Hi guys. My name is Victor and together with Ronja I'm part of Muse & Mirror, a wedding photography duo. I'm also a Fujifilm X-Photographer for those who care. I'd like to start with saying what this blog post is about:
- General thoughts about focal lengths for portraiture
- Fujis primes, their real life efficiency and my hands-on experience with them
I won't bore you with charts and stuff as it doesn't matter to myself and you can read those reviews elsewhere.
I decided to write this article for two reasons. The first one is that I coincidentally have all of Fujis „portrait“ primes at home at the moment. The second reason is that I've read tons of stuff about all those focal lengths before buying but never saw them in such a broad comparison, so I thought that this could be helpful for any of you that are a little bit lost on which one to choose. For those of you who don't know me: I use Fuji for all my work, but I have two dominant sections which are wedding photography (+ portraits) and Fine Art Composings. So I think my review suits people photographers the best – at least this is what I will focus on.
Focal lengths for portraiture
There's something I read so often and it annoys me every single time. It's the question about which lens is the most flattering for portraiture. The reason for this question being obsolete is this one:
There is no focal length which is the most flattering, because it all depends on the face of your subject and the effect you aim for.
To illustrate the perspective distortion of different focal lengths I grabbed some picture from the web. This happens when you choose your shooting distance to equally fill the frame with a subject (in this case the woman's face and neck).
You should add that every focal length creates a different kind of intimacy or elegance (meant to describe a rather neutral display of what you see with your own eyes – so speaking about getting proportions right). The key to using your lenses - no matter if you are using Fujifilm, Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fuji, Olympus or something else - is being aware of how your tools effect the outcome. For our wedding photography I heavily rely on 23mm (which is 35mm as a full frame equivalent), because it creates a feeling of intimacy and closeness and puts the viewer right into the situation. Is is flattering? In many cases it is not. But I compromise on that aspect to make an image more immersive. I will try to underline where I see the strengths and weaknesses of those lenses and speak about my impression after using them for paid work as well as for my personal stuff.
Lenses to be reviewed: Fujinon 35mm, 56mm, 56mm APD and 90mm
These are the lenses which I tested in comparison. Some of you may argue that I left out the very popular 23mm (APS-C) / 35mm (FF). Yes, I did, but I don't consider it to really be in the same category as you use such a short focal length in portraiture only for two reasons... A) create intimacy and/or B) to show context. I pretty much never use that focal length to do portraits of single persons. That is style-dependant of course and some of you will do it in a different manner.
All the Fujinons have something in common: They are black, are beautifully crafted pieces of metal and glass and feature an aperture ring (why don't all manufacturers do this?).
Let's start with the cheapest and shortest of those lenses. The Fujinon 35mm. To start with I'd like to express how much I ADORE that lens. I love it. Full frame users can compare that focal length to their 50mm lenses (52,5mm to be precise). This one can do everything. I could do a whole wedding with it and I'd trust it to produce beautiful portraits without hesitation. It is very flexible and wide enough to capture some context while still being able to create a charming look, blurry backgrounds and isolation (bokeh). If I had to do a job with just one lens this would be it. Some time ago I didn't even go wider than this for any type of work. That changed by now, as sometimes you want to get more of the situation – sometimes you want to show context and get the whole story in the frame.
The 56mm twins. At first I just had the common 56mm 1.2 which gained a reputation of being knife-sharp, which is a great achievement for a lens with a 1.2 aperture already. Along goes its beautiful sister, the 56mm 1.2 APD – bokeh should be smoother, light gathering capability diminished and focus slower. I hesitated for a long time to go those extra miles (hey, it's 500€ difference) without knowing if that would even be an improvement. I will tell you about my findings of course. :-) This focal length is the most common for portraits – many photographers consider it to be the „standard“ focal length for that.
The rather new 90mm f2 is the only contender to come up with the new AF-mechanism (quick and silent) and also the only one to feature a weather sealing. I was very excited to try it out and put it to work. All other lenses are well known and tested but as I'll field them against each other it may be of special interest – let's see where it is going. :-)
Hands on experience
As someone who earns money with photography the optical quality is of great importance, because it effects the product I deliver in the end. After extensive testing I can assure you that the 35mm, 56mm(regular and APD) and 90mm all have outstanding optical quality. On my photographic journey I have used different systems and plenty of masterpieces ranging from legendary manual lenses to legendary contemporary lenses of different brands. The Fuji primes are right there with all those fabulous optics - in most cases above them.
The versatility, ergonomics, autofocus, weather sealing, etc. all contribute to an overall experience and also to a more effective way of shooting which leads to better results.
It already got a lot of praise in this article and rightfully so. The images it produces are sharp – even at 1.4. But I have to admit that from my experience it settles on the last place regarding sharpness between those 4 lenses. The strongest assett of that lens – for me – is not the sharpness though. It is the outstanding ability to render beautifully... rich and smooth. The lens adds dimension to the photos, I just like to look at them. Other than its competitors it is wider and as a side effect much more versatile. The bokeh is very seldomly shaken up when backgrounds get busy and there are many highlights.
The fact that this lens survives between all those heavy-hitters speaks volumes. It is light, small, optically wonderful. But it also has its quirks. AF is very responsive in good light and more on the slow side when it becomes dim and darker. It hunts a lot then, which somehow still doesn't hold me back from using it. It is the perfect compromise for me between context and sufficient subject isolation – and it is untouched in its flexibility. The motor of the lens sounds rough, but overall the Fuji cameras don't struggle with being loud at all. So this is more of a convenience-thing. If I'm outside with my girl this is our companion most of the time.
One thought that constantly crosses my mind is to try the 16mm/35mm combo instead of my usual 23mm/56mm combo for weddings. Yea, you had to get much closer in general, but maybe that would give a very interesting and immersive vibe to the pictures. If anyone already tried that out, I'd love to hear how it worked out. The biggest problem of that lens is that I use 2 lenses on 2 cameras for weddings... as the 35mm is right in the middle, I give the favor to the 23mm and a long lens to have an answer for different situations.
Here is a recent example of a portrait and the perspective that this lens gives when you fill the frame with a head-to-shoulders portrait:
Fujinon 56mm 1.2
The Fujinon 56mm 1.2 is already one of the classics in the line-up. It has a perfect size and weight to balance on a bigger body (X-T1 in my case). Black, metal, glass, perfectly made – I love that, did I mention this? On my wedding jobs I juse my 23mm about 60% of the time, the rest gets covered with longer lenses. The 56mm is at the top of its game... especially after FW 4.0. (X-T1/X-E2) and of course with the new generation of bodies (X-Pro2 and X-T2) it is really quick enough to be used very conveniently and reliably. It is sharp. Damn sharp. To make it clear: sharpness on all of those lenses is outstanding so every differences are really minor. In contrasty situations I find the 56mm to suffer from a little bit of chromatic abberations, but generally speaking its optics are very clear and corrected.
56mm 1.2 relates to a 85mm 1.8 FF-equivalent. Most of you already worked with that focal length, I guess. For a longer lens this lens is extremely flexible. It is very easy to use, has outstanding light-gathering capabilities and works a charm. As a wedding photographer I am constantly facing dim light and with such a lens I am still able to retain reasonable ISO. For this use it is awesome! Bokeh. A really important matter to many people although I think that really impactful images aren't in need of an outstanding bokeh, but that's another thing. This lens delivers a very pronounced bokeh, which ranges from utterly beautiful to solid. It is not buttery smooth if the background gets really wild and can get a little harsh at times. Funny I realized that this harsh bokeh gives the impression that the unsharpness of the background is even stronger than when I look at a perfectly smooth bokeh – guess it's all in my head though.
It is a workhorse, always solid performer and creates fantastic images. I really like to use it, but I also just had to try the 90mm and APD-version in comparison.
Fujinon 90mm f2
The images are brilliant, even more so than the 56mm 1.2. It is tack-sharp and the background blur is very appealing. I knew that this would be a specialty lens, because of its long reach. For a wedding job this means two things: 1) You can take pictures from very far away, without your subject noticing and without annoying anybody with your presence. This is especially helpful for wide venues with long distances (I find it really strange to approach a few strangers which are standing separated and creep around them doing pictures... this only really works in a more crowded place). 2) You will get big problems as soon as the venue is not wide. You may do close-ups in those situations, but I would almost always give the favor to my beautiful 23mm in those situations. The lens is plenty fast. In good light it is quite a bit faster than the 56mm while being virtually silent. It is just pure joy to use it. When the light gets darker the AF performance evens out more and more with the regular 56mm. With 90mm I need shutter speeds of at least 1/125 to keep everything steady. In combination with the aperture of f2 you hit ISO6400 rather quickly as soon as the sun goes down. I was used to using the 56mm 1.2 so it even felt more dramatic than it probably was. For portraits this lens created more space between you and the subject. Some like this, some don't and others don't really have an opinion on that. My personal preference is mood-dependant and of course it also depends on what I said at the beginning of this article – the focal length has to fit your subject's facial proportions. The area in which this lens trumps everything else for me are full body shots. For me there is a simple rule for creating flattering full body shots. „The longer the focal length (and wider the aperture) the better.“ This way proportions get more and more neutral which is what you most probably like when doing this kind of shots. The separation and rendering of the 90mm is gold there. I would favor it over any of the other lenses here – given enough space to move around. The weather sealing was very tempting for me, because the X-T1 bodies are sealed, but most lenses are not. To be honest I never experienced a problem with moisture or a little rain with any of my cameras and lenses I used in my life. But it is always a way better feeling to check that point on your list and comfortably sit in the rain (ha ;)), doing beautiful pictures.
Is this lens for you? For me it is all about the focal length. People who use two bodies can easily combine that one with the 23mm or something else (35mm, 18mm, etc.) and shoot all kinds of stuff. Try it for yourself. The 90mm f2 as for itself is gorgeous! Objectively speaking it's in the first place of all the Fuji lenses I used so far.
Example shot with the 90mm F2.
Fujinon 56mm 1.2 APD
This is the most exotic lens you find in that comparison. Before talking about my experience I want to say that I love how it looks on my X-T1. Together with my leather strap you can't deny that this one looks friggin fabulous. That already beautiful look which is even enhanced by red numbers. Ok, let's stop drooling. I was hesitant for a long time to try this one out. Probably the biggest reason being its hefty price tag of 1300€, which makes it the most expensive prime in the Fuji line-up. I read much about that lens ranging from „there isn't really an optical difference at all compared to the regular version“ to „it renders noticably more beautiful“. In the end I had to try myself. Firstly I'd like to talk about the downsides: The light gathering capability is diminished by about 1 stop (a little less maybe) and the autofocussing is limited by the fact that this lens only uses CDAF (contrast detection auto focus), which is on the slower side but perfectly precise. The autofocus will not allow to capture action in a reliable way – but it was never meant to do that. For this reason it is less of a workhorse-lens than the common version. I know that many prefer a quicker and smoother way of working over optical perfection. I wasn't sure about myself.
Fuji gave me the lens to test it and I put it to work for portraiture, a real wedding and a styled shoot to put it through its paces. It is a beast if you are ready to handle it. It is even sharper than the 56mm 1.2 (only so very marginally though as the regular version is already damn sharp) and the bokeh trumps everything I layed my hands on – ever. It is buttery smooth. As smooth as it gets I would say. The rendering is just flawless. What became very apparent to me was a perfect rendering of out-of-focus foreground. The smoothness of the bokeh bests all other offerings, just barely superior to the 90mm. This becomes relevant, when backgrounds get busy or when a single image is of great importance (editorial and stuff). The questions that will pop up for all of you will be:
Is it worth to sacrifice light and AF-speed for the even better IQ?
And the answer is „it depends“. It is less versatile for wedding photographers that demand their gear to have fast reaction time while it is the undisputed champion for portrait photographers. I rarely use the longer lenses when action is happening. They are my tool when there's no way to overcome a distance to my subject on when things are slowing down. So the longer lenses are for certain situations. As I'm in the knowning that this lens gets real effective when I have the time to focus and to compose my image, that is where and when I mostly use it. So the most important thing for me is to know its strengths and weaknesses. As I'm a wedding photographer and rate versatility and responsiveness a little bit over bokeh-perfection, I'm momentarily using the regular Fujinon 56mm 1.2.
Example from the 56mm 1.2 APD:
I tried to give an overview over those sweet gems I tested. There are surely plenty of points still not adressed and of course many of the things I stated are a matter of subjective preference – that is perfectly fine. I can quickly get lost in all those reviews and such and in the end it is almost the best way to try the lenses out yourself. Not all have the possibility to do so and maybe you had an interesting read about my findings and my experience with that gear. I tried to put them in perspective to each other to make the differences a little more tangible and to give it some kind of a buyers' guide character.
So to round things up, I will end my article with my own personal ranking:
1. Fujinon 35mm 1.4
2. Fujinon 56mm 1.2
3. Fujinon 90mm 2.0
4. Fujinon 56mm 1.2 APD
1. Fujinon 56mm 1.2 APD
2. Fujinon 90mm 2.0
3./4. Fujinon 56mm 1.2
3./4. Fujinon 35mm 1.4
Ergonomics (AF-speed, handling, noise, weather sealing):
1. Fuji 90mm 2.0
2./3. Fuji 56mm 1.2
2./3. Fuji 35mm 1.4
4. Fuji 56mm 1.2 APD