Fujifilm XF 56mm f/1.2 R APD review – Circle of confusion
In what can only be described as a last-ditch attempt to revive the defunct Happy Bokeh Wednesday Flickr group and corresponding hashtag, Fujifilm has released a new version of its acclaimed portrait and low-light lens, the XF 56mm f/1.2 R. The new version, called the XF 56mm f/1.2 R APD, uses the same optical formula, but with the addition of an apodization filter and $500 to the price tag. The APD filter serves one purpose: to create rich, creamy, oh-so-bokehlicious blur for all your shallow depth of field photographs.
If you like reading into subtext, you may get the idea that I find this whole “bokeh” craze to be somewhat laughable. So when a company goes out of their way to produce a lens that is the same as the standard version but five-hundred dollars more expensive because it has better bokeh, you might expect me to, well, laugh. And I kind of want to. I won’t, though, because quite frankly, I really like this lens. Furthermore, Fuji isn’t forcing anyone to buy it: the original version is still around at the original price.
With the APD version, the bokeh is indeed better, but not necessarily because the bokeh itself is prettier to look at. It is better because it is actually less apparent. By being smoother, with highlights that just “fade” away, it is less distracting. It draws your attention back to your subjection in a subtle way. The point of this lens isn’t to make bokeh prettier; it’s to make the entire photograph better by making the bokeh stand out less.
Which leaves us with two basic questions: first, how does it work? And second, is it actually worth it?
Well, it works via an apodization filter. Yes, but what is that? Besides being a word so uncommon that my spellcheck keeps autocorrecting it to “anodization,” it really isn’t that difficult to understand. For a layperson’s explanation, let’s go to the description from Wolfram MathWorld:
A function (also called a tapering function) used to bring an interferogram smoothly down to zero at the edges of the sampled region. This suppresses sidelobes [also not a real word] which would otherwise be produced, but at the expense of widening the lines and therefore decreasing the resolution.
Now, if you’re a math person, you might have read that and quietly nodded. If you’re just a photographer, however, every bit of that probably went over your head except for that last part: “…therefore decreasing the resolution.” Whoa, what?! Hold up a second! I’m not paying $500 extra for less resolution! Don’t worry, I’m not exactly sure what it means, either, but I assure you that however “resolution” is being used here, it does not actually refer to the overall resolution of a photograph. The APD lens is every bit as sharp as it’s non-APD sibling, except in the out-of-focus areas, and I’ll show you what this means in these totally common, real-world scenario example pictures below.
Caption: Notice the smoother, less-defined circles of confusion (read: blurry bits) in the background of the picture on the right. That’s the apodization filter at work!
In actual english, the apodization filter is essentially a circular gradient that further smooths out the out-of-focus areas. In certain situations, the effect might not even be noticeable, but under the right conditions, the result is a photograph that simply looks more natural.
Some of you may be wondering if putting a gradient filter inside your lens has any downsides and, well, yes it does. The more obvious drawback is a reduction in light transmission. Due to how the filter works, by basically being brighter in the center and darker on the edges, the lens transmits about 1 stop less light when wide-open compared to the non-APD version. That light loss decreases as the aperture decreases, and by f/5.6, the transmission of the APD lens and the original version are equal.
Look at that, I think we finally have some actionable intelligence right there. If you need the best low-light performance for wedding receptions, night shooting, etc., then get the standard version. If instead you’re simply looking for the sweetest portrait lens money can buy, then I would opt for the APD version (assuming you even have a Fuji XF camera—that’s the first step.)
The second drawback is less obvious and probably less noticeable: no phase-detection autofocus. If you don’t know the difference between contrast-detection and phase-detection, then don’t worry about reading into this too much, but it is of concern to the pros—especially those shooting action. Phase-detection requires a certain type of magical light, and the APD filter unfortunately blocks that light from getting to where it needs to go on the sensor for phase-detection AF to function. Contrast-detection, on the other hand, requires mere mortal light, and still works fine—albeit with the normal caveats, like hunting back and forth briefly before locking in. In practice, this wasn’t a big issue except with moving subjects or when in dimly-lit settings.
So that might also be actionable intelligence for some of you. If you frequently shoot moving subjects, then the standard 56mm is your best bet. If you don’t, or for anyone who works primarily with manual focus, then the APD variant won’t let you down.
And now the final, and perhaps more important, question: is it worth it? The standard 56mm f/1.2 is already a fantastic lens, and at $999 is actually priced quite competitively (you may recall that the 32mm f/1.2 Nikon 1-series lens, which offers a similar angle-of-view, costs $899, and is less than half the lens the Fuji is—albeit much more compact).
Perhaps it should also be said that, even at $1499, the APD version is not altogether overly expensive. To compare: Panasonic’s Leica-branded 42.5mm f/1.2, which offers the same angle-of-view on its Micro 4/3 cameras, is $1599 (without a fancy apodization filter). As a bonus, Fuji also includes a 3-stop screw-on ND filter in the box, to ensure maximum bokehbility even in direct sunlight.
The simple truth about the two versions of Fuji 56mm lenses, however, is that their differences can be summed up in one word: subtle. You almost have to try to frame a photograph where the effect will be noticeable, and even then, who beyond you, as the photographer, will actually notice it?
The thing is, once you have seen the difference, you can’t really un-see it. There are lenses, and then there are lenses, and the 56mm APD is definitely of the latter category. You come to appreciate its subtleness as you come to appreciate yourself as a person of distinction; someone for whom no detail is too small. You look down at the red t-stop indicators and “APD” lettering, and you smile—subtly, of course.
I really like the XF 56mm f/1.2 R APD, ridiculous name and all. It is probably in my top 3 favorite portrait lenses of all time, but guess what? I’d go with the regular one. It is equally well-made, equally sharp, works better in low light, focuses faster, and is $500 cheaper. It is one heck of a lens, and honestly a bargain at $999.
However, I also know when I look back at this time years from now, I will reminisce with my fellow aged camera geeks about how I almost owned a legend.