Sony ZV-1 review: Vlogging champ


(Pocket-lint) – Sony has been working hard on its video chops over the past five years or so. Its high-end full-frame Alpha series is a firm favourite in the video-making community, while smaller cameras like the A6600 have sought to offer similar capabilities in a much more compact form.

With features like fast autofocus, advanced real-time face- and eye-tracking, you’d have thought that’s where it ends. Apparently not. There’s one specific breed of video-maker that Sony wants under its wings: vloggers.

Enter the Sony ZV-1. This powerful, very compact and functional camera offers all the tools you need – whether you’re just starting at vlogging, or a seasoned pro who needs some extra tools.

Design

  • Dimensions: 105.4 x 60 x 44mm / Weight: 294g
  • 3.5mm, Micro-USB, mini HDMI out/in
  • Flip-out rotating screen

Sony says it designed the ZV-1 from the ground up for vloggers. That means the appearance is quite different from the RX series, the latter designed predominantly for stills shooting. So the ZV-1 may be a very similar size to the RX100, but it’s certainly not the same.

The design is minimal, crafted from a subtly textured black plastic. Unlike the RX100, the ZV-1 has a rubber grip sticking out of the left side. It’s quite narrow, but that’s so there’s enough of a gap between it and the lens to give you somewhere to put your thumb when shooting yourself front-on.

While the grip isn’t large enough to get a proper grip on when shooting the other way around, it does help add a bit of ‘stickiness’ when holding the camera. We felt like we were less likely to lose grip or drop it.

That’s not the only element of the camera’s design that makes the ZV-1 more tuned to a vlogger’s needs. Sony has put a proper flip-out touchscreen on this video-focused camera, which is so much better than any of the ones that flip over the top of the camera (like in the RX100 series).

Having the screen flip out to the side of the camera means it’s at the same level as the lens and – more importantly – means it can never be blocked by any accessories you might want to mount to the top of the camera, on the hotshoe, or plugged into the ports on the opposite side.

The screen also acts as a sort-of power button. Flipping the screen out of its shut state automatically powers up the camera, ready for shooting. It’s really useful, especially when you just want to open up the display and capture the shot, without having to search for the small on/off button on the top edge. That’s a good thing, because with the included wind-killing deadcat in place, the on/off button is covered by the deadcat’s fluff.

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The top itself is mostly flat. There are no protruding buttons or dials, but it still manages to squeeze in five functional buttons: on/off button, a mode button, a big movie button (with a bright red ring around it), the usual shutter button (with zoom dial surrounding it to control the lens), plus a dedicated button for switching background defocus on.

The inclusion of background defocus is yet another vlogger-targeted feature. Those who want to create a bokeh effect – that’s the soft, melty background blur called by its proper name – while speaking to the camera can do so at the press of a button.

Battery and SD Card access is achieved by opening the door on the underside of the camera. It’s not a great placement for anyone who likes to mount their camera to a tripod. We’ve often found access blocked in these instances, so we have to unmount the camera to get to the memory card. Still, this camera is designed to be used primarily handheld.

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For the pro user who wants to be able to capture audio from a dedicated microphone, Sony has included a 3.5mm port on the right, just above the Micro-USB port and mini HDMI, each of which is covered in its own individual plastic door. 

Lastly – as if any further evidence that this is a vlogger’s camera was required – there’s no viewfinder. You just get the screen. The space normally taken up by a pop-up viewfinder in the RX100 has been replaced by a three capsule mic system and shoe mount – which is hidden by quite a large mesh grille.

Processing, tracking and smart exposure

  • Real-time eye and face tracking (with human and animal modes)
  • Instant bokeh and face smoothing modes
  • 315 autofocus points

A lot of what makes Sony’s cameras so appealing is the brains running the show. In the ZV-1 there’s the Sony BIONZ X image signal processor. It’s similar to the one you’ll find inside the top-end A9, which means that all of the super fast, super smart auto-focusing and tracking you find higher up the Sony camera chain are present in the ZV-1. 

The joy of the sensor is that you stick the camera in intelligent auto (iA) mode, or auto movie mode, and the brains of the camera will generally suss out what’s going on in the scene pretty quickly and adjust settings to match. If that’s you recording a vlog to camera, it’ll automatically focus on your eye and then base the exposure of the entire frame on ensuring that your face is well lit and natural looking. 

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Having tested this in a few different lighting situations, both indoors and outdoors, with bright backlighting and even with our face shaded by an over-hanging tree, the results are surprisingly good. It does seem to take a second or two to adjust and expose, but when we stood in shade that covered our face, it still managed to pull out the details and make our face clearly visible. Similarly, with bright light shining on our face, it adjusted to tone it down. You can see the before/after in the image above.

As you’d expect, in extreme contrasting conditions like this the background can end up looking bleached out and overexposed, but the priority for the vlog is seeing the person clearly, so that’s what you get. Sony says this works regardless of skin colour and ethnicity. 

You can – if you want – also enable skin smoothing modes, and adjust how much smoothing you want. If you want your skin looking all natural, with all of your pores and wrinkles on show, you can have that. Likewise, if you want to hide them for that smoother airbrushed look, you can do that too. 

Another major feature is the instant background defocus mode. So how does this work? Watching the lens mechanism when you press the dedicated mode button, we could see the ZV-1 mechanically switching to a wider aperture. Checking image metadata from stills we took in the same scene, but having switched background defocus on and off, revealed as much to be true. The defocus setting has the aperture set to f/1.8 by default, then adjusts exposure time and ISO sensitivity accordingly.

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As for the auto-tracking and autofocusing, that’s as fast and accurate an experience as it is on any of Sony’s modern cameras. That’s thanks largely down to the 1-inch sensor featuring both phase-detection points on its surface, use in conjunction with contrast-detection autofocus. We recorded our cats, then messed around with touching to focus on the screen, and the camera was quick to detect changes and lock in on the newly selected area. 

For the mobile generation, those who share more videos on vertical-centric platforms like TikTok, Sony’s latest camera automatically detects when it’s shooting video in portrait mode and at stays in vertical mode once it’s transferred onto a device for sharing. 

Those who shoot product-based videos, or make-up tutorials, or other types of videos where you’re often bringing products close to the lens to show it briefly and then move it away, there’s also a product-specific mode you can switch it to.

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When activated, you can hold your product – whether it be a lipstick, a Lego figure, a phone, or whatever – up to the camera, and it’ll quickly focus on it, blurring you out in the background, then quickly switching back again to focus on your face when you remove the product from the frame. There is a little bit of focusing noise as the adjustment happens, but it’s not especially loud, and if you’re talking at the same time, it’s not all that noticeable. 

Audio power

  • Three capsule mic
  • Wind/noise reduction features
  • Included windshield/deadcat 
  • 3.5mm input

With video, the image is only one part of the story. Sony’s additional effort in the ZV-1 was to include a built-in microphone system that’s good enough to use on the fly without any additional mic equipment. And, for the most part, that effort has paid off. 

Recording video and speaking to camera results in clear and loud audio. It wasn’t the nasty, muffled type of sound you’d perhaps expect to get from a camera’s own microphone. We tested it in a few different scenarios and found our voice was clear and pronounced and had enough natural timbre to it that it didn’t sound flat and broken. 

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Of course, using a professional microphone will yield better results, and you can either use the 3.5mm input for that, or use a hotshoe adapter to connect up an XLR cable.

The ZV-1 also comes with a dedicated deadcat – a small fluffy ‘wind-shield’ – that attaches to the hotshoe and covers the mic grille. We tested this out on a particularly blustery day and while you could hear the wind it never resulted in any tearing sounds, regardless of how bad the wind got. 

Now, there is also a wind reduction feature that you can enable within the camera’s menus, but this is more of an ambient noise killer than a dedicated wind noise filter. It essentially switches off the two wide mic capsules, leaving only the central one picking up your voice. The difference is stark – it doesn’t completely kill traffic or wind noise, but it does reduce it. The downside to this filter, however, is that it can make the sound seem quite flat.

Video pro

  • 4K at 30fps/1080p at 60fps
  • Slow motion modes
  • Multiple picture profiles – ideal for colour grading
  • Proxy support

This isn’t just a camera for people who want to pop a camera on a tripod and shoot a TikTok dance in vertical, full-automatic mode. Sony knows what video creators want, and so has included a bunch of features to try and keep those people happy too. 

Sadly, one of those features isn’t 4K video at 60 frames per second. The ZV-1 maxes out at 30fps at its full resolution setting, but it can shoot up to 60fps in 1080p.

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It’s also pre-loaded with a bunch of preset picture profiles – which you can customise – that allow you to shoot with a variety of different S-log, cine and gamma profiles. So if you want to you can set it to a nice, flat, desaturated profile giving you the scope to colour grade it to your liking.

You can also enable proxies, which are supported by the likes of Adobe Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro, enabling fast editing and rendering without losing detail in the final product. 

You’ll need to do a bit of digging into settings with the camera set to the manual video mode in order to choose one of these options. It took us a little while to figure a lot of those menus – as there’s a lot in there. 

One of the most useful settings to enable, we found, was adjusting the the focus speed. With the camera set to ‘touch focus’, then changing the focus speed to slow, it allowes for automatic slow pull focus effects. That’s useful if you want to add a bit of extra motion to a frame where nothing is moving.

It takes stills too

  • 20-megapixel 1-inch size CMOS sensor
  • 24-70mm (equivalent) zoom lens
  • 24fps burst mode

It may be a ‘vlogger camera’ but you can take pictures with the ZV-1 too – and the results aren’t half bad.

It still uses that same eye-tracking, fast autofocusing tech too. Pointing at a pet with the animal tracking on locks quickly onto an eye and focuses. Even if that cat’s eye is half-shut because the cat is inevitably asleep. 

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We found the results to be detailed, with good colour and dynamic range in good light. Sometimes they might come out a bit too contrasty in automatic mode, but there are enough opportunities to adjust settings, including switching off a lot of the automatic scene suggestions.

Perhaps the only thing that makes this less versatile as a stills camera is the zoom length. It only has a 3x optical zoom (a 24-70mm equivalent), which isn’t anywhere near as versatile in that regard as the RX100 (which has an 8.5x, 24-200mm optic). 

A note on battery life

Being a small camera means quite a small battery capacity. Sony claims the ZV-1 can get you up to 45 minutes of recording.

Having tested this at 4K video resolution, we find that rather ambitious. We didn’t get close to 45 minutes capture in our own use, but then a lot of our time testing was spent digging through menus, playing with different settings, and testing different features – all of which eats into battery life.

Thankfully, it’s one of those cameras that’s convenient to keep topped up. You just need to plug it in with the Micro-USB cable, so plug it into a power supply at home when you’re done or keep a battery pack with you when out and about.

Verdict

The way we see it, the ZV-1 could fulfil two needs. It’s a great step up in video and audio quality for those who would normally use the front-facing selfie camera on their smartphone. It’s also a great, compact secondary camera for those who shoot more professionally, but need a pocketable and compact tool that still has a lot of the features you need (like mic in, picture profiles and proxies). 

However, photographers might not flock to it. There’s no viewfinder, battery life is short, and the zoom is limited.

On the whole, the ZV-1 seems to nail Sony’s vision. It’s nimble, lightweight and powerful. With its advanced processing capabilities, fast autofocus and real-time tracking, combined with the impressively clear audio capture and the useful flip-out screen, it really is a great option for vloggers. 

Also consider

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Canon PowerShot G7 X III

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Sony RX100 VII

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Writing by Cam Bunton.

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