Lens Feature: Fujinon XF 23mm f/1.4R

One thing I’ve decided, is to try and feature a brief review of a different lens, camera body or other item every month, and not just newly released items. The plan is to have a shortened version of the review in our monthly newsletter, and a slightly expanded version in our blog here. There are large numbers of lenses, bodies and such that I have not reviewed, but being current models, they are still relevant. For items I currently own, or have owned recently, such as Fujifilm and Nikon gear, I will draw upon my existing experience and images for a sample gallery and review. For other items, such as those from Canon, Sony, Sigma and so on, I will either borrow from our rental pool, or try and borrow from a company rep. and then head down to Granville Island for some testing, a location with lots of diverse subject matter that I’ve used many times over the years.

This month, let me start with a Fujinon XF 23mm f/1.4 R. This is one of Fujifilm’s first fast primes, equivalent to a 35mm focal length in full-frame terms, and optically it is superb. It has a focus collar/clutch that you can pull back to engage manual focus, and you even have a traditional depth-of-field scale on the lens for reference. Being one of Fujifilm’s older designs however, it does not incorporate weather resistance (WR) like the later XF 16mm f/1.4R WR did, and most of their newer lenses, however it has very solid and confidence inspiring build-quality.

The XF 23mm f/1.4R (click for larger view)

The XF 23mm f/1.4 is almost completely corrected optically with essentially zero barrel distortion and almost no chromatic aberration, so it basically does not require any software lens corrections. Here is a link to our gallery of sample images, various shots I’ve taken over the years in and around Vancouver, BC, as well as shots from Oregon, California, Idaho, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. Yep, my XF 23mm f/1.4 is well traveled…

Gallery: Fujinon XF 23mm f/1.4R Samples

The XF 23mm f/1.4 also gives nice out-of-focus highlights, with near circular rendering to f/2. The bokeh is quite pleasing, nice and smooth, with only a hint of green bokeh fringing behind the subject and a hint of magenta in front. This type of fringing is rather common with fast primes and, for example, even the brand new XF 50mm f/1.0 shows some of this. The 23mm f/1.4 is sharp in the center, even wide open, and once you stop it down to f/4 or so, you get fantastically sharp results from corner to corner. Image corners are decent, but not spectacular, wide open at f/1.4, but they improve to very good levels by the time you hit f/2.8 and peak at f/5.6. I have compared this lens directly to various 35mm f/1.4 full-frame lenses from other brands, and it beats most for overall sharpness, overall optical correction and corner image quality, especially when focused at infinity.

This lens is great for candid shots, street photography, or being able to isolate your subject from the background with wider f-stops at closer distances. For many, this focal length is ideal and ends up being one that is always in the camera bag. A 23mm prime is my own most used lens too these days, I’d say. As of January 2021, when this review was published, the regular price for it is $1,199.

How does it compare to its little brother Fujinon, the XF 23mm f/2?

Well, the 23mm f/2 is also a stunningly good lens to be honest, is weather sealed and also much less expensive (only $599). If you usually shoot stopped down for maximum depth of field, for landscape work as an example, there is essentially no reason to get the f/1.4. However if you do environmental portraits where you want a wider shot with some background blur, then the f/1.4 is definitely the one to get. It also has smoother bokeh than the 23mm f/2, and an extra stop wide open means better subject isolation as well. Lastly, autofocus in low light is improved since the camera has a whole stop more light to work with compared to the f/2.

The XF 23mm f/2R WR (click for larger view)

I own both the f/2 and the f/1.4, and for most daytime landscape work, to be honest I am now using the smaller, lighter f/2, but when the light levels drop, or I want a shallower DOF, then the f/1.4 gets put on my camera!

If you don’t mind a slightly larger lens, then the XF 23mm f/1.4 is very nearly a “must-have” optic and only the existence of the also excellent XF 23mm f/2R WR (to be reviewed in the future), brings its “must-have” status into any sort of question in my mind…

For some more sample images, and a much older review from way back in 2013 when the lens first came out, see the old Beau Photo blog here: NEW! Fujifilm XF 23mm f/1.4 R wide-angle lens…

Finally, there is an optional LH-XF23 square metal lens-hood available that makes shooting with an X-Pro2 series a better experience since it protrudes less into the OVF view than the standard plastic “petal shaped” hood.

I will end off my quick review with a brief “suitability” list, how I see the lens working for various types of photography. Of course, as they say, your mileage may vary…

Portraits: This is easily a very useful lens when it comes to portraiture. A 35mm equivalent allows you to shoot your subject with some context of their surroundings, and the lens quality wide open at f/1.4 allows for some decent subject isolation from the background. It is not so wide that off-centre subjects become stretched or distorted, nor is the perspective too exaggerated, as would be the case with a wider lens where you would need to get even closer to your subject to decently fill the frame.

Weddings: As above, this lens would be great for group shots since people positioned at the edge of your frame will not be significantly distorted. Also perfect for photojournalistic style wedding shots and candids.

Sports: I’d personally say that for most kinds of sports, this won’t be a lens that gets used much. Maybe for team group photos, taking in a larger view at a game, sideline candids and the like.

Landscapes: As you can see from my image gallery, I do use this focal length of lens a lot when shooting landscapes. My modus operandi used to be to throw the widest lens I owned on my camera and shoot almost all landscape photos that way. However quite often the most interesting part of the composition then gets lost in the background, too small to really stand out. I’ve forced myself  to try and identify the main portion of interest in a landscape composition and then focus on that with tighter lenses, like the 23mm. Stopped down a touch, this lens should do well for wide-field astrophotography and aurora too.

Wildlife: Unless you are shooting in the Florida Everglades, where you can sit down next to a cormorant that isn’t bothered by you sticking a lens in its face, well it won’t really be suitable for wildlife work, although it could make a cool wider shot at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico during the twilight, when bat swarms in the thousands exit the cave!

Architecture/Cityscapes: If you have room to use a lens like the XF 23mm (can you stand back far enough?), then it would be superb, with excellent corner sharpness stopped down, and minimal wide-angle distortion to mess with off-center circular objects. It would give a very natural look to interior and exterior shots of buildings.

Street Photography: Being the equivalent of a 35mm on full-frame, the XF 23mm makes an absolutely superb street-photography lens! That said, on cameras like the X-Pro series, the 23mm f/2 might make more sense, since if you are using the Hybrid-VF in its optical “rangefinder-esque” mode, then the f/2 optic would protrude less into the frame than the f/1.4 version.

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