Heavy Cream: In Search of Bokeh with the Fujinon XF 18-55 f/2.8-4 OIS

Daily Carry-7757

Somewhere along the line, I decided that the ideal everyday Fuji kit for me was either the X-E1 or X-E2, the Fujinon 18mm f/2 XF R, the Fujinon 35mm f/1.4 XF R, and the Fujinon XF 18-55 f/2.8-4 R LM OIS. I was prompted to blog about this lens after I did Google search after Google search looking for opinions and examples of real-world examples of the lens’s bokeh at 55mm. Obviously, the 60mm macro is going to have ‘better’ bokeh with it’s faster aperture and slight focal length edge, but I wanted to quantify things a little more. If I were going to travel somewhere, I would take one of the two lenses and leave the other at home, so for me it mattered–was the 18-55 good enough at 55mm to function as a portrait lens as well as being a versatile, compact, do-everything lens?

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I should mention that I don’t really weigh in at all on the nonsensical primes vs. zooms argument, preferring to use whatever fits the situation best and is the most practical. I don’t consider myself a purist, and I don’t buy into the argument that zooms make you lazy, though I suppose that could happen. Breezy summer days can also make you lazy. And turkey.

That said, I have found that generally, I prefer using Fuji primes–they are very sharp, they are fast, and they are small. They seem to fit the retro ethos of the Fuji x-series cameras, and it doesn’t hurt that their aperture rings are marked and less fiddly than those of the zooms.

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If I’m so crazy about the Fuji primes, then why do I carry a variable aperture zoom that overlaps the two focal lengths my primes cover? Why don’t I pack the 60mm f/2.4 macro, or go telephoto with the 55-200? There are several reasons, and the biggest one that led me to replace the 60mm in my daily bag was:

Downtown Raleigh skyline

Downtown Raleigh skyline

1. Autofocus

The 60mm macro is a great lens–it’s sharp, has really nice bokeh, is the perfect length for a portrait lens, and can get closer than any other lens I have. Its Achilles heel, the thing that drives me the most crazy about it, is how uncertain it is about focus. It’s not particularly fast, it hunts, it hesitates, it gives up. When it racks all the way through its focus range, which it does more than any other lens I have, it is excruciatingly slow. When it’s good, it’s good, but when it’s not… well, I don’t carry it around with me everyday anymore.

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2. Image Stabilization

The zoom has it, the primes don’t. Image stabilization isn’t a huge deal for me, as I am often/usually photographing things that move, where stabilization doesn’t help me and faster apertures do. Still, it gives me choices, and if I am photographing something sitting still and I want to stop down for depth of field, the zoom gives me some extra handholdability over the primes. Furthermore, the image stabilization on the Fuji zooms is VERY good, allowing me to handhold at crazy slow shutter speeds–a feature I value as I often only resort to shooting from a tripod when my other options have been exhausted.

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3. Image Quality

18-55-0180As has been covered ad nauseum by every other review of this lens that I’ve read, the Fuji 18-55 isn’t your everyday cheapo, crop sensor, variable aperture kit lens. This lens goes from a relatively fast f/2.8 at the wide end to a reasonable f/4 at the long end. It is sharp, it is quiet, and it focuses quickly. Unlike most of the Fuji primes, it makes the most pleasing sunstars when stopped down and pointed at a bright light source. Conventional wisdom suggests that primes are sharper than zooms, but this lens defies that wisdom, as it is sharper in the corners at all apertures than the Fuji 18mm f/2.

In exploring the capabilities of this lens, I made a concerted effort to shoot at 55mm and take real-world portrait type photos and found that while it’s not a background destroyer, the lens nonetheless renders out of focus areas with a nice, creamy bokeh. There’s really not much to fault with the lens, except that the max apertures are a bit slower than I generally prefer.

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4. Versatility

As I mentioned before, I think the folks who argue the relative merits of zooms vs. primes are wasting time they could be using to improve their photography. Yes, primes and zooms have pros and cons, but there is no rule, written or unwritten, explicit or implicit, that says you must use one and not the other. Additionally, I have always championed the generally unloved midrange zoom even as I have moved to photographing more and more with primes. Midrange zooms can take you quickly from scenic to portrait, from expansive landscape to the detailed examination of a distant ridge. They often get short shrift because they cover what most folks consider the ‘boring’ expanse of ‘normal’ focal lengths, being neither truly wide nor truly telephoto. Most pro kits consist of an ultra wide angle and a telephoto, skipping the midrange altogether.

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If you’re only going to carry one lens, though, the midrange zoom can do a little bit of both, and without having to change lenses or carry two camera bodies.

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Zooms are also very useful for composition when you have constraints on where and how you can place yourself. Many times, when photographing landscapes or city skylines, the ideal focal length that gives you the perspective you want while keeping distractions out of the frame, is the one that is somewhere between whatever primes you have. You can always compose with primes and crop later, of course, but you are costing yourself resolution when taking that route.

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Ultimately, I found that the 18-55 generally serves more of my needs more of the time than can the 60mm macro, and therefore it found a place in my everyday kit. Though I can’t use it for a lot of indoor, low light work where I need fast apertures at all focal lengths, and even though I wouldn’t really  consider it a ‘portrait’ lens, what it can do it does very well, and is easily a match for the professional zooms from Canon and Nikon. It is good enough, even, that when Fuji’s upcoming 16-50 f/2.8 zoom comes out, there’s a very good chance that I’ll keep the 18-55 instead.

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I should mention that I have pre-ordered the very exciting Fujinon 56mm f/1.2 XF, which hopefully will arrive later this month or early next. Once it comes, I will truly have a super-fast, short telephoto option that I’m sure will get heavy use at weddings and events. When it comes time to travel, though, and I decide to limit myself to just a few lenses, it will be a tough battle between the fast prime and the versatile zoom.

So it has always been, and so it will always be… unless, of course, Sigma keeps making ultra-fast and sharp zooms like their 18-35 f/1.8, which is a real game changer that unfortunately doesn’t come in X-mount.

23 Comments

  1. Jorge on Jan 31, 2014 at 8:46 am

    I’m so glad to read a 18-55 review! Thank you. I purchased my copy of it, with the 35 F1.4, last February and I couldn’t be happier! I have it on camera about 80% of the time now as my dSLR gear (D800, D700, D3) and all the heavy Nikon glass only gets pulled out for paying gigs. Anything else, it’s the Fuji. As a matter of fact, the Fuji is the only camera I carry with me to and from the office (with the 18-55 attached)

  2. Nicolo Famiglietti on Jan 31, 2014 at 9:59 am

    I agree. I find the 18-55mm mid-range zoom is just about all I need for travel photography. That said, I have my eyes on the 56mm portrait lens.

  3. mschueler on Jan 31, 2014 at 10:04 am

    Yeah, the 56/1.2 is sure to be indispensable for me for portraits and weddings, but I’m not so sure it’s a lens that I would take with me to travel. I did use the 85 f/1.2L a lot when I shot Canon DSLRs, and a 18/35/56 travel kit does seem awfully attractive to me, so who knows? I will say that I find the 35mm f/1.4 to be a good compromise as as portrait lens also. I guess ultimately, it will just depend on where I’m traveling–also, the great thing about the Fuji system is how compact it is, so even if you were to bring everything, you’d still be traveling significantly lighter than you would with a DSLR and just a couple of lenses.

  4. Don on Jan 31, 2014 at 5:29 pm

    Really great stuff here, Mark. Instead of reading about different primes that I don’t need to be spending money on right now, you did the yeoman’s work showing me what amazing results I can accomplish with the kit I already have. On behalf of my photography, and my wallet, thanks!

  5. mschueler on Jan 31, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    Thank you, sir! It is always my goal to encourage folks to shoot with whatever they have. There is so much more to photography than the gear, and I always try to write about the gear through that prism. I fall prey to G.A.S. as much as the next guy, but a big part of switching to the Fuji kit was NOT to go completely overboard.

    Happy shooting!

  6. Tomas Haran on Jan 31, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    Hi Mark. I’ve also been having that same debate. I really need something longer than 35mm, but might be best to wait for that 56mm.

  7. Tim S. on Feb 1, 2014 at 5:27 am

    Thanks for the insightful, well timed article. It helps confirm the direction I’m heading w/camera and scaled down lens choice. I’m transitioning from a 20 yr collection of Nikon gear and scaling down to the Fuji X-T1. I’ll wait another 3 months so I can match it with the 18-135mm as my zoom and the 35mm prime for low light and shallow DOF.

    Often I don’t have the option to constantly swap around primes on a single camera body and a sharp Fuji zoom meets my needs. I explain to photographers that for me a zoom is not a lazy image cropping substitute for moving my feet, but rather a way to quickly jump between the unique characteristics of different focal lengths …not to mention the huge cost savings of multiple primes mounted on several bodies, and cost of constantly cleaning my sensor.

    My job requires me to travel ultralight in hard to reach (dusty) regions of the world to photograph children in very active settings, so multiple focal lengths on one lens has its advantages. :-)
    Love the IQ of those Fuji zooms!

  8. Kaks on Aug 7, 2014 at 6:54 pm

    Great post! I guess I’m keeping my 18-55 lens. But I usually shoot full body shots (fashion). So I’m eyeing on the 56mm but its crazy expensive compared to the 35mm. What do you think?

  9. mschueler on Aug 8, 2014 at 8:48 pm

    I think for full body shots, the 35 would serve you better than the 56… the 56 is crazy good and I love it, but you have to have quite a bit more working distance.

  10. JP on Aug 12, 2014 at 11:59 am

    Awesome review.

    I’m about to get the XT1 with the 18-55 lens and I was wondering if a single focal length lens might be great to have as a compliment. Right now I do own a 50mm f/1.8 manual from Nikon and I love it (really sharp) but some times it’s too long for small spaces so I was thinking about getting for the XT1 the XF23 1.4 to get more wide angle and sharpness, but I have read great reviews for the XF35, so I would appreciate your suggestion. I usually do street photography and travel, nothing pro…

  11. Mark S on Aug 17, 2014 at 4:44 am

    Hey there Mark,

    Love the photos you’ve taken with the 18-55mm. I’ve got one too but I was looking to sell it because I was used to the sharpness of the 35mm & 56mm and to me, this 18-55 doesn’t quite do it. Wide open, I found it wasn’t as sharp as I’d like but that’s really a subjective topic.

    I just wanted to say, love these photos especially the portrait of the kid (in black and white) and the butterfly shot.

    – Mark S

  12. Sebastian on Feb 11, 2015 at 9:29 am

    Great review and a nice personal touch. Once more I get confirmation that this is a great lens, much better than the standard 18-55 kit we were used to. Of course I dream of the XF 16-55mm, but this is way over my budget. I guess the IQ differences between the 2 lenses are not consistent. Am I right?

  13. mschueler on Feb 23, 2015 at 11:55 am

    I haven’t used the 16-55, so I can’t comment on that. It’s got that extra stop on the long end, and if you need it, you need it. I prefer the primes to the zooms generally with the Fujis, so it ends up being mostly a non-issue for me. The 16-55 looks to be a great lens, but it’s just too big for my kit parameters.

  14. Andre on Feb 26, 2015 at 8:55 pm

    Thanks for the review, I have just sold my 10-24mm as I am not to happy with the vivgetting issue at 10mm and was considering between this lens and 14mm to complete my 56mm. I have used both 14 and 1855 before and I really need a travel to go lens. So now I am convincedto getthis cheapo 1855 for my travel companion

  15. WTR on May 29, 2015 at 9:57 am

    Thank you for the grounded, reasoned review of this lens. I have migrated from Nikon to Fuji in the past year. As a result, my kit is an x100T, XT1, 18-55 and a 35mm. So far, I have absolutely no complaints about the fuji approach. I agree with your assessment of the 18-55. We leave for Ireland for a month in a few days and it will be the only lens I take with me. Of course, the x100T will go as well as I never go anywhere without it.

  16. Steve on Jul 26, 2015 at 9:30 am

    Great review. I own both the 35mm and the 18-55 and love using both. Find myself using the 18-55 most often but use the 35mm for shooting local bands in dimly lit venues. I am surprised at how great the zoom is and what you can do with it using the stabilization. Very satisfied with the images as a serious enthusiast.

  17. Kevin on Nov 20, 2015 at 11:54 am

    For anyone considering this or the 16-55. I just returned a 16-55 because it was just too big for the X-T1 (and isn’t mirrorless about minimalism anyway). It’s okay at as a large working professionals lens, but I just do a couple of dozen paid jobs a year, so I’ll be happy going back to the 18-55 and some primes. Wish I hadn’t had a rush of blood to the head and sold my 18-55, but there are plenty up for sale, especially as people are tempted by the 18-135… a lens I have zero interest in.

  18. Monica PIleggi on Feb 3, 2016 at 1:17 pm

    Hi Mark, I was googling some information about my Fuji X-T1 and came across this article. I only have the 18-55mm lens, which I use for all my travels and general photography. It’s a huge (Iliterally) weight off my shoulders after carrying my Nikon D7000 and 3-4 lenses when I traveled. I still have the D7000 for birds in flight with my Tamron 150-600mm lens. I’ve been using the X-T1 for about 8-9 months now. I love that I can walk around with it and not feel any weight to it.

    I was wondering about getting the 16-55mm f/2.8 lens but your article, along with your great photos, confirms I don’t need to make the change. Maybe I knew all along but as you mentioned, I get G.A.S. too.

  19. Ken Hindle-May on Mar 29, 2016 at 2:15 pm

    This is a really useful and timely real world review for me. After enjoying an X100 for a couple of years whilst shooting more film, I realised that my style had evolved to a point where it didn’t really suit my DSLR anymore.

    I decided to go all in and get a Fuji X-T10, which I really enjoyed shooting with old Pentax primes while selling the rest of my Canon gear but hadn’t yet decided which XF lenses I wanted. My gear sale didn’t go quite as well as I’d hoped, so I couldn’t afford to immediately buy both the 18-55 and the 35mm as planned. This review helped me decide that the zoom was more than good enough as an all rounder, so that will be my first lens. I’ll still aim to get the prime for later in the year, as I like the 50mm focal length from shooting film SLRs. I may eventually try the 55-200mm as well, if I feel I shoot enough long stuff to justify it.

  20. Elliot on Aug 14, 2016 at 9:20 pm

    great article. Sorry I am late to the party. I was cleaning up my gear and realized i had not shot the 18-55 in some time. Been using the 56 1.2 and 35 2.0 mostly.
    So I did a search because except for early on reviews I never hear much about this lens anymore and was curios as why and that was when your article popped up first thing.
    So it is back in my travel kit as of tonight and ready for a great county fair coming up the end of this week. Thanks.

  21. Philippe on Dec 2, 2016 at 11:18 am

    Thanks Mark for the review.
    i just decided to go for the X-E2S with the 18-55 (after a lot of internal debate) and you just confirmed I made a good choice.

  22. John G. on Apr 16, 2017 at 10:35 pm

    I think you captured the essence of this great little zoom, while contrasting the decisions based on lens selection and subject matter. I have one and could not be happier with. I like the extra speed compared to most zooms in this range. I find the focal length covers most, not all, of most of my subject matter. Plus, it’s a joy to carry and, as you stated, meets the ethos of this compact system. Thank you for sharing your perspective, very nicely written.

  23. jayson on May 29, 2017 at 4:12 pm

    Hi! am new with Fuji and am using 35mm f2. its a nice portrait lens but i want a longer prime lens. am planning to take the SAMYANG 85mm F1.4 Aspherical IF Lens. any advice if this lens is good? thanks

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