Want to take pictures of skittish wildlife like an expert "twitcher" or cheating partners unawares, paparazzi style? Kodak's current big zoom bridge model in the 14-megapixel EasyShare Z981, offering a 26x optical reach equivalent to a whopping 26-676mm in 35mm film terms could become your weapon of choice.
Not much smaller than an entry DSLR with dimensions of 123.7 x 84.8 x 105mm and weighing 520g without accessories, first impressions of the Z981 is that it's a bit of a brick however. In use the tube-like lens extends an extra 2.5 inches in front of the camera when at maximum telephoto setting.
The added bulk over competition, such as Pentax's X90, is partly due to the four pre-charged NiMH AA batteries the Kodak requires for power being inserted into the base of its handgrip. Given that, we'd expected the camera to be slightly cheaper than its £399 asking price, which cost-wise makes it a direct alternative to a digital SLR proper.
Still, the camera feels firm and solidly built, its only Achilles heel being the sliding catch for the door protecting the joint battery and card compartment at its base, which was prohibitively stiff on our review sample. We had to force it open or closed.
There are positive surprises too, including a second shutter release button located at the base of the handgrip to theoretically aid use if turning the camera on its side to shoot portrait fashion. A top plate switch allows the photographer to swap between use of the two. This is something we've only previously witnessed on professional DSLRs, not that we found ourselves compelled to use it much, since the camera is overall still much smaller than a pro DSLR with battery grip so it's not so much of a stretch for the hand to reach the top plate under such circumstances.
A rubberised surround to the lens barrel aids grip when taking photographs handheld, as does the moulded grip proper. Plus, top banana RAW file capture is offered alongside the common JPEG format. Not unusual on a bridge camera perhaps, but not a given.
Pictures are composed - and reviewed - via 3-inch 230k-dot resolution LCD that takes up two-thirds of the space at the rear or identical resolution electronic viewfinder (EVF) directly above, with button alongside allowing the user to swap between them in an instant. Integral flash is of the fully automatic pop-up variety, and, unlike on higher end bridge models or DSLRs proper, there's no additional hotshoe for a separate flashgun.
The Z981 being part of Kodak's EasyShare family there's a dedicated button in the midst of the camera back for earmarking certain images for upload to the most popular social networking sites, as well as Kodak's own online gallery. We'd have preferred instead to have had included a dedicated one-touch record button for shooting video though, which is what, at first glance, it's easy to mistake the red "Share" button on the backplate for.
Other than that the Z981's backplate is reasonably "clean" as regards features, four buttons tucked in unobtrusively down the right hand edge of the screen - including dedicated delete, menu, display info (including live histogram in its creative modes) and playback controls - plus a thumb-operated directional control pad with central "OK" button to their right. Extra functions are not attributed to the directional arrows as on competing models, so, used in conjunction with mode options and menu screens this proves to be a navigation device pure and simple.
In P,A,S,M shooting modes a toolbar of key functions - such as shutter speed, aperture, exposure (+/- 2EV) and light sensitivity settings (ISO 64-1600 manually selectable) is presented running along the bottom of the screen, selections are made with a scroll and downward press of a small jog dial peeping out of the Z981's top plate. Though it is great that users are provided with this shortcut, being able to use the larger thumb operated control pad to make the same selections would have been less fiddly.
As it is, the recording of 1280 x 720 pixel HD clips at a 30fps playback rate starts and ends with a press of the shutter release button, having first selected video mode from among 10 options among the familiar bottle-top style mode dial on the camera's top plate, which also includes access to 16 preset scene modes. The built-in mono microphone is quite sensitive in that it picks up the zoom's operational adjustments and the user's hand movements, but in fairness at least the optical zoom remains accessible in movie mode, focus continually re-adjusting if left on default continuous AF setting. There's no HDMI output for hooking the camera up to a flat panel TV however.
In stills shooting mode, you can also hear the lens constantly "hunting" as it readies itself for the next shot. If we take issue it's that image-writing times are quite sluggish - the camera freezing for 5 seconds while a 14-megapixel JPEG file is being committed to SD card for example. Quite a few times we found ourselves quickly lining up the next shot and finding the camera wouldn't actually take it, as it was still processing the previous one, which proved frustrating.
Users also have a choice of two colour modes - "Natural" or "High Colour" for additional vividness that, with Kodak noted for well saturated colour anyway, at times produces results bordering on the lurid when downloaded and examined straight out of the camera.
Utilising the 26mm wide-angle end of the zoom, operated by a narrow rocker switch top right of the camera back, does result in some quite pronounced barrel distortion visible in images, while at the telephoto end shots are quite soft. When filming it's difficult to obtain a smooth transitional motion; the zoom is so responsive your footage ends up a little jerky.
Generally speaking the Kodak's JPEGs lack bite and contrast - at times over-exposed, something that can be corrected in Photoshop to an extent, but arguably you don't want to have to manually tweak every image. Also, even when shooting using the camera's "natural" setting, colours looked over saturated and a tad unrealistic, especially if literally shooting a natural (as opposed to man made) subject. At higher ISOs detail lessens as noise preventing processing kicks in, with images taken at ISO 1600 over our test period more closely resembling video grabs.
Delivering overly-bright colours at times, plus some quite pronounced barrel distortion and overall softness, results from the Z981 seem somehow to add up to less than the sum of its individual parts, more impressive on paper than in practice. Build quality is chunky and robust and its spacious layout will appeal to those with larger hands.
Those looking for a more portable high zoom option meanwhile may be better served by the likes of Canon's 14-megapixel, 14x optical zoom PowerShot SX210 IS, if prepared to sacrifice lens power for smaller form factor. Good news for Kodak fans does come however in the fact that we found the camera for £100 cheaper with a brief online search.