The 16-55mm has some lofty standards to set when it comes to image sharpness. The cheaper and smaller 18-55mm f/2.8-4 is revered for its high image quality, and so there really needs to be a significant improvement in image quality to justify the higher price and increased size. For the most part, the 16-55mm meets these goals quite handily.
The lens produces images with outstanding central image sharpness at any focal length, and at any aperture (until diffraction sets in beyond f/11). The extremely high sharpness even continues all the way to the corners at f/2.8 between about 25mm and 55mm. There is some border softness at the wide end of the zoom range at wide apertures, though it’s still perfectly usable there. Stopped down the lens is extremely sharp from corner to corner at all focal lengths and most focus distances.
This is the only real downside when it comes to image sharpness. The lens doesn’t perform quite as well on further focus targets as it does closer up, though in most situations, you’d be hard pressed to tell. However, there appear to be some focus distances (and I’d be hard pressed to pin down exactly what they are), where the images get somewhat soft at the edges. It’s something I saw crop up from time to time in images when out shooting, though overall it was a rare occurrence. I’d chalk it up to poor technique, but I even had a few of these images show up when shooting tripod mounted in good light. However, even when this happened, image quality was still excellent in the central region and very good on the borders. Overall, it’s hard to ask much more from a zoom lens, and it definitely shows an advantage over the 18-55mm, as I discovered in my head to head tests. For an idea of 100% zoom level sharpness, take a look at that comparison here.
The 16-55mm features a constant f/2.8 aperture, allowing for some nice subject separation throughout the focal range. The bokeh produced by the 16-55 is generally quite pleasant, with soft transitions out of focus and a general smoothness to the background. Specular highlights aren’t perfect, however, and do show the typical artifacts that are common with lenses containing aspherical elements. There is some bright ring outlining and onion-ring insides to specular highlights, but overall, it performs better than the average standard zoom in this department.
Color, Contrast and Chromatic Aberration
One of the areas where the 16-55mm really shines is in image contrast and color rendition. More than anything else, this is what really stands out about the lens. It produces images with exceptional contrast right from f/2.8, with high local and global contrast that makes images simply pop. Colors are rich and saturated and produce a really lovely look that doesn’t require much post-processing at all.
Unfortunately, the exceptional characteristics in image contrast and color rendition don’t extend to chromatic aberration performance. The one truly weak area in the 16-55mm’s imaging performance is in lateral chromatic aberration control. Quite visible lateral CA is present at all focal lengths and aperture settings, especially towards the corners. While these aberrations can be almost entirely corrected in post-processing, it was a minor disappointment in what is otherwise an extremely solid lens optically.
Distortion, Flare and Vignetting
The 16-55mm f/2.8 produces images that are predominantly free of distortion in field shooting. There is some very minor barrel distortion present at the wide end, but elsewhere, at least when viewing RAW files in Lightroom, there is virtually none present. These results, however, are the result of in-camera corrections to the native optical distortion produced by the lens, which can be fairly hefty. However, since the corner sharpness is still quite good after digital correction, I don’t mind the approach Fuji has taken here. Most RAW converters will automatically apply the distortion profile, so you shouldn’t see any distortion in regular use of the lens.
The lens performs quite well against bright light as well, showing minimal loss of contrast in veiling flare situations and only a few small green or magenta ghosts present when a bright lights like the sun are prominent in the image frame. The image to the right is a worst-case scenario for flare. In most images it was much less prominent, even with the sun in the frame.
The lens is also a decent performer when it comes to vignetting. There is some visible light falloff on the edges at f/2.8 throughout the zoom range, but it’s largely gone by f/4.
Overall, the performance of the 16-55mm is on a very high level. It’s definitely a lens that can pull duty as an event lens for wide aperture work and especially as a landscape lens, where high image quality is needed at a variety of focal lengths.