Sunday, December 9, 2012

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X-E1: High ISO and XF 18-55mm Review



I recently picked up Fujifilm's excellent "kit" zoom for the X-E1, the XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4.0 R LM OIS. It uses a new linear-motor for AF (the LM in its name) which is fast and silent when focusing, and it also has an effective optical image stabilization system (OIS). For a reasonably compact kit lens, the f/2.8-4.0 range is quite bright and with the fairly large APS-C sensors on the X-Pro1 and X-E1, you can get decent subject isolation, especially at the long end, when shooting wide open. From an overall image quality standpoint, the lens is impressive with surprisingly sharp results corner to corner, even at wider apertures. For an extra $400 when bundled with the X-E1 body, this lens is a bargain as far as I'm concerned! The gallery linked above was all shot with the X-E1 and this new 18-55 zoom. In addition, there are many high ISO samples too...

As far as the high ISO work with the X-E1, one does need to be more careful with exposure and my favoured night shooting technique of (mostly) exposing for the highlights starts falling apart over ISO 1600. Shadows will begin to get noisier if one opens them up too far, which is nothing unique to this camera of course. Its high ISO performance is extremely impressive and very nearly on the level of some full-frame cameras actually. I find that ISO 1600 raws are still very malleable as far as shadow detail, but above that one needs to be a little more cautious and not go to extremes. Also, above ISO 1600, Adobe's differential noise reduction (more in the shadows, less in the better exposed areas) starts killing texture detail a little too much for my liking, especially in shadows that have been opened a lot. Whenever possible, my aim will be to shoot at no higher than ISO 1600 in challenging dynamic range situations where I may want to make dramatic adjustments. The latter part of page two in the above linked gallery, images 61-75, were shot at ISO 1600 with the above comments in mind and the stabilized lens which is sharp wide open made these shots possible without a tripod. The first part of page two, images 41-60, were all tripod shots at ISO 200, sometimes with significant adjustments to boost dynamic range. Now, getting back to the 18-55...

Optically speaking, there is very little to complain about, especially at its price point. Distortion is minimal with only a little bit of curvature at the wide end, wide-angle corner "stretching" isn't bad, better than some other lenses, chromatic aberration isn't too bad either and Lightroom's auto-correct seems to work well on it. Note that none of the shots in the above gallery had any distortion correction applied. Flare and contrast loss is also well under control for a zoom and in fact, it is better in that regard than the XF 18mm f/2 prime. One weak point might be the bokeh, where it can be a little nervous sometimes. In fact, with the very first image in the gallery, shot at 55mm and f/4, you can see a bulls-eye diffraction effect on the lights in the background. In comparison the 60mm f/2.4 macro would look quite a lot better, even at f/4, let alone at f/2.4. Strangely, that is the only time I have seen that bullseye effect... in other shots it is not there and the bokeh looks much smoother. Maybe those light sources (LED Christmas lights) were small enough to be nearly point sources and that is the cause?

As far as resolution goes, the lens seems very "relaxed" and I do mean that in a good way. While it doesn't have the biting acutance of the 35mm or 60mm primes, it also doesn't have any major falloff in edge and corner sharpness when shot wide open. There never seems to be any harshness or "strain" in its look. As an example, the Canon EF-S 18-55mm kit zoom is surprisingly sharp too, but somehow it looks strained overall and towards the corners it can get pretty ugly, especially along high contrast edges. The Fujifilm 18-55mm never has that harsh look and in fact right from f/2.8 onward, resolution is surprisingly even across the frame, and by the time you get over f/5.6, it is very consistent right into the extreme corners. High contrast edges don't seem to bother it either with clean transitions usually. Actually, its corner sharpness is far better than the 18mm prime at any f-stop, and its overall resolution behaviour is even more consistent than the 35mm. However for pure wide-open sharpness you can't beat the 60mm prime, and for subjects away from the edges of the frame the 35mm is also noticeably crisper at large f-stops. The 60mm certainly is nearly flawless from a sharpness standpoint at any f-stop, and the 35mm beats the zoom from corner to corner once you get to about f/8 or so.

The OIS stabilization on the zoom works well too, but it seems more effective when you half-press the shutter, hold the camera as still as possible and let it run for a few seconds, especially when you are really pushing the hand-holding envelope. I have seen what I think is a little bit of stabilizer-induced corner/edge softness in a few instances, something that other stabilized wide-angle lenses can suffer from too... and sometimes far more prominently in fact. Fujiflm's 18-55mm is pretty good in that regard and seems to have a fairly generous image circle to minimize that issue.

Mechanically, the zoom mechanism feels very good, well damped with no creep and no wobble at all even when fully extended. The only complaint, mechanically, is that its mount is slightly less tight on the camera than I'd like. When you twist the lens' zoom and hit the stops at either end, the lens tends to shift slightly on the mount before the locking pin stops its movement. If it was a bit tighter on the mount, this would not be noticeable or bothersome. This slight looseness may just be my copy and not representative of all of them?

Lastly, I do wish Fujifilm had made the aperture ring with printed f-stops, just like the other lenses. Yes, it is a variable aperture zoom, but I feel it would have been far better for the camera to simply set the widest aperture and any given zoom setting when the ring was between f/2.8 and f/4, rather than totally give up the wonderful traditional visual feedback. Also, strangely enough, without the markings I find myself turning the aperture ring in the wrong direction sometimes! I'm sure with a little more experience, I'll stop doing that though.

All in all though, I would say this lens beats my previous favourite kit lens, the more expensive Canon EF-S 15-85mm zoom, in terms of overall performance. I do wish the Fujifilm zoom started at 15 or 16mm instead of 18mm but at least I now have a high quality wide-angle option to tide me over until the delayed 14mm lens starts shipping!

7 comments:

Mark Gurfinkel said...

Thanks for the great review, just picked up X-E1 with the kit lens myself. For kids' portraits at 35mm, do you think it makes sense to spend extra $600 to obtain 2.5 extra stops? (from F1.4 to kit's F3.5)

Mike Mander said...

Hi Mark: In low light with moving kids, the extra 2.5 stops could very well mean the difference between a sharp or blurry photo! The 35mm f/1.4 is a beautiful lens and as far as the current lens lineup, it is the main one I would highly recommend, even if you have the zoom, if it's within your budget of course. The 18mm is not worth it in my view, but the other very good lens is the 60mm macro, which is razor sharp wide open and is, of course, also a macro lens. Would be good for tight portraits shot wide open and close-ups, but it may not get as much use as the 35mm. Shooting with the 60mm can be prone to camera shake, and the stabilizer in the 18-55 might make it a better all around choice for lower light work, even with its slower f-stop than the 60mm. However again, for freezing moving subjects you need to get the shutter speed up, and the 60mm won't be anywhere near as good as the 35mm that way with its slower f-stop and even higher shutter speed requirements...

Mark Gurfinkel said...

Thanks, this is very helpful!
Mark

Ron Greer said...

your reviews are very enjoyable. My xe-1 is on its way; to replace my Nex 7. Do you have a video review coming?

ron

Matt Schill said...

Thanks for the review. My copy is also a touch loose on the lens mount and would prefer it to be locked down but I don't let it bother me.

As a side, do you have the hand grip or 35mm in stock?

Matt

Mike Mander said...

Ron: Thanks. No video review, in either sense of the word, sorry. In other words, I won't be testing the video recoding features of the X-E1 (it is not all that good and my GH2 runs rings around it for HD video), nor will I be publishing a video where I demonstrate or talk about the camera. Not enough time!

Matt: You're welcome. I've discovered that it is my body, and not the lens which seems a tad loose. Our (at Beau Photo) new demo camera and zoom lens was tight, but when I mounted the demo lens to my body it was also a little loose. At Beau Photo, we are currently out of stock on the 35mm and waiting for a shipment. I do not believe that we've received any of the grips we've ordered either. However, we do have the 18-55mm zoom in stock on its own now and we do have a black X-E1 kit available (for others that might be wondering).

Mark Gurfinkel said...

Got the 35mm F1.4, love it!!

500px.com/FujifilmConvert

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