Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Choosing between the Fuji 16-55mm f/2.8, 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6, and 18-55mm f/2.8-4

Decisions, decisions.

In my latest hands-on review of the Fuji 16-55mm f/2.8 I mentioned that with this lens Fuji expands its lens system with a redundancy that covers more that one solution to the same optical coverage. For the consumer, this means more choice within the various focal length categories allowing photographers to tailor their lens choices to the specific way they use their equipment. A serious landscape photographer has very different equipment needs than a still life or lifestyle photographer, just as a photographer using the equipment casually has a different criteria than a pro who relies on it to make a living.

I have received a number of emails from readers asking which of the three lenses I would recommend based upon specific criteria. So I decided to dedicate a blog post to the topic, and here it is.

Here is one of the questions I received recently:

"I was thinking of buying the Fuji 18-135 as a convenient lens to used round the salt mashes, mudflats and coastal areas where I live. However the 16-55 seems to be having rave reviews, including your just published  review.

My question is:- would the 18-135 stopped down to f8-11-16 produce similar results to the 16-55 or is this in a different league altogether (I appreciate the different focal lengths) especially as I need to get up to A2 sized prints." 

First of all, let me say: Fuji makes great lenses. All of these zooms will produce excellent results. Even the small 18-55mm, considered something of a kit lens, can hold its own with no apologies necessary. Is the 16-55mm f/2.8 best of breed?  Well, yes. In fact it comes as close as you can get to shooting a prime for quality. 

All of these lenses can deliver the goods optically, although, yes, something like the 16-55mm f/2.8 takes it up a notch. What I am considering here is whether or not this extra up-tick in resolution is always necessary, and do some of the physical features of one of the other zooms make them a more practical choice for the task at hand.  So the more important question we need to ask ourselves is what do we want to do with the lens. 

The question our reader posed was one of quality in an A2 (approximately 16 x 20") print size. Considering the distance at which a print this size will be viewed, I think that any differences between the lenses is going to be negligible for most landscape work. More importantly is the techniques employed in taking the photograph. On a tripod, stopped down, with a RAW file to capture the most extended range will deliver excellent results with from any of the three. But A2 is about the largest we can go comfortably with an APS outfit. Larger than that, and we want to introduce any and all efforts to obtain the best quality original file, and means relying on the best optics that come from a lens like the 16-55mm. 

Of the three zooms, only one, the 18-135mm, can be considered a do-everything lens. (You can read my full review of it here.)   It is not a small lens, but it has the advantage of covering a range broad enough not to necessitate carrying any other lenses along with it. This practicality keeps it glued to my camera most of the time. If I had to pick one, and only one lens, for my Fuji camera, this is the one I would choose. 

Having the extra two millimeters of 16mm vs 18mm on the 16-55mm f/2.8 results in a more practical 24mm equivalent wide angle focal length than 27mm. Going down to 16mm can often save you from having to carry another wide angle lens. 

The 18-135mm has the smallest maximum aperture of the three. At f/3.5-5.6 we aren't going to be talking too much about bokeh in our description. The other downside of a slow aperture lens is having to use it at slow shutter speeds or high ISO setting. In this case, however, the small aperture is offset by an unprecedented 5-stop OIS. The hype is probably more than the practical reality, but I use this lens a lot and the results are quite impressive. Stated simply: The high OIS more than compensates for the slow aperture. 

The variable aperture on the 18-55mm isn't really so bad -- not very effective for nice bokeh, but adequate for hand-held photography with an OIS lens. This lens has the added benefit of being quite compact. 

I use the 18-135mm lens more than any other for walking around photography. It covers such a broad range of focal lengths that I rarely need any other lens -- except occasionally a super-wide -- to supplement it. The 5-stop OIS works so well that I use the lens hand-held even at night. When my camera is just sitting around on the ready for a spontaneous moment, this is the lens I keep on it. 

Consider the Kit:

Rarely do we use these lenses in isolation when out for some serious shooting.  So another question we need to ask ourselves is what other lenses we would pair with one of these zooms to make up a complete kit. It is one thing to have a very compact zoom like the 18-55mm, but, if it means having to tuck another long zoom into the bag to make up for the lack of longer focal lengths, it might negate the size advantage. 

The 18-135mm is the only one of the three that can be considered a stand-alone kit, although even it would benefit from having a super-wide, like the Fuji 14mm, Zeiss Touit 12mm, or Fuji 10-24mm to cover the lower end.  The 18-135mm also focuses close enough to consider even dropping a macro lens from our kit. 

Taken with the 18-135mm zoom at full extension and closest focus point. Being able to achieve a close up like this may spare us from having to add a macro to our lens kit. 
The 16-55mm f/2.8 is meant to be accompanied by the 50-140mm f/2.8 zoom, and anyone using this lenses would probably want to put the two together. This is a heavy kit, but no one is picking up these lenses to keep their kit light. They are acquiring them because of their pro-level durability, optical quality, and features, as well as for the fixed, fast maximum aperture. Adding any of the available super-wides to accompany these two zooms, and you have a complete kit, second to none, although you may want to toss in a macro, too. Large and heavy as this complete kit is,it is still considerably smaller than an equivalent full frame DSLR outfit of the same ingredients. If the Fuji X camera were the only one I used for all the work I do, I would have this entire outfit. 

The 18-55mm f/2.8-4 that accompanied the Fuji X cameras from the beginning is still a viable choice for a light-weight, single lens only option. For more serious shooting, it's going to need something like the 55-200mm to keep it company, and because neither of them get close enough, we might need to toss in a macro also. Before the other two zoom came out, I used to use a kit like this for travel, but I also found I had to include at least one fast prime, like the 23mm f/1.4 prime, for dark situations I often encountered when doing travel photography. Once the kit begins to include all this extra stuff, it makes the heavier 18-135mm zoom look like a more convenient option. 

I could go on forever with this discussion because there are as many different photographic situations as there are photographers, each with its own requirements for a lens kit. Each of us is going to have to decide what to get based on our own needs and work habits. Thankfully, Fuji has provided us with enough options to tailor a lens kit to suit. The bottom line here is that no matter which kit we finally assemble, it is going to be the right one in terms of providing quality results. 

Both the 18-135mm and 18-55mm have recently had their prices reduced making them and even more attractive purchase. All three lenses are available from the affiliates listed below, where our blog receives a slight percentage of the sale -- at no extra cost to you -- and  helps keep the site running. 

The Fuji 16-55mm f/2.8 lens can be ordered from:  BH-Photo  Adorama  Amazon

The Fuji 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 lens can be ordered from:  BH-Photo Adorama Amazon

The Fuji 18-55mm f/2.8-4 lens can be ordered from:  BH-Photo Adorama  Amazon    


  1. Good review, and I agree with your conclusions. There's too much "pixel peeping" these days, any of these lenses will make great prints. I have traded in my 18-55 for a 18-135 and am very happy with the portability - with the 14 in my pocket I can cover most opportunities.

  2. It is the first time to notice your review and the separate one on the Fuji 18-135 and must say that they reflect very practical viewpoint about the various photography subjects ,options and preferences. I purchased my X-T1 with the 18-135 as all purpose lens and completed it with 10-24 for special occasions in which a real wide angle lens is required . I am happy with the results and enjoy much less weight on my neck comparing it to my Nikon D750 with its 24-105 f4 Sigma , not even taking in account the 70-200 f4 Nikon .
    Very good review .

  3. I think you meant 50-140 2.8 as a companion :)

  4. Yep. Thanks for catching that.

  5. I have used 56mm1.2 and 16mm1.4 as my two prime lens kit and they have produced exceptional images for me. However, I am buying the 18-135mm because the versatility of it is invaluable and lacking in my setup.

  6. Very Good Review.. Thanks. hope Fuji launches this one with ois. as I use it on music festivals and 2.8 and the sharper image possible is always nice...