Laowa 100mm f/2.8 2:1 Ultra Macro APO Review
There's nothing ordinary about Laowa lenses and a case in point is the latest addition in the range, the Laowa 100mm f/2.8 2:1 Ultra Macro APO.
Laowa goes one step further over all other true macro lenses in the market and doubles the life-size reproduction with a 2:1 magnification. To get this sort of magnification elsewhere, you'll need alternatives such as reversing rings and extension tubes.
We've seen other 2:1 macro lenses in Laowa's range, including the 60mm f/2.8 tested by us, but this is the first telephoto lens of this kind, featuring a 100mm focal length. Laowa claims it's tack sharp and possesses excellent control over chromatic aberrations, which is exciting for a macro lens.
On the surface, this particular lens with its extra focal length and Apochromat (APO) design is the most exciting macro lens yet from Laowa. At 100mm you get more space to play with between camera and subject, which is particularly helpful when exploring and photographing the vast tiny world out there.
There are no other macro lenses quite like Laowa's and they are incredibly fun to test, while stretching both your technical ability and methodical approach to image making.
The Laowa 100mm f/2.8 2:1 Ultra Macro APO lens costs £469 and is available for Canon EF, Canon RF, Nikon AI, Nikon Z and Sony FE lens mounts. For this test, we used the Nikon Z6. For more information and to buy the lens, please visit www.laowalens.co.uk.
Ease of Use
Laowa has refreshed the look of its more recent lenses, with a signature blue ring around the barrel. The Laowa 100mm f/2.8 2:1 Ultra Macro APO lens maintains a bold retro look though - its solid metal barrel engraved with aperture, focus distance and magnification markings.
There's a good weight to the lens, though at 638g it sits comfortably on a Nikon Z6, which is the camera we used for this test.
It's a long and thin lens, measuring 120mm in length and with a 67mm filter thread. The exterior of the barrel does not extend as you move through the focus distance, but look inside and you will see the floating focus system.
Two major lens groups move separately as focus is adjusted. When set to infinity, the front lens element sits deep inside the lens barrel. Shift to the closest focusing distance and that front lens element moves all the way out to the barrel front.
The Laowa 100mm f/2.8 2:1 Ultra Macro APO is priced competitively, but there is the drawback that it is manual focus only. For its primary use as a true macro lens, autofocus is arguably redundant because it is virtually impossible to autofocus accurately with such a tiny margin for error, so no real problem that it's missing.
Yes, typically you will be setting up your shot methodically and manually focusing for a still subject. However, AF is sorely missed where this lens doubles up as a sharp telephoto optic, such as for portraiture.
On the focus ring there are markings for focus distance in both metres and feet, plus the magnification factor when you get to the closer distances, starting at 1:4.
You get a suitable resistance when rotating the focus ring for smooth transitions and there is the assurance it will stay exactly where you left it. To shift from infinity to the minimum focus distance of 0.25m takes a 90° turn, so you can go from one extreme to the other in a single motion.
To give a little perspective of what a 2:1 macro lens is capable of - objects measuring as little as 18x12mm will fill a full frame sensor (36x24mm) completely. Think a ladybird. We'll give more detail in the Macro section of the review.
The aperture ring is clicked, with seven full stops ranging from f/2.8 to f/22. As you close the aperture down, the distances between clicks bunches up, so it can be tricky to tell which aperture is selected from f/8 to f/22 without a visual check.
Now you may assume that the Laowa 100mm f/2.8 2:1 Ultra Macro APO lens is used more often at its maximum aperture end, but the depth of field in macro photography is so shallow that you often need to stop down from f/2.8 to an aperture more like f/5.6 or f/8 to have any chance of getting sharp detail.
There is no electronic coupling (communication) between lens and camera - as you can see that the metal lens mount lacks electronic contacts. Aperture is, therefore, adjusted on the lens. In our pairing with the Nikon Z6, the camera meters through the lens to provide the right shutter speed and ISO with the selected aperture.
Without coupling, a consequence is that you don't get aperture information displayed in-camera, nor will you get that information in your EXIF (meta)data. If you need to know the aperture setting post capture, or indeed focus distance (and therefore magnification), you will need to manually make a note elsewhere.
While we did not miss autofocus for macro photography situations, we wished that the Nikon Z6 camera's in-body-image-stabilisation (vibration reduction) was available. Compensation for camera shake is massively helpful when working at close distances and its absence is a real shame.
We have also used the Laowa 100mm f/2.8 2:1 Ultra Macro APO for making portraits - any 100mm f/2.8 optic is right at home in this genre of photography. With the lens at its maximum f/2.8 aperture, it is extremely difficult to get tack sharp focusing where it matters most - on the eyes.
Even with a still subject and a good viewfinder and LCD screen like on the Z6, eyes can deceive. To ensure a sharp focus, a good practice with a manual focusing is to take the same shot again and again while making micro adjustments to the focus distance. At least one then should be sharp on the eyes.
Given this lens is pitched at a similar price to like-for-like macro lenses featuring autofocus, it seems there is one key choice regarding handling - whether you'd rather have Laowa's double magnification or autofocus.
So we should get to the selling point of this lens; that 2:1 magnification. Do you need it and does it work well in practice?
Well, behind every sharp image you get, there are many failed attempts. We cannot criticise the Laowa 100mm f/2.8 2:1 Ultra Macro APO lens for this - it's a common challenge for macro photography.
Ultimately, the closer you get to a subject, the harder it is to achieve a sharp macro image. Subjects such as insects can be easily scared off. Slight movements throw the composition and focus way off. Camera shake is magnified. Depth of field is crazily shallow.
You'll need to support the lens to minimise camera movement. A tripod is a logical choice, but can be cumbersome, awkward and time consuming to fix in place. We often opted to shoot handheld instead, but with the arms well supported - that's totally possible at ground level.
Any motion and movement - subject or camera - affects composition but also blurs the subjects. You will need a fast shutter speed to make sure detail is sharp.
Assuming you are able to minimise motion - the breeze has gone, your camera is steady - then there is the issue of reduced light transmission. Shift from 1:1 to 2:1 magnification and you lose about 1-stop (EV) of light.
Then, with such a shallow depth of field, you'll need an aperture of around f/5.6 if you want sharp detail. So, already needing fast shutter speeds and closed down aperture, you are pushing the camera to its exposure limits, often requiring ISO 1600 and higher.
Again, it's not exclusive to the Laowa 100mm f/2.8 2:1 Ultra Macro APO lens, but as you double the magnification, you push the camera two-fold. Overall, the Nikon Z6 could handle the 2:1 magnification admirably.
And we revelled in all of these challenges. It's one thing to make photos, but another thing to be stretched technically and we have loved using the lens. Once you get sucked into the macro world, it's hard to pull yourself away.
In its favour over the 60mm lens, that 100mm focal length does give you more space between camera and subject and in macro photography that is a huge practical advantage. Being a lot easier to use, the Laowa 100mm f/2.8 2:1 Ultra Macro APO lens is the easy choice of the two and, in our opinion, the top pick from the range.
A final, albeit slightly sour note - this lens comes supplied with a decent sized lens hood that is infuriatingly awkward to attach and remove from the lens thread. How hard can it be to design a lens hood that fits on the lens thread securely and smoothly?!
The 100mm focal length gives an angle of view of 24.4° on a full frame sensor.
For our technical tests, we have taken our images in raw format and with all lens corrections turned off to ensure any lens distortions are present. Chromatic aberration (CA) and Longitudinal chromatic aberration (LoCA) are common distortions found in a macro lens.
The distortion is seen as colour fringing in the in-focus (CA) and out-of-focus (LoCA) high-contrast edges, prevalent when using the maximum aperture. But the Laowa 100mm f/2.8 2:1 Ultra Macro APO lens features an Apochromat (APO) design that should tackle the problem.
Laowa has delivered the goods - it's claims of good control over the chromatic aberration (CA) lens distortion are well founded. CA is almost entirely absent and the image included here is with the lens was pushed to the limit. We'll comment more on LoCA in the bokeh section of this review.
Currently, there are no Laowa lens profiles in popular editing software such as Adobe Lightroom CC, so should you need to remove distortions it will need to be done manually. Any CA that you may find will easily be corrected without impacting final image quality.
For our light fall-off tests, we have used the Laowa 100mm f/2.8 2:1 Ultra Macro APO lens in it's minimum focus distance (2:1 magnification) and then set approximately in the middle of the focus ring which is 0.5m (1:4 magnification).
At the minimum focus distance, light fall-off (also known as vignetting) is evident at the maximum f/2.8 aperture, but has a very gradual transition across most of the picture, only to the tune of an approximate 0.6EV light loss. Close the aperture to f/4 and things improve a lot, with light fall-off kept to the corners and no more than 1/3EV. At f/5.6 it's negligible and at f/8 light fall off is gone.
At the mid focus distance, light fall off is kept more to the corners, at no more than 1/3EV at f/2.8 and gradually reducing until it's gone again at f/8.
Mid-telephoto prime lenses are less susceptible to lens distortion. We can see slight pincushion distortion, but you have to really be looking for it and it's easily corrected in post. You are less likely to observe pincushion distortion in real-world macro images.
There is a further consideration here; light transmission. It's not light fall off per se, but a reduction of light intake the closer the focus distance (and higher the magnification).
We took a picture of the same scene with each of the focus distances where maginification is marked on the lens; 1:4, 1:2, 0.75:1, 1:1, 1.5:1 and 2:1 in turn. There is approximately a 1EV loss of light every time the magnification is doubled.
So in that scene on a bright overcast day, an accurate exposure at ISO 400 and f/5.6 was 1/500sec at 1:4, 1/250sec at 1:2, 1/125sec at 1:1 and 1/60sec at 2:1.
To get workable shutter speeds for ultra macro, you will more than likely need ISO 1600 and higher. In a number of instances, 2:1 simply may not be an option because of light loss.
When shooting towards light at the maximum f/2.8 aperture, the Laowa 100mm f/2.8 2:1 Ultra Macro APO lens is severely affected by flare in the form of a bright fiery halo. As you transition down to f/4, you can observe the halo soften and fade until it's almost gone. By f/5.6, that flare effect has gone.
It's down to taste, but we rather liked the dreamy, flushed out effect caused by flare when shooting at a slight off-angle from the sun. (We didn't like the halo!)
Should you use this lens for landscape photography at f/16 (not often we expect), you will get reasonable sunstars; quite clean but not overly long light rays.
This lens is all about the macro. With a 100mm focal length and a minimum close focus of 0.25m, you get a stand out 2:1 magnification - that's Laowa's USP - meaning subjects can be captured at twice their size on the full-frame sensor format. The 1.5x magnification shares the same minimum close focus distance.
This uncropped image show how close you can get to a CF card. At around 18x12mm, a ladybird is a good example of a subject that will fill the entire 36x24mm full-frame format at 2:1 magnification.
We used the lens with a full-frame, 24.5MP Nikon Z6. That resolution produces print sizes of 512x340mm at 300ppi, or 640x426mm at a perfectly acceptable 240ppi. The high-resolution Nikon Z7 is another prospect altogether. In short, you can get large prints of a tiny subject like a ladybird with any loss in quality through the printing process.
Bokeh is the term that refers to the aesthetic quality of out-of-focus areas. The most pleasant bokeh comes by shooting at the maximum aperture end of the Laowa 100mm f/2.8 2:1 Ultra Macro APO lens, with buttery smooth rounded edges, no Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration (LoCA, being colour fringing around the edges) nor 'onion rings' (lined patterns inside bokeh as opposed to smooth).
There is a relatively modest count of seven aperture blades, so the Laowa 100mm lens has its work cut out to produce rounded bokeh. It's possible, especially at the closer focusing distances and up to f/4 aperture, after which we begin to see the polygonal edges.
And while we are on the shape of bokeh, there its the 'cats eye’ effect (bokeh is more eye shaped than rounded), largely kept to the corners. Again, shoot at the closer focus distances and the cats eye effect is reduced.
The good news is that LoCA and onions rings are, essentially, completely absent. So while the shape may not be perfect (although it is good), the look within bokeh is lovely and smooth, without fringing.
In order to show you how sharp this lens is, we are providing 100% crops on the following page.