ZEISS ZX1—An Excellent Camera for a Select Few

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Not gonna lie—the ZEISS ZX1 is not for everyone. It’s a unique, beautiful, and pricey camera option for a select few. Summed up, it is a full-frame camera system with integrated editing and sharing features in a compact, all-in-one body meant to be a perfect companion for capturing life’s moments. If all those things appeal to you, then it could be close to the perfect camera.

The ZX1 looks great and is small enough to be comfortable when slung over a shoulder for an entire day.
The ZX1 looks great and is small enough to be comfortable when slung over a shoulder for a full day.

Shoot. Edit. Share.

Investing in the ZX1 is investing in its distinct workflow, described very well by the “Shoot. Edit. Share.” tagline. It wants you to “stay in your flow” and it does this by providing all the tools you could possibly need in the menus of the camera itself. You can snap photos, edit them in Lightroom, and then share to social media, all by navigating the options available on the large 4.34" touchscreen. Being able to take care of all of this in the camera is a major change from the usual workflow involving multiple devices, finicky communication, and, generally speaking, a lot of time.

ZEISS has continued to improve on the ZX1 since its launch, in late 2020, which is why we are taking another look at it today (see our initial video review below).

Version 1.4 brought some notable changes to the ZX1:

  • Face detection autofocus

  • Full-resolution DNG rendering in Gallery

  • Adobe Lightroom updated to v6.2

  • Support for the ZX1 Companion App

The large rear touchscreen controls are responsive, and the screen is bright enough for sunny days.
The large rear touchscreen controls are responsive, and the screen is bright enough for sunny days.

The Shooting

On paper, the ZX1 has all of the specs you’d expect: a versatile 37.4MP full-frame CMOS sensor, UHD 4K 30p video recording, and an ISO 80-51200 range to handle most lighting conditions. And one thing that distinguishes this camera from most others today is the inclusion of a leaf shutter that offers flash sync at all shutter speeds up to 1/1000 sec. It’s a small but mighty detail that will entice some, but I’m also not sure this will be many people’s first-choice camera for working with more advanced strobe lighting techniques. Still, it’s great to have the leaf shutter, even if just for the quieter shooting experience.

Picking up the ZX1 is enjoyable. It has enough heft and a streamlined grip that is comfortable to me. I could see some people not being huge fans of the boxy design, but the subtle curves are plenty. The 35mm f/2 lens (my favorite focal length) is gorgeous and has a rubberized focus ring that makes me want to use manual focus. Plus, there are dedicated dials for all your major settings (aperture, shutter, ISO)—a rarity these days.

Looking at the back is the surprise: The ZX1 is all screen. It’s a massive 4.34" touchscreen with a little bend on the right side that gives you a separated area for operating your controls and settings. It’s an inventive choice for camera design. A pared-down menu ensures this doesn’t become overwhelming and, since your core settings are still linked to dials, you likely won’t find yourself making adjustments here all that often anyway.

The EVF is a joy to use and is very sharp.
The EVF is a joy to use and is very sharp.

A beautiful piece is a Full HD 0.74x EVF. It’s big, bright, and sharp. However, I did have some issues with making sure it always activated when I was wearing glasses. I found I had to get my face closer than I usually feel comfortable doing.

I will admit that the shooting experience is slower than what I am used to. As an everyday carry camera you might want to have slung over your shoulder at all times, the lack of speed when it came to focusing and just making sure the photo was snapped, were limited. It’s definitely designed for those who want a lifestyle camera to capture experiences and less so for street pros who need ultimate speed. An alternative, which I am unfortunately not too practiced with, is relying on the manual focus, and that is very responsive with good monitoring tools if you are comfortable with it.

Face detection AF is a welcome addition in the latest firmware update and worked wonderfully in this example.
Face detection AF is a welcome addition in the latest firmware update and worked wonderfully here.

Focus is not going to be great for action, and even portraits required a decent amount of care to nail. The new face detection does help dramatically to lock in on your subject, so this is a marked improvement, for sure. Being able to check out your photos in full res by swiping into the Gallery also helps reassure as you shoot. Screen quality was critical, and ZEISS didn’t skimp here.

The Editing

ZEISS’s true innovation with the ZX1 is cramming full-on Adobe Photoshop Lightroom inside—now updated to v6.2! It does feature all the essential Lightroom features, and I’m only going to stick to the core exposure, contrast, and color adjustments. It is essentially Lightroom Mobile like you would have on your regular smartphone.

There's plenty of rich color and detail to be brought out of the ZX1’s raw files.
There's plenty of rich color and detail to be brought out of the ZX1’s raw files.

The tools are easy to use, but the general speed and form factor of the camera itself aren’t the best for lengthy edit sessions. It’s really meant to edit one or two on the go for immediate sharing.

One handy feature is the large 512GB drive in the ZX1. You can shoot for ages without worrying about filling up and you can organize everything right on the camera. This makes it super easy when you have to archive everything to your computer after you finish up a trip.

To make that transfer to your computer, especially if you are just looking to edit on your PC instead, you use the USB-C port. I had a slight hiccup figuring out the connection on my Mac. The trick is using a software like Lightroom or Apple’s Image Capture to find the device, since it doesn’t show up as a stand-alone drive.

Once you figure that out (which honestly took me way too long and there isn’t great documentation from ZEISS), you are free to work on the files however you would normally.

The Sharing

This is the cool part that brings everything together. The ZX1 has all the connectivity options you would expect from a smart device today (minus cellular). This means you can connect devices via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth easily, as well as do some basic networking and FTP work.

New to v1.4 is the ZX1 Companion App. I loaded this up on my iPhone to test it quickly and it works very well. The basic functionalities you have come to expect from connected apps are all there. One notable addition is that the app can add geotagging information in the background as you shoot, if that is something you desire.

Otherwise, the remote shooting, gallery, and image-transfer functions all work as expected and there are no surprises there.

Getting back to the core connectivity functions, the built-in apps allow you to back up your photos to services like OneDrive, as well as upload direct to social media, like Instagram. This means as long as you have an Internet connection with the ZX1 you can shoot, edit, and share without leaving the camera itself for another piece of hardware.

I will note that scrolling through your images a lot will start to drain the battery noticeably, so be aware of that if your plan is to constantly keep shooting and editing for a whole day.  

Final Thoughts

By being very unique in the camera space, ZEISS has created something that may fill the needs of a few individuals exceptionally well. Those looking to shoot and edit and share without needing to whip out additional devices will be incredibly happy—especially when you tie in ZEISS’s legendary image quality. Those looking at an alternative option to replace a main camera will likely not find this to be the one, since things like slower AF, a fixed 35mm lens, and mainly touchscreen operation are not conducive to most conventional workflows. Personally, I love the idea of the camera, yet the speed alone keeps me from acquiring one today.

When you look at the ZX1, you are buying into an entire workflow and lifestyle. Plus, the camera does look darned good if you are looking for something stylish to sling over your shoulder. If it checks all your boxes, you will not be disappointed.

What are your thoughts on the ZX1? Leave a trace in the Comments section, below.

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