Laowa 15mm f/4 Wide Angle Macro Review
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There really is no other lens quite like the Laowa 15mm f/4 Wide Angle Macro lens. We’re not commenting specifically on its quality (keep on reading for that), but what it is and what it can do.
First point to note, this is the widest lens with 1:1 macro capabilities. The positively exceptional minimum close focusing distance of 12cm means that it’s possible to position the camera extremely close to your subjects. However, we’re not 100% convinced that an ultra-wide angle lens really shows off the macro world in the same way that a telephoto lens can.
Then there is the shift function of the lens, with a ±6mm shift capability when used with an APS-C format camera (you’ll get vignetting when using full-frame). So, it’s also the widest shift lens offering perspective control that we know of.
For such a lens, the Laowa 15mm f/4 is a snip, at £499. Also, as far as we know it is the only tilt/ shift lens available in Sony A/ E/ FE and Pentax K mounts.
As for Nikon and Canon, price wise the closest lens available is the Samyang TS 24mm f/3.5 which costs £700. Proprietary Nikon and Canon lenses costs anywhere between £1,600 - £3,300. So, the appeal of the Laowa 15mm f/4 lens is immediately clear.
What did we make of the lens after extended use? Read on to find out. For more information and to buy the lens, please visit the UK Digital website.
Ease of Use
The Laowa 15mm f/4 Wide Angle Macro lens is small, solid and crammed full of features. It packs a tilt shift mechanism, manual focus ring, aperture ring and 77mm filter thread all into a mere 82mm length.
Despite its diminutive size, the lens weighs a healthy 465g. That’s because it’s a solid all-metal lens with that tilt shift mechanism and a complex lens construction featuring 12 elements in 9 groups.
The exterior is styled in the same way as the Laowa 60mm f/2.8 2:1 Ultra Macro lens. The all-black barrel features plain white markings denoting minimum focus distance in metres, reproduction scale, aperture and finally depth of field range for the selected aperture and focus distance.
For the hard of sight, all these painted-on markings are particularly small - you’ll need to look closely to check the information on the lens. (And you’ll need to because aperture information is not displayed in-camera.)
Both aperture and focus rings are clearly defined by a bold, ridged profile that could be compatible with some geared follow-focusing systems. The 7-stop aperture ring is small and unclicked, giving a smooth rotation between the f/4 to f/32 range. Ultimately, this lens would work well for video makers.
It takes but a small single rotation to move between f4 and f/32, because the distances between the apertures are so small. These distances further decrease between the more closed apertures, where it is all but a micro adjustment to move between each one. In short, the ring rotates smoothly but requires utmost precision for accurate selection.
A downside to the aperture ring design is that it is quite easy to shift the ring without knowing it, especially when moving the tilt/ shift function of the lens. Unwittingly shifting the aperture ring became a regular occurrence during our test and the first sign would be reviewing an image that is wildly under/ over exposed. The unclicked design will be desirable for some, but still it would be good to have a way to lock the aperture to avoid these shifts.
Again, the manual focus ring only needs a single rotation to go from the 12cm minimum focus distance to infinity. The lens barrel extends by around 1cm when selecting the closest focusing distance. Rotating the focus ring is smooth enough, though there is a slight audible noise as the barrel extends.
The Laowa 15mm f/4 Wide Angle Macro is a manual focus only lens, but we did not miss autofocus during this test. An ultra-wide angle lens is well suited to the sort of work that affords the time and precision of manual focusing. It may be an ultra-wide angle lens, but precision is still needed to acquire a sharp focus. With such narrow focus margins, we found it best to use live view to check for accurate focusing.
There there is the tilt shift function, which offers a ±6mm shift for perspective control when the camera and lens are positioned in landscape format. The function is unlocked by pushing in the silver knob that sticks out of the barrel. It can be a little fiddly to shift and as already mentioned you’ll need to double check the aperture and focus rings afterwards, to make sure they have not shifted in the process. The more pricy tilt shift lenses tend to feature a more user friendly mechanism.
If the camera is in full-frame format, the imaging circle is not contained within the ±6mm shift function, so you will see severe vignetting in the frame. However, select APS-C format where the lens has an equivalent focal length of around 23mm and there is no such observable vignetting.
Back to the macro focusing feature. It is very unusual to have macro focusing on an ultra-wide angle lens. In fact, the Laowa 15mm f/4 is the widest macro lens available. To obtain a 1:1 reproduction scale, the lens has a minimum focus distance of 12cm. Remember these distances are measured from the focal plane and not the front of the lens.
In this case, to focus at the minimum possible distance, the object in question will virtually need to be touching the lens itself, it’s that close. This presents a big challenge, namely not blocking out the light fall on said object with the lens itself, or knocking your subject with the lens.
We tried the lens out in a few scenarios and rarely found we could apply the minimum focus distance with satisfactory results. Our best efforts came when using perspective control.
As for composing images, we found it easiest to activate live view to obtain a bright view. Through an optical viewfinder the display is very dark when using all but the widest f/4 aperture. Even then, the display could do with being brighter in order to see it clearly. However, switch to live view, and this is not a problem.
The lens comes supplied with a petal-type hood. Our review sample did not come with the lens hood, so we cannot comment on its quality.
All in all, the Laowa 15mm f/4 Wide Angle Macro lens is compact, well made and packed with features. Yet in use, it can be a little fiddly. The aperture ring shifts all too easily and we struggled to make the most out of its macro function.
The 15mm focal length gives an angle of view of 110° on a full-frame sensor.
Chromatic aberrations (CA) in the form of green and magenta fringing are not hard to find in raw images that have not had any post capture corrections applied. Such fringing is particularly obvious in the corners of a picture around high contrast edge detail. Go to the centre of an image and the control over CA is much better. These findings are consistent across the entire aperture range, even at f/4 where edge detail can be blurrier and with less contrast.
In order to correct CA using editing software, the values need to be selected manually and may be as much as +5 in order to eradicate the distortion fully. Still, the distortion can be removed. It is rare today to find the distortion so bad that it cannot be corrected in raw format images with relative ease using editing software.
When shooting in full-frame format, light fall-off (vignetting) is present at every aperture, especially so when wide open at f/4 and still at f/5.6. Vignetting is less obvious from f/8 onwards. We have already mentioned how the full-frame imaging circle does not cover the entire picture when using the shift perspective control. In such a case, vignetting is severe.
Things are different when shooting in APS-C format. You’ll only really notice vignetting at f/4 and it’s not that bad. In this format, the imaging circle covers the full image when using perspective control all the way up to ±6mm. Again we’ll say that currently there are no profiles for Laowa lenses in software such as Adobe Lightroom CC, so corrections have to be made manually.
Vignetting at f/2.8
The Laowa 15mm f/4 Wide Angle Macro lens is able to control flare impressively well. Sure it is possible that flare will be present in images, but even shooting towards the sun and slanted from direct sunlight, flare is limited.
Distortion and Perspective Control
Being such a wide angle lens, it is no surprise that barrel distortion is present in pictures taken with the Laowa 15mm f/4 Wide Angle Macro lens. It is too pronounced for our liking, yet the distortion is a little more complex than that too. The type of barrel distortion here is known as ‘moustache’ distortion, meaning there is curvature in straight lines in the middle of the frame, but then the curvature is somewhat corrected in the very corners.
We should point out that moustache distortion only really affects full-frame images. When using APS-C format, those corners when curvature straightens out are not included within the picture.
Moustache distortion is a little harder to correct post capture. If the areas that display barrel distortion are corrected to being straight - which is essentially achieved by applying pincushion distortion - you then see pincushion distortion in those corners that we already straight. It is possible to correct, but it's a longer process.
Distortion becomes even more complex when the perspective control (tilt/ shift function) is applied. Barrel distortion with perspective control is even harder to correct - in fact it may not be possible to correct it satisfactorily.
With moustache barrel distortion present, we wouldn’t recommend using the shift function of the lens for clinically correct geometrical shapes such as skyscrapers. However, for objects such as trees and for more creative effects, it is less of an issue.
It is unusual for a lens this wide to be officially labelled a macro lens. Yes, this is the world’s widest macro lens, with 12cm minimum focusing distance and a 1:1 (life-size) reproduction scale.
As already mentioned, in order to obtain sharp focus for 1:1 magnification, the lens will practically need to be touching the object in question, such are the close distances at play here. The reality then is there are many hindrances to overcome for macro work, not least of which is lighting the subject properly. In most circumstances, the lens itself will be blocking out the light from your subject.
With a bit of practice and a lot of fiddling, we expect it is possible to get some unique images using the macro feature of this lens, especially with perspective control applied.
In order to show you how sharp this lens is, we are providing 100% crops on the following page.