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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Taking good photos without a DSLR or 50mm lens

Today I saw (via Daring Fireball) a blog post on Prolost titled  “How to take good photos for under $1,000“. The author states a bunch of things I disagree with that I’d like to address. I think there are a lot of misconceptions out there about ‘serious photography’ and frankly I would probably have believed all this stuff myself five years ago.

Don’t buy a DSLR

DSLRs, even the entry level consumer ones, are big pieces of technology. The chances are at any given time you want to take a photo you’ll have left the camera at home because it’s too big and awkward to carry with you. There’s a reason the iPhone is one of the most popular camera’s on the planet, it’s effortless to have with you. Mirrorless “compact system cameras” (CSC) aren’t as small as an iPhone, but many are pocketable, purse-able or generally unobtrusive enough to have with you without getting in the way. What’s more the image quality between CSCs and DSLRs is basically the same. All that bulk in a DSLR is coming from supporting legacy lenses and mirror boxes to allow through-the-lens optical view finders, neither of which are necessary to take great photos but are instead throwbacks to the days of film.

The other, oft overlooked, factor with DSLRs is that they intimidate people. If you want natural looking candid photos of people who aren’t used to having big black cameras thrust in their faces, a smaller, more friendly looking CSC will help set them at ease.

Don’t just buy a 50mm lens

The so called “nifty 50” lens was standard in the film days, it’s a simple, cheap lens that lets you throw the background out of focus and provides a nice general purpose field of view. Perfect. The problem is on anything other than a 35mm film camera or expensive full frame DSLR it’s actually a 75mm equivalent lens. Suddenly it’s not so general purpose anymore. What this means in practical terms is that at the same distance to your subject on a crop sensor DSLR (like the Nikon D3200 or Canon Rebel that Stu Maschwitz recommends), you’ll see a lot less of the scene. Where on a full frame D800 you’ll see all 4 kids, on your D3200 you’ll maybe see just 2 and a bit. That means to get more people into the photo you’ll have to stand further away from your subjects, and that’s not always possible or practical. Forget about doing large family group shots indoors unless you have a huge room or want to stitch images together in Photoshop.

If you want to recreate that 50mm look on crop sensor cameras, you need something like a 35mm prime instead. These do tend to be a bit more expensive, but you’ll use it a lot more as it’s a more versatile focal length. You can also get some fixed lens cameras like the Fuji X100S or Ricoh GR, that have wide fast primes at 35mm and 28mm equivalent focal lengths which are even more general purpose. For reference the iPhone camera has a roughly 28mm equivalent focal length.

Do use Aperture Priority, but don’t then just set it and forget it

You’ll have way more fun with photography if you take some control back from the camera’s onboard computer. Don’t just shoot wide open all the time though, especially with a 50mm prime. People move, photographers move and in the time it’s taken you to focus, recompose, say “Cheese” and push the shutter button, the subject’s position will have changed enough that their eyes are no longer sharp but the tip of their nose is. Choosing an aperture for a given photograph is a compromise between available light and the depth of field* required to have your subject in focus. Like everything there’s no one size fits all solution and just going ‘wide open’ all the time isn’t a panacea for pleasing photographs. In the wrong circumstances it’s as likely to wreck as to make a picture.

*Depth of field is the area in front of and behind the point in space you have focused on. As your aperture gets wider (smaller f number) it gets shallower and as your aperture gets narrower (higher f number) it gets deeper. Depth of field also decreases the closer you get to your subject and the longer your focal length is.

Do use Auto ISO

The ISO capabilities of DSLRs and CSCs are amazing these days, it’s generally safe to go up to at least 1600 and even higher with some models (ISO 3200 is definitely usable on Fuji X series cameras). After that things can get a bit mushy and blotchy, so it’s a good idea to experiment to see what your tolerance for such artefacts is.

Only manually set your focus point if there isn’t a better option

Personally I like using the focus and recompose method, but it’s not necessarily the best option for all situations. If your subjects are moving around a lot and you’re using a wide open aperture you’re going to miss focus with this method. Lots of cameras these days have face recognition, if your camera has that and you’re shooting people: use it. Similarly cameras with good subject tracking AF will do a better job than you in many cases for moving targets.

Do Shoot RAW, but understand what it means

Shooting RAW is like shooting film in the sense that when you’re done you have a bunch of negatives that need developing to see the end result. Most RAW processors like Aperture, Lightroom and so on produce fairly flat boring looking default conversions so do expect to have to invest some time not only learning the tools but fiddling with sliders to get the look you want. If you don’t want to spend long periods faffing with the computer over the holidays, consider shooting RAW and JPEG mode, that way you get the immediacy of a hopefully nice looking JPEG and the option to go back and further tweak an image to your hearts content later on. Fuji cameras in particular shoot very pleasing JPEGs with great colours.

Don’t machine gun it

You’ll end up quite quickly with thousands of terrible pictures which you’ll spend hours sorting through trying to find the handful of keepers. Cameras these days have vast numbers of megapixels, and if you’re shooting RAW images that quickly means many tens of gigabytes which you then have to sift through, edit, organise and (hopefully) backup in perpetuity.

Instead actually think about your shot, where is your subject, what are they doing, would it be better if they moved a bit, or if you moved. Composition is one of the most important parts of photography, the spray and pray method works on the assumption you’ll get lucky  with a few shots and miss tens or even hundreds. Why not set out to make every shot you take good rather than leaving it to chance? The more you learn to compose your images nicely in the viewfinder or on the rear screen, the quicker you’ll get and more natural it will seem. Spray and pray is a crutch for bad photography.

Also again think of the intimidation factor of someone holding a big black camera in your face clicking away like a machine gun, it’s just not very nice. Not a good way to get the best from anyone remotely camera shy or young children.

Get a flash if you want to shoot in the dark

If you want to take really great photos in crappy light you need to use a flash. Ideally you want a flash you can angle so it’s not blinding your subject, but bounced off the ceiling or a wall to provide nice soft, even illumination. You can get a basic model which will be more than adequate for $50 or less. Pop it in your camera’s hot shoe, point it at the ceiling and snap away without worrying about crazy high ISOs or blurry low shutter speeds.

I think I’ll wrap this up here, hopefully I’ve given you some food for thought if the Prolost article was swaying you towards a DSLR+50mm combo.

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.