Wouldn’t George Eastman, inventor and marketer of the first mass market consumer camera (1888), be amazed if he could see what the venerable company that bears his name (Eastman Kodak) is selling these days? The newest digital camera from the folks in Rochester is the Easyshare Z812 IS, the flagship of Kodak’s megazoom Z-series. The mega-zoom digicam class is very crowded these days - the Z812 IS faces some pretty stiff competition from Canon’s S5 IS, Panasonic’s FZ18, Sony’s H9, Fuji’s S8000fd, and the Olympus SP-560 UZ. The compact Z812 IS offers users impressive image quality- very accurate color, loads of creative flexibility, direct access to the most commonly changed/adjusted camera settings, a nice balance of tweakability/flexibility, P&S (point and shoot) ease of use, and SLR-like features and performance - at a notably lower price than most of its competition.
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NUTS & BOLTS
The Z812 IS's relatively high eye point EVF (electronic viewfinder) is bright, sharp (230,000 pixels), and color (hue) correct, but 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. There is no diopter correction for those who wear eyeglasses.
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Large LCD screens are nearly ubiquitous these days because camera buyers like them, framing and composition are simpler, and larger displays make sharing saved images easier. The Z812 IS’s 2.5 inch/6.4 centimeter (230,000 pixels) LCD screen is bright, sharp, hue accurate, and relatively fluid. Shooting action (auto racing, team sports, skateboarders, BMX bikers, etc.) works better with a fluid LCD/EVF display – the Z812 IS’s LCD is not as fluid as most of the competition – rapid subject movement is sometimes jerky - a faster LCD refresh rate would have provided smoother movement. LCD screen usability outdoors is about average, but brightness can be adjusted manually. The 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 Z812 IS's f2.8--f4.8/5.8mm-70.2 mm (36mm-432mm equivalent) Schneider-Kreuznach Variogon all glass optical zoom covers approximately the same range as the zoom sported by the mega-zoom class champ Canon S5 IS. When the camera is powered up the zoom extends out of the zoom well and when the camera is powered down the zoom retracts into the zoom well. Kodak provides a tethered lens cap to protect the front element.
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Zooming is quick, about 3 seconds from wide angle to full telephoto. Center sharpness is excellent and corners are surprisingly crisp, noticeably sharper than average. I didn't see 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 slightly above average. Pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center of the frame) at the telephoto end of the zoom is negligible. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is well controlled, but visible in bright color transitions and high contrast edge demarcations. Close-ups are very sharp, but the minimum focusing distance is 4.7 inches/12 centimeters (at the wide angle end of the zoom) and that’s just not tight enough to capture dramatic full frame bugs and flowers – I found myself primarily using the 12X telephoto (minimum focusing distance is just shy of four feet) setting when shooting close-ups.
(view medium image) (view large image) – White Butterfly on blue flowers – note the nicely blurred background when shooting at 12X
(view medium image) (view large image) – This backlit close-up of an Elephant Ear leaf shows how nicely the Z812 IS renders fine detail
The Z812 IS’s Schneider-Kreuznach Variogon zoom is surprisingly good, and I think Kodak made the right decision to stay with the slightly improved version of the zoom that graced their first mega-zoom digicam – even though most of the Z812 IS’s competition is now sporting 18X zooms. The long zoom race (like the megapixel race and the LCD size rivalry) is getting a bit ridiculous. Long zooms are inherently complex and as lens complexity increases optical faults are magnified exponentially, so Kodak’s commitment to stay with the proven 12X Schneider Variogon rather than developing a new “longer” lens or trying to stretch the Variogon out to 18X provides a nice dose of practicality in this “me too” marketing environment. This zoom consistently produces very good to excellent exposures with bright accurate colors, slightly higher than average contrast, superb resolution, very good detail capture, and sharper than average corners. The zoom well surround is internally threaded for an optional adapter that will permit the use of inexpensive 55 mm filters or a 1.4X auxiliary telephoto lens.
Image Stabilization (IS)
Mega-zoom digicams allow shooters to get much closer to the action, but it's virtually impossible to keep a long zoom stable enough (even in good light) to get tack sharp shots. Even minute (involuntary) hand movements during exposure will blur images, especially in low light, or at the telephoto end of the zoom. When IS is engaged, motion sensors inside the camera detect this movement and shift an element inside the lens to compensate. With IS, photographers can shoot at shutter speeds up to 3 f-stops slower than would have been possible without IS. For example, if a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second is required to avoid the effects of camera shake (without image stabilization) the Z812 IS can capture a reasonably sharp image of the same subject at 1/15th 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. In addition, IS combined with higher sensitivity, increases exposure options in low/natural light and dimly lit indoor venues where flash may be prohibited.
Kodak’s IS system works pretty well, but it simply isn’t as fast or as accurate as the IS systems developed by Canon and Panasonic – sometimes, even when the camera has locked focus (with IS engaged) the shot turns out blurry.
The Z812 IS provides two IS modes (plus off) - in continuous mode IS is engaged full time as soon as the user presses the shutter button halfway. Single IS is engaged just prior to exposure, which is equally effective and uses less power. Image stabilization is a power dependent feature. Continuous IS appreciably shortens battery life and that’s an important consideration when the camera draws its juice from disposable batteries.
Auto Focus (AF)
When I tested the first Kodak mega-zoom (the Z612) a couple of years ago, one of my major criticisms was the slowness of the camera’s AF. That shortcoming appears to have been fixed. The Z812 IS's contrast detection auto focus system is accurate, even in fairly dim light. The default multi-zone AF mode quickly isolates and locks focus on the nearest subject (closest subject priority). Advanced shooters will appreciate the Z812 IS’s center AF point and selectable zone AF. The Z812 IS's AF is pretty quick - in good light (at the wide angle end of the zoom) AF times are comparable to the competition. Focus lock times are a tiny bit longer at the telephoto end of the zoom.
The Z812 IS also features Face Detection AF - just point the camera at the subject(s) and press the shutter button halfway and the camera will locate, lock on, and track (up to 10) faces in the image frame. Face Detection AF selects the optimum subject based on closest focus priority and then optimizes all exposure parameters to determine the best exposure, (just before the image is recorded). Face Detection AF can also be used when recording video clips (with AF and all exposure parameters continuously adjusted for moving subjects).
Manual Focus (MF)
In manual focus mode, Z812 IS shooters can adjust 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 Z812 IS's built-in multi mode (Auto, Red-eye Reduction, Fill, and Off) pop-up flash is positioned directly above the zoom which provides even illumination for artificially lit shots. The flash is fully automatic and pops up when the camera's CPU determines it is needed (when flash options are set to any flash enabled setting and the shutter button is pressed half-way) or the flash can be deployed manually. Guide number is 11 (at ISO 100) and the maximum flash range is 18.4 feet/5.6 meters at ISO 100. Flash output power can be adjusted by +/- 1 EV in 0.5 EV increments.
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The Z812 IS saves images to SD/SDHC/MMC memory cards or to 32MB of on board (internal) image storage.
Image File Format(s)
The Z812 IS saves images in JPEG format only. It would have been nice if Kodak had provided a RAW mode.
USB 2.0HS out, A/V out, and DC in
The Z812 IS is powered by either one CRV3 or two AA Lithium disposable batteries (Kodak doesn’t support the use of Alkaline AA’s or NiMH re-chargeable AA’s). Kodak doesn’t include a re-chargeable battery and battery charger with the Z812 IS - they must be purchased separately. Z812 IS owners can opt to go with the Kodak KLIK 8000 re-chargeable Li-ion battery and purchase the Kodak K7500 or K7600 battery charger or a Kodak printer dock or the Kodak EasyShare HDTV camera dock (both of which also function as battery chargers).
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I didn't keep track of exposures so I can't provide any specific numbers and based on my shooting style specific numbers might be misleading. I seldom use the LCD screen for framing and composition (I prefer to use the EVF or the optical viewfinder), I never use the continuous IS setting (I prefer shoot only mode), I shoot each subject from a variety of perspectives, rarely use the flash, review often, and delete ruthlessly. If I had to guess, I’d say the Z812 IS comes in a bit below the mega-zoom class average (with either of the disposable battery options) in the power management department.
The Z812 IS 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 Z812 IS also provides a nice selection of scene modes including a Smart Scene mode which automatically selects the appropriate scene genre (based on prevailing conditions and data harvested from the camera’s processor) and panorama, Hi ISO, 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 processor automatically optimizes all exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed, white balance, sensitivity, etc.) for the specific photo genre selected.
The Z812 IS delivers dependably accurate exposures in most outdoor lighting situations, but there is a very slight tendency toward over exposure and clipping (burnt-out highlights) in all auto modes. Exposure accuracy in the shutter priority and aperture priority modes is consistently on the money. Exposure accuracy in manual mode is dependent primarily on the skill and experience of the user
Unlike most of its competition the Z812 IS provides direct access to exposure bracketing. The auto exposure bracketing (AEB) mode permits users to capture three images with one push of the shutter button, each at a marginally different (user selectable) exposure setting - one image slightly over the base exposure setting, one image at (or near) the base exposure setting, and one image slightly under the base exposure setting - 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.
The Z812 IS really rocks in video mode. Users can capture video clips at 1024 x 720 (in 16:9 widescreen mode) at 30fps (with stereo audio) AND use the zoom during filming (very minor lens and focus motor noise is audible). OIS is available (and very useful) in video mode. Serious shooters will love also Kodak's Freeze Frame feature -- users can extract any selected individual frame from a video and save it as a still image.
The Z812 IS provides three user selectable metering modes -- multi-pattern (default), center-weighted averaging, and spot. The multi-pattern metering mode is consistent and colors are accurate even in demanding outdoor lighting, but dynamic range is somewhat limited - the 1/2.5 inch sensor generates slightly darker shadows and minor burn out in the highlights. More experienced shooters can opt for the spot metering mode to ensure precise metering on the most important element in the composition and the center-weighted averaging metering mode is good for group shots, travel images, and classic style landscapes.
White Balance (WB)
The Z812's white balance options are barely adequate for the camera’s target audience. Auto white balance mode is concise - colors are hue accurate with no visible (built-in) color casts, although Auto WB images are a bit cooler than those from the competition. Native (default) color interpolation is a bit oversaturated, but closer to neutral than average.
(view medium image) (view large image) This informal father and son Halloween Parade shot shows how accurate the Z812 IS’s Auto WB Caucasian skin tones are - neither ruddy nor sallow.
Other (user selected) WB options include: daylight, tungsten, fluorescent and open shade. Prosumer digital cameras are designed to appeal to photography enthusiasts and the Z812 IS lacks a custom/manual white balance mode – a feature lots of photography enthusiasts regard as essential. Most of the Z812 IS’s competitors do provide a custom/manual WB mode.
The Z812 IS provides an impressive range of sensitivity options including: TTL Auto, ISO 64, ISO 100, ISO 200, ISO 400, ISO 800, ISO 1600, and ISO 3200 (only available at 2.2 megapixel resolution). The Z812 IS's Auto Sensitivity setting does a very good job in all but the most demanding lighting. I said in my Kodak Z612 review, “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”. ISO80 is gone, replaced by an ISO 64 setting - it’s nice to know the folks in Rochester are listening.
In-Camera Image Adjustment Options
Z812 IS users can adjust color (high color, natural color, low color, black & white, and sepia tone) and sharpness (high, low and normal/default), but not contrast – and that’s too bad, because the Z812 IS’s native contrast is a bit hard.
Very light or very dark subjects can often fool digital camera light metering systems into underexposing or overexposing images. The 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 quickly and easily lightening or darkening images).
A feature that should appeal to casual shooters is Kodak’s Perfect Touch option – a post exposure automated image enhancement function designed to brighten up dull pictures.
DESIGN, CONTROLS, ENGINEERING, & ERGONOMICS
The Z812 IS is a compact “pro” black chunky looking dSLR clone. Build quality is very good (polycarbonate body shell over a metal alloy frame) and the camera seems to be quite sturdy. Like its predecessors, the Z812 IS is remarkably easy to use (even for beginning 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 really didn’t like the thumb wheel jog dial. The idea is great - a sort of rotating func button (push to engage and turn to change settings) to easily access to exposure compensation and ISO sensitivity, but I found it imprecise in use and it is too easily accessed accidentally.
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I shoot lots of vertical compositions and the Z812 IS's orientation sensor is the most consistent and intelligent that I've seen to date – it automatically saves images in the way they were shot, which means less time spent properly orienting images on the computer.
CRV3 battery, USB and A/V cables, Neck strap, Insert for optional KODAK EASYSHARE Camera and Printer Docks, Lens Cap (with tether), Software CD, and Quick start guide.
The Kodak Easyshare Z812 IS does a dependably excellent job outdoors in good light and really shines in the color department – Colors are bright, vibrant, and slightly oversaturated, but consistently hue accurate.
(view medium image) (view large image) This close-in shot of a rack of front-lit multi-hued T-shirts nicely illustrates the Z812 IS’s color accuracy
ISO 64 and ISO 100 shots are consistently excellent – with very good detail capture and essentially no noise. ISO 200 shots show very minor levels of noise and slightly decreased detail. ISO 400 shots show some visible noise and some minor detail loss (due to over aggressive noise reduction), but they are better than expected. ISO 800 shots are too noisy and flat (significant detail loss and bland colors) for anything other than e-mail and 3x5 prints. ISO 1600 should be useful if the shooter stumbles across Bigfoot or an alien abduction in progress, but it won’t be much help otherwise. I didn’t try the Hi ISO 3200 scene mode. Chroma noise (blotching) is also very nicely managed. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is about average, but very well controlled.
(view medium image) (view large image) The Z812 IS does pretty well after dark. This night shot (program mode, auto ISO, and auto WB) turned out better than expected.
The Z612 (Kodak’s first ultra-zoom digital camera) I tested last year was one of the slowest (if not the slowest) digicam in its class, but that’s not the case with the third generation Z812 IS. The boot-up cycle is between 1.0 and 2.0 seconds. I found the Z812 IS to be very quick in every area of consideration except write to card times, which are noticeably slower than average. Timing/shutter lag performance is perceptibly better than average (Kodak claims the Z812 IS has a click-to-capture cycle - the elapsed time between pressing the shutter button and when the shutter fires - of less than a quarter of a second. AF lag is 0.1 to 0.3 seconds (according to Kodak) from scratch and essentially real time with pre-focus - IS doesn’t seem to add any discernible delay. Shot-to-shot times were appreciably (from 0.5 to 1.0 seconds) quicker than average. Overall, the Z812 IS is very very quick, possibly the fastest camera in its class.
(view medium image) (view large image) BMX biker in mid-air – the Z812 IS’s image stabilization worked quickly and effectively for this shot
A Few Concerns
The Z812 IS box doesn’t include a rechrageable battery or charger – the camera functions acceptably with a CRV3 (about $10.00 each) or AA Lithium (about $8.00 for 2) disposable batteries, but that disposable battery cash drain will eventually eat up the Z812 IS’s price advantage – in addition, disposable batteries are harmful to the environment.
The Z812 IS lacks a custom/manual white balance mode – most of the Z812 IS’s competitors do provide a custom/manual WB mode.
The jog dial is too easily accessed accidentally.
The Z812 IS’s noise management is effective, but a little too aggressive - so shadow areas are a bit darker and highlight areas are tiny bit less defined than they should.
The Z812 IS’s minimum focusing distance (in macro mode) is 4.7 inches/12 centimeters - not nearly close enough for dramatic full frame bugs and flowers macro shots. The competition allows shooters to get much closer.
The full user’s manual must be downloaded from Kodak’s website.
Who is the Z812 IS best suited for?
The Z812 IS will appeal to budget shooters looking for a LOT of bang for their bucks, first time mega-zoom buyers, casual snap shooters who want a bit more reach, and family photographers who want an easy to use digicam that’s kid/pet capable.
Consumers buy mega-zoom digicams because they want a camera that provides most of the benefits of a digital SLR without the bulk and expense of a modular imaging system, but there are currently so many worthy options that it’s very difficult to choose. The Z812 IS delivers SLR-like handling, lots of nifty features, surprisingly good performance, excellent image quality, and P&S (point and shoot) ease of use – and it does it at a conspicuously lower price than the competition.
Pros: Price, excellent image quality, first-rate zoom, superb usability, and compact size
Cons: No rechargeable battery or battery charger included, noise reduction is too aggressive, jog dial is too easily accessed by accident, no custom/manual white balance mode