A lesson from the ‘little ones’!
The Waiting - two-up gambling, Goldfields, Western Australia, 2018. Fuji X-H1, XF 90mm @ 2.8, ISO 200
I have to chuckle sometimes, watching the children I teach at school coming to grips with some of the concepts of life that we adults often take for granted. I have to remind them that nothing in life lasts forever or is even the same for very long. Our moods change, the weather fluctuates, their friends are ‘mean’ to them one day and kind the next. However, what I seem to be reminding them the most is that nothing in life is perfect - our families, our jobs, our health, our friends, the weather, the towns or even the counties that we live in, and most of all our governments. However, as adults we can learn that lots of things can be well askew of perfect, but we can still function as fully happy and fulfilled human beings.
That is why I am aghast sometimes when I read blogs, where many photographers think and expect to find the perfect camera and lens setup. They seem shocked like my little kids that their new acquisition has left them disappointed in some department. Just like I tell the kids – “perfect doesn’t exist”. Knowing full well than no camera system would be perfect, I slowly transitioned into the Fujifilm mirrorless system way back in 2011. I’ve written in detail about this long journey in many of my other blogs, so I won’t repeat the details here. However, after many changes and a bucket-load of money, I ended up with two X-H1’s - a 16-55 permanently ‘strapped’ onto one of them and a 90mm F2 ‘glued’ onto the other (I hate changing lenses, and since I got over this bad habit, I have never had to clean a sensor).
Moments - Jockeys between races, Kalgoorlie Boulder Raceway, Western Australia, 2019. Fuji X-H1, XF 16-55 @ 55, 2.8, ISO 400
The benefits of hindsight!
'Chewy' - one of Kalgoorlie's characters, slurping down a 'cold one'. Goldfields, Western Australia, 2019. Fuji X-H1, FX 16-55 @ 16mm, F2.8, ISO 800
For this article, I’d like to hone in on the 16-55 and talk about my observations and why I think it is the closest lens to perfect I have used in over 35 years of photography. This is not a review – I’m not qualified to do that kind of stuff – just thoughts and insights from a happy Fuji customer. I am not sure what ‘magic sauce’ Fuji used when they made this lens, but I know that they really got things right. I was out shooting an event today, and some of the images on here are taken from that shoot. Sometimes I’m still gobsmacked when I see the sharpness, rendering, colours, lack of nasties, that this lens produces – and all from a zoom!! Even though I have sold off all my other lenses (and I’ll discuss those here shortly), I would always test a new lens for sharpness, rendering, clarity etc, against this zoom. That sounds ridiculous because many of them were primes – but that’s just how it is.
The last prime I have left, and it will go on ‘fleabay’ shortly, is the 23mm F2. I can honestly say that the 16-55 is noticeably sharper, crisper, punchier at that focal length, and wide open – when compared to this prime (particularly when the 23mm is shot up close)! I much prefer the pictures from the zoom than from that small ‘Fujichron’.
However, for me the thing that really makes this zoom stand out is the sheer usefulness of it, and the joy in the whole process of using this lens. In a perfect world, of course I would love to have the extra speed of the primes (the F2 or better still the 1.4). I only ever shoot people/travel/street/portraits and have zero interest in landscape or scenery. I therefore mostly always shoot my lenses wide open – I’m constantly searching to isolate my subject from the background and make them stand out. Coming from a full-frame Nikon kit I took a huge hit in this department when I swapped over to APSC. I’ve written about this in detail, but that is why I got rid of the zooms like the 18-135, Fuji’s 55-200 and the kit lens. I needed the faster aperture of 2.8 that the 16-55 was offering, so I could at least be part way trying to make up for the deficit in lost subject isolation that I was lumbered with when swapping over to mirrorless. However, even more than that, the 16-55 was even in a different world to the primes.
Primes – all is not well!
Face painting - Spring Festival, Goldfields, Western Australia, 2018. Fuji X-T2, XF 16-55 @ 51mm, 2.8, ISO 1,000
Yes as we’ve discussed, primes offer a lighter package, faster aperture and are usually optically better than zooms – but they have their trade-offs was well. The fact that I usually shoot fast and quick on the street, I found on too many occasions that I was missing photos. There was always that bit of consternation as I headed off – ‘do I have the right lens on my camera’? Often I would not, and by the time I fumbled around, put on the appropriate lens and reached for the moment – it had well and truly disappeared. In fact I had usually let a bunch of crud onto my sensor (where I shoot in Asia it is often dusty and filthy), had missed the shot and still ended up with the less than perfect focal length on my camera.
I know we are all different, but for me and how I shoot, I just love the overall usefulness and lack of complication, shooting a quality zoom. Many people knock the 16-55 for its weight and size. Yes it is not light and it is much bigger than the cheaper Fuji zooms and certainly so when compared to primes. However, what they forget to add is what the 16-55 replaces. When I travel on my trips overseas, to get the equivalent of what I have now with the 16-55, I had to lug around the 16mm 1.4, the 23mm F2, the 35mm F2, and the 50mm F2. That is four lenses, and if you add the weight of them all, they are around 1kg – nearly twice the weight of the 16-55. My one zoom has now replaced those four lenses, and I do not have to miss shots fuddling around trying to get the correct focal length on my camera, whilst my moment is lost to eternity.
However, some folk can get away with just the two primes – say the 23mm and the 35mm or the 50mm - in this case, and if they don’t mind swapping lenses out – it could be better for them to go with primes. Everything on here I say is what suites me, but as we are each different, I know other folk will have a different take on things. I need the 24mm equivalent for the wide angle – so I can fit broader scenes into my frame, and I’m always using the 55mm end for portraits and close-ups. That’s why just two small primes don’t work for me!
The ‘fifth’ lens!
Kids having fun - St Barbara's Festival, Goldfields, Western Australia, 2019. Fuji X-H1, XF 16-55 @ 55, 2.8, ISO 400
I stated above that the 16-55 had replaced four lenses for me. I got rid of the 16mm, the 23mm is on its way, the 35mm went last year and the 50mm is gone. It is such a breath of fresh air not to have to lug all those primes around. However – though the 16-55 is great, there is one thing it cannot do. As I only ever shoot people, I usually always need to separate them from the background. Mostly on the 16-55, the amount of background I include in my images, revolves around which focal length I’m shooting. If I’m wide open (16mm), then of course I want the background included to give some context to my image. If I’m at the longer end then of course I still have some slightly out of focus background, which is usually always fine. However, there are times when I really want to just isolate one person from the crowd and have them stand out with some lovely bokeh in the background.
I mentioned above this was one thing I really missed from full frame. With a 2.8 70-200 zoom you can do this all day long on full frame. However, this was almost impossible with the 55-200 zoom (even though it is a very nice, sharp zoom). At the longer focal lengths it was nearly on F5, which was harder to obtain clean backgrounds. Same story with my 18-135 – in fact even worse, because after 90mm that baby is on F5.6. It was on one of the forums (I think ‘DPR’), where somebody suggested the 90mm after me discussing my options to this problem. I bit the bullet and from day one this lens has never disappointed. I always shoot it at F2, and the results never cease to please me. You will read now, what really was the next game changer that crystallised this lens as a permanent fixture in my kit!
The X-H1 – a whole different ‘ball game’!
Aboriginal Cultural Dancers - St Barbara's Festival, Goldfields, Western Australia, 2019. Fuji X-H1, XF 16-55 @ 55, 2.8 ISO 400
I really liked both of my X-T2’s and the images from them still stun me sometimes with their detail and clarity. Of course I used the 16-55 and 90mm on both of my X-T2’s, so the only difference to my current kit is the cameras. Early this year I sold both of my T2’s on ‘fleabay’ and bought two X-H1’s because they were such a great deal here in Australia. My brand new T2’s a few years ago cost me $2,500 each. I got one of my H-1’s for $1,800 and the other was only $1,500 (both brand new). That may not be good for you folks in the States, but for our low Australian dollar, that is very cheap.
I wrote about this in my previous blogs saying I did not need IBIS or any stabilisation in my lenses – particularly the 90mm. However, I am prepared to eat humble pie now and say that I was wrong. On the X-T2 I had to keep the lowest shutter speed to around 1/350th to get really sharp images on the 90mm, and around 1/125th on the zoom. It wasn’t until I started shooting with the H-1’s that I fully realised how much sharper my images were, and even way down to around 1/15th second.
The other extra bonus to shooting with the H-1’s is now I’ve come down a whole stop value in high ISO. I always use auto ISO, and have found on all of the different Fuji cameras I’ve had that it works beautifully (married along with aperture priority that I always use). However, in the past I had to mostly use 1600 or 3200 ISO to keep that shutter speed up to that 1/350th sec. Now that I can shoot way down in my socks as far as slow shutter speeds, the maximum I ever set my auto ISO on is now 800 ISO. The results are obvious and I’m really enjoying those crisper, cleaner images.
An all round package
Army Cadet - St Barbara's Festival, Goldfields, Western Australia, 2019. Fuji X-H1, XF 90mm @ F2.2, ISO 400
There is so much I like about this lens. My other Fuji zooms – the 55-200, 18-135 and the kit lens, were always a bit wobbly and loose on the mount. I could get the lens and wobble it back and forth. Often when I got to the end of the zoom range and gave that little turn, I could feel some loose play where the lens met the mount. There is no such movement with my 16-55. I always carry camera number two over my shoulder on a Black Rapid. When I did this with the 55-200, and the 18-135, they would annoyingly gradually creep out to the full extend of the focal length. This meant that the lens was fully extended and sticking way out – this made it much more vulnerable to being hit or damaged as it swung by my side. There is no such movement on my 16-55. I always carry it around at 16mm (it’s shortest length), and it has never extended by itself and ended up hanging out. The beautiful firm zoom action, weather resistance, lovely firm clicks for each stop – this is an amazing piece of quality kit.
However, none of these things would be much point if it wasn’t optically up to it. I can honestly say after using both of these lenses now as my main and only ‘glass’ - they go with my everywhere, the images from my 16-55 are every bit as sharp (corner to corner and wide open), as the Fuji 90mm F2 and all the other primes I sold off. That is really saying something, because many folk say that the 90mm is the sharpest FX lens that Fuji make. Some say too that the 90mm is a very fast focusing lens. I disagree, I still have trouble with it sometimes searching back and forth for focus in very bright or normal outdoor lighting. There is never any issues like that with my 16-55 – it never misses focus and is faster than my 90mm. I know people will disagree, because many reviewers say that the 16-55 is not that sharp wide open, and other negative stuff. I have no answer for that or perhaps I got a great copy. I am very discerning and fussy with my images, so if it were not so, it would have ended up on ‘fleabay’, with Fuji's other lenses that I sold off!
The search for ‘perfect’ is over
Boys will be boys - skate park, Goldfields, Western Australia, 2019. Fuji X-H1, XF 16-55 @ 45mm, 2.8, ISO 400
Having started this blog with an analogy to illustrate my point about the search for perfect, I also want to end there. I have booked my annual trip this year and head off shortly for four weeks to Vietnam, China then Cambodia. I will only have two cameras and two lenses with me. One really small bag and a couple of cameras – that’s all I need to capture all the beautiful images that will be on offer. No points for guessing which two lenses those will be!
I did state that nothing in this life for us is ever really perfect, and I still stand by that. However, if I come to the point in my travels where I could only take one lens and one camera, you know which one it would be. Perhaps the 16-55 is not perfect, but I must say after using dozens of different cameras and lens combos over 35 years, spanning many different makes and models, the Fuji XF 16-55 2.8 zoom, is so close to perfect that perhaps in this instant we could make an exception!
Man - now that's what I call a truck!! St Barbaras Festival, The Goldfields, Western Australia, 2019. Fuji X-H1, XF 16-55 @ 16mm, 2.8. ISO 400