Studio product photography by Dan Bracaglia
The Zeiss ZX1 is the first-ever digital camera to come with Adobe Lightroom Mobile built-in, encouraging you to shoot, edit and upload images from a single device. It has a 37.4MP full-frame sensor, a fixed 35mm F2 lens and the largest screen we’ve ever seen on a modern digital camera at 4.34″ (11cm) diagonal.
It’s also a camera that I wondered if I’d ever see; it was announced way back in 2018, and there was a stretch of more than a year and a half where we heard no news and published no developments on it. Then, in late 2020, we received a cheery e-mail that one was available, asking if we wanted to try it out. And just recently, we’ve gotten our hands on a version with firmware 1.4 to finish up our full review.
Look out, world, the Zeiss ZX1 has landed.
- 37.4MP full-frame sensor
- Fixed 35mm F2 lens with Zeiss T* coatings
- 4.3″ ‘angled’ LCD with 2.76M dots
- 0.74x magnification electronic viewfinder with 6.22M dots
- Maximum shutter speed of 1/2000 sec (flash sync up to 1/1000 sec)
- Contrast and phase-detection AF
- 3 fps max burst speed
- 4K/30p, 1080/60p video capture
- Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
- 512GB internal SSD, external storage using USB-C
- Single USB-C port, supporting USB Power Delivery and HDMI alt mode
In addition to having Lightroom installed, the ZX1 is unconventional in that it includes an especially minimal set of physical controls – ostensibly, to encourage a ‘back-to-basics’ way of shooting – while also requiring you to use that big touchscreen in a way that you don’t need to on most other high-end cameras.
So, how well does ‘back-to-basics’ work when combined with a modern, smartphone-esque interface? Read on to find out.
The Zeiss ZX1 is available now at a suggested price of $6,000.
What’s new and how the Zeiss ZX1 compares
|That fancy angle on the screen actually separates a slate of controls from the main screen in live view and playback.|
The ZX1 isn’t the first attempt we’ve seen at marrying a smart device with more traditional camera hardware. The likes of the Panasonic DMC-CM1 and Samsung Galaxy NX both benefitted from better sensor and/or lens technology than smartphones of the time as well as Raw image processing, but today’s phones use computational techniques that will have largely closed the image quality gap with those devices.
So Zeiss needed to do something a little different; instead of being mostly a phone that has some extra camera bits on it, the ZX1 is perhaps best thought of as a camera with some phone bits built in (like another old-timer, the Nikon S800c).
At the heart of the camera is a 37.4MP full-frame sensor we’ve not seen before. We’ve found that the sensor offers great resolution, but perhaps not the most flexible Raw files. The 35mm F2 lens offers impressive sharpness and pleasing out-of-focus areas, and its in-built leaf shutter allows for synchronization with external flashes at shutter speeds of up to 1/1000 sec.
|We haven’t fully tested the ZX1 yet, but so far, we’re quite taken with its 35mm F2 lens.|
The 4.3″ touchscreen is among the largest we’ve seen on a digital camera, and is a delightful way to frame up your images. The viewfinder is big and high-res, but you really need to press your eye right up against it to get the full view (not great for glasses-wearers). The snazzy angle/curve on the screen isn’t just for show; it usefully separates the main screen from the touch-controls that you’ll be operating with your right thumb while shooting or in playback.
The inclusion of Adobe Lightroom Mobile is an interesting move. To use it, you must sign in with an Adobe account. I found I was able to edit Raw files with an Adobe account that wasn’t currently subscribed to Creative Cloud, but there was an ever-present warning reminding me that unless I subscribed, I wouldn’t be able to edit Raw files. It’s a little confusing.
Update as of 12/11/20: Zeiss has confirmed that, even without a paid Adobe account, you are able to use Lightroom Mobile on the ZX1 to do basic editing and adjustments. You won’t be able to use so-called ‘premium features’ (denoted by the blue stars on the icons in the image below), but this should set many users’ minds at ease in that the vast majority of adjustments you may want to take advantage of are available subscription-free.
Many other cameras also allow for in-camera editing of Raw and JPEG files, but not to the degree nor with the polished interface offered by Lightroom. Since there’s a lot to delve into, we’ll go into more depth on how the editing and sharing process works on the ZX1 later on in the review.
The Zeiss ZX1 joins a relatively small club of large-sensor, fixed-lens compact cameras, but they all differ greatly in terms of size, capability, controls, and more. All of the other cameras here require greater reliance on physical controls and far less on their touchscreens than the ZX1 (and the Sony has no touchscreen at all). The ZX1 is the largest camera here by a wider margin than you might guess from the official product photos.
|Zeiss ZX1||Leica Q2||Sony RX1R II||Fujifilm X100V|
|Sensor||37MP full-frame||47M full-frame|
|Lens||35mm F2||28mm F1.7||35mm F2||23mm F2 (equiv. to 35mm field of view)|
|Viewfinder resolution||6.22M dots||3.68M dots||2.36M dots||3.69M dots + optical|
|LCD||4.34″ fixed; |
|Weather-sealing||No||Yes, IP52 rated||No||Yes*|
|Max. burst||3 fps||20 fps||5 fps||20 fps (elec. shutter)|
|Max. shutter, mech | electronic||1/2000 | N/A||1/4000 | N/A||1/2000 | N/A||1/4000 | 1/32000|
|Wireless connectivity||802.11ac Wi-Fi + Bluetooth||Wi-Fi and Bluetooth LE||802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi + NFC||802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi + Bluetooth|
|Video||4K/30p, 1080/60p||4K/30p, 1080/120p||1080/60p||4K/30p, 1080/120p|
|Battery life (CIPA)||Not rated||350 shots||220 shots||420 shots|
|Dimensions||142 x 93 x 46 mm||130 x 80 x 92 mm||113 x 65 x 72 mm||128 x 75 x 53 mm|
|Weight||800 g||734 g||507 g||478 g|
*X100V comes with claims of weather sealing when the AR-X100 adapter ring and a 49mm filter are attached to the lens.
One other camera to consider here is Ricoh’s GR III. It’s an incredibly compact and relatively affordable camera with an APS-C sensor like the X100V but with a 28mm (equivalent) F2.8 lens, so it has the same field of view as the Leica Q2. It also relies heavily on physical controls, is very customizable and has in-body image stabilization.
Body, controls and handling
|I do wish that ISO dial was a generic control dial or an exposure compensation dial. Because I just leave it on ‘A’ myself.|
The Zeiss ZX1 has a minimalist design; there are a total of only seven physical control points. The basics include an aperture ring, shutter speed dial and ISO dial. Other than that, there’s a manual focus ring, an AF/MF switch on the lens, the on/off/sleep/video mode toggle, and a customizable button on the rear of the camera. Doesn’t get much simpler than that.
Unfortunately, the manual focus and aperture rings are really difficult to operate by feel if you’re using the viewfinder; though they’re made of a rubberized material but it’s kind of slippery rubber and it’s hard to know which ring you’ve found with your fingers. The feel of the manual focus ring isn’t great; there’s almost no damping. The aperture ring has 1/3 stop detents, but they’re fairly subtle, and with no detents between ‘A’ (auto) and the F2 setting, you might think you’ve grabbed the focus ring instead as you first start turning it.
|The viewfinder has good magnification and resolution, but you have to really press your eye up against it to get the full view. It’s also hard to operate the aperture and focus rings by feel if you’re looking through the EVF and not at your hands.|
The grip is supremely comfortable, and while you’re shooting, there’s an array of controls running down the portion of the screen to the right of the angle/curve. Those include exposure compensation, drive modes, white balance, and so on. You tap these tabs and then drag a slider up and down to adjust it.
These adjustments can also be made with your eye to the finder; the ride side of the preview in the electronic viewfinder is occupied with the controls, just as you see on the screen, and when you tap or drag your finger around, a small circle shows where you’re tapping and dragging. It works reasonably well, but being precise with your adjustments takes some effort.
|The ZX1’s touch controls on the righthand side of the screen include exposure compensation, drive mode, white balance, metering, an AF touch pad, AF area size, AF-S or AF-C, where you want your files stored, and ‘helpers’ like the grid lines and histogram.|
Frankly, we’d take an exposure compensation dial over an ISO dial since we tend to use Auto ISO almost all of the time, and use exposure compensation to adjust image brightness as necessary. Alas, you’re stuck using the touchscreen for that, or making use of ‘exposure lock’ on the custom button. But when reaching for that button, it’s too easy to swipe the Exposure Comp touch control and accidentally dial it up to +3; it’s annoying.
More positively, the overall touchscreen interface is pretty responsive. From live view / shooting mode, swipe up for settings and swipe down to go to playback, and then down again to go to the camera’s Android home screen (at the time of this writing, you cannot download additional apps).
|The rubberized manual focus ring is nice and smooth, and the aperture ring moves in 1/3-stop detents as you turn it.|
On the topic of the Android OS, you won’t want to be powering down and powering up the camera all the time, as the process takes 10-20 seconds just like a smartphone. But once powered on, a flick of the power toggle will put the camera into sleep mode, just like ‘locking’ your phone. Another flick and the camera is back and ready to shoot in less than a second, and if you keep the camera ‘locked’ between shots, a full day of shooting on a single charge is easy.
If you’re done for the day, it’s best to fully shut the ZX1 down as sleep mode does consume battery power if left alone for hours. You can also set the camera to fully shut down after a specified period of time asleep.
|With the ZX1, it’s best to get used to putting it to sleep when you’re not about to use it – just like a smartphone.|
In terms of storage, power and ports, the ZX1 comes with a built-in 512GB SSD (though some of that is taken up by the operating system) and a replaceable battery pack with 22.9Wh of juice (Zeiss doesn’t give CIPA ratings, and it’d be hard for them to make sense of a half-camera, half-phone type of product anyway). In terms of ports, you only get a USB type-C connector that supports USB 3.2 speeds. It’s good for charging the camera, transferring files to your computer or to an SSD, or adapting to an HDMI output signal.
There are no claims of weather-sealing on the Zeiss ZX1, and with the exposed USB-C connector, it’s perhaps best to be cautious when shooting in inclement weather.
Editing on, and sharing from the ZX1
Lightroom serves as the only way (at the time of this writing) to really fine-tune your output on the ZX1. Most other manufacturers offer color profiles, or the ability to tweak JPEG output in terms of sharpening, tone curve, and so on. On the ZX1, you have no such options (well, as of firmware 1.5, released the day before we had to send the camera back, you can now adjust JPEG sharpening – needless to say, we haven’t had time to test it). You must pull a file into Lightroom to make any significant tweaks at all. The tradeoff for the extra effort is, of course, the degree to which Lightroom allows you to make edits.
The Lightroom editing experience is fairly responsive and will be familiar to those used to the Lightroom mobile experience on Android or iOS. Unfortunately, we found it was sometimes difficult to get the ZX1 to respond to our inputs, particularly when dragging sliders – it could take as many as five attempts to get the interface to respond. By default, Lightroom doesn’t enable lens corrections on the ZX1’s DNGs, so you may want to do that yourself if the vignetting is too strong (there’s not much in the way of distortion to be corrected).
Also, exporting edited DNGs took anywhere from 30-50% longer on the ZX1 than a Pixel 3a smartphone (a midrange 2019 model that isn’t especially powerful or expensive), with the same file and identical adjustments.
When it comes time to share your images, you must first dive into the camera’s settings, connect to a Wi-Fi signal and log in to Facebook or cloud services Flickr, DropBox or OneDrive. Once you’ve done that, you can share them directly from the camera’s playback mode. Testing with a OneDrive account, only a couple of taps were required, and the camera created a ‘ZX1’ folder and uploaded a full DNG file with no hiccups.
You may find that you’re having to log in to similar accounts in different places, though, which is a little bit confusing. You can share directly to Instagram from playback, but you have to log in from the playback screen; there’s no option to log into Instagram from the main menus where you can log in to a Facebook account.
|Logging into an account isn’t always the most streamlined affair.|
There’s also the option to share directly from Lightroom Mobile, but the app itself handles all of those logins, so you’d need to set up your accounts there, too. In other words, login settings you’ve entered in the camera’s menus aren’t carried over into Lightroom automatically. If you want to upload directly from the Lightroom app instead of the playback screen, you can do so in the background if you’d like to resume taking images.
After you’ve gone through several rounds of logging-in, though, uploading photos to a variety of services is pretty straightforward, and unless you’re switching accounts, you won’t need to log in again.
The question we started out with was, “how well does ‘back-to-basics’ work when combined with a modern, smartphone-esque interface?'”
As it turns out, fairly well. The Zeiss ZX1 doesn’t come off as though it’s having an identity crisis, nor as an electronic gadget with novelty that starts to wear off on the packaging you remove it from. It comes off, simply, as a camera – albeit one that has its fair share of quirks.
The direct dials and big displays go a long way towards allowing you to just focus on photographing what’s in front of you. It’s a camera that is pretty well-suited to being your daily photographic companion, capturing the ins and outs of daily life and allowing you to share those moments from wherever you happen to be. Unfortunately, the control rings are incredibly difficult to operate by feel with your eye to the finder, and you have to really press your eye to the finder to get the full picture.
Further quirks do irk. The ZX1’s autofocus system is both basic and a bit unusual – we’ll cover more details in the dedicated autofocus section to come. Shooting with ‘image review’ enabled forces you into watching an animation of your last-shot image fly up to your camera roll, which takes extra time (just disable image review for the most fluid shooting experience). Also, that ISO dial should really be an exposure compensation dial or at least a multi-purpose dial with exposure compensation as an option.
And then there’s the ZX1’s raison d’être; the inclusion of Lightroom Mobile. Thankfully, you don’t need an Adobe subscription to use the camera or even make most of the edits you might want to, in-camera. On the downside, the Lightroom export process is generally slower than a midrange Android phone, and its integration with the main camera’s settings could be improved.
Our test scene is designed to simulate a variety of textures, colors and detail types you’ll encounter in the real world. It also has two illumination modes to see the effect of different lighting conditions.
Right away, we can see that the sensor / lens combination on the ZX1 turns ineverywhere . It’s impressive even as you get out towards of the scene. The price you pay for this level of sharpness comes in terms of . At , we start to see the ZX1’s sensor fall behind the competition in terms of noise (and some occasional ‘banding’ patterns).
is pretty solid, but the white balance was an issue. After multiple attempts, this was the best white balance we could get the custom white balance function to give. And, since the camera lacks the option to manually adjust the green/magenta ‘tint’ axis, we had no way of improving on it. This isn’t an issue if you process the DNGs in-camera, of course, as Lightroom provides much more subtle correction tools.
Right away, we can see that the JPEG engine is failing to hold on to all of the fine detail that we see in Raw, looking a bit. We can even see this as we get , where the ZX1 has a distinct advantage in Raw. Despite the white balance woes, looks pretty pleasing, with punchy reds and blues, warm greens (which we prefer) and nice bright yellows. At , the ZX1 leaves behind more luminance noise (grain) than its peers, but does a reasonably good job of . Even with detail, the ZX1 looks pretty good.
Even as we send this review to publication, Zeiss has just released another firmware update – version 1.5 – that allows for the option to select JPEG sharpening levels. While we haven’t had time to evaluate this before sending the ZX1 back to Zeiss, it’s reassuring to see continued firmware updates adding functionality.
For the types of travelogue-style images you’re likely to capture using a camera with a fixed 35mm lens, the ZX1’s autofocus system will function fine much of the time.
The autofocus implementation on the ZX1 is fairly basic: You get Single AF and Continuous AF, along with a choice of three AF area sizes. There’s also face-detection autofocus (included in firmware 1.4), but we’ll delve into that a little later on, and there’s a ‘touch-and-release’ option which lets you tap wherever you’d like to acquire focus, and the camera will then focus and fire off a shot.
With touch-and-release turned off, there’s no option to tap where you want the camera to focus; instead you have to press and drag the AF point from its current position. Double-tapping the screen returns the AF point to the center.
To enable touchpad AF, you must first tap a little icon on the control portion of the screen, and then you can drag in the box overlay to move the AF point around.
There is an option to bring up a small touch-pad overlay on the screen, on which you can drag your finger to move your focus point around more easily with your eye to the viewfinder. Unfortunately, it disappears every time you half-press the shutter to initiate focus anew, and so you’ll have to re-enable it frequently with a tap on the side controls.
In use, we found that – despite firmware 1.4’s promise of improved AF consistency – the camera would occasionally front-or-back focus, even with stationary subjects in single AF. It was just enough to be noticeable if you look closely, and with a super sharp lens in front of a sensor with 37MP of resolution, it’s frequently tempting to look closely at your ZX1 images.
|Do not climb on orcas. Unfortunately, despite having an AF area directly over the stationary sculpted orca, the ZX1 back-focused, visible at full-size.|
Out-of-camera JPEG | ISO 100 | F2.2 | 1/724 sec
The above image is a good demonstration. Despite there being no movement in the scene and the AF area placed over the whale, the ZX1 back-focused onto the grass behind the subject. Then again, if you’re just going to upload this to your favorite whale-watching community social media page, it’s not so out-of-focus to be a problem considering how much compression some platforms apply.
Continuous autofocus works well enough with contrasty subjects, though you may notice some hunting. If you’re shooting with the rear screen, you can drag your AF area around and the camera will continue to adjust focus accordingly as long as you keep the shutter half-pressed. You can program the rear customizable button to be ‘Focus Lock,’ so you can halt focusing and recompose as necessary.
There is no generic subject-tracking option on the ZX1, so you may find yourself sticking to single AF, acquiring focus and then recomposing slightly – it’s generally quicker than manually re-positioning the AF point, but again, with so much resolution, any photographer or subject movement during re-framing could mean your main subject gets a bit out of focus.
|Focus in this image, using single AF and a single area, was spot-on.|
Processed from Raw in-camera | ISO 800 | 1/60 sec | F2
The addition of face detection in firmware 1.4 is appreciated, but the implementation is somewhat lacking. Once enabled, you’ll find the camera re-focusing all the time, whether you have the shutter half-pressed or not, attempting to acquire focus on whatever subject is under your AF area. (This could be because the camera would otherwise struggle to find a face in an extremely defocused scene, but it’s still not ideal behavior much of the time.)
Once a face is detected, the AF area box disappears and the camera will draw an outline around that face and attempt to maintain focus on it, again, whether you’re half-pressing the shutter or not. If there are multiple faces in a scene that the camera can recognize, you can tap to choose which face to focus on.
But the fact that the camera attempts to refocus (and subsequently hunts back and forth) constantly while face detection is enabled means that you’ll probably leave it off for general shooting, and then may forget to turn it on when you’d like to use it. (In my experience, at least.)
The ZX1 provides enough control over video to be useful for photographers wanting to grab occasional clips, though there are a few limitations to be aware of. The first of those limitations is a significant 1.48x crop factor whether you’re shooting 4K or Full HD (1080p) footage, giving you a field of view roughly equivalent to a 52mm lens in full-frame terms. For many, that will immediately rule out the ZX1 for many types of video work.
There is also significant rolling shutter when shooting 4K; we measure the readout rate to be around 32.4ms. This means that if you’re hand-holding the camera or engaging in even gentle pans, you will see slanted verticals and a ‘jell-o’ effect quite often. This is less of an issue when shooting 1080p, where we measure a readout rate of around 16ms.
Now, let’s look at outright quality.
As you can see, the ZX1 captures outstanding detail in its 4K mode, turning in better performance than the Leica Q2 (though the Leica has a much less restrictive 1.09x crop when shooting UHD 4K), and the Zeiss falls a little behind the performance of. If you , be prepared to deal with plenty of .
When shooting video on the ZX1, you are only able to shoot 4K/30p using an h.265 codec or 1080/60p with an h.264 codec: no other resolution / frame rate combinations are possible. Both automatic and manual exposure options are available, and if you want to lock in your shutter speed and aperture manually, exposure compensation is available and will control your Auto ISO value. The ZX1 has stereo internal microphones with levels that can be automatically or manually controlled.
|What we like||What we don’t|
It’s been a while since I reviewed a camera that has elicited the number of ‘oohs’ and ‘aah’s and ‘what kind of camera is that?‘ reactions that the Zeiss ZX1 has. Perhaps it’s that the outward design resembles a sort of oxymoronic mini-monolith and seems to genuinely capture people’s imaginations. When they wrap their hands around the rubberized grip, feel the weight of the thing, and see for themselves just how big the rear screen is, their immediate reaction is, “now this is a nice camera.”
And the Zeiss ZX1 is a nice camera. At its price point, it had better be. It’s far from being a camera for the masses, and after spending so much time with it, I’m not entirely convinced that it’s much more than a nice camera, in spite of the implications of the ‘Stay in your flow’ tagline in the branding materials.
Sure, the ZX1 has key features to appeal to those looking to quickly and easily shoot, edit and share high-quality content from a single device in a streamlined fashion: features like face detection autofocus, detailed 4K video, and of course, robust in-camera Raw processing using one of the industry’s most popular software suites.
But there are inherent limitations in these features that actively discourage their use, distracting you from whatever portion of the ‘shoot, edit, share’ flow you find yourself in. The AF system is clunky and occasionally unreliable, the 4K video has tons of rolling shutter and a substantial crop, and the Lightroom integration, with its occasionally unresponsive interface and lengthy export times, isn’t quite the game changer that I (and perhaps Zeiss) thought it might be.
So it’s perhaps best to think of the Zeiss ZX1 as, first and foremost, a capable, premium travel camera – and one that just happens to have some novel features built in should you want to take advantage of them. In this vein, for well-heeled world travelers, those that are wanting some of the best still-image quality they can get in a fixed-lens compact, or those that value absolute simplicity of shooting experience above all else, the ZX1 could make some sense.
|Out-of-camera JPEG | ISO 800 | 1/60 sec | F5.6|
As for the rest of us? Well, the ZX1 is, after all, a $6000 proposition, and $6000 buys you a lot of other camera gear as well as a lot of smartphone or computer to use for editing and sharing. In spite of this, I’m glad the ZX1 exists. It’s refreshing to see a manufacturer venture away from the crowd and do something truly different.
The ZX1, as the result of such a venture, was always unlikely to be as polished as the tried-and-true designs we’re accustomed to seeing which are often finely honed from decades of ergonomic design experience and user feedback. But the ZX1 succeeds in making an impression. It’s striking. So while I can’t wholeheartedly recommend that the ZX1 is the fixed-lens compact camera that everyone should rush out and buy, it will, for the right person, spark joy and reward them with excellent image quality and a singular user experience. Exclusivity, after all, carries a different price tag for everyone.
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