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Sony ZV-1 Review

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The Sony ZV-1 is the most powerful pocket vlogging camera you can buy right now. It takes the best video features of the Sony RX100 series, including its class-leading autofocus system, and combines them with design tweaks that make it ideal for shooting YouTube videos at home or on the move.

Its main strength is the combination of a bright 24-70mm f/1.8-2.8 lens with Sony’s Real-time tracking and Real-time Eye AF systems. Together with the ZV-1’s 1-inch sensor, which is larger than those in today’s smartphones, these make it easy to shoot high-quality vlogs with pleasing background blur and consistent focus. The inclusion of a 3.5mm microphone port means it’s relatively easy to add good-high quality audio to match your videos, while hot-shoe lets you mount accessories like a shotgun mic or LED light without needing a bracket to support them.

This is particularly useful because, while the ZV-1’s three-capsule internal microphone is an improvement over the built-in mics found in the RX100 series and other compact cameras, it still falls short of offering audio that matches the quality of its video. You do at least get a windshield bundled with the camera, that is essential for when you’re capturing in breezy conditions. The ZV-1 isn’t perfect, and you might want to consider other options, depending on your needs. Its SteadyShot stabilization is passable for walking videos but falls lacking the smoothness offered by the DJI Osmo Pocket, GoPro Hero 8 Black, or larger cameras like the Olympus E-M5 Mark III. Its strongest stabilization also adds a slight crop that can make the resulting focal length slightly tight for handheld shots, though we didn’t find this to be a major issue.

Despite the inclusion of renamed shortcut buttons for beginners, the ZV-1 also isn’t the most user-friendly camera for those upgrading from smartphones. Aside from letting you tap to focus, its touchscreen doesn’t work with menus just like the handy ‘Fn’ grid, and it settings remain labyrinthine; a beginner-friendly section for video newcomers would have been nice. The flipside to this complexity is that the ZV-1 is absolutely packed with features, including a built-in ND filter, autofocus sensitivity options, and profiles like S-Log2 for those who like to colour-grade their video clips; Sony is also promising live-streaming software for Windows users from July 2020. All this makes it incredibly powerful for a compact camera, and ensures that it’ll grow with you as your skills improve.

The ZV-1’s size means there are naturally other compromises, including the lack of a headphone jack and average battery life, as the absence of an electronic viewfinder means those looking for a stills camera should also look elsewhere. But the ZV-1 packs in more power and video functions than any other pocket camera, making it an ideal take-anywhere digital camera for shooting content for your YouTube or other social media channel.

Design

The Sony ZV-1 is like a Sony RX100 Mark V that’s been redesigned for YouTubers. The end result isn’t perfect, but it does fix most of the criticisms we had of the Tag V when it came to video shooting. Along with the Canon G7X Mark III, it’s one of the few compact cameras which has been designed primarily for video.

First, the good bits. The best new feature is a side-hinged articulating touchscreen. This kind of screen is better than a tilting one for shooting video, because it leaves the top and bottom of the camera free for attaching accessories. Crucially, it also flips around 180 degrees to face forwards, allowing those operating one-person YouTube channels to frame their shots without needing someone behind the digital camera.

Sadly, Sony’s touchscreen functionality is still pretty limited. You can tap the screen to pull focus in video, for example, but not navigate menus or even zoom in on photos. That’s a shame for a camera that’s been designed mainly for people who are upgrading from smartphones; still, the benefit of that side-hinged screen is that there’s room on top of the camera for a hot-shoe. This hot shoe replaces the electronic viewfinder you’ll find on Sony’s RX100 series. Losing a built-in EVF would be a big deal for a skills-focused digital camera, and it’s something to bear in mind if you need an all-rounder for both pictures and video. But it makes sense for a vlogging camera like the ZV-1, because its target audience will mostly be using the display as a viewfinder – and it also helps to reduce the ZV-1’s price tag, if not by quite as much as we’d hoped.

The option to plug accessories like LED lights or external microphones into that hot-shoe is a real bonus. If you purchased the Sony RX100 VII you had to buy an external bracket to mount them, but there are no such worries with the ZV-1, and this brings us to another of the ZV-1’s vlogging bonuses: a 3.5mm mic input.

There isn’t much point shooting great-looking video if you don’t have the audio to match, so a 3.5mm port is essential for vlogging cameras. The Sony ZV-1 does actually have an improved built-in microphone on its top plate – this is a three-directional capsule mic with left, centre and right channels.

Sony also bundles a ‘dead cat’ windshield with the ZV-1, which plugs into the hot-shoe to help counter wind noise when you’re shooting outdoors. But as we’ll see later, an external microphone is still significantly better than any built-in equivalent, making that 3.5mm port a crucial inclusion.

Slightly less welcome is the inclusion of a micro USB port below the mic port. While it’s far from a deal-breaker, we expect all new cameras to offer USB-C ports these days for speedy charging and all-round convenience. The Fujifilm X-T4, for example, comes with a USB-C headphone adaptor that lets you monitor the sound on your recordings, which is something you can’t do on the ZV-1. You can at least charge the Sony ZV-1 while using the camera, though, so it’s not completely stuck in the charging dark ages.

The Sony ZV-1 brings two other handy design tweaks that you won’t find on the RX100 VII or any of its predecessors. One is a small handgrip. While this doesn’t revolutionize the ZV-1’s handling, it’s another feature that many RX100-series owners have added to their cameras with third-party accessories. And finally, for the first time on a Sony digital camera, the video recording button is now as big as the stills shutter button.

These might not sound important, but they’re pretty significant. Unlike the RX100 collection, they mark the ZV-1 out as a video-first camera that can also perform stills. And, while you miss out on features like an EVF and lens control ring, the inclusion of a side-flipping screen, hot-shoe and mic port make the ZV-1 the best pocketable tool around for vloggers and YouTubers.

Specifications

Sensor: 20.1MP 1-inch Exmor RS CMOS sensor
Image processor: BIONZ X
AF points: 315/425 point hybrid phase/contrast AF
ISO range: 100 to 12,800 (exp 64-12,800)
Max image size: 5,472 x 3,648
Metering modes: Multi-pattern, centre-weighted, spot, average, highlight
Video: 4K UHD at 30/25p
Viewfinder: No
Memory card: 1x SD/SDHC/SDXC (UHS I)
LCD: 3-inch vari-angle touchscreen, 921k dots
Max burst: 24fps
Connectivity: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Size: 105.5 x 60.0 x 43.5mm
Weight: 294g (with battery and memory card)

Autofocus and lens

The Sony ZV-1 does what many vloggers have been crying out for – it combines the lens of the Sony RX100 Mark V (or at least a mildly tweaked version of it) with Sony’s latest Bionz X processor and autofocus skills.

Why include the 24-70mm zoom lens from the Tag V, rather than the 24-200mm lens seen on the last two Sony RX100 cameras? Because the former is simply more suited to vlogging, thanks to its brighter f/1.8-2.8 aperture. This combines nicely with the camera’s 1-inch sensor to give your videos some pleasing background blur, while still photos also benefit from the knock-on effect of the ability to shoot at lower ISOs in equivalent scenes (albeit in the expense of that longer 200mm reach). But the ZV-1’s real ace is pairing this bright lens with some of Sony’s latest Real-time autofocus tech. This is possible because of the combination of the Bionz X processor (also seen in the full-frame Sony Alpha A9 II) and that 1-inch, 20.1MP stacked CMOS sensor, which has 315 phase-detect autofocus points covering 65% of the frame.

What will all this mean in reality? For a start, the ZV-1’s hybrid autofocus, so-called because it combines phase-detect with contrast-detect AF systems, means it’s faster and more confident for video than the contrast-only techniques observed in rivals like the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III. On top of that, you get Sony’s most recent Real-period Tracking and Real-time Eye AF (for people), which are easily the best you’ll find in a compact camera for capturing people and moving subjects. Keeping moving topics in focus is invariably just a case of tapping them on the ZV-1’s screen; if you have Face and Vision AF tracking enabled, it will also seamlessly switch to the latter when it detects a person’s face.

That is particularly important for a vlogging camera with a bright lens, since it can be very easy to lose focus on a face when shooting at apertures like f/1.8. But aside from when we got too close to the zoom lens, we found the ZV-1 did an excellent job at tracking our eyes across most of the frame.

Features

So what other video-friendly treats does the Sony ZV-1 pack beyond excellent autofocus? A huge amount, which isn’t always a good thing for usability.

Sony’s camera menus are renowned for being about as user-friendly as a book of hieroglyphics, and it’s done a couple of things in an effort to make the ZV-1 a bit more intuitive for beginners.

These include two new default settings for the camera’s two custom buttons. The first of these, called the ‘Bokeh switch’, will instantly switch to a wide-open aperture to give your footage a defocused background. Unlike smartphone ‘portrait’ modes, there’s no computational trickery going on here – it’s purely a shortcut based on traditional optics. The second and perhaps more useful custom button is called ‘Product showcase’, which is designed specifically for YouTubers who specialize in reviews.

Again, this doesn’t do anything beyond what you can do in the configurations, but pressing this immediately turns off both SteadyShot stabilization (making a tripod a must for this model) and Face and Eye Priority AF. This means that when you hold a product up to the digital camera, it’ll lock focus onto that, rather than prioritizing your face. Because of the speed of the ZV-1’s autofocus, this works pretty well.

Still, these feel like hastily bolted-on fixes, and the ZV-1 otherwise feels very much like an RX100 series compact camera, which is a shame, and when you compare the interface to slick touchscreen apps like Filmic Pro, it can feel just like a relic from the past. Prepare to do a lot of flicking through ZV-1’s menus and setting up custom made menus. To be fair, this complication is partly because the ZV-1 is so stuffed with features, with many of them aimed at advanced video shooters. This, in turn, gives it an incredible amount of depth for a compact camera.

For example, there’s the welcome return of the built-in ND filter. This was jettisoned on the last two RX100 cameras but will be nigh-on essential for getting smooth movement in videos on bright days, as it allows you to shoot with slower shutter speeds without having to stop the lens down.

Dig a bit deeper into the menus and you’ll find compositional aides like concentrate peaking and zebra patterns, plus all of Sony’s picture profiles including S-Log2, S-Log3 and Hybrid Log-Gamma (HLG), for those who like to colour-grade their footage to extract the most level of dynamic range. But what about more commonly tweaked settings, like resolution and frame-rate options? Like the RX100 Mark VII, the ZV-1 can shoot 4K at a maximum 30p. It’s a shame it doesn’t have a 4K/60p mode, but its 4K footage is at least achieved by oversampling instead of pixel binning; the former is a superior method of grabbing a 4K image from the 20.1MP sensor, helping to avoid pixelated, jagged edges.

Of course, there are faster frame rates available if you’re okay with shooting in 1080p, along with Sony’s impressive super slow-mo options, which go all the way up to an unbelievable 960fps.

Naturally, there’s a significant quality loss right here, which we’ll go into along with the ZV-1’s stabilization and battery life in the performance section.

Performance

Alongside great autofocus, a forward-facing screen and good audio options, vlogging cameras also need impressive image stabilization to help keep handheld footage steady. Of those four features, this is the Sony ZV-1’s weakest area.

Not that its SteadyShot system is bad, by any means. Its most powerful ‘Active’ stabilization mode combines optical and electronic stabilization, and is available in 4K shooting too. If you’re doing any walkaround vlogging, this is an essential setting, as you can see in our test clips below. The trouble with ‘Active’ stabilization is that it applies a slight crop to your footage in order to counteract the bounce in your walking movements. It’s not too severe, but because the ZV-1’s widest focal length is already a slightly tight 24mm, it does mean you end up with very little room around your face when holding the camera at arm’s length.

We still think this crop is fine for handheld vlogging, particularly as it highlights how good Sony’s Eye AF focusing is – but it might be something to try out first if you’re planning to mostly film walking shots while talking to the camera.

If stabilization is important to you, it might furthermore be worth considering alternatives or accessories. As you can see in our comparison video above, both the GoPro Hero 8 Black and DJI Osmo Mobile 3 (with a smartphone) offer superior stabilization to the Sony ZV-1, at the expense of image quality. The best of all worlds could well be combining the Sony ZV-1 with a gimbal like the Zhiyan Crane M2 – we’ll update this review when we’ve had a chance to try out that combination. The ZV-1’s built-in, three-capsule microphone captures decent audio for a compact camera. The included ‘dead cat’ windshield is also essential if you are venturing out into breezy conditions, as our demo video above shows.

But there is inevitably still a little noise interference from camera’s focus motors, and if you want to capture audio that matches the quality of your videos then you’ll want to pair the ZV-1 with an external microphone.

Fortunately, that’s possible thanks to the 3.5mm microphone port on the side, and there are plenty of mic options around, from Sony’s own ECM-XYST1M Stereo Microphone to something more discrete just like the Rode Wireless Go. If you are just starting out, then a cheap lavalier (or ‘lav’ lapel mic) is an affordable way to boost the ZV-1’s sound too, particularly if you’ll mainly be speaking with digital camera. On a slightly more fun note, the Sony ZV-1 does also offer the same slow-motion modes as the RX100 series. These include 250, 500 and 1000fps choices, although the latter two bring a significant hit to resolution and high quality. We’d mostly steer clear of those, but the 250fps mode is good, and combines nicely with the ZV-1’s shallow depth of field. The only shame is that you can only shoot four-second clips, and setting up the slow-mo modes is still a clunky process.

With so many processor-intensive recording settings, how does the Sony ZV-1’s battery life hold up? As you’d expect, not brilliantly – it just has room for the same NP-BX1 battery because the RX100 VII, which means around 260 photos or 45 minutes of video.

Verdict

The Sony ZV-1 is the best compact vlogging camera you can buy. Its mix of a bright lens, superb autofocus and design tweaks like the side-flipping screen make it a powerful pocket video option with few peers. Those seeking super-smooth walking footage might find its image stabilization a slight let-down, and it has a few familiar usability quirks, but the ZV-1 remains the best video all-rounder in its weight class.

 

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