Fujifilm 16-55mm f/2.8 Lens Review

bythom fujifilm 16-55mm

What is It?

The 16-55mm f/2.8 R LM WR lens is what Fujifilm calls their "flagship standard zoom." 

Reminder, R means it has an aperture ring, LM means the lens has a linear motor, and WR means that the lens is built to be weather resistant.

The lens design has 17 elements in 12 groups. Three of those elements are aspherical glass, three are ED glass. Besides Fujifilm's usual lens coating, the lens also features nano coating to control refraction. The lens extends a bit more than an inch during zooming, but focus is internal. Filter size is 77mm, and it doesn't seem to need particularly thin filters at 16mm.

What the lens doesn't have is OIS. This has kept the lens design a little simpler, but given that only the X-H1 body has sensor-based IS, a lot of Fujifilm users will probably be a bit disappointed in not having stabilization available in such an important lens.

Apertures are formed by an aperture diaphragm that uses 9 rounded blades, and range from f/2.8 to f/22. The lens has an aperture ring that is clicked in one-third stops. 

Focus normally ranges from 24" (0.6m), which isn't particularly close. But when shooting closer the lens has an automatic switchover to what Fujifilm calls macro mode. When it does this you can shoot as close as 12" (0.3m) at the wide end and 16" (0.6m) at the telephoto end. At least according to Fujifilm specifications. I actually found I could shoot as close as 11", and close to that at the telephoto setting. I'm not sure what accounts for this difference. 

Likewise, Fujifilm's stated maximum magnification of 1:6.3 seems to be specified at the "normal" focus distances; I get far better than that when the lens is in its macro mode, though there's variability due to the focal length.

The lens is modest in size, as befits the APS-C bodies, coming in at 4.2" x 3.3" (106 x 83.3mm) and weighing 23.1 ounces (655g). Here's the rub, though: an "equivalent" lens for full frame comes in as slightly smaller and slightly lighter (e.g. the Nikkor 24-70mm f/4 S). 

The 16-55mm f/2.8 is made in Japan and comes with a petal based lens hood and cloth wrap. Price is US$1200.

Source of the reviewed lens: two different loan samples (different times) from B&H

Fujifilm's Web site for the 16-55mm f/2.8

How's it Handle?

The zoom ring is wide, smooth, and rotates in a quarter turn. Markings are at 16mm, 23mm, 35mm, and 55mm.

The aperture ring is stiff enough to resist casual movement. The aperture ring is easily distinguished from the zoom ring.

Not so the focus ring. The focus ring is fly-by-wire only and sits just in front of the zoom ring. While the ring is very smooth in rotation, I'm not a fan of fly-by-wire focus for manual focus use other than perhaps in a well implemented macro function.

Fujifilm lists two focus ranges for the lens, normal and macro. Macro doesn't include infinity. While this could have caused a hiccup moving between one and the other at some focus distances, generally I didn't find that to be a handling issue at all. Other than a very slight—and I mean very slight—reluctance to shift, I didn't find it to be an issue at all in my shooting. 

On the small X bodies (X-T100, X-T30), the 16-55mm f/2.8 makes for a bit of a front heavy combination, most noticeable as you pick up the camera (e.g. not so much while you're shooting if you're shooting two-handed, as you should). On the larger X bodies (X-T3, X-H1) the 16-55mm f/2.8 felt very "right sized" and well balanced. 

How's it Perform?

Focusing: On the X-T3 I see a slight hesitancy to move focus when moving the camera to another subject at a very different distance, but once that brief hesitancy is over the focus snaps to point. In tracking, the lens does quite well; it's only with a big near/far change under the focus sensor that I see the initial hesitancy, and I believe that to be camera-caused, not due to the lens. That's because the lens snaps to focus very quickly after the hesitancy. While I didn't use the lens much in extreme action conditions, I was quite pleased with its focus performance in more event-type shooting.

Sharpness: Central sharpness wide open is excellent, bordering on superb, with 16mm being clearly the best focal length. At 16mm, f/2.8 is actually the best aperture for sharpness in the central region. At all longer focal lengths, the center is sharpest at f/4. The poorest central performance is at 55mm. That said, I doubt anyone is going to be upset by center performance wide open at any focal length. Just know that at longer focal lengths you can squeeze a bit more out of the lens by stopping down one stop.

Unfortunately, there's some clear fall-off of acuity as you move out to the corners, more-so at the longer focal lengths than at 16mm. This fall-off starts more towards the central region than I'd like. I've seen others characterize the corners as being "strong" or some other similar word. I wouldn't say the same thing. Wide open the lens is probably what I'd call fair to very good at the corners, depending upon the focal length (again, 16mm is the best case on my samples, and corners are very good wide open). Stopping down doesn't help the mid-frame a lot (other than at 55mm), though it does help the absolute corners, particularly at the two extreme focal lengths.

It's not that the corners are terrible, as they can be on some mid-range zooms. It's that they never show "pop" close to that of the central sharpness; at the best focal length, there's a small bit of smear in the corners on my samples. For some subjects parallel to the sensor, such as flat surfaces in architectural photography, the edge weaknesses tend to be visible as a distinct softening as you move from the center. For most subjects and ways you'd use the lens, I'm not sure the corner performance is going to objectionable to most.

Compared to what's happening in other fast mid-range zooms—the Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 S and the Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 GM, for instance—the Fujifilm is "old school." It simply doesn't correct into the corners as well as state-of-the-art lenses across all focal lengths.

Vignetting: As you might expect, there's clear vignetting at 16mm wide open, though probably not as much as you'd expect (about a stop and a third). 55mm also has about a stop of vignetting, with the other focal lengths in between being far better. You can pull the entire lens into the range I call negligible (half stop or less) by f/5.6. Curiously, the vignetting is more oval than I'm used to, and slightly de-centered upwards (reminds me of a lot of previous generation Nikkor primes; did Fujifilm hire a former Nikon lens designer?).

Linear Distortion: Probably the worst attribute of the lens if you leave off the lens corrections. Uncorrected, there's about 5% barrel distortion at 16mm, and about 3% pincushion distortion at 55mm. Fortunately, both distortions seem easy to correct (and can be mostly corrected in camera). Near zero distortion happens somewhere between the 18-20mm mark. 

Chromatic Aberration: There's visible lateral chromatic aberration pretty much at every focal length except the widest, though it's low in nature (a bit less than two pixels on the latest bodies). Curiously, 16mm seems the best behaved focal length in this respect, and is also lower in CA wide open than stopped down. I see some modest longitudinal CA on high contrast edges wide open, but that's to be expected for a fast lens.

Bokeh: A bit of edge brightness change and often with more of an oval shape than round on specular highlights. I see clear onion skinning, too (common when aspherical elements are used). Cat eyes in the corners, too. I wouldn't say that bokeh is a strong point of this lens, though most of the things I mention above aren't at extremes where they clearly detract; they just make the bokeh a little busier than most people would like it.

Final Words

First off, the 16-55mm f/2.8 is clearly better than the 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 I reviewed earlier. In almost every attribute, but particularly if you're trying to squeeze acuity out of the higher pixel count, latest Fujifilm bodies. 

Ten years ago, the Fujifilm 16-55mm f/2.8 would have been top of class in terms of mid-range zooms (which puts it up against lenses like the legendary Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G). Today, however, it feels just a small step behind what some others are now doing in the mid-range. Don't read this wrong: the 16-55mm f/2.8 is still an excellent lens, but coupled with the lack of OIS (image stabilization) and lack of IBIS in most of the Fujifilm cameras, it's feeling a bit dated.

I suspect this won't bother Fujifilm shooters much, if at all. As I've tried to outline elsewhere, picking the APS-C Fujifilm bodies over the full frame bodies now available from others is accepting a slight compromise for a different advantage. In that respect, the 16-55mm f/2.8 just carries on that thought. 

Bottom line is this: if you're shooting events with a Fujifilm and need a mid-range zoom (as opposed to shooting with primes), the 16-55mm f/2.8 is your clear choice. It's sized appropriately for the X-T3 body, it performs quite well, and it renders consistently with most of the other Fujifilm glass. Indeed, the 16-55mm and 50-140mm f/2.8 lens duo is probably the combo that most event shooters are going to want to have in their bag, even if they do a lot of shooting with some of Fujifilm's excellent primes.

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