Released in the fall of 2020, the ZX1 creates a new lineage for the company. And a lineage that aims to embrace something iconic and innovative. ZEISS is historically known as a lens manufacturer. But, they’ve created film cameras in the past. However, the ZX1 marks the company’s first digital camera. Yet, it’s a state-of-the-art full-frame mirrorless camera targeted at the ultra-high-end niche. And it comes to market boasting their outstanding optics and a novel design.
At first glance, it’s surely a statement piece to redefine all facets of digital photography. And it’s designed for the purist who wants a streamlined and seamless shooting experience. No distractions. No interruptions. But, it also uniquely combines elements from the smartphone world, namely Adobe Photoshop Lightroom integration. ZEISS markets this camera towards street, travel, and photojournalist photographers. They also aim to compete with the Leica Q2, Leica Q-P, and Sony RX1R II. Has ZEISS, the legendary optics manufacturer, returned to their camera roots with this release? And is this finally the Leica Q series killer? Let’s find out.
What are some of the goods, bads, and uglies of the Zeiss ZX-1?
It features a full-frame 37.4MP CMOS sensor paired with a Distagon T* 35mm f/2 prime lens. 35mm is the ideal general-purpose lens that is well suited across most shooting applications, from environmental portraits to landscapes. And the image quality this combination produces is excellent. Its RAW (DNG) files offer plenty of latitude in dynamic range and outstanding sharpness. And the overall image quality, aesthetic, and level of detail matches the Leica Q2. But, it delivers the signature ZEISS look and feels, making it ideal for street and travel photographs.
This 35mm lens is also quite good. Despite shooting wide open, the lens remains sharp with little chromatic aberration, excellent edge-to-edge sharpness, and even illumination. Plus, it has a 30 cm (11.8 in) minimum focusing distance, letting you get small-scale macro photos.
It shoots 4K UHD 30p and 1080p Full HD 60p video to the MP4 codec using H.265 compression. And despite this being a heavily photographic-centric camera, the video quality in itself is good. It shoots video using a 16:9 aspect ratio by downsampling its sensor. And doing so creates sharp videos with the same latitude as the photos. However, it’s quite unlikely the target demographic will film videos with this camera, so it’s mostly a bonus.
Low Light Performance
It offers a native ISO range from ISO 80-51,200. And low light performance overall is excellent. Users can expect usable images up to ISO 6,400. But starting at 10,000, expect to see color shifts, banding, and noise.
It uses a 225-area hybrid phase and contrast-detect AF system with either single-shot or continuous AF modes. The autofocusing performance is good for stills but it does lack both face and eye detection. As such, it’s best suited for slower-moving subjects that are easily recognizable. Otherwise, single-shot AF with focus recomposing or focusing manually is best.
It offers various manual focus assist tools, such as focus peaking, focus magnification, and a depth of field scale.
ZEISS includes two batteries with purchase. But battery life is fully specified, though. Even so, the batteries have a 3190 mAh capacity, so expect around 400 shots per charge given the sensor size and resolution. Interestingly, the camera does have a hot-swap function, letting you remove an almost dead battery without it powering off. And it’s a useful feature that extends the general longevity.
Display & Viewfinder
For displays, it features a generously large 4.34-inch TFT touchscreen LCD with a 720p HD (1280x 720) resolution and a 338 PPI. At 4.3-inches, it currently stands as the largest screen yet on a full-frame camera. But, interestingly, ZEISS has incorporated a side toolbar for seamless mode selection and a curved design. This curve (a bend in the display) increases the screen real estate and makes quick settings and gesture control via the EVF possible. The screen also boasts full multi-touch-sensitivity for intuitive navigation and setting control, which’s much akin to using a smartphone. Namely, it offers tap to hold, sliding, swiping, pinch to zoom, and full menu navigation. Overall, the screen is excellent with outstanding detail and responsiveness.
It also features an OLED electronic viewfinder with a large 0.74x magnification and a 1080p Full HD resolution. And overall, the EVF is excellent. It’s highly detailed, responsive, and the diopter offers enough latitude to support most prescriptions.
ZEISS has created a custom user interface and menu structure designed from the ground up with this release. And interestingly, this design now becomes class-leading in terms of ease of use and simplicity. The interface is clean and straightforward, following that of a smartphone. But, compared to other camera manufacturers, it offers far fewer distractions.
They’ve organized the menus into a four-tier hierarchy, ranging from the Shooting, Gallery, Settings, and App modes. And you can swipe between modes by swiping up and down on the left side of the screen. And you can also move on-screen information in or out by swiping. Plus, the camera displays a context-sensitive toolbar on the right touchscreen, which acts as a quick menu when shooting. And this toolbar dynamically adapts to the camera setup, which you can also engage while composing with the EVF.
But the App Mode is the true highlight. Here you can access Lightroom, Instagram, a camera tutorial, manual, and support. And in this mode, the camera shows a fully functional Android operating system, with a homepage and app carousel. While the Gallery Mode displays all of the photos and videos on the device. There you can review, organize, and edit the images or videos. Or you can organize them into a collection. And the Settings Mode is where you configure and personalize the camera’s general system settings.
Overall, the user interface is brilliantly implemented and streamlined. It’s one new users will quickly master and have little difficulty using. And it now stands as the class-leading in its user experience, second only to dedicated smartphones.
Physical Layout & Ergonomics
Continuing its streamlined, minimalist user interface, the ZX1 follows suit with an ultra-modern industrial design geared towards keeping photographers in the moment. And it’s quite a unique one at that, but one that favors simple manual control. As such, the camera offers only a handful of physical controls. In this case, it provides a dedicated shutter speed and ISO dial, and a manual aperture ring on the lens. Combined, these provide direct and intuitive control over the camera’s exposure settings. Otherwise, the only other button is a customizable Fn button, which you can set to one of four functions. But overall, it’s clear ZEISS has designed this camera with on-the-go creators in mind, particularly street, photojournalist, and travel photographers.
Yet, as a compact all-in-one style camera, it does have a reasonably large grip, a feature very much absent on its peers. But, it uses an unconventional triangular shape, keeping in line with the bold screen design. So, it’s something that will create a contention point amongst users. But, we’d say it’s pretty comfortable, and it’s a welcomed addition.
Back to the design, this camera’s design is exceptionally unique but reminiscent of the Leica M10 Monochrom. It’s minimalistic and entirely metal. And it feels quite sleek, looks bold, but at only 837 g (12.68 oz) with the battery, it isn’t overly bulky. That’s not to say that it’s pocketable, though, either, as it’s quite a bit heavier— averaging 20% heavier than its peers. So it’s got some heft to it and feels substantial. But it’s quite a premium feel. Overall, though, this design is bold. And it captures the core elements of classical photography but combines them into a potentially iconic and contemporary design.
Also of note, the camera obtains a Leaf Shutter design rather than a focal plane or mechanical shutter. The difference is that the leaf shutter is usually located behind the lens rather than in front of the sensor. And they generally use a series of overlapping blades that open and close, similar to the lens aperture. The benefit is that leaf shutters provide better flash synchronization and are incredibly quiet during operation. But, they don’t offer nearly as fast shutter speeds as other designs. In this case, the ZX1 supports a maximum flash sync of 1/1000, rather than the 1/250 of most focal plane shutters. But, the camera’s virtually silent, making it perfect for shooting stealthily. So, it’s an interesting trade-off with both advantages and disadvantages.
It marks the first digital camera to debut built-in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, letting you extensively edit images in-camera. It’s quite a feat to see a camera manufacturer include such a robust editing suite onto a camera. But here it is it seems. And it offers a fully functional build of Lightroom Mobile.
ZEISS partnered with Adobe to attempt to streamline the shooting and editing process here. And they’ve done this by integrating Android OS into the device, which even has vibration response, the full UI, and the app carousel. And in Lightroom, not only can you make global and local edits, but those edits also sync wirelessly to the cloud. There you can find the changes on Lightroom CC on your computer or any other device for that matter. Plus, you can backup and share photos through the app as well. ZEISS even includes a 12-month subscription to Lightroom CC and 1 TB cloud storage storage as a part of the purchase. Nice bonuses. But, the overall editing experience on the camera works well. It’s responsive, easy to use, and easy to set up.
On this front too, booting up Android via the App Mode offers social media integration to post images to Facebook and Instagram.
It has Exposure bracketing.
It has in-camera rating.
It has clipping alerts to display overexposed areas in Live View.
It has a Depth of Field Scale, which lets you see the range and distance to ensure critical focusing based on how far the subject is and the current aperture.
It has a built-in intervalometer for time-lapses, and you can customize the number of shots, timing, and other relevant settings.
It has built-in panorama.
It has flicker reduction and anti-banding, reducing the changes in brightness and hue caused by artificial light sources.
It has Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and NFC connectivity to seamlessly connect the camera to smartphones or tablets. There, you can share images, backup to the cloud, or a NAS (Network-Attached Storage) device via Wi-Fi. Or you can add an email to send photos that way. And the camera offers the new 5.0 GHz band and the Bluetooth 4.2 standard.
It has a USB 3.1 Type-C port to transfer images directly to an external hard drive, share the camera’s live view, or power and charge the internal battery. And it also offers an HDMI Alt mode, giving the camera an HDMI output for compatible devices.
For storage, this camera is the first in its class to do away with traditional SD, CFast, and CF card standards. Instead, ZEISS has opted to include a built-in 512GB SSD. At 512 GB, the device offers an impressive amount of storage space. But, crucially, the Gallery Mode lets you organize files into collections for superior navigation and file management. So, it’s interesting to see a manufacturer push the bounds here. And it removes the need for swapping memory cards, formating, and the entire file management process.
With only a continuous shooting speed of 3 FPS, this camera is not fitted for capturing fast-moving sports or action sequences.
With the leaf, shutter comes the inherent issues of slower maximum shutter speeds. And while a 1/2000 maximum is on the higher end for these designs, it will limit the camera’s versatility for freezing fast action. Thus, shooting in bright daylight scenes will likely require closing the aperture or adding an ND filter. Not ideal if you specifically want a wide aperture for a creative effect. Another area of note, the longest shutter speed in-camera is 2-seconds. Anything above this enters the Bulb mode. This isn’t ideal when trying to do long-exposures, as there’s no meter or exposure simulation above 2 seconds. As such, you’ll have to calculate the long-exposure manually, which is tedious.
It lacks built-in HDR. So to shoot HDR, you’ll have to use the camera’s bracketing functionality then combine the images in post-processing.
The camera lacks 1080p 120 FPS. Strange as this is a mostly standard feature on today’s cameras, even in the entry-level segment. But, frustratingly, it also lacks 24-30 FPS in 1080p. So the only available frame rates are 4K 30 FPS and 1080p 60 FPS, which ostracizes this camera’s flexibility for hybrid creators.
The camera only takes videos inside a range of specific shutter speeds and ISO values. Outside that range, it automatically selects the next applicable value. And it will display either “Too high” or “too low” values in the image information. Another limitation for budding hybrid shooters looking at this camera.
As expected, it lacks any advanced video-centric features, including 10-bit recording, log profiles, zebras, and waveforms.
The autofocusing performance is hit or miss. But, it’s understandable considering this is a first-generation product. Even so, the subject tracking system on this camera is too sporadic for professional use. It continually loses track of subjects and objects, even when they remain still. So, focus recomposing or manually focusing is best here.
Strangely, focus magnification is unavailable when shooting video.
There are a couple of notable flaws with the rear screen. Firstly, the screen color accuracy is lacking as it has cast green and yellow hues, which will affect your interpretation of the white balance. So a color checker is a necessity for mission-critical colors. Otherwise, remain skeptical when judging the white balance using the rear screen. Consider using the EVF instead, as it’s more accurate in this regard. Secondly, the screen, like most, gets washed out in bright sunlit scenes. So you’ll likely have to review images using the EVF in these situations. And thirdly, it’s fixed and thoroughly lacks articulation. A fixed display limits any camera’s versatility when shooting high and low-angle shots. And, while many rivals also continue to overlook this addition, it’s one that greatly improves the shooting experience. And we’d argue the streamlined design here doesn’t outweigh the benefit of an articulating screen.
The EVF on this camera also has some notable issues. But, the biggest is that it has artifacts and blurs towards the outer edges of the frame. So looking off the axis will present some problems when composing and cause eye strain. Additionally, it cast a blue hue, which is likely the accurate color. But if not, it only makes the proper color more challenging.
The custom FN button only supports mapping to four functions, exposure & focus lock, exposure or focus lock, or nothing. This seems like a strange overlook, as this button is in an otherwise helpful location.
The turn-on sequence for this camera lasts about 30 seconds, as it gradually boots and displays a gallery of animations. This is enticing at first. But, in day-to-day shooting, it slows the workflow, particularly when capturing street photography. Thankfully, ZEISS has implemented a standby mode, which is almost instantaneous. But, doing so drains the battery—such a strange compromise.
As this is a smartphone-styled camera, you’ll have to enter a PIN every time you wake the camera, which will slow your workflow. But, it’s the only surefire way to prevent someone from stealing your entire lightroom library if it’s stolen. Many photographers will find this incredibly inconvenient and the cause of lost moments.
The camera doesn’t display an image preview in the EVF for more than 5 seconds. Thus, you’ll have some difficulty reviewing images in broad daylight or punching in to check critical focus. Instead, you’ll have to use the rear screen then go back later in playback to perform these actions—a strange firmware overlook.
The unique triangular design of the front grip is a double-edged sword. On one end, it’s incredibly stylish, sleek, and modern. But, it’s also not quite as ergonomic as rivals. If you have large hands, you’ll quickly find the design uncomfortable and difficult to hold.
With this design too, the thumb naturally rests on the rear screen, directly on the exposure compensation touch dial. So if you’re not careful, you can accidentally destroy an exposure while shooting.
Like most full-frame cameras, it lacks a built-in pop-up flash. Instead, it uses a Sigma SA-TTL-compliant hotshoe, so you’ll have to attach an external one if needed.
Right now, the only support applications on its Android OS are Instagram, Facebook, and Lightroom. So if you’re a heavy Twitter social media user, you’ll have to use a paired mobile device. There’s also no Google Play Store, so right now, there’s no only way to install other applications.
When adjusting the exposure, the camera doesn’t display a live preview of the change until half depressing the shutter. Meaning, it doesn’t display real-time exposure and depth of field previews. And this makes gauging the ambient exposure quite difficult when capturing one-off moments for street photography.
It lacks weather sealing.
It lacks a microphone input.
It lacks a headphone output.
It lacks in-body stabilization. And its lens lacks optical stabilization as well. Thus, you’ll be using a tripod when shooting longer shutter speeds.
It lacks Focus Stacking, Focus Bracketing, and Multiple Exposure.
Is this a good beginner camera?
At its current MSRP, it’s savagely expensive and out of budget for most beginners. If you’re looking for a similar camera that doesn’t destroy the bank account in the process, consider the Fujifilm X100 or X-E series instead.
Is this a good camera for you?
Yes, if you’re considering this or a Leica.
But only if you’re a photographer and not a videographer or hybrid shooter. If that’s the case, don’t buy this camera. We would not recommend it considering the lacking ports, missing frame rates, stabilization, and poor autofocus. In all, it’s not a good platform for videographers.
But, for die-hard photographers, the ZX1 is quite a package. And it will keep you in the moment and greatly simplify the creative process. In many ways, this camera sets a new standard amongst other high-end compact full-frame cameras. And it’s simple, forefront, highly effective, and revolutionary. As a release, it shows ZEISS is fully dedicated to pushing the bounds and has paid acute attention to the fine details. It’s quite interesting to see them of all people embrace the future of touch-driven connected cameras. But, it’s quite a brilliant and thoughtful product that represents the future. Sure, it’s a generation one release that’s flawed and unlikely to be the immediate go-for for many photographers. But it’s beautifully exciting nonetheless. And a product that paves the industry forward and makes a statement. It’ll be interesting to see where ZEISS goes from here to refine this platform, as the ZX1 is already a powerful contender in the high-end segment. That said, if you’re a photographer that wants something unique, ultra-niche, and innovative, this is your camera.
The ZEISS ZX1 is innovative, revolutionary, yet brilliantly flawed. It’s not a perfect release, by any means. But, it proves the company is committed to making its mark on the camera market. And they’re dedicated to creating a product ready to push the bounds.