Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Fujifilm XF 16-55mm f/2.8 R LM WR Hands On First Impression (Pre-Production)

Fujifilm 16-55mm on X-T1 Graphite Silver Edition

Fujifilm's X-system began life as a rangefinder analogue, the anti-DSLR system if you will. It's the system that many DSLR users go to when they look for lighter weight, but don't want to give up image quality. However, the introduction of the X-T1's mini-DSLR form factor signalled that the X system was maturing, diverging and expanding back into some of the photographic territory covered by traditional DSLR's. One hallmark lens of the DSLR space is the 24-70mm f/2.8 (full frame equivalent) normal zoom lens. Like some of the other crop alternatives on other systems, the XF 16-55mm f/2.8 R LM WR approximates this type of lens on Fujifilm's crop X-Trans format.

It's a familiar and unfamiliar lens; in fact it's both if you work back and forth between mirrorless cameras and DSLR's. Fujifilm enthusiasts will most definitely find it big and heavy for an X-system lens, but DSLR users will find the heft similar to lenses like the Nikon AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8G IF-ED or the
Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM. There isn't a lens quite like it in the current X-system lineup, so can a DSLR-esque lines find a home in the Fujiflm lineup?

First some specs:

  • Weather-resistant, 14 sealed points
  • 0.06 seconds autofocus speed
  • 17 elements in 12 groups: including 3 aspherical lens elements3 ED elements
  • Nano-GI coating to reduce ghosting and flare
  • 9 blade aperture, 1/3 EV stops
  • Minimum focus distance 30cm
  • 77mm filter thread
  •  655g
  • MSPR $1,199.95 USD

As many people have picked up, this lens lacks image stabilization. This is a bit of disappointment as there was some hope for stabilization when the lens was first announced on Fujifilm's lens road map, and given the price point, it does seem as though the lens is expense for the lack of it. So what happened? It seems like Fujifilm ran into the same issues that the other manufacturers faced; the inclusion of a floating element on a fast normal zoom means some degradation in image quality. An example of this is between the old non-stabilized Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 lenses and the stabilized VC version; it's not just that the VC version isn't as sharp, the whole sharpness profile is different. You can see the same between Nikon's and Canon's 17-55mm crop lenses. Canon has IS and the Nikon is un-stabilized. The end result is that the Canon falls under the category of a consumer grade lens (and an expensive one at that) whereas the Nikon is a no-compromise professional grade lens.

Professionals will tell you that normal zooms don't need image stabilization because the focal length isn't that long and the glass is "fast-enough" at f/2.8. Part of that is true and part of it is force of habit; however, given a choice of only one between the two, most paid shooters would prefer to have better image quality rather over image stabilization. However, like any sane person, professional shooters would be ecstatic to have both. That seems to be the direction that Fujifilm went with with the 16-55mm f/2.8... prioritizing quality first. Fujifilm already has an excellent normal zoom lens in the form of the Fujinon XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 R LM OIS. Its a stop faster than most kit lenses, and with the built in image-stabilization it theoretically gives better hand-holding advantage than the new 16-55mm f/2.8 constant when photographing non-moving subjects. To that end, the 16-55mm seems as though it was made to be different, not just better than the beloved 18-55mm f/2.8-4.

In size and heft, it's quite reminiscent of how the the Nikon 17-55mm feels on Nikon's crop bodies; it "shoots heavy". When mounted on the X-T1, the weight is definitely front-heavy, but that isn't so much of an issue as the whole camera/lens combination tends to be stable for hand-held shooting. The total weight isn't excessive, especially when compared to a similar system on Canon and Nikon, but the handing is better suited for event photography and portraiture than street/travel. The design is in keeping with the other XF-series of lenses, and includes the same drive-by-wire aperture control ring.

With limited casual use, the subjective impressions of the image quality are very positive. (Note: this was a pre-production lens, so samples are not available.) Image rendition is crisp and contrasty, and it gives life to the way the X-Trans sensor renders images... the "Fujifilm-look" if you will. The bokeh rendition appears to be pleasing, and seems to have the same quality that lenses like the XF 23mm f/1.4 have; the shape of the background blur is fairly round when shot at f/2.8 and so are the out of focus highlights. There didn't seem to be much in the way of bokeh fringing. All in all, it seems to fit in with the mission of this type of lens. Normal zooms are often used in events where the environment is dynamic and changing. In such circumstances, the best lenses are the ones that are transparent in terms of their operation... you don't notice flaws and shortcomings as much and therefore spend less time thinking of ways to short around them. As a workhorse lens, it's the natural companion to the XF 50-140 mm f/2.8 R LM OIS WR, though annoyingly, both lenses use different filter diameters; the 40-140mm uses 72mm.

This likely won't be a lens that will appeal to all X-system users, but it does round out the capabilities of the overall system. For travellers and street shooters, the venerable XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 R LM OIS would probably still be the lens of choice. The new XF 16-55mm f/2.8 R LM WR can do that too, but it looks like a great workhorse lens for event photography.

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