Optical specialist, Zeiss unveiled the ZX1 compact expert in 2018. Very ambitious, it benefits from a 39.5MP full-frame sensor, a worked design and, above all, the possibility to edit images thanks to an embedded Lightroom.
Zeiss is rather known to the general public for its optics and partnerships of all kinds with big names in the smartphone market, but it is also well present in the medical and industrial sectors. Yet the German manufacturer surprised the small world of photography by introducing the ZX1 at Photokina 2018.
Placed in the compact expert segment, the ZX1 is an atypical camera that uses a custom version of Android as its operating system. Thanks to it, the optician integrates directly the sharing of photographs on several online services, but also a version of Lightroom pre-installed.
This camera is equipped with a 24x36 sensor of 39,5 Mpx. The Distagon T* 35mm f/2 lens has a fixed focal length rather wide-angle and good for everything with a very bright opening. The video part enjoys 4K UHD at 30 fps, while the rear screen with HD definition has a diagonal of just under 11 cm. For storage, an internal SSD of 512 GB is provided.
Given these somewhat unusual features, it is difficult to identify a real competitor to the ZX1. The RX1, whose product line has been annihilated by Sony, could have been a good alternative. Today, we would bet more on a Fujifilm X100V or the Leica Q2, in its Monochrom version or not.
Right away, the design imagined by Zeiss impresses. The black dress, the play of materials, the original and well drawn curves do not fail to catch the eye. Of course, the little touches of fluorescent yellow that break up this deceptively sober look are questionable. Whether you love it or hate it, this camera does not fail to attract the eyes with a style that echoes the Otus range of optics.
Secondly, it is the weight of the device that attracts attention. With 837 g (including battery), the ZX1 is heavy, very heavy. Although the construction is impeccable, the original style associated with a significant weight raises the question of holding. In the end, the whole thing works admirably well thanks to a large, well-designed handle with a silicone-like texture.
Classified in the compact expert segment, the ZX1 is far from being compact. It's not a huge camera compared to a big SLR, but many modern hybrids do better on this point. It is therefore impossible to slip it into a pocket.
This available space is used to integrate a very large screen of 4.3 inches. Its definition, a little light, in 1280x720 px does not hinder the use. As the ZX1 allows retouching with Lightroom, we have pushed our analysis further.
The screen flatters the captured image at first, but one quickly realizes that the performance is not up to market standards. The contrast ratio is only 580:1 while the average delta E reaches 5.2. With a value that exceeds 10 in the blue tones, the average is far from the threshold of 3 from which the human eye begins to perceive the differences in colors.
Worse, the average temperature is 5848 K instead of the 6500 K we were looking for. We would also have preferred a gamma of 2.2 while the greyscale measurement gives us an average of 2.1. In short, we are disappointed and the general rendering makes working with Lightroom difficult. A shame for a device that is supposed to focus on on-board development.
That said, the viewfinder makes up for the color drift and seems more accurate. With a 6.22 Mpts Oled panel and a 0.74x magnification, it will be difficult to find better. The eyecup could have been better thought out, comfort having been sacrificed here on the altar of design, thus reducing the interest of its use.
For the photo part, the ergonomics is also refined, perhaps a little too much. In addition to the release button, two wheels are present for the management of the sensitivity and the exposure time, notched at half stop for the latter. A small button at the back allows to lock the point or the exposure.
For the management of the aperture, a ring dedicated to the diaphragm and using the silicone finish of the handle is located on the lens. The automatic mode is positioned next to the largest aperture. We prefer that this setting is placed on the other side, near f/22, to avoid unintentional modification. We would also have liked it to be wider to make it easier to use blind. In addition, a focus ring with the same finish is not forgotten.
The list stops here concerning the control buttons. The sober and uncluttered look is well respected, but a simpler adjustment of the exposure compensation or an additional access to a setting of your choice would not have been too much. This is especially the case since Zeiss made some bold decisions on the touchscreen ergonomics of the ZX1 interface.
In the same vein, calling up the settings panel or viewing saved images can only be done by swiping on the left edge of the screen, as opposed to a more traditional top-down swipe. This works very well, but you have to take the chance.
With Android, the ZX1 allows for increased connectivity. Thanks to the well-integrated wifi, updating can be done directly without having to go through an app or a computer. Linking to services like OneDrive or Dropbox is provided, while sharing content on Facebook, Instagram and Flickr is possible. On the other hand, the apps are not necessarily native; you'll have to make do with an encapsulated web page.
Finally, let's mention Lightroom, which can be launched on demand or from the image gallery. Thanks to a sufficiently large screen and efficient touch-screen, the digital development work works quite well. Most of the functions are available, such as the traditional filters or basic settings, but more advanced tools are also present, starting with the panel dedicated to color grading.
The whole thing works quite well, like on a computer. But with an ergonomics that comes from the world of smartphones, we have to admit that precisely adjusting the pulls and knobs with the finger is not always practical with an insufficiently optimized interface. On the other hand, some inconsistencies or small bugs persist, such as the return of a panel that does not work properly.
For storage, a 512GB SSD is provided when an SD card slot is forgotten. Connecting via the USB-C port allows transfer to a computer, but the device is not always perfectly recognized and slowness may occur.
The ZX1 takes a long time to turn on, thanks to Android. We clocked 25 seconds before being able to take a picture, an eternity. To remedy this, the standby mode allows the ZX1 to wake up in 2.36 s. That's much faster, but one of the worst references we've come across lately.
The autofocus is not incredibly fast either and deteriorates as soon as the light conditions decrease. We regularly had to switch to manual mode to correct a focus that was far from operational. The sequence of images or the burst at 3 fps are anecdotal. In jpeg only, the buffer records 8 pictures against 5 in jpeg + raw.
The ZX1 offers a central shutter (in the lens), as we can have at Hasselblad. This specificity does not allow an ultra fast exposure time, but allows a flash synchronization until 1/1000 s. In classic mode, the ZX1 is therefore limited to 1/2000 s, even when the electronic shutter is used. In full sun and at full aperture, this limitation will inevitably cause overexposures.
The ZX1 also offers eye and face tracking. Still with enough light, the compact does quite well and allows you to rely on the function for portraits.
The full frame sensor of the ZX1 and its 37,4 Mpx effective offer a rise in sensitivity from 80 to 51 200 ISO. The noise reduction work is light and shows little difference between the jpeg and raw versions. The first file is slightly more accentuated with a slightly more sparkling rendering, perhaps more flattering.
It is only at high sensitivity that the differences in processing are felt with a less visible noise on the jpegs, but also less aesthetic with the presence of chromatic artifacts. A first level is to be noted at ISO 800, but the ZX1 can be pushed to ISO 3200 without too many problems, the rest requiring more work or concessions. If possible, the photographer will avoid the last two steps.
To correct for low light, noise appears as early as -3 EV, but will only really cause trouble at lower values. For highlights - traditionally more difficult to recover - the recovery can be done up to +1.5 EV. From the next notch at +2 EV, the image degrades considerably and little data remains to be restored. The overall dynamic range is therefore quite limited.
Attention, the CMOS sensor used by Zeiss seems to be sensitive to a kind of blooming. This phenomenon occurs when a pixel receives a signal too important. Its saturation level is then reached, the received charge "overflows" on the adjacent pixels. Combined with a large aperture and an exposure time too limited, the damage is quickly done. If a powerful light source such as the Sun is present in the field, it is necessary to check its photos to avoid any disappointment. Another problem encountered is that the white balance is regularly "out of order" with tints that are much too far from the target.
Specialty of Zeiss, we expected the manufacturer to turn on the quality of the lens. To better understand how it works, we published a complete dedicated article. In summary, the Distagon T* 35mm f/2 lens works wonders and places the ZX1 as one of the best compact experts in terms of image quality. Only a significant vignetting on the raw files could be considered as a flaw.
The video section of the ZX1 offers the basics, but nothing more. 4K UHD at 30 fps is available with a maximum recording time of 15 min. To go to 60 fps, you will have to use FHD definition. An important cropping of 1.42x is to be expected, but that's not all: on the rolling shutter front, the ZX1 manages these distortions very poorly both in photo and video.
The autofocus is very noisy with a series of not very tasty clicks. However, it is globally efficient with smooth transitions. If some pumping effects are to be expected, the face detection is quite accurate with a fast tracking.
The rendering of images is really excellent. The good management of the sensor by Zeiss, combined with a quality in-house lens, allows to reach a level rarely reached, even by video specialists.
With this ZX1, Zeiss delivers more than a prototype to flatter a well-felt marketing campaign, but a proof of concept that the rest of the industry should be inspired by. While there are some very good ideas and bold and original choices, the ZX1 is also a frustrating camera. Putting aside the questionable color display, there are several shortcomings that prevent the full potential of the ZX1 from being appreciated. However, if the photographer decides to take the plunge, the ZX1 will provide an original experience with one of the best image qualities on the market.