Mini Review: The Fujinon XF56mmF1.2 R Lens

Fujinon 56mm 1.2 LensHey Fujifilm friends, I just picked up a new Fujinon XF56mmF1.2 R lens for my Fujifilm X-E2 and wanted to put together a quick post about it for anyone shooting a Fuji system, or perhaps thinking about moving to the Fuji system. This is not going to be a data heavy or geeky stats type of a review where I talk about the number of elements and groups (it’s 11 elements in 8 groups by the way), or how many blades make up the aperture diaphragm (cough…cough…7 blades), or any of that nonsense. Google will certainly satisfy your apatite for hard numbered, heavy image comparison, pixel-peeping reviews that are available out there already, so I don’t really have anything useful to add to that conversation. But what I do offer is more of a practical guide to the application of the lens to my photography, why I selected it, and a few things to consider when deciding if this lens belongs in your bag or not.

Anyone who has read more than an article or two around here has already figured out that I am primarily a portrait photographer. I will shoot products occasionally and I will even take a picture of a landscape from time to time, but my real passion is people. I find people infinitely interesting and nothing gives me more satisfaction as a photographer than getting a photograph that truly captures the essence of my subject. Shooting portraits of people is in large is why I moved from Canon to Fuji in the first place. Why is that you may ask? Well, it’s very easy to get caught up in the gear, especially with us photo nerds, but as time moves on I have found that I really care less about megapixels and more about how my gear can facilitate my end goal, that of pulling a interesting and unique image from my subjects. I want to put a smile on my subject face, as well as my own, when they see the photograph.

To that end, my gear selection is slanted toward shooting portraits of people and I am very keen on any tool that will help me to create more stunning and interesting images. I say all of this to point out that is why I refrain from any attempt of objective gear reviews. When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right?

So in my desire to create better portraits I have been getting different lenses in the Fujinon lineup and using them exclusively for a period of time to really try to understand each lens, to really know it, learn it’s personality, and when to use it as opposed to any of the other lens choices. You really have to know your tools to get them most out of them, right? I started with the “kit lens,” the Fujifilm XF 18-55mm F2.8-4.0 and to this day I am still impressed by the image quality of that thing. What a great all around lens!

Next I picked up the Fujifilm XF 14mm F2.8 wide angle lens, and while I rarely have an opportunity to use it, there is just no substitute for a great wide angle lens when you need it. It is small, light, sharp, and at 2.8 it’ll pull out light when I need it as well as provide a decent amount of bokah.

After the 14mm I picked up the Fujifilm XF 55-200mm F3.5-4.8 zoom lens and instantly fell in love with it as a portrait lens. That lens spent quite a bit of time on the front of my X-E2, but as handy as it was, it was a bit too slow for some of the shots I needed. When I say, “slow,” I am referring to how wide it’s aperture can be opened up to allow for a shallower depth of field. As far as low light situations and it’s ability to capture sharp images at slower shutter speeds, it’s image stabilization is amazing and allows me to get almost 4 stops more of flexibility. It’s a very good portrait lens, especially in the studio when I’m shooting around the f8.0 area and is still one of my go to lenses. It’s very reminiscent of the venerable 70-200 f2.8 that you either already own, or at least dream of one day owning on the Canon and Nikon side of the fence.

The next lens I purchased was a bit of a “happy accident.” A great friend of mine, Kellar Autumn, a very talented macro photographer, captures the most amazing gecko and small creepy crawly critter images that you’ve ever seen. He recently acquired the Fuji flagship X-T1 and the Fujifilm XF 60mm F2.4 macro lens which I of course had to have my way with. I quickly discovered that the 60mm macro lens makes one heck of a portrait lens and was back on Amazon, yet again, buying another lens. Faster than the 55-200 that was my primary lens at that point, the 60mm gave me some extra speed at 2.4 that the 55-200 couldn’t. The 60mm gave me a shallower depth of field, better low light capabilities, and much better portability since it is impossibly small. Seriously, the thing is tiny for a 2.4 lens and it’s lens cover is about the size of a quarter (sorry, a United States coin). Don’t underestimate this option as a great portrait lens. I don’t think I have ever taken a single macro photograph with it, but if size and weight are a factor, stop right here, you’re done looking.

As far as my system goes, I was pretty much set in the lens department, or so I thought. I was aware of the 56mm 1.2 lens but didn’t really think much about it, at least at first, since I was very satisfied with the images I was getting with my current lens lineup. But I couldn’t help noticing the sheer amount of kudos the 56mm lens was getting as a phenomenal portrait lens, it’s sharpness even while shooting wide open, and the overall image quality that it seemed to always produce. My ears started to slowly perk up a little bit as I read more about the lens’ specs, mainly around the speed of the lens and it’s ability to shoot in even lower light than I could shoot in now. I started to casually research the lens and became very intrigued at first, then flat out obsessed with getting my hands on one to try out to see if it was really as good as it was touted, as well as how much better than my current favorite, the 60mm it could serve as my primary portrait lens. For a sanity check I asked some of my trusted Fuji’ers about their thoughts and it was overwhelmingly unanimous, the 56mm was not only superior to the 60mm as a portrait lens, but it was also considered to be the best lens available in the Fuji line of lenses. Unfortunately I didn’t have immediate access to one to try out so when I saw on Fuji Rumors that they were available and on sale, I threw caution to the wind and ordered one.

Almost one agonizing week later* my new lens finally arrived, mere minutes before I was about to leave for a scheduled photo shoot (which you can read about my workflow and philosophy of dynamic problem solving). I viciously tore at the box until it produced the lens, powered it on to give it a quick function check**, then bolted out the door for my photo shoot***.

*OK, I know that sounds somewhat dramatic, but as anyone who knows me can attest, I have zero patience when it comes to waiting for new gear. Worse than kids and Christmas…really.

**One of the first things you must do with any Fujifilm product is check for and install the latest firmware. Fuji is known for constantly adding new features products and backporting them to their existing products. Gold star, Fuji!

***Taking new gear to a photo session can be disastrous and is not recommended, unless you’re me, who as we’ve already established is worse than a kid on Christmas. Never change anything before a photo shoot…except perhaps your underwear.

Fortunately for everyone involved, the new lens performed remarkably well, (and I did have my 60mm with me as a fallback since I’m not totally irresponsible) and it felt like any other of my Fujinon lenses which is to say I didn’t notice it other than it being a bit larger. To expand on that let me just say that once you shoot portraits, you never want to think about your camera and settings. You want to know your gear well enough that you instinctively and subconsciously work through your settings as your primary focus is put on your subject and your rapport with your subject. Not that the settings aren’t important, they’re of paramount importance, but after enough time with your gear you intuitively know where all of the dials and levers need to be. When was the last time your thought about driving your car?  You don’t, you just do it, right? Sorry for the tangent there, but the reason I dive into that subject is that the 56mm 1.2 lens is not disruptive to your workflow. It works just like most of the other Fujinon lenses which is more than I can say of the 14mm I have.

As stated earlier, the first images I took with it are already posted along with my article on Problem Solving and Workflow, so you can see the first shots if you like on that page. Unfortunately haven’t gotten much of an opportunity to use the new lens for much personal work to add here to demonstrate the lens’ abilities. So why even bother posting a review, even a so called mini-review about it? Well, I wanted to give you a bit of background about as to how I selected it and my rationale, and, you guessed it, I will be adding more updates about it as I start using it as my primary, at least where applicable, portrait lens. This will be a chance to put it to task doing what I normally do with my glass as opposed to running around shooting everything I see simply to provide a lot of out of context photographs to pixel-peep. Again, there are plenty of excellent reviews on the hard numbers and accompanying test images out there for your preview. But I won’t leave you completely unsatisfied. Below are some actual sample images where I’ve had the opportunity to use the new lens and a little bit of back story about the resulting photograph as well why I reference it in a review.

One of the thing I really adore about the 56mm lens is its f1.2 aperture. That huge light sucking hole,  especially when in concert with the X-E2’s outstanding performance at high ISO’s, practically allows you to see in the dark. I am literally giddy with the pictures that I can capture from the depths of darkness with this combination that simply wouldn’t be available to me in the past, well at least anything that you could reasonably expect to work with and achieve a photograph that didn’t look like a bad Daguerreotype. It’s an incredible low light solution for sure, but it does introduce some issues when operating in this context which I’m sure you already intuit, but it’s still worth mentioning. Obviously when you’re shooting using a large aperture your depth of field is going to narrow. But the extent of which it’s narrowed at 1.2 was surprising to me, especially when up close to my subject. It is just a sliver of focus that can render the image unusable if not executed with a precise focus point. There is zero margin of error. If you focus on the tip of an eyelash as opposed to the lens of the eye, you’ll see it in the resulting image. I have to move the focus point to the exact place I need to be crisp while using the smallest focus point setting I can manage, which can be tough to do in low light situations. You can forget about focusing with the center point and recomposing. The slight shift in focus plane will be enough to pooch the image. But when done properly, the ultra-narrow depth of field is also an awesome creative element allowing you to deemphasize everything else in the image but the one place you wish to draw the view’s eye to in the final image. The other thing that I learned when capturing images in very low light is the extent of which things are moving. I know that sounds silly and obvious, but shocking when you’re shooting at a shutter speed that wasn’t available to me before. I thought I know what I could and couldn’t get away with as far as my steady hand holding, or the movement of the subject. This lens has redefined my limits. But again, it’s another tool available to me as an artistic element where perhaps I do want my subject or at least some element in the photography, to exhibit movement.

Just a quick example of the shallow depth of field when shooting at f1.2, a snapshot of my daughter, focused on the eyes. Notice just how fast the sharpness rolls off, and how the focus of the eyes is different since my sensor’s plane is askew with the plane of her eyes. And I’m not even really close. Imagine how dramatic it would be if up tight for a head shot. Crazy, eh?

XE2-3239

At a medium distance the roll off is not quite so abrupt and gives a pleasing bokah and removes the emphasis from the unimportant elements in the photograph. I know it’s all about context, but generally speaking, this seems to be the sweet spot for the lens.

XE2-3415

To show what it looks like with a bit more distance, here’s one more with it wide open, well almost wide open. Even though it was overcast, I had to close down to f1.4 since my shutter speed couldn’t go any faster to compensate for the light gathering ability of this lens when wide open. At this distance it is slightly more forgiving of precise focus area and yields a bit larger area of sharpness.

XE2-3530

The ratio of a “sharpness zone” to distance given a certain aperture is a bit of an adjustment if moving from a full frame sensor system, or to a certain extent, a micro 4/3 sensor system. The Fuji’s APS-C sensor size does affect that “sharpness zone” ratio differently so just be aware of old assumptions if you’re new to this lens and platform. It’ll take a little getting used to and experience to know where your aperture needs to be for your desired effect.

Speaking of aperture settings, I did put together a composite image to demonstrate how this lens on an APS-C system will affect your bokah and “sharpness zone” at a given f-stop. Again, this would have looked dramatically different had the focus point been significantly different. I shot this comparison (I know, I said there wouldn’t be comparisons in this review, I’m a welcher) with the focus point on the same pumpkin in the center of the frame. These aren’t full sized exported TIFF files so don’t expect that level of detail, this is merely a quick chart to demonstrate the roll off and bokah in front and rear of the focus point.

all-pumpkins

If you would like to download the composited image, click here.

I have to say that having those extra, and still extremely usable, f-stops certainly add more flexibility to my tool kit. For example, while trying to take pictures at a busy pumpkin patch I was getting frustrated with all of the people milling around behind us (and kids photobombing us) so with a little twist of the aperture ring, they’re no longer a problem. Even without going all the way to f 1.2 you have the ability to quickly throw the background out of focus in a way that my 55-200 just wasn’t capable of doing. The photograph below was taken fairly close and was shot at f 2.0.

XE2-3785

One other observation I’ve had with this lens is how much color it adds to my images. I thought I was hallucinating at first but doing some testing validated that I really was getting more saturation. Seriously. In fact I had to change my import settings in Lightroom and reduce the luminance slider a tick to keep the images looking normal.

In this next image, I was trying to give myself as much latitude as possible so I closed down to f 3.6 (was going for f 4.0 but needed to compensate a tick for the ambient light) just to be sure I had everyone’s eyes in sharp focus. I really would have liked to had a clutter free background so again, trying to use the lens’s super shallow depth of field to my advantage as much as possible. Although I wasn’t confident enough with a new lens to press my luck with the aperture, it’s wonderful, buttery, bokah really does wonders for a less than perfect setting and puts my attention back on the subjects. I am really falling in love with this lens.

XE2-3616

I know that this review is getting a bit too long for a Mini Review, as well as being extremely light on actual photographs (and don’t forget, many more photos with it here), but I wanted to share why I decided to add another lens to my kit and how it compares, at least for the portrait work I typically shoot, to the rest of the Fujifilm lens lineup. So I’ll wrap it up by saying that for the limited amount of time I’ve had with this lens, I’m extremely impressed with the images I’m creating with it. It appears to be incredibly sharp with its sweet spot hovering around f 8.0, but is still shockingly sharp when opened up to its widest apertures. I love that I have the ability to blur out the elements of the photograph that detract from the subject as well as having much more latitude in low light situations.

I’m looking forward to getting into the studio for the next round of testing with it and seeing what I can get out of it with my strobes. From what I’ve seen with it so far, it should be pretty epic. So stay tuned for the next “Mini Review” where I put it through it’s paces with my speedlights as the primary light source instead of just as fill for the ambient. After all, this is a site pretty much dedicated to lighting, right?

And one last bit of my rationale to move forward with this lens instead of its APD version. Although I really dig the APD’s ability to turn the bokah up to eleven, it does come at the cost of about one f stop of speed since the internal apodization filter (or APD filter) consumes some of those photons being sucked into the front of this lens, as well as the additional monetary cost of $500. That’s a lot of clams for that one little trick (and the ND filter that comes with it). Oh, and the fact that it’s not even available, which in no way weighted my decision (remember, no patience).

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