The Zeiss ZX1 is a $6,000 uber-camera whose big schtick follows the mantra of shoot-edit-share. Most notably, Lightroom Mobile and Instagram are built-in thanks to the Android OS underpinning the camera hardware. I’m sure there are already a lot of thoughts swirling around in your head regarding price, featureset, updates (or lack thereof), and plenty more. But before we get too deep into this, lets take a step back and look at the specs.
Zeiss ZX1 Specs
- Sensor: 37.4MP
- Lens: Fixed 35mm @ f/2
- Storage: 512 GB internal (non-removable)
- Display (rear): 4.3″ ‘angled’ LCD with 2.76M dots
- AF: contrast and phase detection (no face or eye-AF)
- Video: 4K/30p, 1080/60p
- Photo: up to 3fps burst
- Max of 1/2000th shutter speed (or 1/1000th with flash)
- Software: Lightroom + Instagram built in
- OS: Android x.x
Announced originally in September of 2018 (whew), the Zeiss ZX1 is perhaps that best combination of what a modern camera should be. I say should because as Greg and I discussed on ep 1 of the Betapixels podcast (link), the traditional / professional camera market is in dire need of a shake up, and how computational photography and AI are some ways that shakeup is occuring. What the ZX1 is doing on the hardware front is but another angle. While some purists will bemoan and decry any sort of AI or computational aspects creeping into the still very much manual nature of photography in general, the truth of the matter is that it is inevitable. And the ZX1 is exactly what this industry needs.
And try as they might, Zeiss seems to have fallen a bit short. Sure, there were a lot of hills to climb to get to this point. I mean, a 2+ year announcement-to-release is pretty telling to start. But for anyone who follows photography and/or consumer tech, it should be pretty clear how difficult this was, and why the end result just feels half-baked. That said, let it be known — something as complex as a “smart” camera is by no means a small undertaking.
Before we get critical, what does the Zeiss get right? For starters, the attempt to just be different is duly noted. Zeiss is doing something that no one has really tried in a while. I say awhile because years back in the Android 2-5 days, there were a number of phone and camera manufacturers that dabbled in cheap (think point and shoot) camera bodies with Android baked in for more smarts. More recently a camera body or two has cropped up (no pun intended) but they’re honestly forgettable. The ZX1 however is a completely different beast targeting a vastly different market. A modern version of Android with a modern SoC and very relevant software tools built in such as Lightroom and Instagram are pretty potent on paper. Add to that that Zeiss name and glass.
So good hardware and ambitious goals are the pluses. The cons…. it’s $6 thousand dollars. Yes, it’s Zeiss branded and a minimalist work of consumer tech art. But it’s still $6k and in a price territory that quickly makes this camera lose focus. Who exactly is going to buy this? Influencers and part-time photo hobbyists? Nope. Professional photographers? Rarely, if ever. Seriously, who is going to buy this and for what?
After watching a number of early reviews and reading some takes (hot and otherwise), it seems like my sentiment above is pretty similar across the market in tone. Zeiss gets points for trying something more unique and trying to make this work. (It always helps to try again down the road once technology improves for things like this.) But everything from specs to real world performance to cost/value (or lack thereof) come across as hard pills to swallow that ultimately devalue the ambitious product that this is.
All of the above thus far has been about the very normal aspects of a camera and trying to determine the real world value. But the second shoe, if you will, is the software. And software apps like Lightroom, Instagram, and whatever else you could presumably install since it’s just Android on the ZX1 are just part of this equation. What about the Android operating system running underneath it? For those of you that aren’t as versed in the consumer tech world and/or Android world as a whole, simply know that picking Android as the underlying OS is both a blessing and a curse. For something like a “traditional” camera that typically has a downright archaic OS / firmware running the show, Android is a giant leap forward in many aspects. But as so many movie heroes have stated: “With great power comes great responsibility”. For all of the power and flexibility that Android brings to the table, it is up to the manufacturer of the hardware to keep that software up to date and maintain it. And that is where the curse comes into play.
How confident is anyone that Zeiss will judiciously keep up with Android updates and/or security patches? Hell, do we even think we’ll get any major OS updates (they come yearly) much less any guaranteed 2, 3, or more years worth of updates? A camera with such a swiss army knife of an OS that gets no promises of major updates and/or lack of security updates is in some ways even worse than your traditional cameras and their caveman-like operating systems.
Perhaps the biggest factor in keeping this from gaining mainstream, mass market appeal is honestly the price. There is just no market for this $6k camera with merely average performance and the lack of interchangeable lenses, combined with dedicated Lightroom / editing / sharing features that are slower and more cumbersome than just about every other smartphone faster than a potato. And that is preceisely where mobile photography and smartphones swoop in.
Truth be told, the smartphone industry has made monumental leaps in photographic prowess YoY for multiple years whereas the traditional camera market improvements have largely been much smaller all things considered. The types of pictures you can capture on a smartphone (and edit on said phone!) are so good now, a very large percentage of scenarios are perfectly catered to by these little pocket cameras. You can find all kinds of examples online of examples of professional photo and video content shot exclusively on (and sometimes edited exclusively on) mobile devices. The need for a big, full frame (or APS-C, or Micro 4/3) are continually being pushed more and more into niche territory. And it seems like that is why now more than ever this market needs to embrace, adapt, and move on instead of pretending the world of software and AI doesn’t exist.
It seems like I’m really ragging on the ZX1. And I guess you could certainly take that part away. But in reality, I’m only so critical because this is something I’ve wanted for so long, and as I’ve gotten more into photography the last year or two, have become much more passionate about. This intersection of two important things in my life (photography and consumer tech) mean that I care about these things. Do I hate the ZX1? Hardly. In fact I love everything it is trying to be. While I wouldn’t want to edit a bunch of images in one sitting on that small 4.3-inch screen, the ability to do that with the ad-hoc / random slapper of a photo and quickly share that would be super convenient, especially for street photography outings where you’re already traveling light(er). And it is for the reasons above that it is disappointing but not entirely surprising to have to put this idea back into the oven. It’s just not there yet, and maybe never will be. But Zeiss proves that the idea is still very much alive.
Bringing it all back around, what does the ZX1 mean for photography as a whole? As noted above, computational photography and AI are only going to get more prevalent. And camera hardware with more smarts isn’t going away. This is at least the fourth serious attempt we’ve seen, and those attempts will continue. (See a quick recap / comparison of other similar “smart” cameras like the ZX1 by DP Review here.) Will the ZX1 dramatically revolutionize the photography world and cause other camera manufacturers to stand up, take notice, and drastically alter their own products? Based on what I’ve seen so far with the ZX1, the answer to that is no.
In closing, I don’t want other manufacturers to see what Zeiss as attempted here with the ZX1 and run. Quite the opposite in fact. I want them to embrace modern software ideals and UI/UX practices already common practice in the smartphone world. But also, really try to make this whole field more evolved. Case in point: image transfers. It’s almost 2021 and trying to get images off your camera in any sort of manner at scale that isn’t a cumbersome mess and/or doesn’t require a desktop/laptop computer is still mostly non-existent. Sure, some manufacturers have a companion app that isn’t terrible. But is that what we’re going to accept as a whole — the least terrible option?
The Zeiss ZX1 proves that there is so much potential for more in photography. We’re this close. Camera manufacturers just have to take the leap and really embrace the change. That said, I can’t be alone. This is definitely a divisive topic in general (software and AI in photography). I’d like to know your thoughts, and if this impending wave of artificial intelligence is about to alter the industry as a whole. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the matter. Feel free to drop a comment below, reach on twitter, or if neither of those are your thing, an email will always do.
Thanks for reading!