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A closer look at the Zeiss ZX1

Create: 10/28/2018 - 12:30
Zeiss ZX1

HIGHLIGHTS

  • 37.4-MP full-frame CMOS sensor designed by Zeiss
  • 512GB SSD built into the camera for storage
  • Adobe Lightroom built into the camera for image editing

One of the more interesting announcements this fall is the Zeiss ZX1 – a fixed-lens camera.

Historically, Zeiss has been a manufacturer of camera lenses but not a manufacturer of cameras. From 1929 through the early 1970s, one of its units, Zeiss Ikon, made cameras, but Zeiss itself has not been involved in camera manufacture.

Even the Zeiss Ikon rangefinder that was produced in the late 2000s was manufactured by its partner, Cosina of Japan.

When Zeiss announces a camera, people should take notice.

I had an opportunity to chat with a Zeiss representative at the 2018 PhotoPlus Expo in New York City, and there are some interesting things that came out of the conversation.

First off, let’s take a look at the camera. It has a very unusual shape, reminiscent of Sigma’s dpQuattro series of mirrorless cameras. Remember that thought.

The camera was behind glass, and it hasn’t yet entered production. That meant that I couldn’t pick it up. Touch and feel used to be a big part of the camera buying experience. Although that isn’t true as much today because of e-commerce, it still should be.

The ZX1 uses an imaging sensor that was developed by Zeiss. Although it’s been a longtime partner with Sony, and Sony supplies many of the sensors that are in today’s cameras, Zeiss decided to develop its own sensor for this product.

The ZX1 design is decidedly German in its minimalist approach. Not counting the shutter release and diopter-adjustment dial, there are a total of two dials, one button and one switch on the entire body.

The two dials are for setting ISO and shutter speed. The function of the button on the back of the camera isn’t clear. There is a switch on the lens barrel to shift from autofocus to manual focus. That’s it.

However, that doesn’t mean that this is a simple point-and-shoot camera. Far from it. Here are some specifications to consider:

  • Full-frame 37.4-MP sensor
  • 4K video (clips are limited to 15 minutes)
  • Manually selectable ISO range of 100-6,400 (80-51,200 in automatic mode)
  • Manual and electronic shutters
  • OLED electronic viewfinder and 4.3-inch touch-enabled LCD monitor
  • Built-in storage is a 512GB SSD
  • Limited version of Adobe Lightroom built into the camera

RAW images are saved in the DNG format.

THE CAMERA SHAPE HAS A PURPOSE

Surely, the design of the camera won’t go unnoticed, particularly with the body having that angled portion to the right.

Try an experiment. Hold your right hand like you are holding a camera with your index finger poised on the shutter release. Now rotate your hand slightly to the right. You should be able to feel that there is less stress on your wrist when you do that, and it feels like a more natural position.

The Zeiss rep discusses the camera shape in this audio.

As you might expect, the handgrip holds the battery, which is rated at 3,190 mAh and provides enough power for about 220 still photos. That’s on the low side, so the buyer will want to have at least one extra battery available. I would favor a low-profile battery grip, if Zeiss is considering one. Most battery grips today are too fat and add significantly to the overhaul heft of today’s digital cameras.

The camera has a massive 4.3-inch fixed LCD monitor. Why a fixed monitor? Because the monitor bends near the right side, having it tilt or articulate certainly would create all kinds of difficulties.

However, there is something very unusual about the monitor. Despite a noticeable lack of buttons on the camera, this is still a digital camera, and the photographer will still need to navigate through on-screen menus.

This is where the right side of the monitor has a role.

As the Zeiss rep explains in the audio below, the right side is where the menu navigation buttons appear. What’s more, those buttons are visible in the EVF when the menu is active. This allows the photographer to make changes to most functions without having to lower the camera. The photographer merely has to run their thumb up and down the right side of the monitor while peering through the viewfinder.

The LCD can also be used for LiveView shooting.

When it comes to editing, some cameras allow for some changes to the stored photos. The ZX1 takes a big leap forward by incorporating the Adobe Lightroom Mobile app into the camera. Having a 4.3-inch LCD screen makes photo editing much easier. That slanted right side of the screen is where Lightroom’s controls will reside. Changes made are stored to the cloud, so when the photo is opened on a computer, those changes are in place. The original photos are always available.

Still photos are recorded with an aspect ratio of 4:3 while video is recorded full screen at 16:9.

Interestingly enough, when reviewing videos on the monitor, you don’t notice the bend. See this video below.

WHAT SIZE MEMORY CARD?

What about memory cards? No need. The ZX1 has a 512GB SSD built into the camera. As far as I know, this is the first camera to have a built-in SSD for storage. No word on whether a larger SSD will be an option in the future.

Transferring images and photos is done via a USB3.1 Type-C connector. In a pinch, the photographer can connect a USB thumb drive or external drive, which is recognized by the ZX1. It  allows for the transfer of images to those devices via the interface shown on the LCD monitor.

The ZX1 lens is fixed – both in terms of its focal length and the fact that it is not interchangeable. Zeiss has decided to go with a f/2.0 35mm Distagon. Why a Distagon rather than a Biogon or a Sonnar, which is used on the Sony RX1?

The Zeiss rep says the Distagon should offer better image quality.

The Distagon uses eight elements in five groups. The close focus distance is just a shade under one foot. It accepts 52mm filters. A lens shade is included.

The material that is used on the various lens rings is the same that you see on other Zeiss lenses, as well as its binoculars. It is very easy to grip yet soft to the touch. It also is easy to clean and very durable, Zeiss has said in the past.

AVAILABILITY AND PRICE

When will this camera hit the market? Zeiss says that it should be available in the first quarter of 2019.

The price hasn’t been set, but you should expect it to be expensive. The Sony RX1 II sells for about $3,300. Premium cameras always command a high price.

Firmware updates will be available via a WiFi connection and won't require you to use an external device or connection.

WHO WILL BUILD THE ZX1?

I forgot to ask the name of its manufacturing partner. Even if I had, it's doubtful that the Zeiss rep would have told me. Here’s one clue, although it is not a definitive answer by any means.

Remember, Zeiss does not have the manufacturing facilities in place to build cameras and will need a partner.

The camera doesn’t have a built-in flash but the spec sheet lists it as compatible with Sigma SA-TTL units. Could Sigma also be the manufacturer? Maybe it’s coincidental that that Sigma’s dpQuattro cameras have a similar bent-shape design. I’ll update that once that information is made available. Maybe Zeiss turns to Cosina or longtime partner Sony.

This is secondary to the actual question of how does this perform mechanically and optically? That will be answered in a few months.

About the Author

Mike Elek is a longtime journalist and was one of the original editors for The Wall Street Journal Online. He also has worked as a reporter and editor in Pittsburgh; Philadelphia; Vineland, N.J.; Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; New York City; and Hong Kong. He is a U.S. Air Force veteran. He shoots with film and digital cameras.