The Proven Classic: A Long-Term Review of The Fujifilm XF 56mm f/1.2 R

The Proven Classic: A Long-Term Review of The Fujifilm XF 56mm f/1.2 R

Every once in a while, a piece of gear becomes an instant classic. The Fujifilm XF 56mm f/1.2 R carries that title with pride and deservedly so! I have been using it for nearly a decade and cannot recommend it enough. It's a brilliant lens with flaws that are easy to ignore.

Metal All-Around

As the title says, the entire body of the lens is metal. The barrel of the lens, the large focus ring, the soft-clicking aperture ring, the mount—everything is made of black painted metal, with the exception of the lens hood. Painted black is an important detail to note because if there is one thing Fujifilm lenses are notorious for, it is their inability to stay mint. One wrong look and the silver starts to poke out from underneath the paint. Now, I do not treat my camera gear nicely. For me, they are just cameras and lenses and should be able to survive harsh handling. I often photograph situations where making sure my gear is safe is my last priority. That being said, even after eight years of abuse, bumps, drops, and being thrown in the bag with no regard for scratches, my Fujifilm lenses survived everything with only a nice patina to tell the story. True, the aperture ring has, over time, loosened up a bit, which made it a little harder keeping the lens on the same aperture while pulling the lens out of the bag, but I just got used to the simple act of rotating it fully to the left to get my aperture back to f/1.2 before use.

Full-metal build after years of rough use

So yeah, the build quality of the XF 56mm f/1.2 R is indeed exceptional, even a decade after its release. With only a single gripe which has held the lens back ever since I got it, and that is the lack of weather resistance. As soon as the rain started, I’d always put the lens away and pull out something else, something more sealed. Eventually, Fujifilm would fix that with the release of the newer version called XF 56mm f/1.2 R WR, which I am going to review soon, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Considering the plastic lens hood, I can only imagine that would not survive the aforementioned handling but honestly, once I bought the lens in 2016 I dumped the hood in one of my gear drawers and never touched it since.

A beautiful piece of glass.

Not Fast At All, But Not Terribly Slow Either

The lens focusing group is powered by Fujifilm’s Micromotor, no STM, no linear motor, and no ultrasonic. This means the lens focuses fairly silently, but as the focusing group is fairly heavy and the motor is no powerhouse, it can take a while to move from A to B. In day-to-day use for your candid street photography, portraits, and so it is manageable, but you have to learn to work with it and you most definitely cannot count on it grabbing a subject fast. Tracking subjects in motion is pretty much a lost battle, as well as trying to focus on a subject walking toward or away from you at a walking pace. I’ve learned to mainly pre-focus on where the subject is going to be if they’re moving and that has gotten me most shots of subjects in motion.

Once the subject is stationary, and you’re using one of the phase-detect-enabled bodies, which is the X-E2 (X-Trans II) and newer, it can snap into focus fairly quickly, granted you’re actually using one of the PD points. My best practice was simply using the center point and recomposing after focusing. Everything else just costs too much time and misses focus too often.

Beautiful Image Quality

The lens is famous for it. The way it renders images is nothing short of gorgeous. At the full-frame equivalent of an 85mm lens and with the large aperture of f/1.2, you get truly beautiful and creamy bokeh both in the background as well as the foreground. The nine-bladed aperture renders out-of-focus lights nice and round while the parts of the image that indeed are in focus are captured tack-sharp and full of detail. That was at least until the release of the 40-megapixel X-Trans CMOS 5 HR. That sensor might need the newer version, but the older one still gets the job done pretty well.

Chromatic aberrations as well as LoCA are kept to a very pleasing and manageable level. In terms of image quality, I don’t think I have a single bad word to say. This lens has helped me capture some of the best images of my career and I would not be the photographer I am today if it wasn’t for the XF 56mm f/1.2 R.

In terms of low light, this lens has simply opened up wonderful opportunities. There were many nights where I just walked through the dark streets of either London or Prague searching for a lit-up shop window or a lone street lamp. Most of the time that was all I needed to get a beautiful shot. The lens just sucks light in and gives you an amazing photograph at the other end.

One lovely feature of the f/1.2 aperture is that when shot wide-open the background can slightly swirl around the center, kind of like the legendary Helios 44-2. It is subtle and you have to be at the right distance, but once you get it right, it’s wonderful. One slightly disappointing optical feature is the minimal focusing distance. We're limited to 70 centimeters and simply cannot focus any closer. This can be limiting from time to time.

What Even Is APD And Should You Care?

The lens has been released in two separate versions. The standard one and the one with “APD” in its name. What does the APD version do extra and why does it cost more? Simply put, the APD variant has an apodization filter right by the aperture diaphragm. This filter is more or less clear in the middle but gets darker towards the edges. The resulting effect is yet even smoother bokeh. You can clearly see the difference if you have the images from each lens side by side. The bokeh from XF 56mm f/1.2 R APD is smoother, it falls off nicely from the center, but it is not without cost.

The APD version, although still f/1.2, actually loses a bit of light due to the apodization filter darkening the image edges. This means even though your depth of field and aperture size equals f/1.2, the amount of light hitting your sensor equals f/1.7. The camera knows this, so no need to calculate your exposure, but keep in mind that you’re not going to do as well in dark moments as you would with the base variant.

The second and I’d say most disadvantaging downside to the apodization filter is the inability to work with phase-detection AF points. Regardless of your camera, you will not be able to focus using the hybrid system, and you’ll be left to use only the much slower and clunkier contrast detection system. Considering the standard version of the 56 is by no means a fast-focusing lens, this takes it out of the street photography, wedding photography, and documentary realm altogether. Yes, it will get you gorgeous portraits and bokeh, but you have to take your time and earn your shot.

What I Love About The Lens

  • Beautiful build
  • Full-metal body
  • Compact and light
  • Aperture ring
  • Great image quality
  • Minimal optical flaws
  • Stunning bokeh
  • Shallow depth of field
  • A quite silent operation

What I Dislike

  • Not the fastest AF
  • Lack of weather resistance
  • 70mm minimum focusing distance

A Must-Try For Any Fujifilm User

I haven’t met a single Fujifilm photographer who hasn’t praised the lens at least at some point in their photographic journey. Sure, it is not a fast lens in terms of AF performance, and it does not offer any form of weather resistance, but the image quality, the gorgeous bokeh, and the unique character more than make up for it. And thanks to the fact a replacement has been on the market for some time, the Fujifilm XF 56mm f/1.2 R can be a bargain when bought used. I actually bought mine already used for half the price back in 2016, and it had this one barely visible scratch on it which I was reluctant about. Well, look at the images in this review. I can’t even remember where the scratch originally was. But one thing this lens undoubtedly has, and that is history.

Ondřej Vachek's picture

Ondřej Vachek is a Prague based independent documentary photographer and photojournalist with multiple journeys to war-torn Ukraine where he covered everything from the frontline in the Donbass to the civilian life adapting to the new normal. Avid street photographer with love for writing and storytelling.

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Great and very accurate review. Alas, I wish the minimum focus was 70 mm, as you state a couple of times. I believe it is 70 CM.

Oh yeah. My bad, I'll get it fixed. Thanks!

Ondřej's camera bag must be lined with sandpaper - definitely makes Fuji lenses look cool :)

Years of use and disregard for the gear's well-being :) I've since bought the new 56, but it's getting to a similar state.

This was one of my favorite lenses that I've ever owned. Beautiful shots.

Finally a camera equipment reviewer who is actually a good photographer, and able to illustrate his points with inspirational shots – unlike a whole lot of camera writers out there. Kudos!