Sony ZV-1: a different[ial] review

The Sony ZV-1 is an interesting addition to the Sony RX family. Unlike Cousin Oliver on the Brady Bunch, the ZV-1 actually serves a purpose in comparison to existing cameras. The most apt comparison is the RX100M5A, which might have been the high point of the RX100 for stills. The RX series, to add a tiny amount of context, is a Sony line built around 1″ sensors – so bigger than what you find in a phone or camcorder but smaller than APS-C. The reality with sensor sizes is that in bright light and base ISO, basically anything works.

Sensor size starts to matter when the light starts getting poor – because more surface area means more photons captured. FX (36x24mm is great), and APS-C (24×16) are both popular for video due to their light gathering, but they come with large and expensive cameras (that often have bad “rolling shutter” problems. Small-sensor camcorders have no issues with rolling shutters – but they are very noisy in low light. One inch is a good medium (or small).

Because this is a Gen X site, we can skip the copious test images and self-descriptive blather and cut right to five minutes of concrete discussion, as well as the second half of Heathers. But seriously, there are monstrous quantities of sample videos on the internet, and frankly, if you have a newer RX series camera, you know what you are getting, image-wise. We do have some illustrative pictures that will be inserted into this in the next few days.

Fixing RX video “limits”

The RX line has always been capable of doing video, but the two key limitations have been that (1) the video functionality by default is linked to a button of a size that only scary child dolls can actually activate it and (2) that the camera can only record video for 30 minutes. The second limitation is a function of customs laws that class something as a video camera once it can exceed 29 minutes and 59 seconds of continuous recording time. Even so, you might not actually get there, though, due to battery life and overheating issues. But do you really want to get there? Except for long-form interviews, there is actually very little of a use case for 30-minute single takes. A third limitation (real or imagined) is that the RX100 screens flip up 180 degrees, which is not so great for using flash. But come on now. You’re holding a camera at arm’s length, set at 24mm, to take a selfie. You’re going to look bad no matter what you do.

The ZV-1 fixes most of this by having a big red video button and unlimited recording (and depending on the mode, you can get two video buttons). Interestingly, it still has a regular shutter button coaxial with the zoom lever. The unlimited recording is facilitated by a plastic (“composite”) shell that dissipates heat better, and it has settings to increase tolerance for thermal shutoff. Battery life is still limited by the matchbook-sized BX-1 battery, but it can run indefinitely on USB power. Just in case you need that two-hour tracking shot. As to the issue of the screen, the up-flip of the RX series is not a problem because the RX does not have any connectivity on the top of the cameras. The ZV-1, though, sports a Multi-Interface shoe above the “Sony” logo, and so if you use a plug-in microphone or the dead cat attachment, it would block the screen. Hence, the screen flips out to the side.

Bottom-line, aside from better color grading options, video is the same as the RX100M5 and 5A: 60fps for 1080 and a lower frame rate for 4k. Is this a limitation? Probably not for most people; unless you are using an editing platform that supports compressed video, 4k files blow up into obscene sizes when uncompressed for editing. 1080 is more than sufficient for Youtube, TikTok, and even 4k flat-panel TVs at a normal viewing distance. We will also point out that if your subjects are over 30, you might be doing them a favor by laying off unnecessary 4k.

The ZV-1 adds microphone jack, which allows you to pipe in audio from a variety of sources, including non-Sony-sanctioned UHF microphone systems, the Konica Revio digital camera/MP3 player,* and the Barbie® Dream Sound System. The ZV-1’s audio playback is tinny, and the volume control is buried in a menu. Also, there is no headphone jack. The ZV-1 also has live-streaming capability through its hard connections, but if you’re doing it from a desk, you might just want a Logitech Brio for that.

*Sorry on this second point, but if you don’t remember a time when everything was “also an MP3 player,” then I can’t guarantee you’ll understand anything else in this article.

Look and feel

Being a post-COVID development, the ZV-1 was tired of Sony’s (yes, that is grammatically correct) being shamed for being old and having camera body hair. As a result, it has both let it grow in and go gray, as evidenced by the top of the camera in the picture above. Seriously, though, that’s a “dead cat” windscreen for a top-mounted directional microphone that replaces the RX100’s popup flash. It attaches via the Multi-Interface that displaced the popup EVF. We’re still trying to figure out how effective this audio merkin is, but wind noise in outdoor shooting is a significant issue with compact cameras – and so far, it seems to help. It does engage subjects 9/10 times, if you don’t get tired of answering the question, “why does your camera have a hairpiece?”

The other development is that the ZV-1 shows a new confidence in its body shape, exhibiting new curves (like a molded-in front grip) and a thicker profile, being a couple of mm thicker (and longer) to accommodate the articulated rear screen. This makes the camera slightly less pocketable, but for people with big hands, it also makes the camera a little easier to hold. Since the first thing most people buy for the RX100s is a stick-on rubber front grip (and Sony even sells one), it is surprising that this grip did not appear sooner in the RX line.

The look and feel is also influenced by the placement of the flash shoe, which means that any add-on accessory will be off-center. Watch heavy flashes. By the way, although it has been reported that this camera does not work with third-party flashes, it seems to work fine with the Metz 26AF (n.b., that on “Auto Flash,” the ZV-1 never wants to use the flash. Use “Flash On” instead). Using that same shoe for a viewfinder is not as awkward is it might be, and you can even shoot the camera with an optical finder and the digital screen stowed so you can’t see it. Think: way cheaper (and smaller) Leica M-D. That you can’t see focus confirmation is not very important given that the face-finding AF is so good.

Versus the RX100M5A

So if you’re familiar with the existing line, the image quality is not really distinguishable, which should not be a surprise given the same lens, same sensor, and same DSP.

That said, the ZV-1 has some additional beautifying effects for video (giant alien eyes among them), a bokeh mode (press a button on the top and the lens opens up – something of variable utility in super-bright sunlight), and “product showcase” mode so that you can show your corporate overlord’s products in a bid to monetize your social media. The ZV-1 also has color grading controls that resemble those on the A7 line. You can also live-stream video. The settings for remote operation of the camera through Imaging Edge, however, are hard to find.

AF is at least as fast as the RX100M5A, it has better options, and it’s more tenacious. This is a really good thing. The face recognition, focus, and tracking is a step up in ease – because you can touch the thing you want to focus on and use the center wheel of the click button to cancel. In video, it does a great job of keeping the exposure correct on people’s faces, which is a big deal when you have a backlit scene. “Smile shutter” really wants to see teeth before shooting.

One neat new feature over the still cousin is that the ZV-1 can acquire location/GPS data from your smartphone as you shoot. This gives you an extremely reliable way of placing pictures.

Tradeoffs vs other RX cameras.

The tradeoffs are something you should consider carefully.

First, where there is no eye-level EVF, you really need to adjust your hand-holding technique. The Steadyshot built into the cameras is ok, but it will take some time to get rid of the shakes. One would imagine that a good amount of the intended use case for this camera is with a table tripod, and if you can swing it, a real tripod. The use of a touchscreen for view finding also means that you are at the mercy of the sun, which if behind you can make viewing difficult.

Second, when there is no built-in flash, there is no easy fix for harsh shadows on people’s faces in still shots. Granted, this is a video-focused product, but since it has almost all the same functionality for stills as any other RX, you might be leaning toward this as an all in one. Just be careful how you approach this.

Third, you’re going to need to think about your end game before you start shooting. The typical PSAM, Intelligent Auto, Panoramic, and Scene modes are buried in the menus, without a physical top dial. You will probably go for Intelligent Auto in still mode if you want to shoot video and stills. In this mode, the default view is a still frame, and each of the buttons (shutter and video) performs its own function. In Intelligent Auto video mode, the default view is a 16:9 video frame, and both of the buttons do the same thing (start or stop video). Exposure comp is available in PSAM modes.

Finally, the accessory shoe is a blessing and a curse. You can do all kinds of things that you couldn’t do since the RX100M2, like mount microphones, flashes, and optical (note: not EVF) finders. The problem is that you can only do one of these things at a time, and the dead cat attachment uses the shoe.


This is probably not a good first or only Sony RX camera unless you are planning to do a lot of video. That said, it makes a great adjunct to an existing RX100 setup because it uses the same BX-1 batteries, has equal still capabilities (if set correctly), and better video. It is also a good addition to an A6x00 family or A7RM2+ family because it can make for a great B camera and takes many of the same Sony video-oriented accessories, Sony liked the idea of the ZV-1 so much that it went on to make the ZV-E10 (same thing, but APS-C with the ancient NP-FW50 battery, interchangeable lenses, and apparently some shutter roll in 4k) and ZV-E1 (similar to an A7C but with a lower stills resolution – 12mp – and seriously amped up video). Of these, the latter is very compelling if you have a lot of money – the ZV-1 and -E10 are very similar in specs, but the -E1 is a beast with very large pixels, a 60fps frame rate for 4k, and SD-card-bruising 200mbps data flows.

Verdict: if you can score one used for around $500, it’s a great value. Even at rack rate (currently $700), it’s not a slouch, either.

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