|Fujifilm XF 23mm f/1.4 R|
Camera systems are defined by their lens selection, but not all lenses are "definitive" of their respective systems. The Leica Summilux 50mm f/1.4 ASPH is often the first lens that an M system user will acquire, but arguably the Leica experience is better defined by the Summicron 35mm f/2. The same could be said for the Fujifilm system, which is ostensibly a Leica system in spirit, but one made to be attainable. The Fujifilm XF 56mm f/1.2 R seems to get' all of the glory, but the XF 23mm f/1.4R is more in keeping with what the Fujifilm X-system is all about. For those keeping score, 23mm and f/1.4 is roughly the equivalent of 35mm full-frame at f/2; in other words, the Leica analogy applies quite a bit when describing this lens.
Design and Operation
Like some of the other "R"series of lenses, the 23mm is bit on the large side. This is the inevitable downside of fast aperture lenses, as a larger maximum aperture means larger lens element surface areas, and more elements in particular. On any of the Fujifilm bodies ranging from the X-E2 and above, the lens feels somewhat big for casual shooting, but by no means feels out of place. Think of it this way; the extra heft reminds you that you can shoot seriously with this lens, but it reminds you gently without imposing itself. It feels more at home on the X-T1 than it does on the X-E2.
|Fujifilm XF 23mm f/1.4 R on X-T1|
The focus ring features a clutch mechanism to manually switch between auto and manual focusing. Both it and the fly-by-wire aperture ring turn with a pleasantly measured amount of resistance. Autofocus speed is moderate. Though the lens is quick by conventional (non-MicroFourThirds) contrast detection standards, there is a palpable "CDAF-rattle" if you aren't using the X-E2 or X-T1, and even then the focus isn't as precise as the PDAF operation on the Sony A6000.
Subjective Image Quality
In subjective terms, the 23mm produces crisp looking images with a smooth bokeh. As with other mirrorless lens systems, there is a fair bit of electronic correction going with the in-camera JPEG engine. RAW files will show heavy vignetting at f/1.4; not a surprise for a fast aperture prime, but more than expected for a lens of this price. However, geometric distortion is low, even with uncorrected RAW files. The same applies for lateral chromatic aberration. Resolution is fairly high and consistent across the aperture range. The center is fairly good even at f/1.4, but peak sharpness rises progressively, with the maximum at f/5.6.
Though the below samples don't depict it, the amount of field curvature to the focus plane is fairly flat. This gives the lens a different rendition from other lenses where the field curvature bends the plane of focus away from the center as you move out to the corners.
Because lens optical performance is a complex topic, the objective description of such is beyond the scope of this blog. Though there are many aspects to quantify (resolving power, field curvature, distortion, aberrations, etc.), a general sense of a lens’ character can be determined without resorting to lab testing. The following is one aspect; bokeh and apparent background blur with the subject at short distances. (Pikachu is roughly 1.5" tall and is placed about four feet away from the front of the camera. Click on image for a larger view.) In this ad hoc setup, the lens at f/1.4 does a good job of taming the busy background of the product stand behind it.
Though there is a minor amount of bokeh fringing going on, the background rendition is smooth and non-busy. Out of focus highlights in the center of the frame maintain a circular appearance even at f/1.4, though they do distort towards the corners. Fine detail and micro contrast at the center of the frame are perfectly workable at f/1.4, but they do improve upon stopping down.
For the most part, this is a lens that will produce competent results no matter how you use it; however, as it is a f/1.4 lens... and a pricey one at that... you can use it wide open and expect good results.
|Left: X100s Right: X-T1 with XF 23mm|
The majority of X-system users opt for the Fujifilm 35mm f/1.4 XF R instead of the 23mm because the 35mm is the "normal" lens and because it is substantially lower in cost. Both lenses are a good choice, but if you already have the XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 R LM OIS "kit" lens then the benefit of the 35mm's wider aperture won't be as much as the paper specs indicate. While it is true that the 35mm can be opened up all the way to f/1.4 for shallow depth of field effects, the hand-holding advantage is a wash as the 18-55mm has a fast maximum aperture range for a kit lens and also includes image stabilization.
So how is the 23mm different? It comes down to the fact that it is also f/1.4, but at a wider aperture. As the focal length gets shorter, the ability to throw the background of an image out of focus gets harder. Most crop frame users are used to seeing wide angles, but wide angle with some hint of depth of field isolation is hard(er) to do on APS-C. Hence, you can get the "Leica-look" of a 35mm Summicron on the smaller sensor format of the X-Trans system with the 23mm lens.
Speaking of the "Leica look", the 23mm f/1.4R on an X-T1 is technically a better Leica-esque camera than the Leica X (Type 113) is. Though the Fujifilm combination is not inexpensive, it is still less than the Leica, offers more versatility and has a larger maximum aperture. What it doesn't offer is the Leica X's elemental simplicity, nor is it as pretty to behold.
Another consideration would be for the X100s or X100t, which offer dedicated 35mm equivalent lenses in a smaller and more affordable package. The X100 cameras are great street-shooting cameras in their own right, but the f/2 lens that they use is missing a bit of "bite" that would elevate it into the "great" category. The optical quality of these cameras is good, but not good enough to make you take notice. As well, f/2 is not f/1.4... the difference might not be much, but the 23mm f/1.4R is able to to produce just a tad bit more bokeh, something that APS-C are at odds to produce at wide(r) angles.
There is no denying that it is expensive for casual photography use. Wait for rebates and incentives, as this lens becomes a much better buy when they are in effect. In summary, this is a lens to consider if you are a dedicated street-shooter or travel photographer. The quality, optical and construction-wise, is high enough that the lens will maintain a high level of re-sale value on the secondary market should you ever need to part with it.
With thanks to Broadway Camera