Sony ZV-1 Mark II – how is it as a photographer’s compact?: Digital Photography Review

Sony ZV-1 Mark II @ 48mm equiv ISO 200 | 1/100 | F4.5

Photo: Shaminder Dulai

When Sony announced the ZV-1 Mark II, the inclusion of an 18-50mm equivalent F1.8-4.0 lens markedly improved its vlogging camera line. Finally, one of the biggest misses from the original ZV-1, a 24-70mm lens that made it challenging to frame wide-angle selfies, had been addressed.

With this correction, Sony was making a compelling pitch for a purpose-built vlogging camera that gave video users greater control than a smartphone but still in a portable package. The ZV-1 Mark II’s Stacked CMOS sensor, AF tracking, three capsule mics, creative image settings and video log options (albeit only as 8-bit capture) chiefly position the camera first and foremost at vloggers.

However, if you’re anything like the DPReview editors, you may have seen the new lens and started to wonder, could this be the second coming of the 18-50mm enthusiast pocketable compact we’ve been waiting for since Nikon canceled the DL 18-50mm?

It’s a compelling question. Not only from the perspective of how capable the ZV-1 Mark II could be as a daily still shooter but also the broader question of what purpose or need an enthusiast compact serves in a world of always-on-you and decent image quality smartphone cameras. I set out to find out.

The ZV-1 Mark II as a stills camera

One of the key features that made the Nikon DL 18-50mm an enticing prospect was the idea of a 20MP 18-50mm equivalent F1.8-2.8 camera, with all manual settings controlled via on-body buttons, lens rings and dials that were also still small enough to fit in your pocket.

At first glance, the Sony ZV-1 Mark II appears to check some of these boxes but feels quite limited in practice due to a lack of quick and accessible manual controls. The camera has limited body buttons and just one rear dial. Still, it is possible to use it without the touch screen if users wish to embrace a combination of auto modes, the Fn button and a 4-way rear dial to change and adjust exposure settings.

To enter stills mode, users press a mode selection button on the top plate to toggle between one of three modes: still, video or S&Q, which is Sony speak for slow-motion and fast-motion. From here, the rest of the settings are adjusted through the menus, from reformatting a memory card and turning the focus beep on/off to choosing which shooting mode to use.

In still mode, the camera tries to simplify the menu system by removing some video functions; for instance, there is no option for image stabilization when in still mode, but curiously options for setting video frame rates and codecs remain.

The ZV-1 Mark II hits the street

During a few days and nights around Seattle, I put the camera through what I thought would be its two most common use cases: street photography and as a party camera for a night out. Also, before heading out, since we’ll only be shooting stills and have no concern for audio capture, I took off the fuzzy rat accessory that comes packed with the camera, which I then left on the counter just long enough to perk my cat’s interests before I realized I better hide this thing that very closely resembles its namesake.

Sony ZV-1 Mark II @ 32mm equiv ISO 500 | 1/80 | F3.5

Photo: Shaminder Dulai

For street photography, thanks to its small size, nondescript presentation and silent operation from not having a mechanical shutter and all electronic beeps turned off, the ZV-1 Mark II and I went about ignored by others. I suspect most people assumed I was a tourist or someone’s dad trying their hand at TikTok.

With only a rear panel, it can also become hard to see what you photograph or focus on in bright sunlight. Not entirely unexpected on a touchscreen-centric camera, but worth a mention; it was in these moments that I longed for a viewfinder.

While out at night, I appreciated how pocketable (think jacket pocket and not pant pocket) and lightweight the ZV-1 Mark II was. Its mostly-plastic collapsible design coupled with a wrist strap made it an ideal companion on a night of bar hopping with some out of town visitors. However, it was also during these late nights that I discovered how much a lack of IBIS impacted the little Sony.

I found it hard to get steady shots on the fly in bars and clubs around Seattle; even at 1/100 shutter speed I was noticing subtle shake due to touch focus to correct autofocus.

While there is digital stabilization in video mode, there is no stabilization option in still mode. Since this camera is small and lightweight, it’s hard to firmly brace it for longer exposures. Coupled with the need to see the touch panel to confirm autofocus is engaging your intended area of the frame, or touch focus to correct, attempting to isolate small movements in low light becomes an ongoing issue. I found it hard to get steady shots on the fly in bars and clubs around Seattle; even at 1/100 shutter speed I was noticing subtle shake due to touch focus to correct autofocus.

The camera also doesn’t have a mechanical shutter, which limits shutter speed to a lower limit of 1/4, which makes it suitable for 99 percent of daily scenarios but will be a pain when you run into those 1 percent situations like I did when I tried to produce light trails from passing cars behind some street scenes at night.

Shooting modes

I toggled between full auto modes, aperture and shutter priority, and manual modes. I came to the conclusion the camera is best used as a point-and-shoot in auto or one of the priority modes but never in manual. With only one rear dial, using the camera in manual mode is a curio at best and performance art at its worst.

In manual mode, you’ll have to use the touchscreen, or you can press down on the 4-way rear dial to toggle between changing the aperture and the shutter, and it’s very easy to mistake which setting you are adjusting if you aren’t constantly visually verifying everything on the rear touch panel. This slows down the image-making process, makes it much more tedious than it needs to be, and, most of all, makes it far less enjoyable. It only takes a few such breaks for adjustment before your night out with friends ends up with your friends groaning every time you pause to enter a menu.

Sony ZV-1 Mark II @ 19mm equiv ISO 1250 | 1/40 | F9

Photo: Shaminder Dulai

By comparison, consider the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II, a compact enthusiast zoom with a very similar rear button layout but also a clickable lens ring that can be set to control the aperture or shutter speed. This small addition of a lens ring gives the camera essentially twin dials in manual (three dials if you include the exposure compensation dial on the top plate). In aperture and shutter priority modes the lens ring also takes over as the main control dial to produce a much more enjoyable experience than making adjustments via a small rear dial. But most of all, these extra dials means less time fiddling with menus and more time making images.

I revisited the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II during this test (similar form factor, button layouts, both 20MP, fast lens with robust zooms) and found in the Canon a key thing missing from the Sony – fun. The Canon invites you to take control of every aspect of image making (even manual focus is better on the Canon), whereas the Sony camera works best as an advanced point-and-shoot.

Ready for a close-up

On a bright note, the new 18-50mm equivalent F1.8-4.0 lens is wonderful. It is my ideal range for a pocketable compact, and the optical zoom is quick and smooth. I can see why vloggers were clamoring for this focal length and why spurned fans of Nikon’s coulda-been had dreamt of it.

Sony ZV-1 Mark II @ 50mm equiv ISO 125 | 1/160 | F4.5

Photo: Shaminder Dulai

Boot-up time for the ZV-1 Mark II is also quick, taking about one second from hitting ‘on’ to being ready to snap the shutter. The quick start-up and nice lens were a few ways this camera, used as a point-and-shoot, could be more enjoyable than a smartphone.

Autofocus and tracking focus are also very fast; thanks to its Stacked CMOS sensor, the ZV-1 Mark II could quickly focus and track subjects. When set to tracking, multiple tracking boxes allow you to quickly confirm what it’s watching for in the frame. Only on specific occasions, when I wanted more creative control or when multiple people were in a frame, did the camera not match my expectations. Touch focus helped make a correction to tell the camera what to track, and once corrected, it stayed locked onto that person or object.

I love it; I love it not

Sony ZV-1 Mark II @ 18mm equiv ISO 250 | 1/80 | F5

Photo: Shaminder Dulai

I really wanted to love the ZV-1 Mark II for still photos, but I found I loved more the idea this camera represents; that of the elusive still photo compact with a wide aperture and the perfect optical range for nights out on the town when you’d rather shoot from the hip with friends on the dance floor, pull out and tuck away the camera on a moment’s notice and have the manual controls to embrace any ambient light available. Unfortunately, I don’t think the ZV-1 Mark II is that still camera.

The Sony ZV-1 Mark II camera can take stills, but it doesn’t feel like it’s purpose-built for stills, which isn’t entirely surprising given that its target audience is vloggers. It’s a camera that works best when you embrace its auto modes to make all the adjustments for you rather than ask for your input.

The Sony ZV-1 Mark II camera can take stills, but it doesn’t feel like it’s purpose-built for stills.

Even changing the aperture or shutter in their respective priority modes feels like a chore. Due to the small form factor and small rear dial, you’ll find yourself choking your grip up and down to reach the dial, or you’ll have to use a second hand to steady the camera to reach the dial without the risk of dropping the camera. Once a setting is adjusted (say you wanted to go from F4 to F1.8), it’s unfortunately also very easy for an errant press to change things without your knowing; this is due to the bottom of your thumb and the top of your palm resting right against the edge of the rear dial.

Sony may have recognized this issue and tried to remedy accidental presses by giving the dial a slight click, but I found the dial too smooth and the click too subtle to register that I’d bumped the dial while I was out and about. Many, many times, I accidentally toggled the dial without realizing it, switching to a smaller aperture which either led to excess grain from the camera’s Auto ISO adjustments or a slower shutter than intended.

In the end, I wanted to love the ZV-1 Mark II for stills, but it wasn’t ideal for how I like to shoot.

The bigger question is – what makes for a good compact in 2023?

Looking at a camera like the ZV-1 Mark II, I’ve been asking myself what we need out of pocketable cameras in an era where smartphones are ubiquitous. Furthermore, as machine learning makes more significant inroads into mobile photography, bringing smartphone image captures closer to the quality of images created by Type 1 (13.2 x 8.8mm) sensors like the one in the ZV-1 Mark II, is there a compelling reason to spring for a dedicated enthusiast compact?

The answer to this question will vary depending on personal use cases and preference: if you’re into portraiture, you may want manual shutter control; with landscapes, you may want optical zoom; with vacations, you may want a separate device to remove any temptations from seeing work e-mails. Whatever your answer, it will likely be predicated on doing something a smartphone cannot or giving you a better user experience in exchange for another device to carry.

Is there a compelling reason to spring for a dedicated enthusiast compact? … Whatever your answer, it’s likely going to be predicated on doing something a smartphone cannot or giving you a better user experience in exchange for another device to carry.

Ultimately, how useful a camera like the ZV-1 Mark II is for stills comes down to how it holds up in the field and how fun it is to use. For me, making adjustments on the fly became the major limiting factor and the camera only became fun to make stills with if I embraced it as a point-and-shoot.

Which takes me back to the bigger question: what makes a good compact in 2023?

The answer for me with the ZV-1 Mark II is not something that only delivers the narrow band of joy once found in a Kodak FunSaver disposable camera at a premium price point. Selecting a camera comes down to the user experience and the degree to which it makes you feel part of the photographic process; this is the key difference between enjoying a camera like the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II that invites me to play and battling against the Sony ZV-1 Mark II that reminds me to let it drive.

The dream of the Nikon DL 18-50mm lives on, unfulfilled.

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