The Fujinon 55-200mm F3.5-4.8 R LM OIS zoom lens- a first look
I have a favourite place, about 25 minutes’ drive from my home, where I like to go and make photographs. It is a great place to visit and as I am coming to understand its particular rhythms, I am learning to predict its moods and sense the best times to be there. Dawn is an especially great time to go, particularly in autumn, when the valley floor is covered in mists and mystery. The local farmer is happy to allow me up on his property, where I can see over the plains and watch the turn of the day and the cycle of the weather. It is the perfect place to go and test equipment, particularly a camera’s ability to resolve fine and complex detail.
For the last week or so I have been test-driving a pre-production version of Fujifilm’s new Fujinon 55-200mm F3.5-4.8 R LM OIS zoom lens. Pre-release is probably a better descriptor since it is clearly obvious that full release versions will be the same as my tester. And what better place to take it for a workout than my torture-test place?
But first a little background.
When Fujifilm first released the X-Pro 1 the beginning of 2012, they did a brave thing; they released only three lenses, all of them fixed focal-length prime lenses. They went for the classic 28 mm, 50 mm and 90 mm equivalent focal lengths, the stalwart of photographers for decades. However, if you had a thing for wide, then the wide-angle was not wide enough, and if a telephoto was your thing, then the 60/90 mm simply did not reach far enough. But it was a good start. And the lenses were stunningly, glitteringly sharp, due in part to the superior Fuji optics and in part to the fact that the sensor had no anti-aliasing filter.
Later in 2012, with the release of the X-E1, Fujifilm supplied the first zoom lens, an 18-55 (28-82 equivalent) lens, which enabled greater flexibility and focal length choice. Not only that, but the lens was stabilised, which made it possible to hand-hold down to very slow shutter speeds. Needless to say, this camera/lens combination has proved very popular. Later in 2012, we were able to acquire the new and exceptional 14mm (21mm equivalent) lens, which allowed us to have a wider reach. Now all we X-philes needed, we said, is a decent telephoto zoom lens. The 18-55 LM OIS had proved to be just as stellar as the prime lenses, somewhat giving the lie to the idea that zooms are inherently softer than primes. So we waited in anticipation, looking forward to getting our hands on this new and longer zoom.
Now the wait is over (well, almost).
Fujifilm are now about to release the Fujinon 55-200mm (83-300 equiv.) F3.5-4.8 R LM OIS lens next month. Its specifications, from Fujifilm publicity material are as follows:
- Image stabilization that allows the use of shutter speeds 4.5 stops slower;
- Uses two linear stepper motors for high-speed AF and quiet operation, making the lens suitable for video recording as well
- Features two ED lens elements including one Super ED lens element that boasts performance equivalent to that of fluorite lenses; controlling chromatic aberrations, which typically occur in long focal lengths, to produce images that resolve well corner-to-corner across the its entire zoom range
- Applying FUJINON’s proprietary “HT-EBC (High Transmittance Electron Beam Coating)” on the entire lens surface to achieve a highly preventative measure against reflections and to control flair and ghosting
- Offering the minimum working distance of 1.1m across the entire zoom range to enable telephoto close-ups, capturing a small part of a subject
- Featuring a 1/3EV step aperture ring so that users can easily adjust the aperture whilst holding the camera up to their eye
- The focus ring and aperture ring are made from metal and have been designed to have a high quality feel, with the benefit of being extra robust.
Okay, much of that is marketing speak, but after a week of using it out in the field, I would have to say that all of it is true.
In the field
The lens itself is little bigger than a standard 100mm Macro on a full frame camera. It takes a 62 mm filter on the front, so clearly it is not very big. Fitted to either an X-Pro 1 or X-E1, it sits nicely in the hand and balances well, and the fit and finish is Fuji-superb. The X-series cameras lenses and accessories are all manufactured in Japan, not in a sweatshop in Malawi or Kyrgistan, and, like all of the components in the system, there is a feeling of a product built to a standard, not a price. The fact that the lenses and cameras are not that expensive when compared to a standard DSLR only makes the sense of value for money the more credible. It comes with a substantial and very effective plastic lens hood (included in the price!). The whole unit is packed in one of those lovely black Fuji boxes, along with a manual and a cloth carry bag. Typical Fuji. Those of you who own an X-series will know all about the cute little gizmo that makes it so easy to fit the triangular split rings for the camera strap into the holder lugs. No more broken fingernails or reaching for a Swiss Army knife to get the *#!!@ ing strap fastened to the camera.
Because mine was a preproduction model, when I fitted it to the camera and switched it on ( the controls re identical to the 18-55 LM OIS), it immediately signalled a firmware update. I ignored it and carried on, since I was aware that the firmware update, which will be issued immediately before the release of the lens, is designed to optimise the speed of autofocus, rather than its accuracy. Without the firmware update, the lens is not particularly quick to focus, so I left passing gannets, mollymawks and native falcons in peace. However there was no problem with landscape.
Like the 18-55, there are no aperture markings on the lens barrel, so you select aperture using either the LCD or EVF, and you can do so in 1/3 stops. The detents are satisfyingly accurate and precise. The lens is not one of the internal focus types, so you can expect it to protrude as you zoom, but it does not rotate the filter ring, which should be a blessing for those of you who use a polarising filter (I do not bother much these days-there seems little point).
The stabilisation really works, and I found myself able to handhold at 1/50 second in damp and unpleasant circumstances. Because the unit is so light and has so little inertial mass, it is really important to train yourself to gently to press the shutter rather than stab at it in your excitement to make the ultimate picture of a passing Haast eagle. It is also important to remember to switch off the stabilisation when you mount the camera/lens on a tripod. However, if you forget to do so, you will soon discover that you need to. In the interest of making all the mistakes on your behalf, I deliberately left it on (actually, I forgot to switch it off), to see what would happen. The motors whirring inside the lens are the first giveaway, but as I was doing my composition on the LCD, I began to wonder why, when I changed the framing, the picture was sliding first to one side than the other. Finally, the penny dropped, I switched off the OIS, and the problem went away.
For my test I chose to use a solid tripod, since I wanted to get as (reasonably) solid a test bed as possible, an Induro 413 alloy tripod with a Manfrotto 410 Junior Geared Head. Even with the zoom lens attached, the camera/lens combo looks rather lost, almost an afterthought.
I headed up to my favourite spot above the valley, the last few hundred vertical metres in low range four-wheel-drive, and waited for sunrise. I was in luck. Even though there was a warm front pushing east from the mountains, there were still layers of fog and mist lying over the floor of the basin. I made some exposures of around 20 to 30 seconds in the half-light, then, as the sun came up, and began to shred the fog, I kept shooting. I set the camera to 200 ISO and used what I judged to be the lens’s optimum aperture, f 11. I worked for about an hour and a half, until the rising sun was swallowed by the high cloud proceeding the anticyclone, and then headed home.
The scene I photographed is rich in micro-detail, including power pylons, farmhouses, trees of various species and fine lines from intense agriculture. They are guaranteed to test any lens, and I wondered if the lens would deliver what I was the asking of it.
When I opened the files in Capture One Pro v7, to my mind one of the premier applications for processing Fuji raw files, I was staggered at the sharpness and detail in my photographs. This is a naturally contrasty lens, but it resolves both edge detail and fine micro-detail to a very high level. What is more, the lens is sharp right out to the corners, and contains a remarkable sense of three-dimensionality. The files required little or no sharpening, and micro-detail requires little or no extra work. If anything the lens is a little too sharp, and I found myself applying softening in places to create a greater sense of distance-reality. Colouration too seems a little on the cool side, but it is particularly responsive to reds and yellows.
Critics might lament the lack of a collar for the lens, but in practice there seems to be little need for one. Some critics will also bemoan the fact that its maximum aperture is not F2 .8, as if that is some holy grail to be achieved. Large maximum apertures are really only of importance to people who need to restrict depth of field, and even that effect is largely attainable in software these days. Remember that large maximum apertures are a hangover from film days, when ISO was limited/restricted to a single value (often a low one) and photographers needed to get as much light to the film as possible. Nowadays, when it is possible to get grainless/noiseless images from high ISO values, it seems to me that it is better to have a smaller, lighter and sharper lens with a lower maximum aperture than a large, hulking megazoom with a look-at-me cachet.
In a comprehensive lens test, I would put a test chart on a wall (boring), make photographs of the test chart at all apertures and focal lengths (really boring) and then compare them in minute detail (utterly boring!). All that will tell me is what aperture to use to make a glitteringly sharp photograph of an incredibly boring test chart. Very few of us get into photography to make photographs of test charts.
I was more interested in how the lens would cope in the field, how it would resolve detail, its flare and contrast characteristics, and above all whether it had that indefinable X factor, that sense of character and colour and light and space which marks a truly great lens.
It has all of them.
20 out of 10, Fuji San.