Venus Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Review

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Pros
  • Excellent sharpness
  • Low CA
  • Low distortion
  • Close focus
  • Well made
  • The widest rectilinear lens
  • Low flare
  • Entrance Pupil Index mark
Cons
  • No weather resistance
  • Manual focusing is challenging
  • EXIF error with aperture values

Laowa 12mm F2,8 Front Oblique View

Another Kickstarter lens project brings us the 12mm f/2.8 rectilinear lens from Venus Lens. That is, not a fish-eye, but the widest lens so far available for DSLRs that will give us straight lines at the image edges and be suitable for architectural shots. There are some very exciting designs now coming from Chinese manufacturers and the emphasis here is definitely not on copying existing designs but on breaking new ground with specialist optics that aim for very high standards. So let’s see how this new lens matches up to its aspirations.

Handling and Features

Laowa 12mm F2,8 Top View With Hood

The lens is solid with a metal construction that gives a feel of quality from the start. It is not overly heavy at 609g and is well matched to the Nikon D810 provided for this review. There is a substantial bayonet fit that accepts the dedicated petal lens hood, although the marking on the hood and the Entrance Pupil index mark do not quite align, a minor point as it has no real effect on image quality. There is no filter thread provided because of the bulbous front element. The Entrance Pupil index is an interesting feature and it marks the point around which the lens should be rotated to make multi-shot panoramic images. This saves panoramic shooters having to locate the nodal point manually, which no doubt they will welcome.

The front element is rather bulbous and the petal hood shields it from being too vulnerable. There is a second hood-like flange fixed to the lens that protects the front element should it be placed face down without the main hood being attached. A sensible precaution and a nice touch.

The lens is multi-coated and comprises 16 elements in 10 groups. Three of these elements are ED (extra-low dispersion) glass and two are aspherical. Focusing is via the wide and nicely ribbed manual focus ring. The lens does not rotate nor does it extend as we focus. It has a diaphragm with just 7 blades, but to be fair the nature of ultra-wide lenses is such that this may well be sufficient to ensure smooth bokeh, that is, smoothness in the out of focus areas in an image.

Laowa 12mm F2,8 With Hood On Nikon D810

Focusing is down to a useful 18cm (7.09”), giving a maximum magnification of 0.2x. This represents being able to focus on objects around 5cm (2”) from the front element, which opens up the possibility of some interesting perspective effects in close up photography. There is a helpful depth of field scale behind the bold and extensive distance markings, and finally a conventional aperture ring nearest to the camera body. This works the correct way round for Nikon.

Various mounts are, or will be, available, including Canon EF, Nikon AI, Sony A, Sony E and Pentax K. How these various mounts work with the respective cameras may well vary slightly as there are certainly no electronic contacts on the Nikon AI version, but the AI system does enable the camera to recognise aperture values. In the case of the Nikon D810, these aperture values were one stop out of kilter. f/2.8 registered as f/2 and that differential carried on throughout the range. Of course, as long as we are aware of any foibles like this then we can take them into account.

This has be set against the value of a rectilinear lens that can render straight lines as straight lines whilst covering a staggering 122 degrees on full frame cameras. At one time this would have been impossible, but lens design has moved on and we are seeing some previously impossible things becoming available and affordable to many. For many shots the key to a lens that is so wide is to get in close, then get in closer and closer, because if we stand back all the details in the image will simply be small and uninteresting. The 12mm needs us to get right into a scene and then the amazing perspective that results from the short subject distance can really be appreciated.

Probably the biggest difficulty is the manual focus as there is so much depth of field that seeing the sharpest point is actually very tricky. Fortunately, this also means that we can make extensive use of the depth of field markings on the lens and use the hyperfocal distance to maximise the depth of the areas that will appear in focus. Many of the long range examples were shot using this technique, setting the hyperfocal distance for f/8 but then using f/11 to ensure a higher level of sharpness throughout. This can be applied close up as well.

Laowa 12mm F2,8 Rear Oblique View

Performance

When we look at sharpness we see impressive results. Centrally the lens is excellent from open aperture all the way through to f/16. It tails off very slightly at f/22, but still delivers a very good standard. The edges are, unsurprisingly, slightly behind, but start off at a very good level at f/2.8 and f/4, becoming excellent by f/5.6 and holding that excellence to f/11. Results are still very good at f/16 but do fade to only being fairly sharp at the edges at f/22. This is particularly impressive when we consider that the lens had to be placed very close to the test chart, something that it is not really designed for, and it still managed to excel.

Laowa 12mm F2 8 MTF

MTF

How to read our charts

The blue column represents readings from the centre of the picture frame at the various apertures and the green is from the edges.

The scale on the left side is an indication of actual image resolution as LW/PH and is described in detail above. The taller the column, the better the lens performance.

CA (Chromatic aberration) is amazingly low for any lens, never mind such a wide one. Centrally the figures approach zero and even at the edges barely nudge one third of a pixel. In very demanding shots a slight amount of CA may be seen, but this is unlikely to be noticed and the result is as good as some of  the very best lenses.

Laowa 12mm F2 8 CA

CA

How to read our charts

Chromatic aberration is the lens’ inability to focus on the sensor or film all colours of visible light at the same point. Severe chromatic aberration gives a noticeable fringing or a halo effect around sharp edges within the picture. It can be cured in software.

Apochromatic lenses have special lens elements (aspheric, extra-low dispersion etc) to minimise the problem, hence they usually cost more.

Flare is also well under control and is not evident on any of the shots made against the light. This is extremely important in a lens where the front element is so exposed, so all due credit to the quality of the coatings used.

One of the main features of the lens is its rectilinear properties and distortion is very low at -0.98% barrel. This is much better than most lenses and commendable in one as wide as this.

Bokeh is very much on our minds with modern lenses, but in the case of the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 the emphasis is quite likely to be on extensive depth of field, with sharpness throughout the image. Not necessarily of course, and when there is any defocused background the bokeh is smooth and pleasant enough.

Sample Photos

Looking Up Flare Test | 0.6 sec | f/8.0 | 12.0 mm | ISO 400

Low Light On Guided Busway | 1/320 sec | f/8.0 | 12.0 mm | ISO 200

Ultra Wide Perspective | 1/100 sec | f/16.0 | 12.0 mm | ISO 200

Outdoor Portrait | 1/320 sec | f/11.0 | 12.0 mm | ISO 200

Vintage Portrait | 1/8 sec | f/8.0 | 12.0 mm | ISO 400

Value For Money

The current price of the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 lens is $949/$1,423. When we look at the market we see that there are really very few full frame lenses that fall into the same bracket. The Canon EF 11-24mm f/4 L USM is as wide, but not as fast, and costs £2799/$4,198.

There are a few 14mm f/2.8 lenses, but the difference between that and 12mm is really quite marked. The Canon EF 14mm f/2.8 L II USM is priced at £1599/$2,398, the Samyang 14mm f/2.8 ED AS IF UMC at just £299/$448.

My conclusion is that the lens is more or less unique, delivers the quality needed and is reasonably priced. That price may yet fall with time.

Specifications

Manufacturer Venus
General
Lens Mounts
  • Nikon AI
  • Canon EF
  • Sony A
  • Pentax K
  • Sony E Mount
Lens
Focal Length 12mm
Angle of View 122°
Max Aperture f/2.8
Min Aperture f/22
Filter Size No Data
Stabilised No
35mm equivalent No Data
Internal focusing No Data
Maximum magnification 0.2x
Focusing
Min Focus No Data
Construction
Blades 7
Elements 16
Groups 10
Box Contents
Box Contents No Data
Dimensions
Weight 609g
Height 82.8mm

Verdict

A unique lens, well made, with extraordinary performance. There are those who will struggle with the manual focus, but there are solutions to this with various techniques. There may be other factors depending upon the mount needed. But in this version for Nikon, there’s no doubt that the lens performs exactly as claimed and should give excellent service for a very long time. It has to be Highly Recommended.

(ephotozine.com, http://goo.gl/0jS2xe)

 

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