In 2020, vlogging is a booming medium. Content creators are forging whole careers on platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, and Tik-Tok and the draw of being able to make big money means this phenomenon isn’t away. Serious work requires a serious tool but all too often we see video features play second fiddle to headline stills specs when it comes to the cameras best suited to these roles.
With the release of the Sony ZV-1, however, we have a video-first, premium compact camera that’s good enough to be on every social content creator’s shortlist.
Sony ZV-1 review: What you need to know
While the ZV-1 doesn’t sit within any of Sony’s existing product lines, it’s essentially a video-centric spin on Sony’s successful RX100 range of compact cameras. It takes the 1in 20MP sensor and BIONZ X processing power from the RX100 VII, adds the bright Zeiss lens from the RX100 V, and sprinkles in some new vlogger-focused features.
This means, like the RX100 VII, there’s 4K 30fps recording, HDR, S-log, and up to 40x slow-motion capture. Unlike the RX100 VII, however, you also get a flip-out screen, a triple microphone array and hot shoe; oh, and it won’t set you back the best part of £1,200, either.
Sony ZV-1 review: Price and competition
At £699 the ZV-1 sits comfortably in the premium compact bracket. While it certainly has some unique features that set it apart, there’s still some serious competition.
Given the obvious spec overlap, there are several solid rivals within Sony’s own RX100 line. Sony has a tendency to release new products without discontinuing older models and at the time of review the RX100 III through VII are all still available to buy.
For around the same price as the ZV-1 you can pick up the RX100 V. It has the same lens and image resolution and, while it lacks the external mic input and hot shoe of the ZV-1, it packs an EVF (electronic viewfinder), flash, and lens-collar control ring.
Canon’s PowerShot compact cameras have long been a go-to for vlogging. The Canon PowerShot G7 X III retails for the same price as the ZV-1 and shares a similar specification, with a 20MP sensor, 4K 30fps recording and a microphone input. The Canon’s lens offers a little more reach with a 24-100mm f/1.8-2.8 equivalent lens, and a touch more in the way of control, with an additional control ring and better touch-screen integration.
Outside the compact market, the Sony A6400 and Canon EOS M6 Mark II are also both worth considering. Although slightly larger, their interchangeable lens mounts afford more flexibility, while their larger APS-C sized sensors provide an edge in low light. You will, however, need to budget in the cost of a lens.
Sony ZV-1 review: Features and design
When it comes to design I can’t help but first talk about how compact this thing is. It’s a touch wider than 100mm, and just 60mm tall, it slips comfortably into most pockets and removes the burden associated with lugging a larger setup around. While the overall build is plastic, it feels solid enough, although it isn’t quite in the same league as the metal-bodied RX100 cameras.
The front of the body is dominated by the Zeiss-designed 24-70mm (35mm equivalent) f/1.8-2.8 lens. In fact, so much real estate is taken up by the lens that the barrel doesn’t quite sit flush with the base of the body, something to look out for when attaching tripod plates.
As the ZV-1 is geared towards vloggers, Sony has made a number of design choices that cater to selfie-style shooting. There’s a grip that, while perhaps a little cramped while filming from behind the camera, offers great support while shooting selfie content. There’s also a tally light to let you know when you’re recording.
The most notable physical feature, however, is the 921,600 dot, flip-out screen. Flipping out to the side makes it better suited to vlogging as it doesn’t interfere with any top-mounted microphones or lights. It’s a touchscreen, too, but you can only use it for selecting your focus tracking points. For everything else you’re stuck with the physical buttons.
Across the top plate there’s a hot shoe and an array of three microphones. As a nice touch, Sony includes a custom windshield that slots into the hot shoe to help cut down on potentially distracting wind noise.
There are large dedicated record and shutter buttons, along with buttons for selecting the mode, engaging the zoom, and toggling Background Defocus. Their placement makes them easy to reach even while in front of the lens.
Speaking of Background Defocus, this is a special mode that overrides your current shooting settings to prioritise achieving a professional-looking blurred background. There’s nothing particularly complicated going on – no smartphone-esque software trickery – it simply opens the aperture while adjusting the other settings to maintain the same exposure. While you can achieve the same results while in aperture priority or manual mode, having it linked to a dedicated button is quite handy and saves you from having to dive into the menus.
On the rear there’s a comfortable thumb-rest, along with the rest of the physical controls. A single control dial is flanked by physical buttons for playback, image deletion, and accessing the menu, along with a user programmable custom function key. As the touchscreen only supports focus point selection you have to rely on that control dial for most of the menu navigation, along with all your exposure-related adjustments. Not ideal.
As for ports, there’s micro-HDMI, a 3.5mm stereo microphone input, and micro-USB. Sony doesn’t include an external charger in the box, so you’ll be relying on that micro-USB exclusively for charging and this, as I’ll touch on later, has its drawbacks.
Sony ZV-1 review: Photo quality
Sony isn’t marketing the ZV-1 as a stills camera. It has even gone so far as to forgo its usual DSC (digital still camera) product code in favour of simply DC (digital camera). The ZV-1 is, however, still a very capable stills shooter.
The 1in 20MP sensor produces large 5,472 x 3,648 images, while its BIONZ X processor allows photographs to be captured at up at up to 24fps with autofocus and auto-exposure enabled. Add the workhorse 24-70mm lens, RAW file support, face priority multi-metering, and Sony’s eye-tracking autofocus, and you have quite the camera.
There are, however, a few drawbacks. While the camera’s automatic functions are generally quite reliable, the limited number of physical controls makes using the advanced shooting modes a chore. With no option to make adjustments via the touchscreen, all exposure settings have to be controlled via a single dial. It’s workable in aperture priority mode but, frankly, rather unpleasant if you attempt to use it in full manual mode.
If you can overcome these limitations you will be rewarded. The JPEGs are large, richly coloured, and highly detailed. The standard Sony colour profile has also been tweaked, in an effort to improve skin tones. Overall I’d say the engineers have done a good job but some skin can still come out looking just a little pink under certain lighting conditions.
To get the most out of the ZV-1’s stills, however, you really need to take the time to process the RAW files. While the JPEGs can sometimes get a little muddy in the shadows, the RAW files contain a decent amount of exposure latitude, allowing you to push shadows and pull back a fair amount of detail from bright skies.
The ZV-1 handles higher ISOs quite capably for a compact camera. Images shot below ISO 800 are very clean, but things do get fuzzier from there. For posting to social media you could potentially get away with ISO 3200, at a push, but if you’re into pixel peeping or heavy cropping you’re going to want to keep the ISO low.
Sony ZV-1 review: Video quality
The ZV-1 is rich in video features, but what really sells it for vlogging is the continuous autofocus. With 315 phase and 425 contrast-detection points, the focus is snappy and dependable, quickly grabbing onto eyes, faces – or wherever you’ve selected via the touchscreen. Move up, down, side to side, back and forth – the ZV-1 has no trouble keeping up. This means, if you’re a vlogger, you can get on with creating, without having to worry about focus.
With vloggers in mind, there’s also a new “Product Showcase” autofocus mode. In this mode the autofocus will transition from your face to an object if the object is held in front of the camera. At first this may seem like a strange feature but with tracking autofocus now being so reliable it can be really tricky to get the autofocus to grab onto anything other than a face. It works very smoothly and, when used in combination with the Background Defocus effect, it produces professional looking results.
The three-microphone array works well, too, and really lifts the overall quality of the videos; it’s a far cry from compact cameras of old. The mics are directional, which means they focus on the sound in front of the lens – the ideal setup for vlogging. And, since there’s a 3.5mm mic input and hot shoe, you’re not limited to the onboard mics, either. I found the camera worked nicely with my venerable Røde Videomic Pro, although a smaller mic would likely complement it better. Unfortunately there’s no headphone jack, so monitoring is limited to checking the onscreen levels.
Video of Sony ZV-1 Review: Microphone Test
For those who want to get up and running and let the camera handle the settings the ZV-1’s program mode produces consistently excellent results while still being compatible with the Background Defocus and Product Showcase functions. For those wanting more creative control, shutter and aperture priority modes are available alongside a full manual mode.
Overall the video quality is excellent. Of course, 4K is the headline draw, and the ZV-1 can record at up to 100Mbits/sec at 30fps with full readout and no pixel-binning. If you can settle for “just” Full HD you can record at up to 120fps.
For videographers looking to get a little more in-depth, there’s a three-stop ND filter, proxy recording, and the option to record in S-Log2, S-Log3 or HLG 1 through 3. This makes the ZV-1 potentially useful as a B-cam, as the footage can be graded to match video shot on other Sony cameras.
As an added party piece, the ZV-1 offers a high frame rate slow-motion video mode and is capable of shooting at up to 960fps for 40x slow-mo in a 24fps timeline. Slow-motion footage can only be captured in short bursts and it takes a little while to process after shooting, but it makes for excellent B-roll footage. You will need to shoot with plenty of light, however, as the ISO gets bumped pretty high to allow for those 1/1000sec shutter speeds and things can get quite grainy even then.
As with the stills mode, the camera’s video mode isn’t without its flaws. While the 24mm wide-angle lens is great for general purpose use, it can be a little limiting for selfie shooting – not exactly a small consideration for a vlogging camera. While you get the full 24mm field of view in 1080p recording, there’s a small crop once you step up to 4K, and a further crop should you turn on Active SteadyShot stabilisation. You can work around this by using a selfie stick, or Sony’s ideally suited Shooting Grip to hold the camera a little futher away, but these will both incur extra cost and bulk up your otherwise compact setup.
Video of Sony ZV-1 Review: Active SteadyShot Crop in selfie shooting
Battery life on the ZV-1 can also be a little underwhelming. With uninterrupted, continuous shooting I managed 66 minutes of recording before the battery bit the dust. Using it in a more real-world setting, recording multiple separate clips, I got closer to 45 minutes. Additional batteries aren’t hard to find and anyone serious about their video is likely to pack more than one, it’s just a shame Sony doesn’t include an external charger so you can keep one always on charge.
And, of course, we still only have that single control dial. It’s during selfie shooting where you’ll really notice the limitation: since the wheel is on the back, it’s tricky to adjust anything while you’re in front of the camera. Failing to allow users to change settings via the touchscreen seems like a missed opportunity.
Sony ZV-1 Review: Verdict
The ZV-1 is a strong all-rounder that punches well outside its size class. With solid stills and excellent video features, it should be on the radar of every social content creator.
Is it perfect? Certainly not. If you’re searching for an all-purpose camera for casual photos and the occasional video, this likely isn’t it. However, if vlogging is your primary focus and you’re on the lookout for a pocket-sized video powerhouse, there really isn’t anything else out there that can beat it.