The Under Rated Fuji XF 18mm: A Great Street Photography Lens

Chromatic aberration. Barrel distortion. Lack of resolution.

These are the some of the optical “sins” that the Fuji XF 18mm supposedly suffers from. How any can possible capture a decent picture with this awful lens is beyond me 🙂

Obviously, I’m saying that with tongue firmly in cheek!

The Fuji XF 18mm (left) with the XF 10-24mm

The Fuji XF 18mm (left) with the XF 10-24mm

Certainly, the 18mm isn’t my first choice when I’m shooting real estate and architectural work for clients. For that, I use the much heavier, larger and optically superior Fuji XF 10-24mm ultra-wide to wide zoom.

If you take a peek at some of my photos of interiors and building exteriors, for that type of work, I’m carefully lining up verticals, shooting at optimum f-stop, the camera is on a tripod, etc. It’s meticulous work that involves a lot of straight lines and a static subject, and having an optically great lens is vital.

https://eyebeamimages.wordpress.com/2014/08/17/shooting-interiors-exteriors-with-fujis-xf-10-24mm-lens/

But when it comes to street photography, where the situation is never under the photographer’s control (except where she or he places her/himself in space and the timing of the capture), optical issues like barrel distortion, chromatic aberration and lower resolution becomes secondary. Without diminishing technical qualities required to make a good street photograph, there are thousands of great images throughout the last 100 years that have nothing to do with excellent optical quality, high resolution, and sometimes, even being in focus.

A good survey of street photography, photojournalism and documentary work executed at the highest level that covers 80 years is the book, Magnum: Contact Sheets. Some of the greatest and most memorable photographs from that premiere agency are not technically ideal. This was particularly true in the first half of the 20th century, when photographers had lower performing lenses and film, by today’s standards.

With all of that said, you can see that Magnum photographers kept up with technological advances throughout the decades. As the book marches towards the 21st century, their images become sharper, show greater depth of field, finer resolution and then eventually color becomes viable, for their type of fast moving photojournalism and street photography work.

Is Fuji’s XF 18mm really such a poor performer that it’s not worthy of consideration, especially for street and photojournalistic work? In the limited amount of time I’ve used it (over half a year) I would say it’s a fine tool for that purpose.

Instead of a deep dive into the technical characteristics of the lens, I feel that Donovan at his very detailed and informative site, fujivsfuji.com, really sums up the 18mm very well in his two comparative articles –

http://www.fujivsfuji.com/14mm-2pt8-vs-18mm-2/

http://www.fujivsfuji.com/10-24mm-f4-vs-primes/

To encapsulate Donovan’s excellent analysis, the XF 18mm performs well against the 10-24mm at larger apertures, although it does possess noticeable barrel distortion compared to the zoom.  For off the cuff, often chaotic street work, I would say that amount of barrel distortion won’t take anything away.

We know what the shortcomings of the XF 18mm are. It may be the one of the weaker performing lenses in the Fuji X line, but it’s still a pretty good lens by modern standards. Especially shooting stopped down to f8 or so, in my humble opinion, it’s more than good enough for dynamic street scenes. When shooting wide open, the high-speed aperture of f2 makes for pleasant bokeh and low light capability. And compared to the 14mm, people photographed towards the edge of the frame won’t be distorted from perspective nearly as much on the 18mm.

Rather than dwelling further on the XF 18mm’s weaknesses, let’s look at the advantages of this lens when used for street photography:

  • The second smallest and second lightest of all the Fuji X series lenses. Makes for a very discreet and non-intimidating piece of gear on your X camera.  Very light and easy to carry all day
  • Has an aperture control ring, unlike its smaller pancake sister, the 27mm
  • A superbly designed rectangular lens hood that bayonets on securely. Provides good optical shading and decent physical protection
  • The XF 18mm is about equal to a 28mm lens (or 27mm, to be exact) in 35mm or full frame format. This is a well-proven focal length for street photography use in dense crowds and shooting up close. Yet distortion from perspective isn’t as distracting on the frame’s edges when compared to using wider lenses
  • In the X lens line-up, the 18mm has a fast AF speed, minimum shutter delay and that delay is also consistent and predictable. Again, a benefit for street shooting where timing is everything
  • Low price compared to other X lenses, especially when special rebates or deals are offered

Let’s go into the advantages of the XF 18mm with some detail:

Small Size & Light Weight

The XF 18mm is Fuji’s second lightest and second smallest lens that they make for their X system. Only the 27mm pancake is smaller. At less than 120 grams, it’s an easy lens to carry all day, every day.

Some street photographers like to be discreet in their style of shooting, and not attract attention. The petite size of the 18mm doesn’t attract a lot of attention.

Conversely, look at the size difference between the 18mm and its premium sister, the XF 10-24mm zoom in the picture at the beginning of this post.  Sure, the 10-24mm is still smaller than an equivalent FF pro zoom, but it’s gargantuan compared to the other X lenses. Add the hood, and you end up with a package that can be potentially noticeable and intimidating on the street.

So the XF 18mm’s small size and light weight makes it a great tool for street photography.

Aperture Control Ring

Some X lenses like the 10-24mm have an unmarked aperture control ring. The 27mm doesn’t have an aperture control ring at all.  The 18mm has all its whole f-stops marked on its aperture ring. To me, the simplicity of an aperture control ring with markings makes for a fast and easy way to set the depth of field you want.

While the 18mm doesn’t have a depth of field (DOF) scale etched into its barrel, which would’ve been fantastic, the photographer gets a DOF scale when shooting in Manual Focus, on either the LCD or the viewfinder (and yes, the DOF scale in the finder is available in both OVF and EVF modes). For a more detailed explanation on how to use the DOF scale for street work, take a peek at my article on setting up a Fuji X camera for street photography, here –

https://eyebeamimages.wordpress.com/2014/11/24/fuji-x-pro1-set-up-for-street-photography-part-i/

Functional, Compact Hood

The 18mm includes a very nicely designed, compact and functional hood. It shades the front element quite well from stray light, so that helps combat flare and loss of contrast.  It bayonets on the front of the lens, rather than using using a pinch system or having to be threaded on.  The bayonet makes for a secure connection, yet its quick to install or remove.

For a wide-angle hood, it’s relatively deep, so it provides pretty good physical protection for the lens. I have to use a bulb blower to get the dust off the glass every couple of weeks or so, but that’s about it. Otherwise, the hood is good protection from fingerprints and scratches on the front element.

The small size of the hood, with the entire package of an X body and 18mm lens, makes for a discrete and compact set-up for street shooting.

18mm/28mm-e: a proven focal length for street photography

Since the Fuji X system uses the APS-C format, their 18mm lens is the equivalent to a 28mm lens (actually a 27mm) in a full frame 35mm camera.

For over twenty-five years, I liked carrying just one Leica M body with a 35mm lens for all around street photography. Just before I stopped using the M system for street photography about five years ago, I started using the 28mm.

I was impressed with how the 28mm focal length better matched how I see the world. While I realize our eyes are quite complex, that we’re constantly scanning and we don’t have a “fixed” focal length per se, the 28mm seems to emulate what I see at a glance better than the 35mm, and certainly is closer to what I’m viewing than a 50mm.

When I got back into doing photography for myself, mainly street shooting, this year, I did some quick research to re-affirm that the 28mm equivalent focal length would be a good choice. Ian Berry, a long-time veteran photojournalist with the legendary Magnum Photos agency, recommended the 28mm + 50mm for street photography.

http://www.photographymonthly.com/Tips-and-Techniques/Masterclasses/Ian-Berry-Street-Photography

And here’s another interesting article about the benefits of choosing the 28mm-e for street work.  As an example, the article cites award winning photojournalist, Anthony Suau.

http://www.the.me/the-focal-length-closest-to-the-human-eye-if-you-had-to-take-just-one-lens/

Probably the greatest advocate of the 28mm-e focal length for street use, as he demonstrates in his work, is Garry Winogrand. Look for his work on the web, and you’ll see what this master of the 28mm-e can do with this lens.

Since I’ve been using the 18mm on the street this past year, I’ve found its great depth of field at the same f-stop compared to a 23mm (35mm-e) or the 32/35mm (about a 50mm-e) makes it ideal for street work. At f8 or f11, I can set the 18mm to a hyper focal distance so that everything from 1.5 meters out to 3 meters is in focus. That means I don’t have to depend upon the camera’s AF to lock on anything within that zone, and it reduces the delay between tripping the shutter and the moment of capture.

Again, the field of view seems to match my eyes better than any other focal length. When I raise the finder momentarily to my eye for framing, the 18mm/28mm-e matches what I’m seeing.

With the 18mm, one has to shoot very close in order to fill the frame adequately with the subject. This can be a little bit intimidating for photographers who haven’t shot on the street before. But in a dense, city crowd or at a public event such as an outdoor concert, market, or fair, it’s amazing how close one can get to people and shoot without them noticing one is shooting. Since the 18mm is wide, you can place subjects to one side of the frame, but the camera doesn’t look like it’s pointing at them.

As Ian Berry said in his article above, his experience shows that people notice him less when he’s shooting with a 28mm-e a meter away from them, while he gets noticed if he were to use a telephoto from 3 or 4 meters away.

Another advantage for me regarding the 18mm/28mm-e focal length is that it’s about the widest lens I can control, hand-held. What I mean by that is that if I go wider, let’s say 24mm-e all the way to the ultra-wide’s like a 15mm-e, any slight errors I might make in not getting the horizon absolutely straight can lead to some wild converging lines. Subjects, especially towards the edge of the frame, can have a “flying” effect, which is vaguely unsettling.

I actually do use ultra wide’s (the Fuji XF 10-24mm zoom) for a portion of my professional work (as detailed in the link to on using that lens for real estate/architecture).  But when I do, it’s very controlled and the shooting pace is very slow. So that enables me to get the camera perfectly level, to avoid that ultra wide, “flying” look.

With hand-held street photography, meticulous levelling is obviously not an option. So the 18mm/28mm-e is a sweet spot for me. Wide enough to get deep DOF and an ideal field of view, yet not so wide that its uncontrollable.

One last comment about the 18mm/28mm-e as a focal length: unlike the 35mm-e, which is a good compromise focal length that can serve as a single lens of choice for street shooting, for myself, I’ve found I can’t solely use the 18mm/28mm-e. On a typical day of shooting in a big city, I found that it’s ideal for about 80% of the shots I want to make. But sometimes, I need something a bit longer.

It’s the rare master photographer who can shoot in any street condition with just a 28mm. I’m thinking of Winogrand, who often carried two Leica M bodies, both with 28mm lenses. But I’m no master, and my skill and comfort level is nowhere near as good as that legendary photographer.

Certainly, for crowded situations, nothing is better than the 18mm/28mm-e. But when the crowds are thinner, I feel more comfortable with a touch more distance. So I’ve found Ian Berry’s advice invaluable: combine the 18mm/28mm-e with a 35mm/50mm-e. That makes an ideal combination for me. The 50mm gives me a bit of breathing room when I need it. Also, its shallower DOF allows me to isolate a subject more, when it’s required.  

Fast AF & minimum delay from shutter release

The Fuji XF 18mm was one of the three, first generation lenses that were released for the X system. While the 35mm and 60mm lenses get a lot of praise for their beautiful IQ, the 18mm was seen to be (relatively) weak compared to the exceptional optics of its sisters. Still, I feel that the 18mm is quite good optically, even if it’s half a step behind those lenses in optical performance.

Overlooked in those comparisons is the speed of the 18mm’s auto focus and the short delay from releasing the shutter to capture. With the exception of the even faster focusing 14mm, I would guess that the 18mm is probably the fastest focusing of all the Fuji XF lenses. If you like to use AF for street work, the 18mm is exceptional for speed.

For outdoors, I use the 18mm exclusively on manual focus, and depend upon hyper focal distance focusing instead. Again, the 18mm is a great choice. Compared to other XF lenses, it has a short and consistent lag between depressing the shutter release and when the image is captured. That speed and predictability also makes it an ideal tool for street work. I haven’t measured this myself, but easycass on the fujixseries.com forum has done the hard work on timing the speeds of various X lenses. Check out his comments and findings on that forum.

http://www.fujixseries.com/discussion/8006/equipment-report-investigation-into-sporadic-lag-issues-of-x-series-system

Value priced

Another nice bonus regarding the 18mm is that it has become a value priced XF lens over the years since its release. Its street price at reliable retailers has dropped. And sometimes, it’s offered at a very low price when buying an X body.

While the 23mm f1.4 is an awesome lens, it’s quite a bit more (as well as being a larger and more conspicuous lens) than the 18mm. So on top of being an ideal lens for street work, the 18mm won’t break the bank either.

SUMMARY

I feel that the Fuji XF 18mm f2 is an under-estimated lens.  Despite its optical shortcomings, its advantages of fast AF speed, short shutter delay to capture, light weight, small size and ideal focal length, makes it a fantastic choice for street photography.  Combine all of that with a value price, the 18mm is an ideal choice for the street.

 

 

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6 thoughts on “The Under Rated Fuji XF 18mm: A Great Street Photography Lens

  1. HI Marco!

    I totally agree! I found this lens to be excellent, even optically, in the real world. Plus, it’s compact, which very important for a camera system like the Fuji X Series. A lot of Fuji lenses are getting bigger in size, and in my opinion, Fuji should try and produce more compact lenses like this XF 18mm. Thanks for writing about this,

    Best regards,

    Patrick

  2. Always great to hear from you, Patrick!

    While I love the optical performance of my 10-24 and 60mm, they are much bigger lenses than the 18mm. You are correct about the Fuji X line of lenses getting larger, and I hope it doesn’t get to the point where it negates the compact size of the mirrorless system.

    While I’m interested in Fuji’s upcoming 90mm f2, the lens looks as gargantuan as a Leica Noctilux!!

    Best regards, Marco

  3. Pingback: Fuji X-Pro1: Set-Up for Street Photography – Part I | Eyebeam Images

  4. Great article! I agree with you regarding the XF 18mm as a very versatile performer in most fast-pace situation. I use it as my main lens when out and about shooting. I like the size of this lens, and the lens hood shape makes it rather inconcspicuous. One thing I don’t like about the lens is the optical distortion is rather poor at frame edges.

    • Thanks for writing!

      Along with the Touit 32mm, it’s become my main lens for street shooting. At optimum apertures such as f8 and for street work, most of its optical shortcomings are minimized.

      I’ve found that with most lenses from 28mm-e and wider, edge distortion becomes noticeable. And more so, as the focal length gets wider. A lot of that is perhaps due to perspective distortion, rather than optical. But certainly the XF 18mm isn’t optically fantastic, even though it’s one of my favourite lenses for real world use!

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