Trying the Z Cam E1: image quality good, everything else bad.

I own a lot of cameras. The vast majority of them are old digital cameras that I bought for a web show idea that I came up with, but I obviously have several “new” cameras too. They run the gamut from the heights of awesomeness to the least configurable cheap old point-and-shoot bricks ever manufactured. One thing that I can safely say about even the most crappy-seeming camera I own is that it can take decent photos within its obvious limits. However, there is an annoying but growing trend towards offering nearly non-functional equipment for a vastly cheaper price and the Z Cam E1 has fallen into that sad niche. It fell from a price tag over $600 all the way down to $199 on sale. As soon as that happened, its place as the tantalizing cheap entry method into the 4K micro four-thirds video market was etched in stone.

I made a video review of the Z Cam E1 but the short version is this: almost none of the most useful features are functional. The auto-focus is basically useless and no focus distance guide or focus assistance is available in manual focus mode. It doesn’t work properly with some lenses despite being advertised to the contrary. Photo mode suffers from the same issues as video mode. While it’s easy to hand-wave these concerns when you’re emotionally invested in this camera due to the promise of a $199 MFT 4K camera, it won’t fix the serious flaws that make it difficult or impossible to use. The remote app freezes up easily which doesn’t help.

There is one situation where this camera is perfectly usable: you can set it up fully manually in one spot on a tripod and then leave it alone. I shot almost all of the review where the Z Cam E1 isn’t seen in the shot using the Z Cam E1 itself, in fact! I got some good shots, but I had to draw on my extensive experience in manual video camera operation to do it. For a beginner that is interested in video, this camera is a very seductive trap. For an experienced videographer, it’s a practical camera for static shots and can deliver great images within its limitations, but it’s hard to justify the purchase when a used Panasonic G7 body is almost the same price and offers a feature-rich fully functional MFT 4K camera, the polar opposite of the Z Cam E1.

I spent six months considering whether or not to get an E1 but the plethora of issues kept me from pulling the trigger. When someone I knew bought one and asked me for lens suggestions, I took the opportunity to put the camera through the wringer and examine it from the perspective of both a beginner and a video professional. In the end, I’m glad I didn’t buy one, but if I could get one for free I’d definitely use it. There are a couple of features like slow-motion and crazy high ISOs that I’d be happy to have in a little camera, but those features don’t do anything to fix the Z Cam E1’s severe problems.

Watch this review and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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