Sony ZV-1 Review

July 6, 2020 | Richard Sibley |

Introduction

For years a significant number of Sony RX100 users have requested certain extra features that would increase its capabilities for video use. Sony has finally listened to those requests, but instead of adding them to the RX100 a brand new camera has been created, and presumably an entirely new camera range with the Sony ZV-1, which Sony are describing as a ‘Vlog’ camera ‘designed for creators’.

A glance at the features of the ZV-1 shows that it shares much of its DNA with the Sony RX100 VA. Both cameras share the same 20-million-pixel 1-inch size BSI sensor, Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T8 24-70mm f/1.8-2.8 equivalent lens and NP-BX1 battery, so as you can imagine, many of the specifications are identical. However, with just a few key areas of difference, Sony has switched the technology so that the ZV-1 has a clear focus on video, with still photography very much in the backseat. 

The attraction of the RX100 for videography is its compact size, 4K video shooting, fast autofocus, 1-inch sensor and ability to shoot the same video Picture Profiles as its A7-series bigger brothers. Whilst the RX100 VII introduced a microphone socket for the first time in the RX100 series, it lacks a hot-shoe mount to actually mount a microphone. Part of the reason for not having a hot-shoe is that the RX100 series cameras have a flip-up front facing screen, which would be blocked by any mounted microphone. As well as this the RX100 has limited space on its top plate due to a built-in flash and a pop-up electronic viewfinder.

So along comes the ZV-1 with a microphone socket, a hot-shoe on the top, and a screen which flips out to the side. Gone is the pop-up flash and the small electronic viewfinder found on the RX100 cameras. The loss of these features is presumably as much a cost saving measure as it is space saving; the ZV-1 costs around £700 / $800, roughly the same as the RX100 VA, but significantly cheaper than the flagship £1200 / $1300 RX100 VII.

With some of the appealing features for photographers gone, but some great features for videographers added, just how easy is the ZV-1 to use as a photographer and as a vlogger?

Ease of Use

Sony ZV-1
Front of the Sony ZV-1

When considering the Sony ZV-1 it’s important to understand exactly who it is for. In a world of Instagram Stories, YouTube and TikTok, Sony has created a camera that is designed to appeal to creators who want more quality and flexibility than they would get from shooting with a smartphone or action camera. The aim has been to produce a camera that can shoot video clips of high quality, with little fuss, with all the photo features of the RX100 series so that users can still take those amazing travel photos for Instagram.

Side by side the ZV-1 looks like a slightly bloated version of the RX100; it is a millimetre or two larger in every dimension, which accentuates the rounded edges of the camera. Hold the ZV-1 and another major change comes apparent - it has a plastic, or polycarbonate, body, as opposed to the all metal design of the RX100. Again, I would imagine this has been done to keep the cost of the camera down, but in hand the body seems solid; all the components fit very nicely together, there are no creaks or weak looking joints, with everything very well designed and assembled.

The rear of the camera is almost identical to the RX100 series, with the familiar directional control dial placed around a central selection button. Around this sit 4 other buttons to access regularly used features. What has changed is the placement of the video recording button. This has moved from being a small, hard to press, button on the top-right of the rear of the RX100, to a much more prominent position of the top-plate of the ZV-1. This allows the ZV-1 to have a much larger, and very welcome, rubberised thumb grip.

Finally on the rear is the 3-inch, 921,000 dot LCD screen. This is now hinged to the side of the camera and it offers 180 degree rotation, meaning it can be folded to the side, then flipped to face forward for vlogging or self-portraits (or selfies as they are now known), as well as being able to fold the screen in to the camera body to offer protection when you just want to carry the camera loose in a bag or pocket.

Sony ZV-1
Rear of the Sony ZV-1

On the side of the ZV-1 sit its three external ports - HDMI, Micro USB and that all important 3.5mm microphone input. The HDMI-out allows for external video recording which will allow you to squeeze every bit of detail out of the 1inch sensor, although attaching any external device kind of defeats the point of this being a small vlogging camera. Still, it is a useful option to have if only to playback video or images directly from the camera.

The Micro USB socket allows for power to be supplied to both keep the ZV-1 going with a battery installed, or to charge the battery when the camera is not in use. It’s an extremely useful feature to have given the NP-BX1 batteries are quite small and those planning to shoot video would be advised to purchase a few, or having a USB battery on standby. Under testing conditions the battery life is quoted as being between 45-75mins, depending on how many other operations you are doing, zooming, power the camera on and off etc. Taking into account reviewing images and video, zooming in and out, having the screen on whilst not recording and taking still images, I would expect real world usage to be below the 45mins quoted. It’s worth mention here that the maximum record time for a single continuous video clip is the usual 29mins 59 secs to avoid extra levies placed on European camcorder imports.

Once again, we can only assume that it is a cost-saving measure to still be using a USB 2.0 Micro USB rather than a USB-C socket in 2020. Sony does now use USB-C on its latest A7 and A9 cameras, but only for data transfer and not for power. The ZV-1 could have really made use of USB-C as it could have acted as another audio interface for the camera, allowing headphones to be used, much as Fujifilm has done with its X-T3 and X-T4 cameras.

Internal Microphone Audio Test

It’s on the top of the camera where there are the most notable differences from the RX100 range. As mentioned, the pop-up flash and pop-up EVF are gone, replaced instead with a large three-capsule direction microphone, and a Multi Interface hot-shoe.

Sony ZV-1
Top of the Sony ZV-1

The shoe allows for any standard accessories to be mounted, with microphones and LED lights the most obvious. However, the Multi Interface part allows for compatible to Sony accessories to work intelligently with the camera and also draw power where needed. I successfully mounted and used the Sony HVL-F43M flash to the camera, which operated perfectly. It is obviously hideously oversized for the ZV-1, and is not something I would recommend using, but at a push, it does mean that you can mount and use Sony flashguns. The Sony ECM-XYST1M stereo microphone can also be used, with the audio sent through the Multi Shoe rather than requiring a 3.5mm cable to be plugged into the side of the camera.

Another change from the RX100 to the ZV-1 is the removal of the ‘Mode’ dial, which has been replaced with a Mode button next to the camera power button. This may seem a big change, but knowing photographers behaviour this is a rarely used dial, which will largely be set in the same position depending on the photographer’s preferred mode. It takes a second or two longer to switch modes using the button, but it certainly isn’t a deal breaker.

As well as the shutter and zoom control toggle, the top-plate also sees the addition of the video record button. This is much larger than the small button found on the RX100 cameras, and it is marked with a red ring to easily identify it against the shutter button.

Background Defocus Mode

Finally on the top there is the Background Defocus button. For vloggers the aim of this button is to switch between having the background blurred or clear. In photographic terms it is switching the aperture between the largest available for the focal length (so between f/1.8 and f/2.8) and f/5.6. It is a useful button to have available for video, but even for photography it is something I would use to make the quick aperture change.

Sony ZV-1
Tilting LCD Screen

Sadly, the control ring that is found around the lens of the RX100 series cameras is gone. This could be used to change a number of different things, from the focusing or zooming of the lens, to the aperture. Again, I’m sure this must have been largely to keep costs down, and possibility to keep the controls of the ZV-1 as simple as possible.

With the lack of a mode dial and the lens control dial, it does take a little longer to switch between some of the settings of the ZV-1 compared to an RX100 series camera. Thankfully the function button on the rear of the camera operates in exactly the same was as it does on the RX100 and A7 series cameras, so you can use it to quickly access features you will need the most, such as white balance, Picture Style and the AF settings.

Product Showcase Mode

The ‘Trash’ button also acts as the ‘C2’ custom button, which by default is set to access the Product Showcase mode. This is an autofocus mode that alerts the camera to switch focus from a person’s face to an object that may be held up in front of the camera. It is a popular YouTube technique for when wanting to show an item to the viewer, but on cameras with slower autofocus it can leave the focus fixed on the presenter’s face with the product out of focus, and vice versa. The Product Showcase mode solves that issue, adding another plus point for vlogging with the ZV-1.

The menu system of the ZV-1 is identical to other Sony cameras, so existing users will have no problem navigating it, whilst those less familiar may find the odd item in a curious location. Most usefully the option to customise the Function Button Quick menu remains, and it can have two different versions depending on whether you are shooting stills or video. There is also the MyMenu screen, where you can add any other the Menu settings to your own personalised Menu Screen, and there is also the option to make this the default screen that pops up when the Menu button is pressed. So although there is an almost overwhelming amount of features in the ZV-1, between the Function Menu and the My Menu you should be able to access everything you need quickly and efficiently.

Sony ZV-1
Wind Muff Fitted

If you are familiar with the autofocus settings of the Sony A7 cameras you will be pleasantly surprised by the options found on the ZV-1. Basically all of the AF features found on the recent A7 and A9 series cameras are found on the ZV-1. There is a Hybrid AF sensor that utilises up to 315-phase detection points, and 425-contrast detection points. The phase detection AF allows for the fast and smooth subject tracking, along with Face Detection AF. However, the winning feature is EyeAF which detects a human eye, not only when shooting still images, but also when shooting video, and it works extremely well. It is visibly fast enough to follow an eye around the screen, and you can even select which eye you wish to focus on, just like on recent A7 cameras.

And so on to the key part of the ZV-1, its video features. As with the AF features, the ZV-1 is like a miniature version of the A7 series cameras. Virtually all of the video settings that are found much further up in the range are here. Video can be recorded in 4K resolution at up to 30fps, whilst Full HD can be shot at up to 100/120fps depending on whether you are shoot PAL or NTSC format.

There are also the HFR modes where you can shoot at 250, 500 or 1000fps, with footage then saved at 25fps for super slow motion playback. It should be noted that although the HFR video is saved at the Full HD 1920 x 1080 resolution, it is upscaled from a much smaller recorded resolution; in the case of 1000fps this may be as low as 912 x 308. The length of time you can record a clip is also restricted to just a few seconds depending on the chosen frame rate and whether you choose the Quality or Time mode. Either way, it is long enough to create fascinating super slow motion footage, but for most users the 100 or 120fps modes will be more than enough and be better quality.

All of the Picture Profiles are present and correct, meaning you can match the footage shot with the ZV-1 with cameras such as the A7 III, making it an ideal accompaniment for those who may be using those cameras in more of a studio environment. Proxy recording is available, allowing low resolution 1280 x 720 resolution footage to be recorded alongside 4K or Full HD footage. This is great for those who may be editing video on older computers. Simply edit using the lower resolution proxy files, then switch to the full resolution 4K files when it comes to the fine fine-tuning and export.

Sony ZV-1
Battery / Memory Card

A feature that Sony removed in the RX100 VI and RX100 VII makes a welcome return and that is the built-in ND filter. This 3EV filter will help you to shoot at larger apertures on bright days, which is extremely useful when shooting video and trying to stick to the shutter speed being double the frame rate rule. For example at 25fps the ideal shutter speed is 1/50th sec. If you want to create a shallow depth of field on a bright sunny day you would be hard pushed to do this, but turning the ND filter on will darken up the image just enough to allow an aperture 3 stops larger to be used, helping to create a shallower depth of field.

For photographers you may be able to get a slightly blurred effect on running water on a dark overcast day if you make the aperture as small as possible, but don’t expect it to enable you to take extremely long exposures. The ND filter can be easily switched on or off from the quick menu, or it can be set to auto when it will help you to achieve you desired settings when needed. It's an extremely useful feature to have.

Standard Steadyshot Mode

Active Steadyshot Mode

In regards to stabilisation, there is Optical Steadyshot built-in to the lens. This will give you a couple of stops extra to play with when taking still images, and it will smooth out the lightest of movements when shooting video. There is the option to switch on Active SteadyShot in video, which is a digital form of stabilisation. This crops in to the image slightly to give the camera so digitally move the image frame around to compensate for any larger movements. It works very well, creating very stable footage when handholding and taking out all but the heaviest of footsteps when walking. The catch is that because of the slight crop, if you are vlogging your face will appear larger when in the frame. I would suggest only using it when walking or zooming in to show something, and when presenting to camera stick to using the Standard Steadyshot mode.

With the option to add an external microphone or an LED light, or even a handle, to the hot-shoe, the ZV-1 is a very capable video camera that I’m sure will find an immediate home amongst the vlogging community, particularly those users who are currently using A7 III cameras. The 4K image quality is crisp and clear, the Picture Profiles enable you to shoot S-Log footage, as well as all of the Cine styles, so it should be easy to find and create a style that you like that works across a variety of Sony cameras.