Now Is Not The Time To Be Shy

Summary: We should question the longevity of autofocus camera lenses. A good example is the recently launched Fujinon XF 50mm f/1.0 LM WR, the brightest autofocus lens available for mirrorless cameras. How long will it last, and what is it best for?

What, a product review? Not quite.

Today I tried the Fujinon 50mm XF f/1.0 LM WR camera lens. I wanted to see how it felt on my camera, how much extra light it afforded, and whether I would want to buy one. I was also curious to understand how serious a lens manufacturer is about longevity. Through this lens, I looked at that lens. For a new perspective. Ow.

The Earth is heating up. The question is, has the looming environmental catastrophe had any impact on the design of camera lenses? It should have by now. Rather than critique a plethora of corporate environmental statements (and there are many*1,) examining one of Fujinon's latest lenses, designed for a selling price where margins are thicker and engineers can take a slightly less constrained approach, might provide an insight.

It is a truism that simple is reliable. Conversely modern auto-focus lenses with motors, circuit boards, ribbon cables, and moving parts for image stabilization are complex. They are less reliable than manual focus lenses. There is an inherent unreliability in complexity. Taken together with the question of long term availability of parts, and the lack of discussion about well known metrics of lifespan, I hear a bell. An alarm bell.

If we take the Fujinon XF 50mm f1.0, a $1500 lens, it is not unreasonable to ask, what is its mean time to failure?

We know that ultrasonic piezo motors have a finite wear limit and that linear voice coil autofocus motors - first used by Fujinon in the XF 90mm in 2015 - may last longer*2; that focus-clutch mechanisms can be delicate, that Nylon gears wear out; that the mechanical structure used for zoom lenses is inherently fragile compared to a prime lenses*3. Fuji's engineers will have data on every sub-assembly and part. An estimated lifespan is something they can generate with ease.

Now Is Not The Time To Be Shy

If mankind is to adapt to a new age, an Anthropocene where the impact of humans has become as obvious as a forest fire, and resources are to be conserved wherever possible, it is time for all manufacturers to declare the projected lifespan of their products. One could go further and argue with practical and moral weight that such a measure should be put into law.

To make an informed choice between products consumers need to know how long a product might last, whether the product can be repaired and for how long spare parts will be available, and the non-renewable energy required to manufacture the product.

It is time to call on public opinion and consumer pressure while simultaneously pressing for legal standing. Why the hurry? The downside risk of global heating is so calamitous, and so costly in human and commercial terms, that speed is of the essence.

Letter to Fujifilm, Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Leica, Sigma, Sony, and Carl Zeiss - Product Longevity and Environmental Consequence

Dear Sir,

Product Longevity and Environmental Consequence: Fujinon 50mm XF f/1.0 LM WR

I am a freelance journalist currently working on a survey of camera lens longevity and environmental impact. My work on environmental issues has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as part of a series for the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

I am researching how environmental concerns drive your company's products, in particular lens design. As you know the Fujinon 50mm XF f/1.0 LM WR was launched this year. As such it may be considered to be representative of Fujifilm's new generation of lenses.

It would be enormously helpful if you could provide a contact who can respond via email to the three questions that this survey will answer; the estimated product lifespan, the duration of Fujinon's guarantee for spare parts availability, and the changes in materials, manufacturing, and distribution which have reduced the product's environmental impact compared to earlier lenses.

Your company produces a number of environmental statements. I have read your Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) environmental impact assessment methodology, and note with interest your "Result of Design for Environment" Gold designation for the FUJIFILM GRX 50R.

This survey of camera lens longevity covers most of the significant manufacturers; Canon, Fujifilm, Leica, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Sigma, Sony, and Zeiss International. It is only through collective action that will change attitudes and commercial practice that the climate change emergency can be averted. Your contribution is greatly appreciated.

Kind regards,

James Patrick

The Lightspell Critique
https://critique.lightspell.pro

As noted, I will send a version of this letter with relevant amendments to all the significant camera lens manufacturers. It will be interesting to see the replies. (I will add a page link here.) 

A note on change. History shows that mass movements have the power to change government and corporate policy. By advocating, you become part of the solution. Use your voice for the change you want.

Should you wish to use your version of this letter to press product manufacturers in any sector to give thought and priority to resource allocation that benefits the planet, please do so.


Priorities taken care, what of the Fujinon XF 50mm f/1.0? With one exception, the following photos were taken at f/1.0 and ISO 800 on a Fuji X-T2 with firmware 4.32. Note a firmware upgrade to 4.40 is required for the XF 50mm f/1.0. I will not comment on the focusing since it is affected by the software upgrade other than to say it was slow without the correct firmware.

Click on the images to get the gallery. Best viewed on a monitor.

To my eye the lens produces satisfactory results, and provides a way to take photographs in low light with a faster shutter speed or lower ISO than might otherwise have been possible. It is bright, sharp, and front-heavy mounted on a Fuji X-T2. For a long shoot I would recommend a monopod if you want to avoid repetitive strain syndrome. Subjectively I liked the subject separation and bokeh. In isolation, it's a good lens.

Nonetheless, any lens should be considered in context. My instinct tells me that an f1.0 lens would be useful but it's a rare situation that would require it.

The Use Case, Context

There are two compelling reasons to use Fuji X series cameras. The prime reason is portability. X series are small and light because they use a compact APS-C sensor. This means allows for smaller and lighter lenses compared to "full frame" mirrorless cameras. The concomitant disadvantage is the quality of the images do not match those of a larger sensor. That quality difference, while imperceptible in normal lighting conditions, becomes  obvious as light levels diminish.

For photographers who appreciate analogue dials rather than menu systems, the Fuji cameras offer ease of use. As someone with age-related shortsightedness I find this to be a significant advantage. Putting on glasses to read a menu slows the process of photography. It is so much easier to twist a knob. The knurled Fuji control knobs are a great example of tactile feedback where one doesn't have to look at the camera to make quick adjustments to exposure.

A wide aperture lens on a Fuji body brings, at the cost of a temporary increase in size and weight, low light photography and a very shallow depth of field to the APS-C sensor. So should one make a comparison with another manufacturer's mirrorless camera and an 85mm lens?

The Use Case, Comparison

It is always worth considering alternatives. For reasons of brevity, here's one. It illustrates not just the necessity for comparison, but also the limitations imposed by framing in the run of the mill camera and lens reviews, with a limited and therefore false choice of alternatives. I'll come back to that problem a little later.

CameraLensCombined WeightPrice
Fujifilm X-T3

Fujinon XF 56mm f/1.2

539 + 405 = 944g.$1,099 + $999 = $2,098
Fujifilm X-T3Fujinon 50mm XF f/1.0 LM WR539 + 845 = 1384g.$1,099 + $1299 = $2398
Fujifilm X-T4Fujinon XF 56mm f/1.2607 + 405 = 1012g.$1,499 + $999 = $2498
Fujifilm X-T4Fujinon 50mm XF f/1.0 LM WR607 + 845 = 1452g.$1,499 + $1299 = $2798
Sony alpha a7R IIISony FE 85mm 1.8658 + 371 = 1029g.$1,998 + $570 = $2568
Sony alpha a7R IIISony FE 85mm 1.4 GM658 + 825 = 1483g.$1,998 + $1799 = $3797
Sony alpha a7R IIISigma 85mm 1.4 Art DG DN658 + 625 = 1283g.$1,998 + $1199 = $3197
Sony alpha a7R IIIViltrox 85mm f/1.8 STM AF PFU RBMH

658 + 636 484 = 1294g 1142g.

(Mk I 636g. / MkII 484g)

$1,998 + $399 = $2397
    
Table 1: Fujifilm vs Sony Camera + Lens Weight & Price Comparison. All prices Q4, 2021, B&H Photo, USA.
Notes: The Sony alpha a7R III weighs 658g (23.2 oz) with battery and SD card. It has imagine stabilization built into the body. Price: $1,998 (Q4, 2021).
X-T3 body with battery and one card: weighs 539 g (19oz) with Battery and card. Price: $1,099 (rrp $1,499.)
X-T4 weighs 607g (21.4oz) including battery and SD memory card. It has 5 axis image stabilization built into the body. Price: $1,499 (rrp $1,699.) 
The addition of image stabilization to the X-T4 adds 68g to the X-T3. 

 

The Use Case, Summary Based on a Comparison of Just Two Cameras

Best Quality: A Sony a7R III paired with a Sigma 85mm 1.4 Art would weigh around 1282g. The Fuji X-T4 with 50mm (75mm equivalent) f/1.0 lens is 1452g. The Sony's larger sensor would give better image quality at a given level of low light (ie at handheld speeds with more than 800 ISO). The Fuji's f/1.0 aperture gives one stop more light over f/1.4. Both cameras have image stabilization. This means for a subset of photographic situations in low light where the shutter speed required is one stop greater than that offered by the Sony, the Fuji wins. In nearly all other cases, the Sony is the better camera & lens combination. Except...

Best Budget Package: A Sony a7R III paired with a Viltrox 85mm f/1.8 STM AF PFU RBMH lens at $2397 offers outstanding value. The Fujifilm X-T4 and Fujinon XF 56mm f/1.2 comes in at $2498. Yet there's a qualitative argument that the 56mm f1.2 is better than the Sony 1.8. The question is, is it $101 better? To add to the debate, Viltrox offer the same lens in a Fuji X-Mount which moves the budget/quality balance towards Fuji.

Best Compact Package: Fujifilm X-T4 with Fujinon XF 56mm f/1.2. This combo edges out the Sony a7R with Sony FE 85mm 1.8 since the Fujinon @f1.2 offers a brighter performance.

Best Low-Light Combo: The Fuji X-T4 with Fujinon XF 50mm (75mm equivalent) f/1.0 lens is the brightest autofocus lens available for mirrorless cameras. This repeats Fuji's marketing.

The Universe

It becomes obvious that the problem of comparison is the universe of alternatives. Under the guise of simplicity it is easy for a manufacturer to frame the introduction of a new product in the light of similar but not quite as good products from their competitors. Further framing effect is achieved by providing journalists and bloggers with carefully worded marketing messaging that places emphasis just where the manufacturer would like it.

There are so many good lenses, both autofocus and a huge number of manual focus lenses all of which are very good for portraiture. Many discontinued Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Carl Zeiss, Voigtlander, and Leica lenses are excellent. Many new brands such as Meyer Optik Görlitz, Mitakon, Samyang, and Viltrox are also producing alternatives to the major camera brands. The choice is huge.

Ultimately, camera equipment is much less important than taking the photograph. Cartier-Bresson no more complained about the lack of autofocus on his Leica than Michelangelo complained about the type of paintbrush he was using in the Sistine Chapel. 

View of the Sistene Chapel's west end. Photo credit: درفش کاویانی Darafsh,, CC BY-SA 3.0

 


How would I use the Fujinon 50mm XF f/1.0 LM WR? For the occasional ballet and dance photography I do, I imagine the Fujinon would be superb. The 50mm lens on APS-C is wide enough to take body-length photos in a typical dance studio, and the f/1.0 aperture would enable a one stop higher shutter speed during performances. There's never enough light in most dance studios and since there's movement involved, an f1.0 lens can only be an advantage. Furthermore, I would expect the brightness of the lens to improve the operation of the camera's autofocus system.

An 85mm lens is almost too telephoto to use in a typical dance studio. The 50mm provides a slightly wider 76mm equivalent view. Photo-shoots and ballet performances usually run two to three hours of constant photography. As with any heavy lens given its 845g (1.86 lb) weight, I would partner the Fujinon with a vertical battery grip and a monopod. Would I buy one? Probably not since pre-pandemic I shoot dance and ballets only a few times a year. Would I hire one? Yes, for sure.

What wouldn't I use it for? Travel. The Fujinon XF 56mm f/1.2 at 405g (14.3oz)  and 70mm (2.7") long is a lighter, smaller package with excellent optical performance. And then there's the 215g. Fujinon XF 60mm Macro f/2,4, and the tiny 200 gram Fujinon XF 50mm f/2 R WR we haven't even touched on.

Weight, dear reader, is the enemy of the photographer.

 

Notes and Discussion

1. Fujifilm Group Green Policy, a Sustainable Value Plan 2030 belatedly updated in March 2020 (and arguably inadequate in its ambition, scope, and time-frame), Fujifilm CSR activity report on the Environment, CSR activity report│Environment, Address Climate Change (Priority Issue 1), FUJIFILM Group “Green Value Products” Certification Program, and EMS Policy: "FUJIFILM Business Innovation... will make a concerted effort to reduce environmental impacts and tackle environmental issues, by following the Fujifilm Group Green Policy, the Ecology and Safety Vision and the Ecology and Safety Basic Policy of FUJIFILM Business Innovation and its affiliates."

2. Advantages of piezo technology, Xeryon's Crossfixx™ ultrasonic piezo technology; https://xeryon.com/technology/advantages-of-piezo-technology/

3. A Look at Electromagnetic Focusing By

 
 
 
Really need to know how many lenses fit Fuji X-Mount? Alik Griffin's Complete List of Fujifilm X-Mount lenses is the place to check.
 
A deeper argument about a flaw in the commonplace interpretation of the Hayekian neo-liberal notion of choice is outside of the scope of this post, though I am happy to entertain it in the comments below.