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The Short Stack: Fujifilm's 27mm Pancake Lens

My primary kit has centered around Fujifilm cameras for about 3 years. Before that, the Nikon D610 was my main camera, and I typically shot with old Nikkor AI glass, especially for my flower and portrait photography. I wanted to move to Fujifilm for a couple reasons--I wanted a smaller overall kit, and I wanted access to Fujifilm's JPEG system. Put together, those two factors promised me an easier photographic experience.

I started with a Fuji X-E1, which was one of Fujifilm's earliest cameras. The rearscreen and EVF on it were obsolete by 2017, but they worked fine. The camera is tiny and is made predominantly of plastics, which together make it extremely light. Although the X-E1's electronic viewfinder didn't (doesn't) provide a crystal clear view on the world, I was comfortable with the camera, knowing that I'd just have to wait to see the images on the computer to see what they really looked like. After all, the X-E1 shoots 16 megapixel images, not the scaled down versions viewable through the EVF or on the rear screen.

I used this cameras on long trips (such as a trip to Europe) and for family vacations. Many of the images on this website were in fact taken with the X-E1. Although the X-E1 lagged behind the D610 in image quality and resolution, the X-E1 fit my photographic needs more fully.

Sagrada Familia

I didn't try as much flower photography with the X-E1 as I did with the D610, but I'm confident I could've made it work. Honestly, the biggest boon to my flower photography from using the D610 came from my Vello macro tubes. In reality, I think I wanted to take a break from flower photography, which made the transition to Fujifilm easier.

After the move to Fujifilm, I used the X-E1 with one lens on a nearly exclusive basis: Fujifilm's 27mm f/2.8 pancake lens. This lens provides a field of view equivalent to a 40mm lens on a full-frame camera. It's a fairly relaxed field of view, which I generally used at medium distances. I found it a little awkward to use for head-and-shoulders portraits, and I think detail portraits are simply out of the question unless you're willing to crop the image significantly.

The pancake lens barely protrudes out from the camera body. In fact, I was able to keep the X-E1 and 27mm in my messenger bag without any issues during my trip to Hong Kong. It lived in the main compartment of my messenger bag with my papers and notes. I've since upgraded to the X-T3, which I think could be packed in the same way.

Others online have remarked (correctly in my view) that Fujifilm's pancake lens provides sharp images although with some softness in the corners at wide apertures. Of course, the lens has a maximum aperture of f/2.8, which to some extent limits the lens in low-light situations. This lens's low-light limitations have become less important in the wake of the latest Fujifilm sensors and in-body image stabilization systems. I think a photographer asking his or her moderately fast pancake lens to work like a Noctilux is asking too much. You can't reasonably buy a pancake and expect a three-tiered cake. Not at all. Like other pancake lenses, this Fujifilm lens is best used outdoors or at high ISOs. Brave souls with more patience than I could also underexpose their RAW images at low ISOs and then boost the shadows in post. I'm no Rishi Sanyal, so you should take my word with some caution.

But the 27mm falls down a little because it doesn't have an aperture ring. The original design for this lens included an aperture ring, but for one reason or another, the production version does not have this control. Instead, the only control is the focus ring. I believe it is the only member of Fujifilm's high-end XF line up to omit an aperture ring. For this reason, the pancake lens seesm like the last of an otherwise extinct line or, what's worse, a rubbish lens with nice branding. My experience suggests that the former is the case--the optics are nice. And despite the age of the design, the motors continue to work well for autofocus. They keep up with moving subjects for portraiture although I would note that the user can feel the motor working when pulling focus manually.

The core issue stemming from the lack of an aperture ring is that this lens just operates differently than all the other Fujifilm lenses I use. It always takes me a little time to get used to working it after using a different Fujifilm lens. Is this a problem? Not really--I've been successful using this lens. On the other hand, it breaks the illusion that the Fujifilm camera you're using actually an Olympus OM-1. I enjoy partaking in this illusion, and it is easy to switch between my film cameras and my Fujifilm digital cameras so long as they carry lenses with aperture rings.

This illusion is held by many in the Fujifilm community. When FujiRumors leaked in their semi-official way that Fujifilm is creating a second version of this lens, many internet commenters have mentioned that they want this hypothetical second version to have an aperture ring (and weather sealing). The aperture ring, as I mentioned, would be helpful but would not transform the lens from useless garbage to ingenious tool. Instead, the addition of the aperture ring would make the user's experience of the 27mm lens more like using the Olympus Zuiko 40mm f/2 lens. That's what this change would really accomplish for Fujifilm users.

If you can let go of the illusion that your Fujifilm X-YZ is an Olympus OM-1 for a while, I think that Fujifilm's pancake lens remains a strong part of Fujifilm's lens line up.

I've moved on from the X-E1, but I've continued to use the 27mm lens fairly frequently. Although I prefer Fujifilm's lenses that have an aperture ring (I do like a good illusion), it still satisfies the core requirements I was looking for in the Fujifilm system--light weight and solid optical performance.

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