Sony ZV-1 Review

Could the Sony ZV-1 be the vlogging camera you've been waiting for?

Sony ZV-1 review
Review
Website: Sony

Price when reviewed

£700

$749.99
Check current price

Our Verdict

The Sony ZV-1 delivers everything that a vlogger could wish for in a compact camera, and it comes with Sony's excellent AF system. There are features to help inexperienced photographers/videographers/vloggers get good results, the exposure can be controlled automatically or manually and there's a built-in ND filter plus Log and Gamma control. It makes it easy to produce great 4K video but lets you take control when you want to. It all adds up to a very enticing camera for vloggers.

For

  • Designed specifically for vloggers but also a capable stills camera
  • Stabilised 4K video
  • Vari-angle touchscreen

Against

  • No viewfinder built-in
  • The redesigned grip is best for left-handers
What is the Sony ZV1?

Vlogging has become very popular and lots of people are trying videoing themselves for the first time. However, it’s estimated that over 70% of vlogs are recorded on a phone. Sony is hoping to change that with the introduction of the Sony ZV-1, a 201.1Mp compact camera that is specifically designed for vlogging. Of course, that doesn’t mean it can’t be used for shooting stills, but unlike most compact cameras, the key focus of its design is videography and vlogging.

Specification

  • Camera type: Compact
  • Announced: 26th May 2020
  • Sensor: 20.1Mp 1-inch type (13.2mm x 8.8mm) Exmor RS CMOS
  • Lens: Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 9.4-25.7mmm (24-70mm equivalent) f/1.8-2.8
  • Sensitivity range: Stills: ISO 100-25,600, Video: ISO 125-12,800
  • Autofocus: 315 focal-plane phase-detection AF points, Eye AF: Humans (stills and video) or Animal (stills)
  • Burst Mode: Hi: 24fps, Mid: 10fps, Low: 3fps
  • Video: 4K in-body movie recording with full pixel readout and no binning, Log & Gamma options, slow-mo at up to 1000fps
  • Viewfinder: No
  • Screen: Vari-angle 3-inch touchscreen
  • Stabilisation: Optical for stills, optical and electronic for video
  • Hotshoe: Multi-interface (can connect an XLR mic via an adapter)
  • Storage: SD/SDHC/SDXC
  • Dimensions (WxHxD): 105.5 x 60 x 43.5mm / 4 1/4 × 2 3/8 × 1 3/4inches
  • Weight: 294g with battery and SD card or body only
Sony ZV-1 review
Features

Much of the specification on the Sony ZV-1 is familiar from the Sony RX100 series of compact cameras, but there are a few notable differences to make it better for vlogging.

No surprise then to learn that the ZV-1 has a 1-inch type stacked Exmor RS CMOS sensor with 20.1 million effective pixels. That’s a comparatively large sensor for a compact camera and, as we’ve seen with cameras like the Sony RX100 VII, it brings advantages for image quality.

In addition, the Exmor RS CMOS sensor brings phase-detection focusing – which is usually faster and more decisive than contrast detection. The ZV-1 has a total of 315 phase detection AF points which are available for use in stills and video mode.

Sony ZV-1 review

Sony is leading the way with its autofocus systems at the moment and it’s great to see that the ZV-1 has Real-time Eye AF. That’s a feature that Sony introduced with its recent interchangeable lens cameras and it’s also featured in the RX100 VII. It does a great job of spotting eyes in a scene and getting them sharp, so it should be very useful for vlogging.

There are times, however, when Eye AF can get in the way. For example, vloggers often want to show something to their viewers but Eye AF can make it hard to get the product in focus. The Sony ZV-1 debuts a new ‘Product Showcase’ feature to counter this by deactivating the Eye AF and shifting the focus to the product in front of the camera. That’s handy for product reviews!

4K Video

Naturally, being targeted at video and vlogging enthusiasts, the ZV-1 is capable of shooting 4K footage and exposure can be controlled automatically or manually.

Sound is just as important as the image quality in video and the Sony ZV-1 offers a number of options for recording audio. The easiest is to use the built-in 3-capsule microphone. This uses technology from Sony’s advanced video camera systems and there’s a Clear Voice function that can reduce background noise while making human voices clearer.

Helpfully, there’s a fluffy dead cat type windshield supplied in the box with the ZV-1. This can be popped into the hotshoe to cover the built-in mic whenever it’s needed to cut down wind noise.

Alternatively, there’s a standard 3.5mm mic port on the ZX-1 so you can connect an external mic. This could be a lavalier, shotgun or hand-held mic, or a wireless system like the excellent Rode Wireless Go.

The third option is to connect an external mic via an adapter in the multi-interface hotshoe. This could be a professional-level XLR mic.

In another move to attract vloggers, the ZV-1’s 3-inch screen is mounted on a vari-angle hinge that allows it to be viewed from in front of the camera. This, paired with the Real-time Eye AF and 4K video capability, could be a winning combination.

Experienced videographers will be pleased to learn that the ZV-1 has both Log and Gamma control modes to enable it to produce footage that’s more suited to grading.

Exposure control

Another problem that vloggers often face when they’re shooting on the move is that the exposure can change as the lighting changes. However, the Sony ZV-1 has a Face Priority autoexposure algorithm that can be activated to detect and prioritise the face in the frame. This should keep the exposure of the face the same while letting the background get lighter or darker depending upon the changing conditions.

Further good news is that the ZV-1 has a built-in ND filter to enable wide apertures to be used along with the comparatively slow shutter speeds required when shooting video. Helpfully, this filter has an ‘Auto’ setting that activates the filter when it’s required, but if you’re shooting video in program, aperture priority, shutter priority or manual exposure mode you can’t use the auto option, you have to manually switch between on or off.

Versatile lens

Sony has given the ZV-1 a ZEISS Vario-Sonnar T* 9.4-25.7mm f/1.8-2.8 lens. That means that the focal length is equivalent to 24-70mm in 35mm camera terms. That’s a handy focal length range that’s suitable for capturing a range of subjects, from landscapes to portraits.

Crucially for vloggers, 24mm is a good focal length for recording yourself while holding the camera at arm’s length.

Also, the maximum aperture, f/1.8 at the widest point and f/2.8 at the longest, should enable the background to be blurred. Furthermore, there’s a new ‘Background Defocus’ feature, which by default is assigned to the C1 button. This is designed to enable inexperienced videographers to open and close the aperture for greater background blur/sharpness.

Background Defocus effectively puts the ZV-1 in aperture priority mode at the widest aperture and makes use of the shutter speed, sensitivity and built-in neutral density (ND) filter to deliver the correct exposure.

There’s also a ‘Soft Skin Effect’ feature that is said to reduce the visibility of wrinkles and skin marks while keeping the eyes and mouth sharp for more flattering footage

The lens is stabilised and combined with the onboard digital system, the ZV-1 is said to have 11x better stabilisation than the RX100 VA. Will it be effective enough to enable walking hand-held 4K footage?

Sony ZV-1 review
Build and Handling

Unsurprisingly, the ZV-1 looks quite a bit like a Sony RX100-series camera and it has a similar menu layout.

It has a new grip shape which is designed to make the camera more comfortable to hold in selfie mode. Sony is the first manufacturer to really do something like that and it could be quite a bonus.

However, the grip is still on the left side of the camera when it’s facing you. That means that it’s only useful if you hold it in your left hand. I know plenty of left-handers, but with more right-handers in the population, you might reasonably expect a grip on the other side of the camera.

Sony also offers the GP-VPT2BT and VCT-SGR1 grips that can attach to the ZV-1 via the tripod bush and connect via cable or Bluetooth to give an alternative way of holding and controlling the camera. They seem like a powerful combination for vloggers.

 

I’m very pleased to see a vari-angle screen on a Sony camera. Sony has seemed strangely resistant to using them, but they are very useful. In this instance, it’s essential for giving a vlogger the view they need when filming themself.

Interestingly, as on the Sony A7S III, which also has a vari-angle screen, Sony has put its name at the bottom of the screen. That means that when the screen is out to the side for shooting with the camera conventionally, the name is upside down. However, when the screen is flipped out for viewing from in front of the camera, it’s the right way up.

Sony ZV-1 review

While the screen offers a very crisp view, if you’re in bright sunshine, the Sunny Weather setting is essential. This brightens the screen to make it visible in the sunshine and it works very well. It’s important to remember to turn it off when you move into shaded conditions, otherwise, you’re likely to capture underexposed images.

Helpfully, the Sony ZV-1 has a ‘My Menu’ screen to which you can assign your most commonly used menu features.

Sony ZV-1 review

Frustratingly, the menu can’t be navigated by touch nor any settings selected by touch. That’s a shame but it’s good to see that Sony has extended its use of touch-screen functionality with the A7S III, so perhaps the company is beginning to see the light on this issue?

Back to the Sony ZV-1, it’s good to see that the record button on the top-plate is quite big. I’m so over trying to press small, fiddly buttons to get a camera to start recording. However, when you’re holding the camera at arm’s length it’s easy to press the shutter button rather than the record button (and vice-versa). I think a single button and switch to flick between video and stills mode might be a better solution.

While the windshield that is supplied with the ZV-1 is a bonus, and it works well, it’s a little annoying that when it’s slipped into the hotshoe it covers the power button. Thankfully, the camera can be turned on and off by opening and closing the screen on the back of the camera, but occasionally this doesn’t work.

Sony ZV-1 review
Performance

We’re in pretty familiar territory with a 20.1Mp 1-inch type stacked CMOS sensor in a Sony camera and the equivalent of a 24-70mm f/1.8-2.8 lens. It’s a combination we’ve seen before, for example in the Sony RX100 V, and it performs just as well in the ZV-1.

Obviously the image and video quality are very important, but what distinguishes the ZV-1 from a comparable RX100 camera is its potential as a vlogging camera.

The autofocus (AF) system plays a key role in a vlogging camera, especially when you’re shooting at a wide aperture to get shallow depth of field. If the AF system misses the target, the degree of blur makes the miss pretty obvious. Thankfully, the Sony ZV-1 gets the focus right most of the time, it even manages to keep up with my dog racing about in a gloomy woodland.

Using the Zone AF setting helps give the camera a little direction in the gloom and when there are distractions in the scene, and the camera latched on quickly to my dog.

The Eye AF system is also good. In Animal mode, it’s not quite in the same league as the Sony A7R III, Sony A7 III or Sony A7R IV with a fast lens mounted, but it’s still great at getting a dog’s eye’s sharp in stills.

And when you have the screen flipped round to vlog, provided you’ve switched the Eye AF to its Human setting, you see a small square appear over one of your eyes – even if you’re wearing spectacles.

Further good news is that the internal mic performs very well with its windshield fitted. It can’t prevent all wind noise, but it keeps it at bay in ‘average’ weather conditions and it’s a nice neat solution.

According to Sony, the ZV-1’s stabilisation is 11x better than the stabilisation in the RX100 VA, and while it’s not the same as shooting with a gimbal, it’s enough to make 4K footage look acceptable if you’re walking and shooting.

When the ZV-1 is on control of the exposure and Face-Priority exposure mode is activated via the menu, it does a good job of adjusting the exposure to keep the face looking good. Obviously, in extreme situations, there’s a limit to what it can do, but I’m impressed by the smooth shift.

Similarly, Product Showcase and Background Defocus both work very well. When Product Showcase the ZV-1 quickly spots even very small items when they are held up to the camera and focuses on them. Then when they’re lowered it jumps back to your eyes.

It can be hard to see the effect of using Background Defocus when you’re shooting outdoors, but when you check the footage on a computer once you get home, there is a distinct difference between the Defocus setting which blurs the background and the Clear setting that uses a small aperture to render more of the background sharp.

Sony ZV-1 Video and Image Quality

I’m very impressed with the quality of the 4K video that the Sony ZV-1 produces at the low to mid sensitivity (ISO) settings. It’s certainly a step-up from the average smartphone or action cam. There’s plenty of sharp detail and it’s handled nicely so the edges don’t look oversharpened and there are no halos. Everything looks nice and natural.

There’s a choice of colour settings but the default options are a good starting point. However, I favour the Portrait Creative Style for it’s more sympathetic handling of red with people shots/clips. Experienced users, however, will ignore the Creative Styles and instead head to the Picture Profile list to use S-Log3 or S-Log2 profiles to produce flat footage that’s more suitable for post-capture grading.

At ISO 6400 the ZV-1’s images look rather grainy and there’s some smudging of details in the Jpegs. I would aim to make this my maximum setting but try to stay beneath it whenever possible.

Adobe hasn’t updated CameraRaw to enable the raw files to be processed yet, but when it does I expect to see more detail and more visible noise in the raw files.

Read our Sony RX100 V review

Sony ZV-1 review
Sample Video

This video was shot on the Sony ZV-1 using the external mic with the windshield fitted to record the audio. The white balance was set to Auto. The exposure was set manually in some sections and automatically in others.

Verdict

The Sony ZV-1 is a great camera for vloggers. I was impressed with the Canon PowerShot G X 7 Mark III when I tested it, but the ZV-1 has a slight edge. Its autofocus system is excellent, the Eye AF is especially useful for vlogging, Product Showcase and Background Defocus work very well and the on-board mic produces much better audio than most other compact cameras.

It’s clear that Sony has really gone back to the beginning when it was designing the ZV-1. Rather than creating a compact camera that can also be used for vlogging, it has put vlogging at the centre of the stage. In its automatic settings, it’s almost as easy to use as a mobile phone but it delivers the image and video quality we’ve come to expect from a Sony RX100 camera.

And of course, there is much more beyond the default or automatic settings, with options such as S-Log3 and external mic connections that make the ZV-1 a useful camera for vloggers with a wide range of experience.

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