Fuji XF 35mm f/1.4 R lens review: the best Fuji lens ever?

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Fuji’s XF 35mm f/1.4 R. This beauty weights 187 grams only, less than your fancy iPhone Xs Max.

Back in January 2012 when Fujifilm announced the X-Pro1 – their first ever interchangeable X system camera – they did it together with the launch of three prime lenses: the XF 18mm f/2 R; the XF 35mm f/1.4 R; and the XF 60mm f/2.4 R Macro.

Designed for Fujifilm’s APS-C size X-Trans sensor with a 1.5 crop factor, these lenses had, respectively, the equivalent full frame focal lengths of 28mm, 50mm and 90mm. In other words, Fujifilm launched the X-Pro1 with a very solid set of fast prime lenses, covering wide angle, normal and telephoto lengths.

While Fujifilm’s announcement sent shockwaves amongst the worldwide camera enthusiasts community, I tried my best to resist the temptation of jumping ship. At that time I was happily using my Olympus OMD EM-5 and had been a loyal micro 4/3 member since its very inception with the Olympus EP-1.

But gear acquisition syndrome took the best of me. By December that year I took the plunge and after a visit to my local camera store, I returned home with an X-E1 body and those three prime lenses. And a huge smile on my face.

This was 6 years ago, which by the current digital evolution pace is an eternity. However, from those three original X lenses, I’m still keeping two of them: the 18mm and the 35mm.

Today I’m going to write about the later and try to explain why, even 6 years after its launch, the XF 35mm f/1.4 R is still Fuji’s best lens so far.

I. Physical features

The first thing that strikes me in this lens is how light it is. At 187 grams, in your hand it feels lighter than what you would imagine by its appearance. To put things in perspective, this lens is lighter than an iPhone Xs Max, which weights 208 grams!

So when you hold the lens, it actually feels hollow, like when you hold one of those fake camera bodies that they put in camera store displays.

This is not to say the lens is not well built or doesn’t feel prime. Quite the contrary.

Firstly, it needs to be taken into account that Fujifilm’s range of X system camera bodies are mostly small and light. So the weight of this lens is consistent with its compatible camera bodies.

Secondly, and most importantly, build quality is super. The lens body is built in aluminium and finished with a semi-gloss black coating that gives it a classic look. It’s very Leica-esque to some point, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was exactly Fuji’s intent.

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The lens mount is made of steel. I’ve had this lens for 6 years now and can’t find any marks of wear or tear, apart from the usual harmless scratches. So this thing is made to last.

Rings

There are two rings in the lens: the focusing ring and the aperture ring. If you can’t figure out which one is which then maybe it’s time for you to consider giving up on photography.

The focusing ring is butter smooth and is actually a “by wire” system, meaning that you are not physically moving the lens members when you turn the ring. You are actually turning a switch that sends electronic signals to the lens motors to move the glass. Anyway I seldom use it, because the autofocus is competent and works well.

The aperture ring is one of the reasons I jumped to this system. If you have never used a camera with aperture rings, I strongly recommend you try it once in your lifetime. There is nothing better than being able to glance at the ring to see what aperture you are using at a given time when you are out shooting, and the sheer pleasure it gives turning it to open a or close the aperture blades and regulate the light hitting the sensor.

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The aperture ring goes from f/1.4 to f/16. At the far end there is an “A” marking for Auto. Switch the ring to that position and the camera will choose aperture for you, either in shutter priority mode or full program auto mode, depending on the shutter dial’s position.

Each click of the ring represents 1/3 of a stop. The ring is light and perhaps I’d like it to be a bit harder to avoid turning it accidentally. I don’t recall this happening to me though, so it’s just an observation I’m making here.

Most of the times I shoot in aperture priority mode and the aperture ring is very intuitive and comfortable to use. It’s so easy to use that it encourages you to think about your aperture before taking the shot and experiment with your photos.

Lens cap & hood

Fuji launched the first generation XF lenses with classic looking hoods made of metal and so the XF 35mm f/1.4 R was no exception. Its rear end is obviously round so that it attaches to the lens’ 52mm filter thread, and it does so with a reassuring click.

The front end, however, is rectangular. Well, to be precise, geometrically is actually an octagon since the corners are heavily chamfered. So the hood has got this funny 3D shape with several plane intersections and transitions. It’s quite a piece of work.

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The hood gets the same black semi-gloss finishing of the lens, so when attached it looks like its extension. It’s a nice detail as most hoods from other camera brands are usually made of cheap plastic that look out of place when attached.

The interior of the hood is finished in matte black so you don’t need to be concerned with light bouncing around. It’s perfect.

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IMG_2115There is a rubber cap for the metal hood which doesn’t attach firmly so you can loose it easily. Every time I put my camera in a backpack, a bag, a suitcase or whatever, when I reach out for the camera the cap is always off. It’s not a huge concern for me though: I guess the considerable distance between the front end of the hood and the glass of the lens means that even without the rubber cap, it is fairly well protected.

If you prefer to go without the metal hood, you can just use the plastic cap which attaches directly to the lens itself. Nothing to say about this one: it looks boring, it’s made of plastic and it attaches firmly to the lens.

II. Image Quality & User Experience

This lens is crazy sharp wide open and across the whole frame. Period.

Do I need to say more? Hence the tittle of this article. I’ve been using this lens for 6 years now and I’m positive this is the lens I had shot the most photos with.

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The definition of sharpness, Thailand. Fuji X-E3, 1/7000 @ f/2, ISO 400.

I bought this lens back in 2012 together with the 18mm f/1.8, the 60mm f/2.4 and the X-E1 body. Over the years I’ve upgraded / changed my camera bodies, I’ve had the X-E2, the X-Pro1, the X-Pro2, and now I’m using the X-E3. In the mean time I’ve sold the 60mm f/2.4, I bought the XF 23mm f/1.4 R and after a while sold it because I felt it was too large and heavy.

Then I bought the XF 23mm f/2 R WR and also the XF 27mm f/2.8 pancake. But sooner or later I know I’m going to sell these two as well because I don’t use them much, especially since I bought the Sony RX1R II which is brilliant and has the same equivalent 35mm focal length.

Yet with all these gear changes I’m still keeping my original XF 35mm f/1.4 R, I still use it regularly because the images coming out of this lens are outstanding. I have a passion for this lens and I know I’m keeping it forever, or at least till the day I decide to abandon the Fuji X system. But probably this day will never come because I don’t see myself parting ways with this lens because it is pretty much perfect.

The “normal” focal length

The XF 35mm f/1.4 R gives you the equivalent full frame focal length of 50mm, which is also known to be the “normal” field of view, the “normal” length.

Depending on what you intend to shoot, you may find this field of view a bit narrow. It’s surely not as flexible as 35mm or a 28mm but, on the other hand, it forces you to think differently and focus on details.

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Race car. 1/1000 @ f/1.4, ISO 400.

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Get closer. 1/1700 @ f/1.4, ISO 400.

Therefore, this equivalent 50mm focal length allows you to remove things from within your frame. And less information, less distractions, may result in more powerful photos. You know sometimes when you check some photos and you realize you should have got closer to your subject? This is obviously subjective, but it’s one of the reasons I like to shoot with this “normal” lens.

Portraits

I have two kids and this lens is perfect to document them growing up. This is not a +90mm classic focal length for portraits, but clearly you can use it for this purpose.

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Yokohama girl. 1/2000 @ f/2, ISO 400.

It’s sharp wide open but most of the times when shooting portraits I stop down to f/2 or f/2.8 to make sure everything is in focus due to the shallow depth of field when in f/1.4. Otherwise you won’t get eyes, nose, lips and ears all in focus. Alas, shooting everything with your largest aperture is part of the current obsession with tech specs. One day I’ll write something about this.

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Yokohama girl II. 1/2400 @ f/2, ISO 400.

The obvious advantage of shooting with the wide apertures is that it helps separate your subject from all the noise around it. Both photos above are a good example: taken on the paddock during the 65th Macau Grand Prix, with hundreds of people walking around the cars and the grid girls, the lens manages to effectively separate the subject from the background. I used f/2 in both, but if needed I could use f/1.4.

The XF 35mm f/1.4 R gives you this option and plus, it produces beautiful bokeh. So you can get the dreamy look if this is your thing. I’m not a bokeh junkie, but I like the separation and the 3D effect, especially due to the sharpness of the lens even wide open.

One last word about portraits with this lens: skin colours look gorgeous all the time. They are warm, but not over the top. While pleasant skin colours is a well known quality of the Fuji cameras, when compared with my other Fuji lenses I have the impression the XF 35mm f/1.4 R performs better and takes things to the next level.

Autofocus

The XF 35mm f/1.4 R belongs to Fuji’s first generation of X lenses so autofocus speed is not up to the current crop of mirrorless lenses. Over the years, however, Fuji improved it with firmware updates and with the current bodies (I’m using the X-E3 now) it’s fast and doesn’t hesitate or hunt back and forth. It’s not lighting fast but hey, remember, this lens was launched 6 years ago.

Still, it’s fast enough for me. The one thing people need to understand is sometimes you don’t nail focus or don’t get the desired sharpness in your photo not because of slow autofocus, but because you are using the wrong shutter speed and / or the wrong aperture. So don’t blame the autofocus speed.

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Driving out of the paddock. 1/2800 @ f/2.8, ISO 400.

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Local hero. 1/1500 @ f/2.8, ISO 400.

Just recently I used this lens to shoot racing cars and they were moving towards me. I was not even using continuous autofocus and you can see by the examples above that it was not a problem.

Now I don’t know what you shoot but if you really, really need the ultimate speed and performance in autofocus then perhaps this is not the lens for you, perhaps you should consider the smaller XF 35mm f/2 R WR that was launched in 2015.

Manual focus

Manual focus sucks with this lens. You keep turning the ring and it’s so slow that it’s frustrating. That’s all I have to say.

Colours

Fujifilm’s X system cameras are well known for the pleasant out of camera JPEG colours and their film simulation modes – Provia, Velvia, etc. – gained a cult status over the years. I’m not a fan of the film simulations though and with Fujifilm cameras I shoot JPEG under standard colour setting and I’m happy with the results.

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Flower in Thailand. Straight out of camera JPEG, standard colour setting. 1/1900 @ f/4, ISO 400.

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Warm tones, Thailand. 1/3000 @ f/1.4, ISO 200.

I use several Fuji lenses and all I can say from my experience is that the XF 35mm f/1.4 R produces the best colours. Generally speaking they are all good, but this lens in particular I think it performs better in terms of colour rendition.

III. Final thoughts

If you are a Fujifilm X system user and need a “normal” lens, than for me this is a no brainer. This is the best you can get, it’s got a f/1.4 aperture so it sucks the light into your sensor, it’s light and easy to be carried around, and most importantly it gives you superb results.

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Happiness. 1/150 @ f/1.4, ISO 200.

If you are hesitating between this lens or the newer XF 35mm f/2 R WR, here is what I think. I’ve read in several sites that the XF 35mm f/1.4 R is sharper and performs better in terms of image quality, even though by a small margin – probably you won’t even notice. So in terms of image quality both are equally good.

If portability is one of your considerations, I’d say you can pretty much ignore this factor because the weight difference between both lenses is marginal. Yes, the XF 35mm f/2 R WR is more compact, but I don’t think it makes any difference.

Is weather resistance (WR) a must for you? Unless you are a National Geographic photographer or your type of photography you spend most of your time shooting in extreme wet conditions, otherwise I think all this WR thing going around is just the result of the camera manufacturers spec race and trying to convince hobbyist photographers that your camera gear needs to be WR. When I’m shooting and it rains, I just have a jacket or something covering my camera. A few drops here and there will not ruin your camera gear, so you can keep shooting. If it’s raining heavily then probably you should go somewhere and stop shooting anyway. 

Autofocus may be worth considering since it is slower on the XF 35mm f/1.4 R than the newer XF 35mm f/2 R WR. Now how important autofocus speed is for your type of photography, only you will know. For me I’m more than happy with the AF speed of the XF 35mm f/1.4 R, so no big deal for me.

On top of everything, I guess it’s really about the f/1.4 aperture. This is the key advantage and I’ll take this f/1.4 over the WR or the AF speed on any single occasion, any single day. So the XF 35mm f/1.4 R is the clear winner for me. And remember, this lens is one of the originals, it’s first generation lens from Fuji’s X system, launched together with the X-Pro1. So to some extent it’s already a classic. ‘Nuff said.

Samples gallery

Samples taken with my XF 35mm f/1.4 R using several Fujifilm X system bodies I’ve used along the years, please enjoy.

 

 

 

 

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