This photo has absolutely nothing to do with this blog post. I was scrolling through a folder of photographs from Iceland this morning and this one perked up and called out to me. I felt duty bound to include it somewhere. I love the sky. It's just wonderful.
Over the last several weeks I've had the opportunity to make portraits with both the 90mm f2.0 and the 50-140mm f2.8 lenses from Fuji. Both make exquisite portraits and, if I could control all the parameters of every shoot I'd probably just default to the 90mm lens and be done with it but... I can't always control several shoot parameters. Things I'm not always able to control mostly have to do with the absolute size of the shooting space and then, how much background I want to show or not show...
Having used both lenses in actual photo shoots I've had some good opportunities to look at how they perform and what the differences are in shooting with each one. The zoom is obviously more flexible and, if you are budget restricted it's the one I'd advise getting just because you have so many options for angle of view. The 90mm might be the sharper of the two when used wide open (especially on the sides and in the corners) but most of my photography with them was done with electronic flash (which eliminates a lot of sharpness robbing variables) and at one or two f-stops down from their maximums just because, well, that's how we shoot on real jobs. Endless background blur can be fun but clients really do like it when the tips of noses AND the eyes of portrait subjects are both sharp! (That's a tip for new portrait photographers).
So, when I shoot under the usual conditions (camera on a nice tripod, I.S. turned off, fast flash speeds, good focus) both of the lenses are so sharp that, if acutance and resolution are what you're looking for, then either lens will fill the bill nicely. There are really only two advantages to using the 90mm f2.0 over the zoom. One is that you can work with the lens wide open and this buys you an additional stop of light. The second feature is that the overall rendering of the 90mm is a bit more natural and the out of focus areas are smoother.
When I say, "more natural" I mean that the boundaries between tones are more nuanced and while just as sharp as the competitive lens the demarcations between tones are less abrupt or heavy handed.
It's good to have both lenses available if you want to do portraits the same way I want to do portraits. I love the look of the 90mm but am so happy to have a nice substitute when reality comes calling. Here's an example: I was setting up to shoot a portrait of an executive in which there were windows in the background. I had the 90mm on the camera and could see that I'd have to have the portrait subject either too close to the camera (too large a head size) or I'd have to move back ten feet or so and reposition the subject so that I could see three windows instead of two and also have those windows, and the detail outside the windows, out of focus. It was a game of juggling camera-to-background distance and also camera-to-subject distance which also means I have to adjust the subject-to-background distances as well. The problem occurred when I realized that the wall behind the camera position was immovable and wouldn't allow me to back up the next four or five feet I really wanted.
In this instance the 50-140mm lens provided the right solution. I ended up at about 65mms on the zoom and the relationship between background, subject and camera fell into place.
The 90mm is a tougher lens to use on an APS-C sensor camera. It's a bit long but it has a very nice compression for portraits and, as mentioned above, the optical integrity of the lens is pretty much unimpeachable. It will take me some time to figure out the optimal working distances when using it but the times that I've gotten all the elements right have rewarded me with really, really nice portraits. It's just a matter of mentally breaking in the lens which is the same thing as training my brain to stand in the right spot.
But this is not just a paean to Fuji glass. It's true in any system. You often trade the ultimate in potential image quality for flexibility. Sometimes flexibility wins, and with really good short telephoto zooms (low zoom ratio) such as the classic 80-200 or 70-200 in full frame systems, or the 50-140mm in the APS-C system what you give up is marginal and many times masked by inadequate or sloppy technique. But that's no reason to give up on the idea of using the best solution. You just have to make sure it fits with all the variables with which you will normally contend.
I find the Fuji zoom to be one of the best portrait range zooms I've used. It's on par with my favorite version for m4:3, the Olympus 40-150mm Pro, and it's certainly as good as the full frame zooms I've had experience with.
The 90mm reminds me very much of a favorite lens from my old Nikon MF system; the 135mm f2.0. It was a beast of a lens but when the stars were in alignment and the subject was worthwhile it could produce images that made me look like a better photographer than I was at the time.
I thought the Fuji 60mm f2.4 macro was going to end up being my "go-to" portrait lens in the systems but the 90mm seems to be the one I'm always trying to shoehorn into every production. It's fast and accurate in focusing and even when I shoot wide open everything that falls into the boundaries of the depth of field is satisfyingly sharp and beautifully drawn.
Still, more often than not the 50-140mm pulls me out of jams and does so while giving up very little image quality to the 90mm. If you can afford it then it's nice to have both at your beck and call.
I just have a feeling that continually using the 90mm f2.0 will (at least) make me look like a better portrait photographer than I really am. And that's a good thing.
Warning: both lenses are big and heavy. If you firmly believe that the only reason to own a mirrorless camera is for the weight reduction and compact overall size then... these lenses are definitely not for you. If you are a Fuji owner and hellbent on compactalization you'll be much happier with something like the 50mm f2.0 which is a small, feather-weight lens with great performance.
To each their own...
The 50-140mm doesn't look so big in the photo below. Carry it around all day, it will surprise you.
The 90mm is about $250 off on Amazon right now.
I think it's pretty great at that price.