2019 Fujilove Archive: Getting Close With The XF18mm f/2

This article was written for Fujilove Magazine, and originally published in February 2019. I had a regular column for the magazine for a year between 2018 and 2019, and am reproducing these articles here for posterity. All Fujilove archive posts

Some months ago I wrote about wanting the XF18mm f/2 pretty badly. I’ve long been a standard lens shooter. The lens on my cameras for 80% of the last 6 years has been the XF35mm f/1.4. The gaps were filled in by the XF56mm f/1.2 and XF23mm f/2. I wanted something wider. I wanted the XF18mm.

As you can see, I finally got it!

Happy year of the pig! X-T3, XF18mm f/2

The very first satisfying thing about this lens is its size: it’s small, almost a pancake without its hood. And then there is that slowness that marks it as an original XF lens, of the same vintage as my beloved XF 35mm f/1.4 – it doesn’t have the silent speediness of schmick new Fujinon glass. And while the X-T3 focuses this baby much faster than an X-Pro1 would, there’s still a little bit of a lag. And that’s actually really nice. Keeps me on my toes.

Learning to see with a wide angle

Composition was the first thing I had to get a feel for. I’ve learned to be a little more careful with my approach and angle, so photos don’t end up too uncomfortably skewed.

Train station, Singapore. It look a lot of mincing around to find the right spot to stand to get a reasonably symmetrical picture like this. And even then, the angle is still slightly off. I’m chalking this up to a learning experience. X-T3, XF18mm f/2
I had to adjust the perspective of this one in post so the verticals were more or less… er, vertical. There’s been a lot of that going on while shooting with the 18mm. Singapore. X-T3, XF18mm f/2.

And then there is distance. 53mm is the full frame equivalent focal length of the XF35mm lenses on X series bodies. That’s my instinctual frame, so I’m used to staying a certain distance from my subject, which results in a certain kind of picture. But I can’t do that with the XF18mm, which gives you a 27mm full frame equivalent view on the X Series bodies. To make anything worthwhile with this lens, I have to get very close to people, often close enough to touch them.

There was a lot of contact going on at market hours in the lead up to Chinese New Year. Singapore. X-T3, XF18mm f/2

It’s uncomfortable as hell. And one of the reasons I’ve wanted this lens for such a long time.

I don’t generally enjoy looking at photographs of people when they are aware of the camera, so those are not the ones I like to make. Completely candid shots are easier at longer focal lengths, but certainly not if I’m a foot away from who I want in my frame!

Until now I’ve tried not to get too close to folks, mindful that I don’t like it when photographers get too close to me. I will duck cameras if I can (or push them away, as I had to once). Street photography is often unkind to its subjects. There is a fine line between portraying people in their candid states – flaws and all – with respect, and exploiting that state so they’re more cartoon than human. Most of us spend a lifetime learning to discern between one and the other – self included – and usually to the detriment of the subject.

Valentine’s Day in Singapore. X-T3, XF18mm f/2

Learning how to tell the difference requires honesty about approach and intention. Those truths, I have found, come in layers. What is true at one level might not be on another. There’s no shortcut to figuring out why you make what you make. Ongoing contemplation of this thing we’re all driven to do is the only way, and looking at the work of others helps this along. I’m inspired by street photographers Melissa Breyer, Suresh Naganathan and FujiLove’s own Jens Krauer, who capture humanity with incredible warmth, humour and dignity. And for some wonderful close up work with wide lenses, nothing beats my most favourite photo book of all time, Jean Gaumy’s Men At Sea.

Valentine’s Day in Singapore. X-T3, XF18mm f/2

This whole wide angle business has been all about learning how to get close, connected (not stealing shots!), and preserving the candid nature of the sort of photos I like to take. It continues to be an eye opening experience, and a struggle, because it involves detangling deeply ingrained reflexes.

In creative life, there are cycles of growth and stagnation. I’ve been feeling flat about photography for a while, and this little lens has given me a great kick out of that inertia. Yes, I admit there’s a tiny bit of G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) justification happening, but I promise it’s otherwise legit!

Stockholm, Sweden. X-T3, XF18mm f/2