Not many victims of conspiracies live to tell their stories, but I do. Ever since I announced that I was retiring from my photo hobby, I have been subjected to a combination of attacks and manipulation. In command of this are the 2 Pascals. The one that you know, and a brother of mine also called Pascal.
The purpose of this is “to bring back the Philber”, whatever this means.
Phase n°1, led by DS-Pascal (or DSP for short) was to cajole me, flatter me, humour me, in a word manipulate me into thinking that I was a great photographer suffering from a temporary case of hurt because of gear theft. Slowly, I went about resurecting old gear that I had lying about (a NEX 7 and a couple of lenses), and Pascal has never been so fulsome in his praise. So carrying a modest – in weight as well as in quality- bag of gear became standard practice. If Pascal were to be believed, (he is not, of course, we all know that), great picture after great picture flowed effortlessly from that starting point. The hook had been baited!
Phase n°2, led by B-Pascal (for Brother Pascal), made me go back to my local photo-shop, where he bid me buy a Sony A7III for him, and advise him on lenses. He is the person who got me started on my modern photography course, years ago, so it was hard to deny him. He asked me: “if you rebuilt a system, what would you buy?” This, considering that I am still sensitive to GAS-bacteria, sent me thinking, and looking at lenses and websites, toying with the idea. The prey was hooked!
Phase n°3 involves my friendly photo-shop owner. I bear him no ill will, as he is merely a paid hand in this conspiracy. It seems all good conspiracies must have at least one such shady character. As I went to collect B-Pascal’s Sony, he showed me some Laowa lenses he was thinking of -maybe- distributing, and asked me what I thought of them. I mumbled a few platitudes, and then he sank his sword deep into the proffered flesh. Care to try one and let me know? How about this 15mm f:4.0 macro in FE mount? I -the victim- was like an addict who falls off the wagon. I tried the lens, and then 2 more, a 12mm f:2.8, and a 105mm f:2.0 STF. On my 7-year old NEX7, how daft is that?
Phase 4: the deed is done, and closure is reached. Master puppeteer DSP ones again takes to the stage. Having set wheels in motion, it is up to him to conclude this sorry tale. As I traded pictures with him, and he cooed sweet nothings about my test shots, he intoned in a mellifluous tone: how about a review in DS? I was trapped! Is my future to live as a slave to photography?
So here is my tale of woe. Call it from Zeiss Otus to Laowa, how the mighty have fallen -or have they?
Laowa are one of a gaggle of Chinese lens makers that have sprouted up recently, most of them with lenses for the Sony A7 system. Think also Meike, Mitakon, 7Artisans…. 2 strategies are open to them. Either compete head on with the offerings of the OEMS, and issues “standard” lenses, hoping to prove that they “build a better mousetrap”. In this case, better, often means not quite as good but for much less money. Or they can come up with something different. Niche products where there is no direct competition. That is the path chosen by Laowa, with almost counterintuitive offerings, like a 15mm f,4,0 macro with shift, or a 12mm f:2.8 boasting “zero-distortion”, or a 25mm f:2.8 ultra-macro, with enlargement up to 2,5x to 5x. All of them with prices below or around the 1000€ mark, which, for lenses with all-metal construction and impressive specs, is, if not dirt-cheap, rather inexpensive. The closest competition that comes to mind is Samyang, though with -generally- higher prices and better specifications than the Korean company.
So how do they measure up, this coming from a guy who couldn’t bear the thought that he had less-than-state-of-the-art lenses? First the bad news. Laowa did a quick-cheap-and-dirty job of creating FE mount lenses. They are obviously DSLR designs simply ported over, with a bit of metal to compensate for the short mount. They also have no electrical contacts, hence no EXIF. Cheaper and easier that way, no doubt. Then the haptics. Thinking that all-metal construction equates with the buttery-smooth silky feel of a Summilux and the total precision of an Otus focusing ring isn’t happening. Laowas feel like what they cost. North of entry-level, south of premium products. Add some quirks, like very long focus throws when one wonders why, and sometimes the opposite where a longer throw might have made matters easier. Still, I don’t think I ever missed focus because of this, so, while they don’t win prizes, haptics do work out adequately. Being full-manual, they sport aperture rings, which can be de-clicked if that is what one wants, for video mainly.
Just as their prices are intermediary, sitting between entry-level and premium, so does their weight. At around 700gm they are no featherweights to be sure, but also not boat anchors like the better lenses of today, which start north of 1kg.
Now to IQ. The first lens I used was the 15mm f:4.0 macro with shift (it shifts only on APS-C lenses, mind). Boy, did I have fun! This lens focuses crazy close, because its MFD is 12cm, but that includes the sensor-to-front element distance, so the lens essentially sits touching the subject. That, of course, requires stable operation, handholding at that closeness is beyond tricky. But the unexpected trait is the bokeh. Lovely bokeh and bokeh shots from a 15mm!! The first 6 shots in the post are from the 15. Overall, I’d call it a very good lens. Nothing much wrong with it, and a lot that is right. Detail, sharpness, contrast, colours, rendering are all above expectations. Can’t say about corner sharpness, as I used a APS-C camera..:-(. which did let me test that it does shift successfully and without fuss. The best part was the fun I had with it, how it would lead me to try things, to go overboard. But without falling into the “gadget” category of, say, a Lensbaby or even a fish-eye. This is a serious lens with extra capabilities. If you care for these, I’d recommend you try one out, it is that good. The top 6 pictures were shot with it.
Then I tried the 12mm, and to be honest, after the 15, it was a letdown. Smaller, lighter, faster, still capable of focusing to 18cm, my lust factor was high, but this lens didn’t rub me the right way. It was just as “meh” as you expect a “Chinese copy” of years past to be. Focusing was difficult. Focus throw wasn’t intuitive, and, worse, results were not that impressive. Yes, it can do close-ups, but the reason Laowa don’t call this a macro lens is that, up close, results aren’t that cool. And bokeh, the most visibly remarkable trait of the 15, is nowhere as clean as the shot of the white rose shows. Yes, it is not bad, and not that expensive, and well specified, so I shouldn’t be too harsh. But if results are neither impressive nor clean nor fun, what else if there? The next 6 shots were shot with it.
But the darling of the 3 is the 105mm f:2.0 STF. Simply put, the IQ is a delight. Painterly rather than calling attention to its sharpness, sweet, beautiful, surprisingly charming. Lovely bokeh, gorgeous colours, mild contrast, good spatial rendering, I am not sure it is quite neutral, but, when a picture is beautiful, does it matter that much? When considering whether it measured up to my yardstick, Zeiss lenses, I would say that the 105 pictures (the next 7 in this post) fall easily in that category for loveliness. But, when peeking at 100% (NEX 7 pixels are small, thus tough on lenses), the blown-up details aren’t quite as nice. With a Otus, a ZM 35 f:1.4, a Elmar 24 or a ‘Lux 50, crops feel like masterpieces in their own right. With the Laowa, they feel like the natural building blocks to the total image. Nothing wrong with that, of course, just, not quite the same.
Overall, I am quite pleasantly surprised with my quick test of Laowa lenses (the company is called VenusOptics). That I could have fun shooting them on an elderly camera (poor EVF, poor LCD by today’s standards), and come out with pics, some of which I like very much speaks volumes. Not only about the ability of Chinese companies to turn out “serious” products and quality, that is now a well-known fact. But Laowa lenses tell me that the people who make them know and love photography. That means so much more…
Would I/will I buy one? Well first, sorry for the well-meaning conspirators, I am not ready to get back on my horse and buy. But, if I were, I’d say I probably wouldn’t buy a Laowa for a mainstay lens, say in the 25-to-85 focal range for fast primes. But would I buy one or the other as a niche add-on, like the 15 or the 105? Without any hesitation. And, for a new manufacturer, as far a I am concerned, that is praise indeed.
PS: as I went back to the shop to inform of my findings and return the 3 lenses, the owner offered one more lens to try out, a 15mm f:2.0 ( 8 pics, from the shutter handle on down). This one appears to be a genuine Sony-mount design, not just ported over from DSLR. Thus it is more compact and lighter. I had trouble with it before I understood (or at least I think I do) what Laowa are doing. Like the 15 f:4.0, it has lovely bokeh (it better have, because why else, other than low light situations, buy such a fast lens?), but its really close-ups looked just a bit “meh” like the 12mm, only less so. Not bad, mind, not bad at all, just not that good, and it does focus closely (MFD is 15cm including lens length). But give it a wider birth, say from 50 cm on outwards, and it looks really, really nice. So, what gives?
This lead me to an interesting find: the 15mm f:2.0 has a very rapid transition from sharp (very sharp) to blurry (very blurry). This means, you are either in focus or not, and you need to focus very accurately, something not always helped but the short focus throw towards infinity. This is sort of unexpected with such a wide lens. But once you know how to use it to its strengths, the 15 f:2.0 does deliver very satisfying IQ up close. Even really close. That is, if you like shots that are really sharp and really blurry, with not much transition between the two. Not exactly veiled-dreamy, if you see what I mean.
So, how does the 15mm f:2.0 perform? First, I like its size and weight, its speed, its bokeh. Where it surprised me is that it has a more contrasty look than its siblings. Whereas the other 3 are mild, contrast-wise, this one is up there with the Zeiss. Yet it does retain smooth bokeh. Not quite as smooth as the delightful 15mm f:4.0, but close, and much, much better than the 12mm). A very contrasty UWA can be tricky, because it becomes so easy to blow out highlights in such a large field of view (and I was “only” using part of it due to my small sensor). In that sense, a milder contrast can be a useful trait for such a lens.
On the other hand, the 15mm f:2.0 does exhibit the “good sides” of a strong contrast. It looks sharp, detailed, with strongly-etched shapes and good colour differentiation. Whereas I complained earlier on that 100% crops of the 3 lenses first to be tested weren’t as much of a feast on the eyes as those of an überlens, the crops of the 15 f:2.0 were almost there.
That it is the lightest and inexpensivest (I can’t really say cheapest) of the lot gets it on my recommended list. All the more so as a lens should be judged but what shots it inspires you to take, and the 15 was fun, and its shots (for me at least) reflect that.
Whither from here? I have not decided to get back into photography, conspiracy or not. And, if I do it will not be with the same goals and on the same terms. Having a lighter kit is so much better that I have forsaken any idea of going back to a heavy one. On the other hand every time I look at pictures taken with the Otus (not by me), I drool. So no solution here for now.
But if I did rebuild a system, I could consider buying either the 15 f:2.0 and/or the 105. The 15 is a great church and low-light lens, and a solid all-round UWA. It doesn’t weigh a ton and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Besides, what other options are there? Heavy zooms (no! – see above), heavy Zeiss Milvus (the same), and the Voigtländer 15. That one is quite slow (f:4.5), and apparently had QC issues (many reports of some bad copies, at least in the early stages). So, should I go the route of a UWA, Laowa is “it”. I prefer the f:2.0 over the f:4.0 for its smaller, lighter, faster package, despite the lovely mellowness of the slower sibling, and its awesome very-very-close-up performance.
I would also love to get the 105, despite its weight (750g, ugh!) and complexity (the extra STF feature). The shooting experience it offers is not the best, but I have never used a lens that produces the gentle, classy, painterly images this one does. This is a lens that imbues its pictures with an almost poetic quality, and I’d love to be a poet. The images are not neutral, but oh, so beautiful. And who says a poet has to be neutral?
Should other lensmakers be worried? Will there be an irresistible tidal wave of Chinese lenses taking over the market as they have with other manufacturing based products? Quite possibly. In my opinion, the Laowa “range” reflects a young company, testing the market, feeling rather than knowing how to position its products, not yet having the know-how of more experienced players. But the raw talent is there, and, given a bit of time, persistence and a willingness to learn, they could be a major force, at least in the MF segment. By the way, they have just announced their first zoom, a 10-18mm…
A last word. This is in no way a full review, more of a “first date”. FF lenses shouldn’t be tested with 7-year old crop bodies. What about flare, coma, CA, SA, MTF, yadda, yadda, yadda? I have all the more respect for people who carry this out as I can’t stand the idea of spending so much time testing. So apologies to all who feel I have taken too many shortcuts. But first dates still leave a lot to be discovered, don’t they?
PS. Like every conspiracy, this one isn’t over ’til it’s over, ’til the deed is done, and the body already cold and stiff, which I ain’t just yet. At least for the cold part. So the shop owner felt a coup-de-grace had to be delivered. “Oh, and by the way, I took in a Sony A7 II from a client upgrading to the delightful A7 III. Wouldn’t you want to borrow it and try the 2 lenses you like on full frane, for which they were designed?”. By then my will if I ever had any, was shattered, and the GAS bug had spread to all my decision-making organs. My mind, my heart, and my… well, you can figure that one out, surely. So here are some pics with an A7 II FF camera. All with the 105, except the obviously wide one, with the 15.
In short, I am undecided over the 105. Yes, the pics are a pleasure, and the IQ is right up there. But the haptics and weight don’t do it for me, and the time when I’d overlook such earthly factors in favor of more exalted ones, that time is gone, never to come back. The competition is the Zeiss Loxia 85. Not as long, not as fast, not as heavy, not as large, not as full of charm, more neutral, offering a more pleasant shooting experience. Lots of plusses and minuses either way…
On the other hand, the 15 gets the nod. In full frame, there is just more goodness to be had from that lens than on crop, and the negative factors that mar the shooting experience with the 105 are just not there. There is some logic to this, as this is the one design optimized for the Sony mount and camera. Should Laowa decide to do a 105 in such an optimized package, then I would probably swing my recommendation to the very positive assessment its IQ deserves.