Fuji XM-FL vs XF 23mm: The most fun you can have with your lenses on
Last year Fuji brought out a bit of an oddity, a body cap lens. The XM-FL is only available in Japan as at time of writing. In order to get hold of mine I had to resort to eBay and part with seventy-five quid and get it shipped halfway around the world. Two weeks after pressing the button it arrived; possibly the lightest lens-containing parcel I have ever received. In the box you get the XM-FL and... well that's about it. The instruction sheet is in Japanese (naturally) but a bit of diligent Googling led me to this excellent illustrated run-down on Petapixel.
Above: Guess which lens. No prizes.
Fuji describes the XM-FL (according to Google Translate) as a "filter lens". In reality it is either a toy lens or a very thick and simultaneously quite clever body cap, depending upon your point of view. It's an all-plastic construction affair with a turret arrangement that changes the function of the unit as you twiddle a dial on the side. That dial has notches so that you can work out which setting is which.
Left, XM-FL. Right, XF 23mm - just in case you need guidance
The options are:
- Closed (no notch) - basically a body cap (there are two of these settings for some reason)
- Clear (one notch) - a 24mm lens, equivalent to 36mm in old money. More of that in a moment
- Cross (two notches) - a star filter
- Soft (three notches) - a soft filter
The whole thing weighs in at a svelte 32g. That's less than a gnat's packed lunch. There are compromises, of course. That 24mm lens is a simple four element affair with fixed focus (1m to infinity) and fixed aperture (f/8). Now before you write it off, consider this. Capa himself said “f/8 and be there”— and who are we to argue with him? Moreover when I shoot my Leica IID I pre-focus and meter using "Sunny-16" (more like overcast-8 in wintertime Blighty) with ISO400 film that gives an exposure of about 1/500 in bright conditions and about 1/125 to 1/60 when shooting street in February. Mounting the XM-FL to a Fuji X body with the modern convenience of auto-ISO and autoexposure makes life a lot easier.
So is the XM-FL a toy to be dismissed or a tool to be reckoned with? There's only one way to find out and that's to shoot it alongside the nearest prime equivalent in focal length terms, the 23mm. David vs. Goliath? Let's find out.
First, let's compare the stats, side by side
So the XM-FL is nearly 10x lighter and 10x cheaper than the XF. Surely it cannot hold a candle to the heavyweight? Surely it will get knocked out of the park in terms of performance? Well, yes.
But let's be honest. The XF 23mm is sharper than a banker's suit and built to take whatever life can throw at it. It is a superlative lens in every way. The poor little XM-FL by comparison is a BODY CAP THAT DOES TRICKS for goodness' sake. What do you expect?
Top: XM-FL and 100% crop. Bottom: XF 23mm and 100% crop
To test these two lenses side by side I went to a couple of local cemeteries. Bit grim, I hear you say, but the statuary stays commendably still—handy for comparison purposes. There's three groups of comparison photos here; the angel taken from about five meters away, the same angel taken from about one meter away (the close focus distance of the XM-FL) and a small cross headstone (an actual cross, that is, not an angry one). In each case I shot the subject twice, once with the XM-FL and once with the XF 23mm. To even up the odds a bit I shot the XF at f/8 too. Metering is spot, in the same place each time and ISO is set to auto. There's no post processing beyond producing 100% crops of each shot.
The results speak for themselves. The XF is sharp enough to shave the bum-fluff off a cherub. The XM-FL on the other hand is soft enough to give a marshmallow a run for its money. But, as you see below, the XM puts in a remarkably acceptable performance when faced with typical street photography situations. The market shots are not at all bad and I’ve seen worse from many a more expensive lens.
Game over. Except...
I'm a photographer, Jim, not a pixel-peeper. Lenses are meant to be used in the real world, not shooting stoopid tests. It's the end result that matters. Sharp is not the only fruit, and all that.
Let's start again and look at the XM-FL again in it's own right, not in the considerable shadow of its big, smart brother.
This is a tiny 35mm lens. Mounted to my X-Pro1 it barely protrudes beyond the hand-grip. It weighs nothing. It takes up no space. It costs (relatively) nothing. It has no pretensions to grandeur, no ambitions to be the top dog. But it is FUN with a capital F. Slap it on, set the body to shoot without lens (bit critical this, or not a lot will happen when you press the shutter release) and shoot away to your heart's content.
Your aperture's fixed so set to aperture-priority auto and let the shutter speed and ISO take care of themselves. Point. Shoot. Enjoy. It really is liberating sometimes to take focus—manual or auto—out of the equation and just rely upon depth of focus like in the old days.
After faffing with tests in the graveyard I took to the mean streets of Guildford and made a nuisance of myself in the market. Here, the Little Lens that Could came into its own. I'm predominantly a mono shooter and the XM-FL loves a bit of black and white. Again, these are straight-out-of-camera jpgs with no post processing, just as set in the camera. The following day I again went out and shot some more—the modern building and the tombstone with the engraving—and again was both surprised and happy with the results.
This is one of those lenses that just cries out to be used rather than tested. It's a bit like the bright, disruptive kid at school who can't do exams for toffee but comes good the second he leaves and makes his fortune in the real world. It will never beat the XF 23mm in a drag race, but—and it's a big but—as things stand it is more likely to be in my bag when I go out than its bigger, sharper brother. And you know what they say: The best lens is the one you have with you.
I know I mentioned earlier that there are built-in special effect filters. I'll be honest; I was not a fan of the starburst filter when they were given away on the front of AP to fit in the holders produced by Monsieur Cokin back in the early '90s.
Soft filters are pointless too. I didn't bother to test those notches, quite apart from the fact that, irritatingly, they are the wrong way round in mnemonic terms (it would have been so easy to say "too soft" and "tri-star" but tri-soft and two-star doesn't work at all).
So. Is the XM-FL worth it? Let's put it this way. You can spend seventy-five quid on a reasonable meal for two. In other terms it's about the cost of a tank of petrol. And the XM-FL doesn't make you fat or pollute the environment. It's a fun lens that doesn't take itself too seriously and shouldn't be judged too harshly. Use it unwisely and have some fun. Kudos to Fuji for bringing it out at all. But, please, make it available outside of Japan.