Thursday, October 31, 2013

Fuji 23mm f/1.4 lens - Hands-on review

My "Hands-on" reviews are just that. As a working professional, these are my impressions of  equipment as I subject it to the typical situations I face in regular use.  I slant my report to how well the equipment fits in with work style and requirements of the user. I don't spend a lot of time enumerating each and every specification. That is easily obtained in profusion elsewhere on the internet. Instead I concentrate on the information I, myself, would want to know about the behavior and performance of camera equipment. I hope you find these impressions useful. 

Fuji's latest X-series 23mm (35mm equivalent) has been a greatly anticipated lens -- a favorite of street shooters, low-light shooters, photojournalists, videographers desiring shallow depth of field with a wide angle, candid shooters, shooters only wanting to carry one fast aperture lens with them, and me. It is the focal length that Fuji put on its first X-camera, the X100, the one that started it all, and the same focal length Sony chose for its full-frame RX1.

The moderate wide angle Fuji 23mm f/1.4 lens shown on an X-Pro1. 
When I received my photo call from Jeff over at Fotocare that the first Fuji 23mm had arrived and was waiting for me, I ran over the shop where I also met up with Brandon, the Fuji rep, who had the same lens mounted on a pre-production X-E2. So we also got to talking a lot about the camera, too.

Brandon, the Fuji rep, with his X-E2 and 23mm f/1.4 swapping portraits with me. 
The first thing that impressed me about the 23mm was its size. It is rather large for an APC lens, even considering the fast f/1.4 aperture. In fact, it is almost the same size as the Fuji 18-55mm zoom, and adding the scalloped lens shade makes it appear even larger. It weighs in at 10.6oz (300g), which is not very heavy for a fast aperture, auto-focus lens of this type. Size wise it comes in at 2.83"D x 2.48"L (72 x 63 mm) and takes a 62mm filter, same as the 55-200 zoom. It has a maximum aperture of f/1.4, closing down to f/16. Minimum focus is 11.02" (28 cm) for a .1x magnification -- not super close, but about standard for the lens type.

A Fuji 23mm f/1.4 lens on the new Fuji X-E2 body.
I ran the lens through its paces and included a download link for many of the shots below that illustrate significant points. Take a look at them. They say more than I can and should help you inform your own opinion of the Fuji 23mm lens.

Showing a size comparison of Fuji lenses: 18-55m zoom on the left, 35mm f/1.4 in the middle, and 23mm f/1.4 on the right.
A feature of the lens similar to that of the 14mm is its push-pull focusing ring that allows switching immediately from auto to manual focus. On the left the lens is set for auto-focus with the ring pushed forward hiding the distance scale. On the right the ring is pulled back ready for manual focus and revealing the distance scale underneath.
I ran the lens through several situations to test its sharpness, both wide open at f/1.4 and ideal aperture at f/5.6. The image below is one of the better practical tests I did to show the difference in sharpness, both in the middle and on the edges, between apertures.

Some obvious allowances should be made for the fact that this rock is not perfectly flat so depth of field can make some areas appear deceptively soft. Over all, however, I think you will find that this is an extremely sharp lens wide open both in the center and in the corners, and at f/5.6 it is nothing short of sensational.  There are two links below where you can download a high res version of both f/1.4 and f/5.6 images.

The lens feels good. It focuses fast, is comfortable to hold, and due to its large size fits nicely on my X-Pro1. If anything, I am not a fan of scalloped lens shades. They seem unnecessarily large on short focal length lenses. I already found myself leaving it off when there was no absolute need for it.  That is the only negative thing I have to say about my experience using this lens, which says something in and of itself.

A real attraction for a 23mm (35mm equivalent) lens with a very fast aperture is its ability to deliver wide angle bokeh at f/1.4, as this shot and the one below demonstrate. 

Click here to download a high res version of this file.
With their lens hoods on, the 23mm Fuji lens (on the right) is even larger in size than the 18-55mm Fuji zoom (on the left).
This f/1.4 image deliver both appealing background bokeh and sharp detail in the foreground tree where it is focused. Click here to download a high res copy of this image. 
The larger size of the 23mm lens is a perfect fit for the X-Pro1. 
A sharpness test.  Click here to download a high res version of this image shot handheld at f/5.6

The Pond in New York's Central Park. 

Another bokeh example shot at f/1.4.  Click here to download a high res version of this file. 

Want to see what this lens can do?  Check out the high res version of this photo shot hand held at f/5.6. 

Taking the same scene as the one above you can capture it in a complete different way by changing the angle, and opening the lens to f/1.4 for a shallow depth of field.  Click here to download a high res version of this file. 

F/2.8 allows me to keep most of the foreground sharp yet still render the background quite soft.

This is a good shot to show off the sharpness of this lens.  It was taken at f.2,8, closed down enough to improve sharpness but not so much not to keep the background soft. Download the high res version here to see just how sharp The Bard can be at f/2.8.

For me, the series of images below were the most revealing. I took the lens mounted on an X-Pro1 with me to the studio. We had a shoot featuring a character model where we were going to reel through many blue-collar scenes. Normally I shoot this on a Nikon D4 with an 85mm f/1.4 lens or 70-200mm zoom. As I began shooting, I realized it might add more realism to the situations if they were done with a moderately wide angle lens instead. I didn't have one handy for the Nikon, but I did have the X-Pro1 and 23mm lens with me. This allowed me to get in much closer and the f/1.4 aperture still allowed me to keep the background soft while the model was in focus, all of which resulted in a more casual look to the situation.

I was very happy with the results. The Fuji not only delivered an exceptional image with very accurate color, but the lens was always sharply focused at f/1.4.

Whenever I photograph people I put the focus point on their eyes. The focus point of the Fuji was a little to big for that, but locating it over the models face mostly did the trick. The 23mm (35mm equivalent) focal length is what gives this image its casual, candid, in-your-face look.  The f/1.4 aperture is what provides the shallow depth of field. 

This is a scene set up in one of our studios. It is lit only by the one window you can see in the back meaning that the front of the scene is very backlit, even though boosted by the large reflectors you see on either side. Take if from me, it is very difficult for any camera to focus on a model's face in this situation. Reason being there is low contrast and low light. I am always over-shooting in this situation just to be sure I have an in focus shot. And the Fuji?  Surprise. It was dead on focused every time. 

I place the focus point on the models face. The camera was set for an ISO of 800 with an aperture of f/1.4, meaning no room for error. I had more successful in focus images from the Fuji than I normally would get from the Nikon, and that is saying something. The thing about a lifestyle shoot like this is to keep it looking believable, and not look like it was done in a controlled studio with professional models.  Both the Fuji camera and the lens helped my do just that. 

Focus point here was on the face and eyes. Everything else is in a varying degree of softness.  Once again, it was shot at f/1.4 so I was able to achieve a wide angle effect and get in tight while still keeping everything else soft. 

Photographers who have been using the X-cameras from the onset have begun to expect big things from Fuji, relying on them to deliver a product that is excellent and coupled with a follow-up support that corrects mistakes immediately and makes improvements as technology advances. It is little wonder the X-cameras have attracted a cult following, me included. The latest addition to the optical X arsenal, the 23mm f/1.4 is yet another excellent addition to a growing complement of support optics. Making a great camera is one thing, supporting it with well thought out, high quality accessories is another matter. Fuji seems to be working to such a plan, one that has been working well and keeps gaining followers. The 23mm lens is yet another step in the right direction -- high quality optics, speedy and accurate functionality, comfortable ergonomics.

This lens mounted on a Fuji X camera is as good as it gets.

If you are planning on purchasing this camera or lens, you can help support this site at no extra cost to you by purchasing from one of our affiliate sellers listed below -- and thanks for your support.

Fujifilm XF 23mm f/1.4 R Lens can be ordered from:  BH-Photo    Amazon

Autumn comes to Central Park

Autumn usually come late to Central Park. I went there yesterday to see how the colors were progressing. The day was lightly overcast, which lowered the usually stark contrast and allowed for a  smoother transition of colors. Normally I like photographing autumn scenes in a strong backlight to bring out the brilliance of the colors, but in the park is often difficult to find an ideal position from which to take the photo. So a soft overcast was my preferred choice. Here are a few images taken around the Pond and Lake with a Nikon D800. I chose images featuring a dominant yellow-orange hue in celebration of Halloween today.

I was also testing the new Fuji 23mm f/1.4 lens on a Fuji X-E1 for a hands-on blog review I hope to have ready for tomorrow.

This is The Pond, the first body of water you see entering the park from its lower end.

A colorful wood duck and autumn reflection in the Pond.

There are a number of people who create huge soap bubbles in the park as a means of picking up some money from tourists. I tipped this guy a little extra to have him create some bubbles that would pass in front of the tableau of yellow autumn leaves for this photo. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Does Sony's A7R mean a D800x or D4x will be Nikon's next big move?

This post is base on deductions gleaned from the way companies work in predictable patterns. Sony has been making sensors for Nikon cameras for some time now.  A year or two later the same sensor makes its appearance in a new Sony camera model. Such appears to be the case with the 36mp sensor in the D800 now appearing in the Sony A7R. This is not unusual behavior. Companies typically purchase not only technology, but the right to exclusive use of that technology for a period of time. The question this begs is what happens after the time period runs out.

With the Olympics coming up Nikon is due for a major announcement in pro cameras. The company is going to have to trump the Sony A7R with something bigger. Speculation has centered around a higher megapixel D4x. This vision derives directly from the former D3x as a high megapixel pro version camera. There is, however, one thing wrong with this vision: A high megapixel camera -- especially one higher than the D800 -- does not really gain anything by being put into a bulky D4 body. Such a camera would be unnecessarily cumbersome. My guess is that the next iteration of super-high megapixel sensor will take the form of a Nikon D800x where it makes that same sense as Sony's offering of an A7 and A7R.

My guess is that this new D800x will come out with something like a 54mp sensor and be announced early next year in keeping with the hoopla surrounding the 2014 Winter Olympics coupled with the fact that the Sony A7R will be arriving in photographer's hands in late December of this year. Nikon is going to need something big in order to jump to a new dominant level.

And what about a D4x? Well, there is nothing to stop Nikon from borrowing a trick from the Sony A7-A7R series and coming out with a 24mp D4x. That, plus a 54mp D800x, would cover all the bases and trump pretty much everyone.

Monday, October 28, 2013

First hands on observations of the Sony A7 A7R

The 36mp Sony A7R with 35mm f/2.8 Zeiss Sonnar lens.
I had a chance to handle the Sony A7 and A7R at the recent PhotoPlus show in New York. The camera itself is quite impressive -- very compact and well balanced, particularly with the hand grip. The view finder seemed very quick and responsive, but all in all very similar to the current accessory model made to fit the RX1 and RX100. I have this accessory and found the behavior characteristics to be very much the same.

The menu system and controls bear a strong resemblance to the RX1 and RX100 cameras.
Seeing the camera next to some of the lenses intended for it confirmed one of the chief concerns and suspicions I had about such a small sized, full frame camera. Wide aperture lenses for full frame cameras are very large, disproportionately so on a camera as small as the Sony A7. For this reason Sony had slow aperture lenses made for the series. The two Zeiss zooms are f/4. The 35mm is f/2.8, and the 55mm is f/1.8, which is as fast as it gets and is a rather large lens for this camera body.

A slow f/2.8 maximum aperture on the 35mm lens allows for a compact package on the A7, but it isn't going to win any kudos in low light shooting, which is where this prime lens type is often used.
There is nothing wrong with slow aperture lenses except when you want a lens that delivers good bokeh and low light capabilities. A 36 megapixel camera costing over $2000 is a pro level machine. Fitted with the slow aperture Zeiss lenses, good as they are, is going to hamper its usability for many.

Another thing to consider with the A7r is that a 36mp camera demands exceptional optics to take advantage of what the sensor can do. Buying a camera like this and putting a kit lens on it is a complete waste of money. On top of that, a high megapixel camera puts a  high demand on how the camera is used. Sloppy technique will result in sloppy pictures.

To obtain the image quality a 36mp camera can deliver is going to mean putting the camera on a tripod, using a cable release or delaying the shutter to eliminate motion blur. I learned this lesson the hard way working with a Nikon D800. Returning from a scenic shoot out west I found that many of the images had a softness to them that was much more severe than I ever obtained from smaller megapixel cameras. I finally traced this back to those images where I had not used a tripod. Even though I photographed on a sunny day with what would normally be considered a sufficient shutter speed to stop motion, the shots were soft from slight blurring. I learned my lesson and ever since then have only used a D800 on a tripod. Nikon had warned about this problem in its description of the D800. Turned out to be solid advice.

The 28-70mm variable aperture f/3.5-5.6 zoom is the kit for the A7 series. I am just not sure of the wisdom of putting a kit lens -- especially one starting at 28mm and with a slow variable aperture -- on a camera of this quality and price. 
The smaller and lighter f/4 version of the 70-200mm lens is shown on the right next to its bigger brother, the f/2.8 model on the left. A large lens like the f/2.8 zoom is going to dwarf this camera and probably be so out of balance that it will be difficult to hand hold comfortably. I have a 70-200mm Nikkor lens that I use on the D4 and D800 where it handles quite well, I have also adapted it over to fit a Fuji X-Pro1, which is similar in size to the Sony A7. It works well, but is very cumbersome to use. 
This is not to say the camera cannot deliver sensational images. I am certain it can do that. It is just that I do not see the A7 as a system replacing the best of what is out there high resolution, full frame machines. Like it or not, we are still stuck with a larger DSLR full frame camera if we want the ultimate in performance in all situations.

The attractiveness of mirrorless camera systems is their small size and comfort coupled with high resolution capability. This has worked quite well for cameras up to the APS sensor size because lenses and accessories can also be small and comfortable without sacrificing quality and desired features. As mirrorless systems begin pushing out to a full frame sensor size, they are going to encounter roadblocks that hamper the combination of convenient design with high quality in a professional sense.

That said, I am sure the Sony A7 and A7R will become runaway best-sellers and top notch cameras. I might even pick one up myself, although I won't be rushing off to do so. I just can't see this camera system replacing my pro DSLR system, particularly because it will cost as much.  That means I would have to maintain both systems, and I am not sure the convenience of the smaller scale, full frame mirrorless system is worth a sizable investment for an occasional use camera.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

First look at the Fuji X-E2 and 23mm f/1.4 lens at PhotoPlus

Fujifilm booth at 2013 PhotoPlus in New York
Fuji had its new X-E2 prominently displayed along with the soon to be available 23mm f/1.4 lens. I have both of these items on order so I was anxious to see them in the flesh.

I did not expect the 23mm lens to be as large as it was. It is almost a full frame dimension lens. On the plus side, the larger size does provide larger rings for both aperture and focus.

The Fuji 23mm lens on an X-E2.

Focus and viewfinder refresh seemed to be much enhanced with the X-E2.

Manual use of the lens is greatly enhanced with the larger sized rings.

A proto-type of the Zeiss Touit 50mm macro lens due out the early part of 2014 was not available in a Fuji X mount, but it was interesting to see it just the same.  Even without its hood it is quite a long lens.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Walden Pond as seen with the Nikon D800

I generally use a Nikon D800 for shooting landscapes because of its high resolution that results in ultra large images. In my previous blog post I showed the images I took with a Fuji X-E1. They are very different from what I did with the D800, and I realized it is because the two cameras handle so differently.

This photo was taken late in the afternoon with a very bright sun and no fill light. It takes a very good camera, like the D800, to be able to open the deep shadows without any sign of noise in a situation like this. Typically, on an exceptionall bright and clear day such as this the scene would wind up as a silhouette instead of having the tree trunk and leaves showing full detail and color.
This image is a composite panorama of two D800 photos for a final total of 143mb file that is super sharp.
This is a close-up shot of the autumn reflections in the water from the above scene, done again as two images combined to make a super sized panorama.