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An Extended Review of the Z Cam E2 S6 for Video Production
For the last eight months, I have been using the Z Cam E2 S6. I have used the camera in a diverse range of scenarios — outdoors in rain…
This review was last updated on March 4, 2022.
Update: It’s now 2022 and I still use this camera. Many of the issues I originally had with this camera have since been resolved. These sections have since been updated to reflect those changes.
For the last eight months, I have been using the Z Cam E2 S6. I have used the camera in a diverse range of scenarios — outdoors in rain, inside offices for hours long interviews, in manufacturing facilities with lots of dust, in freezing cold snow, and on melting hot, humid night shoots. I have fully given it the “corporate footage” treatment, to say the least, and would like to share my thoughts here in a somewhat alternative review less focused on specs and more on user experience.
My main takeaway is that this camera offers seriously impressive image quality at a low price for the small-crew budget videographer. It will not let you down like Canon’s R5 or R6 will with overheating problems. After much use, I prefer the Z Cam E2 S6 over the BMPCC6K and other DLSR-type cameras in the same price range.
A (slightly controversial) note before the review…
The Z Cam E2 S6 is not a great choice for a production that has a budget for rental RED, Arri, Sony, Panasonic, or Canon cinema cameras. I would also say the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera series (4K and 6K), which I have used alongside the S6, and all DSLR-type video-focused cameras are also not good choices. This will take a little explaining.
Let’s start by going over what these sub-$3000 cameras do not offer. They do not have SDI inputs, internal ND filters, or optical low-pass filters. Monitoring latency and quality are things to be aware of, especially with clients, as they are not perfect, though are not as bad as on the Atomos/DSLR combos I have used. Rolling shutter performance is typically abysmal and in no way compares to that of a commonly rentable cinema camera. Finally, the buttons and menus of these cameras (yes, even Blackmagic’s touch screen menus) are not designed for multi-operator use or for quick muscle-memory operation.
While the Z Cam captures stunning image quality that is fully editable alongside Arri footage and can even trash some RED footage that I have edited, it is silly to compare the operating experience around this camera with that of those much more expensive cameras. The Z Cam is not an Arri. And, likewise, the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera series and other DSLR-type cameras are not in the same class as RED. To put it plainly, these manufacturers have squeezed the image quality of the traditionally expensive cinema camera into a body that, due to budget, shares more characteristics with DSLR-type bodies.
The use-case of the DSLR-type body does not change simply because the image punches above its weight.
Inevitably, the lack of SDI inputs will frustrate people hooking up client monitors. The latency of the HDMI inputs will not be great for one accustomed to pulling focus on those rentable cinema cameras. On the Z Cam in particular, footage as of software version 0.96 can only be reviewed in a low-quality proxy format that, with pixelation and color banding issues, does not inspire confidence from the client. The absence of internal ND filters on most DLSR-type bodies will require additional equipment, slowing the production down. Without an optical low-pass filter, there is more room for infrared noise pollution or moire. Quick whip pans turns to jello, limiting certain shots. And with the lack of dedicated side buttons, particularly with the BMPCC6K, some shots in a fast-paced scenario might be fumbled by your grumpy operator due to an unnecessarily long jaunt through the menu systems.
But, and this is a big but, if the production is small enough, say with three people or a run-and-gun solo operator, the above issues are not problematic. HDMI works fine if you are the one working with it. Footage can be reviewed confidently with an awareness that those files are the low-res proxies. Filters can be added or screwed on. Rolling shutter is not immediately seen as a fatal flaw (heck, you can rotate the Z Cam 90 degrees and shoot open gate and then crop to eliminate it). And to keep with the pattern of repeating the problems that these cameras present on larger productions, those buttons and menu systems are yours and yours alone with which to learn and develop efficiencies.
So, regarding the above flaws, are budget cinema cameras like the Z Cam or other DSLR-type cameras still worth considering? Yes! Totally.
The Z Cam E2 S6 and BMPCC6K blow every current DSLR-type camera in its price range out of the water with video quality that can only be found at much higher price brackets. I say this because their shining characteristics are the result of conscious design around video, rather than around a compromise between video and photo capabilities. To pick a similarly-priced DSLR, such as the Sony A7S III or Canon R5, in order to retain photo capabilities is to make a compromise.
So let’s get down to it. How good is the Z Cam E2 S6 as a budget cinema camera? And how does it compare to the BMPCC6K?
The Z Cam has fantastic battery life. The camera lasts 3 hours on one 6300mAh Sony NPF battery and lasts a full production day from 8 am until 7 pm on one 95Wh V Mount battery paired with the Nitze Universal QR Adapter. To have this lightweight, long-lasting camera rig with just the small Sony NPF battery is to be able to get more shots in less time without stopping down to swap batteries and more shots in places that a traditionally heavy rig would not be able to easily go.
This battery life contrasts that of the BMPCC6K and other DSLR-type camera bodies in the price range, where the form factor drives the size of the battery. The BMPCC6K requires a new Canon LP-E6 battery every 30 minutes if a v-mount battery and adapter combo is not added to the rig. Panasonics GH5S and Sony’s A7III are at least better at better life here, but they still frequently require new batteries to be inserted on the underside of the camera. I can’t be the only one tired of popping the rig off the tripod, flipping it over, and swapping a tiny battery.
When using a Ronin or other gimbal, the BMPCC6K in particular was a hassle because by the time we had a shot set up, we could only get one or two takes out of it before shutting it off and swapping batteries. Since the Z Cam lasts for 3 hours on a single battery and can be operated wirelessly from a phone, there is no issue with a gimbal setup.
When not on the Ronin with the BMPCC6K, I used the Core SWX Powerbase Edge, which improved the on-time by a couple of hours. Using the Edge with its quick release plastic plate was frustrating, though, because it flexed and made the rig even less balanced than it already was. The solution here, at the expense of weight, is to build out the back of the rig with a VCT baseplate and rail setup to mount the Edge.
The Z Cam, unlike the BMPCC6K, does not require the above setup to attain a reasonable battery life. Its weight is then kept minimal, with the only requirement that a Sony NPF battery be attached to the back. The benefit to this setup is that it can be placed almost anywhere. In one scenario, I stripped down the camera to just the body and mounted it to the top of a C Stand. I ran a cable from the camera across two rooms to get the live feed for use on a live band performance and then controlled it remotely with my iPhone. The connection remained flawless throughout the performance.
What has stood out to me from day one of getting the Z Cam is its balance. When picking up this cube shape with a top handle, the camera does not tilt to one side or rock backward. Needing a side handle, I add a SmallRig wooden handle and then, to compensate for the change in left/right balance, slide the top handle along the NATO rail to realign the center of gravity. I use an adjustable top handle from SmallRig so that I can adjust forward/backward balance when putting on a heavier or lighter lens. With the addition of the top handle and the side handle, the camera remains compact.
Though this is not a BMPCC6K review, the unique wedge shape of this camera is a good contrast to the Z Cam. The BMPCC6K is not easy to balance and is no longer compact once balanced. Attaching a battery behind the camera to even out front lens weight inhibits the use of the camera’s touch screen unless placed far enough away on a rail system. And adding a wooden handle to the side makes the camera overtly wide and awkward.
I would also lump all DSLR-type camera bodies in the same category as the BMPCC6K here. The touch screens on these cameras, even if they flip out, are a hassle to work with when finding balance. And the plastic side grips of these cameras that are so useful for photographers are not useful for videographers who intend to attach cages, handles, and arms in the pursuit of a rigid rig.
I cannot say enough how beneficial the cube shape is in having a balanced and compact camera setup. On gimbals, easy rigs, tripods, monopods, and shoulder rigs — on any form of stability, that sense of balance ensures that I am not giving a shot the Dutch angle and helps with wrist and arm fatigue.
It is hard to put this in to words. To have the center of balance be spot on in the middle of the camera makes the camera feel lighter, reduces wrist strain, and improves my confidence in going about a shot.
Balance is a big deal, one of the biggest factors in my preferring the Z Cam over the BMPCC6K and other DSLR-type body cameras.
There are many reviews already going over the image quality that the Z Cam puts out. It is great, no question. Skin tones, light falloff, noise performance, and dynamic range are all beautiful. As an editor, I have experience editing footage from a huge range of cameras and find this camera’s image quality to be on par with far more expensive cinema cameras. That it can accomplish this in such a small body and price is both amazing and makes me think twice about renting.
Does the production need the features of those rentable cameras, or can it be stripped down for economic reasons to allow the use of the Z Cam?
I most frequently shoot in Z-Log 2 at either 4k, 24fps, ProRes HQ or 4k, 50fps, ProRes, Variable Frame Rate. I then correct with the Z Log Plugin inside Premiere and DaVinci Resolve. FilmConvert’s Cinematch tool is also a great way correct the footage.
The footage is not RAW, but the plugin really makes it feel a little like Redcode or Blackmagic RAW when making minor adjustments to white balance and exposure. The plugin can also convert Z-Log 2 to C Log or Red’s color gamut for easy application of your preexisting LUTs.
If exposed properly and used within the limitations of other cameras in its price range, such as with an awareness of rolling shutter, I have no complaints about image quality.
Update in 2022: The newest versions of the firmware now support ProRes on every setting, even Variable Frame Rate modes. Though it cannot do 4k 120fps uncropped, I do appreciate the ability to record ProRes in a cropped 120fps mode.
Compared to the BMPCC6K, the Z Cam produces skin tones with a little more red, a little less green in them. The color sciences of the two cameras are very similar and not, in my opinion, something worth arguing over or making the deciding factor.
Another note to add here is the argument some people have about dynamic range. They might see this and go, “But, but the dynamic range is not 17 stops!” Well, yeah, no, neither the Z Cam or BMPCC6K can attain the same level of dynamic range as can be attained on a RED Monstro. My response to this is that kind of dynamic range is more useful for recovery of detail in the edit when a shot is poorly exposed than for the final image, which, when viewed on a TV is typically constrained to the Rec. 709 color space.
If the production needs that kind of recovery in post, then a rental makes sense. For smaller productions, as I have said, as long as the image is exposed correctly within reason, one can have a great cinematic image.
I wrote a review of Z Cam’s eND module. It is better than any variable ND that I have used. I almost always have it in the camera even though at the clearest setting it reduces light be 1.7 stops because ISO and noise-performance on this camera is not a problem.
When in uncontrolled situations, I frequently leave the White Balance setting on Auto with Lock In Record enabled because the camera is very good at finding the right white balance. I haven’t found the auto white balance on the BMPCC6K to be as good.
The Z Cam has 5G WiFi built in, which enables wireless video monitoring and camera control that is good enough in most scenarios for doing lighting and remotely adjusting settings. This feature is enabled with an antenna. The antenna provided by Z Cam was not great, so I purchased a 4 leaf clover FPV antenna.
When I picked up the antenna, I also picked up an iPad Air 2 and a beefy case, thinking this setup would be my cheap Teradek solution to hand to a client for viewing. But, after much use, I would not recommend going with this setup for a client as the WiFi is unreliable and very dependent on your location. Z Cam has said in the Facebook group that this reliability issue is in general a problem with interference beyond the control of the camera. Wireless interference can make the connection spotty, and that is not a good look to the client. I would say the connection is about as good as one of those budget wireless video transmitters, like the Accsoon CineEye. Though, that is not saying much because I gave up using the CineEye the one time that I had it for connection issues.
It is also worth mentioning that the iPad Air 2 does not have the processing power to reliably play the stream of footage coming from the camera if a LUT is applied. Log footage can be viewed mostly without stuttering on the iPad Air 2. A more powerful tablet is required to process the stream with a LUT in a lag-free way. This, of course, impacts what the client will see. A grayed out shot in LOG will look bad to them no matter what you say (I’ve had luck telling them to think of it like a “digital negative” of the actual footage).
I still think of the built-in WiFi as a pro for the camera because, spottiness aside, it is immensely useful for fixing up lighting. I can adjust a light all the way across an office and see the change in real time. I can also change and monitor all the settings from my phone when it is out of reach.
Even if sometimes you can get lucky with a clear connection, it is not a replacement for a Teradek, Vaxis, or Hollyland transmitter. I would be so happy if this magically changes in a future update, but given the comments made by Z Cam about the connection issues being beyond the camera’s control, I am not too hopeful.
Update in 2022: WiFi on an iPad with the camera has been greatly improved. I use it constantly for overhead rigs and as a confidence monitor for clients. The connection is not an issue for me anymore. The one downside is that the signal is an 8-bit stream that bands when a LUT is applied. For bigger jobs, a dedicated wireless solution is still a necessity.
The mount on the Z Cam “Flagship” line can be swapped by removing four screws, much like RED’s mount. Z Cam offers an EF mount, a PL mount, a Leica M mount, a Micro Four Thirds mount in September 2020, and potentially a Sony E mount in the future. These mount additions are not your typical adapter. Each for $99, they fully replace the mount on the body of the camera, which, at least for me, gets rid of the concerns I had about investing in a particular line of glass.
The BMPCC6K does not have an interchangeable mount. Really any DSLR-type body in the same price range does not have this ability.
Update in 2022: I now have the Micro Four Thirds mount for this camera. What I didn’t expect when I got it was that it is an active mount, so the mount can communicate lens info to the camera. I have no complaints with this mount.
Not a Familiar Brand
At least in my area, ad agencies and clients are not familiar with the Z Cam name. They know RED. They drool over RED, to be honest. They like Arri, though find it synonymous with expensive. And they are familiar with Canon, Sony, and even Panasonic. To include Z Cam on a gear list in a market with RED, Arri, Canon, and Blackmagic shooters is at this point kind of an initial disadvantage that requires an extra conversation.
I think this is changing. But, at this point, if a client reached out to two videographers for a small gig, one with a Z Cam S6 and another with a RED, they would likely pick the RED operator purely for the brand recognition despite the fact that the S6 has an image more than capable of accomplishing the job.
This is my take based on where I live in New England. I am curious to know your thoughts about this.
Poor In-Camera Playback
In-camera playback is not good. There is no way around it. The color-banding and pixelation of the low resolution proxies that play in the playback section of the camera are glaringly obvious. The beautiful footage I saw on my SmallHD 702 touch that I just recorded can only be viewed at that original quality on a laptop once files have been transferred over.
When I am on a job and the client asks to look at a take, I am so accustomed to telling them, “The footage here is a low quality version of what we’ll see on the computer” that I forget that I have already told them multiple times and am sounding like a broken record.
A question I have for Z Cam is if the footage cannot be reviewed at full quality in camera, then can the stream of that full quality footage be sent via a cable to an iPad or iPhone for playback?
I really hope that playback quality improves in a future update.
Update in 2022: It has improved, but it is still not good. If I were you, I’d get a recording monitor like an Atomos Ninja V or Blackmagic Design VideoAssist 12G and dual record to it for better playback capabilities and some redundancy.
Learning Curve to System and No Manual
In addition to improving playback, I hope the operating system’s menus (currently version 0.96) get an update. Compared to the simple menus of the BMPCC6K, the menus on the Z Cam are confusing at first to navigate.
Where a first time user of a Canon Cine camera would figure out where the playback button is and how to change record settings, they would need to read over a non-existent Z Cam manual to accomplish the same goals. To get into playback, one must click the power button. To change record settings, one must go into the separate Record and Video menus to set up resolution, frame rate, and encoder.
I have had to pull out my phone and search in the Z Cam Facebook group for an answer to a menu-related question more times than I can remember. Why is Proxy Track disabled? How do I enable Low Jello mode? How can I import a LUT to the iPad? Why is the Luminance Level set to Limited? Why is Variable Framerate set to Off without any other option to choose from? Sometimes, I am in a location without a cell connection, and not being able to open a physical manual can be stressful.
It took me twenty minutes the other day in a location with horrible cell service to figure out why Variable Framerate did not have any option other than Off. I ended up resetting the camera, which fixed the problem. As I write this review, the VFR setting is back to showing Off as the only option even though I have Resolution set at 2.8K and Encoder at H.265.
There have been little bugs like the above throughout the eight months that I have used the camera. None of them have bricked the camera, and all have been fixed by a reset, but they have been annoying enough the times that they have happened that they are worth noting as a con here.
White Balance “Lock In Record” Disabled By Default
With each new update to the OS, all custom settings are wiped. I have given up on setting up the function buttons with my own presets because the updates come so frequently, at least for the last three updates leading up to version 0.96.
One of the settings that I immediately change, however, is “Lock In Record” in the White Balance menu. This setting by default is disabled, meaning if one were to use the camera in a controlled situation, none of the shots would match exactly with the same white balance. Mismatched white balance takes forever to correct, so I always dive into this setting and change it after an update.
“Lock In Record” should be enabled by default.
Kaiman Wong would be disappointed in the lack of “flappy bits,” as he calls them, to cover the exposed ports on the Z Cam. I took gaff tape to the unused ports when I first got the camera to prevent dust and moisture from getting inside.
The lack of covers really seems like an oversight back when the Flagship line was designed. Did they intend for people to operate these cameras as they do now? Why did they not include flaps?
While talking about exposed ports, the most important port (beside the sensor, if you can call it a port… for light) is the one for the CFast card. This port has a cover that does not perfectly sit over the top. After these eight months of use, the port cover has warped and no longer sits flush, often falling out while the camera is in use. I do not like having the place where the media is recorded be exposed to the elements.
Locking EF Mount
A locking EF mount is leaps and bounds better than the twist-to-lock mount found on DSLR-type bodies. Lenses are placed into the mount at the correct rotation, rather than twisted inward, which can be tricky for large cinema lenses.
Z Cam’s variant of the locking EF mount is good, but it is still loose on some lenses. I have to carry PTFE tape with me for some lenses because the mount is not a rock solid fit. When using a follow focus, the lenses can occasionally wiggle like a loose tooth. Putting a little PTFE tape between the lens and the mount fixes this. Switching to PL mount and all PL mount glass could also be a permanent fix for this. However, the need for a modification to the EF mount makes the mount in its current state a con for me.
Funky Record Button
I have never liked the soft record button on the top right of the Z Cam. It has a gummy feel that lacks feedback. I have to check the screen each time to make sure that the camera has begun to record. The function buttons on the side are much more responsive.
The Z Cam has a fantastic image and a balanced, power efficient body that puts it ahead of every camera in its price range for video production. I cannot stress enough how great it is to have a balanced cube-shape body. This balance coupled with the great battery life is why I found myself using the Z Cam more often than the BMPCC6K and why I am not yet tempted by the new offerings from Sony and Canon.
The Z Cam is not without many drawbacks for larger productions and a few notable software issues for the solo shooter, the biggest being the lack of quality playback.
These software issues need to be fixed.
I do not think it will be long before competitors catch on and release their own cube shaped cameras. If they go this route, by releasing cube shaped cameras with great battery life, dedicated buttons, interchangeable mounts, wireless video, and robust software, then Z Cam could have some trouble. RED has just entered the competition with the Komodo, though at a higher price, and I don’t doubt that Blackmagic will be joining soon.
Despite these issues and concerns, if I were to go out and buy a camera today for video production and had a budget under $4000, I would pick up a Z Cam E2 S6 with some accessories.
Update in 2022: As of March 4, were I in the market for a new camera body in the price range of $2,000 to $2,500, I would be thinking about the Z Cam E2 S6, the Panasonic GH6, and the Blackmagic Design Pocket 6K Pro. Even today, at that price point, I would pick the E2 S6.
If you have questions about my experience with the camera, leave a comment here.