I'm releasing this review a year late. I wrote it, thought it was too negative, and just forgot about it, so this article is written after becoming intimate with the camera and taking over 4000 photos with it. It's amazingly feature-laden for $379! It gets good grades all around with few weak areas. I purchased it as a second choice. I wanted the P880 after reading rave reviews about it in Popular Photography, but it simply never arrived at Best Buy. Tired of waiting, I picked up the P850, which was just sitting there, tempting me, mainly because of its hot shoe on which I can attach my powerful professional flash systems and studio lights. Very few digital cameras have them.
The camera has a ton of buttons on it. Tons! Too many! You can easily depress the share or the print button by accident. When I was getting used to the camera, I thought it was malfunctioning until I realized what was going on. Now that I'm careful not to press buttons while picking up or orienting the camera, I have fewer problems. Getting out of the unwanted modes is as easy as half-depressing the shutter button. I suggest a flash bracket. The grip will keep the heel of your hand off of the buttons
WHAT IT COMES WITH
The P850 comes with a proprietary battery, which I don't like. I had to buy another one for backup since I can't run to the Circle K and pick up some emergency AAs. So when the battery runs out during a shoot, you'd better have an extra $24 battery or an AC adapter. I don't like not being able to just replace the batteries with batteries from the local drug store. The good thing is that if you turn off the internal flash and use the flash on the hot shoe, you can take 200 photos, no problem. My last photo shoot was 129 shots and a video interview of the model for her DVD slide show (Yes! It shoots video. I'll get to video quality later). When you turn off the flash, even if you have external flash set to on, it will say that you didn't use a flash in the exif data. This may mean something to people who use tools that take this into account. I use DCE auto enhance, which does.
It comes with 32mb of internal memory, good for only a few high quality pics and almost no video. I picked up a 2 gigabyte PNY SD memory card. There is a USB port with supplied cable, and a video out connection with cable for direct connect to the television. It also has a 5 volt connection for AC power supplies.
At first, I was impressed by the manual, because its thick and perfect bound, but it's thick mainly because it's multi-language. Still each section is pretty densely populated with data. The manual isn't dumbed down, and does a decent job of explaining the camera.
THE EASYSHARE SOFTWARE
Please learn this lesson about 99% of digital cameras: They work with windows and Mac OS. They don't need the manufacturer's lame software. I don't know why they even bother to write it sometimes. They probably paid a team a million dollars to create and promote this junk and it doesn't even stack up halfway to Google's free Picasa, which is excruciatingly close to perfect. Seriously, any digital camera software you use is going to try to do the same job as Picasa, and stop at about 20%. Don't install this junk! Easyshare is buggy and crashes if you have a large library of photos. Like I said, I shot 4000 photos just with this camera. Mind you, I own six cameras at present.
If I allow Kodak's software to very very excruciatingly slowly index my My Pictures folder, I'll be dead before I can sift through the photos. It's non-intuitive, plus it's crippleware. Get this: it literally cripples Windows so that you have to use Easyshare software to download photos from your camera. It does this by grabbing hold of the Easyshare camera and making it unavailable. After a long wait, your other camera wizards and even Windows itself will tell you the device is in use, more than likely constantly being polled by Easyshare software. I wrote Kodak about this and they didn't acknowledge my complaints. They pretended not to understand my complaint that their software crippled Windows for no good reason.
The camera works well with the built-in Windows XP camera wizard, and Picasa, and any number of programs that can extract images from cameras. The only one it doesn't work well with is Kodak's confusing and slow software. Did I mention that I didn't like it? The P850 shows up as a standard removable USB flash drive when you connect the camera to the USB port. Again, install the Easyshare software and the camera not only doesn't show up in My Computer, but any program that actually finds the camera will lock up trying to access the camera. Curiously, these programs work flawlessly when Easyshare is not installed. It's crippleware, and it's not even good at what it does.
I had fully intended to buy a camera dock, but I don't know now. I won't buy one now if that requires Easyshare software as a driver. I know that Kodak is trying to survive in the digital age. Maybe they are trying to do that partially with prints. I say do it by making great cameras like this one. Not by taking away Windows options and hiding that intention behind disingenuous warnings not to attach your camera to the computer before installing the software.
The auto focusing system is not as good as the one on my Minolta Maxxum 7000, which I purchased in 1989, but it's good, as long as it's not too dark. Without aid, you can forget auto focusing at night. If it's dark, use a lit cell phone to focus on. When I say dark, I mean dusk. It may seem like plentiful light to your human eyes, developed by God, but the camera has only a few years of research behind it, and is flying blind, though sometimes I notice it brightens the photo in the viewfinder. I don't know why it doesn't try using that image to focus with. This could probably be fixed with software.
There is manual focusing, which can save you when the camera refuses to focus. Unfortunately it's joystick focusing. The camera magnifies a section of the image and allows you to fine focus. The only thing to watch for here is that if you leave the camera in manual focus or switch to a mode that was set to manual focus, it always gives the green light that tells you it's in focus. The green light is not in play when in manual focus, but if you depress the shutter, it will go green as if it's in focus.
The eye-level viewfinder even has a diopter dial that adjusts for near and far sited people. That excited me, but I'm so nearsighted at 20/200, it's beyond my range. Don't worry, I'm 20/20 with glasses.
I will say that during the last meteor shower, I did aim the camera up into the night sky, zoomed all the way in, and set focus to infinity for a number of four to eight second exposures. Though my eye saw no meteors, the camera caught many of them
The image quality is pretty good, but not as rich as either of my Fuji digitals. I just like my Fujis better for pure snap. Some of the Kodak photos come out darker than I'd expect and by the time you've brightened them, you reveal camera noise (similar to film grain that hides in shadows). The camera is a bit low contrast compared to my Fujis. But if you've owned a mediocre camera in the past, you will notice an increase in the quality of your photos, with your bright outdoor shots ISO dipping automatically down to 64 and 50 where you can get away with the extra fineness of grain and popping up to ISO 400, which I actually haven't seen it do. In Close up, and I mean way close up, some images look a little video-esque around the edges but I generally can't see it in print.
I think the camera opts to go too slow way too often. If you don't have a steady hand or a tripod, you will have softly blurred photos when in automatic mode. I've had to delete many beautiful photos that had the blur referred to as camera shake. When I look at the exif data, these were show as low as a 40th/sec and I say to myself, why put in parameters that would ever allow that without overt warnings. When you're shooting on a bright day, you never expect to go down to 40th/sec.
I've noticed that on automatic, it hovers around ISO 50 and 64 on bright day, but it's at the expense of shutter speed. If I'm at ISO 50 and shutter speed 40th/sec, I'd rather the camera opt to go to ISO 100 and 80th/sec to avoid the blur. I'm old school. Anything below 60th/sec required a tripod. Holding your breath and going all zen doesn't help. You need a tripod. Sometimes turning on the fill flash is a quick way to up the shutter speed, but it's slow to pump it up when it wants to go slow. I will move it to shutter priority or manual at times, but I usually like a smart auto mode.
The SCHNEIDER-KREUZNACH VARIOGON lens is sharp and delivers good high contrast saturated photos. You can take professional quality images with this lens, but there are limitations to this lens such as the incredibly narrow f-stop range of 2.8-3.0 2.8 is good. 3.0 is good on one end of a spectrum. I would expect a 16 or a 32 on the other end. I will admit that the depth of field is surprisingly deep at the 2.8-3.0 settings, but I have 500 watt second Novatron studio lights. I might want to stop down to 11 and more at times. Actually I may need to, because my studio lights have two settings: Powerful and way powerful.
The lens claims to be the equivalent of a 36 to 432 mm on a 35 millimeter camera. It doesnt actually seem that wide or that telephoto in use to me. I could be wrong. It does give good zoom though. I think that its a bit too spongy and active, moving home after you turn it off. That means you will usually zoom back in if you dont usually shoot wide, and who does? Just thinking about battery waste. I am indeed sick of fighting with the sluggish zoom that goes too far out and too far in. I prefer the zoom ring on my 35mm and Fuji digital cameras.
5.1 megapixels is alright, and the 8x10 enlargements look quite good. There is noise at times, but I have my ways of eliminating noise which are beyond the scope of this review.
For some reason I've rarely shot indoors with available light on this camera, but I have used a fluorescent lamp to shoot a very color balanced portrait. It works well under tungsten (typical incandescent lights), fluorescent, daylight, and even overcast daylight. Overcast daylight can look a bit too blue and this is a nice smart compensation.
The camera focuses pretty closely, but if you press the macro AF button, it gets as close as 3.9 inches. If you merely go to the scene mode and choose closeup photography, it might not want to focus properly uncles you set AF to macro AF. Oddly enough, I had no problem videoing a bug on my windowsill at very close range.
THE CAMERA BODY
I have no complaints except for the silver lens. I wish the whole thing were black and looked fully traditional. Functionally, it's fine except for the lack of the PC plug, my preferred way of integrating a camera with a lighting system.
THE ORIENTATION SENSOR
The camera has an orientation sensor that rotates the photo in raw mode before saving the JPEG. This is very nice, but it takes too long. About 5-10 seconds, and it's bad when you have a past-paced posing session. I have to keep it off and rotate them in Picasa or Photoshop.
The camera has an image stabilizer that reduces blur caused by camera shake. You can hear it working. I can't say how well it works because I always leave it on. Comparing images to other cameras I own that don't have image stabilizers, I can't say I see a benefit though.
THE FLASH SYSTEM
Nearly 100% of all digital cameras have a built-in flash. 100% of these flashes are underpowered, even on the pro ones. They can come in handy, but I don't like to rely on them. Shooting an important event with them is out of the question. This camera offers a hot shoe connection, which allows me to attach my professional flashes and studio lights. The camera's built-in flash is okay in a pinch, but I rarely use it. When I keep it off, I can take well over 100 photos. The flash is bad for triggering slaves as it incorporates a weak, sometimes unnoticeable pre-flash that sets off slave flashes early and I've found no way of shutting it off except moving the slave sensor away from the pre-flash. I turn off the flash altogether and use a regular flash in the hot shoe as a trigger.
THIS CAMERA ACTUALLY HAS A HOTSHOE!
This is what sets the now less-than-$300 P850 (I paid $379 in 2006) apart from the more serious cameras at Best Buy. I wanted to attach a "real flash" and my studio lights to it and experience digital photography with a flash that has a guide number of 120 ISO 100 in feet, meaning that I if my subject is 30 feet away, I can stop down to F4. Fifteen feet away, and I can stop down to F8! This opens a whole new world of digital photography with all sorts of options! Frankly, I wish there were an F11 and an F16, but I'll live with F8. By the way, I've noticed that on Ebay, people are describing old flashes as film camera flashes. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Electronic flashes provide daylight balanced light whenever ANY camera sends it a signal to fire. Just because it's not completely integrated and automatic doesn't mean it's not made for a whole genus of cameras.
For instance, the P850's shutter synchronizes with the flash at any speed. This makes the camera much more versatile than you'd think. So I can go into manual mode, set my aperture for f8 and my shutter speed at 125, and shoot a flash photo of a model outdoors that's properly exposed for her, even if the background is slightly underexposed. I can also up the power and shoot the same photo at f11 but with a shutter speed of 1000. The model is illuminated the same by the flash, but the ambient light and the sky behind her are five stops darker (that's 32 times less light behind the model) but the model is illuminated the same by the flash. This brings out details in washed out bright skies and adds for a more professional look.
The viewfinder is fine to work with, but only one person can look at a time because if you're off axis, it's not very viewable. So when you raise the camera over your head (say to raise the waterline behind a model and have only water behind her) and point down, you might have a hard time making out what you're pointing at.
The P-850 takes videos too, decent ones with sound at 320x240 and 640x480. The focus is a little overactive, but if you control your lighting and focus well, you can piece together a great video with this camera. Do I recommend it as a primary video camera? No. But you can take professional quality video with it in spurts.
The zoom lens is loud. You don't notice it until you zoom in a video. Yikes. Sounds like Robocop aiming his gun and flexing his muscles. Videos can be as long as memory allows. My card is 2 gigabytes, but once a video stopped recording because it said that the SD card was slow.
CONNECTION WITH THE COMPUTER
The manual tells you not to connect the USB to the computer until youve installed the software. In Kodak's defense, every USB device says this, but if you're not running Windahs 98, you can ignore it. Once again, don't install this junk. If you have a lot of pictures, you will regret it. Use Picasa. I'm a pretty smart guy, and I really had a hard time figuring out how to use the Kodak software before it crashed.
You can use the Camera wizard or you can just navigate your P850 like a flash drive. I used to actually carry backups of important non-photographic documents in my camera.
The camera keeps track of how many photos youve taken. With the naming convention it uses, 100_XXXX, may roll over at 10,000 photos. Photos taken using internal memory (if you don't have an SD card installed, use a different naming convention, 000_XXXX. XP doesn't seem to be able to navigate the 32 MB internal memory, but its wizard can extract the photos. So can Picasa. I rarely use the internal memory except when I forget my SD card.
Hella-loud zoom for video.
Camera should have external audio input options anyway. I'll never show videos from my digital cameras to my TV. They all come with AV out and a cord. I'd gladly trade audio in for video recording. That would open up a new world.
Spongy, hesitant at times zoom that starts too slowly and stops too slowly. It makes me long for my ring zoom when I use this camera.
Battery life is short, about 50 pictures, with the flash. I'd understand if the flash were powerful. It's not.
Auto focus can crap out long before your eyes do. As dusk approaches, you will struggle with it.
Lens flare is a problem in backlit situations but not usually much.
Backlit photos can appear too soft, sometimes almost foggy.
Foggy pictures at times when UV is high.
Noise is high in shadows, and when photos are slightly under exposed and brightened. My Fuji S9100 tends to shoot dark, and has much less noise when brightened.
Shutter speed leans toward the slow. I appreciate going for the low grain sub-100 ISO speeds, but the line was cut too close to the dreaded non-hand-held 30th/sec. There should be an option not to go below 60th second in auto mode.
Saving tifs was too slow. Prohibitively too slow. Kodak fixed this in the firmware upgrade. Now it doesn't allow saving tifs! Way to go?!?
The camera, after thousands of photos, seems to be opting to go to standard Jpeg mode when I always want all my cameras on fine. Just about every time I change modes or power it off, it switches back to standard and I have to change it back. This is a recent change.
My verdict? You can take great photos with this camera. You may snarl at it from time to time though. Did I mention that I took 4000 photos with it? I think that's also a testament to its reliability.
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Amount Paid (US$): 379
This Camera is a Good Choice if You Want Something... Flexible Enough for Enthusiasts