Zeiss ZX1 initial review: Digital Photography Review


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. Some cried ‘vaporware,’ and we’d just about given up hope until we received a cheery e-mail that one was available, asking if we wanted to try it out. Uh, yes please! Here it is.

Look out, world, the Zeiss ZX1 has landed.
Out-of-camera JPEG | ISO 100 | 1/683 sec | F2

Key specifications:

  • 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. (Or you can, of course, just skip to our impressions).

The Zeiss ZX1 is available now at a suggested price of $6,000 USD.

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. Formal testing is still to come, but so far 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.

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 (same goes with the high-res viewfinder). 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.

Lightroom Mobile on the ZX1 is very familiar for anyone who’s used it on another smart device. The yellow warning symbol on the top looks to be a glitch from this early production camera; Zeiss says users can do basic editing on the ZX1 without needing a paid subscription at all.

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.

Compared to…

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 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
(at launch)
$6000 $4995 $3299* $1399
Sensor 37MP full-frame 47M full-frame

42MP 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;
2.76M dots
3″ fixed;
1.04M dots
3″ tilting;
1.23M dots
3″ tilting;
1.62M dots
Touch-screen Yes Yes No Yes
Built-in flash No No No Yes
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.

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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.

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, and while this can be done with your eye to the finder, it can be difficult to be precise with your adjustments.

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.

And 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.

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Editing on, and sharing from the ZX1

Same Lightroom, different platform; as you’d expect, the ZX1 produces identical results to what you’d get on a desktop machine. You can see and download the unedited JPEG and DNG file here.

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; you must pull a file into Lightroom to make any 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 is no different than the Lightroom mobile experience on Android or iOS. We will say though that 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.

While it’s nice to have the flexibility of Lightroom on the ZX1, you don’t always need it. I wasn’t always blown away by the ZX1’s JPEGs, but I thought this one was nice, bright and contrasty, and the white balance nailed the warm sunset light.
Out-of-camera JPEG | ISO 100 | 1/242 sec | F8

When it comes time to share your images, you must first dive into the camera’s settings, connecting 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.

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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 – but so far the ZX1’s fun factor has outweighed the frustration factor. But only just.

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.

This was one of my favorite images from a quick backyard photo shoot, but even with the AF area over my subject’s face, the image ended up slightly back-focused 🤬 That bokeh, though…
Tap or click through for the full image.
Adjusted in Camera Raw 13 | ISO 100 | 1/271 sec | F2

But the quirks do irk. The ZX1’s autofocus system is, to put it kindly, basic. There’s no subject tracking nor face detection, and I ended up with more mis-focused shots of static subjects than I’m used to on modern cameras. (I wouldn’t even try to photograph animated children or pets with the ZX1.) Also, that ISO dial should really be an exposure compensation dial or at least a multi-purpose dial with exposure compensation as an option: using the touchscreen takes my focus away from my image as I try to dial in +2/3 EV instead of +1 2/3 EV.

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.

This photo could be many things. A real-estate company’s annual report cover? A weary traveler’s reminder of a neighborhood? Just some camera reviewer’s weird take on Pioneer Square in Seattle? You decide.
Out-of-camera JPEG | ISO 100 | 1/304 sec | F5.6

Overall, I’m glad the Zeiss ZX1 exists. It’s refreshing to see a manufacturer do something truly different from the competition. The design is striking, and there are probably well-off photographers out there who want as simple a shooting experience as possible, but still want to be able to fine-tune their images in post. It’s an interesting proposition for world travelers as well (once such things are feasible again). For these folks, the ZX1 means you get everything you need in one device.

But what of the rest of us? After all, this is a $6000 camera, or fully one thousand dollars more than the already premium-priced Leica Q2. That buys a lot of gear, plus, frankly, a lot of smartphone. So speaking personally, I’m leaning towards sticking with the smartphone in my pocket and a ‘dumb’ camera around my neck… for now.

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Image quality

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 in gobs of detail everywhere you look. It’s impressive even as you get out towards the edges of the scene. The price you pay for this level of sharpness comes in terms of moiré patterning. At higher ISO values, we start to see the ZX1’s sensor fall behind the competition in terms of noise (and some occasional ‘banding’ patterns).

JPEG quality 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 ‘fuzzier’ than the Q2. We can even see this as we get into the corners, where the ZX1 has a distinct advantage in Raw. Despite the white balance woes, JPEG color looks pretty pleasing, with punchy reds and blues, warm greens (which we prefer) and nice bright yellows. At higher ISO values, the ZX1 leaves behind more luminance noise (grain) than its peers, but does a reasonably good job of holding onto detail. Even with low-contrast detail, the ZX1 looks pretty good.

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Sample gallery

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