Editor's note: The Kodak EasyShare Z981 hasn't been released in Australian stores, but is available through some local e-retailers who are importing it.
The Kodak EasyShare Z981 feels like an afterthought in the company's camera line-up. It was released at CES 2010 but was not part of the fanfare for its other models announced at the same time. The only thing that seems to tie the Z981 to the rest of Kodak's offerings is its Share button and built-in software for quickly getting shots off to friends and family or uploaded to photo-sharing sites. Otherwise, it's pretty slapdash, with missing features, a somewhat clunky design, average shooting performance and inconsistent photo quality.
The Z981 looks like several other megazoom cameras. After all, there's only so much that can be done when you're working around a big, wide-angle 26x zoom lens. For the most part it's the same as 2009's Z980, but feels fractionally more compact. The only visible difference is that the previous model's hotshoe was jettisoned.
On top is the shooting-mode dial with a spring-loaded power switch placed so closely in front of it that it actually requires effort to turn the camera on. Next to the Mode dial is a vertical dial for selecting and adjusting shot settings; it should really be on back where it would be in easy reach of your thumb. We prefer zoom toggles to be under the thumb on back, but Kodak put it a little too far off to the left to make it easy to reach. To make portrait photography a little more comfortable, Kodak added a secondary shutter release at the lower front edge of the handgrip. A switch on top activates the button as well as changing the directional pad into a zoom toggle. Sadly, it doesn't shift the shooting information on the screen. If you want to go back and forth between using the two shutter releases, you'll have to keep flipping the switch. Kodak also includes a plastic grip that screws into the bottom of the camera so there's more to hold on to when you're shooting vertically. Thoughtful yes, but you have to take it on and off every time you want to access the easy-to-open, difficult-to-close SDHC card slot/battery combo compartment.
On back there's a 3-inch LCD and an electronic viewfinder; a button to the left of the EVF lets you switch between the two. Down the right side of the LCD are Delete, Menu, Info/help and Playback buttons. To the right of those is a directional pad for navigating menus and browsing photos and movies as well as Kodak's Share button. This is really the biggest highlight of the camera as it allows you to quickly tag photos and movies for posting to Facebook, Flickr and YouTube in addition to directly sending them to email addresses or compatible Kodak digital photo frames. Tag what you want and then connect the camera by USB to a computer, and the built-in software handles the rest. At least it will once you've installed it on your computer and entered all of your account information.
The menu system is simple to navigate, as there are only two tabs: one for shooting options, another for camera set-up. While checking through the settings, though, there are clearly differences between what the manual says the camera has and what is actually available. There is no way to shut off the image stabilisation, for example. Presumably it shuts off when the camera is on a tripod, but maybe not. There's also no way to turn on a date stamp or turn off Quickview, the instant playback of shots after they've been taken.
As for outputs, the Z981 has only a Micro-USB/AV port under a door on the camera's right side. Most current megazooms have a Mini-HDMI port for directly connecting to an HDTV, but this doesn't. Lastly, the Z981 is powered by four AA batteries, and Kodak includes rechargeables and a charger. They're pre-charged, too, so you can start shooting out of the box. However, once they're depleted, the bundled charger takes 16 to 18 hours to refresh the batteries. You'll either need to buy a second set of batteries or buy a faster charger.
Like most full-size megazooms, the Z981 has semi-manual and manual mode options. Shutter speeds can be set from 16 seconds to 1/2000 second. Apertures include f2.8, f3.2, f3.5, f4, f4.5, f5, f5.6, f6.3, f7.1 and f8.0. With the lens fully extended, you just get five, though: f5.0, f5.6, f6.3, f7.1 and f8.0. Being able to control shutter speed is great for freezing or blurring motion; the aperture control gives you the ability to select how much of a scene you want in focus. Using them is easy, too, but again, the location of the dial for making changes should really be on back of the camera and not on top. You also get exposure bracketing, colour effects, and contrast and sharpness adjustments. A manual white balance option is notably absent.
If shooting automatic is more your speed, there is Kodak's Smart Capture mode as well as 16 scene modes. The camera is generally not fast, but there are two burst modes: one at full resolution for three consecutive shots and a 3-megapixel high-speed burst for nine frames in a row at 8 frames per second. For those that like to take a lot of close-ups, the camera has two options for shooting macro. The regular Macro mode allows you to focus on subjects 3.9 inches from the lens. Then there's a Super Macro that extends the lens slightly allowing you to focus at 0.4 inch from the subject.
Shooting performance is on par with other CCD-sensor-based megazooms, which means it's not particularly fast at anything. In comparison to models using CMOS sensors, its performance is slow. From off to first shot takes 2.5 seconds. The time between subsequent shots averaged 3.2 seconds; add another second to that if you're using the flash. If you're shooting in raw, the average shot-to-shot time is 6.3 seconds. Shutter lag — how quickly a camera captures an image after the shutter-release button is pressed — in bright lighting conditions is 0.6 second; in low light it only goes up to 0.8 second. The Z981 can continuously capture up to three shots at a rate of 0.7 frames per second. Again, these times are average for its class. Kodak's cameras tend to be some of the faster cameras I've tested, so to see one perform leisurely is disappointing.
The photo quality from the Kodak EasyShare Z981 is mediocre to poor. Even at its lowest ISO settings, photos are soft and salt-and-pepper noise is noticeable when images are viewed at 100 per cent. At ISO 400, detail is pretty much gone due to noise reduction, leaving indoor photos looking mushy; using the zoom lens destroys detail even further. Basically, the results look more like stills grabbed from video than photos.
The Z981 has a wide-angle 26mm-equivalent lens that exhibits very visible barrel distortion and Kodak doesn't correct for it in its JPEG processing. At least pincushioning is minimal when the lens is fully extended. Centre sharpness is good, but softens a bit in the corners. Purple/blue fringing around subjects in high-contrast areas is common to megazooms, but the Z981 produces above average amounts of it. If you're not printing larger than 4x6 inches, enlarging photos or cropping them heavily you probably won't notice. Also, there was more of it in telephoto shots than wide angle.
Though neutrals were accurate, all other colours are not. Yellows, blues and greens are very off, while reds just look oversaturated. Exposure seems inconsistent and highlights are frequently clipped. White balance is generally good, though. There is one more bit of photo-quality oddness worth mentioning. The Z981 outputs its JPEGs at 480 pixels per inch, so its 14-megapixel images are set to print at roughly 7x9 inches straight from the camera. Digital cameras generally output photos at 72ppi. There's nothing really wrong with this higher density and it would result in a good print, but it's weird and Kodak didn't have an answer for me as to why it was doing this.
Video quality is on par with a basic HD pocket video camera; good enough for web use and non-discriminating TV viewing. Panning the camera will create judder that's typical of the 30fps video from compact cameras. The zoom lens does function while recording, but the movement is kind of loud so in quieter scenes you will hear it. The same goes for the continuous AF, which is normal but nonetheless distracting.
Kodak was one of the first to announce a 24x megazoom camera in 2009, and that model was a decent building block. Unfortunately, the Z981 is a step backward from that model. Like most compact cameras, though, it's possible to coax a decent snapshot from it and if your shots are for web use, don't get printed larger than 4x6 inches, and you don't plan to heavily crop or enlarge images, you might be OK. In general, however, we can't recommend this camera for anything beyond snapshot use in bright lighting conditions.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
||Time to first shot||
||Typical shot-to-shot time||
||Shutter lag (dim)||
||Shutter lag (typical)|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)