After having a look at a very low-end camera two weeks ago, I’ve stepped a bit up in the range to have a look at a 5 megapixel model, a Kodak CX7530, which can currently be bought a Geeks.com for $175. Just like I found that the CX7220 was able to produce good 4×6 prints, I was surprised to see that CX7530 is capable of very good letter-size prints.
As a preamble, let me pre-emptively answer one question: why is this article on OSNews? The answer is simple: because the previous one generated some interest and raised a few questions. If you’re not interested in digital cameras, reading further will be a waste of your time, please stop here. Besides, OSNews is a generic tech site, not an OS-only news site.
Picking digital photography equipment is a tricky issue. Check the inventory of a major online retailer today and you’ll have a choice between about 300 different current models, from more than a dozen different manufacturers. In the hottest segments of the market, new cameras are released every year by every major player, so that if you’re willing to widen your shopping choices to models that have been discontinued reasonably recently you’ll be facing a choice of 500 different cameras.
I bought my first digital camera in 1999, after not really taking any pictures for years, and at that time it took a pretty hefty budget to get any digital camera. Even with a somewhat heavy investment, the results were disappointing. I gave up photography for a few years, got back to it with a film SLR in 2002, and was able to get satisfactory results with that equipment, even though the workflow of shooting film then scanning it to process it and print it digitally felt awkward. In late 2003 I moved to a digital SLR, and the move was a revelation: digital photography was a viable option, but it seemed to require large image sensors.
Having a DSLR made me painfully realize that carrying such a camera with me all the time wasn’t practical. Since my cameras stay on their shelf most of the time except when I explicitly go shooting or when I’m travelling. Even when travelling I don’t always feel at ease with big expensive equipment, and on a recent trip to Las Vegas the DSLR stayed in my hotel room the entire time while I shot several rolls of film with a good 35mm point-and-shoot, while on a ski trip last year the camera in my backpack was a sturdy medium-format TLR.
I had quite a few opportunities to play with a 3MP Canon A75, which is capable of producing files that would print very fine at 4×6 even with a bit of cropping, but is a tiny bit too bulky and heavy to carry everywhere all the time. I got my hands on a Kodak CX7220, graciously provided by Geeks.com, and was pleasantly surprised by the image quality, being able to get some perfectly acceptable 4×6 prints from its 2MP files. When Geeks.com asked me if I wanted to review a camera slightly higher in the range, I went for it, and they sent me a Kodak CX7530. A quick check showed that it would be able to print 8×10 with essentially the same pixel count as my workhorse DSLR, and I was eager to see if the idea of printing 8×10 from a digital camera that I can keep all day clipped at my belt was a crazy idea, or if technology has finally reached a point where the promises of large prints mentioned in the camera marketing materials are real.
After that long introduction, I feel that I need to include a disclaimer: I am not looking at this camera as a substitute for expensive and bulky DSLR equipment, but rather as a complement. There are certain photography applications where no amount of technology can compensate for the limitations of a small-size camera, and I consciously decided to not venture in those applications during my review (I already have a DSLR for those applications). Therefore, you will not see any night pictures (the lens and the sensor are too small to effectively catch light at night), and you will not see any indoor flash pictures (the flash is too close to the lens to provide a natural look, and not powerful enough to light an entire room). I’m not claiming that those applications are entirely impossible, and in a pinch you’ll probably still be able to take pictures in those extreme situations, but you’d clearly not be using the right tool for the job. I wanted to explicitly evaluate the camera in favorable situations, to see whether a $175 camera could sometimes rival my usual DSLR that had cost me 10 times as much.
A shameless plug here: my experience with Geeks.com has always been positive. Over the past 5 years or so, I’ve bought quite a few things from them, and the service has always been first-class. I can’t remember ever having any problems, something that I can’t even say of certain highly regarded places. All the items have always been as advertised, shipping has always been fast. I’m saying this because there are lots of shady businesses trying to sell photography equipment for cheap but that use annoying and almost illegal selling tactics. In my experience Geeks.com is certainly not one of those places. While I understand that even the best run business can sometimes have a few issues here and there and that some readers are likely to chime in and say that they had issues, I’ve placed enough orders with them to be able to say that those issues seem to only happen in a very small minority of cases.
With all that out of the way, let’s talk about the camera. It was refurbished, as was clearly indicated on the Geeks.com web site, and came in Kodak’s generic box for refurbished EasyShare cameras (i.e. it had really been in Kodak’s hands before being sold as refurbished). Everything that was supposed to be in the box was there (the camera, a battery, cables for USB and video, manuals, the fitted adapter for the various Kodak EasyShare docks, and a wrist strap), and everything was in absolutely brand-new condition.
The camera runs perfectly with the supplied CR-V3 lithium battery, or with a pair of NiMH AA batteries. While Kodak doesn’t recommend it because of poor battery life, I have successfully used the CX7530 with a pair of AA alkaline batteries and it worked just fine. That’s certainly a very positive point since it means that suitable batteries can be found anywhere.
The camera has 32MB of internal memory, and can also use SD and MMC cards. A year ago I’d have complained about the SD slot and would have preferred a CF one, but in the last year SD cards have caught up with CF in terms of speed and price (I just paid $26 for a 512MB Kingston SD). I originally had mixed feelings about having internal memory instead of a removable card, especially as I like to transfer pictures using card readers, and I have also occasionally used memory cards to have pictures printed at my local 1-hour lab. On the other hand if the camera came with a 32MB card I wouldn’t use it at all since I prefer to have more capacity, and more importantly with a non-removable memory you can’t possibly end up taking the camera with you but forgetting the memory card. I speak from experience here, having ended up twice leaving home with a camera but without a memory card. It is easy to transfer images between the internal memory and the removable card, so even if you end up having to use the internal memory you can still use the memory card to move the files around. During my testing, I’ve found that files weigh about 1.2MB on average, ranging from about 800kB to 2MB.
It’s a small camera. It fits snugly in my favorite Lowepro D-Pods 20, though there is no space for spare batteries. I’ve kept it at my belt for most of a day, driving, shopping, watching TV, eating out, without it ever getting in the way. That’s certainly not something that I can say of my Canon 10D or of my new Canon 5D. The CX7530 definitely passes the first half of my requirements: I can carry it everywhere.
The user interface of the camera is simple. Kodak obviously made a point of not overloading the camera with too many buttons. It’s possible to take pictures by only using the controls on the top panel: turn the top dial from the red “off” to the green “auto”, and press the shutter release. That’s it. Slightly more advanced camera controls are at the top of the rear panel: the zoom rocker, the self-timer and burst control, and the flash control. It’s positively simple. The user interface is modeless, which means that as long as it’s on the camera is always ready to take a picture, even if you’re in the middle of reviewing pictures or changing settings in the menus. It feels so intuitive that you wonder how else a camera could work, yet other vendors manage to even mess up something that simple. The menus are easy to navigate, thanks to the 4-way control on the left of the screen. Pretty much all the usual suspects are there, though I did regret that the only real manual exposure control is for long exposures; for normal exposures you have to trust the exposure meter and need to resort to exposure compensation – more on this below. There is no significant difference in the way the menus behave between the CX7530 and the CX7220, so you can read the review of the CX7220 if you want more information in that area.
The CX7530 is part of Kodak’s EasyShare range of photography tools, which means that pictures can be e-mailed and printed without having to use a computer. I didn’t actually test those capabilities, so I have to trust Kodak on that one. Connecting the camera to a current Mac or to a current Linux box worked right out of the box. With an external card reader, no surprises either, the SD card is formatted as FAT16 and contains standard JPEG files.
Picture-taking is uneventful. The optical viewfinder is a bit small and a bit tight: the actual framing at infinity is quite wider than what the viewfinder shows, but it’s much better to err on that side than to have a viwefinder that shows more than the actual frame, since you can always crop. Using the rear LCD as a viewfinder was actually usable, except in very bright sun, where I had to shade it with my hand in order to see it well. When shooting, the rear LCD shows where the focus areas are and indicates which areas it used when focusing, but more importantly it actually provides a good indication about exposure: it is vivid and contrasty enough to be able to judge how the camera is metering the current scene before taking the picture: no more shooting, reviewing, shooting again, reviewing again until the camera gets the exposure right. Speaking of exposure, the auto-exposure did a great job, and exposure was usually spot-on.
The lens provides roughly the same angles of view as a 34-102mm lens would provide on 35mm. That’s certainly in line with the industry standard, but personally I’d prefer a 28-85 or even a 24-70 – it’s always possible to crop (or use the dreaded “digital zoom”) at the long end of the zoom to get tighter framings, while there are few practical options to reach a wider angle. The general public perception seems to be that the wide end of a zoom is the “normal” view, and that that the zoom is only used to tighten framing (or, like most people think, “move closer”), and Kodak provides what the public wants. Certainly, not including any seriously wide angles allows to hit a good balance between cost and image quality.
Like I wrote earlier, the flash is typical of low-power close-to-the-lens straight-ahead point-and-shoot flashes. Indoors, the results are expectedly poor, but not worse than any other such camera. The flash isn’t useless, though. It can be used as a fill-flash, for situations where the foreground is darker than the background. This is typically a hard problem for cameras, as there are quite a few parameters to balance. The CX7530 didn’t have any problem, using the proper exposure exposure for the backgroung and adding the right amount of flash power for the foreground to be properly exposed as well. The flash is not incredibly powerful, but it does the job at portrait distances.
Now, the real test. The prints. I got a nice surprise. I did some test prints, full-bleed on letter paper, which is about 220 dpi. The prints were done with an HP 7960, on HP premium plus matte photo paper, with the HP 8-ink inkset, and with all the printer settings set at their default values. I printed the files absolutely unprocessed, without even any adjustment in levels or any sharpening. The prints came out good, very good actually, and undoubtedly frame-worthy. The CX7530 definitely passes the second half of my requirements: I can make good prints out of it. Unfortunately, this being an online review, I can’t show you the actual prints, so you’ll have to take my word for it: the prints do not show any problem, even under a 10x loupe, and the printer is a bigger limiting factor than the camera. The pictures in this review have been downsized on purpose, so that they’re easier to evaluate at sizes typical of computer applications, e.g. e-mail. People who want to do the effort of getting full-size files to evaluate prints can find some here.
Pixel-peeping, I found fewer JPEG compression artifacts on the CS7530 than I had on the CX7220, though there were still a few. Noise reduction did its job well, since little noise was visible, and details appeared to be preserved. A tiny hint of blue chromatic aberrations was visible in the corners when pixel-peeping, but was not big enough to be visible on the prints. Torture-tests did show some chromatic aberrations, but I had to push the camera really really hard, shooting through tree branches straight at the sun, making the camera expose for the shadows so that the sky shining through would be very grossly overexposed, i.e. an absolutely unrealistic situation.
In conclusion, as much as the CX7220 that I tested a few weeks ago can be used for 4×6 prints at a bargain-basement price, the CX7530 can certainly be used for 8×10 or letter-sized prints. In many situations where I can’t carry around my Canon 5D, I’ll gladly have a CX7530 at my belt, ready to shoot, armed with the knowledge that for common situations it’s able to take good pictures.