Fujifilm Fujinon XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 R LM OIS

1855If nothing else, the Fuji X series exhibits good looks. The 18-55mm is no exception. For what Fuji charges for this standalone lens ($699 – or, if you are like this writer, $249 plus a zillion American Express points), the company knows not to disappoint buyers with entry-level plastics.  The 18-55mm is a substantial lens, heavy and (at least to the touch) well-built. The zoom is extremely well damped, the switchgear is good, and it even has a nice ED-style trim ring. The lens extends when zoomed but not when focused.

Be aware that this is a fairly big and heavy lens; it is fatter than an original Tri-Elmar, and it makes the camera more nose-heavy (and not so featherweight). It is not pocketable by any stretch. The lens barrel will partially block the AF assist light, and in the “wide” OVF mode, it impinges quite a bit into your field of view.

Let’s get to the big question first. Yes, the image quality is all that, wide open, at pretty much every focal length and all reasonable distances.

Actually, let’s back up a little bit. Why are these marked “Fujifilm,” when “Fujica” is already in the inventory and more media neutral?

The next big question, and the one that gets too little play, is how fast this lens focuses (Fuji claim: 0.1s for locking, though under some unspecified set of conditions).  It’s easy to ascertain that this corresponds to outdoors daylight, which is, realistically, EV10 and up. And yes, it’s crazy fast.  Indoors, in artificial light, it slows down a little bit, but it is still a lot faster than the 35/1.4 in most circumstances.  The 18mm setting is blindingly fast (in no small part because the lens lets in the most light at that setting).  23, 35, and 55mm slow down progressively (and, as can be expected, the closer the range, the slower the focusing).  Toward the 55mm end, you occasionally see some unfamiliar behaviors (if you are used to the 35).  One is that hunting is inaudible, and its only manifestation is that for a second, it looks like nothing is happening when you press the shutter. Then, without warning, the framelines (OVF) shrink, the light goes green, and the camera fires.  In EVF mode, you see the lens run through its distance range and then locks and fires. The interesting thing in EVF mode is that the frame momentarily seems to pixelate, which might be indicating that the camera looks at a downsampled data set to see when contrast is maximized.  The other interesting behavior is the red AF warning.  A few notes:

  • The red AF warning comes up more often in EVF mode, and after some experimentation, it seems that it happens most often in low light, where the AF spot size is set to the smallest setting. If you press AF and then increase the size of the spot with the thumbwheel, it mitigates the problem. This fix is not suprising; increasing the sample set helps the camera find some contrast to compare.
  • In EVF mode, the X-Pro1 will let you fire an out-of-focus shot with no warning. If the box does not turn green, don’t count on getting a picture that is in focus.
  • The “mash-n-go” technique still works in OVF mode. This is the one where you press the shutter release until the camera fires (and it only does so when things are in focus).

Manual focus runs through the entire useful range of distances in a little over a quarter turn at all focal lengths. You won’t use it much, and even if you do, you will probably use the AE/AF button to do a spot focus.

Note that the focusing is dead silent – making your AF-s or USM lens sound like an agricultural implement. What is not silent is the aperture actuator, which makes a very subtle click when focus completes and the lens stops down.

As to controls, the internet seems a little confused about how aperture setting works. The unmarked ring just to the rear of the focal-length indicator is the aperture ring (aperture is not manually controlled from the body, as some people seem to think). Unlike the primes, which have numbers and a physical stop at each end, the zoom has a ring that turns all the way around. Turn it to 2.8 and keep turning – it still stays on 2.8. The A switch activates auto-aperture (like the red A on the prime lens rings). To tell the truth, this is a lot better than the prime lenses, which inexplicably omit locks on the “A” setting – making it easier to accidentally switch the control from A to 16 (with attendant blur). The aperture automatically compensates as the focal length changes if the ring is set to the widest opening – but if you set the aperture to f/4 or smaller, it does not change with focal length changes.

The viewfinder picture answers the question of why this is normally packaged with the XE-1.  On an X-Pro1, in OVF mode, the framelines shrink or grow (continuously) depending on the selected focal length. If you turn on corrected AE targets you can also see part of the challenge of using the OVF: the distance between the nominal and near-range boxes changes dramatically between 18 and 55mm. Though this condition exists with prime lenses, the zoom introduces a situation where you have to be able to internalize intermediate corrections at many more focal lengths.  In addition, you really have to decide whether you want to shoot wide or long. If the X-Pro viewfinder is in “wide” mode, the 55mm frameline seems impossibly small. If it is in “normal” mode, the framelines become bigger than the viewfinder around 30mm. It would actually be nice to have the camera automatically switch magnifications, but that does not look like it is part of Firmware 2.01.  It will be very interesting to see what happens with the 10-20mm OIS lens that is slated for next year.  EVF mode is easier to manage, with a stable focus point, and it is here that you get a little of the Optical Image Stabilization (OIS)  seasickness: the camera moves but the viewfinder picture moves less.

And on to OIS – this has three modes: off (via the lens), “shooting only” mode (via setup menu), and “continous” (also via the setup menu). The latter two appear to be a choice between having the accelerometers come on instantly or having them get up to speed while frame-finding. Cutting down on the OIS on time probably has a lot to do with conserving power.  The OIS will allow you to shoot below 1/10 sec @55mm and get passable results, which probably comes close enough to the “four stops” claimed by Fuji. It is very important to note that VR or OIS or however you want to trademark it is only effective at compensating for camera movement. It is completely useless for arresting subject movement in low light – and depending on  the interaction could conceivably make it worse (i.e., lens compensates in a direction opposite subject movement direction). So if you are trying to track fast-moving children in low light, well, get a Nikon D700 and a fast prime instead (if for no other reason, the AF is better).

Flash operation with the 18-55mm is fairly predictable (at least with the EF-42, which zooms appropriately with the lens). But do note that as you use more telephoto-like focal lengths, redeye becomes a bigger problem if you use direct flash.

All of this aside, though, the 18-55mm radically increases the functionality of the X-Pro1 and in yet another way makes it more fun than its Leica inspiration. The Leica world has no continuously variable “zooms” – let alone any that gets to the 82mm equivalent of the 18-55mm. And nothing in the M world gets as wide as f/2.8 (the 21-35mm Dual Hexanon does f/3.4, but that is mostly just for kicks).  The 18-55mm is a nicely done lens that should work great for travel, and it is certainly more enjoyable than the Fuji primes for casual snaps. It tends to make the reportage dichotomy a choice  between the X-Pro1 on the one hand and the $7,000 M240 on the other.

We will work on some nice-looking sample pictures over the next month when the weather transitions into winter (rather than grey, dull late autumn…). In the meantime, you might want to order one of these.

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