A PRINT IN THE HAND IS WORTH…?

Polaroid s original idea of instant print cameras doesn t really have a place in the digital imaging world, but there s no question that the digital-era Z340 is a whole lot of fun. Report by Paul Burrows, Despite the original company being long gone now — today s operations simply use the brand — the fascination with Dr Edwin Land s idea of cameras which deliver instant prints remains. Classic Polaroid cameras like the SX70 are still in demand and a lot of time and effort has gone into recreating the original SX70 and 600-series films to meet ongoing demand. Elsewhere, refurbished Type 100 Land cameras are selling for far more than they ever did new (visit www.landcameras.com). Fujifilm has re-introduced its Instax-series instant cameras (which, ironically, are also rebadged as Polaroid models) so Dr Land s original vision clearly still resonates... even if digital imaging did essentially render it redundant. This could be said to be even more the case now that we ve got instant delivery of images to and from smartphones, tablets and computers via Wi-Fi. Yet there does remain something strangely beguiling about the delivery of a hard copy — digital-era speak for a print-straight from the camera. So, what about a digital instant camera? It might seem like an oxymoron, but the current holders of the right to use the Polaroid brand on imaging products may just have come up with something with the Z340. For starters, it looks the pan, being styled very much like a Spectra-series film camera, but smaller and neater, probably because there is no longer any need for an optical viewfinder. Distilled down, the Z340 is basically a reasonably well-specced digital compact camera with a built-in printer which uses the Zink — or Zero Ink — printing technology. Zink is pretty clever stuff. Three layers of clear dye crystals are embedded in the Zink paper so there s no need for an ink cartridge. The crystals are activated and coloured by the application of heat — around 400 million heat pulses create a sharp, glossy image in under a minute. The prints are instantly dry and resistant to water, smudging, fading and tearing. The sheet size is 3x4-inches (7.62x10.16 cm) and an image can be printed borderless or, rather neatly, with a Polaroid Classic Border... i.e. with the image slightly offset which was characteristic of self-developing photo prints (this was the area which housed the developer pod). Additionally, customised borders can be created and loaded into the camera. MORE CONTROL Unlike the Polaroid film cameras, the Z340 allows you to decide which images are fit to print (although it can also be switched to an Instant Print mode). And, of course, it s possible to print out multiple identical copies. Images are saved to either the camera s internal memory or an SD/SDHC memory card and can then be viewed and edited on the camera s pop-up LCD monitor screen. The editing functions —which include the border options-are pretty basic, but include trimming, correcting for redeye and adding the date and time to the print. The camera part of the Z340 is reasonably basic too, but it still offers significantly more control options than any Polaroid film camera ever did. For instance, there s a choice of three metering methods — multi-zone, centre-weighted average and spot — up to +/-2.0 EV of compensation, auto exposure bracketing, adjustable sensitivity over a range equivalent to ISO 100 to 1600, adjustable picture parameters (sharpness, contrast and colour saturation), and autofocusing with spot and wide modes. Of course. Dr Land was an early pioneer of autofocusing, using an active system based on sonar (i.e. bouncing sound waves off the subject), although the cheaper film cameras had fixed focus lenses. The Z340 has a swag of subject/scene programs with an Intelligent Scene’mode which selects from 11 of them, including Portrait, Landscape, Sunset, Snow, Backlight, Backlight Portrait, Night Scene, Night Portrait and Foliage. Under the same menu are included some special effects — such as Lomo and Fish-Eye Lens — some auto release options — including Smile Capture and Love Portrait — and, somewhat surprisingly, Active D-Lighting correction for excessive contrast. Additionally, there s also a set of colour modes, six in all, which are designed... wait for it... to replicate the look of vintage Polaroid films, For example, Vintage Colour 1 is designed to mimic SX70, Vintage B&W 1 serves up "the high contrast, glossy look and feel of Polaroid s print coater films" (aaah, memories) and Vintage B&W 2 gives the look of the finegrained Type 55 peel-apart films. There are also sepia and B&W negative modes. The white balance control options comprise auto correction, five presets (including two for warm and cold fluoros) and provisions for taking and storing one custom measurement. MYSTERIES The Z340 has a CCD sensor of unknown size and provenance beyond that it has an aspect ratio of 4:3 and an effective pixel count of 14 million so it delivers a maximum image size of 4320x3240 pixels. JPEG compression can be set to one of three levels. The sensitivity range is equivalent to ISO 100 to 1600 with two higher settings available, but the resolution is reduced to three megapixels. Curiously, while the camera automatically sets the resolution down when ISO 3200 or 6400 is selected, it doesn t reset it when the low ISOs are selected so it s necessary to do this manually. The lens is also shrouded in secrecy beyond that it has a focal length of 7.5mm which, we think, equates to around 43mm in 35mm format terms. The focusing range is 80 cm to infinity and, in the macro mode, it s possible to go as close as ten centimetres. A built-in illuminator is provided to help in low-light situations. The built-in flash has red-eye reduction, fill-in and slow-speed sync modes, but its range is unknown. Looking at the size, it s probably only a couple of metres which is going to be fine for most of the Z340 s applications... which are all likely to involve shooting people. The wedge-shaped body is very comfortable to hold — as, indeed, were the Spectra-series Polaroids — and the control layout is pretty easy to follow. The live view image can be configured to include a real-time histogram and a 3x3 grid to assist with levelling and composition (but not together). There s a pretty comprehensive display of settings and status icons plus the aperture and shutter speed settings even though these can t be manually adjusted. The playback screen also includes a brightness histogram. PERFORMANCE The camera is supplied with a starter pack of ten sheets of Zink paper which are loaded into the rear of the camera along with a piece of card called the Smartsheet and stamped with MUST LOAD! . It also carries a barcode which the camera must read for some reason, but the moment the Z340 is switched on, the card is ejected. It s a process that takes a while and isnmentioned in either the printed Quick Guide or the full manual on the supplied CD so the first time it happens is a bit of surprise. It didn t help that our camera also ejected a sheet of paper at the same time and the two got stuck. We reloaded — and a bit of care and attention are required to ensure the stack is properly positioned — and then just the so-called Smart Sheet’was ejected on its own. A cartridge system — as used by Polaroid from the SX70 onward — would make this much easier, but would obviously add to the cost of the paper and the size of the camera. With 14 megapixels on tap, the Z340 delivers pretty good-looking digital files, especially when brightness, contrast, sharpness and colour saturation are tweaked to taste. As it happens, at the standard defaults, the colours are nicely saturated and the level of detailing really can t be faulted. Don t expect all this to fully translate into the Zink prints though because the colour rendition is more muted and their size means the fine detailing is hard to appreciate. After an image is selected for printing in the playback mode and the print button is pressed, the camera takes a little while to collect its thoughts, but then the print itself emerges in around 40 seconds. Blues seem to be the most problematic in the colour prints — continually erring towards purple — but the vintage Polaroid modes are lots of fun. The B&W prints are surprisingly good. The camera saves the processed image as a new file so it can be printed on other devices from the memory card if a bigger version is desired. THE VERDICT On the surface then, the Polaroid Z340 is a capable but unremarkable 14 MP digital camera which commands a pretty hefty price premium in return for being able to print out a picture on the spot. However, as with the original instant film cameras, it s necessary to dig a bit deeper to understand what s on offer. This camera is never going to be a rational purchase... it s all about the unique experience that using it brings. The prints themselves are actually pretty good and rather more useful in size than those from an Instax Mini camera. There is no doubt that the Z340 is bags of fun to use so the only real question is whether the novelty will wear off after a couple of replacement packs of Zink paper. It was certainly the eventual fate of many Polaroid film cameras.

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