UPDATE: I have found a disappointing problem with the lens on the camera - it is blurry in one or more corners. I returned the camera to BeachCamera.com for a quick replacement. The corners changed but were still blurry. Because they are now the top, not bottom, corners, which is better placement, I am reticent to exchange it again. The new camera also "freezes up" ever few pictures, where the screen turns green, a 0-byte picture is saved to disk, and you have to power cycle it. I believe this is not BeachCamera's fault, but rather a defect in the Kodak manufacturing.
As many of you know, I'm a bit of a photo nut. Not a true photographer like my father was, because I don't like messing with the settings on an expensive camera; I just like snapping pics with a (relatively) cheap automatic. Four years ago I was ecstatic to have purchased a high-quality automatic digital camera from Kodak. And although I've taken many excellent photos with it, today I am just as thrilled to say that I have saved up my eBay money to purchase a new Kodak Z950. Now I have a camera that's twice as powerful, in half the size, for nearly half the cost.
SAME ZOOM LENS PLUS HD VIDEO PACKED INTO THINNER THE 950Z
The biggest difference with the Z950 was the video. I had to decide whether or not to spend my money on a camera with video, or a videocamera that took photos. The latter have proved to have disappointing photos when I have used them in the past, and with HD video on the Z950, I don't understand why people will spend that much money on a videocamera that probably has inferior video. Here's a screenshot comparing the size difference in video between the Z650 and Z950:
Although the size is impressive, I was a little disappointed at the quality - the 640x480 videos always showed an extreme quality which I appreciated. The new 1280x720 video from the Z950 is a little "noisy" (like you'd see with a typical videocamera), but the size, and the larger scene (you gain width but don't lose height) can't be denied. Even considering I shot through a window, changed to WMV to save space, and had Facebook resize and reprocess the video, it still looks darn good:
You do pay for that KB-wise; a movie from the Z950 was 10 times the size of one from my Z650; I found out quickly that you have to get an 8 GB SD card to hold an hour's worth of video. You can get those for $20 these days though, so not bad. And for long-term storage, you can convert the MOVs to WMVs with a tool like Videozilla for 10% of the original size without a lot of loss in quality.
Three video problems that the older models had are fixed in the Z950:
1. You had to set your zoom before starting a video on the older models, a problem which became more and more aggravating over time, especially in severe weather situations.
2. The video is now 30 frames per second, which is the video standard. Before it was 10 FPS which caused fast-moving objects to be missed (sometimes lightning) or blur (a dog running around) and reduced overall video quality.
3. It appears the "purple haze" problem that plagued the videos from the Z650 has been fixed, though I need to do more testing in sunlight to be sure.
Again, given the quality of the videos coming out of the Z950, and the fact that it costs 2-3 times less than the equivalent videocamera, I figure: Why shell out the additional money.
As far as photos, yes, it's 12 megapixels, but as many sites point out, that doesn't really buy you much of an increase in screen quality over the Z650's 6 MP. The Z950 also offers a number of different MP sizes and ratios (the 12MP photo is in the upper-left):
DOWNLOAD ORIGINAL IMAGE (40 MB)
It seems to be the opposite of the way their HD video works though - you only lose resolution and get your scene cropped with the lesser MP photos. In the end, the 12 MP still gave the most depth and clarity portraying a small part of the image (below are shown versions of a close zoom on the flowers shown above). Maybe someone who's a bigger photo geek than me can explain why I should use anything besides the 12 MP (unless I want to save space; the other images were 89%, 76%, and 48% of the 12 MP image).
In search of further proof that bigger isn't always better, I pitted the Z950 against my old Z650 and Receptionist Marlene's new Z915, which loses the HD Video & SCHNEIDER-KREUZNACH lens but cuts the price down to close to $115. This is the comparison of the image size (reduced by 10x here - the 12 MP is 4000x3000 pixels):
That's not a lot of difference between the 10 & 12 MP but as always the question is: At full size, which looks bigger and/or better when you take a small area? Here's a comparison:
There's not as much difference as I would have thought. The size of the flag is negligible between the 10 and 12 MP shots. There's something about the Z950 image that looks more crisp and clear than the other two (look at the stars on the flag and the needles on the pine tree), and I suspect that's a combination of the Schneider lens and the additional megapixels. Truth is, this wasn't a very good test because I shot too high on the Z650 shot so it's exposure was different (didn't think to do a set exposure) and the wind kept blowing the flag differently.
I haven't had a lot of great photographic opportunities recently, as we are just coming out of the dead and dreary winter 2009-2010 here in Central Pennsylvania. I look forward to getting more pics with my new camera in the future. Here are a few that I took last weekend (click through to download the originals):
AN ABANDONED QUAKER STEAK RESTAURANT
MY SIBERIAN HUSKY MAYA
CLOUDS AT 5X ZOOM
That last photo shows something interesting. The Z950 doesn't have an "infinity" setting for focus but it defaults to infinite focus if you use the Scene/Landscape mode. Although it still tried to refocus as I zoomed in (which could be a problem in severe weather situations or at night, we'll see), in the end nearly every picture I took showed crisper, sharper cloud edges than I could ever get on the Z650.
The most impressive part though was how far down prices have come since then. Here's a comparison of my old & new camera:
OLD: 6.1 MP (2848 x 2144)
NEW: 12.0 MP (4024 x 3012)
OLD: VGA (640 x 480) at 11 fps
NEW: HDV (1280 x 720) at 30 fps
I looked around at other vendors but in the end, stuck with Kodak, because their products have served me well in the past, and I really didn't want to move to another type of memory card or software system (the Z950 works with the Easyshare software I installed already with my Z650).
ODDS & ENDS:
1. The Z950 comes with a 3-photo Panorama maker. Since I use Arcsoft Panorama Maker 4 Pro at home, which can do vertical, horizontal, tile, and 360 panoramas with any number of photos, I probably won't get much use out of this function, though it may be handy, certainly would if you don't have that software package. Initial tests I did with clouds and the sun didn't go well, probably because of the different exposures.
2. Another difference between this camera and my old one is the battery. I was happy to get a camera that took standard AA batteries in 2006, but not as happy a year later when I had gone through a LOT of batteries. The Z950 is powered by a proprietary, but small, rechargeable battery, and I have purchased a second one so that I don't run out of juice during a major storm.
3. One thing I didn't realize until after receiving the Z950 is that it doesn't have a viewfinder -- oops. Given that I'm shooting outside often, I may miss that. The LCD is bright, but still not bright enough if you're shooting into the sun.
4. The shutter can be left open for 16 seconds now, compared to 8 with the Z650. While this is an improvement I will enjoy, it still doesn't match more expensive cameras which have a "bulb" setting to leave the shutter open as long as you want, which is crucial to capturing high-quality still lightning shots. But with 1280x720 HD video, I'll have ample opportunity to pull large still frames (and the 650 proved those can be beautiful).
All this said, I haven't read the manual yet, so there are probably undiscovered capabilities I haven't mentioned here. Once I've done that I may blog about it again. Even now though, I would abolutely recommend this camera to any weather enthusiast who is looking for a quality still and video camera for under $200, especially if you're looking to upgrade an earlier Kodak model. No, it doesn't have the biggest zoom or MP rating out there, or a long shutter speed, but we're talking about a $180 camera here.
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