Minuscule pleasures. I owe this notion to Philippe Delerm’s book: “The first gulp of beer and other minuscule pleasures”. It encourages me not to overlook what is pleasureable, however small, banal and mundane.
This is not a lens review in the conventional sense. Others do this far better than I ever could. For me, all I need to know about a lens are 4 things, so here goes
The shooting envelope of a lens is the first question I need answered. A wide shooting envelope means fewer lenses are required to let me do pretty much all I want. That is valuable! The Laowa’s shooting envelope is very wide indeed, bordering on the huge. Many macro lenses are optimized for close up, and images at infinity suffer, relatively speaking. Not so this lens. Obviously very much at home close up, but you’d be hard pressed to see anything untoward at infinity, including on architecture shots. And close up, the Laowa is not just a macro lens, it is a “super macro 2x”, so it actually goes larger than life with a 2:1 ratio. Beyond that, it does very well whatever a civilised 100mm “short tele” is supposed to do, including portraits, all the way to landscapes. But of course its primary use is close up. Opening up all manners of opportunities for capturing details, small things, the small world we live in. Call it bonsai photography, or Lilliput photography. As for me, I love it. Plus, that is one of my hiding places when weather and light go sucky, like sort of now… The other limitation some macro lenses suffer from is rendering. In order to show the combination of detail and sharpness that macro lovers crave, their rendering is sterile, borderline clinical. And who wants a borderline clinical portrait, unless it is of your mother-in-law-cum-math-teacher? Not so the Laowa, graced with a delicate, somewhat painterly rendering, which can easily be taken towards the romantic. Which means it lends itself to a very wide variety of subjects….
2. Is it fun to use?
Especially with macro lenses, the shooting experience is super important. Because shooting very close up means very thin DOF indeed, and thus many attempts before one gets a shot absolutely right. Even more so when dealing with a MF lens,which is the case of the Laowa. So, if shooting the lens is less than fun, shooting it many times over and over again rapidly makes masochism feel like an attractive alternative. So, how does the Laowa score on useage fun? Average, I’d say. First, it is not light, at 638g. That is sort of halfway between the lighter Sony 90mm macro f:2.8 G and the heavier Cosina Voigtlander 110mm f:2.5, two obvious competitors in the Sony space. Second, it is carried over from a DSLR design, meaning that, for Sony, it has a bit of idle metal making it longer and heavier than it need be. But it also means that there are Canon and Nikon DSLR versions of this lens. Third, it has no electrical contacts (except in Canon mount), so no EXIF. Fourth, it has massive focus breathing, so the magnification factor changes as you focus, and you can’t just compose and then focus. You need to adjust the 2 factors at the same time, which takes a bit of getting used to. Lastly, the focus throw is absurdly short, and I can’t but feel that a longer throw would have been easier for users. On the plus side, it is an all-metal construction that feels very well put together. The focus throw, while very short, is very accurate and just a bit stiff, which is how I like it. Beware, on the other hand, the aperture ring is almost clickless, so it can be moved unwillingly. What mitigates all the above are (a) it is not an expensive lens, at roughly half the cost of the Sony or Voigtlander, and even less than half of the Zeiss Milvus 100mm f:2.0. And (b), it seems that Laowa have very cleverly saved money but without ever stepping over the line that would make their lens unpleasant. Just look at the next 4 words my my text: they couldn’t apply if I groaned at the thought of using this lens, let alone spend money for it.
3. What about image quality?
I just love it. Sure, it is not of the calibre of an überlens. When you look at 100% crops, you do not see the sort of ultra-fine “grain” that Zeiss Otus produce, nor the ultimate elegance and class of a Leica M Summilux 50. That is about all that’s negative that I can throw at it. Not bad for a lens that cost less than 1/6th of those I have just mentioned. For me, IQ is easily judged. Mostly, it works like this. I see something in the EVF and/or the back LCD of the camera as I take a shot. How good does it then look when I open the shot on my computer for PP? And, even more, when I crop 100% to check for proper focus. Some lenses promise in camera more than they deliver on screen. Those are the bad ones. Others keep their promises, those are the good ones. Some, not many, deliver more than I expect, bringing a big smile to my face. Those are the ones I want to own, and the Laowa is one of them. Basically, few if any bugaboos are visible. Belay that: it has some loss of contrast wide open, as so many other lenses do, and it can flare more than I’d like, but not more than I can handle. On the plus side, it is massively sharp and detailed, one expects that from a macro lens, but with a gentle , relaxed rendering that highlights the beauty of a subject rather than its dry characteristics. Think of it as the look that an (honest) advertising agency would like to see: flattering without outright lying. In that sense, it is less neutral than the Voigtländer or Canon macros, and much less clinical than the Zeiss Makro. It reminds me of the Leica 60 Elmarit R, or the Sony 90. And when I avail myself of its powerful magnification, it makes me discover the World of the Small in a way that I never knew existed, so that is a very unique image quality indeed.
4. What does it lead/inspire me to do?
I have had good, even great lenses that I have hardly a shot to remember them for. Think Contax-Zeiss 35-70, or Leica R 80 f:1.4. That is because they rubbed against my grain so much that I hardly ever put them in my daily bag, let alone used them. Others have made themselves so useful/delightful/rewarding that I never left home without them. That does not mean they were great lenses. Think Zeiss ZE 50 f:1.4 and ZE 85 f:1.4.
I have not had a single love story with short teles, except for the Zeiss above, and none with macro lenses, though I have owned some pretty fine lenses in that realm. Contax G 90, Leica 75 APO Summicron, Canon 100 f:2.8 macro and L 135 f:2.0, Zeiss ZE 100 Makro, Sony 85 GM f:1.4. Two lenses almost made the “loved” list, but not quite, through I admired them greatly, the Leica Elmarit 60 Makro f:2.8, and the Zeiss ZE 135 f:2.0 APO. With that as a history, you think that I am quite verrückt to buy another short tele-cum macro, and you are right -not! I cannot say that the Laowa supersedes the performance of any of the above lenses, yet it inspires me to do more. I now have to wonder whether it is not my one-lens-only lens because it invites/incites me to do so much. Much that I like, much that is beautiful -even if not ultimately überperfect-, much that is fun. Is that not what matters most? More than MTF curves? More than performance, even?
Kudos to Laowa, they know how to make a lens that puts a smile on my face.
PS: pseudo-technical how-to with the Laowa 100. Just a few observations. It does not garner light like a Zeiss lens. When I bring it to ETTR exposure in Capture One, it already over-exposes some areas, which is new for me. So I am extra-careful with that exposure slider (I routinely under-expose in camera to make sure I don’t burn any highlights, however small). Shutter speed needs to be rather higher than I would have thought to get best sharpness. Maybe the Sony IBIS algorythms aren’t quite as good for macro as for more common distances. Focusing: the best way for me is not to try to compose and then hold my focusing distance and play with the focusing ring, the way I would with other lenses. The focusing throw is too short for that, sort of the opposite of Zeiss Otus. On the contrary, I focus roughly for proper composition, and then advance or pull back in minute increments until and am in focus, and then shoot. Technically, the DOF is often so thin that such micro-movements happen anyway, so, if you can’t eliminate them, why not make use of them?
Oh, and lenses I love get names. So the Laowa is now Jonathan. For Jonathan Swift, who wrote of Gulliver and the minuscule Lilliputians. So, yes, I recommend the Laowa highly indeed, as long as one understands that MF macros are not handed to you on a platter, they are [easily enough] earned.
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