Nightshoots with X-T3 and XF 56mm f/1.2

In this post, I briefly touch on the problems using the XF 56mm f/1.2 in low light scenarios. The cover photo was taken using this lens at 1/125s, 2500 ISO – wide open.

Before I even got deep into the Fujiverse I was intrigued by the Fujinon XF 56mm f/1.2 – the magic lens from Fuji. Previously I used Sony A7II for a brief period and bought the Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 which for me was a terrific lens with great bokeh. The 56mm f/1.2 was Fuji’s closest alternative and soon made it into my list of wanted gear.

The XF56mm had three major selling points:

  1. The 85mm focal length in full-frame terms is good for portraits
  2. It’s the widest aperture lens Fuji has to offer & good for low light
  3. It has that special bokeh people love

This should make it great for more tricky portraits as well, like in dimly lit scenes, but the autofocus, at least on the X-T3, leaves a lot to be desired in low light.

The nightshoot

My intention was to use this lens and only available light at night to see how the autofocus would respond to low light, only shooting handheld. We found this place outside a nearby police station/gas station/Burger King with lots of things going on in the background. I was hoping that would give some nice bokeh.

X-T3 with XF 56mm f/1.2 @ f/1.2 , 1/250s & 5000 ISO. Handheld.

This was probably one of the brighter scenes of the night and the lens did fairly well, but I find the eye-focus unreliable. I was missing so many shots I turned to spot focus instead. Like in the photo below, the eye-focus was struggling and the razor-thin area of focus when using this lens wide open, resulted in lost focus on the eyes.

X-T3 with XF 56mm f/1.2 @ f/1.2 , 1/250s & 5000 ISO. Handheld.

Noise

X-T3 with XF 56mm f/1.2 @ f/1.2 , 1/250s & 5000 ISO. Handheld.

I was pretty happy with the shots looking in the EVF, but coming home and viewing the same images on a larger monitor would soon reveal another issue shooting under these conditions; noise. I find that Fuji is good at handling noise in the JPEGs, if you get the shot pretty good in-camera. If you do little to no post-processing it will be ok, – most of the time. But as soon as I touching either exposure or tried to lift the shadows to get more detail into the shot, it fell apart. My solutions when I just have to lift the shadows and raise the exposure to get it where I want it to be, and the result is a noisy image, is to try the same photo in black and white. I find I can push everything much more and the noise will most of the time appear as film grain. This might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but sometimes it works and I have “saved” an otherwise useless image. In this instance, I like the color version as well, but as a rule, I always try to convert these kinds of images to black and white before discarding them.

X-T3 with XF 56mm f/1.2 @ f/1.2 , 1/250s & 5000 ISO. Converted to black and white.
X-T3 with XF 56mm f/1.2 @ f/1.2 , 1/250s & 5000 ISO.

I could probably have tried a lower shutter speed. 1/250s is pretty high, but my son doesn’t want to pose, stand still, and take orders, so to avoid motion blur I tend to have a pretty high shutter speed and shoot as he walks around the scene. Finally, we left this area and went down to an even darker spot, right by the river.

X-T3 with XF 56mm f/1.2 @ f/1.2 , 1/125s & 2500 ISO.

The only light source was that one in front of him, and this is where the auto-focus of the XT-3 and the XF 56mm f/1.2 really sucked; the camera became sluggish, the focus hunted and hunted, I kept missing shots, and sometimes the lens would just hunt and hunt. I still got a few good photos, but it was clear that the camera struggled a lot to keep up.

All in all, I was pleased with a few of the images, but it was annoying to see so many moments go by because of the bad auto-focus. The noise also made me throw away lots of photos, but that was to be expected. If I wanted a cold-hearted, low light monster without a soul, which could give me less noise and a more reliable auto-focus I would have stuck with Sony ;-), but Fuji is currently giving me so much more in most other scenarios so I’m not changing systems anytime soon.

The Fujicron 50mm f/2 alternative

Because of the high price tag of the 56mm, I bought the Fujicron 50mm f/2 many months before the 56mm and had already fallen in love with that little lens and the approx 75mm focal length it provides. After reviewing my photos from the previous night I thought it would be fun to see how the little 50mm f/2 would perform under similar conditions, so we went back, down to the river (play some Springsteen right about now) with the X-T3.

X-T3 with XF 50mm f/2 @ f/2 , 1/100s & 3200 ISO.

To my surprise, the little 50mm performed much better! The focus was on point and the camera didn’t stutter at all. I see that I did use a slower shutter speed and higher iso, but the amount of change in noise was negligible.

When you compare the two photos above you can definitely see better bokeh balls on the XF 56mm, but the feeling when shooting the photos was way more satisfying when using the 50mm.

Reduce noise

An inherent limitation of the ASP-C sensor is noise in low light when you have to push the ISO. And even if the X-T3 does a great job, it’s obvious that you have a lot less wiggle room when it comes to post-processing photos taken in low light without introducing noise. A fix can be to use the noise reduction inside Lightroom or, in my case, Capture One, but I just cannot see much difference in my photos. I must be doing something wrong because people have praised the new and improved noise reduction features of recent Capture One releases. A third option is to use other software solutions specially made for removing noise, like DeNoiser AI from Topaz Labs. I bought this piece of software earlier this year after taking a few sports photos inside a badly lit skatepark and have used it a few times so I tried it one some of the night shots.

X-T3 with XF 56mm f/1.2 @ f/1.2 , 1/125s & 6400 ISO.

The DeNoise AI software is pretty easy to use. There are not a whole lot of nobs or buttons to push, but in my experiments, the results have been very mixed. On street- and landscape shots, it has worked ok, but if you’re not careful the photos look over-processed. On human skin, Denoise AI will quickly give you a waxy, and in my opinion ugly look and also affect the colors in a non-flattering way. I’ll keep on testing Denoise AI, but I’ll use it with caution.

In conclusion

First of all, I need more experience shooting under such conditions and if I were to choose right now between the XF 56mm f/1.2 or the XF 50mm f/2 I’d probably still take the XF 56mm, but it’s close. I love the bokeh, but the auto-focus is making me frustrated and the whole photography experience suffers. And even the small focus area available when using the lens wide open is problematic and as mentioned, I lost a lot of otherwise usable shots because the camera didn’t manage to keep up. Fujifilm will release the much anticipated Fujinon XF 50mm f/1.0 in the near future, and will hopefully have autofocus performance on par with the XF 50mm f/2, but it will be expensive, heavy and big. Will it solve the low light needs for us Fujiboys?

What are your tips for nighttime photography? What settings do you use and how do you manage noise in post-processing?

Further reading