In this post, I’m going to compare 5 Fuji lenses, each with a different focal length. If you’re new to the Fuji X system or photography in general, I want to help you find the focal length that is right for you.
While I've shot with almost every Fuji X mount lens currently available on the market, there's just no way for me to review all of those lenses at once. In this post, I want to start with the basics. For our discussion today, I’m going to talk about Fuji's F2 line of lenses as a starting point. At the end of the article, I’ll give you my recommendation of which lens or lenses to buy first.
Right up front, you'll need to decide which sort of photography you'll be doing and which focal length will best help you produce your desired outcome. Since I don’t currently own all the lenses I want to talk about, Fuji Pro Lenses has kindly let me borrow a few lenses to help me fill in the gaps. Renting can help you determine if you like a specific lens and its focal length before making a big purchase. Fuji Pro Rentals lets you rent Fuji X system lenses as well as bodies. Check them out.
When it comes to buying your first lens, there’s one question I’ve heard a lot, both from our YouTube audience as well as past students: “Should I buy a zoom lens or a prime lens first?” First of all, it’s important to know the difference between these two types of lenses. While zoom lenses allow you to change your focal length manually, prime lenses do not. With a prime lens, you're stuck at a specific focal length. That means if you want to make a subject bigger in frame, you're going to have to walk towards your subject. I call this “zooming with your feet”.
In almost every situation, I would recommend buying a prime lens before a zoom lens. Why? Many people choose a prime lens over a zoom lens because of the increased image quality and the better low light performance that most prime lenses will give you. Those are great reasons, but there’s a more pressing issue at hand: zoom lenses tend to make lazy photographers.
Yes, there are exceptions. For some types of photography, you really do need a nice, flexible, zoom lens. But, while a zoom lens will give you a lot more flexibility when it comes to focal length, using a prime lens will force you to consider your relationship to your subject to a greater degree. If you're just learning composition or wanting to get better at it, nothing will help you improve more than sticking to a specific focal length with a prime lens.
Now that I’ve shared that polarizing opinion, let's talk about lenses. Today I want to discuss five Fuji lenses, any of which could be an entry point into the Fuji X system. For this comparison, we chose the 90 mm F2, 50 mm F2, 35 mm F2, 23 mm F2, and 18 mm F2 lenses.
These lenses all have one thing in common: an F2 maximum aperture. With a maximum aperture of F2, Fuji has balanced low light performance with a very small lens size. During a week’s time, we took this set of lenses along on several different photo-shoots and used every lens at each shoot. In the following descriptions you’ll be able to compare differences between these different focal lengths, and begin to see what each focal length can do in different environments.
This lens has a strong reputation among Fuji X photographers as a great portrait lens. Of all the focal lengths we'll be talking about today, this one does the best job of isolating a subject. This means that only part of the photo is going to be in focus and sharp; everything else will fall off into beautiful obscurity. The 90 mm gives you a shot that is sharp as a tack. When shooting wide open at the F2 aperture, this lens has just the right amount of depth of field to capture the most important part of the face, while at the same time isolating it from the background with some creamy, out-of-focus bokeh. This is a dream lens for head shot photographers.
The other thing you'll notice with this lens is it's compression. This means that objects in the background look much larger in comparison to the subject than your eye is used to seeing. In this shot, the lamppost looks much larger than if you were simply looking at it with you naked eye. You can use this side-effect to your advantage if, for instance, you'd like a landmark to take on more significance behind a subject.
Of course, the downside of this lens is its restrictiveness. If you're out with your children and want to be able to capture some of the action, you'll need to walk a long distance away from them to be able to capture any of the background at all. This is definitely not the lens I would choose to sit on my camera for a family excursion. Also, if you’re in a lifestyle shoot environment or in a small studio where you're restricted by the room’s size, you may get stuck photographing faces and nothing else. For instance, in this shot, there’s no way to tell that this guy is in a barbershop and not a pool hall. You’re unable to capture the context.
With all the focal length in this lens, there’s also a big price tag. This lens dwarfs the others in both cost and size. While it’s an incredible lens, it's probably more of a specialty lens for fashion or head shot portraits. It can also serve you well if you're on the sidelines photographing your children's ball games. It's probably not the lens I would recommend for a beginner photographer, or for an entry point into the Fuji X system.
With a 75 mm equivalent focal length, this lens brings a lot more flexibility into a portrait shoot. Notice that in this shot, a bit more of the background is visible while enough is still out-of-focus to provide some great subject separation. I'd be slightly more comfortable heading out to a family event with this focal length, realizing that I'm still going to have to back up a bit to capture any of the environment behind a family member.
I love that this lens is so forgiving to even a beginner photographer. You don't have to be brilliant with composition to be able to capture pleasing photographs with this lens. Let's say that I goofed and stuck something in my background I really didn’t want to see. With the 50 mm lens, it's not as bad because of how much blur is introduced in the background when I'm shooting at the F2 aperture. In a portrait situation, photographing a couple for instance, that F2 aperture can really help to keep both faces fairly sharp. (As a beginner portrait photographer using a faster aperture lens with a full frame camera, the temptation of shooting wide open can often lead to some ruined couples portraits.)
35 millimeter F2
I’m not even going to try to hide my personal bias with this lens. This 35 mm F2 is what I consider to be the perfect all-purpose lens and is the only F2 lens of these five that I still personally own. With a 50 mm equivalent focal length, this lens is great for a family outing or even a professional shoot where you want to be able to get wide scenes with a lot of context, while still capturing beautiful portraits with good subject isolation.
Another great aspect of the 50 mm equivalent focal length is that lenses with this focal length tend to be the most affordable, in general. The Fuji brand is no exception. While this isn’t a cheap lens, it’s the most inexpensive of my F2 lineup and it's image quality is brilliant.
23 millimeter F2
This lens, which has a 35 mm full-frame equivalent, is just able to be classified as a wide-angle lens. Many photographers consider this focal length to be ideal for street photography. When shooting at a 35 mm focal length, you’ll start to see a lot more context even in tight places. This allows you to introduce more artistry and creativity into your compositions.
In my estimation, 35 mm equivalent lenses are where you start to see some separation between snapshots and artistry. In the hands of a photographer who understands how to compose an image, a 35 mm can turn out brilliant shots. Since the depth of field is much wider, (even at F2), you can't hide poorly composed subjects behind blurry background. Everyone will clearly see your compositional errors and poor decision making or, when done correctly, appreciate your ability to choose a solid figure-to-ground relationship.
18 millimeter F2
This final lens has a full-frame equivalent focal length of 27 mm which is decently wide without introducing a lot of distortion. Shooting this wide can be the perfect choice when you want to get the full environment in an enclosed location. Here, even though I'm backed up against the wall, I’m still able to capture everything important happening in the room.
While this lens is only a little wider than the 23 mm F2, it’s important to understand the difference this can cause when it comes to compositon. Shooting at this wide of an angle can introduce an overwhelming amount of objects in frame that need to be composed. For this reason, I wouldn’t recommend this lens to a beginner photographer. It’s better to start with a 35 mm or 23 mm lens, and slowly work toward handling larger framings of scenes.
When doing portraits with wider lenses, you need to be aware of the effects of compression on the subject’s face. Note the shape of the head in this portrait. The front of the face, the nose, the facial features - they're all a bit larger when compared to the fall-off areas, (the hair, ears, etc.). The wider the lens, the more you'll notice this effect. Facial features will appear larger while the head will often appear smaller.
When using the 90 mm lens, on the other hand, you'll see that more of the head shape is shown. The shape of the head appears more square and the fall-off areas, like the ears, get pushed forward. The head seems larger, in proportion to the facial features. Many will claim this is more flattering on a well balanced human face and will turn to longer focal lengths in beauty and fashion photography to enhance the beauty of the face. I disagree.
I feel like these types of shots usually make a face look unnaturally flat and large and I don’t enjoy the look. I much prefer shooting head shots with a 35 mm lens at the 50 mm equivalent focal length. I recognize I'm in the minority here, but this is how my eyes naturally see faces and I prefer to shoot portraits this way. If you're planning on getting into head shot or fashion photography, your clients are probably going to be happier if you have a longer lens in your arsenal. At least, that's what I've been told.
There's one other aspect of shooting with a wide angle that I want to mention. In describing the 90 mm lens, I mentioned its unique characteristic of making background elements appear large against the subject. Well, with the 27 mm equivalent focal length of a 18 mm lens, the opposite effect is achieved: background objects appear much smaller. This can be disappointing if you’re hoping to photograph your children or loved ones in front of some interesting monument. A shot that looked perfect in the moment can turn into a disappointment when viewed on your computer screen back home.
Now that you’ve gotten a summary of these 5 different focal lengths, which one should you purchase first? It really depends on whether you can afford to buy one, or two lenses. If your current budget only allows for one lens, I would highly recommend either the 23 mm F2 or the 35 mm F2. The 35 mm F2 would be preferable if you enjoy taking more portraits and tighter shots but still want to have some context of the scene around you. However, if you plan on photographing active children, pets, or you just want to catch more of the scene, the 23 millimeter F2 is probably going to be a better place to start. (You’ll still be able to take portraits; you’ll just have to scoot in closer.)
If you can afford two lenses, the question is a little harder to answer. How extreme do you want to be? When we launched our portrait photography business, we started with two and only two lenses. Almost exclusively, we shot with the 85 millimeter and the 35 millimeter focal lengths. The 85 millimeter focal length allowed us to get really tight, beautiful portraits, and even family shots if we really backed up. Then we could grab our 35 millimeter lens to capture wider shots where we wanted more of an environmental portrait or a group shot. Those two vocal lengths served us well for about two years. If this type of setup excites you, I'd suggest buying the 23 mm F2 lens and the 50 millimeter F2 lens.
If you want to purchase two lenses but are really wanting to snap some sports shots, consider starting off with the 23 mm F2 and the 90 mm F2. You’ll still be able to shoot some quality environmental portraits with your all-purpose 23 mm lens, but then you can bust out that 90 mm when you're on the sideline, to snap some high-quality action shots.
There’s my take on focal lengths. I hope this post will help you as you decide which lens to buy first. Until next time, do good with your camera. We'll talk to you again real soon.