Fuji XF 27mm f2.8 review

Fuji XF 27mm f2.8 review

Earlier this year I decided to part with my X100 and just focus on building up my lens collection for the X-E1. It was sad to part with the X100, it was a lovely camera that’s taken some great photos, but after you’ve been using a faster more modern camera it’s always a bit jarring to go back to something a bit older and clunkier. As my budget wouldn’t stretch to a shiny new X100S, my choice of replacement X lenses were the 23mm f1.4, the 27mm f2.8 or 35mm f1.4. The 23mm while amazing, was really too expensive for me, and also a little bit large and heavy. I wish Fuji would offer a smaller and less expensive f2 variant. Between the 27 and 35 it was a harder choice, both were within budget and ticked the right boxes for sharpness, size and weight. Ultimately I decided the 35mm focal length (52.5mm equivalent) was a little long for my tastes and the truly tiny dimensions of the 27mm helped seal the deal.

So small

The first mockups Fuji showed of the 27mm made it look similar in size to the 18mm pancake. When it ultimately shipped, Fuji surprised everybody by making it even smaller, in fact barely bigger than a normal lens’s end cap. The tiny size and light weight are certainly attractive features, it makes an already lightweight camera system even more portable. Pair it with the 18mm pancake and you can leave the camera bag at home, this lens can be kept in your shirt pocket when you’re not shooting with it! Even though it’s tiny and light, the 27 has the usual excellent build quality you’d expect from a Fujinon.

There was a sacrifice made to achieve that tiny size though – note the conspicuous absence of an aperture ring. This was quite a ballsy move on Fuji’s part. One of the primary appeals of the X series are the traditional controls, the aperture ring being one of the key ways you control your camera. To my pleasant surprise, I find I don’t actually miss it that much. I always found the aperture control on the X100 a little fiddly and can imagine it would have been a similar affair with the 27 given its size. Changing the aperture using the rear thumb dial works nicely (you may need to upgrade your firmware to get this ability if you’ve not been keeping up-to-date).

27mm next to the 18mm pancake

The 27mm f2.8 next to the somewhat larger 18mm f2

The other omission from the lens is less forgivable, that would be any kind of lens hood. While the marketing people will tell you about how great the “Super EBC” coatings are, the reality is if you have the sun in the wrong position you will get lens flare. Hoods also provide valuable protection to the front element without requiring you to compromise the lens’s optical quality with an extra piece of glass. Thankfully nice metal screw in hoods are cheaply available, even for the awkward 39mm filter thread Fuji insisted on using here.

So sharp

The 27 is sharp from corner to corner and at its best from f5.6 to f8. At wider apertures the center stays remarkably crisp, but the corners fall off a bit. The maximum aperture of f2.8 doesn’t make it super easy to throw the background out of focus and this isn’t helped by the rather pedestrian minimum focus distance of 34cm (about 13″). The bokeh you can get can be a little busy, but at minimum focus distance it’s fairly smooth with a pleasing degree of roundness. This really isn’t a lens for people who are looking for serious subject isolation and you’ll be disappointed if you get it for that.

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X-E1, 27mm f2.8 1/125 – Bokeh can be a mixed bag with this lens, either smooth or harsh depending on the subject

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X-E1, 27mm f2.8 1/320 – Here the light filtering through the branches creates a harsher and more distracting effect in the background

For those wanting to maximise depth of field and have everything really crisp, this lens excels. Its practical 40.5mm equivalence and unobtrusive size make it ideal for a range of applications like street or travel photography. Its sharpness and good micro-contrast also lend it to landscape work where you really want as much detail out of foliage as possible to avoid getting a green mush in distant fields and trees.

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X-E1, 27mm f8 1/160
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X-E1, 27mm f8 1/100

Distortion is reasonably minimal and corrected in camera and most RAW processors as you’d expect. Unlike with the 18mm lens, the correction doesn’t overly impact sharpness at the edges of the frame. There is very little to no chromatic aberration or purple fringing to worry about, so shots generally look good without requiring much work. As mention above, flaring can be an issue if the sun or another bright light source hits the lens at the wrong angle, even with a hood you may find you have to adjust your composition sometimes to avoid it. To be fair this is true of nearly every lens so it’s certainly not a show-stopper.

Final thoughts

The 27mm isn’t a lens for everybody, those with deep pockets will likely opt for an X100S or 23mm f1.4. But for anybody looking for a really tiny, affordable lens to make their X series body as portable as possible and with a good all-round focal length, its hard to beat. It punches far above its weight in terms of sharpness, rivalling Fuji’s best performing primes from f5.6. AF is quick and quiet although sadly not internal, so the front element does pump in and out during focusing. The 39mm filter ring is a fairly uncommon size, only the 60mm macro shares it in Fuji’s lineup. This means filters tend to be more expensive than for more common larger sizes, despite the smaller amount of glass required. I found using a step-up ring caused AF to fail so you may have limited luck adapting larger filters . Overall though I’d still find it hard not to recommend this lens, it’s just fun to use and I’ve yet to be disappointed by its optical quality. It does’t replace the 23mm f2 my X100 had perfectly, but no lens in the current Fuji X mount lineup really does.

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X-E1, 27mm f8 1/75

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Fuji XF 18mm f2 R Review

Fuji XF 18mm f2 R Review

Part of Fuji’s original XF lens lineup launched alongside the X-Pro 1, the 18mm pancake prime has a bit of a reputation for being the weakest. The problem is this reputation really isn’t deserved. Sure it’s not quite as sharp across the frame as its 35 and 60mm siblings, but it’s a very different class of lens. What it offers is a really compact, wide view of the world with a bright f2 maximum aperture and crazy close focusing abilities. It can also produce some surprisingly nice bokeh, which is unusual for a wide angle lens. I’ve been shooting the 18mm f2 for several months – in fact it replaced my 18-55mm zoom as I prefer shooting primes and wanted something more compact. So far I’ve not been disappointed.

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The 18mm (left) next to its larger siblings the 35 and 60mm primes

Sharpness in the center of the frame is really good throughout the range. For landscapes I find f8 is the sweet spot for across the frame sharpness. If available light won’t allow that then f5.6 isn’t much worse. Where corner performance is less critical I have no problem using it wide open or at f2.8 for when I need a hair more depth of field. For scenes where distortion is not disturbing, it’s worth using a 3rd party RAW processor that lets you disable the automatic  correction applied by Lightroom, SilkyPix and the in-camera JPG engine. I find this makes the extreme corners a lot sharper. I use Iridient Developer which allows you to disable all automatic corrections, see the sample below for the difference it makes. Applying chromatic aberration correction is also important to get the most from this lens as even stopped down it’s quite pronounced in the corners. It would be nice of course if the lens was fully optically corrected, but then it would no doubt be a lot larger and more expensive, akin to Fuji’s 14mm prime. The trade off for price and size is a bit more work on your computer, but you can still get fantastic results.

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X-E1, 18mm f8 1/320 sec

correction

Detail of the extreme right edge showing the softening that distortion correction causes

The 18mm lets you focus extremely close to your subject, up to 18cm (~7″) which is both interesting from a compositional stand point and lets you experience the surprisingly nice bokeh this lens can produce when the depth of field is shallow enough. Nice bokeh and wide angles don’t usually go hand in hand, and this is an area where the prime handily beats the 18-55mm zoom at f2.8.

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X-E1, 18mm f2.8 1/80 sec

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X-E1, 18mm f7.1 1/125 sec

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X-E1, 18mm f2.8 1/50 sec

So in conclusion what the 18mm gives you is a versatile, sharp, tiny lens with nice bokeh. It does have its flaws, but all of them are correctable with post processing. Compared to Fuji’s other offerings, the 18mm definitely has an edge on the zooms that cover its focal length in terms of sharpness, size and bokeh. It may be outclassed by the 14mm, but it still wins on size and cost by a large margin.

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A Fisheye View

A Fisheye View

Fisheyes are an interesting and exotic breed of lens. They offer a super-wide, uncorrected view of the world, often covering a field of view as great as 180º. Whether used to exploit their characteristic distortion or as a software corrected wide prime, a fisheye is a great photographic tool.

Samyang 8mm f2.8 UMC fisheye

The Samyang* 8mm fisheye is specially designed for use on mirrorless cameras and comes with a variety of mounts to suit different systems including the Fuji X and Sony E mounts. The main benefits of the lens being designed for mirrorless cameras are its small size and light weight. Given you’ll probably not want this lens on your camera constantly, making it pocketable gives you a good excuse to carry it around for when that right moment arises. Presently the Samyang is the only native-mount fisheye for the Fuji X system.

* Samyang lenses are also sold under several other brand names including “Rokinon” and “Bower”.

The lens is made of high quality plastics and metal. As is typical of Samyang lenses, the fit and finish are excellent. The mount is all metal and a thick plastic integrated hood provides some protection to the front element. The lens uses a clip-on style plastic cap that once mounted stays firmly in place. Typical for a fisheye, the bulbous front-element makes using filters impossible. You could possibly affix a small filter inside the mount at the rear of the lens if you were desperate and could find one less than about 35mm wide.

Like all Samyang lenses to-date the 8mm is manual focus and has no electrical contacts to talk with your camera. As such it won’t record aperture information in your photo’s EXIF data. You can however specify the focal length in the settings on your Fuji so that will be recorded. You’ll also need to enable the ‘shoot without lens’ option as the lack of electrical connection will make your camera think there’s nothing in front of the sensor.

You might be wondering if manual focusing with the lens will be a problem, especially if you’re primarily used to shooting with auto-focus lenses. The good news is you’ll rarely ever need to worry about focus – because of its extreme wide nature you’ll have a massive depth of field to work with. As long as you set your focal distance to around 2m you’ll have everything from your feet to the far horizon nice and sharp. If ever in doubt the magnified view in MF mode on your camera combined with focus peaking should make getting tack sharp shots every time simple.

This little lens is extremely sharp, especially when stopped down to between f5.6 and f8, you’ll be hard pressed to find any softness even in the extreme corners. Wider open and the centre remains fantastic but the corners naturally get softer. My copy of this lens is slightly softer in the bottom right corner than elsewhere in the frame.

Samyang-samplesHere are some 100% crops taken at f8. Processed with Lightroom 5.2 using default settings. No distortion correction applied.

Chromatic aberration (red and blue fringing) is well controlled and is easily corrected in software when visible.

Applications

Fisheyes tend to be thought of as novelty or special effect lenses. While they certainly can be used in such a way, software correction makes them usable as super-wide primes, within certain limitations. Even without correction careful framing and composition of your subject can hide much of the distortion.

Landscapes

For typical landscape shots with a fisheye the main rule for creating a fairly undistorted view is to align the horizon with the middle of the frame, that will keep it flat. Depending on your subject you may be able to get away with tilting up or down a little. You could even use the effect to exaggerate the height and shape of a hill or valley.

DSCF8920This square crop of a portrait photo has had no distortion correction applied and the subject matter makes the distortion all but invisible.

Another rule is to try and avoid vertical objects on the periphery of your shot as they’ll appear to bend somewhat comically. Buildings, trees, lampposts, fences and so on. Where possible get them in the centre of the frame where they will have barely visible distortion. Where it’s simply not possible to avoid vertical subjects towards the edges of the frame either for practical or artistic reasons help is at hand. A piece of software called Fisheye-Hemi by Image Trends does an amazing job of fixing vertical distortion while leaving horizontal distortion largely untouched. Most software that corrects fisheye distortion tends to lose large portions of the edges in an attempt to recreate a standard rectilinear projection as you’d see from a corrected wide-angle lens. Fisheye-Hemi solves this problem by applying more limited corrections which don’t skew the edges of the frame.

Interiors

Fisheyes are a great way to show off interior spaces large and small. With such a wide field of view you can get three walls, the floor and ceiling of a room all in one shot. Distortion correction in software may be necessary depending on your subject and desired look, but even uncorrected a fisheye shot can provide a fascinating seldom-seen view. If you can find somewhere with lots of curves to exploit, the fisheye will work wonders.

DSCF9037Again no correction applied to this image, the fisheye emphasises arches and uneven walls.

Dramatic effect

As already mentioned you can use a fisheye to exaggerate naturally occurring curves, be that in man-made things or the landscape itself. In the shot of York station below, the distortion adds to the sense of space and scale. You can also use the lens’ characteristic of making the subject in the centre appear small compared to its surroundings to great artistic effect as well. If there were a person standing on the platform edge in this shot they would appear tiny surrounded by the vast station building for example. Sadly no one obliged at the time! When placing people in a fisheye shot it’s best to keep them near the center to avoid unflattering distortions.

DSCF9402-EditFisheye-Hemi has been applied here to straighten the verticals while retaining the pleasing curves of the platform and roof.

Problems and Considerations

The problem with such a wide-angle lens is its often hard not to be in your own shot, whether you want to be or not. Tilt down too much and you’ll likely have your feet in the photo. Hold the lens too near the end and you may find a stray finger arching in. Even when you hold your camera perfectly you may find your shadow hard to avoid with the sun behind you. Be prepared to experiment to get the best composition and resigned to occasionally having to correct unavoidable intrusions into the frame by your body or shadow in post.

The Samyang is also a little prone to flare, if you’ve got the sun in your shot be very careful about the angle you choose as the lens can produce quite a pronounced ugly flare that will be quite a bit of work to remove in Photoshop.

Samyang 8mm flare example

The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff

There’s no denying that Fuji’s retro styled cameras are things of beauty as well as incredibly powerful photographic tools. With that in mind, when it comes to customising them to personalise and improve their ergonomics, it behooves us to complement rather than degrade that classic look.

The X100 Spoiled Me

I got my X100 secondhand on eBay, at the time for a very respectable sum of £659. It came with every accessory you could want – the leather case, the lens hood, soft release and even a Thumbs Up grip. After totting up the value of these accessories I was initially sorely tempted to put them up on eBay and just keep the X100 itself, but I quickly realised they really complemented the camera, not just visually but practically. The case protects the camera from knocks and scuffs and keeps off light rain. The Thumbs Up grip significantly improves the handling, making one handed operation much better. The lens hood is of course essential, especially with the X100’s lens being a little prone to flare. Although mainly it provides some protection to the front element and provides a useful 49mm filter ring. The only accessory I didn’t find myself using was the soft release, which has stayed in a drawer until recently finding a home on my X-E1.

As I got my X-E1 new I didn’t have the luxury of having several hundred pounds worth of accessories thrown in. Initially I tried my X100’s Thumbs Up on it as the top plate has basically identical dimensions. It fitted reasonably although needed to protrude a little further to mount properly. I quickly decided it was unnecessary. The bare X-E1 has better ergonomics than the X100 right from the outset and its larger lenses deter one handed use in my experience.

Half Case

When it came to getting a case I looked at some of the 3rd party half cases but decided to stick to Fuji in the end. The X100 leather case is lovely and very nicely made. Its main short comings are lack of a tripod mount and no access to the memory card and battery slot. The X-E1 half case fixes the most serious issue by making the memory card and battery slot accessible through a little flap. The X-E1 case also significantly improves the finger grip on the right side of the lens, giving you a better hold on the camera.

Where the X-E1 case falls down, is the supplied strap. To put it bluntly, it’s a piece of crap. The leather backed part is far shorter than the X100 version, the backing is cheap, plasticy and rough edged. I decided I needed to find a 3rd party strap to replace it almost immediately.

Neck Strap

I learned about Gordy’s Camera Straps from the excellent Fuji X Files blog. They custom build leather camera straps, letting you pick the exact length, colour, neck pad and lug covers. I was impressed with how reasonable the price was and decided to order myself one. I’m glad I did because it’s an excellent strap. Thick leather, very nicely finished. As with all leather goods it takes a little while to break-in, but after only a few photo walks it’s already becoming nice and supple.

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Soft Release

As I previously mentioned, I didn’t find the soft release necessary on my X100. The shutter button is big and comfortable enough to use unadorned. However the shutter button on the X-E1 seems slightly smaller and something about it doesn’t feel quite as sure beneath my finger. The soft release nicely corrects that and provides a big concave surface to rest my fingertip against. The shutter button is such a critical part of a camera getting the right feel is important.

Other bits and pieces

As a former Nikon shooter I’m used to having scuffed bits of plastic screen protectors on my cameras. With the X100 I didn’t bother, the full case keeps the screen well protected and I’ve yet to put the slightest mark on it. With the X-E1 I’ve not been quite so lucky and managed to put a slight scratch on the screen after just a couple of months. I’ve since bought a Swido Diamond Clear hard screen protector that is doing an admirable job of protecting it from further damage.

The other must have accessory for your Fuji camera is a bit less glamorous but critically important – spare batteries! The Fuji’s like to chomp through batteries at a speed that will shock DSLR owners who are used to weeks if not months between charges. I’ve got several generic spares for my X100 and a single spare for my X-E1. You can buy official batteries if you like, but I’ve not had any problem with generic ones.

Old Lenses, New Tricks

Old Lenses, New Tricks

When I got my X-E1 I decided to get a mount adapter so I could try out some old film lenses to open up some more creative possibilities. After a bit of research it seemed like m42 screw mount lenses would be ideal. They’re cheap and plentiful as the mount was popular across a wide range of cameras for several decades. I mentioned to my Dad I was interested in getting some m42 lenses and it turned out he had some near mint condition Pentax Takumar’s from his college days. So I took possession of a 50mm f1.4 SMC Takumar and 135mm f3.5 Super Takumar. These old lenses were made at just the right sort of time to have damn good optics and have basic lens coatings which help minimise flare and improve contrast.

DSCF0581Summer, 135mm, 1/500 sec

Both lenses have nice bokeh, the 50mm in particular. The 135mm can show some quite pronounced bokeh fringing wide open so is best used stopped down slightly, at least if being used for a colour shot. It’s impressive how sharp they both are considering their age and the demands placed on them by a 16 megapixel APS-C sensor.

DSCF0859Canalside Garden, 50mm, 1/100 sec

I find focusing the lenses fairly straight forward using the magnified view to check for critical focus.  The X-E1’s 2.0 firmware which added focus peaking definitely makes things easier still. Shooting moving subjects is undoubtedly a challenge so you need to carefully consider your composition and pre-focus as much as possible. The 135mm’s focus ring requires a considerable amount of turning to go through its range which has the advantage of making focus very accurate, but the downside that it can be frustratingly slow if you’re in a hurry.

DSCF5514Impervious to Water, 135mm, 1/320 sec

There are lots of great m42 lenses out there that are easy to adapt to use on mirrorless cameras (and less easily on Canon and Nikon DSLRs). If you stick to names like Pentax and Zeiss you won’t go far wrong. Of course there are plenty of super cheap lenses from obscure branded Russian, Japanese and German companies and some may be fantastic, but it will be a lot more hit and miss. The older a lens is the more likely it will have performance issues on today’s cameras, so if you want a lens not just to use as a toy or special effect purchase, go for a later model with coated glass. Also beware of dust and fungus – never buy old lenses from sellers who don’t show you the innards or at least guarantee the glass is clear. A few dust spots won’t hurt and are inevitable, but fungus and other nasties will degrade the optical quality. Also make sure aperture rings are functional as they can seize up after decades of inactivity. On auto m42 lenses you may need to adjust the auto/manual switch before the aperture will close so beware of that.