Viltrox comes with a pedigree for manufacturing good quality lenses at a low price point, so the entry of the 23 mm f/1.4 in Fuji X-mount and Sony E-mount is highly anticipated, not least because it is nearly $600 cheaper than the Fuji equivalent. Is it worthy of the hype and does that make it the perfect travel prime?
The Viltrox AF 23mm f/1.4 XF comes with a headline grabbing price of $329 — when the Fuji XF 23mm f/1.4 R retails at $899 can this lens offer anywhere near similar image quality? Is it worth adding to your photography bag or, indeed, replacing the Fuji option entirely? Read on to find out in this exclusive Fstoppers review.
Viltrox have been making optical accessories since 2009, selling lenses, video monitors, and LEDs amongst others. Besides manufacturing in low cost countries, one clear way to reduce price is to manufacture lenses that can use simple optical designs and sell in large volumes. Designing specifically for the APS-C market — the bread and butter of ILC sales at the moment — plays to this strategy and Viltrox take a tandem approach of manufacturing for both the Sony E-mount and Fuji X-mount. In this vein, it will be interesting to see if a Nikon Z-mount is produced now that the Z50 is available. Primes are simpler to design and manufacture, with the 35mm equivalent an obvious design to produce, meaning that it is a native 23mm in APS-C. In terms of specifications, the Viltrox is an 11 element design in 10 groups, which includes two ED and two HRI elements. It has a 9 blade aperture, weighs 260g, and takes a standard 52mm filter. As it is a fly-by-wire design, it comes with a micro-USB port which allows firmware upgrades. All in all, this is a nice looking lens which offers f/1.4 but other than there there is nothing extraordinary about it — except for the price that is. So how does it perform?
Out of the Box
Out of the (rather small) box, the Viltrox comes with a screw-in metal lens hood that is petal shaped and, rather neatly, reverses on to the barrel for storage. There is also a small pouch. The all-metal construction is reassuring and the build is certainly on a par with other good quality lenses on the market. The focus ring is ribbed and takes up over half the length of the barrel. It offers just the right level of resistance, being neither too stiff nor too loose and whilst I principally tested this lens for stills work, it should allow just the right level of control for pulling focus on video work. The aperture ring is clickless (again useful for video shooters), offering more resistance than the focus ring, with one "soft" click just before the auto setting. Again, there is just the right amount of resistance and Viltrox clearly have vloggers as one of their target markets.
I reviewed the Viltrox 23mm f/1.4 over a four week period, taking it on three trips and using it principally for landscape work but also a little street shooting. My travel camera is a Fuji X-M1 which is small and unobtrusive, sporting the 16 MP X-Trans sensor found on more expensive models. I paired the Viltrox with an old Nikon 50mm f/1.8 E-series lens on a mount converter which is great for portraits (75mm equivalent focal length). Altogether it's a neat travel setup, although as can be seen from the photo further down (on the Fuji X-E1), an f/1.4 lens is not small!
Ergonomically this is a well designed lens; whilst it is relatively large compared to a true street lens such as the Fuji XF 27mm f/2.8 pancake, it is around the same size and weight as the Fuji XF 23mm f/1.4 R. And just to labor the point, it is $570 cheaper. So while it is large for a wide angle optic — a result of that f/1.4 aperture — it is by no means a large lens. In fact it feels well balanced on the distinctly diminutive Fuji X-M1, which means on X-E or X-T models it will be easily handled. As shooters we are also constantly encouraged to use lens hoods — they prevent flare and protect the lens element — but how many of us actually do use one? Well, when they are stored around the barrel there really is no excuse and in this instance I made sure it was always attached. It's a small thing but very useful.
So how does it handle as a lens? As I was switching between MF and AF lenses, I had a custom button that let me choose between focus modes. I experimented with continuous focus using face detection which works fine when you are dealing with scenes that have people, but lacks the ability to focus where I want when shooting landscapes (on the M1). I went for area mode and then selecting the focus point using the D-pad. The lens was fast to focus and accurate, delivering reliable focus to the point I didn't have to think about it. I could rely on it to work. Focusing is quiet, but not silent so vloggers would do well to use an external microphone. It doesn't hunt unless you leave the lens cap on(!), at which point the sound is unavoidable.
One of the frustrations of shooting APS-C is that the sensors (and particularly the last generation) are undeniably noisier than their full frame counterparts. The X-M1 is in no way comparable to the Nikon D850 or indeed the older D800. Having a faster lens is undoubtedly a boon so the Viltrox is worth that extra weight when the light starts dropping. The other obvious benefit of a fast lens is bokeh and the Viltrox is surprisingly good for such a wide angle optic as the image below shows. Given that this is a 35mm equivalent, it raises the potential for some nice environmental portraits (as well as video). The bokeh may not be as pleasant as longer focal length lenses, but it is better than I expected. Highlights would behave differently, but then you don't necessarily buy a 35mm lens for highlights. The bokeh also looks a bit harsher in the corners.
The above image demonstrates a small amount of vignetting at wide apertures and Viltrox make LCP lens profiles availalble, although currently these only work in Lightroom for JPGs (use Photoshop for raw); the test images show a small amount of barrel distortion but an otherwise well corrected image out of camera. This also highlights the fact that there is no built-in correction profile. It's also apparent that the lens is slightly softer in the corners which is to be expected. Whether this worries you will depend upon your style of shooting, however the center was sharp. As ever apparent sharpness may vary depend upon which raw converter you use; Lightroom isn't necessarily the best option for Fuji shooters.
One frustration I had was constantly knocking the aperture from auto to f/16, a result of having no lock on the aperture ring. If you are running and gunning, it can be easy to miss the change until you realize your shutter speeds have plummeted!
Viltrox only have a handful of lenses which allow the firmware to be upgraded, however there are a steady stream of updates and it seems they are prepared to iron out performance and compatibility issues. Given that lenses are both costly investments and that their development cycle is typically slower than camera bodies, this is a real boon for customers. Make sure you download the firmware for the right mount, as the X and E variants are different. Some come as RAR files and some as ZIP; not all of them have instructions, although it only requires you to drag and drop the DAT file on to the disk that is mounted when you plug the lens in to your PC.
What I Liked
Prime lenses are a popular segment of the mirrorless market, particularly with the arrival of new budget manufacturers. To stand out in an increasingly crowed sector you need to target either the lens specification or price. In this respect Viltrox manages to do both. The headline f/1.4 aperture is relatively unusual in the budget sector and to be able to offer it so economically is remarkable. The fact that it stands up strongly against the competition is impressive offering fast focus, sharp images, and a premium feel. Viltrox have managed to provide a genuinely good product at an unbeatable price.
What Could Be Improved
Ergonomically the most frustrating aspect for me was knocking the aperture ring off auto. Maybe it's my technique or using the lens on the small X-M1, but it happened on a daily basis. Whether anyone else suffers from the same problem remains to be seen, however an aperture ring lock would be a welcome addition. My only other gripe was the lack of profile correction in-camera and the fact that Lightroom couldn't handle raw profiles. That said, the lens distortion was minimal and vignette correction minimal. However it's these small differences that make a good lens great.
It should come as no surprise from the above that I like this lens. It was a nearly permanent addition to my camera because the 35mm equivalent focal length is ideal for a range of shooting scenarios, added to the fact that it is sharp, quick to focus, and has that fast f/1.4 aperture. It's also obviously why Fuji sell a similarly specified lens. While this review doesn't cover studio testing, I don't doubt that the Fuji lens is sharper in the corners, however the key question to ask yourself is does it matter and — if it does — is it $570 better? The short answer, at least for me, was no. There really is no reason to buy the native Fuji model and when lenses this good are coming out at such competitive price points it's not just camera manufacturers who should be worried, but also other third party manufacturers such as Sigma and Tokina.
If you are looking for a fast 23mm prime then the Viltrox is a great option.