There is no such thing as a bad camera.
How Far Have We Come…
I am uncertain of the interest my blog followers have in the state of the digital camera industry as it stands in 2021. It is no secret that Kodak has been through quite bit the last few years (won’t get into that here…). Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba, HP, Samsung and FujiFilm have had their successes and failures since the digital camera market exploded back in the early 2000’s.* Fast forward to 2021: Olympus’s imaging division has been sold, much like the fate of Kodak. It is claimed Nikon is recording record losses: its speculated that they did not jump on board the mirrorless platform in time (though this is only one perspective…an entire book could be written on the dynamics of the digital camera market, and Nikon’s future prospects). Photographic clickbait abounds.
The reality is this: the digital camera market is certainly changing. 2021 is going to be an interesting one.
Lets back up a decade. Kodak still produced digital cameras, among them, the Kodak Z-990 MAX. The Z-line of cameras enjoyed much success; The Z-612, 712, 812, 1012, 1015, 980 and 981 represented a steady refinement of the same basic design–a bridge camera based upon the ‘traditional D-SLR design. Over the years, the overall size of the camera increased to meet the increasing zoom capabilities. As did the resolution. Six megapixels became 14. A twelve times zoom became 30. The Kodak Z-990 MAX was a reflection of the changing–and competitive–digital bridge camera market. Whilst still staying true (mostly) to the core value of Kodak: consumer likability and ease of use.
A Focused Perspective
For better or for worst, the Kodak Z-990 MAX responded to the market, and to many critics, the camera fell short of being ‘great.’ The camera was by most traditional measures, average. These measures typically include resolution charts, ISO noise performance, Frames per second (FPS), dynamic range, card writting speed (buffer), start-up/shut-off speed, lens distortion and color rendition. Aside from timing tests, these measures equate to what is the holy grail of image quality.
From what I can gather, the best cameras must exceed well in each of these measures. A camera that scores higher than another is superior. This is the mainstream benchmark.
I do not agree with the totality of this benchmark. I believe a camera should be assessed by the following criteria.
A camera must first inspire the photographer. After all, what good is a camera if it does not inspire? I wrote about this briefly in a past blog post, and still stand by it today. Photography is an art, and art should always inspire. It must inspire. A camera that inspires is a camera that is worth the while.
Second, the camera must be able to match the needs of the photographer. For example, who gives a cluck about burst rates, high-speed video recording or flash performance if they are not interested in sports and action photography? If speed is not a concern, cameras that rank low now have much more clout. The inverse is true: why consider a camera that has no high speed performance if that is a must? Other considerations include macro performance, ergonomics, menu access/physical controls and build quality (including weather sealing).
And third, the camera should have image quality (and memory quality) that meets the needs of the photographer. Image quality entails much, as noted above. Image quality is akin to beer, everyone thinks their preferred beer is the best. And we all know how slippery that slope is.
With these three criteria in mind, let us continue.
Kodak Z-990 MAX Field Notes
The best way to understand a cameras true capabilities is to take it out in the field for a prolonged period of time. In many reviews, cameras are, seemingly, taken for a spin for the afternoon, then packed back up. What is also apparent quite quickly is the bias of the reviewer/reporter (I have a hunch folks did not like Kodak). They either like the camera or they do not. Words can say much more than we think.
This being said, here are my thoughts on the Kodak Z-990 MAX.
What meets my needs:
- Fit and form factor: the size, weight, and use of rubber on the lens barrel and battery grip area are top notch. Kodak always seems to use the best rubber…
- Quick access to focus and timer options: I love this about Kodak cameras–so intuitive.
- Video recording button taken off of mode dial: I do not dabble in video often, but when I do, it is nice to leave the mode dial alone–especially when the light is just right. And besides, if video quality is important, then get a video camera.
- AA batteries: Just so convenient–proprietary lithium cells do not always equal longer battery life.
- ‘Use’ of a 49mm filter: I cannot speak for others, but I have had success with a 49-58mm step-up ring on my lens barrel. A bit of vignetting is inevitable, but I typically crop the corners with wide-angle images anyway.
- 28mm Wide-Angle Lens: not super-wide, but capable none-the-less.
What does not meet my needs:
- Plastic Tripod socket: Seriously, I will pass on a camera (typically) if the camera is equipped with a plastic tripod mount. The mount on my Z-990 is shot. Because of this, I often leave the Z-990 at home. A majority of my work utilizes a tripod. FujiFilm’s HS-Series suffers from the same poor design.
- Menu system/layout: this was better implemented in the Z-981. I think the folks at Kodak were trying too hard to be like everyone else. Its not too hard to understand, but it is touchy; as is the command dial. Kodak’s ‘ease-of-use’ is a bit wayward in this camera.
- Lack of threads on the lens barrel: while the target market for this camera may not be bummed, it is a nice touch. And, it ensures lads like me do not tamper with the lens.
- All the features “printed” all over the camera body (30x Zoom, FULL HD VIDEO…): in my opinion, the most humble cameras are the best ones. A big truck with a lift kit does not make the person.
Most importantly, the camera does not inspire me the way that others in the Kodak lineage do–take the Kodak Z-981 for example. Similar DNA…but there is just something about it that the Z-990 lacks. Perhaps it comes down to its ease of use–The Z-981 excels here. Aside from the video quality afforded by the Z-990’s BSI-CMOS sensor, the Z-981 is a better camera (notably more responsive too), despite only having a 26X zoom, and not a 30X like the Z-990.** A lack of inspiration also compliments of a junky tripod mount.
I find this camera its most useful for natural history photography that tends to be static. The Schneider-Kreuznach Variogon 28-840mm lens on this Kodak, and others, have always impressed me. Close-up (MACRO/SUPER MACRO) details are rendered well, especially with some beautiful light. The sensor is impressive in this regard. It allows for a pleasant glow. Landscapes are also captured well, but do not impress me to the same degree as the camera’s MACRO performance. This is where I see the Kodak providing its best to my needs. Finally, the camera fits my hands well. The ergonomics allow the hands to naturally grasp the camera body and lens.
Finally, in regards to image quality, I am fairly satisfied with the output the Z-990 provides in the Jpeg output. But to unlock the true potential of this sensor, capturing RAW files is suggested. Much like other cameras, out-of-camera images interpret the image for you. I prefer to take control of this aspect of the photographic process. I am pleased that Adobe Lightroom can work with the RAW kodak files. In processing, I find myself usually sharpening the images a bit, adjusting shadows and highlights, and removing any specs of dust that may have been on the lens.
Memory Quality is a bit off with this Kodak. The output of this camera is not how I see the images in my mind. Other cameras in my collection mesh with my mind. If that makes sense. Memory quality is hard to explain.
The following plates represent the capabilities of the Kodak Z-990 utilizing RAW files, and processing them to my preferences. ***
While the Kodak Z-990 MAX is the focus of this user report, the same can be said of any other camera out there–digital or film. There exists so many opinions and perspectives on what a photographer should or should not do. JPeg vs. RAW, post-processing vs. in camera capture…in the end, its art. Do what you want, HOW you want to. Art is its best when the artist is liberated.
Free from oppressive industry shackles. Don’t get sucked into the vortex of popular opinion.
The Z-990 MAX may be the camera for you. It may not be. Take my thoughts and observations and make your own informed decision. But remember, if the camera does not inspire, keep on looking. Us humans do our best work when inspired.
I appreciate your time.
*To my knowledge, HP, Samsung, Toshiba are no longer producing digital cameras. And that is a shame.
**BSI= Back Side Illuminated
***It is how I like my beer…