Fuji XF18-135 F3.5-5.6 R OIS WR lens review (Part 1)
Opening the box of a new Fujinon lens is an adventure. Every lens has a different set of bells and whistles and, unless you are already familiar with the range you are likely to be in for a surprise. From the minimal 27mm pancake to the more complicated 14mm and 23mm lenses with their push-pull switchover from manual to auto focus, these optics demand an open mind.
Sometimes, I imagine that the boffins at Fujinon work in hermetically sealed bubbles. Apart from the trademark shiny black-metal surface, their lenses are individualist and, dare I say, often a little eccentric.
Leica M lenses, in direct contrast, all have the same basic layout. Everything is in its place, just where the gods intended. Focus ring? Aperture? They are precisely where you left them last time you picked up any M lens.
With a new Fuji XF lens, therefore, it pays to familiarise yourself with the controls before venturing out. If there is an aperture ring, this must be used to set the aperture. If it doesn't have one, the front or rear command dials on the camera take over the function. However, if you get used to using one of these dials and then fit a lens with an aperture ring you find the command dials do not work. I suppose it's logical but it can catch you out.
Fuji's new weather sealed 18-135 zoom, launched in June 2014, does have a full set of on-lens controls and is straightforward in operation. It is a compelling prospect, particularly as a one-stop companion for the weather-sealed X-T1. For the first time, with the X-series, you have a combination that can be used in mildy adverse conditions without worry.
Zoom lenses are often scorned by the purists who maintain that the only lens to use is a prime, preferably a 35mm or a 50mm, and that zooming is best done with the feet. There is a some truth in that. Generally speaking a lens tuned to a single focal length is likely to perform better than a zoom. It is particularly so when comparing cheap kit lens zooms with primes. Also, a prime familiarises you with one focal length and avoids indecision.
Fuji, however does not produce run-of-the-mill zooms. The 18-55mm, one of the debut lenses back in 2010, is indeed sold in a kit with several X-series cameras. But it performs well beyond what you would expect. Of course, even this zoom is four times as expensive as a plastic kit zoom from Canon or Nikon, so you ought to get a quality product.
The most common zoom for APS-C cameras is 18-55 (27-85mm FFE) and, if a user photographer more reach, it is customary to buy an additional lens with a complementary range such as the established Fujinon 55-200mm (85-300mm FFE). But that's two lenses and more weight. As an example, combining the the Fuji 18-55 and a 55-200 will weigh your bag down by 900g and will cost £1,000.
This is where the 18-135 (27-205mm FFE) comes in. It weighs a reasonable 490g, only 150g more than the 18-55, but, as expected, does add bulk. It offers a complete package in one lens, not to mention the advantage of weather resistance, at the expense of that additional 100mm at the long end. If you can do without that reach, the 18-135 at £690 it is a cheaper option than going for the two lenses. It makes even more sense when you are travelling. It is a one-lens-fits-most solution and, if you fancy a bit of street photography while abroad, you can easily throw in the featherweight 27mm pancake which is tailor made for the task.
The 18-135, as with all XF lenses, is built to a high standard from metal and good-quality plastic. Like all its siblings it comes in the shiny black finish which characterises the range. It is constructed with 16 elements, including four aspherical elements, and covers a traditional 35-mm range of focal lengths from 27 to 205mm.
With an aperture range of f/3.5 to f/5.6 it is a slightly slower lens than the smaller, 18-55 zoom with its brighter f/2.8-f/4 apertures. On the other hand, it benefits from superb five-axis stabilisation which, in theory, should more than compensate by allowing the use of slower shutter speeds in a low-light situation. Fuji claim the OIS give a five-stop advantage and I can believe it. Minimum focus distance is 60cm or 45cm in macro mode.
While reasonably compact for its focal length range, the 18-135 has a rather fat barrel diameter of 76mm and a minimum length o 98mm at its widest angle. When extended to full zoom the lens extends to 158mm. The 67mm diameter of the business end (the filter is non-rotating by the way) means that this is an impressive beast to behold: Discreet it is not. I would not recommend it for street work, preferring a moderately wide fixed prime for that task.
- Don't forget to read Bill Palmer's Part 2 section of this review. There is additional link at the foot of the page when you have finished Part 1
The lens has three adjustment rings for focus, zoom and aperture. In a nice touch, all rings are textured in a different way so your hands soon learn to tell one from the others.
First, right at the front of the lens, comes the focus.The ring is smooth and well weighted. In common with all modern fly-by-wire controls, however, it goes round and round and round. Not a stop to be felt. The gold-standard Leica focus ring, which moves through less than 90 degrees from near to infinity, leaves you in no doubt as to where you are. The operation of the Fujinon's ring, therefore, comes as a disappointment although it is no different from the experience with other modern autofocus lenses.
Nearer to the camera is the zoom ring which is wider and has a rubberised texture. It is the most-used control and deserves prime placing and a distinctive feel. This time there are firm stops at either end of the short throw of about 90 degrees, a feature I applaud. Again, it is well weighted and smooth in operation although perhaps a little on the stiff side, probably by design. On balance the added resistance because the focal length is less likely to be changed by accident. There is a distinct resistance as the ring nears maximum zoom which I put down to the weather-sealing element. At first there is a tendency to stop short at the first sign of resistance but I soon learned to add a bit more pressure to ensure the ring reached the stop at the full 206mm. Incidentally, there is absolutely no barrel creep when the camera is held facing downwards; this can be a problem with some older zoom designs.
The zoom is clearly marked at 18, 23, 35, 55, 60, 100 and 135mm (equivalent to approximately 27, 35, 50, 85, 90, 150 and 205mm FFE). I noticed that when the lens is mounted on the X-T1 this rubberised zoom ring rests on a flat surface and helps support the camera. It stands a little proud of the rest of the barrel and thus avoids scratching the lens setting down the camera.
The ring nearest to the camera controls the aperture. It sports wider ribbing, again to assist adjustment by feel. Curiously, despite distinct clicks to herald every 1/3 stop in aperture, this electronic control goes round and round, just like the focus ring.
There are no aperture markings on the lens because the aperture varies depending on focal length. Aperture value is monitored from the screen or viewfinder. When either end of the scale, f/3.5 (with the lens at 18mm) and f/22, is reached the ring just keeps on going. This is disconcerting. But as soon as you reverse direction the aperture values immediately start moving again in the opposite direction.
It is interesting to compare these three control rings with their varied pitch and texture to the rings of the 18-55 zoom, one of the first XF lenses to be launched back in 2010. On the 18-55 the three rings are made of the same plastic material. The focus and zoom rings are indistinguishable to the touch except that the zoom is wider. Only the aperture ring is singled out by a wider pitch to the ribbing, as on the new 18-135. The rubberised texture of the zoom on the later lens is much better.
On the barrel, inboard of the aperture ring, are two slider switches to control aperture mode and OIS function. The aperture switch gives the choice of A, for automatic (which disables the aperture ring) or aperture priority where the aperture is set manually by means of the ring. The OIS switch is a simple on/off affair.
It is worth mentioning that with the Fuji X series cameras there is no mode control. Instead, you get an A(auto) setting on the speed dial and an A on the lens. Setting the speed dial to A and leaving the lens on manual aperture results in aperture priority. Conversely, setting a specific speed and moving the lens to A results in shutter priority. Setting both the speed dial and lens to A mimics progam mode on other cameras.
This is an excellent system which is also used by Leica on their X and T system cameras and was made popular in 2004 with the introduction of the Panasonic-made Digilux 2. The only difference on the Leicas is that the auto position on the lens is selected by moving the aperture ring past a firm détente. A perfect arrangement if ever there were one. With the Fuji system, aperture mode is usually accessed by the separate slider switch. Some Fujinons, such as the 10-24 and the 23mm primes do the same job by means of a push-pull slider incorporated into the aperture ring.
Despite the dimensions, the relatively low weight means that the 18-135 feels comfortable, especially with the X-T1. I did not feel the need for an additional grip, although I know my colleague Bill Palmer prefers the extra purchase it gives. However, I did try the lens on an X-E2 body and felt that it rather overwhelmed the smaller camera. If you own the -E2 and want the 18-135 you would do well to factor in the cost of an accessory grip.
On the X-T1 the weighting and balance is just about perfect and, thanks to the impressive OIS system, I was happy shooting hand-held even at 200mm. Incidentally, all the example shots were done without a tripod. Adjusting the three control rings soon becomes second nature and can be done by feel thanks to the thoughtful distinction in ribbing pitch and surface.
The zoom ring, which is by far the most used, is especially comfortable for the fingers. The focus ring is probably least used on an autofocus lens of this type. Although manual focus on the X-series cameras is excellent, especially so on the X-T1 with its unique second focus window in the viewfinder, I think most owners will make far more use of the excellent autofocus except in special circumstances.
The lens comes with a large petal-shaped hood. Or, at least, it should do. My review sample came without so I had no option but to soldier on unprotected. I wasn't too concerned because, in general, I dislike the bulk of hoods and try to manage without if possible. Fortunately, London in October and November does not suffer from conditions of strong glare and the results from the camera confirm that this lens is remarkably resistant to flare.
The X-T1 is one of the fastest focusing cameras on the market, especially in tracking mode. But some of the Fujinon lenses are faster than others. The optically stellar 35mm f/1.4, for instance, focuses slightly slower than some later lenses and, strangely, chatters like a restless monkey while about it. The 18-135, a much more recent design, is noticeably quieter.
Indeed, focus is almost silent even with an ear to the barrel and, in normal use, is inaudible. Focus is also respectably fast, well in keeping with the X-T1s capabilities, and is particularly so at wider angles. At longer focal distances there is a slight tail off in speed and a minor tendency to hunt but, overall, I would rate autofocus speed as very good.
Zoom lenses are almost always a compromise because of their complexity and the need to achieve acceptable results at all focal lengths. And the longer the range, the more complex it all becomes. That's why prime lenses can almost always outperform a zoom.
Above: Handheld shots from 27mm to 200mm FFE. The final two pictures are 100% crops from the 200mm version and there is no evidence of shake. In fact, it is possible to read the two signs "Offices to Let" on the first crop and "To Let" on the second crop. Bear in mind that these buildings are approximately 1.5 miles away from the camera. The effect of the five-axis stabilisation in this lens is absolutely remarkable. There is one lesson to be learned from these shots: The 18-135 is so good that cropping to achieve greater magnification is perfectly acceptable and, frankly, this questions the need for longer than 205mm FFE. It is truly a one-stop-shop type of lens.
But there are zooms and there are zooms. The common-or-garden 18-55 plastic-mount zoom, as supplied with starter DSLR kits, is a world away from this superbly engineered and optically refinied creation from Fuji. It's one reason why this lens costs twice as much as similar focal-range offerings from other manufacturers. It performs well at all focal lengths but excels in the mid-range between 35mm and 135mm FFE. At longer focal lengths there is a very slight loss of detail but this is not really significant as far as I can see. The above samples demonstrate this.
The lens is sharpest at mid-range apertures from f/5.6 to f/8 as would be expected. At wider angles there is some softening of the corners. But these are minor problems and, while this lens will not beat Fuji's best primes for image quality (in particular the 35mm "Fujilux" or the incredible f/1.2 56mm), the differences are not significant.
When Fuji delivered the test lens it was a rainy day in London. So I went forth with confidence. For the first time I was handling a weather-resistant lens and camera. I've had weather-resistant cameras before (in fact, the Leica M is protected although I wouldn't dare put it seriously to the test) but never a matching lens.
Fortunately there were no ill-effects, despite persistent drizzle, but I would balk at exposing any camera and lens to a torrential downpour. There are limits. Nonetheless, the degree of weatherproofing on offer here seems suited to London's rather misty level of general precipitation. The emphasis is on weather resistance, not waterproofing and, as with anything, common sense is paramount.
That same day, also, I failed to notice that OIS was firmly switched to off. I can't think why. It was only when I got home that I saw the error of my ways. With new kit it is ever thus. However, the lens performed well even without stabilisation. With the five-axis OIS switched on there was no doubt about stability. Normally, hand holding an unstabilised lens of more than, say, 90mm, needs considerable care, particularly in low-light conditions where very fast shutter speeds are precluded.
With the 18-135, though, I had absolutely no problems and I believe the new OIS system is as good as the in-body systems found in such cameras as the cutting-edge Olympus OM-D EM-1. While none of the Fuji X cameras have in-body stabilisation (in fact, I do not believe any APS-C or full-frame ILC has an internal system) these new lenses with state-of-the-art protection offer exactly the same results.
I was impressed with the image quality from this talented zoom. In some instances I would have been proud to produce similar pictures from a superb prime such as the 35mm or 56mm Fujinons. Or, dare I say, a Leica 35mm or a 50m Summilux.
All the examples in this article and in the linked samples gallery are out-of-camera jpgs using Velvia and with slight sharpening and contrast enhancement to suit my preferences. The X-T1 applies software correction to these jpgs and I found the results to be good, with little evidence of distortion or chromatic aberration at any focal length.
I do not have the facilities for detailed, technical lens comparisons and, as such, my reviews tend to be subjective. As always, though, they are backed by real-world example pictures. I firmly believe that if I like the results then there isn't much point in worrying about graphs and statistics. To me, the output from the 18-135 looks good and I would have little hesitation in choosing this as a one-lens to go with the X-T1.
Where it fits in
Fuji's zooms are all a cut above the average, a galaxy away from the traditional kit lens. To my mind they are similar in performance to some of the better APS-C zooms such as the 18-56 or 55-135 for the Leica T.
For maximum flexibility, you could do far worse than choose one or more of the Fuji zoom lenses for all your needs. The 10-24mm, the 18-55 and the 55-200 would take you all the way from 15mm to 300mm at FFE, albeit at a fairly significant cost. And you would not be disappointed in the performance.
Yet if you can afford only one of these three lenses, the 18-135 is the one to go for, not least because of its weather-beating properties. It isn't too big, nor too heavy, but it covers the most popular 27-200mm FFE focal lengths with aplomb. Personally, I could live with this lens and, perhaps, sneak the 27mm (41mm FFE) pancake into my pocket to turn the X-T1 or X-E2 into a proper little streetcam when needed.