When I got a chance to try the new Fuji XF56mm f1.2 I jumped at it, not just because it was substantially cheaper and lighter than the Canon 85mm f1.2 II I’d played with last year, but because this lens is a clear shot across the bow at Canon and Nikon, with a lens aimed at professional portrait shooters. This was a new line in the sand, but could this thing play with the big boys?
This lens has been out a few months now but it’s still hard to find because it’s in such demand. Early pre-production previews raved about it.
When I got my hands on one of the few that became available to market, I shot with it almost daily for a little over 4 weeks to really test the AF and image quality. I wanted to see what 1.2 on an 85mm full frame equivalent gave Fuji shooters. My benchmark was the Canon 85mm 1.2L II which I had access to for 2.5 months last year. It’s a great piece of glass but comes at a price, both literally (it’s more than double the almost-$1000 Fuji 56mm) and in figurative, weight terms (the Canon comes in at a little over 2lbs, about 4 times what the Fuji weighs). That Canon is a beautiful lens but it starts to get really heavy after a while.
This is where the smaller mirrorless cameras really come into their own. I took the XT-1 paired with the 56mm for a couple of events, switching back and forth between that set up and my 5D. Even when I paired the 5D with a lightweight 50mm f1.4, the portability and weight differences between the set ups was like night and day.
I wanted to really put the AF performance to the test. As you can see in the samples here, I shot it in low light all the way through to bright daylight. I also shot a lot of stuff wide open so you can get an idea of what that 1.2 really can give you.
The AF is the only thing I can say I had an issue with. While Fuji is great about putting out lens and body firmware updates to improve AF, I’ll mention it here briefly anyway. For the most part, this thing focuses really well, more often than not, it focuses quickly and on the subject you expect it to. The problem is when, on occasion, it just seemingly had trouble locking focus on something that shouldn’t have been a problem.
It happened as the exception, not the rule, but it happened even in good light, or with high degrees of contrast between focal subject edge and background. Not only that, but often I would get a green "focus locked" square on my subject when it was quite clearly completely out of focus. I just couldn’t figure out why it would sometimes behave like that. When this thing is racking focus back and forth and you’re playing with focus point size or focus area just to get it to lock, and it eventually determines it has indeed locked focus when it quite obviously hasn't, it’s frustrating.
As I said, Fuji’s philosophy of firmware updates to continuous improve the user experience is undoubtedly going to help, and there has already been an update for the lens to provide improved AF when paired with the XE2 body, but it’s worth mentioning, particularly for newer XT-1 shooters who might not have the benefit of updated firmware yet. Is it a show stopper? Absolutely not. Most of the time, the AF did it’s job, but when it decides it doesn’t want to focus, it's both weird because you can't work out why it is having problems, and annoying, because you might be missing a shot.
So, with that aside, what are we left with? Quite possibly, bang for buck, one of the best, fast prime portrait lenses on the market right now. Here's some random sample shots of what the images look like out of this thing.
The images coming out of this thing, even wide open, are super sharp. Edge definition on your subject and clarity is great. The relatively close minimum focal distance and wide aperture means you can get some really insanely shallow depth of field, like almost too much bokeh at times. It’s hard to not be impressed with the definition and edge to edge clarity, even wide open.
2. Build quality
This thing is built like a tank. It sits nicely and relatively unobtrusively on the XT-1 (felt a little front heavy on the XE2, but wouldn’t stop me shooting with it on that body). It’s just a big piece of weighty glass for a very small mirrorless camera. It has a mostly all metal construction and feels like it’s built to last. The manual focus ring has an excellent feel and throw to it too.
3. Image quality
Chromatic aberration and purple fringing was non existent for the most part, and sharp edge to edge, even when wider open. The quality of image just left me pretty incredulous at times. If i didn't have access to my Canon gear, I would not hesitate to shoot an event with this set up and a couple of other lenses. From one event for a client, I provided her with both images out of this lens and those shot with my Canon. The couple she posted to social media? Both shot with the 56mm Fuji.
Obviously the XT-1 body I was shooting with had something to do with overall image quality, but when you pair a $1000 piece of glass with a non full frame camera and see images on a par with a lens costing twice that amount with a camera body that’s more than double the XT-1, you start to realize why it is Fuji is creating such waves at the moment. In terms of value or bang for buck, the image quality coming out of this lens is second to none.
I care about bokeh less than I used to because I don’t always shoot wide open or close to it. For this review, many of the sample images were shot wide open as I know for many people it’s important. If you are a bokeh fan, this lens does not disappoint - creamy and sublime, you’ll love the separation between subject, foreground and background at wider apertures. I did a quick comparison when shooting at f1.2 and then closed down to f8 during at one of Lindsay Adler's shoots for an upcoming Creative Live workshop. You can see the focus fall off between f8 and f1.2 of the 3 subjects and how dramatic that fall off is when wide open.
If you’re shooting with an interchangeable X series body and haven’t yet put the 23mm 1.4 on it, you’ll get a surprise at the heft and weight of the lens compared to others in the line up. Even compared to the 23mm, which is pretty hefty, the 56mm is bigger and heavier. At 14 ounces however, it’s all relative. The lens plus the XT1 together still weighs about half as much as just the Canon 85mm f1.2 lens. Of course, these are different lenses for different systems, but from a portability stand point, you’re getting great images from a portrait lens that, compared to your DSLR equivalent, weighs about a quarter as much. It’s hard not to love the portability and weight savings you make on these set ups, especially if you’re shooting a lot of event work and traveling a lot.
Ok, the occasional focus hunting foibles aside, if you’re an interchangeable X Series owner and you shoot people, especially in lower light scenarios and love shooting wide open, this is definitely a lens you’ll want to get your hands on and try out. This lens is a clear line in the sand, and while it will be interesting to see how Nikon and Canon respond to the Fuji upstart, I’m far more interested at the moment in seeing what Fuji will be bringing to market next.
The Fuji 56mm f1.2 is available from B&H for $999. It’s in high demand so expect stock levels to fluctuate.