FAR AND WIDE
TRAVELS WITH THE XF 18MM F2
It takes a while to figure out which focal length works best for you as a street photographer. I've experimented with primes, zooms, standards and ultra-wides, but thanks to a nudge from the X100S that kick-started my Fuji journey, I settled into the 35mm equivalent focal length, and still find it the most versatile and comfortable for my needs.
At times, though, it pays to leave the comfort zone and to get closer to your subjects. And in crowded environments or narrow streets, the 35mm field of view can be too constricting. So for the street photographer accustomed to 35mm or 50mm equivalent focal lengths, the significantly wider field of view offered by 28mm equivalent lenses might just offer some new challenges and vistas.
Earlier this year I was planning for trips to New York and Vietnam. I was expecting crowds, tall buildings and narrow sidestreets. A wider lens than 35mm was a must. The research began in earnest. I’d previously used the XF 16mm f1.4 which was a bit too wide for me (a quite stunning lens, though) so narrowed it down to three ~28mm prime options. For reasons I’ll go into later, I settled on the XF 18mm f2 lens, despite the criticism it attracts online.
I christened the lens in New York, where good fortune took me to 5th Avenue, and the throng of elaborately-costumed revellers in the Easter Bonnet Parade. I reached for my X-E3 and almost everything I shot that morning was with the 18mm f2 attached. With cameras firing from every direction, and everyone happy to have their photo taken, I could get as close as necessary to each subject, revealing some beautiful background bokeh in the process.
Shooting in Vietnam didn't come easily to me. I was based in Saigon, an incredible but chaotic city flooded daily by up to eight million motorcycles. To say it is not a pedestrian-friendly city is an understatement - there are very few traffic lights, crossings are ignored, and sidewalks frequently appropriated as a handy third lane of traffic. I could describe the terror of crossing the road in vivid and extended detail, but my point is this: it’s not a city for a relaxed and gentle exploration on foot.
Fortunately, some opportunities arose for the 18mm f2 to shine. The best of these was on a boat trip through some of the narrow tributaries of the Mekong Delta. Like the roads of Saigon, this waterway was narrow and congested, so the extra field of view opened up more interesting compositions than were available to me with the X100T.
Which 27/28mm lens is right for me?
There are three very different options for Fujifilm shooters who favour prime lenses: the XF 18mm f2, the X70/XF10 cameras and the WCL converter lens for the X100 series.
Of these, only the XF 18mm f2 is part of the interchangeable lens family for the X-series cameras. It’s a very compact, pancake-style lens which, unlike the 27mm f2.8, retains its aperture ring. But there are some downsides: its corner image sharpness is poor wide open and only recovers to average levels stopped down. As one of the first lenses produced for the system, it also lacks the super-quick focusing and weather resistance of the newer f2 primes.
The X70 (16MP X-trans II) and XF10 (24MP Bayer) are highly compact fixed-lens cameras at 28mm. Unlike the other two options, the widest aperture setting is f2.8, so be prepared to lose a stop of light. The X70 is a firm favourite among Fujifilm photographers for producing excellent image quality in a very small package. It also has its own conversion lens that offers an even wider 21mm field of view (available separately). The confusingly-named XF10 - released last year - fell frustratingly short of being the X70 successor that everyone wanted. Despite combining the older camera's excellent lens with a newer sensor, its AF performance is poor and the interface sluggish. It also lacks a tilting rear screen. As such the X70 has retained an arguably somewhat inflated price on the used market, with no ‘X80’ on the horizon as yet.
Finally, X100 series users can purchase, quite reasonably, the WCL-X100 or WCL-X100 II conversion lenses that screw obligingly onto the front of the X100. The more recent version is recognised automatically with the X100F; earlier models of lens or body will require the user to manually select an option in the menu system. By all accounts, this is a lens of high quality which doesn’t seem to perceptibly impact the excellent sharpness of the X100. I'm an indecisive person, though, and knew I'd spend half the day screwing and unscrewing the thing instead of taking photographs.
Ultimately, the right option for you is likely to depend on the kind of photography you’re interested in. Landscape or architectural photographers (who may well prefer something wider in any case) will probably want better corner sharpness than that offered by the 18mm f2. Street shooters, however, are unlikely to even notice any sharpness issues.
Photographers often talk about 'rendering' or sometimes even the 'magic' image properties of a particular lens. It’s a thorny issue and I try not to drink too much of the Kool-Aid. However, I have definitely noticed the 'punchy' or 'contrasty' rendering of the 35mm and 50mm f2 primes in comparison with the more delicate 56mm f1.2. Equally, the bokeh (out of focus areas) of the X100T's 23mm lens is noticeably less pleasing at the same aperture, to my eyes at least, than that of the 23mm f1.4. I briefly owned a 7artistans lens which was fun to use, but the transition between in and out of focus areas looked smeared and muddy. No such problem here:
I did a lot of research before investing in a wide-angle lens, and nowhere was opinion more divided than on this one. But when I saw my first set of images, I had to agree with its defenders: it renders beautifully. The out of focus areas, and transitions between them, are smooth and subtle. And the kind of photography I do means I only notice its strengths, and never its shortcomings. This inexpensive little lens has surpassed all expectations and earned a permanent and prominent place in my collection.