A portrait lens is up there as one of the key acquisitions in pretty much every photographer's lens collection. The release of Viltrox's auto-focus 56mm f/1.4 in Fuji X-mount is therefore highly anticipated because it combines AF and a fast aperture all at a highly economical price point. Is it worth the money?
Portrait lenses are expensive, aren't they? Unless you opt for a "normal" nifty-fifty on a DSLR, then that flattering compressed look with subject-separating bokeh comes at a price. For an X-mount lens, the cost is $999 if you opt for the Fuji XF 56mm f/1.2 R, which may well approach the price of the camera you put it on. In the meantime, Viltrox has been steadily building out its AF APS-C lens range and has now brought to market its highly anticipated portrait model, the Viltrox AF 56mm f/1.4 XF. As with the other models, it has a headline-grabbing price of $329. Is it a worthy replacement for the Fuji model?
Viltrox has been in the photography market since 2009 and makes a range of optical accessories; however, rather than repeat myself — I reviewed the Viltrox 23mm f/1.4 earlier this year — go and read that review, which tells you a little bit more about them. Needless to say, the Chinese manufacturer is targeting low prices and volume through sales of lenses designed for APS-C Sony E-mount and Fuji X-mount cameras. This is a sound strategy, and like other entry-level lens manufacturers, they have moved on from manual focus to AF optics at competitive price points.
In terms of specifications, the Viltrox is a 10-element design in 9 groups, which includes one ED (extra-low dispersion) and one HRI (high refractive) element. It has a 9-blade aperture, weighs 290 g, and takes a standard 52mm filter. In fact, if you compare it side by side with the 23mm model you'd be pretty hard-pressed to tell them apart, bar that the wider optic has a petal-shaped hood. As with many contemporary lenses, it uses a focus-by-wire design, and the firmware is upgradeable courtesy of the micro-USB port.
In terms of competition, the obvious X-mount counterpart is the Fuji XF 56mm f/1.2 R, which is slightly faster, uses an 11-element and 8-group design, and comes in at the same size, although is moderately heavier. Given Viltrox is offering f/1.4 at a significantly lower price, how does it perform?
Out of the Box
Unboxing the Viltrox is a simple affair: packaging is minimalist, with the low-key white box containing the lens, hood, front and back caps, pouch, and manual. Given that they have eschewed ostentatious presentation, have they focused their spending where it counts? At face value, the answer is a resounding yes. As with the other lenses in this line, there is all-metal construction that is reassuringly solid. It's not weather-sealed, so if that's important, then this is not the lens for you. The lens hood reverses around the barrel for storage, meaning it's always on hand; on first use, it requires a significant amount of force to attached to the lens. Initially, I was worried about damaging the hood mount, but after a few uses, it loosened slightly. The aperture ring sits on the inside, next to the lens mount; there is then a small section of the barrel to hold before the remaining half is taken up with the ribbed focus ring. The resistance on the focus ring is well judged: it is on the loose side of resistance, which is good if you are gently trying to nail manual focus (for stills or video work), something I was toying with a number of close-up shots. The aperture ring, like its other models, is clickless; it has significantly more resistance than the focus ring (with a noticeable click to auto mode), which I judge to be beneficial. Overall, this is a pleasingly manufactured lens with no rough edges; the design and fast aperture are statements that demonstrate an intent to push well beyond its budget pricing.
I reviewed the Viltrox 56mm f/1.4 over a four-week period, taking it on two trips and using it principally for travel work that incorporated some landscape, close-ups, and portraiture. When I travel, I use a Fuji X-M1: its small body sports Fuji's 16 MP X-Trans sensor that is found on more expensive models and so makes it an easy choice. In fact, the body is very similar to the original X100, which gives you an idea of its dimensions. I shoot exclusively with prime lenses, and my favorite pairings are a 35mm equivalent for landscape work, with an 85mm equivalent for portraits or just when I need a little extra reach. Viltrox realizes that these focal lengths — as well as the 50mm equivalent — are popular, and the simpler optical designs mean it can target its resources at handling and price. That said, it's worth remembering that while these lenses are svelte, at least in comparison to DSLR offerings, they are not small. The pitch is for affordable, packable, fast primes, with excellent optical results.
As I've noted above, the lens feels reassuringly well made. In terms of handling, it is surprisingly well balanced on the X-M1, which is small in comparison to Fuji's other X-mount bodies and so should feel pleasingly weighted on the X-E or X-T variants. It's worth noting at this point that body compatibility for AF in stills and video modes is partial or unsupported on older models, so make sure you check before proceeding further. As with the 23mm model, the lens hood is a small but valuable detail for two key reasons: protection and flare. It protects the lens elements from accidental damage, and in this regard is far better than a UV filter. It also helps control lens flare, something I've been guilty of far too often, and so, it stops me from being lazy.
So, how does it handle as a lens? I'm a fan of back button focus on my Nikon DSLRs, and I try to set up a similar workflow on my other cameras where possible. For the X-M1, I use continuous AF with area mode focusing that allows me to move the focus spot using the d-pad. Focusing itself was fast, accurate, and quiet. A real boon in comparison to some of the ponderous focus system from years gone by. while focusing is quiet; it isn't silent so if you are shooting video, then an external microphone would be beneficial. There was a small amount of focus breathing.
In fact, the focusing was so good when shooting close-ups and portraits that I didn't think too much about it... until I switched to landscapes, and then it was dire to the point where it wouldn't focus when light levels dropped. In short, it really, really struggled in areas of the frame that lacked contrast. This was hugely disappointing given how good the 23mm was that I had tested earlier. My last gasp thought was to see if there were any firmware upgrades available, and indeed a point increment was available (version 1.0.8). One quick upgrade later, and the focus hunting was fixed, a good reminder of both how responsive Viltrox has demonstrated themselves to be and how firmware can often be the root cause of a problem. Check to make sure you download the firmware for the right amount, then extract the DAT file from the compressed archive. Attach the lens to your PC via a micro-USB cable, then drag and drop the DAT file onto the disk that should have shown up. It really is that simple. Viltrox appears to push out updates fairly regularly in the same way that Fuji does, so it is well worth checking in every so often.
The benefit of the X-M1 (and indeed other Fuji cameras) for travel work is that they are small and unobtrusive; however, the compromise is with the APS-C sensor in terms of equivalent bokeh and relative noise levels. The answer is faster optics, which end up being more expensive and larger. Having the option of an f/1.4 at this price point makes the system that bit more usable and, in particular, good for portraits. As you can see in the gallery, in the end, the out-of-focus regions are rendered pleasingly. My general feeling is that this is a "buttery smooth" bokeh, without being endearing or unique. Dare I say it, but perhaps it is a little boring in comparison to the manual Nikon E-series 50mm lens that I also use on the X-M1. But that's not really the point. It is very well handled, and I would be more than happy sending images out to clients. By way of comparison, the image below shows the same scene shot at f/1.4 and f/16.
Take a look at the gallery below of a few examples from my time spent shooting with the Viltrox 56mm lens. There are a number of portraits, close-ups, and general travel shots. On an APS-C body, you need to be constantly aware of the balance between shutter speed and ISO to ensure you are getting the best image quality from your shooting, while also remembering that shooting up close at f/1.4 can give you a vanishingly thin depth of field. At the closest focus distance of 60 cm, this will be just 6 mm! Flaring is well controlled and nothing I wouldn't expect; just to reiterate the point from above, use the lens hood!
In terms of sharpness, the lens is very good, even when it is wide open. Stopping down to f/2.8 sees good gains, with perhaps the sharpest images at f/5.6. At f/11 and beyond, I noticed a little softening from diffraction. In my real-world use, I didn't notice any significant vignetting; however, there was some pincushion distortion. To automatically correct these, Viltrox has LCP lens profiles available for download; however, these only work in Lightroom for JPEGs (Photoshop can handle raw). Note there is no built-in correction profile.
What I Liked
Viltrox knows that brand manufacturers are shifting their sights to the top end of the lens market, and they sense an opportunity. By targeting the 56mm at f/1.4, they have taken the fight much closer to Fuji by offering a fast prime. This is a fast-focusing optic that can take very pleasing portraits, is sharp, well made, and comes in at an extremely competitive price. This is not a lens I'm expecting to dump after 3 or 4 years, moving on to something more premium. This is a premium lens that will find a place in many shooters' camera bags.
What Could Be Improved
As I outlined in my review of the 23mm lens, the most frustrating design problem for me was regularly knocking the aperture ring off auto. As with all my Nikon lenses, I would like there to be a lock on the ring so that I can leave it in auto. But there isn't. More often than I would like, when shooting at f/1.4, I would find it had shifted to f/16. Maybe it's my technique or large finger syndrome; either way, I hope we see this in a future iteration. And again, the lack of profile correction in-camera and the fact that Lightroom was unable to handle raw profiles is a weakness.
The "new normal" for lens manufacturing is no longer cheap and torrid manual focus lenses. We've had plenty of those over the years, and while we might not have been willing to accept their limitations, the price was the ultimate guiding principle. Well, things have moved forward, and Viltrox knows what their customers want. Actually, they know what Fuji's (and Sony's) customers want: keenly priced lenses with very good (but not necessarily great) AF optics. With the 56mm, they have hit that sweet spot of a sharp lens with very good bokeh; I suspect that 95% of Fuji customers will be happy with the technical specifications; however, it is the price that nails it. While this review doesn't cover studio testing, I don't doubt that the Fuji lens is sharper, particularly in the corners. Does this level of pixel-peeping matter to you?
Ultimately, this is a crazily priced lens for the all-metal construction, image quality, and fast aperture.