A creative concept?

The Sony ZV-1 is a new compact camera explicitly designed with vloggers and ‘content creators’ in mind.

From a hardware perspective it’s essentially an updated riff on the RX100 V(A), but with both ergonomic and feature changes to make it easier to operate from the ‘wrong’ side of the lens. As the distinct naming indicates; it’s not part of, nor intended as a replacement for, the RX100 series.

If you think of yourself as primarily a photographer, the ZV-1 is probably not designed for you. Instead it’s a camera purpose-designed for generating to-camera video for platforms such as YouTube. But that doesn’t mean it’s just a frivolous novelty.

Compared to RX100 V(A)

At its heart, the hardware of of the ZV-1 overlaps a lot with the RX100 series. It takes a 25.5-70mm equivalent F1.8-2.8 zoom and 1″-type 20MP stacked CMOS sensor similar to the one from the RX100 V but mates it with the autofocus improvements of the Mark VII.

However, the controls and handling are quite different, with no control ring around the lens and a very different button arrangement, designed for a very different way of working.

It’s worth noting that, unlike the RX100 series, Sony isn’t using its ‘Cyber-shot’ branding on this camera, and that the official model name is DCZV-1, rather than ‘DSC,’ denoting digital stills camera.

It continues to use the same NP-BX1 battery as the RX100 cameras.

Video capabilities

The ZV-1’s video capabilities are very similar to those of the RX100 VII: it can shoot 1080p footage at up to 120p or UHD 4K footage at up to 30p. There are also high-speed modes shot at lower resolution and upscaled, allowing capture at up to 960 fps (1000 fps in PAL mode).

Like other recent Sony consumer cameras, all this footage is 8-bit. Log and ‘HLG’ modes are available, but will offer less flexibility than 10-bit footage would. Sony tells us it can also record video for longer (which we’ll get to later).

The other improvement that comes from using the RX100 VII’s processor is that the ZV-1 can apply digital image stabilization to its 4K footage, on top of the IS provided by the lens. The camera can also write shake information into the metadata, so that the Imaging Edge software can apply digital correction after the footage has been shot.

Back-to-front ergonomics

The first thing you’re likely to notice about the ZV-1 are its unconventional ergonomics. There’s a large dedicated [REC] button that sits immediately behind the shutter button. The significance of its size and position isn’t necessarily obvious until position the camera facing towards you, held at arms-length with your left hand.

It’s designed to be operated with the index finger of your left hand, while the zoom rocker is controlled with your left thumb.

Face the audience

Its focus on creator-to-camera content means the ZV-1 has no built-in viewfinder: after all, there’s no point including an expensive component if you can’t see it.

Instead it has a fully articulated touchscreen LCD, to make it easy to operate when it’s pointing towards you. As you’d expect, this display shows a mirror image of what the sensor is capturing, when faced toward you.

The touchscreen lets the user tap-to-track but like many recent Sony cameras, has very little other function.

Ports

All the ports are arranged on the right-hand side of the camera (left-hand side as it faces you), meaning that they’re on the opposite side from the articulating screen.

These include a mic socket, HDMI out and USB connector, over which the camera can be powered, while recording. Crucially, these can all be used without clashing with the flip-out screen.

Upgraded microphones

The lack of viewfinder frees up space for a comparatively complex three-capsule microphone, set into the top of the camera. Sony says this setup is designed to be directional to pick up the sound of someone in front of the camera,

The camera comes with a wind screen (often referred to as a deadcat, though this one looks more like a deadmouse) that can be attached to the top of the microphone recess, to reduce the risk of wind boom from air blowing directly onto the mic. The deadcat attaches via the hotshoe, which means it can’t be used with anything like an external LED light.

The deadcat covers the power button, which doubles as the charging indicator, which makes it hard to see.

The ZV-1 also has an offset hotshoe on one side of the camera, allowing a shotgun mic to be fitted. It’s got all the pins of Sony’s Multi-Interface shoe, meaning it can be used with a host of accessories, including microphones or, theoretically, Sony’s XLR adapter.

Face focused AF

Critically, the ZV-1 features the latest version of Sony’s AF system. This will focus on whatever you tap to focus on, and will use its face and eye detection system if that thing happens to be a face. The AF system will continue to track the subject, even if they look away from the camera and their eyes and face can’t be recognized.

That persistence is especially important for this kind of product, where you can’t afford for the camera to lose track of your face, and you’re usually going to be too busy to monitor or correct any errors.

Face Priority AE

The ZV-1 has a series of designed-for-vlogging features, to make it easy to get the desired result, with minimal interaction with the camera or its settings.

The most basic of these is Face Priority Auto Exposure. This does exactly what you might expect: it ties the camera’s metering to the face detection system, and prioritizes the exposure of the presenter’s face over the metering of the scene as a whole. It’s designed to respond rapidly to changes in exposure so that faces remain correctly exposed even if the light changes.

Sony also says its adjusted the camera’s color response in the ‘Standard’ Creative Style with a particular focus on making (a variety of) skin tones look more attractive.

Background defocus mode

Sony is keen to stress that Background Defocus mode is not a filter or a shallow depth-of-field simulation. Instead it’s a mode that automatically opens the aperture up to its widest setting, to give as shallow a depth-of-field as possible.

It’s a one-click option that means vloggers don’t have to learn to think in terms of aperture values. And, because the camera knows its target is the widest aperture setting, it’s able to respond almost instantly: adjusting the ISO and ND filter to compensate for the change in aperture, rather than slowly progressing through all the steps in between.

By default, Background Defocus mode is assigned to the ‘C1’ button on the camera’s front right corner, making it easily accessible if you’re shooting with the camera held at arm’s length with your left hand.

Product showcase mode

Perhaps the feature that makes this camera’s intent most clear is the ‘Product Showcase’ mode. This is designed for creating the kind of video in which you talk to camera and hold up the item you’re describing, to show some detail of it.

Product Showcase mode is designed to prioritize things that appear near the camera and override the face detection when they do. This means you don’t have to hide your face or wait for the camera to refocus on the object you’re trying to show your followers. Again, it’s designed as a mode so that you don’t have to manually tune the autofocus response.

What’s missing/odd?

The ZV-1 is primarily a video camera, designed to be operated selfie style, which makes it easy to understand why photographer-friendly features from the RX100, such as the EVF and control ring haven’t been included.

But video shooters are likely to note the lack of a headphone socket. While it’s true that most to-camera video isn’t shot with headphones on, it seems like an odd omission to provide no way of listening to the audio levels before you press that big red button, or properly review a clip after it’s been recorded (the internal speaker is pretty quiet).

Similarly, the inclusion of Log and ‘HLG’ video modes feel a bit half-baked, given the camera’s output is all 8-bit. We’re not expecting much of the ZV-1’s footage to go through extensive color grading, but more experienced video shooters should be aware of this limitation.

You might think it’s cool

The ZV-1 is a little bit thicker than the RX100 V and Sony says the use of more composite materials in its construction improve heat dissipation. You can see this composite panel when the screen is flipped out. Despite this, the camera will only record footage for five minutes at a go in its default state. You need to disable the overheat shutdown function in order to record for longer periods.

With this done, we’re told the camera will keep recording almost indefinitely (or, at least, to the capacity of your memory card). But it’ll be interesting to find out just how hot the camera gets, and how long you can comfortably hold the camera before needing to consider the optional VPT2BT bluetooth selfie grip thing.

We’ve not yet been given a battery life figure but, as we say, the ZV-1 can be powered over its USB connector if necessary.

Overall

As the branding hints, the Sony ZV-1 isn’t particularly intended for stills photographers. But for the many, many people creating (and, in some cases, making a living from) facing-the-camera content for social media, the ZV-1 looks like a powerful tool.

We’ll have to spend more time with the ZV-1 to find out how well it behaves as a stills camera, beyond its core role, but (as evidenced by the vlogging functions added to Canon’s G7 X III) there is a niche for such a product. Unlike the Canon, the Sony can’t directly stream its video to YouTube, though the latest version of Sony’s smartphone app lets you transfer videos (including 4K) once you’ve captured them.

If you’re not able to take advantage of the initial discounts being offered in some markets, $799 might seem quite expensive. But it’s worth noting that the removal of the EVF helps bring the list price down by $200 compared to the original MSRP of the RX100 VA and within $50 of the Canon’s launch price.

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