When writing about gear, I typically try to limit myself to solutions for problems I faced, or some New Shiny™ that really piqued my interest. This is an exception. It's an ode to my favourite lens.
Half a year after having started shooting with a Fujifilm X-E1 and the XF18-55mmF2.8-4 R LM OIS kit lens, I was considering buying a lens with a wide aperture for greater creative freedom. I checked which focal length I used most often and at the time ~ 75% of the shots I kept were somewhere around 23 mm (~ 35 mm full-frame equivalent) leading my to buy the Fujifilm XF23mmF1.4 R.
I won't lose to many words about the overall quality of this lens. Many people have done so before me and most of them have a lot more experience with photography and gear than I do. The focal length is versatile, the build quality and the overall image quality are great. Placing the field of focus is easy, and considering the amount of glass that has to be moved, it focuses quickly enough.
What I love most about the 23/1.4, though, is the fact that it's so boring, so predictable, so utterly unspectacular. In other words, it's dependable.
The two characteristics that influence the dependability and predictability of the lens the most are sharpness and the way it makes out-of-focus areas look.
Even wide open, the lens renders sharp pictures across ~ 70% of the frame from the center. More importantly, though, this doesn't change based on the subject distance. I can shoot close-ups at ƒ/1.4 and be sure that the center of the frame is going to be tack sharp while anything behind it ends up an unrecognisable blur. When shooting landscapes in waining light at the widest aperture, I know that the result is still going to be good.
Rendering of the out-of-focus areas
Many great lenses can also be capricious at times, where the way the out-of-focus areas are rendered can vary wildly depending on the subject distance and aperture and lead to less than desirable results sometimes, like overly busy looking backgrounds. The XF23mmF1.4 R delivers absolutely consistent results that take a lot of guesswork out of taking pictures. I choose my subject, the distance and angle, and pick the aperture I want.
Furthermore, the progression from sharp to blurry moving from the in-focus subject to the background feels almost linear (depending on the composition). The same holds true for aperture changes from ƒ/1.4 to ƒ/8.
If I could improve one aspect about the 23/1.4, it would be the addition of weather sealing. As one of the older optics in Fujifilm's line-up, it's not sealed against the elements.
Unfortunately the smaller, lighter, and weather-sealed XF23mmF2 R WR is no viable alternative. Its image quality is great but the rendering characteristics aren't nearly as predictable or dependable, making the lens less versatile.
Even so, the XF23mmF1.4 R is the lens I would take to a deserted island with me, the glass I would choose if I had to go with one lens for the rest of my days.