The Lowly Fuji Kit Lens
How I Learned To Love The Fujinon 18–55 XF
I am certainly not one of the koolaid-drinking fanboys when it comes to the Fuji X-Series cameras. I’ve always ranted and complained about the shortcomings, flaws, and downright stupid design or implementation decisions on every Fuji camera I’ve owned or tried. Not the usual also-ran complaints like autofocus speed compared to the fastest cameras on the planet. I’ve ranted more on decisions and operational characteristics that have nothing to do with *mirrorless* technology limitations or temporary lag.
The truth is I consider many of my rants a Yin to the fanboy Yang. That’s right, it’s the Yin that’s the cloudy, dark one right? On a less philosophical note I would go farther to say that all of the teenage-girly screaming of praise is doing a disservice to Fujifilm — the only company to do APS-C right in many ways. The one thing I’ve never cast disparaging remarks on was the glass. The lens lineup that I’ve owned since the X-PRO1 has been superb. No complaints at all. It just happens that my assessment lines up with all of the enthusiasm shouted from the rooftops by the usual suspects for every idiotic thing Fuji craps out.
I admit it, I was sucked in. I heard the adoration for the 18–55 XF from those same folks and my reality filter was turned off. I had visions of unicorns and rainbows. Somehow those same gushing words of praise used on the 23/1.4 and the 56/1.2 and the 35/1.4 and… were being translated to mean the same thing for the kit zoom. Not so. I was horribly disappointed when I shot some StupidCrap™ tests.
Please don’t take that disappointment the wrong way. With all of those gushing “reviews” I was expecting the photo-geekery thing you get will all of the above mentioned lenses when htting the Z-key. You know that photo-geek OMG will you look at that kind of thing. The Fuji kit lens is perfectly fine, nothing to complain about, just not the OMG factor I was expecting. No big deal, the 18–55 XF has it’s upsides…
- Ummm, OIS/VR that’s always nice.
- Small, actually very very small.
- It feels really nice to use and is far prettier to look at than the APS-C plastic crap from Nikon/Cannon
- Useful set of focal lenses that one could easily live with and be done.
- Idiotically high list price but realistically can be acquired for just about free with a body.
Those are all practical, measurable, relative upsides. Sure they’re all good but after I accidently used the 18–55 for an extended period of time across a large body of pictures. I fell in love with it for what you might consider a esoteric reason. Of course the good-enough and practical upsides contribute to that admiration there’s the one thing that’s a certain strange but important thing of mine — the way it makes pictures look. The way it renders or draws if you’re old enough to have heard that term.
Beyond MTF charts and photo-geek OMG will you look at how sharp that is kind of thing rendering is actually important to me. Let’s chalk that up to focus transition and out-of-focus look and a few other hard to pin down items that combine to give lenses a look. For far more than 90% of the pictures I make I’m not of the crazy slim depth of field school with bury-ized indistinguishable backgrounds. I shoot very wide and very close at large-ish but not crazy large apertures, f/4-ish is a norm. Like the above illustration 18mm about two feet away f/8. This will never give you those wooooshy, can’t decipher anything OOF looks. Sure I’ll do that sometimes but not often. How lenses look in this context of really wide, nothing crazy out of focus is way more important than large aperture, wide open, longer lenses.
I’ve had lenses that look like absolute dog shit in focus transition and anything completely out of focus. Examples would be my Nikkor 18mm AiS. Absolutely horrid looking but I liked how wide it was. The Nikon AF 12–24 also feel into the “I hate the way this lens looks” category. Again I liked how wide it was, even wider than my 14mm on my APS-C bodies. None of this had anything to do with MTF charts or geee mom, look at how sharp those edges are geekery. It’s a whole different universe of geekery. Within that lens-look category there’s one particular thing that is amazingly important to my feelings towards any particular lens. Here’s the obscure part but really shouldn’t be for all of you photographers having people as primary subject matter; How hair looks. Yep, how a lens renders hair is my particular thing.
As an aside, all of the Fuji glass I’ve owned has fallen on the “I like the way it renders” side of the fence. They all have a really good look to them beyond how sharp and contrasty they are. This is more important to me then any minor difference in sharpness to me by a large margin. I have no idea if the look is by design or by accident — don’t care either. The 18–55 XF definitely has that Fuji look to it. It also has the distinctions of making hair with in that transition zone of exact focus to out of focus look better than any lens I can remember. Especially when used at wide-ish fields of view.
Sorry for the off-kilter subject matter. Just so happens to be a project I was fooling around with where I used the 18–55 XF exclusively. Conveniently featuring a lot of hair in vrious lighting conditions on a wide variety of different people. It also has enough visual consistently not to distract from the subject at hand — lens rendering of hair.
Above is the first time I ever used the 18–55 Fujinon excluding the couple of test shots made the day it came in the post. It sat in my bag unmounted for over two months as I made thousand of pictures. This happened to be the first set of pictures I noticed how outstanding the lowly kit lens was when rendering hair. Why? You may have been thinking “Wow, all of those subjects have great hair” Not in any traditional hair-model sense but in just the way it looks. Truth is that all of them had pretty ratty hair by the time I played with this stuff. Not even a comb run through it. I wanted a bed-head look and some of them even were through the wind machine in a setup we did prior to the white on white shots.
None of these photos have been “doctored” with any of what would typically been done in post-processing with respect to hair. Smoothing it out, getting rid of fly aways, painting in some highlights to make it all shiny. In fact processing consists of import with the same preset, export, upload here. That’s it.
If you were wondering where the whacky project started, it all started with Mary. It always starts with mary. What started as sorta fashion-y ended up with that small inset image. It’s no messing around with fixing up hair or even doing anything with it, putting Mary thru a wind machine fifteen minutes before this shot and seeing the results that made me take notice to the way the 18–55 renders hair. It looks way better than it did if you were standing right there. Usually the reverse happens.
So there you have it, the story of how I’ve grown to love the lowly Fuji 18–55 XF kit lens. I was not at all impressed testing it out of the box when comparing it to my other Fuji favorites. It’s not that I saw massive flaws or anything that would stop me from using it. I think it feels a lot better than any of the other econo-cheapy 18–55 APS-C kit lenses but from a performance point of view I was seeing nothing that raised it head and shoulders above the pack. Yes it’s got 2/3 stop advantage in speed but that’s never a make/break kind of thing these days.
When I actually used the thing on real subjects and wasn’t looking for the OMG factor, there’s a distinguishable difference in look from many current optics — even very expensive current optics. It looks great and in my opinion however esoteric I think it’s got one of the best rendering looks for hair out there. For those not so tuned in to how hair can be rendered very very badly by a lens think of it this way; Ever see tree branches and leaves at small scale against open blank sky? Well that always looks terrible but some lenses do that extra-terrible other ones less bad. Same church different pew.