Poor old Kodak. Not only has the company that once dominated amateur photography had to watch consumer electronics manufacturers muscle in on its turf, it's now losing yet more ground as photographers migrate to digital SLRs.
The Kodak P712 is a brave attempt to fight back, combining some of the creative features found on today's budget D-SLRs, with a long lens and some consumer-friendly functions like image stabilisation and movie capture. For a start, the P712 lacks the super-sized ugliness of some predecessors.
Weighing in at nearly half a kilo, its black plastic case is never going to be pocket-sized but it is light enough to sling round your neck, and tough enough to withstand typical tourist knocks. Controls are well laid-out, although some buttons are small, and the zoom lever is too close to the EVF (Electronic Viewfinder) for comfort. The 2.5-inch LCD is superficially impressive, rendering colours with a bright, natural clarity. However, it does lack sharpness and positively sulks in low light.
The EVF is a better choice all round, especially as it extends the P712's average battery life. The display has a useful on-screen menu that enables you to adjust key functions (aperture, shutter speed, ISO and exposure or flash compensation) via a speedy jog dial. This dial also works with the dedicated buttons for drive, metering, focus and flash functions, although weirdly not with the main menu screens.
The long zoom, which is the centrepiece of any 'bridge' camera, is as infuriating as it is liberating. On the plus side, its 12x reach is really useful, especially as the image stabiliser is excellent - easily a match for the classleading systems from Canon and Panasonic.
Distortion and fringing, while visible, are well controlled. But the Schneider-Kreuznach optics are probably the noisiest we've ever used, squeaking and whining throughout the range, and it can be slow to respond. Speed is a problem for the Kodak across the board. Powering up takes around five seconds and processing times are truly lethargical: six seconds for a JPEG and up to a minute for TIFF and RAW files. Burst mode captures up to five frames at 1.5fps, although at least the reliable autofocusing is near instant.
When it comes to features, Kodak's heart is the right place. There's full exposure control, with good over- and under-exposure feedback and bracketing. You can set and tweak the white balance, choose interval shooting, move metering zones around, tinker with the exposure lock and check clipping. But overall the whole package hasn't been thought through for the enthusiast.
You can't bump the aperture or shutter speed in Program mode, for example, and popping up the flash for a burst of fill takes a button press, a scroll through the flash menu followed by another button press. And then it's the same palaver to turn it all off again.
Kodak might think that offering ten ISO sensitivities makes the P712 more attractive to serious snappers. On the contrary, when the maximum ISO in normal shooting is a meagre 400, all those intermediate settings only postpone your disappointment. Many manufacturers have been concentrating on improving low-light and night photography, but not Kodak. Prepare yourself for some dull and grainy images if the light level is anything but bright.
Playback mode shows similarly frustrated aspirations. It's great to have a histogram, but why is it so small? An in-camera RAW Develop function is smart - you can choose colour, sharpening, contrast options and more, then save the image as a TIFF or JPEG. But then you can't simultaneously magnify an image while viewing its properties.
Image quality from the P712 is more of a reflection of its price rather than its ambitions. While daylight shots are bright and engaging, noise is visible at all sensitivities (and climbs towards unacceptable at ISO400). Both JPEG and RAW images are softer than they should be, although that does benefit when you want to take a flattering portrait.
Will the P712 tempt you from upgrading to an SLR? Probably not. It's slow, ungainly, and can't really compete in image quality with even the cheapest 6Mp D-SLR. However, it does offer a powerful, stabilised lens at a reasonable price, albeit without the flair of Panasonic's TZ1 and FZ7 or the all-round optical competence of Canon's S3 IS. Mark Harris