Kodak Z980 Review
By Mike Flacy
The latest Super-zoom model from Kodak, the EasyShare Z980 is a power packed digital camera with 12-megapixels, a 24x optical zoom lens, 3.0-inch LCD, 720p HD movie mode, and RAW the JPEG image formats. Kodak designed this camera with all users in mind, whether you are an avid enthusiast or a newbie. For those with less experience, the Z980 provides a wealth of user-friendly exposure modes. These include the fully automatic 'Smart Auto', Program AE, and 19 Scene modes. For the more experienced, the Z980 offers Aperture priority, Shutter speed priority, and even a full Manual exposure mode. The Z980 also includes most all of the Kodak EasyShare technologies we have come to know, like Perfect Though, Face Detection, and Image Stabilization.
This 'mega-zoom' offers a feel that is very similar to a dSLR, with a large zoom barrel and hand grip. To further add to this style, Kodak has added a vertical shutter release, along with a detachable vertical hand grip that bolts up to the bottom of the camera. This not only adds to the versatility of this camera, but also to the comfort. I found that the camera fit very well in my large hands, and the combination of the horizontal and vertical grips gives you a nice secure hold. The various controls are positioned in a comfortable manner, all within reach of your finger tips. While the LCD screen in nice and large at 3.0-inches, its resolution is not up to par (only 201k pixel), and the surface is Very reflective. Luckily you can adjust the brightness of the LCD via the Setup menu. Kodak also included an EVF on this camera. It will display all of the same information as the LCD, and overall worked quite well; I favored it when shooting in bright sun light. Unfortunately, there is no dioptric adjustment. Menu layout has changed slightly compared to past models, and overall I found the menu system was well put together. The 'shortcut' menu along with the control dial are welcomed additions, allowing you to effortlessly change settings for ISO, exposure compensation, aperture, shutter speed, etc.
One of the more noticeable features on this camera is the large 24x optical zoom lens. It covers a 35mm equivalent range of approx. 26 - 624mm, giving you a nice wide view field of view, along with in your face magnification. This lens is also pretty fast, with a wide open aperture of f/2.8 wide or f/5.0 telephoto. The zoom mechanism is smooth, but not continuous. I counted 21 steps from wide angle to full telephoto, which should be sufficient for most of your framing needs; you may still need to zoom with your feet on occasion. This unit helps the Z980 produce nice sharp pictures throughout the aperture and zoom range, with very little edge softness. I also saw some slight barrel distortion and pincushioning present at the wide angle and telephoto extremes, respectively.
Shooting Performance from the Z980 IS is very good. From start-up to the first image captured was just 1.8 seconds! When the camera was pre-focused, the shutter delay was less than 1/10 of a second, slowing to about 6/10 of a second with the autofocus system. When shooting in single shot mode, the camera captured 3 images in just 1.9 seconds, then the buffer filled. This is pretty fast, but it's a bit disappointing that you can only capture three images in a row. With the flash on, I was able to capture 2 images in 3 seconds before the camera would sit idle waiting for the flash to recharge, which took about 4-5 seconds. The Z980 also features two burst modes (Normal and High-speed). Normal mode allowed me to capture 6 images in 3.8 seconds before filling the buffer. It then took 12 seconds to flush the full buffer. High-speed mode is rated at 5fps for up to 9 frames. I was able to shoot 9 frames in just 1.2 seconds (about 7.5fps)! This surpassed Kodak's claims.
The Z980 also offers a RAW image format. When using this mode, the camera slows down considerably. It takes about 7 seconds for the camera to process a single frame. The burst modes are not available when using this option. All of our tests were completed using a OCZ Class 6 4GB SDHC memory card, program mode, ISO auto, flash off, quickview off, and all other settings on the factory defaults unless otherwise noted. Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc.
The quality of the Z980's 12-megapixel images was good. The camera captured pleasing exposures outdoors, with Very vivid colors. In fact, the colors are a bit too strong (not what I consider natural), however they will give your prints some 'Pop'. Noise levels in our ISO tests were relativity good from ISO 200 and below. I did see a bit of 'grain' in open blue skies, even at the lowest ISO 64, but this is only noticeable when critically viewing an image at 100%. When looking at our M&M man photos, I noticed that the camera has some white balance problems when shooting under our fluorescent lighting. When you turn the ISO up to 400, you'll start to see a bit of softness or loss of detail due to the noise reduction algorithms. ISO 800 looks pretty bad (very soft), and 1600 only looks even worse.
The built-in flash unit is quite powerful. Kodak claims it can reach up to 20 ft. at wide angle using ISO 400. I found that this unit offers a very nice range when shooting indoors, and the cameras controls output nicely for macro photography. When shooting people photos indoors, I found the Face Detection system worked rather quickly, finding and locking onto faces within the frame almost instantly. It even picked up faces on photographs that were in the frame as well as on my computer screen. In my opinion, the Z980's strongest category is portraits. This camera produces Very pleasing people photos. Our samples show awesome facial detail, excellent flash exposure, and natural skin tones. This was all while using the dedicated Portrait scene mode. The only complaint I have is the Red-eye reduction pre-flash is Very slow. It caused me to miss a big 'cheese' from our little model more than once. When I tuned this feature off, I did see some traces of red-eye. If you need even more flash power, the Z980 does have a flash hot shoe for use with an external speedlite, like Kodak's P20 zoom flash.
The Z980 not only has the ability to shoot VGA and QVGA sized videos, but Kodak has included a high-quality 720p (1280x720) HD resolution with stereo sound. All three modes have a fixed frame rate of 30fps, giving you smooth, real-time playback. We used the HD mode 100% of the time, and found that it was able to capture some very nice video for a digital camera. While you do have full use of the zoom lens during recording, I recommend doing so slowly. The AF system can't keep up with the zoom mechanism, but it does catch up rather quickly.
Battery life was Ok for a camera that uses four AA type batteries. Kodak claims you can capture up to 400 still pictures with the included 2100 mAh NiMH cells. I was able to capture about 100+ images, several short videos, and conclude all of our other tests, and the the camera is still showing the battery is has about 1/3 power left. I highly recommend picking up a set of higher capacity (2500+ mAh) batteries and keep a spare set with you at all times, especially if you are on your family vacation.
Bottom Line - Kodak's EasyShare Z980 is a great super-zoom model. This camera offers pleasing image quality, speedy performance, and loads of useful exposure modes. The addition of the vertical shutter release and detachable vertical grip really add to the appeal, especially since the Z980 can capture some beautiful portraits. The only issues I had with this camera were the extremely slow red-eye reduction pre-flash and the poor high ISO performance. Kodak lists an MSRP of US$399, which we feel is a great price for the level of features, versatility and performance you are receiving. That said, the EasyShare Z980 should be a popular model in the super-zoom category this year.
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