Friday, May 23, 2014

Review: Fujifilm XF56mm vs XF18-55mm?

Fuji X-E2 w/ XF56mm. 1/600th F/5 @ ISO200. Railtown District, Strathcona, Vancouver.

Primes versus zooms? It's the great debate among camera equipment enthusiasts, pro photographers, and camera reviewers. I remember this debate in the film era, and it still continues in our digital era. In the 1970's, primes were superior to zooms, no argument. Zooms got better in the 80's, but due to their slower speeds, those that needed fast glass still chose primes. In the 90's, faster zooms appeared, and the image quality divide between primes and zooms became narrower. How about today? Are primes still superior to zooms in the era of digital imaging, especially when many manufacturers are using digital technology to correct many optical imperfections in images? Is there a need for primes, since whatever weakness existed with zooms in the past can now be fixed post production? Let's check out the advantages of both zooms and primes even in our digital era, including the disadvantages. Let's review the Fujifilm Fujinon XF 56mm F/1.2 and compare it with the XF 18-55mm F/2.8-4 R OIS lens.

Fuji X-E2 with XF 56mm. 1/240th f/2.8 @ ISO 1600. Granville Island, Vancouver.

I've mentioned many times in my reviews that I review from the viewpoint of a streetphotographer. I don't use a tripod, I don't pixel-peep, I don't always shoot RAW. Of course I look at image quality, but more importantly (for streetphotographers) I review how cameras and lenses shoot in real world situations while walking around and taking pictures. A 8 x 10 large format takes superior images to most digital cameras (ok, probably to all commercially available digital cameras), but its really useless to a street photographer. So there needs to be a balance between shooting performance and image quality, although I argue that even a smartphone (especially the new-ish iPhone 5S) can take good enough images to share (Instagram, Tumbl'r, blogs, news media, etc.).

When Fuji gave me the opportunity to review the XF 56mm F/1.2 lens, I was excited to see what this lens could do. As a street photographer, it's an odd focal length to work with (84mm F/1.8 equiv in terms of focal length and depth of field), but I thought I would give it a try. In terms of image quality, it's a sharp lens. I didn't notice any obvious imperfections. I've posted many pics (here, and here with the hood) on Instagram showing the size of this lens on the X-E2. It's very front heavy but not unmanageable. If you're use to shooting with DSLR lenses, the XF 56mm lens won't feel too big or heavy. The marked aperture ring works well in 1/3 stops, and the focus ring feels well dampened (although it is focus by wire). I was a bit disappointed that it doesn't have the pull-back focus ring to reveal an actual focus and depth of field scale (such as the XF14mm and XF23mm), but you do get all of this info on-screen anyway. The plasticky lens hood is sufficient and light weight, and can attach on in reverse for easy storage, but not while shooting (it's too deep).

X-E2 with XF56mm. 1/950th f/3.6 @ ISO 200. Calvin and Millie on East Hastings, Strathcona.

The image quality is very good as you can see by the posted images. I wouldn't say it's super sharp wide open (unlike other Fuji primes) but it's sharp enough. I think the bigger issue is the focal length itself. Shooting at F/1.2 (DOF equivalent of F/1.8 if shooting the full-frame 85mm) produces a very shallow depth of field.  Unless you have a tri-pod, or your scenery is of equal distance across the field (which defeats much of the purpose of shooting wide open), I wouldn't recommend shooting wide open. Also, shooting outside and at ISO 100, it's hard not to hit the red 1/4000th sec shutter speed warning, so I usually had to stop down to F/2.8 to get proper exposure. With a proper tripod, a patient or non-moving subject, and controlled lighting (studio, ND filters, lower light levels), it would be fine shooting at F/1.2; but for me, I found it impractical. Walking around on the street, I rarely went below F/2.8, and often found I was shooting at F/5.6 to F/8 to get decent DOF on moving subjects. I can see photographers who shoot indoors, perhaps on a movie set (so no flash and low light) who would be delighted to shoot with a F/1.2 lens, so it does have it's purpose for some.

However, using the XF56mm lens as a streetphotographer, I challenged myself to make it work. It's possible to use it on the street, but you really have to prepared to commit to this focal length. I consider the 56mm focal length as an 'across the street' lens. Most of my successful shots were taken from across the street or if I was shooting from at least 20-30 feet away. I even took a few street portraits with this lens; but after asking permission, I had to step back 10 feet to get them in the shot! It's also good for taking images in isolation, such as store signage or of vehicles.

X-E2 with XF56mm. 1/1500th f/2.5 @ ISO 100. Pender St.

This made me work harder than I'm use to, which isn't a bad thing. I allowed Kurt Dahle to try it on a photowalk with me, and he also said that he loved the lens, but it was difficult to use as a primary street photography lens. He got some gorgeous shots though, and so did I. If I was a fashion photographer, or did portraits, I would not hesitate to use the 56mm lens. It is beautiful. I took a few impromptu portraits and I was really impressed. I didn't care about getting ultimate bokeh, but the overall look even stopped down was very nice.

X-E2 with XF56. 1/300th f/2.8 @ ISO 100. Alan Colodey @alaninbc along Union St. bike route, Strathcona.

How does the XF56mm compare with the XF 18-55mm zoomed out? The first thing is that the XF18-55 is a class leading kit zoom lens. Not many kit lenses have a maximum aperture of f/2.8 to f/4.0, built in OIS, dedicated aperture ring, and reasonable size and weight and most importantly price. If I was stuck on a deserted island and could only have one lens, the XF18-55 would be my first choice. Comparing to the prime lens, the XF18-55 is actually lighter and smaller. However, there's a lot of glass needed in the XF56 lens to make it have a maximum aperture of f/1.2!! If you're all about bokeh, this lens is for you. As you can see from my portrait shots, it's beautiful. You won't get that with the XF18-55 lens, sorry. You will get image stabilization, quieter and more accurate AF, and a variety of focal lengths to choose from; but that's not why you buy a dedicated portrait prime lens. It's single purpose is to get that right amount of compression and shallow depth of field. The XF56 fully achieves this goal.

Is the image quality noticeably better on the XF56 versus the XF18-55 at 55mm? No it's not. I did some quick tests and unless I went into properties, it was hard to tell the difference, except on the shots where I shot the XF56 wide open or at least at f/2.8. If both lenses were stopped down to f/5.6, it was very difficult to tell the difference. Both make beautiful images, although the prime lens may have a little less distortion (you can only really tell by taking a picture of a brick wall though). 

X-E2 with XF56mm @ f/1.2. 1/4000th @ ISO 100
X-E2 with XF56mm @ f/8.0. 1/200th @ ISO 100

So is this lens for you? If you're a street photographer, it shouldn't be your primary lens. If you can afford a second body and another lens (XF10-24 or XF18-55 or even the XF23 lens), then it's fun to have a fast medium telephoto prime lens. If you shoot fashion, portraiture, or just love creating bokeh shots, this is a great lens. Just be very careful when focusing... in fact, I would recommend using the focus peaking feature. If you're close enough to your subject, you can even distinguish focus on the tips of the eye lashes or the surface of the eyes itself. It has that narrow of DOF. 

For the majority of us, and especially for street photography, the XF 56mm lens is a luxury lens. It's big, heavy, and beautiful, but you won't use it that often unless you have a second body. But walking around with 2 lenses (or more) and a second body starts adding weight to your system. During my review I had the X-E2, and three lenses (XF23mm, XF56mm, XF18-55mm), and it was a hassle switching lenses all the time. If I was serious about shooting street-style, I either had the XF23mm lens (I love this lens!!), or had the XF18-55mm (I also love this lens!!). 

X-E2 with XF18-55 @ 55mm. 1/1800th f/4 @ ISO 200. This zoom is beautiful at 55mm @ f/4.0.

In conclusion, the XF56mm F/1.2 prime lens is a beautiful lens for those who need this focal length and wants shallow depth of field for portraiture or subject isolation. I wish it had OIS (optical image stabilization), and a manual focus and DOF scale like other Fuji primes. Other than these two small complaints, the lens is perfect for what it is. If I had a studio and used the X-series cameras as my primary tool (the X-T1 has a built in PC terminal for studio fash triggering), I would definitely have the XF56mm in my arsenal of lenses. The XF18-55mm zoom is the do-it-all lens. It's not specialized, but it can pull anything off with very good image quality. You won't get the bokeh that you can get with a F/1.2 lens, but you do get OIS and also a compact and light package. I enjoyed my time with the XF56 and wouldn't hesitate to shoot with it again. If you need a portrait lens with decent bokeh, this is the lens for you.

Thanks to Fujifilm Canada for loaning me 3 lenses at one time, as well as the X-E2 for a second review with the latest firmware update. Everything is now returned and I'm awaiting my next Fuji camera review camera to arrive... I wonder what it's going to be?

Happy shooting!



Picture of XF56mm lens with X-Pro 1. Taken with X-E2 and XF18-55mm lens. It's a big lens, but nice balance on X-Pro 1.

1 comment:

  1. The 56mm f/1.2 is a much better lens even if compared with the zoom 16-55mm f/2.8. That is if compared for the indoor shooting at the situations when people move or talk or both. For the outdoor (street) photography, any lens with the comfortable manual focusing and as fast as f/2.8, is just great. If one can afford only one lens and is on a tight budget, the 18-55mm would be a valuable choice. For those who want to build a decent photojournalism (cafes, life concerts, sports, etc.) portfolio, the 56mm is a reasonable investment. It's even better than 23mm f/1.4 if one needs to keep distance from the object. The 16-55mm f/2.8 lens is a tricky one. While being a superb quality lens, WR and fast, there are situations one would want to have at least f/1.4. Throwing prices into comparison, 18-55mm can be an every-day lens if its limits are taken into consideration carefully.
    If I had to chose between these two lenses, I'd chose 23mm f/1.4 :)) or 56mm... or 23...


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