REVIEW: Fujifilm XF 70-300mm

I was lucky enough to score a loan from Fujifilm Australia of the new Fujinon XF 70-300mm F4-5.6 R LM OIS WR telephoto zoom lens as it started hitting the shelves a few weeks ago. As a nature and wildlife shooter I was excited by the prospects of such a far-reaching lens in a much more travel and hiking friendly package than my otherwise trusty XF100-400mm. Knowing that I would never go very far with the latter beast on my back, I more recently travelled (well, when that was still a thing!) with the XF55-200mm. A great light, compact and sharp lens I have enjoyed but often found limiting with smaller and/or shy wildlife like birds. Uncannily, compared to the XF 55-200mm, the XF 70-300mm (I’ll spare you the full moniker henceforth) is almost exactly the same weight (588g vs 580g), barely one centimeter longer (when not zoomed out) and of a comparable width (filter thread of 67mm vs 62mm). Compare that to the 1375g and the bulk of the XF100-400mm and you’ll quickly realise how much more portable it is when you carry it continuously or are subject to baggage weight restrictions.

While the price of the new lens at around AUD $1400 is roughly double that of the XF55-200 it is still about half of the cost of the XF100-400mm. What I found most pleasantly surprising though is that its performance and features are closer to the XF100-400mm than those of the XF55-200mm. Consider this:

  • The XF70-300mm has a native reach of 300mm or half-way between the other lenses, without any weight penalty.
  • It offers a relatively bright aperture of F4 to F5.6. While the XF55-200 is slightly brighter with F3.5 to F4.8, I note that at 70mm the max aperture of the XF55-200 is F3.7, which reduces its comparative light advantage at that focal length to just a quarter of a stop. Although I didn’t specifically check the XF70-300mm’s max aperture at 200mm, I estimate it is between F5 and F5.6 and therefore also just a fraction of a stop dimmer than the XF200mm at full reach.
  • Contrary to the XF55-200mm, it is compatible with both teleconverters, for a potential reach of up to 600mm – more on that later.
  • Its newer linear motor makes for a very speedy autofocus performance, which has nothing to envy the other lenses and is critical for wildlife photography.
  • The XF70-300mm appears to maintain good levels of sharpness through the range, including where it matters…at the long end.
  • Contrary to the XF55-200mm, it is also weather resistant, has a lens locking mechanism to prevent creep and a focal limiter from 5m to infinity.
  • The XF70-300mm has a newer and superior OIS mechanism to both other lenses (5.5 stops vs 4.5 stops for the XF55-200mm and 5 stops for the XF100-400mm.
  • It is natively a much better candidate than either lens for semi-macro work, making it hugely versatile – more on that later too.

I can personally only think of a few reasons to keep or acquire the XF55-200mm over the XF70-300mm. Well, to start with the obvious ones, it is about half the price, has a similar build quality and comparable sharpness levels. You may not need a reach of 300mm if it is not your shooting style and 200mm will be ample for discrete portraits, sporting action and landscape details for example. As mentioned, the XF55-200mm also has a very slight brightness advantage through its focal range. Finally, it is a better complement to the ubiquitous XF 18-55mm as a travel pair, particularly if you often shoot in the 55 to 70mm range. Personally, the XF 16-80mm is now my go-to lens for travel particularly so I won’t miss that range at all. And even with just the XF 70-300mm, its lower focal range is still quite adequate to deliver tight portraits, landscape scenes (if necessary as a panorama) and general photography.

As to the XF100-400mm, there is no way I’d get rid of mine (although I may eat my words once the slated XF 150-600mm comes along). Yes, it’s a bit of a beast, but a manageable one, at least on shorter hikes or car travel. The quality of its optics, it’s sheer reach (particularly with the 1.4x TC), its background rendering and micro-contrast are still beyond what the XF 70-300mm can offer. The XF100-400mm also provides a bit of light advantage being a F4.5 to F5.6 lens. At its maximum reach of 300mm the XF70-300mm has a maximum aperture of F5.6 whereas at the same focal length the XF100-400 betters it with F5.2, i.e., just a quarter of a stop.  At the 400mm often required for wildlife however, the big guy shines with F5.6 whereas the XF 70-300mm will require a 1.4x TC which will gobble up a full stop of light and brings it to F8. That said you pay heavily for that advantage in cost, weight and bulk. I note as well that the XF 100-400mm is a bit soft at the long end and requires stopping down at least a stop, whereas the XF70-300 seems to maintain its sharpness to a good level through its focal range, even with the 1.4x TC attached.

Beyond 300mm – Anyone said Birding?

As a nature photographer often drawn to the small, shy and distant creatures around us, I found the xf55-200 limiting as a wildlife travel lens. Access to a reach of 300mm is a big improvement over 200mm, but may still need a significant crop. Enter the XF 70-300mm’s godsent ability to make good use of the Fujifilm teleconverters and I’m an instant…convert. As with any other lens combo, the 1.4x TC is probably your best bet over the 2x TC with the least compromises in terms of AF performance, loss of light and IQ.  With the 1.4x TC the XF70-300mm’s reach jumps to 420mm, slightly exceeding the reach of the naked Xf100-400mm.  Yes, you lose a stop of light in the process but it still is very satisfying in a package around one third of the weight with minimal penalties in AF performance and IQ.

Surprisingly I found the 2x TC useable as well, albeit with some caveats. With the 2x TC mounted another world opens up with a reach of 600mm. That reach is even better than the XF100-400mm with the 1.4x TC attached (560mm). There are some unavoidable compromises though. Firstly, the loss of two stops of light, which with fast moving subjects in all but the brightest light can become punishing on your ISO settings and hence noise levels. Secondly, AF performance with the 2x TC suffers significantly, particularly in low light. So, unless you have plenty of light or your subject is relatively static and you can lower ISO to a reasonable setting with a long shutter speed, it becomes more challenging. A longer shutter speed also compounds the amplification of the slightest camera movement at such extreme focal length, calling for a stabilisation solution like a tripod as it is unlikely the OIS, however good, will suffice. Personally, unless resorting to 600mm is really needed, there’s abundant light and I can afford a slight delay in acquiring focus, I would probably stick to the 1.4x TC and further crop as required.

Getting close to a macro lens…and even beyond

Adding significantly to its already Swiss knife versatility, the XF 70-300mm also has an outstanding ability to acquire focus as close as 80cm (from the sensor) away from the subject, even when fully extended to 300mm. This results in the XF 70-300mm having a maximum magnification of 1/3, which is great for flowers and other close-ups and particularly handy when the subject is too skittish (or dangerous) to approach closer.

In comparison, the XF100-400mm needs at least 1.75m for a maximum 0.19x magnification. The XF 55-200mm gives a similar result of 0.18x, although it has a minimum focus distance of 1.1m. Note: These magnification figures are in APS-C terms as some of the material on the web suggests the lens is capable of ½ macro. That may be true in 35mm terms because in full format 0.67 magnification is equivalent to full size live view.

The XF 70-300mm close-up prowess can however be pushed beyond its native magnification to yield results in the true macro realm with a range of add-ons, including TCs, extension rings and close-up lenses. I empirically tested the lens fully extended with an X-T3 and add-ons at my disposal in the table below, sorted in descending order of magnification power.

@ 300mm focal lengthMin. working distance* (cm)Min. distance to sensor (cm)Frame size lengthwise (cm)Magnification (x)Magnification ratio (1:)
Raynox DCR-25010331.21.970.5
Raynox DCR-15014391.81.310.8
Nisi Close-Up 77cm19442.351.001.0
2x TC58833.50.671.5
1.4x TC588250.472.1
Bare 70-300 lens588070.343.0
*From tip of lens/add-on without hood

Some observations from these tests:

  • Surprisingly, the comfortable working distance offered by the bare lens is fully maintained when using either of the TCs but they will yield results close to ½ to 2/3 macro. A significant improvement but at the cost of 1 or 2 stops of light.
  • The 11mm and 15mm extension rings reduce the working distance somewhat but remain over 70cm in either case. Their magnification yield approaches that of the 1.4x TC but with a reduced light loss. Once depth of field and ease of acquiring focus is thrown into the balance, I would prefer sticking to the MCEX-11.
  • In order to achieve or exceed 1:1 true macro magnification resort to close-up lenses is however required. The Nisi 77mm close-up lens (which handily comes with a 77-67mm step-up ring) seems like a marriage made in heaven as it pretty much exactly turns the XF 70-300mm into a 1:1 macro lens. Be aware however that doing so will significantly reduce the working distance to below 20cm.
  • As to the Raynoxes, they are the clear leaders of the pack, offering 1.3x to 2x magnification, albeit with a further reduction in working distance. Maintaining focus with literally razor-thin depth of field is however extremely challenging handheld, and the DCR-250 may not be such a great option in the field. Moving subjects are likely to send your frustration levels through the roof!
  • Many of the above options can be stacked for even further magnification gains but I haven’t gone there.

The winner will depend on whether you give priority to the highest magnification or the longest working distance. To capture macro type subjects on the light or traveling, I would probably rely on the XF1.4x TC as I would have it with me anyway, or possibly throw in the Nisi 77mm close-up lens in the bag.

So, what’s the score?

Overall, I was absolutely thrilled with the XF70-300mm zoom lens and it will no doubt become part of my own lens stable sooner rather than later. Its focal length range is highly versatile and made all the more through its compatibility with TCs and its ability to focus so close. The quality and sharpness of images it produces all through its focal range, along with its fast AF performance make it a very strong contender. Of course, it is not without its minor limitations but when all of that it offers is thrown in a package the size and weight of the XF 55-200mm, those limitations pale into insignificance and it becomes compelling. I have no doubt this will become one of the best seller lenses for the X mount.

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