adjusted to five brightness levels.
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