Finding the magic of light – book review

I recently purchased and read the ebook ‘Finding the Magic of Light’ written and published by Thorsten Von Overgaard, a popular Danish photographer and writer. Thorsten is an avid Leica shooter and maintains a popular blog. His website is a compendium of information on Leica gear, especially the M9 and the new M Type-240. When I recently bought my first Leica, the M-E, it was Thorsten’s site I turned to for tips and tricks. If you are passionate about photography, Leica in particular, his website won’t disappoint you. Having been a regular reader of his site for the past few years, I was wondering what he has to write in an ebook that is not on his website. The price is also a bit steep compared to other ebooks and printed material related to photography.

The book is guaranteed to be an ‘aha’ moment in your career collecting photography techniques. Thorsten just takes the key ingredient of photography, namely ‘light’, and explores the aesthetic impact of the same in your photography. Reading the book is guaranteed to improve your photography, unless you are already a master of understanding and managing light.

Highly recommended!

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My Leica M-E Review for street photography

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View from Untersberg, Austria, August 2013

Is the Leica M system the absolute best for street photography? Many street photographers swear by the M, especially the film ones, and I have been dreaming of getting my own digital M for a long time.

I have been a big supporter of the micro-four-thirds (MFT) format for most of my photographic life and the format has served me well. The main benefits for me was a small and lightweight system providing good image quality. Some of the lenses are first class. Four years later, after attending a couple of workshops conducted by Magnum photographers Nikos Economopoulos and Martin Parr, my photography has evolved significantly. I no longer worry about exposure or the right aperture. I now know when to trust my camera to make its own decision and when to override it. Each camera has its own quirks and signature.

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The outsider in pink, Tamilnadu, India 2013

The biggest issue for me with the MFT system cameras is the time taken to wake up from sleep and nail a shot. Even when it is awake, the time taken to focus and shoot is a wee bit too long. Most of the time it is not an issue, especially with the joyful Olympus OMD-EM5, which is really a complete camera in many ways, except when you want to wake it from sleep to shoot a fleeting moment. The other major hiccup is when shooting mobile objects. As I keep hunting for those fleeting moments, sometimes from inside a moving car, I started missing shots and sometimes don’t even bother to shoot knowing very well the shot is too fast for the camera.

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Anything goes on the road, Tamilnadu, India, 2013

One of the big strengths of the MFT format is the ability to use almost any lens with an adapter. I started experimenting with a lot of manual focus lenses. The Zeiss and the Leicas ultimately stood out producing absolutely sharp images with a kind of dramatic presence that was absent in other lenses.

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Nostalgia, Vienna, August 2013

During one of the Magnum workshops I learned Nikos’ technique to handle instantaneous shooting. He shoots at F/8 during the day time with his 35mm lens set to focus from 2.5 meters to infinity using hyperfocal distance. In fact Nikos has his lens’ focus ring taped at this setting so that it doesn’t change by accident. He does it on his Leica M9. I guess he should have upgraded to the new Leica M Type-240 by now.

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Waiting for pal to finish his job, Tamilnadu, India, 2013

My first introduction to Leica was through a National Geographic advert in my schooldays. I still remember the ad showing a hummingbird hovering over a flower, sparkling in all its multicolored glory. The ad proclaimed the silent shutter of the Leica (M6 I guess) that made it possible to shoot the picture without disturbing the bird. In fact, Leica is the only camera brand I remember from my childhood apart from Yashica. I have seen a few Yashicas in India but never a Leica! I have only read about them.

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I have catalogued all my shots from the past 5 years and most of them fall around the 50mm focal length. With every system I choose, the 40-50mm is the width that gives me most confidence. I like to be close to the action but not too close. After using the zooms that are bundled with the camera, I invariably mount the Panasonic 20/1.7 or the Panasonic Leica 25/1.4 for serious shooting.

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Daido from a distance!, Prague, August 2013

The 50mm angle of view also gives me the comfort to shoot quickly using the eye to frame. It is easy to make an assessment if a scene would fit within the frame. If it is too wide and if I do not have the luxury of backing up, I just enjoy the scene and walk away, knowing I have missed a great shot. I have learned that I can’t shoot everything that I see.

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Street Portrait, Salzburg, Austria, 2013

I made the lens moves for a M-system in the form of the classic Elmar 50/2.8 and the Zeiss Biogon 35/2 and have been waiting to get my hands on a full-frame Leica. I have been using these lenses on my MFT system with an adapter and they were churning out well-liked images. Jay (my wife) was wiling to buy me a Leica M and unfortunately (for me and fortunately for her) the Leicas were in extreme short supply. It is rumored that there is a 1-year waiting list for the M Type-240. The cameras have been out of stock for a good part of 6 months now.

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Looking away, Tamilnadu, August 2013

When we made arrangements for our summer holidays to Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Munich, and Salzburg, all extremely photogenic cities, I was making web searches for photographic stores in those cities. Unlike the American stores (online) from where I usually shop, two of the stores had the Leica M-E and also the M Type-240 in stock. Analyzing the financial as well as the CCD-CMOS options, I settled for the M-E. Luckily, Digital Store in Vienna had two cameras in stock by the time I arrived. Ever since, I have been shotting with my M-E non-stop.

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Jay, Salzburg, August 2013

I also added the Zeiss Planar 50/2 to my collection of lenses. It is a great all-rounder with all the desirable qualities. I weighed it against the Summicron Apo, which is completely out of my wallet’s range for many foreseeable years, and decided to go for it. I have been enjoying every single moment I use this lens with the camera. Now I shoot nothing but this lens. I sometimes use the Elmar for its classic swirly bokeh that adds a bit of magic to portraits.

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Japonaise, Salzburg, August, 2013

For my style of street photography I wanted a camera system with the following characteristics:

  • great image quality at ISO 800
  • sharp and fast lenses, especially at 35-50mm range
  • super-fast operation, especially after a period of idleness
  • Long battery life

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Bad choices make good stories, Salzburg, August 2013

The above image is a great example. All of my MFT cameras would have delivered the image in terms of quality. In fact, the quality of the lens and the noise performance is extremely unimportant for this image. It is all about swift action. In terms of swiftness I would have missed the shot with other systems. By the time I read the message on the t-shirt and realized the potential of an image, the subject was just about to vanish out of sight. The Leica does a great job getting these reflex shots like no other camera I have owned. The quality of the lens and everything else is an added bonus. Jay didn’t even notice that I took a shot as she was looking at the train timetable.

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Another example of a shot before the girl smiled!

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Olympic Park Tower, Munich, August 2013

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That one moment before the closing of the doors, Munich, Summer 2013

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Get away you little devil. Don’t block the door!, Munich, Summer 2013

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The little big mohican!, Prague, Summer 2013

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Boo!, Prague, Summer, 2013

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Too tired or she is not that into you, Prague, Summer 2013

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Can’t escape gravity, Prague, Summer 2013

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Little Princess, Prague, Summer 2013

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Reflections, Prague, Summer 2013

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Little Princess – II, Vienna, Summer 2013

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All grown up (my daughter Nivya), Summer 2013

I have been shooting with the Leica M-E for just under a month and my current thoughts are as follows:

  • Do not muck around with a Leica if you are still learning the basics of photography. The Leica needs a lot of discipline and once mastered it will reward with gorgeous images.
  • Build quality, fit, finish etc. is all better than any other camera. It is quite heavy for its size and is not for single handed use. Every other camera feels a little hollow after holding a Leica, but they are well made too!
  • Some of the electronics can be seen if you peep in the gap in front of the viewfinder. I guess mine is not some misalignment as focusing seems to be perfect.
  • The user interface is pretty straight forward. One niggle if you don’t read the manual is that you have to set ISO in two places if you are planning to use Auto ISO and set a limit. Thankfully Leica’s default options are just about perfect.
  • The LCD is prone to get scratched. Get a good HD-quality screen protector. Leica would do good to ship the camera with a protector.
  • If you wear glasses, stick to 50mm. You can’t see the 35mm frame-lines unless you remove your glasses.
  • The Zeiss Planar 50/2 is a bit wider than the 50mm frame-lines. You get more than you aimed for and so you may have to crop a little bit after shooting.
  • The LCD has lesser dynamic range and so shows the shadows too dark. When you transfer the images to the computer, the shadows look all right. It takes some time to understand this and stop compensating for underexposed shadows.
  • The shot is taken way before you think the shutter activated!

All in all, the Leica is a wonderful camera and I bought it with a leap of faith. Even in Qatar, the country with the largest per capita GDP in the world, there is no official retailer carrying the Leica brand and so I had no opportunity to try it before I handled it in Vienna. I was able to adapt to the system quickly and the pictures have been fabulous.

For street photography, it is absolutely the best camera where lightning reflex action, inconspicuous presence, gorgeous image quality, and a long battery life are all mandatory. Many other cameras deliver many of these features, but none of them deliver all. I am looking forward to many years of happy memories.

My long-term review of the Leica M-E with the gorgeous Summilux 50/1.4 can be found here.

Touit 32/1.8 Vs. Biogon 35/2

One of the hottest debate right now on the Internet is if the new Zeiss Touit lenses are worth paying the premium. I bought the Fuji X-E1 body as a kind of intermediate step to the ultimate – Leica M Typ-240.  Most of the debate about the new Zeiss lens circles around if it is comparable to a real Zeiss M-Mount lens. There is only one way to know and I so happen to have both the Zeiss Biogon 35/2 and the Touit 32/1.8. The Biogon is 50mm equivalent on the Fuji X-E1 and the Touit is 48mm. Pretty close in the angle of view. The Touit is now nearly welded to the Fuji and is my 1st choice when I go out shooting. It is still not the perfect camera. Practically, the OM-D is still a much better camera. More on that in a later post.

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Zeiss Touit 32/1.8 shot at F/2

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Zeiss Biogon 35/2 shot at F/2

In trying this the camera position was unaltered, bolted to my Manfrotto 190XPROB tripod. Processing was from RAW to JPG in Lightroom 5, with just sharpening added (Amount 100, Radius 0.7, Details 10). I realize that the Fuji files need more sharpening than other cameras.

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Zeiss Touit 32/1.8 shot at F/8

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Zeiss Biogon 35/2 shot at F/8

Both the lenses are a dream to shoot. The new Touit lens has one of the best manual focus implementation using fly-by-wire technology.

In comparison, I do not see much difference in terms of sharpness. The test has nothing in the edges in focus to test edge sharpness. The center sharpness is brilliant for both the lenses. I deliberately kept the background at a distance to evaluate how pleasantly the out-of-focus areas are rendered. The bokeh is pleasant for both the lenses. The contrast is also comparable. There is no much difference.

There is a notable difference in the color rendition. The Biogon has the signature Zeiss warm color and the Touit, although it has it, has it a little lesser. The Touit is noticeably cooler than the Biogon. The Biogon also seems to have a more 3-D quality to the image, particularly at F/2.

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Zeiss Touit 32/1.8 shot at F/2 (Warmed up a little bit)

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Zeiss Biogon 35/2 shot at F/2

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OMD-EM5 with Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 25/1.4 shot at F/2

Just for fun, I also shot the OMD-EM5 with the venerable Leica DG Summilux 25/1.4, a must have for anyone shooting the microfourthirds system. I had set center-weighted metering in the OMD as against spot in the Fuji and so had to bring down the exposure in Lightroom by about 1.5 stops.

The Fuji images are crisper and have more contrast. But the difference is down to one’s personal taste. The winner, in my view, is the manual focus Biogon 35/2 with the Fuji M-Mount adapter. The Touit is definitely a close second. The increased contrast of the Fuji with Zeiss glass makes a huge difference.

The Fuji is let down against the OMD in performance on the field. It hunts and struggles to focus when the background is brighter than the subject. You get focus confirmation but later you understand that the focus is on the background although the subject is bang in the center with single point of focus in the center.

Genesis by Sebastio Salgado

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Boats on the Doha Corniche, 2013

The tome of outstanding black and white pictures from the remotest parts of our earth, by Sebastio Salgado was lying untouched for the better part of three weeks since I wanted some protected time to look at the images. Today turned out to be that day. The book makes one go out and shoot some honest black and white images. I turned to Lightroom and converted one of my old images to a toned image.

The book is ridiculously great. Probably one of the greatest collection of modern monochrome images. Reminds you something like the cream of National Geographic in gorgeous black and white that only Salgado can deliver. I have seen a selection of his Magnum images when his work was exhibited in the Qatar Photographic Society a few years ago. The book is in a completely different vein, just showcasing the subliminal marvel of earth.

It is a ‘must buy’ even if you don’t like photography. I bought the standard edition, not the limited edition runs in larger formats. Just a pity that Taschen hasn’t mentioned the edition number anywhere (or maybe I should look more carefully).

Review of the Fuji X-E1 + Zeiss Touit 32/1.8 for street photography

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Motoring along nicely, MIA, June 2013

Taking pictures of people, particularly street photography, has been the mainstay of my photographic journey ever since I picked up a camera some years ago. I realized that my shooting focal length is around 50mm and almost exclusively shoot around that range these days. I have been an OM-D faithful for the past one and half years. The OM-D with the Leica Summilux G 25/1.4 (equivalent to 50mm) is a dream combination. It has given me so many good frames it puts every other camera/lens I have owned to shade.

There are a few things that make a camera/lens combination work for street photography. The most important things are:

  • Ergonomic gear – intuitive controls (hardware and software), balance of the camera/lens
  • Reasonably light weight but well built to withstand the trauma of street photography
  • EVF or OVF – this is really important as it makes midday shooting in the streets possible, and extends battery life
  • Great battery life – can never have more of this
  • Ever ready to shoot

The cameras that fit all these criteria are truly the rangefinders from Leica, Zeiss, and Voigtlander. When the light is good and high-ISO noise is not a problem, it is my Zeiss Ikon that makes me grin. I never turn it off and it is always ready to take a picture. When the sun goes down it is another story. Nothing beats digital in poor light. You can push film and overcome the speed issue. But that is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist anymore. So I keep my film for daylight and go digital past 5PM.

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The Fuji X-system came out with a cool retro style that reminded everyone of the rangefinder days. The system also makes a nice backup for the M-Mount lenses with a Fuji-made high quality adapter. The M-mount lenses become too long on my OM-D and so is not practical for street photography. The Fuji, on the other hand, makes my Biogon 35mm into a 50mm lens, which is perfect.

I am a great fan of Carl Zeiss lenses. I still use old Contax G lenses (made by Zeiss) with an adapter on the m43 system for portraits. Once you get smitten by the Zeiss color (warm and high contrast) you would never settle for anything less.

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Nine months after announcement, the Zeiss lenses for Fuji X system was finally available on the market and Popflash was one of the first retailers to stock. I like Popflash since they ship the same day and the blokes are great to interact with. I placed my order on the very first day when it was in stock and in a week (due to shipping from US to Qatar) I had it ready to go. I got the Touit 32/1.8 as the only dedicated lens to go with my Fuji X-E1 body.

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Styling and ergonomics

The first things I noticed about the lens was the styling. Zeiss is trying to reinvent lens style for the 21st century. It is like Apple’s first iPod. Some may like it and some may not. I absolutely love the new styling of the lens. Sigma moved to a new smooth style with its ART series, which has issues in manual use. The smooth body is fine for autofocus use but in manual focusing mode, the smooth focus rings are really a pain.

Zeiss has moved to a curvy body with a velvety metal finish. For the focus and aperture rings Zeiss has chosen rubber. The rings are grippy and very practical, but attract dust like a magnet. One hour in the streets and the lens already looks like a veteran that has done a few years of service – due to the amount of dust in the focus ring. The lens is very well balanced when mounted on the Fuji X-E1. Another thing that I didn’t like about the ergonomics of the lens is the placement of the ‘A’ detent that stands for automatic setting of the aperture. It occasionally moves to aperture 22 and I got a few shots that were too blurred before I noticed. Most of the times I worked between F/8 and F/2.8 and so when I feel sloppy and want to go automatic, I have to turn the ring all the way to the other end. Zeiss should have put the ‘A’ right next to F/1.8 with some increased distance and a deeper detent that would make accidental turns less frequent. The aperture ring itself turns with a nice feel that conveys quality and a feel of luxury.

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Manual Focus

Manual focus is fly-by-wire but this is the most enjoyable fly-by-wire manual focus I have ever used. The main reason is the increased spacing given by Zeiss for the critical zone of close distances when even a small change will move objects out of focus. In shorter distances you have to turn more to move focus and for longer distances you have to move less. There is really no reason to worry about manual focus in this lens. Manual focus is so much better than other fly-by-wire lenses I have used. It is not a full-manual Zeiss or a Leica, but it is close.

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Color

Fans of Zeiss colors have no worries. This is a true Zeiss lens in color and rendition. The signature warm colors and the high contrast is evident in every image.

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Stray cat, shot at F/1.8

Sharpness

For street photography sharpness is not a critical factor. It doesn’t mean sharpness is not required, just that the operating zone in good light is F/8 to F/4 and almost every lens available today (except for some poor kit lenses) is sharp. Another factor to consider is edge-to-edge sharpness is also a pure technical requirement for lens analysis, not for photographic aesthetics. This is because 99% of the times the object in focus will be somewhere around the center and the edges are always out of focus. Unless you focus on a wall, evaluating edge sharpness is difficult. Having said that, the sharpness of the lens is stellar.

The sharpness of the lens for street photography is also undone by the absence of image stabilization (both in-camera as well as in in-lens). I really wish Fuji brings some in-body image stabilization in future. Fuji bodies are used more and more as a backup for M-mount lenses and image stabilization will be a critical factor.

Another important factor is the amount of sharpness you have to apply in processing. I use LR4 and now LR5 to process all my images, and Fuji files need more sharpening than every other camera I have used. It is critical for one to master sharpening techniques to make the Fuji RAW files work.

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Contrast

The contrast produced by the lens is signature Zeiss – high contrast without losing details in the shadow. I find the same signature in the Contax G glass as well as the M-Mount Zeiss lenses. It is also helped tremendously by the X-Trans sensor of the Fuji.

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The Zeiss Tout 32/1.8 is a little noisier than other newer lenses. The noise and the rattling is comparable to the outstanding Panasonic 20/1.7.

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Focusing in low light is a little tricky. You have to get the subject in the middle of the frame, focus, and the reframe to get the shot. In street photography it is really not practical to fiddle with the focus points. I missed a few shots initially and then I started relying only on focusing at the center of the frame. Now it is not an issue.

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Fuji and Zeiss is a great combination to get fantastic colors from your pictures. The above shot was during the evening in the middle of the summer in Doha when day temperatures are 45C and evening temperatures are still in the high 30s.

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Conclusion

The Fuji X-E1 + Zeiss Touit 32/1.8 combination is a little difficult to adapt initially. Out of the box it is not as easy as the Olympus OM-D + Leica Summilux G 25/1.4. But once you get adapted to the Fuji, the output never ceases to amaze. The colors produced by the combination is stellar and the images have more depth to them. Finally that is what counts. There are a few cons but lots of positives. The deficiencies are quirks that can be overcome easily in practice, but the positives are something that cannot be matched easily by other systems.

My wish to Fuji:

  1. Make the camera faster
  2. Make the lowest possible shutter speed to be set in the menus (this is a common complaint from everyone)
  3. Add in-body image stabilization in future (for this reason the OMD beats every other camera for night shooting)
  4. Make the battery last long

Wish to Zeiss:

  1. Move the ‘A’ on aperture ring to the other side
  2. Make the detent between ‘A’ and other settings deeper and harder

Quick test of the Carl Zeiss Touit 32/1.8

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I have been itching to get my hands on a Leica system for a long time now. Looking back, for the amount of money I have spent on camera gear, I could have bought the Leica system. The big question is, would I have been happy with it? Difficult to say. Part of the thrill is actually in upgrading the system as technology moves on. Digital technology is continuously breaking new ground that all bets are off after a few weeks’ time. The Leica digital M system clearly proves it. The M8 was heralded as a breakthrough camera for the Leicaphiles when it came. But when the M9 broke cover, the M8 became a poor cousin that very few wanted to be associated with. When the M240 came, reviewers talk about the M9 being a ISO-limited cousin.

The smart money is always on investing in great lenses and keeping the bodies at arms length. Once in a while a great body arrives, like the Olympus OM-D, that ticks all the boxes and you do not have to upgrade for a long time. Otherwise, the lens is where all the magic happens. And in this digital world, lets be clear about one thing. Anything digital is going to improve in a matter of months making the older one obsolete.

The Carl Zeiss Touit 32mm F/1.8 lens for the Fuji X system seems to me a game changer for relaxed photographers who like the rangefinder-styled Fuji bodies but are a little skeptical about Fuji lenses. I haven’t shot Fuji glass so I have no direct experience. From what I have seen on the Internet, Fuji seems to be making fantastic lenses. Not just today, but for a long time.

The above is a quick portrait to test the lens. It was shot RAW and processed in LR5. It has all the elements of Zeiss magic – sharp, pleasing bokeh, outstanding color and contrast. The lens is fast to focus and very well balanced when mounted on the camera. Looking forward to another year of distraction-free image-making. I am planning to write a more thorough analysis of my OM-D to Fuji X-E1 transition.