My Gear of the Year isn’t a product launched in 2015. Nor is it necessarily the absolute best option available. However, it is the product that I’ve grabbed whenever I wasn’t committed to something else we’ve been testing, and it’s a product I’ve really enjoyed.

What I love

  • Classic portrait focal length 85mm equivalent field-of-view
  • Bright maximum aperture for shallow depth-of-field or low light work
  • Apodization filter to ensure smoother bokeh
  • Well built solid-feeling without being too heavy

I’ve always liked the idea of classic 85-135mm equivalent portrait lenses but they’ve tended to be somewhat thin on the ground for the APS-C cameras I seem to end up testing. So I’m delighted to see Fujifilm go the extra mile and create a fast 85mm equivalent.

Better still, the APD version of the lens is specifically designed to offer pleasant bokeh. None of this ‘X rounded blades to give pleasing bokeh’ nonsense, the APD version actually has a radial gradient neutral density filter to smooth off the bright edges of the out-of-focus rendering. I’ve taken the availability of this very specialized tool as encouragement to practice and improve my portraiture.

A quick re-process in camera and there's a JPEG ready to send to my patient volunteer.

Fujinon 56mm F1.2R APD
F1.2, 1/35sec, ISO 800 

The Fujifilm 56 isn’t the only tool I could have used: the Zeiss Batis 85mm F1.8 would give very similar depth of field and, mounted on a Sony a7 series camera, would result in a fairly similarly sized package. However, although both have been present in the DPReview offices, it’s been hard to justify taking them out of the hands of the people reviewing and testing them, just to experiment. So it just happens to have ended up that I've spent more time enjoying the Fujinon.

Beyond the lens’s inherent properties, there’s another reason I’ve tended to grab the 56 and it relates to winning my subjects over and helping them feel comfortable with being photographed. 

While shooting, I’ve been using Fujifilm’s Wi-Fi system to send my favorite shot along to my subjects’ phones, letting them see the results and ensuring they have an image to walk away with. Lots of modern cameras have Wi-Fi of course, but it’s the combination of in-camera Raw processing and one of my favorite JPEG engines that makes it particularly useful. It’s relatively easy to choose the most appropriate Film Simulation mode, fine-tune the white balance and tone curve and arrive at a file I can comfortably share before I get a home to Lightroom. That ability to put the images quickly into the hands of my subjects has helped maintain their enthusiasm for standing around and being photographed.

The 56mm F1.2 APD is sharp where you want it and pleasantly smooth where you don't. The X series cameras can place the focus with a good degree of accuracy, too.

Fujinon 56mm F1.2 APD
F1.2, 1/550sec, ISO 400

Furthermore, the relatively small size of an X-T10 with the 56mm mounted to it isn’t quite so intimidating as a full frame DSLR and has the advantage that I can continue to shoot when I’ve taken the camera away from my eye, to talk to my subject.

It’s not all dreamy bokeh and pretending to be David Hemmings*, of course.

The 56mm F1.2 APD is an expensive lens. For a start, it’s a rather specialized lens, meaning fewer buyers to share the development costs across. But equally, it’s likely that Fujifilm understands the mystique conveyed by the idea of a bokeh-smoothing filter and being able to etch the numbers 1:1.2 into the front of the lens, allowing them to charge a substantial premium.

Autofocus is also rather slow. The design appears to have a lot of glass to shift around when focusing, which slows things down, as does the loss of on-sensor phase detection, which would be confused by the lens’s internal filter. However, so long as the subject doesn’t move too fast or unpredictably (which is a reasonable expectation in semi-posed portraits), this isn’t a fatal drawback and is at least partially made up for by the accuracy and consistency of the focus.

It's not just for close-up head shots, of course.

Fujinon 56mm F1.2 APD
F1.8, 1/1000sec, ISO 200

So why, when I know the 56mm is far from perfect, is it my Gear of the Year? On a technical level, it’s very good: it’s impressively sharp where it’s in focus and pleasantly smooth where it’s not, but the reason it’s my Gear of the Year is because I’ve enjoyed shooting with it and it’s encouraged me to go out and take photos.

I’m certainly not even going to claim the 56mm F1.2 APD has magically made me a great portrait photographer, but it's certainly increased the number of my friends using my images to represent them on social media. And knowing the lens will take lovely images has left me able to concentrate on developing the soft skills for relaxing and posing the people I’m shooting. Now, where’s my reflector?

*I very seldom pretend to be David Hemmings.