Back in the late '60s I carried a Kodak Instamatic camera with me to drag races at tracks across southern California, snapping photos of cars and drivers in the pits. In 1975 I graduated to a Nikon F2, with Kodak remaining almost exclusively my film of choice. I haven't shot a roll of film in eight or nine years, but another Kodak camera has found its way into my hands, if only for review purposes.
The Kodak EasyShare Z980 is Kodak's current big gun in the ultrazoom compact digital class, boasting a 24x optical zoom and 12 megapixel sensor. Kodak is quick to point out that the 12 megapixel sensor of the Z980 means "you can crop and enlarge and still have great picture quality". Here's an original shot and then the same shot cropped to 12 x 8 inch size – the cropped shot still maintains 220 pixels per inch, which is enough to provide a pretty decent print.
There's also the ability to make 720p HD video, full manual controls in addition to the obligatory automatic and scene settings, ISO sensitivity ranging to 1600 at full resolution (and 6400 at 3.1MB), plus a RAW file shooting option. Kodak's come a long ways from my old Instamatic; let's see just how far.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The Z980 is carved out of the current mold for ultrazooms, resembling a slightly scaled-down DSLR in feel, if not weight. This is the largest ultrazoom dimensionally that I've tested, and it compares rather closely size-wise to the Olympus E-420 DSLR.
The body exterior is composite, and while the camera appears well-built, there is a shiny black plastic panel that wraps around one side of the camera, surrounds the monitor and literally screams "fragile looking". I would think Kodak knows what they're doing with this piece functionally, but the shiny plastic conveys a toy-like impression from an otherwise business-like instrument.
Ergonomics and Controls
The Z980 features a deeply sculpted handgrip on the camera body, and there is good room for the fingers between the grip and the lens barrel. The rubberized material in the grip area is a cut above most other ultrazooms I've tested, providing a bit firmer hold than most others.
The right index finger falls naturally onto the shutter button and the thumb to the thumb rest area on the camera back without conflict with controls. While the camera back and top are adorned with buttons, there is adequate spacing to minimize accidental activations.
While I'm not a video guy, I have gotten spoiled reviewing cameras that allow you to start shooting video with the press of a single button. Unfortunately, the Z980 isn't one of these – you have to select the video setting via the mode dial and then do a full press on the shutter to capture movies.
The Z980 provides shutter buttons on the top and right side of the camera body, with the latter simplifying shooting in the vertical (portrait) format. You have to select which button is active via a switch on the top of the body, and Kodak has thoughtfully provided an easily attached vertical grip to promote a more secure hold when shooting verticals.
The vertical grip is light and performs no other function, but it also improves the horizontal grip, allowing my little finger to grip the front of the camera rather than curl up under the body. The grip adds about an inch to the height of the camera, but unless you need to keep the Z980's dimensions in check, I'd install the grip and leave it on.
Make sure you attach the lens cap to the camera via the provided cord or the first time you forget to remove the cap and power up the camera with it in place, the extending lens will launch the cap into space.
Menus and Modes
This being my first review of a Kodak product, the menu system wasn't at all familiar but a fair amount of settings were located intuitively. Kodak provides a bare-bones user's guide with the Z980, running only some 25 pages and dealing with only the simplest of functions.
Of course, they do provide Spanish, French, and Portuguese versions to ponder while looking unsuccessfully for the information on how to change the camera's ISO setting. Hint: it isn't in the user's manual – you have to go to the online extended user's manual for that. Personally, I'd like to see Kodak flesh out the printed manual with info for the folks who aren't going to merely set the camera on auto and fire away.
"Smart Capture" is the Z980's auto setting, and it incorporates "intelligent scene detection" to analyze scene conditions; "intelligent scene capture" to set focus, exposure and ISO; and "intelligent image processing" to reduce noise and clear up shadows. For those of us who think we might know better than the camera, there are the typical manual controls found on DSLRs and more advanced compacts: program auto, aperture and shutter priority, and fully manual exposure options.
Smart Capture, the manual controls, portrait, sport, panorama (stitch-assist), and video shooting modes are selected via the mode dial atop the camera body; there is also a scene mode accessed on the dial that offers the user 16 additional shooting options via internal menu: children, backlight, high ISO, beach, snow, sunset, self portrait, night portrait, candlelight, night landscape, landscape, museum, stage, fireworks, flower, and text.
In addition to the icon for each individual mode in the scene menu, the Z980 also presents a brief explanation of each option as you select it.
The Z980 boasts a 3.0 inch LCD monitor with 201,000 dot composition and five levels of brightness adjustment.
Even with that range of adjustment, the monitor can be difficult to use for image composition in bright sunlight, although the size helps some. Thankfully, there is also a viewfinder for those difficult lightning conditions, but there is no diopter for eyesight adjustment.
The viewfinder offers good eye relief and I had no trouble using my reading glasses with it, although that's not my favorite way to shoot. The alternative is to gaze through the blurry viewfinder until the green focus icon appears along with a "beep" to let you know the camera says the focus is a go. Kodak doesn't specify in the user's manual or online, but monitor and viewfinder appear to offer around 95% coverage – they're both fairly accurate in depicting what the final image will contain.
It's no secret ultrazooms are my favorite point-and-shoots, offering the user a wide range of lens focal lengths in an amazingly small package. Throw in a good shutter response, decent AF acquisition time and image quality and you've got a versatile tool that can shoot everything from wide angle scenes or close ups of really big subjects to bringing distant objects much closer. The Z980 has that lens focal range in spades – let's see how the rest of the parameters measure up.
The Z980 didn't disappoint in the shutter lag arena, coming up with a 0.02 second press to capture time. This time seems to lengthen a tiny bit with flash enabled, but it's still quite good. AF acquisition time at wide angle in good light is a fairly quick 0.6 seconds and stays that way as the lens zooms a good way toward the telephoto end.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Casio Exilim EX-FH20
|Kodak EasyShare Z980
|Olympus SP-565 UZ||0.03|
|Canon PowerShot SX200 IS||0.03|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3||0.05|
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Canon PowerShot SX200 IS||0.48|
|Casio Exilim EX-FH20||0.59|
|Kodak EasyShare Z980
|Olympus SP-565 UZ||0.62|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3||0.68|
|Casio Exilim EX-FH20||40||30 fps†|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
|Kodak EasyShare Z980
|Olympus SP-565 UZ
|Canon PowerShot SX200 IS
* Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.
† Note: The Casio Exilim FH20 has no continuous shooting capabilities at full resolution (9 megapixels). It is, however, capable of shooting at 30 fps at a slightly reduced 8 megapixels. Given this relatively high resolution, we have included the FH20's continuous shooting numbers in our comparison.
AF performance at full telephoto is better in the auto modes where the camera determines the focus point – using the center point AF to try and precisely establish a focus point with the manual shooting modes could at times be frustrating with regard to the time it took to acquire focus. Even so, the AF acquisition times overall seem to fall within the norm for most cameras in this class. There is a focus-assist lamp to help with AF in dim conditions. Press to capture time with no pre-focus runs about 0.6 seconds.
The shutter button on the Z980 took a little getting used to – there is not much resistance at the half-push point, and when I first shot the camera there was more than one occasion where I pushed right past half and took a shot before the AF had time to work. Once you get a feel for the shutter there is no concern with its operation.
While shutter lag and focus acquisition times are good, the Z980 doesn't power up as quickly as the best in the class – it takes almost 2 seconds for an image to appear on either the monitor or viewfinder, and about 2.75 seconds to get off the first shot after powering up. Kodak claims a shot-to-shot time of about 1.5 seconds and I came pretty close to that figure. I also managed 5 shots in 4 seconds in continuous shooting mode at full resolution (Kodak claims 1 fps, and we saw slightly better numbers than that in our lab tests) and 9 in 1.5 seconds in high speed mode at 3.1 megapixel file size (Kodak claims 5 fps).
Flash range on the Z980 was good, going out some twenty feet at wide angle and ISO 400, and there is a hot shoe to permit the addition of a more powerful external flash if the user so desires. Flash recycle times in normally lit conditions and shorter ranges not requiring a full discharge ran about 3.5 seconds with new batteries. Full discharges with new batteries took over 9 seconds to recycle, but unlike many cameras, the Z980 will allow you to shoot again with flash enabled before the flash is fully charged – the flash simply doesn't fire in such cases. Color quality and exposure was good with the flash. Here are shots of Bobby and Charlie caught with flash.
Kodak claims a 400 shot battery life with its provided 2100mAh Ni-MH AA batteries, but I fell short of that figure (perhaps from burning so much time hunting through menus on the monitor because the user guide is so limited). I'd recommend at least one extra set of batteries for an all day shoot (more if you make extensive use of flash or monitor), but at least if you do run out of power AAs are relatively easy to come by.
The Z980 features a Schneider-Kreuznach Variogon 24x zoom lens spanning the 26-624mm (equivalent) focal length range. Ever heard of Schneider-Kreuznach? Me neither, but the Schneider name may be familiar to those with an interest in high-end and vintage optics, especially. Turns out the company was founded in 1913 and has a history of partnering with Kodak on projects. Here's what those focal lengths take in:
26mm Wide Angle
Aside from the already mentioned focal length range, the lens on the Z980 offers maximum apertures of f/2.8 at wide angle and f/5 at telephoto, giving it fast to pretty decent speed across the board. There is some barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from center of image) at the wide end and a bit of pin cushion (straight lines bow in toward center of image) at telephoto. Edges and corners are a bit soft and there can be some chromatic aberration (purple fringing) in high contrast boundary areas.
Wide angle barrel distortion
Telephoto pincushion distortion
Overall the lens doesn't do too badly, and when it's good it's very good. But on occasion it did throw me a curve that I can't explain. Here are two shots of Tigr II – the first somewhat backlit and the second in the same spot but with flash enabled. There's a whole bunch of purple in the first, while the second looks good.
And then here's a couple of other good ones:
The purple colors in the shot sort of resemble fringing, although that typically is seen along edges in high contrast areas, so whatever caused this may not be the fault of the lens. I got a similar result in a shot of a tree with blue sky in the background – a large purple blotch on a limb (but relatively subdued fringing elsewhere).
Suffice it to say the effect was limited to about six shots out of over 500 and doesn't appear to be a major concern, but how it was produced remains a puzzle to me. The one common thread seems to be a brighter background and/or significant light coming from behind the subject.
Kodak identifies the stabilization for the Z980 as "optical", which traditionally means the shifting of lens elements. Stabilization is on by default but may be disabled via internal menu.
The Z980 can capture video at 1280x720, 640x480 or 320x240 modes, all at 30 fps. Quality at 720p is OK, but not what I'd call great, as is the audio. The camera can shoot up to 29 minutes of continuous 720p video (memory card permitting), or 80 minutes at the lower resolution modes with sufficient memory. The long lens of the Z980 makes it tempting to bring distant objects in close, but hand holding the camera steady at the telephoto end is no easy task for either video or stills and a tripod or some other form of support or bracing for the camera is a good idea if you plan to be at the telephoto end of the spectrum a lot.
In general, the Z980 produced nice quality images with accurate and pleasing color at the default settings. There are low, natural and high color settings (also sepia and B&W) available in the manual shooting modes, as well as low, normal and high contrast. Normal is the default in each case. There are also soft, normal and sharp sharpness settings, with normal once again the default.
Auto white balance is the default and did a pretty good job of color rendition, even with tungsten lighting, which was a bit warm but closer to accurate color than many other cameras. There are tungsten, daylight, fluorescent and open shade settings as well.
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light
Exposure was generally pretty good with the default multi pattern metering, but there are center-weighted and spot options on tap should you feel the need. Multi pattern would lose some highlights on occasion when dealing with somewhat contrasty scenes, but was fairly typical for cameras of this class.
Noise performance was not the Z980's strongest point. Cropped images looked pretty good and quite similar at ISO 64 and 100, but the image quality falloff between 100 and 200 was more significant than we're used to.
ISO 64, 100% Crop
ISO 100, 100% Crop
ISO 200, 100% Crop
ISO 400, 100% Crop
ISO 800, 100% Crop
ISO 1600, 100% Crop
There's a noticeable difference in the crops between 200 and 400, and 800 shows a dramatic deterioration over 400. ISO 1600 is predictably worse than 800 by a good margin, and the 3200 and 6400 3.1 megapixel low res options (which we didn't shoot in the studio) are best saved for settings of last resort if image quality is a concern. As is typically the case, the full frame shots viewed at small size don't look too bad across the entire range.
The somewhat narrow band of ISO sensitivities that produce the best quality images is one reason to shoot the manual modes where ISO can be user established. In the auto modes the camera will set an ISO sensitivity between 64 and 1600 depending on a number of factors, while for best quality we really need to shoot the Z980 at ISO 64 or 100- if our final output is to be prints of any significant size. Manual settings or flash enabled (to help hold down the ISO) is the best way to go for consistent results with this camera.
Additional Sample Images
It's been decades since I've shot a Kodak camera, but with the feature-rich Z980 Kodak has produced a viable contender in the ultrazoom compact digital class. Image quality and color fidelity are generally good, and shutter lag is first-rate. AF acquisition times are good at wide angle, and competitive with others in the field at the telephoto end. There's HD video to be had, full manual controls to accompany the usual automatic shooting modes, and a RAW capability that most direct competitors lack. The horizontal and vertical shutter buttons are a nice touch.
Noise performance doesn't quite keep up with the competition starting at ISO 200, somewhat limiting the camera's "sweet spot" with regard to the best quality ISO range. Battery life is relatively short, particularly with pronounced flash and/or monitor use, and flash recycle times with near or full discharges can approach ten seconds. AF acquisition can be somewhat petulant at full telephoto, although probably within class norms. As the largest ultrazoom I've tested, the Z980 approaches small DSLRs in size, particularly with the vertical grip installed.
My old Instamatic is long gone, but it's clear Kodak hasn't been sitting on their laurels – the Z980 may not be a perfect camera, but it's certainly worthy of a good look from anyone considering an ultrazoom as their first or next digital.