Photography Gear Review: The Fujifilm XF 23mm F2 Prime Lens Might Be My Favorite Street Photography Lens

I enjoy making photographs with the wide 24mm lens or the telephoto 75mm or 135mm prime lenses, instead of the more common 35mm or 50mm lenses that mimic the human eye. With the 24mm lens, I enjoy focusing close on a subject with the aperture wide open and filling the frame with it, while creating a wide field of view and blurring the background. With the 75mm and the 135mm lenses, I enjoy focusing on a subject from a distance with the aperture wide open, filling the frame with it, and separating it from the blurred background created by the narrow field of view. In both cases, I want to see with my camera what I can’t see with my eyes, both in terms of the field of view and the subject-background separation.

When I take my 24mm (XF 16mm f1.4) lens out on the street, however, I realize that I can’t get close enough to most subjects to either fill the frame with them, or separate them from the background via bokeh. When I take my 75mm (XF 50mm f2) lens out on the street, I face the opposite problem and realize that I’m often too close to the subject and need to back up to capture some context; with the 135mm (XF 90mm f2) lens, I’ll need to compose from even further away. With both my wide and telephoto lenses, I find myself missing far too many shots. (Fujifilm makes APS-C cameras with a multiplication factor of 1.5X, so a 16mm lens is a 24mm full-frame equivalent, for instance.)

Over the last two weeks, I decided to go back to the 35mm (XF 23mm f2) lens for street photography and found myself really enjoying the focal length. It’s wide enough to capture context, but not so wide that I can’t compose a shot from a comfortable distance. Many photographers consider 35mm the ideal focal length for street photography. The designed for street photography Fuji X100 line of rangefinder cameras come with a 35mm equivalent 23mm f2 lens attached. Most of the iconic classic street photographers I love shot almost exclusively with a 35mm lens. After exclusively using the 35mm focal length for two weeks, I can now see why.

I also decided to mostly shoot at f5.6 instead of my usual f2, so that almost everything in the frame would be in focus. I sometimes complain that, in a lot of the street photography I see, there’s too much in the frame and too much of it is in focus:

a lot of street photography is shot at f8, with almost an infinite depth of field, which means that almost everything in the frame is in focus. That in itself isn’t a problem, except that most photographs have a lot in the frame — people, animals, cars, bicycles, billboards, storefronts, buildings, road signs — very often without an obvious focal point or organizing principle. The challenge with less than perfect composition is aggravated by the insistence of many street photographers to not crop their photographs or not remove any distractions in editing. The result is layer upon layer upon layer of visual information, which, at least to my eyes, looks like chaotic noise.

I wanted to see if, even with everything in the frame in focus, I could still make photographs with clean classical compositions and strong subject separation.

XF 23mm f2 is one of three Fuji f2 lenses — 23mm, 35mm and 50mm — fondly called ‘Fujicrons’ because they are reminiscent of Leica’s Summicron f2 lenses in size and design. Reviews for the XF 23mm f2 universally praise its small size and weight, beautiful metallic vintage lens style design, satisfyingly firm and clicky marked aperture ring, weather resistance, fast and quiet autofocus, and economical pricing. However, opinions diverge on its image quality. Some reviewers are turned off by the softness of the images when the lens is used wide open at the minimum focus distance, and point out that the blurred background bokeh is unsatisfying both in terms of shape and smoothness. Other reviewers argue that the lens has excellent edge-to-edge sharpness and color contrast when used at its optimal focusing distance (from a few feet away) and aperture (between f4 and f8) for street photography. Micro-contrast in black and white photographs is good, chromatic aberration and distortion are well-controlled, and vignetting is easily corrected. The lens is widely considered to be optically capable, if somewhat clinical and lacking ‘character’. Given its size, weight, price and feature set, it is universally praised to have excellent value.

I don’t mind a little softness in the lens wide open, and sometimes deliberately use it in nature photography to create a soft watercolor-like effect. However, combined with its rather underwhelming maximum magnification of 0.13x, the poor close focusing performance does limit the lens’ utility for product or food photography. Since I was shooting mostly at f5.6 in my street photography, the photographs came out with excellent crispness and color contrast. I shot RAW + JPEG with the Classic Chrome film simulation using the Kodak Portra 400 JPEG recipe, and sometimes converted the RAW files to black and white using the Acros film simulation. While selecting photographs for this review, I decided to use slightly edited straight out of the camera JPEGs with a cinematic 16:9 crop. Many reviewers have said that the XF 23mm f2 lens lacks the ‘magic’ some Fujifilm lenses (like the XF 16mm f1.4) have. I‘m not sure about magic, but I do hope that these photographs can give you a good sense of what the lens is capable of.

Is the XF 23mm f2 my favorite street photography lens? I think it is, for now. I definitely like the 35mm focal length for street photography. I’ll need to use more 35mm lenses to decide how the XF 23mm f2 stacks up against them. The Viltrox and the upcoming Tokina 23mm f1.4 lenses look interesting, but I’m hoping that Fujifilm will update its aging XF 23mm f1.4 lens soon, and add weather resistance and fast, quiet autofocus. Beyond Fujifilm, I would love to try the Sony 35mm f1.8 lens once the Sony A7 IV is released.

The other close alternative to the XF 23mm f2 is the 50mm XF 35mm f2 Fujicron. The XF 35mm f2 has similar strengths and weaknesses as the XF 23mm f2. On the negative side, it has slightly slower autofocus, and slightly worse chromatic aberration in high-contrast situations. On the positive side, it has slightly better sharpness wide open at the minimum focusing distance, and slightly better background bokeh due to the longer focal length. I’ll spend more time with my XF 35mm f2 lens for street photography over the next two weeks, and report back on how it compares.

More tomorrow.

By Gaurav Mishra

Learning to see the #beauty, #play and #vitality in #quarantinelife, mostly by learning to make photos and learning to write about them.