Content creators have become a key segment in the mirrorless camera industry, and Sony fully embraced them back in 2020 with the launch of the ZV1 camera. It has since added no less than four models to its ZV lineup, with the latest being the 12-megapixel full-frame ZV-E1
It uses the same sensor as the $3,500 A7S III, a video-focused camera that’s also a low-light marvel. However, the ZV-E1 costs $1,300 less, so of course it’s missing some key features like an electronic viewfinder (EVF), dual high-speed card slots, a mechanical shutter and some physical controls.
At the same time, the ZV-E1 has some functions that the A7S III lacks, surprisingly enough. Most of those are in the area of AI, and very useful for vloggers, like auto-framing, advanced subject detection and dynamic stabilization. With the sensor and AI features combined, it’s not a spoiler to say that this camera is both a mini A7S III and a powerful vlogging camera at the same time. The sheer number of advancements also make it a technological tour de force.
The sensor might be the same, but the ZV-E1 looks radically different from the A7S III. Instead of Sony’s classic A7-style mirrorless form, the body is squat and chunky like an A6700 or full-frame A7C. It’s also significantly smaller and weighs a third less than the A7S III at 483g, making it Sony’s smallest full-frame camera to date.
Sony boasts that it’s built of recycled plastic, and that makes the camera feel significantly cheaper and less grippy than the A7 series. The grip is also smaller, but I was still able to get a reasonably firm grasp considering the lighter weight. Despite the lower-end materials, it is dust and moisture resistant.
As we’ve seen on numerous recent cameras, there’s a switch for photos, video and slow & quick, and each has its own dedicated settings. It has a prominent red record button on top, and like Sony’s other mirrorless vlogging camera (the APS-C ZV-E10) it has a zoom rocker for supported zoom lenses, and also works with Sony’s “Digital Zoom” feature.
Other than that, it’s significantly stripped down compared to the A7S III. While it does have a few vlogging-specific buttons like Product Showcase and Background Defocus, there’s just a single control dial on top (at the back) and no dial on the front – making it difficult to operate the camera using physical controls in full manual mode.
That said, the ZV-E1 is one of Sony’s first cameras that can be fully operated using touch controls. Most of the key settings (shutter speed, aperture, ISO, etc) can be changed in that way, and it also lets you tweak the display settings by swiping left or right. And of course, the LCD screen fully articulates for vloggers, though it’s a bit low-res at 1,030K dots.
Where the A7S III’s 9.44 million-dot EVF is the best on the market, there’s no viewfinder at all on the ZV-E1.
It uses the same battery as Sony’s flagship models, so you get a generous 95 minutes of 4K 30p video recording and 570 photos on a charge. Luckily, the USB-C Gen 3.2 port lets you charge while shooting, and also supports high-speed transfers.
Along with headphone and mic ports, it’s got a micro rather than a full sized HDMI port, which isn’t ideal for a vlogging camera. It has just a single high-speed UHS-II card slot. Oddly the lack of a fast CFexpress type A slot doesn’t appear to limit video capture compared to the A7S III.
As you’d expect for a camera based on the powerful A7S III, video specs are impressive. It can handle 4K UHD video at up to 60 fps, though it’s lightly supersampled from the 12-megapixel, 4,240 x 2,832 sensor – so it’s slightly less sharp than higher-resolution Sony cameras like the A7 IV. Thanks to a recent firmware update, it can also shoot native 4K at up to 120 fps with no supersampling.
You can choose from high- and low-quality MP4 longGOP options, all with up to 4:2:2 10-bit color depth and 280 Mbps data rates. There’s also an I-mode at up to 4K 60p with 4:2:2 10-bit color that offers a more fluid editing experience with no transcoding. That setting uses higher data rates at up to 600Mbps (60 fps), so it requires expensive, high-speed V90 UHS-II cards.
Sony’s S-Log3 boosts dynamic range to 14-plus stops, and you can preview footage using Sony’s LUTs or install your own. If you don’t want the hassle of log, S-Cinetone also boosts dynamic range and is easier to tweak and edit later on.
What about overheating? Since it lacks the thermal capabilities as the A7S III, continuous recording times are shorter, particularly at 4K60 and up. In that mode you can expect less than an hour depending on the outside temperature. Content creators might be OK with that, but event shooters may need to look elsewhere.
Autofocus and AI
When it comes to autofocus, the ZV-E1 actually outshines the A7S III. That’s because it uses Sony’s new AI processor introduced in the A7R V, so it behaves more like that model –- particularly when it comes to image tracking.
It can now track human heads and bodies, not just faces and eyes. And besides people, it has specific settings for animals, birds, insects, cars, planes and trains. Unfortunately it does lack an auto setting, so it can’t automatically select the type of subject — you have to dive into the menus and do that yourself.
Subject tracking sets a new speed and reliability standard for mirrorless cameras, nailing autofocus consistently – even in tricky settings with fast moving subjects. That’s hugely important for vloggers, who often work alone. That said, even Sony’s system isn’t perfect, as it can occasionally lose a subject’s eyes in busy backgrounds.
AI powers other features too. For example, the built-in microphone is now directional, and can automatically aim toward the front, rear or all around, based on subject detection.
A key AI feature lets you digitally zoom an extra 1.5 times without much noticeable loss in quality. It works with the zoom rocker, and unlike with past ZV implementations, includes full subject tracking. That ability to zoom smoothly and automatically scale the image powers other features as well
That starts with the ZV-E1’s in-body stabilization. Optical-only offers 5 stops, enough to smooth handheld video without much movement. Active stabilization considerably boosts performance, but adds a slight 1.1x crop. However, dynamic stabilization is new and quite remarkable. It adds a 1.3x crop, but can effectively remove bouncing from footsteps, making it like using a dedicated gimbal – albeit with some loss in sharpness. With that feature, the ZV-E1 is the first camera that can really match the smoothness of the latest GoPro action cams.
The digital zoom teams up with subject tracking on two other new features as well. One is the Framing Stabilizer, which crops into the image, steadies the shot and keeps the subject in the center of frame, allowing for dolly-like smoothness.
Auto Framing, meanwhile, gives the illusion of camera movement. It first digitally zooms into the subject, then tracks it within the frame. You can choose a small, medium or large crop, different tracking speeds and more. You can even send an uncropped video to HDMI so you have two versions.
It also carries vlogger-centric features seen on other ZV models, including Product Showcase and Auto Depth of Field. As before, the latter automatically defocuses the background by instantly opening the aperture as much as possible. Product Showcase, meanwhile, ignores eye detection and quickly shifts focus to any foreground object brought in front of the camera. Finally, Breathing Compensation uses a slight digital zoom to maintain constant framing when changing focus.
As mentioned, 4K 30p and 60p video is slightly softer than Sony’s 30-megapixel A7 IV due to the lower resolution. On the plus side, the absence of pixel binning means no there’s no aliasing or other ugly artifacts that can ruin a shot.
The other positive aspect is far less rolling shutter than the A7 IV at the full sensor width. That means you can make quick pans or film fast-moving subjects without worrying about skewed video.
Apart from sharpness, image quality is superb. It delivers nearly 15 stops of dynamic range in C-Log3 mode, up there with the best mirrorless cameras. That allows for plenty of detail in dark shadows and bright highlights, even on sunny or dark days. S-Log3 mode, meanwhile, gives editors room to tweak video. Sony’s colors are accurate, though skin tones can lack the warmth I’ve seen on Canon models.
The ZV-E1 can’t be beat in low light. It has dual native ISOs at 640 and a whopping 12800. That allows for low-noise video all that way up to ISO 25,600, and manageable levels even at 51,200 – letting you shoot by moonlight or candlelight. In fact, Sony’s FX3 cinema camera with the same sensor was recently used to shoot a feature film called The Creator, specifically because it’s so good in low light.
Since it doesn’t have an EVF or mechanical shutter, I wouldn’t recommend the ZV-E1 for photography alone. That said, like the A7S III, it’s more than competent in a pinch.
The AF works just as well with photography, and has the same features and tracking modes. So you can count on this camera to grab sharp photos, even when shooting bursts at up to the maximum 10 fps or in low light. It’s actually a pretty good street photography or travel camera, as it’s small, silent and discreet. And with so little skew, I rarely missed the mechanical shutter.
Photo quality is outstanding, particularly in very low light. RAW images can easily be tweaked, even at high ISOs, and colors are accurate. The biggest drawback is again the lack of sharpness. That means there’s not a lot of room to crop into photos later, so you’ll want to get your framing right when you take the shot.
With all that it can do, Sony’s ZV-E1 is the best vlogging camera on the market and its rivals aren’t even really close. It delivers everything creators need like 4K 120p video, high dynamic range, unbeatable low-light capability, great ergonomics, the best AF on the market and a boatload of useful AI features. The main drawback is a lack of sharpness — but that’s only really noticeable if you’re pixel peeping.
The ZV-E1 costs $2,200, so its rivals include the $2,200 Panasonic S5 IIx, the $2,500 Canon EOS R6 II and Sony’s own $2,500 A7 IV. All of those cameras have sharper 4K video and electronic viewfinders, so they’re better hybrid cameras for both photography and video
The ZV-E1 beats them in nearly every other way, though, while breaking new ground with its innovative AI features.