Fujifilm Fujinon XF 56mm f/1.2 R Review

2000 1125 Rich Stroffolino

When I first bought into the Fuji X-mount system, the XF 56mm was the first lens I got. I was excited to have  such a fast prime lens in the 85mm equivalent focal length, and the bokeh possibilities of an f/1.2 lens were very enticing.

I’ve had the original Fujinon XF 56mm f/1.2 for five years now (as opposed to the newer APD and weather-sealed versions). If you want a professional-grade portrait lens for the Fuji X-mount, the XF 56mm f/1.2, in whatever variety you buy it, will do the job nicely. If you need flexibility, it might not be for you.

What is the Fuji XF 56 f/1.2?

The Fuji XF 56 f/1.2 is a short telephoto lens for Fujifilm’s X series mirrorless cameras. It provides a similar field of view to that of an 85mm lens on a 35mm (or full frame digital) camera. Traditionally, photographers use that focal length for portraits because it flattens facial features in a complimentary way and offers some interesting background compression. With an 85mm lens with a fast maximum aperture in particular, it’s possible to achieve very shallow depth of field, which means makes it a lens adept at isolating subjects, another desirable trait of strong portraits.

Longer focal length lenses can exaggerate all these characteristics even further, but that would require being further away from your subject, often not practical. And so, the 85mm lens has long been considered a portrait and event photographers bread and butter.

The Design

Fuji’s take on the classic portrait lens tries to play all the hits. It’s relatively compact, especially considering the fast aperture. It’s made entirely of metal, which looks great in Fuji’s matte black. It’s subtle and reserved, devoid of features like an AF-MF switch, custom buttons, integrated lens hood, etc. But there is an essential quality to it that I think plays well with the rest of the system. After five years of use, the all-metal construction has held up well, and the paint and number etchings still look great.

On my X-T30, it’s a little unbalanced. It’s heavier than the camera, and the bottom of the barrel extends beyond the bottom of the camera slightly so that when you set it on a table, the camera can not rest flat on the bottom plate. But even with the small grip on the X-T30, the whole package is still easy to handle. With Fuji’s X-H, X-S, and X-Tn cameras, the lens will pair perfectly. Although the smooth faces of the X-E and X-Pro might make for some slightly trickier handling.

The lens really is quite basic. It has a nicely knurled focus ring that you will likely never use. The one on mine is a little stiff. The shallow depth of field on the lens and the long focus-by-wire throw makes manual focus rather impractical to use in most situations.

The only other feature on the lens is the aperture ring and it’s the only major design failing of the lens.

The XF 56mm falls amongst Fuji’s second generation of lens design, after the 18mm, 23mm f/1.4 and 35mm f/1.4 which launched with the X system. I’ve used these earlier lenses, and the aperture ring on them left a bit to be desired. They were is very clicky and brittle, giving a cheap impression. The aperture ring on the 56mm, however, is greatly improved, with less of a toy-like feel. But it is way too easy to rotate, especially when shooting wide open. Often just pulling the lens out of a bag or raising the camera to your eye will be enough to move the aperture ring one to two clicks.

I’ve only ever used the original XF 56mm f1.2, so I’m not sure if the newer APD or WR versions suffer the same issue. I say this because on Fuji’s excellent 23mm f/2, they figured out the perfect weight for the aperture ring, so these newer lenses may well be improved. This is a consistent inconvenience, but unless you’re shooting in very low light, you’ll likely barely notice a difference between f/1.2 and f/1.4.

In Use

Confession; I love the output of this lens, but I’ve come to be frustrated using it. I think this is a “me” problem.

Let me explain.

This lens wants to be a portrait lens. That is its entire aspiration in life. I say this because the working distance is perfect for getting a human head in focus. Its minimum focusing distance is 70cm, roughly an arm’s length away. If the closest you ever need to get to a subject is for a headshot, this is not a problem. Except that, for me, it is a problem.

The lens’ minimum focusing distance is too restrictive to keep it on my camera for long. I love shooting with my old Pentax KX and its 50mm f1.7 lens, which lets me get as close as about 45cm away. A long way from macro territory, but very usable, and I find that my most interesting shots happen when I’m able to get close to my subject. With the 56mm, however, it seems like I’m missing a whole dimension of photography when I have it on my camera. I’m forced to constantly back up, moving away from the composition I was interested in.

Is this a failing of the lens? I don’t think so. It’s a design choice, and this more specialist lens doesn’t really demand a close focusing distance. Especially considering that Fuji also makes a 60mm macro and 90mm f/2 that provide much better close-focusing capabilities. By this virtue, these are more well-rounded lenses, at least for my style of photography.

But then again, it’s hard to replace (and impossible to replicate) the bokeh promises of the 56mm’s f/1.2 aperture.

The autofocus on the 56mm is perfectly fine for portraits, but struggles at other times. The Eye AF on my XT-30 sticks just fine to a subject, but it isn’t designed for faster-moving fare. Using the 56mm and the XF 55-200 to shoot my kid’s baseball game, the performance difference was stark. The XF 55-200 is a fairly pedestrian kit telephoto, a dad lens par excellance. But its AF motor was able to keep up with quick-moving kids much better than the XF 56mm. When you try to take this lens out of its comfort zone, it lets you know.

Optical Character

Is the lens sharp? Not especially. In comparison with other modern multi-coated lenses, it is certainly sharp enough. Sharper than vintage glass, by far. But compared to the Zeiss 32mm f/1.8 shot at f/1.8, I noticed the Zeiss was noticeably sharper when zoomed in 100%. At regular viewing distances, if you nail focus, it is usably sharp wide open, although appreciably better at f/2.0 and beyond.

But when you have a portrait lens that’s seeking to make people look good, do you even want clinical sharpness? It’s definitely sharp enough for most applications. I guess landscape or architecture shooters might want to look elsewhere. But this isn’t a focal length they’d likely be interested in anyway.

Flaring isn’t much of an issue. You do lose contrast shooting into the light, but much less so than I’ve seen on other Fuji lenses, like my aforementioned XF 55-200. The lens flare goes a bit green, which isn’t very flattering when shooting portraits, but you’d have to try to get it beyond a level of fear that I’d call characterful. It’s vastly better than my Sigma 18-35 f/1.8, which casts aggressive green flares at the slightest hint of a direct light source. Fuji makes good glass and uses great coatings, and that’s mostly reflected in this lens.

As far as bokeh, this lens is unsurprisingly very good. You will get some cat eyes in the corners, but generally, if you want the bokeh balls, you can get the bokeh balls. Around f/2.8 it starts going polygonal. Take caution, I am not a bokeh snob. I like bokeh, but beyond that, I will not waste my finite breaths looking for onion ringing or soap bubbles. Please judge by the sample images.

I haven’t tried the APD version of this lens, with its additional glass that supposedly smooths out the bokeh even more. I’ve never found this lens to have any harshness to the bokeh, so not sure how much of a benefit that would be. At f/1.2, the transitions from in-focus to out-of-focus are abrupt. This is more a function of the extremely shallow depth of field. The effect is not unpleasant, but you’ll want to stop down one or two stops to get the effect of a more graceful focus transition.

What I Love About This Lens

I call the 56mm my Christmas lens because it gets the most use around the holidays. It’s the best lens I have for documenting my family on dark, early winter evenings where our primary illumination comes from the lights of a Christmas tree.

Shooting wide open allows me to not have to use a bounce flash around the house in those situations, and the Christmas lights look great in the blurred-out background. That’s where this lens always earns it’s keep, it transforms the situations in which I can use my X-T30. I don’t really like going over ISO 5000 on that camera, but at f/1.2 I rarely have to indoors. As I’ve referenced, it’s not perfect even in that situation. The working distance is always a struggle for me. But often it’s the only lens I have that can get a shot in a low-light environment.

The best use I get out of this lens is with environmental portraits. When you’re shooting headshots and closer portraits, you really have to keep to f/2.8 or slower unless you’re trying to only get a eyelash in focus. But when you’re situating a subject in a wider environment, f/1.2 opens creative possibilities. It’s not quite the same, but it can approach the effect of shooting on medium format. The subject is nicely isolated, and with a longer distance, the background still has plenty of context to inform the image. I took a portrait of a good friend in their driveway during COVID lockdowns with this lens, and it remains one of my favorites.

The Fuji Portrait Lens Landscape

The hardest thing about reviewing this lens is trying to put it in the suddenly very competitive X-mount portrait lens ecosystem. For the longest time the 56mm was the premium option, unless you wanted the more compressed look of the 90mm f/2. But since Fuji opened up their mount, we’ve seen a flood of products in this space.

Viltrox offers two lenses at this focal length, in f/1.7 and f/1.4 varieties. Sigma, TTArtisans, Meike, and Tokina also have lenses ranging from the mid $100 to $400. And Sirui recently released it’s Sniper line of mirrorless lenses, including a 56mm f/1.2. Not to mention Fuji has refreshed its lineup at that focal length. In addition to the original XF and APD versions, Fuji’s new 56mm f/1.2 R WR adds weather sealing and a much closer minimum focus distance. And that’s to say nothing of the bizarre beast that is the 50mm f/1.0.

Prices for the OG 56mm hover around $360, which seems like a fair price.

The Right Tool for the Job

I’m a hobbyist photographer. Any assignments I give myself are of my own construction. Mostly, I shoot for fun. Which is why I come across as having mixed feelings about this lens. Let me be clear, as a portrait shooting machine, this lens leaves little to be desired (outside of the aperture ring). If you need a tool for that job, I can recommend this lens. When I want to shoot portraits, it’s the only sensible choice in my kit.

But I rarely shoot portraits. I take my hobby seriously (enough to write lens reviews), but in the end, I’m trying to get enjoyment out of both the end photographic result and the process of getting there. For me, this lens is not enjoyable to use most of the time. When the light is good and I need a lens to live on my camera all day, I rarely reach for this lens. It’s a shame, because every time I look at my catalog and see images from it, I remember what a singular look it can give.

To close on as pedestrian metaphor as I can think of, this lens is a tow truck. There are a lot of people who use them to make their living every day. Most people need to tow something a few times in their life, and having a tow truck would make those occasions much easier. But having to drive one when you don’t need to tow something gets old really fast. You’d quickly find that the tow truck spends most of its time sitting in the garage.

Get your own Fuji XF 56mm on eBay here

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Rich Stroffolino

Rich Stroffolino is a podcast producer and amateur photographer based out of Cleveland, Ohio.

All stories by:Rich Stroffolino

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Rich Stroffolino

Rich Stroffolino is a podcast producer and amateur photographer based out of Cleveland, Ohio.

All stories by:Rich Stroffolino