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Fuji X-T1 ~50mm Portrait Lens Shootout – Day 1 (XF 56mm vs M-mount Leica Summicron, Carl Zeiss & Voigtlander)

My Nikon FM2 

I recently picked up a Fuji X-T1 camera to complement my Nikon DSLRs, and so far have been very impressed, pairing it with the excellent Fuji XF 23mm 1.4 R (35mm equivalent), and the similarly excellent Fuji XF 14mm 2.8 R (21mm equivalent), both picked up during the recent XF lens sale.  The setup is waaaay smaller and lighter than the Nikon equivalents, and both the controls and design are highly reminiscent of my beloved Nikon FM2 film camera, which I would often bring with me in lieu of a DSLR when traveling due to its compact size and simple control scheme.  The Fuji lets me pack a similarly sized setup, but with all the modern conveniences of flexible, high sensitivity ISO, autofocus and image quality, while still keeping the simple control scheme and allowing for easy out-of-camera emulation of classic Fuji films like Velvia, Provia and the no longer available Astia.  Basically, it’s what the Nikon DF promised to be and should have been.

Auckland shot with Kodak Ektar 100 on a Nikon FM2

I’ve been very happy with the Fuji 14mm & 23mm pair, but if I’m going to be able to walk out the door sans Nikon with confidence, I really need something suitable for portraits.  Fuji just released the well reviewed XF 56mm F1.2R, aimed directly as an 85mm 1.4 replacement which seems to fit the bill well, but with mirrorless moving so fast, rumors of upcoming Fuji full frame options, and the well received a7 series from Sony, I’m a bit hesitant to invest too heavily in a glass system that may not have the longevity and resale value that exists for Nikon and Canon.  Luckily, my wife recently purchased the Fujifilm M Mount Adapter for my birthday, which, perhaps optimistically I took as tacit permission to investigate highly pricey Leica options, which I thought could be further justified if it meant not having to buy new glass if sometime down the road, some other system turned out to be the new gold standard.

With mirrorless moving fast, and manufacturers introducing new lens mounts relatively frequently, camera makers seem to have turned to adapted lens mount glass to fill the gaps, making it something of a lingua franca between the micro 4/3rds, Sony and Fuji mounts.  Compared to say Canon or Nikon options, rangefinder lenses are designed with the expectation of being close to the imaging surface, and as such are similarly compact to the mirrorless options, while still supporting full frame coverage.  For reasons I don’t fully understand, something about the physics of wide-angled rangefinder lenses seems to cause off smearing in the corners on bodies not specifically designed to compensate for it (Like the Leica M), especially on full frame sensors, but luckily for me, 50mm and longer lenses don’t seem to exhibit this issue, and a little blur in the corners for a portrait lens can actually be a good thing.  All M mount lenses are manual focus, but for taking portraits with very thin depth of field, this can be a good thing, requiring you to pay attention and make sure the eyes are sharp.

Still, there’s not a lot of information out there on the performance of various options on Fuji bodies, enter lensrentals.com, and their very wide selection of rental options.  For my first pass, I picked out the native Fuji glass, and a selection of M-mount options in a similar price range – the standard Leica Summicron-M 50mm F/2, the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.5 Nokton, and both the Zeiss C Sonnar, a very compact F/1.5 option and the slightly larger Zeiss Planar f/2. While none of these options have autofocus, they are all significantly smaller, the Voigtlander being the largest and most awkward in that it is quite long.  The Zeiss Sonnar has an interesting reputation amongst Leica rangefinder shooters due to the fact that its focus distance is not constant when changing F-stop, and by default, the factory tunes the focus to match the range finder at a mid-level F-stop, so if you’re focusing for shooting fully open, when the rangefinder images line up, you’ll actually be slightly out of focus. Zeiss says this is due to the classic lens design, which is also what allows the lens to be very compact. You can send your copy back to Zeiss and request they align the focus for shooting at F/1.5, but then shooting stopped down will be out of focus instead.  You can read more about these issues over at Luminous Landscape – check out the update section at the bottom for Zeiss’s response. Luckily, with a live viewfinder like those found on all modern mirrorless options, this is not a factor since the image is coming directly off the sensor instead of requiring calibration with a separate rangefinder system. The lens is also known for being a bit soft (possibly due to the rangefinder calibration issue) while having an appealing bokeh. Prior to receiving my rentals, I was most interested in how the Sonnar would perform given its reputation and the fact that with a through the lens view, it wouldn’t be subject to the limitations of a focus point that shifted with aperture changes.

So, how’d they do?  First, let’s take a look at a fixed scene consisting of my couch lit with window light and each lens at its widest aperture.  White balance was fixed, and I adjusted exposure to try to match for each aperture, however changes in the daylight from the background windows made it impossible to keep the exact same exposure for each image.  Mouse over each image after you’ve taken a look to see which lens was used.  Each image is accompanied by a center crop at 100%.  Click through to see the full images.

CZ Planar 2.0@2.0
CZ Planar 2.0@2.0 CROP

CZ Sonnar @1.5
CZ Sonnar @1.5 CROP

Fuji XF 56mm @ 1.2
Fuji XF 56mm @ 1.2 CROP

Leica Summicron @ 2.0
Leica Summicron @ 2.0 CROP

Voigtlander 1.5 @1.5
Voigtlander 1.5 @1.5 CROP

As you can see in the center crops, the Fuji is by far the sharpest, and is the only lens that renders clearly the hair draped across the pillow in the upper right corner of the crop – this despite the thinner DOF from the 1.2 aperture and slightly longer lens.  Some of this may be attributable to the slight magnification of the extra 6mm, but the difference is so stark, and apparent across photos taken in a number of different situations that it’s clear the lens is a step above other similarly priced options, at least on a Fuji X camera.  These photos are standard out of camera jpegs, so it is possible that built in software corrections helped out here.  Coming in at a distant second, the Leica and Voigtlander seem tied to my eye, followed by the Sonnar with the Planar coming in at last place. Other interesting characteristics to note are the green color cast of the fine blue pattern on the pillow in the Zeiss Planar shot, which otherwise rendered with fairly pleasing bold colors, and the relative similarity of the rendering between options – you really do have to zoom in to 100% to notice many differences in the in focus areas.  This color cast wasn’t unique to the Planar – it exhibited in other test shots on other lenses to differing degrees depending on aperture and slight variations in positioning, but seemed to most consistently and blatantly affect the Planar.  In terms of bokeh, I found the Leica to be a little worried – fine edges had almost a doubled image quality, the Voigtlander to have a harsh, displeasing rendering of color transitions, the Sonnar to have probably the smoothest rendition and the Fuji to have especially blurred background details with it’s fine 1.2 aperture.  You can find more example shots at aperture ranges between 1.2 and 2.0 in this Flickr gallery.  It’s also interesting to note that even amongst the 50mm candidates, the actual focal length seemed to vary a bit with the Planar being the shortest and the Leica being the longest, at least at this focus distance. 

To get a sense of how the lenses rendered skin tones, my wife was kind enough to stay put with a book while I fiddled with swapping lenses on the tripod (click through for full size):

CZ Planar 2.0 portrait CZ Sonnar @1.5 portrait Fuji XF 56mm 1.2 portrait Fuji XF 56mm 2.0 portrait Leica 2.0 portrait Voigtlander 1.5 @1.5 portrait

Again, it’s a little hard to make strong determinations here given the differences in exposure, but it seemed in this case that the bold, contrasty rendering of the Zeiss lenses was a bit of a detriment causing harsher transitions in the shadows on the face. 

Summary

In all, I was interested to find that in normal viewing conditions, the lenses were more similar than they were different.  It was really only in the 100% crops that sharpness differences became apparent, and in that case, the Fuji XF 56mm was the only standout, with crystal clear sharpness, even at the very wide 1.2 maximum aperture.  For normal portraiture, this is probably not an issue for most people. However, since I’m considering adding something in this focal length as part of a small travel kit, with nothing longer, it would definitely be nice to have the ability to crop a bit further without losing sharpness.  It’s also worth noting that this comparison included every new 50mm M mount lens with a maximum aperture of 2.0 or wider that can be had for less than $4000, with the exception of the Voigtlander Heliar 50mm f/2.0. So clearly, the Fuji XF 56mm is the winner here – it’s the only option with autofocus and its superior image quality carries the day, with the only negative being size.  That said, if we don’t limit ourselves to being “reasonable” when it comes to pricing, there is one option with a high price, and a reputation to match – the Leica Summilux-M 50mm ASPH – known for its creamy bokeh and crazy sharpness. 

Stay tuned for part 2, where I’ll take a look at the cream of the crop – the Fuji XF, the Zeiss Sonnar with its pleasing bokeh, and add into the mix the Leica Summilux ASPH, comparing sharpness and bokeh with even more sample images. 

2 Comments

  1. […] previously posted my experiences comparing the new Fuji XF 56mm 1.2 R. In that post, I noted that I found the Fuji to […]

  2. […] Fujifilm M-mount adapter.  I finally got a chance to post sample images and write up my thoughts here and here. Bottom line – only the 50mm Leica Summilux ASPH could even keep up! At 1/4 the […]

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