Home Feature Articles Zeiss ZX1: a three-year wait but is it too late?

Zeiss ZX1: a three-year wait but is it too late?

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ZEISS ZX1 – That is the name of the newly developed mirrorless full-frame camera from ZEISS that was presented today in Cologne, Germany. Thanks to the ZEISS lens and a sensor developed in-house at ZEISS, the camera delivers first-class image quality combined with an operational concept and user experience that make the photographer’s jobs-to-be-done as intuitive as on a smartphone.

Three years ago, when the above statement was released, the promise of a fully-featured full-frame camera with smartphone connectivity was almost science fiction. The intervening years have not made the concept commonplace but have seen smartphones develop apace, with stacked sensors, computational photography, and other new-fangled invention. They are more capable than ever and, crucially, always to hand.

Two-faced

The concept of a fixed lens ‘compact’ camera has an admirable heritage. My Dad’s Minolta rangefinder bought new in 1963, came replete with a coated 35mm lens. My own photographic history includes the original Konica Hexar, (with its outstanding fixed 35mm f/2) which I took to NYC in 2004 and came to launch my food and travel career phase.

Later I dallied with offerings from Ricoh, Fujifilm and the powerhouse Sony RX1R ii, (with half a dozen spare batteries) and, I still give house room to the Leica Q. The simplicity of that bespoke, welded body and lens combination eliminates decisions and defines boundaries before the viewfinder even reaches the eye.

So far so good. The Zeiss ZX1 is a large but svelte black design statement – angular, modern and a joy to hold and behold. It neither requires nor admits a memory card, instead relying on a capacious internal drive of 512GB (requiring air or cable connection for download). It is full-frame and sports a cracking 35mm f/2 lens with a clear yet discreet signature. The rendering and bokeh indisputably make the world look a better place without stamping an accent all over things. The colours, to my eye, are beautifully recorded and the files, on the whole, travel well through Lightroom without too much interference required.

The current obvious competition for such a machine, is the cultish Leica Q2 and the smaller sensored Fujifilm X100V. Even the Ricoh GR III gets a look in here. But it’s not a long list and Zeiss has the only contender with both a full-frame sensor and the traditional photojournalist’s favoured focal length, now that Sony has forgotten its RX1 line. In theory, this would be my dream camera (I still find 28mm to be verging on radical).

What sets this particular device apart is its Shoot, Edit, Share mantra which promises a seamless experience from pressing the shutter to accumulating likes on Instagram, Facebook and other platforms of social media choice. The journey, via the integrated Lightroom app, utilises the Android OS to take you from capture to delivery on a generous, corner-turning screen filling the rear of the camera body.

Now I, for one, have engaged with Android on my mobile phone since the last of the Blackberries was prised from my clenched fingers in around 2010. Somehow, I have never been lured into the iPhone or Apple realms and, despite all the advances and claims of IoS, I have stayed faithful. Suffice to say, I am a fan of both the camera principle and the operating system that the Zeiss ZX1 attempts to wed.

Touchy Subject

In use, however, the process is far from fluid. The headline downfall, the essential pointer to form over function, is the enthusiasm the touchscreen has for recognising unwanted touch and ignoring intended finger taps. The thumb of my right-hand falls squarely on the top corner of the angled screen, thus initiating a surprise change of settings.

Depending on where the menu icons are positioned during this event, I might experience several stops of exposure compensation, a change of white balance, or, on at least one occasion, a detour into panoramic mode which was surprisingly difficult to escape. My workaround was to leave the menu on a screen called ‘helpers’. The worst that could happen was the appearance or disappearance of the compositional grid. The recommended workaround from Zeiss tech was to put the camera on standby between shots or activate a lock screen requiring a PIN.

As an equally frustrating counterbalance, the touch and slide selection for most menu options was surprisingly stubborn and unpredictably unresponsive. I longed for a simple lock settings function (under the right thumb for example) wherein I could stick the thing on auto ISO, autofocus, aperture control on the lens and exposure compensation on the rear dial – which sadly, and uncustomisably, is an ISO dial.

Then we come to the Lightroom app. I have this installed on my phone and, in contrast to the real thing, it is somewhat primitive and offers nothing that the Samsung Galaxy Gallery app cannot do with more intuitive and speedy control.

This leads me to my main question: Who is this camera for? As an aspiring wise elder, it may simply be a generational puzzle. Perhaps the young folk are keen to experience the full-frame fixed-lens glory of such a capable machine and tolerate the minor editing abilities of an app and the carnage of online compression, but it seems to me that shoot, edit, share is much more easily accomplished by a phone.

I quizzed the offspring who argued themselves out of their original enthusiasm for the concept, realising that if they were the kind of photography fanatic to fork out £5,400 on the ZX1, they would be very different people that would. more than likely, be precious about, and absorbed by, the editing process on a giant monitor.

If Only

The images, however, are this camera’s redeeming feature. For an idyllic week along London’s verdant green corridor of the Grand Union Canal. I was the official skipper of Little Egret, (a 55ft barge). I kept the camera to hand at all times. I waved it haphazardly at passing scenes of backwater decay, aimed it at fellow barges while keeping hold of the tiller and took pause with it in its less demanding nautical moments.

It came with me to Camden Lock where I noticed that stealthy street photography has become a breeze now everyone is occupied with their phones. Importantly (and ironically considering this device’s specific remit) I chose to ignore the playback feature on that indulgent big screen and examine none of the capture until I returned home a week later. The images speak for themselves – delicate, rich and thoroughly photographic. If firmware fixed the flaws and the mantra was changed to shoot and look later, I would be very tempted to buy one.

Are you a social media influencer?

I sent these questions to Zeiss and the replies have just arrived in time for publication…

Q: Firstly, who is the camera for? I find the mix of top-end quality and social media delivery a bit puzzling.

A: The camera is perfect for social media influencers who want the superior image quality of a full frame camera with the mobile experience and intuitive use of smartphone technology.

Q: And leading on from that, do Zeiss feel the delays have led to the camera being launched into a very different marketplace/world?

A: Technology indeed moves fast. However, the ZX1 still offers a unique user experience with ZEISS quality, performance and features.

Q: Lastly, the lack of a settings lock is a real deal-breaker for me. Is this likely to be remedied by future firmware?

A: Other than the screen lock option, I do not believe there are any immediate plans for this to be implemented in a firmware update. However, ZEISS do always listen to feedback from users.

Read more from Roderick Field

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23 COMMENTS

  1. I must admit that I don’t play social media games, so the interest for me is more in the image quality that the camera produces. In that regard I like the colour balance and rendering that Roderick’s images demonstrate. The Zeiss glass and firmware seems to have that right.
    One week early, or three years late? I’d suggest it doesn’t matter. Image quality is what counts.

  2. I wonder if Leica had developed the TL as a fixed 18mm lens (28mm full frame equivalent) camera for social media whether it might have had greater success…

  3. Thanks for this article, Roderick. I am not rushing out to buy a ZX1, even though your photography, as always, is impressive. You’ve done a good job of trying to create a silk purse…

    You can get a feeling for the success or failure of a particular product by the level of coverage in blogs, vlogs and the general press. Unless I have been particularly blinkered, I have noted no great enthusiasm for the Zeiss ZX1. I know I’m biased, but I can see absolutely no advantages in this camera over the Leica Q2. Unless you are a dedicated social media warrior or an outright hater of Leica. Apart from considerations of cost and performance, the Zeiss is likely to be a costly camera to own. Unless something dramatic happens, I cannot see it remaining in production. And when that happens, second-hand values will plummet. There’s a lot of risk. With the Q, on the other hand, residuals are rock-solid and I have absolutely no doubt it would be the cheaper camera to own.

    Perhaps things would have been different if the Zeiss had been available for sale three years ago when it was first announced. The delay has only served to rob it of real credibility.

    • Hello Marcel, no added vignette here but all images were shot wide open at f2. With the appropriate profile, I expect it gets corrected in software but I quite like a bona fide optical corner shading.

  4. Some companies seem to take leave of their senses ..or are unduly influenced by someone who just guesses about things ..so Microsoft gave us the ‘Zune’ – remember that? ..probably not – and the ‘Microsoft Phone’ ..believing(!) that it would knock the iPhone for six. Happens again and again: Peggy Sue says (..in ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’..) “Dad – you bought ..an ‘Edsel’!”..? ..Ford’s biggest flop.

    £5,400 for a point-&-shoot which behaves like a phone? ..Steve Jobs (yes, he, again) said, quoting ice hockey champion Wayne Gretzky, “I skate to where the puck is going to be” ..but some dreamers think up a product they imagine will beat *current* technology ..instead of beating future technology of two years hence ..and by the time their product arrives, it’s been leapfrogged or superseded ..think of the clunky ‘Light L16′, with its multitude of embedded phone cameras ..superseded before it arrived (..like so many other Indiegogo and Kickstarter ventures, old by the time they make it into production).

    Zeiss nowadays make industrial lenses and imaging equipment – like opticians’ eye-test devices – and a few camera lenses (..built, for the most part, in the Cosina factory). Someone must have suggested – Sigma, perhaps? – that (like Leica’s solid aluminium camera, intended to work like an iPhone) they should build a camera for phone users to “aspire to”; with a phone-like operating system, a fixed high quality lens, and a full-frame sensor. At – what’s it again? – £5,400..? Ahahahaha.

    But phones now have multiple lenses (and the ZX81 ..whoops! ZX1 – doesn’t), phones have ‘computational’ capabilities, to blur backgrounds, etc, and the ZX1 doesn’t, phones generally have a reasonable megapixel count, and the ZX1 has about 40 mpxl (..you need 40 mpxl for posting on social media..?), and phones (..well, the iPhone ..I don’t use an Android..) are much more versatile ..more compact, and weigh less.

    I think Zeiss built the (very expensive) Sinclair C5 of photography.

    • IMHO the TL2 is (was) a sophisticated device with a range of innovations (touch and shoot focusing for example) while also offering more traditional choices (e.g. optional EVF shared with the M10).

      After three iterations Leica is obviously focussing elsewhere now. Sensible for a small company with relatively limited R&D funds in a shrinking market.

      As for the Sinclair C5, the late Sir Clive gave one to a friend of mine at launch. It got stolen…

  5. On another note, what is zeiss doing? I do not recall any lens being released or announced for a long time. The rangefinder lenses have not had a release in years. Voigtlander as filled that void. Sigma has filled the AF void with a constant flow of new glass. Maybe they are putting all their resources on a ZX2.

  6. I’d not be one for social media influencers, but social media is one of the reasons why most photographs taken in the world today are taken on the cameras of smartphones. The world has changed and we cannot be surprised if commercial companies try to move with the times. That said I cannot really see this camera being a huge success. The market has contracted so much and there really are 2 streams, smartphones for the mass market and digi-cams for the much smaller market for dedicated camera nerds. It will take something really radical to really shake this dual stream
    market up. I am speaking now as someone who has more interest in old cameras than new digital cameras.

    William

  7. Dear God,
    Please save us from camera companies that are bent on making cameras that are perfect for “social media influencers”.

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