First Light With the Fuji 50mm f/1.0

(Note: This is part two of an ongoing review. Part one (exterior and controls) appears here, part three (bokeh) appears here and part four (comparison with 56mm) appears here.)

“First light” is a phrase from the astronomy community, usually referring to the first road-test image taken with a newly-built telescope, but it is also used more casually by the non-professional astronomer to refer to the first night stargazing from the driveway with any new telescope.

Those are exciting nights, looking at the night sky with no particular agenda, no special goals. Just looking and enjoying, feeling a little of that first-time magic again. It can be the same with camera lenses.

Before looking at photographs made with the Fuji fast 50 it is probably worth a moment to consider what this lens is for, what boundaries does it extend and what kinds of photographs might you be able to do with it that you couldn’t do without it.

And starting off that discussion it is easier to make one unequivocal statement about the lens that might seem counterintuitive: This lens does not allow you to do much of anything new with low light photography.

Strange, huh?

The reason is simply that we’ve already solved that problem. Once upon a time, just a few years ago, it was hard to shoot handheld in dim light. It was hard to shoot handheld indoors let alone in darkness. When we used film, a fast film was ISO 400 and we were always, always pushing up against camera shake anytime we had challenging light. Set your camera to ISO 400 and try it. It’s, ahem, limiting. There were faster films, but they quickly became grainy, and you ended up with an upper limit in practical terms of ISO 800 or 1000.

In these circumstances, when you are pressed up against that boundary, even a small improvement was welcome but those small improvements in low light capability were few, far between, and expensive. If your f/2 lens had a f/1.4 version then that was the one to get. A f/1.2 version? You might not even ever see one of those. A f/1.0 lens? They were spoken of, Leica and Canon come to mind, but existed in the realm of mythology, not of human attainability.

Then came digital and what digital did for lenses, mostly, wasn’t to give them low-light super-powers, it gave them quality control and testing. Lenses got better at what they already did, they got better to the point where almost any lens was pretty good, and a generation of photographers grew up, faces pressed to their computer monitors, images enlarged to 200%, trying to discern minute differences between what the different manufacturers offered, thinking they were doing something that had something to do with photography. It’s a little sad.

But the sensors, that’s where the advances came. ISOs got higher and higher and image quality improved again and again. Photos at ISO 1000 don’t look particularly grainy and you can get an image with an ISO so high you have to count the zeros.

Meanwhile the manufacturers were stabilizing the lenses and the bodies to minimize the blurring effect of camera shake. Massive gains, 2x, 4x and on from there. The new Fuji X-T4 body is said to offer 6.5 stops of stabilization. Add that to the improvements in ISO and you are living a life of luxury, indeed.

It’s crazy. Nine, ten stops better than it used to be. And this new low light fast 50 offers an improvement of just one more stop. Just one. f/1.0 doesn’t seem as exciting as it used to be, not the game changer it would have been in the past.

If raw speed isn’t exciting anymore what do you look for in a lens like this? In a word, character.

All those lenses designed seeking test-chart perfection end up producing images that look essentially the same. That makes the guys (and it seems to always be guys) with their faces pressed up to the screen, their one hand on the mouse, the other somewhere else, all giddy with shopping glee, but it makes the rest of us a little bored. We look to the amazing glass being produced for filmmakers, who see more than sharpness and bokeh in their lenses. I confess I spent an hour recently, when the Zeiss Supreme Prime Radiance lenses were announced, asking myself if there was any way I could justify a set of lenses running twenty-five thousand dollars each, inexpensive by movie standards. There wasn’t any such justification, but such beautiful flare!

And so we have the Fuji fast 50. It has speed, sure, but what else does it do?

To start to get a sense of the lens I took it on my evening walk, brought along a tripod, and made a few snapshots. Just by way of an introduction, a first impression, its first light.

That’s the way to get to know a lens, slowly.

Here are a few of those snapshots so you can see some of its character for yourself. This is the first set of samples—more to come.

All photos (unless otherwise noted) made at ISO 160 on my Fuji X-T3, mounted on a tripod, shutter speed at auto, electronic shutter, auto white balance, and autofocus whenever I could, one shot at f/1.0, the other at f/4.0. Fuji raw files sharpened in Capture One 20 using “Pre sharpening 2” to get us in the ballpark and then exported as JPEGs.

Slider comparisons first, the f/1.0 is on the left, the f/4 on the right, then a gallery of the same images which should enlarge when you click on them.


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