Review: Let’s Talk About the Fujifilm GF 80mm ƒ/1.7R WR, Shall We?

Thanks to Glazer’s Camera here in Seattle, I was able to get my hands on the fujifilm GF 80mm ƒ/1.7R WR on release day. Since then, the weather’s been shit, so I haven’t been able to test it. I have been able to take some sample shots in my home, running all the way through its ƒ/1.7 to ƒ/22 aperture range and from minimum focusing distance to infinity. I’ve also shot it with both of my macro tubes, for shits and grins.

80mm ƒ/1.7 shot with the 110mm ƒ/2

Let me back up for a sec. The 80mm was a lens GFX owners have been screaming for for years now. It’s a common focal length in medium format portraiture and one of the most common focal lengths you’ll see if ever shopping for a medium format film camera. It’s odd Fujifilm has chosen to ignore it for as long as they have and I’m assuming it’s due to some internal strife over how it should have been engineered… a fight between ultimate resolution versus ultimate character. In the end, they seem to have landed on a mix of both and you’ll see why as you read this review.

What you get with your new lens is like any other GF lens: caps, hood, storage bag. Simple enough. The price is also a quite reasonable $2299, relatively speaking. Unlike their other portrait lens, the 110mm ƒ/2, the price is at the low end of their range. It’s a nice compromise, landing between the 63mm ƒ/2.8 and the 110mm in price. Weight-wise, it’s surprisingly dense. It’s not heavy, especially when considered amongst other lenses in the G-mount range, but the weight may surprise you a bit considering its compact size. Despite the density, it’s well balanced, with the weight evenly distributed along its length, so it balances well on the camera body. The only users who may find it to be “off balance” will be 50R shooters. On my GFX50S, the combination feels neutral and, dare i say it, natural. This lens physically feels “right” on my 50S. If you’ve spent time with their GF 23mm ƒ/4 lens, it will feel quite similar in both weight and grip.

An Instant Classic

On to the performance… obviously, this is a lens you buy to shoot wide open, or damn near, whenever possible. Backgrounds melt into modern art but you’ll find the field of view a little wider than expected, especially if you’re coming from 35mm and the typical 85mm lens. It does have an approximately 64mm field of view in 35mm terms. What you get is very close in feel to a 50mm, like a tight 50. It’s a really nice and versatile FOV that allows you to get both full body length as well as headshots, both with minimal distortion. It’s still an 80mm focal length, after all. Along with that focal length you’ll get “lens compression” and the sort of bokeh you’d expect from the numbers around the front element.

What you won’t get is “business” or “nervousness” in the bokeh. It seems Fujifilm has sought out a formula that purposely eliminates the tendency for oddly sharpened edges in out of focus areas seen in so many of their other lenses, especially in the X-mount lineup. However, with that comes a penalty, of course, and that is in edge sharpness and light hourglass distortion. Not much of a penalty, to be honest, in a lens aimed at portraiture. Back to the bokeh, it is so, so smooth. Focus falls off like details are being melted away, with no harshness. There’s obviously some catseyes at the edges but they’re not distracting. The speculation highlights are perfectly smooth with no onion rings or soap bubbles. With the ability to stop down to ƒ/22, you can get some crazy sun stars with the 9 bladed aperture.

Don’t get me wrong… this thing is able to get critically sharp across the frame when stopped down to ƒ/2.8 and up, but the rendering at ƒ/1.7 and ƒ/2 gives a very flattering and dreamy effect as focus begins to fall off ever so slightly towards the edges. Even at the center, while perfectly sharp, does have a little less contrast compared to even their zoom lenses. They’ve seemingly made some compromises and some willful adaptations to create a portrait lens that renders skin beautifully.

80mm ƒ/1.7 shot with the 110mm ƒ/2

Color. Colors out of this lens are a pinch warmer and tinted ever so slightly purple for even better skin tones. This is a portrait lens, through and through, in some ways even more so than the 110mm.

For the modern digital shooter, these may sound like drawbacks but if you shoot portraiture, you’ll appreciate how much this cuts from your workflow and your clients will love the rendering from this lens. And if you do need critical sharpness across the frame, just stop it down a bit and you’re good to go. Just don’t be surprised when this lens reacts poorly to macro use, though.

Every Legend Has a Dark Tale

Downsides. Because of course there are. Back to the price… obviously something had to give to deliver this lens under $2500 and the first thing to go was the linear motor. Now, I’m not fully sure it’s because of an attempt to meet a price point or if the price is the result of an engineering decision, but they’ve gone with a stepper motor. While linear motors are nearly silent and very fast, stepper motors are slower, higher torque and more accurate. It could be the focusing group required a higher torque motor or the very shallow depth of field required more accuracy, I just don’t know. I’m assuming it’s the latter as I can’t see Fujifilm building a high-end lens to suit a price.

80mm ƒ/1.7 shot with the 110mm ƒ/2

That means this is not the lens to use unless you have mic packs for video. The sound of focusing will interfere with onboard mics. Once you combine the sound of the focus motor with the character filled results, it greatly reminds me of one of Fujifilm’s most popular lenses, the XF 35mm ƒ/1.4. That’s not a bad thing by any means.

If you began with the X-series and XF 35mm ƒ/1.4 lens combination, or still own it, you’ll find the results out of the GF 80mm ƒ/1.7 eerily similar. From the sound of the focus motor, the tactile response of the focus ring, resulting images and the characteristics of those images, you may think you’re shooting with a jumbo sized version of the popular combo. If you liked the results from that combo, you’re really gonna enjoy the GF 80mm on any GFX body. While the XF 35mm ƒ/1.4 can be a polarizing lens, those that do love it, really love it, and this is the highest praise I can give the new G-mount 80mm lens. It renders beautifully, has bags of character, takes beautiful portraits and is extremely versatile.

Hunting. There have been sporadic reports of issues with the lens hunting for focus and missing focus. Let’s get real, folks: this is the widest aperture autofocus 80mm lens for medium format ever made. Full stop. With the phase detect AF on the GFX100 and GFX100S, I’m sure hit rates will be higher, but on a contrast detect only system like the GFX50S and 50R, with a lens that doesn’t prioritize contrast, you’re going to get hunting and missed focus from time to time. Even on phase detect systems, the shallow depth of field is going to cause focus issues. That’s the sacrifice you have to make with full bore portrait primes and is why most are manual focus. If you really want to exercise the focus motor, throw it into continuous focus. If you’re really serious about your portraiture, you should be using manual focus anyways.

80mm ƒ/1.7 on left, 110mm ƒ/2 on right

Portraiture? As I handle this lens more and more, I start to think this would also make a great street photography lens and all purpose lens. It’s a little tighter than 50mm and can open up to ƒ/1.7, but stopped down it works beautifully. Zone focusing and the lens’ more discreet profile (for an autofocus medium format), I can see this lens becoming my daily driver.

All Together Now

If you love portraiture, you have got to give this lens a ride. The 110mm’s fault is that it’s an approximately 85mm FOV but it’s 110mm for all intents and purposes. That means subject distance and a very large lens that can limit its usefulness. The 80mm has the FOV of a ~65mm but the spherical distortion of an 80mm… imagine being able to shoot it like a 50mm but get the flattering results of an 85mm. Small studio spaces grow with this lens. The relative portability adds new dimensions. We all wish autofocus would be all things to all people all of the time, but it isn’t, and we can’t expect that from medium format just yet as it will take another leap in processing power to make that happen. Regardless, if you’re willing to accept this lens for exactly what it is, it could do magic for your portraiture… and maybe even more.

80mm ƒ/1.7 on left, 110mm ƒ/2 on right

Stay Tuned…

I want you to close your eyes and imagine the Fujifilm Instax Square format. Like a mini Polaroid. Got it? Now imagine that softness in the photos, but with a vignette of focus falloff surrounding the subject. It’s a look we’ve all seen with medium format cameras shooting pack film or a large format camera’s results due to their lenses of the day and very thin depths of field. Visualize it.

So, I ordered an Instax SP-3 printer and it’s on the way. I want to make physical the visualization I asked you to make. Give me a few weeks and I’ll post the results.

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