Fujinon XF 16-55mm f2.8 R LM WR versus four Fujinon primes: 16mm f1.4, 23mm f1.4, 35mm f1.4 and 56mm f1.2
We all know the commitment Fujifilm has to provide the best lenses one can have. We also know, as a rule of thumb, that zooms are for versatility and primes for optical quality and image rendering, but how significant is the difference? What are we losing when the option is to use a zoom lens instead of prime lenses? And, when it comes to the most relevant focal lengths what would we do if we could try and test the trans-standard option against prime glass? Based on lab and field tests I will try to provide some answers.
I’ve been using Fujifilm X Series since 2012, exclusively since 2014. I have had and used pretty much everything they’ve launched, from the X-Pro1 to the X-Pro2 and I’m quite familiar with the system; I use Fujifilm for everything I do and yes, I do make a living behind a camera – http://www.johngallo.co.uk
Fuji is now offering three trans-standard zooms: the entry-level XC 16-55mm , the XF 18-55mm and the premium Red Badge XF 16-55mm f2.8. The line-up is completed by the XF 18-135 f3.5-5.6 R OIS WR, although this lens is a bit beyond what a trans-standard zoom in essence is. All of them have pros and cons, like everything in life. Although I’m a user of both XF lenses, the 18-55mm and the 16-55mm, this article will focus on the Red Badge zoom when compared with the more expensive primes covering the same focal range in the Fujinon lineup, the 16mm, the 23mm, the 35mm all f1.4 and the 56mm f1.2 (regular version, no apodization filter).
On the one hand we all know that versatility is the best attribute of a zoom lens – on the other hand we also know that nothing will get closer to prime lenses regarding optical quality.
On the money side of things a fraction of the required investment to buy four primes brings home a nice and neat zoom, covering the exact same focal range. Weight? Practicableness? Another easy win for the trans-standard zoom.
But when it comes to maximum aperture and the ability to really work depth of field as a relevant characteristic of your photography and/or to use available light to get the image you need in difficult conditions there is nothing like prime lenses. Sharpness? There is little a zoom can do here… It is what they say, isn’t it?
The Imatest stuff
There is no but when it comes to absolute figures: relevant lab data will enlight us, right? The average maximum aperture of the primes is f1.35, let’s round it up to f1.4. The gap is two stops, so whatever you find yourself doing the zoom will force you to use a higher ISO setting to keep shutter speed. Say, at ISO 1600 and 1/60 @ f1.4 in any of the primes you will have to use ISO 6400 @ f2.8 with the zoom, which will result in added noise. Or 1/15 shutter speed to keep ISO at 1600. This particular zoom doesn’t have optical stabilisation therefore slower shutter speeds may be a problem and blur is likely to occur.
But what is the resolution of the prime lenses and of the Red Badge zoom at full aperture? The relevance of the question is enormous: when using these four primes at full aperture you will be losing roughly 15 to 25% resolution (sharpness, MTF) when compared to the zoom resolution at full aperture (centre of the frame). This is a lot. It is a trade-off: as the aperture increases the resolution diminishes. Your option, either faster shutter speeds and less noise with primes or increased sharpness using the zoom lens according to the MTF chart. Nevertheless, motion blur contributes to a general perception of less sharpness as well as increased noise does. Difficult? Sometimes life sucks. By the way, do not forget the reciprocal rule and be aware that the smaller the sensor the more conservative you have to be when applying the rule. A monopod or a tripod may help… depending on the subject you’re portraying.
The primes are “merged” into just one lens for the sake of simplification; the resulting figure is the average of all four lenses combined, against average values of the zoom lens across the available focal range.
16-55mm average across all focal lenghts at full aperture (f2.8): 0.53EV
Primes average, all combined at f2.8: 0.39EV
At f4.0, zoom 0.35EV, primes 0.32EV
The trans-standard lens seems to put up a very good fight here, specially due to the fact that at f2.8 it is at full aperture, unlike the primes.
Same criteria as above.
16-55mm trans-standard average across al focal lengths: 2,71% barrel
Four primes average: -0.6% pincushion
Needless to emphasize the advantage of the XF primes here…
Yes, you got it, same criteria.
16-55mm trans-standard: 0.91 pixel
Four primes: 0.31 pixel
Again, primes are much better taming chromatic aberrations. Make no mistake here.
The chart below needs little if any explanation; it is absolutely clear and unmistakable. The higher the number, the better. Zoom lens data always before the prime counterpart data; highlighted in green the best at the given focal length/aperture/centre, border or extreme of the frame.
The above array of numbers also establishes a hierarchy within the prime lenses, regarding resolution and resolution only. The champion here is the Fujinon XF 23mm f1.4, followed by the 56mm f1.2mm; then in third place we find the 16mm f1.4 and finally the 35mm f1.4 – Fuji, when are you going to replace this lovely but dated piece of glass by a much more substantial 33mm f1.0 with LM and WR? In doing so you would also be making a statement, a very good one by the way… Looking forward to it…
To conclude this boring data stuff I have to say that at 16mm the trans-standard zoom has 5.6% barrel distortion with the other extreme (55mm) having 2.4% pincushion distortion. Both values are too high to ignore, specially when one takes into account the weight, size and price of this Red Badge lens. The 24-70mm f2.8 USM L II from Canon (full frame) has 2.8% and 1.3% respectively, nearly just half… Nikon’s equivalent Nikkor lens has 3% barrel distortion at 24mm and just 0.5% pincushion at 70mm.
Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 USM IS for Canon APS-C cameras has 2% barrel and 1.15% pincushion distortion at the wide and tele ends of the zoom, respectively and this is not an L-Series lens. Nikkor equivalent for their range of APS-C cameras (G Series though) has 2.18% barrel distortion at 17mm and 0.87% pincushion at 55mm.
Regarding resolution the Fujinon is better than any of the two APS-C lenses from Canon or Nikon which is absolutely expectable: it is a much more recent piece of kit, therefore distortion should have been on par, not under engineered.
Fujifilm’s other option, the XF18-55mm f2.8-4 R LM OIS, has 4.6% barrel distortion at 18mm – not brilliant either although better, but only 0.78% pincushion at 55mm. Overall, the 18-55 has less resolution in the centre of the frame but is surely much better in the border and extremes of the frame. Sure, Fujifilm’s firmware corrects in camera these issues, but the final result is always worse than what it could have been if lens design was better regarding distortion. After all, auto-correction is a lossy procedure and the price we’re paying for this Red Badge stuff raises higher expectations… Fujifilm released firmware version 1.12 for the Red Badge zoom lens improving chromatic aberration correction.
Out on the streets
OK, enough of this lab wording and let’s go out to the field, press the shutter button and notice the differences between these lenses.
All photographs have been taken with an X-Pro2 body, carbon fibre tripod and remote trigger.
I have taken a set of four pictures with the trans-standard lens at four different focal lengths: 16, 23, 35 and 55mm, at f2.8, f4, f5.6 and f8 respectively. Then I did the same using the matching set of primes. The following photograph is only for illustration purposes (Fujinon XF35mm f1.4 R@f8). A set of 32 high-resolution pictures is available for download here – 6000 x 4000 dpi, ISO 200, Tiff files, straight ACR RAW conversion, no filters applied. Note, they are all (in camera) corrected RAW’s.
If you want to get to know how each one of these lenses performs at different apertures in the real world feel free to download the files, open them and fiddle with it. This is the real thing. Files are named in a simple way: focal length, aperture.
I did spend a lot of time carefully comparing them and I have to say that lab figures are correct for the majority of the images/comparison at hand. Indeed, the trans-standard zoom is far from brilliant in the border and extreme of the frame, being easily surpassed by the prime lenses. Have a look yourself – this may be an issue for some users and completely negligible to others – it really depends on what type of photography you do, your personal style, how often you use lenses at their maximum aperture and how important resolution is when trade-off is versatility. At 16 and 23mm the Red Badge zoom performs extremely well in the centre, at 35mm performance is very good in centre as well. At 55mm performance is not that good, although acceptable. Border and extreme of the frame are the Achilles heel of this Red Badge lens. When compared to the XF 18-55mm at 55mm the cheaper trans-standard is globally better resolution wise than the “pro” lens. I dare say, based on my experience as a professional photographer relying on Fuji X Series gear to make a living, that the logical, balanced option is to buy the XF 18-55mm f2.8-4 R LM OIS (not weather sealed) instead of the higher-priced, heavier 16-55mm Red Badge trans-standard (weather sealed).
If all the other features of prime lenses are pivotal for you, then do not hesitate, buy the set of prime lens on show, they will outperform any trans-standard zoom lenses one can dream about, except for versatility and weight – weight that you’ll add to your bag and remove from your bank account. The full set of primes tested here amount to more than £2600.00 (UK, January 2017) which is a lot of money by any standards. Furthermore, if rain, dust and freezing conditions are your playground, only the 16mm f1.4 is weather sealed: all the other primes tested here aren’t.
In short, pros of the XF 16-55mm f2.8 Red Badge trans-standard zoom:
- Very good to excellent resolution in the center of the frame
- Weather sealed
- Outstanding build quality
- Constant aperture throughout the entire zoom range
- Easy and smooth to operate; everything has a firm, pleasant look and touch
- Controlled vignetting, even wide open
- Versatility, it can cover an extreme wide range of subjects, in almost every environment and situation
- Price, given the optical performance in the border and extremes of frame
- Weight and size, given the optical performance in the border and extremes of frame
- Optical performance at the borders and extreme of the frame, specially from 35mm onwards and from f4 onwards
- Distortion at 16mm and 55mm – unacceptable at this level of pricing; this is Fujinon’s reference trans-standard zoom for the X series cameras
If you can live without weather sealing you’d be better off buying the Fujinon XF18-55mm f2.8-4 R LM OIS trans-standard; with the addition of image stabilization, better resolution in the borders and extreme of the frame, lighter, smaller and around 30% cheaper it is a no brainer: a very solid performer with the right size and balance for the X series cameras.
For the real thing when it comes to speed, image quality, extremely controlled distortion, CA’s and vignetting, think about at least these three primes: 16mm, 23mm and 56mm. They are the ultimate photographic tool for those that do not need versatility and are not willing to compromise on image quality, bookeh and depth of field as a composition tool. Remember though, only the 16mm is weather sealed…
The 35mm is getting out of date – slower focus, noisy, no WR – optical performance should be better, specially if you think of this lens as THE lens to have in any system, given the focal length (roughly 50mm full frame equivalent). Fuji?
John Gallo, January 2017