It’s the lens, stupid! – Fujinon XF 23mm F1.4 R review

In the days of film, serious photography was the territory of either professional photographers or dedicated amateurs. Nowadays, everyone is a photographer, often with themselves as the subject. In fact, the Oxford Dictionary’s most popular word of 2013 is “selfie.” But we don’t look to selfies for great quality. It’s not always about composition, light or subject – very often it is all about the camera.

We all fall into this trap sometimes. In the pre-digital era it was normal to use the same camera for years or even decades without needing to buy a new one. The digital revolution changed all that. Almost every year a hot new camera comes along that makes all the previous gear irrelevant. We get pumped up when we get the latest device, only to want one with new features a few months later. For example, have you got a panoramic ball camera yet? 

However, there is one thing that hasn’t changed since the days of film. Those who have been true practitioners of this craft know that it is not the camera. To paraphrase a famous election slogan, it’s the lens, stupid!

In the last few years the rise of mirrorless cameras has meant that several new camera systems have appeared on the market. The design of cameras differs but most photographic gear offers similar image quality. The main difference between the systems is the quality of lenses. Yes, you read it right. Those who sing the praises of their newest toys in online forums should first take a look at the quality of the lenses. The lens is as important (if not more so) than the camera or sensor. How often do you see an expensive camera bonded with a cheap, poor quality lens?

As you know, I have used Canon and Nikon for many years but about two years ago I switched to Fuji X-system cameras. There are many reasons for this change of heart but the main reason was that I wanted the superb calibre of Fujinon lenses.

It all started with the Fuji X100, a game-changing camera with a premier, built-in lens. Then we got the Fuji X-Pro1 with new line of lenses – all of them very bright and super sharp. Despite their relatively young X-camera system, Fuji has already introduced two standouts – XF 35 mm F1.4 and XF 14 mm F2.8. We own them both and consider them one of the best lenses on the market. It is not that the rest of the Fuji lenses are not good but these two are just extraordinary pieces of glass.

The latest addition to the X-series line-up is the XF 23 mm F1.4. The first thing that struck us about this lens was its size. It is even larger than a wide-angle XF 14 mm. When attached to the Fuji X-Pro1 it feels bulky but solid. Its build quality is superb with all-metal mounts and a high-grade barrel. The focus ring is nice and smooth. The only let down is a plastic hood, which feels cheap.

One of the most important features of this lens is the traditional aperture ring on the lens barrel. This attribute allows a photographer to have a special connection with the lens when shooting. It not only enriches the photographic experience but let’s you indulge in the process of image creation. Kudos to Fuji for going this route!

While physical attributes may or may not appeal, image quality is something everyone wants and this lens delivers! Attached to our Fuji X-Pro1, this lens produces razor sharp, three-dimensional imagery. We have been shooting with the best professional-grade glass from Canon (L) and Nikon (ED). We are familiar with Zeiss and Leica lenses. But this Fuji lens is among the best. If you own the Fuji XF 35 mm F1.4 you already know the potential of this lens in the right hands.

Like other Fuji X-series lenses, it is corrected for distortion. The resolution is great at 1.4, gets very strong at 2.0, and becomes heavenly between 5.6 and 11. For me personally, the 23 mm focal length is a sweet spot. If I were to choose one focal length to shoot with, that would be it. Not only does it allow you to capture beautiful landscapes and work on documentary photography and streetscapes but you can go ahead and take some creative portraits with it.

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We own the Fuji X100s, which sports a lens with the same focal length. The question arises – if you already own the Fuji X100/s should you get the XF 23mm lens?

If there were no financial constraints – our answer would be YES and YES again. The beautiful bokeh (blurring) produces gorgeous, creamy images; extra light allows you to shoot in a much darker environment. However, if you have already spent thousands on your gear and for the sake of a happy marriage you need to pause, the small portable Fuji X100/s with a capable F2.0 lens should do the job.

Finally, I hear some people complaining about the price. I found the camera to be quite a bargain for what you get. In the last few years, there has been a tsunami of new lenses, especially for mirrorless cameras. Unfortunately, most of the lenses are very poorly made, slow and poor quality (I guess the price is right). Therefore I am very glad that Fuji decided to put a lot of effort and dedication into equipping the Fuji X-series cameras with superb quality lenses. Those who really care about photography will cherish the lens for many years to come. Cameras will come and go but exceptional lenses will stay.

After all, it’s all about the lens, stupid!

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When I started writing this review, I wanted to deliver a technical Grand Tour with charts and technical data about this lens. I found there are already plenty of technical reviews, really well done, on the Internet (here, here, here and here). Therefore, I decided to spend my time shooting with the lens to show you what it does. All images in this review were taken with the Fuji X-Pro1 paired with the XF 23mm F.1.4 R lens. 

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and some from the Vancouver Christmas Market.

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© Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

Photo Bits I

  • We added a new Links section to our blog where we feature websites worth visiting, as well a list of photographers we follow and admire. For example you will find a link to Thomas Menk’s Fuji X-series Scoop It website. We will be adding more links, so check the page occasionally.
  • After years of working with the Fuji X100, Fuji X-Pro1, Fuji X-E1 and Fuji X100s, we experienced a problem with the camera that has been my constant companion, the Fuji X100s. As a result, I tried out the Fuji X-series professional service for the first time. I got a nice surprise! After calling the number provided, a real person picked up the phone. Then, the next day I received a shipping label and a week later I received my camera back. Not bad. Unfortunately, I then had some issues with the charger so I contacted Fuji again. Got the return call the same day and I was told my new charger is on the way. I would like to thank Rachel and Rob, from the Toronto office, for their professional and courteous service!
  • We had a very interesting episode with the Fuji X100s in Macro mode. With a genuine Fuji protective filter attached, we got the following message: “Turn off the camera and turn on again.” Screwing the filter backwards solved the problem! Apparently the filter being too close to the lens caused the issue. Have any of you experienced the same problem?
  • A new crop of cameras has popped up (Christmas must be coming) with varying degrees of success. First, Sony came out with the FF A7/R. Then Nikon teased us with a new DF camera. Finally after years of adding features and unnecessary modes, some companies noticed the need for simpler cameras with an increasingly popular retro style. The problem is Nikon totally blew it. They took the SLR and incorporated it in an old Nikon FA style body. They added nearly 50 controls, a plethora of shiny dials (on top of each other) and delivered, for lack of a better term, a Frankenstein camera. This could have been a game changer for Nikon. First, they should have taken a look at Leica design (simplicity and minimalist approach), then taken some modern things from Fuji (electronic, optical viewfinder, mirrorless), added to it smaller, high quality primes and priced it around $2000. The outcome would have been very different.
  • Back in the film days, we needed four major controls: shutter speed, aperture (ideally on the lens), exposure compensation and ISO. Add to it white balance and that’s all you need to do great photography. If companies want my money, they need to rethink their cameras. The war for features has ended. It is time to simplify.
  • Sorry Nikon, the Fuji X100s still remains my companion camera. I believe it offers the best experience (design), small package, great image quality (lens + sensor) and value for the money (superb camera + high quality lens). It is highly recommended for students of photography. Aperture, exposure compensation, shutter speed and ISO dials along with the electronic viewfinder allows you to see the effects of your changes before you take a photograph. You can read our full review here.
  • Patrick, from Fujirumors, dug out info for us saying that next year we may get a full-frame Fuji X100s-like camera. Priced right, around $2000 it would certainly cause a stir. Let’s wait and see.
  • Over the weekend I looked at a very popular 500px website and I have two observations. First, it appears that heavily processed images are the most popular. Ironically, very often “perfectly processed” images seem generic and artificial – having exactly the opposite effect on me that they intended. Second, the formula for a popular photo is quite simple: colourful, sunrise/sunset landscapes (very often the same shot from the same location), flowers or a beautiful but heavily photoshopped woman, uploaded at the right time and supported by secret votes for a start. There are many great fine-art photographers whose photos are never going to get to the top for a simple reason – they go beyond formulas and they don’t care much about ratings! Instead of going for popular, they create true and lasting art. Don’t focus on popular photos, go deeper and you may find some great photography.
  • We have been shooting more often in JPEG mode, lately, cutting hours of post-processing. Fuji JPEGs are one of the best in the industry, especially when shooting people. This approach lets us focus on the photographic experience – being careful while framing, getting creative with the camera and making the best of the available light.
  • We are working on a number of projects all shot with the Fuji X-Pro1 and Fuji X100s. Stay tuned for more info.

In the meantime, here are a few recent images, all JPEGs (Velvia) straight from the Fuji X100s. Minor WB adjustments in Lightroom 5.

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A van with “We Love Van” caught my attention. 

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Any Jimi Hendrix fans out there?

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 © Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.