Elliot Shih, Senior Product Manager of Zeiss, holding the ZX1 at the CP+ 2019 show in Yokohama, Japan.

Zeiss is preparing to launch its first camera for more than a decade, in the form of the ZX1 - a high-end, Android-powered compact, with a full-frame 37MP sensor and premium lens. We caught up with Senior Product Manager Elliot Shih at CP+ recently to learn more.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and flow.

When did the concept for this camera come about?

We started about four years ago, but we have always been interested in thinking about where and when to return to the camera market, because the last time Zeiss made a camera was the Ikon film rangefinder, in around 2004. Ever since then we’ve been thinking about how and when is the tight time to return to the camera market.

Also a lot has happened in the industry - as background we’re seeing higher penetration of smartphones with more capable cameras, and people are adapting to use the cameras in their phones. On the other hand we saw there is a demand among photographers for more serious photography tools.

If we’re going to make a new kind of camera, it doesn’t make sense to copy something that’s already on the market

The rise of the smartphone has had an impact on the point and shoot market, but there are a lot of benefits and things we can learn from such a different world. So the thought that came into my mind was - well, if we’re going to make a new kind of camera, it doesn’t make sense to copy something that’s already on the market - let’s do something new.

The development of this camera wasn’t quite linear, compared to other consumer electronics products. In the beginning we went quite slowly, but now we’re at the materialization phase, and things are moving quite fast. Now every component we need is working, and we’re starting to see that this is becoming a camera that could work quite well.

The ZX1 isn't the first Android-powered camera, but it is the first aimed at enthusiast and professional photographers with money to spend on a premium full-frame sensor and lens.

This is not the first time that someone has loaded a mobile operating system into a camera - what makes the ZX1 different?

With regard to earlier products, I think the mobile platform itself, as a technology enabler, is capable of also being the backbone for an imaging system.

The fundamental difference is that instead of trying to make a smartphone in the form of a camera, we’ve tried to make the ZX1 work as a camera, and be positioned as a camera, and as a tool for photography. So, for example, when you first turn it on you should see the live view, not the launcher screen with all its icons. It should be a camera from inside out. That’s why we took open-source android and used it as a technology enabler, but in terms of interaction and user experience, we completely wrote everything and developed everything from scratch by ourselves.

Read about what the Zeiss ZX1 is like to operate

The camera operates using what we call a ‘vertical logic’. You’ll see there’s a slight bend on the rear cover glass, which provides a natural separation between the live view area and the toolbar area, to the right. You can [vertically] swipe on the toolbar area to select different tools, while on the left you can swipe to switch between different modes, like image review, where you can use all the familiar gestures you’re used to from smartphones.

What are your goals for the camera, in the marketplace?

As you can see, the ZX1 is a different kind of product. We’re focused on addressing the target group, and offering something different to today’s digital photographers. So we’re aiming at photographers that need a fast workflow but at the same time superb image quality, which our sensor and lens can deliver.

This is our first attempt, and most of the focus is to build up our competence in terms of image processing. We’re still on the learning curve, for example when it comes to the autofocus system and the image processing pipeline. For a 37.4MP sensor its more than 70MB for each DNG file, so we have a lot of data to handle.

Have you partnered with any other companies on the ZX1 or is this an entirely in-house project?

The design and development are completely in-house. We’re using some external partners to support certain functions, for example the realization of the industrial design, and the design of the user experience.

The square panel on the upper left of the ZX1's top plate is a plastic cover for the WiFi antenna - not a flash, as we originally thought when we picked the camera up.

Previous attempts at this kind of product failed for a lot of reasons - how have you addressed the weaknesses of those earlier cameras?

Well first let’s talk about optimization around Android. There’s a fundamental difference to how this system works compared to a proprietary system [that you might find in a smartphone]. There’s a different architecture and we made a lot of effort to take out some of the elements of Android that we didn’t need. Most of the algorithms are designed for smartphone usage and not all of those are capable of running inside a device with a larger camera sensor, and much more information to handle in the imaging pipeline. That's the part that we've spent substantial effort on, to optimize in order to make the camera more responsive.

We also made a lot of effort also to maintain Wi-Fi performance. There is a lot of data to transfer with this camera, so if we want the feature to be really functional we have to make sure that the Wi-Fi performance doesn’t struggle. That's why we have a plastic cover above the Wi-Fi antenna on the [metal] top plate.

We’re very conscious of battery consumption [and] a lot of photographers are very sensitive about battery usage

In terms of boot up time, the ZX1 works the same way as a smartphone. But we’re very conscious of battery consumption. A lot of photographers are very sensitive about battery usage so a lot of the time when they’re not shooting they simply turn the camera off.

The very first boot up sequence takes a while, but when the camera is up and running, a single push of the dial sleeps the camera, but doesn’t turn it off. So the sensor is not running, the screen is off, and very little power is being used. But when you want to take a picture you just nudge the switch again and it wakes up. You can also use the switch to toggle between stills and movie mode.

What kind of battery drain should people expect when the camera is in sleep mode?

I think in sleep mode, during a whole day you can expect something like 10% battery drain. We do have a large battery in the camera, it’s 3190mAh, which is very substantial. In this camera a fully charged battery should last about 250 shots.

Is that a CIPA figure?

No, but we’d expect that to be accurate by CIPA test standards.

Do you have an idea yet of how much the ZX1 will cost?

Pricing is not yet decided but I think given the performance of the lens and the sensor, plus the solid build of the body and the built-in 500GB SSD, I think it will occupy a more premium price band. It will be in the same range as [the Leica Q, Sony RX1R II].

What was the logic behind deciding to give the ZX1 aperture, shutter speed and ISO dials but no exposure compensation dial?

That’s one of the most frequent questions we’ve been getting. One thing we learned is that photographers are more and more conscious of stripping away features that they don’t need. So we wanted to keep the purity of the design, while still making sure this is a serious photography tool.

One of the things that characterizes serious cameras are dials which provide the opportunity to control exposure directly. So we decided OK, we’ll keep the three - shutter speed, aperture and ISO as the only hardware controls. Everything else is built into the digital interface. If a photographer is manually controlling shutter speed and aperture, then the only way they have of further affecting exposure is ISO. So they can use the ISO dial as exposure compensation, effectively.

Does this camera use a leaf shutter?

Yes, it’s mechanically controlled up to 1/1000, and electronic will let you go to higher shutter speeds, using the toolbar [on the rear screen].

Because it's powered by a full mobile operating system, the ZX1 is a 'one stop shop' for the photographer. From image capture, review, rating, editing and uploading, everything can be done on the camera, if you wish.

You really seem to want photographers to do everything on the camera itself - shooting, reviewing, editing and uploading. Is that correct?

For this concept, yes. A photographer might still carry a more capable DSLR for an assignment, but when they are going out for a weekend trip, this is one camera that you can do everything with.

Maybe it doesn’t always make sense to connect the camera to your phone using a hotspot and try to synchronize let’s say 300 Raw files on the road, but let’s give people the choice. We’ve spoken to a lot of photojournalists and they told us that sometimes they just have to rely on what they have. Sometimes they only have a phone, and with this camera they can bring everything they need.

What’s the quickest way of getting images off the ZX1 to a computer or to a harddrive?

In terms of transfer speed, the fastest way is the USB-C connection. With a speed of 5GB/s you’ll be able to export pictures pretty fast. What’s a bit different is that because we’re using Android, the system works like a mini computer, so we can use both master and slave mode for the USB connection.

Whereas other cameras, when you connect over USB, the camera is seen as a drive: it’s in slave mode. But with the ZX1 if you plug in a USB C drive or a memory stick the camera recognizes the storage and you can select the images you want to transfer straight from the camera. The USB C connector is the only interface, so to connect to a TV, or plug in a microphone for example you’d need adapters.

Can users download their own apps or extensions to the ZX1?

At the moment, no. For security reasons its a closed system. We will only support selected applications that we’re working on with partners like Adobe.

Editors' note: Barnaby Britton

Well; it's real, and it works. The Zeiss ZX1 is a fascinating camera, and even from our brief time with a prototype model I'd be fairly confident in saying it's the most convincing Android-powered camera we've seen yet. Of course it's also likely to be the most expensive, by far. If Mr Shih's estimate of a price comparable with full-frame compacts from Sony and Leica turns out to be true, you can expect the ZX1 to cost somewhere in the region of (at least) $4,000, which unlike Samsung's Galaxy Cameras, will put it well outside of the impulse-buy range for most photographers.

But that's the future. For now, the ZX1 looks really nice. We don't know how well the sensor or lens will perform, but it's a safe bet that image quality will far exceed the abilities of even the best smartphones and likely also popular sub full-frame compact cameras such as Fujifilm's X100-Series and Ricoh's GR line.

It will also work differently - very differently - to those cameras, thanks to its integrated Android operating system, which essentially makes the camera into a mini computer. Do you need half a terabyte of built-in storage? Probably not, most of the time, but assuming you can keep the battery charged, this kind of storage capacity could be appealing to photographers working remotely or on long assignments away from home. In some areas of the world, where cellphones provide the only reliable access to the Web, the ZX1 might end up being right in its element.

A shot of the ZX1's unique 'swooping' rear display, and its large-capacity Li-Ion battery which - unlike the camera's storage - is removable.

If you're interested in the ZX1 solely as a camera, and you don't need the ability to run processing apps, you'll have a harder decision to make. The ZX1 definitely presents an unusual handling experience, but it's not completely alien. The decision to omit an exposure compensation dial strikes us as a bit odd, but Mr Shih is correct to note that for manual exposure work, the ISO dial does just as well. For A / S-priority shooters things might be a bit confusing at first, but the ZX1 is likely to be perfectly usable, notwithstanding a moderate learning curve.

Speaking of curves (sorry) the swooping rear display is quite something. The ZX1 employs what Mr Shih calls a 'vertical logic' to separate access to features and controls from the live view display, and it seems to work. We didn't get to try full-on image editing on the ZX1 that we saw in Japan, but I can envisage Lightroom Mobile running perfectly well, for those who need to edit 'on the go'.

When the ZX1 was first announced, a lot of commenters dismissed it preemptively as 'vaporware' - a flashy distraction that would never make it to market. It seems that the naysayers were wrong (it's nice when that happens, isn't it?) but whether the ZX1 will be a success - or lead to more Zeiss camera development in future - remains to be seen.

In one sense, given how long it's been since the company last made a camera, it could be said that Zeiss has nothing to lose. But in real terms, the ZX1 represents a substantial R&D investment, and one which Zeiss will be keen to recoup. For now, Mr Shih and his team deserve credit for doing something bold and unusual.