#904. Minuscule pleasures: the Laowa 100mm f:2.8 macro

By philberphoto | Review

Sep 18

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.

Laowa 100mm f2.8 ultra-Macro in Sony mount (picture by VenusLens, makers of Laowa)

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

Not a macro shot, but much too close for a normal lens to perform.
  1. What can it do for me?

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….

No PP was required/applied other than the standard treament

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.

This is actually what a sharp knife blade looks like when shot a 2:1. Not so sharp, eh? And the DOF is just ridiculous. But it is handheld. Feel the fun factor?

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.

I just love the gentle, elegant, beautiful rendering. Again, not a macro shot, but too close for a normal lens to achieve without cropping except for the square format
And this is a 100% crop of the above

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.

No need for a close-up lens there, but I just love the rendering

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?

This is the shot I would have taken of this flower with a normal (non macro) lens, which I would have needed to crop because the flower wouldn’t fill the screen the way it does here. The shot is strictly SOOC
A 100% crop of the above shot, still strictly SOOC. Details anyone?
This is a different shot, at 2:1 magnification, but uncropped, and still SOOC. It shows how close 2:1 gets to 100% cropping…. But DOF is a lot less than the size of the tiny spidey…

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.

And it does nice B&W too…
 

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  • Dallas Thomas says:

    Philippe, excellent article and the shots are wow produced by you and Jonathan. The rendering is an absolute joy to see. I do feel a GAS attack coming on thanks to you.

  • Sean says:

    Hi Philippe, as you state it may be one that “… is not of the calibre of an überlens.” but the images you’ve crafted with this lens, as shown above, is testament that it’s capable of drawing an image with organic character – not clinical representation; and that’s gotta be a nice thing to exploit, I’m sure.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Philippe, where have you BEEN?

    This “un-review” in our favourite “un-destination” site is so fascinating that I have been forced to draft my comment alongside your post, as I read my way through it!

    I’ll pass on the beer – I grew up in a wine family – but the pursuit of what is pleasureble is inherently fun and appealing.

    No stuff about chromatic aberation, no comparative charts about vignetting.
    Just common sense and practical information!

    An “un-review” which is prose-poetry!

    I have read various reviews of this Laowa, and after reading yours, I am inclined to think they were all written by intellectual snobs. None of them even suggested that this lens is “fun” – they were all about the “technical qualities” and what the “graphs” proved – but of course the graphs don’t take “photographs”. So they end without telling anyone what you can DO with this lens.

    And this post is the opposite – TOTALLY about what you can do with it!

    Can we all gang up on you and pressure you to contribute more articles?

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      ADDENDUM – hmm – does this mean it was meant? I just received another article containing a photo gallery of photos taken with this lens!

    • philberphoto says:

      Pete, thanks for the kind words, they are much appreciated. And, no, you don’t want to know where I’ve been… But I have just received as a gift a spanking new CV 50 f:1.2, so a new review might just happen….

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Philippe,
    I really like your leaves and flowers!
    And the second (2:1) spider – you so nicely caught her(?) lurking!
    – – –

    I consider this lens myself, but I’ve also had an eye on the (newer) Tamron 90mm macro with IS.
    You haven’t perchance any thoughts on that?

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Hmm – tough one, Kristian – both would be nice! I love macro too, and I’ve been circling around this one for a while. But the Tamron is also a fascinating lens.
      You’ll find some great info on the Tamron here –
      https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1233542-REG/tamron_sp_90mm_f_2_8_di.html
      [read the “overview” in full – you need to extend it at the bottom of the first part that opens out]
      and
      https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1233542-REG/tamron_sp_90mm_f_2_8_di.html/reviews
      I originally tried the Nikon 105, but found it wasn’t really sharp enough, so I switched to the Zeiss 100mm Makro. It’s surely sharper, but it’s only 1:2, not 1:1 – and certainly not 2:1, like the Laowa that Philippe is describing.
      Can you look at both of them, on camera, in your camera shop?

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Thanks, Jean Pierre,
        for the links!
        No, I haven’t got as far as trying out, I’m still reading up – I got hooked by Dustin Abbott’s reviews – his review of the coming Kamlan 50mm/1.1 also tempts me, although the Tamron 50mm/1.8 with IS probably is more practical.

        But I’m not in a hurry, the Canon 60mm is OK, and I haven’t yet tried extension rings on my Voigtländer 90mm/3.5 Apolanthar.

        • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

          If you’re looking for a macro, short focal length is a pain – you end up sticking your lens too close to the subject. Insects & reptiles get frightened, perspective goes off and all sorts of other stuff. Before committing to a 50mm macro, you’d want to read up on those issues. Nothing’s ever “wrong” – but not everything is practical or suitable.

          • Kristian Wannebo says:

            Exactly, Jean Pierre!

            But the 50mm lenses I mentioned are for replacing the Canon “nifty” which is good enough only up to ~2.8.

            On my crop sensor M5 the Canon 60mm macro often enough works with perspective though, but I also look for a longer one.(e.g. this Laowa or the Tamron 90mm IS macro).

            ( In some cases the Canon 28mm macro is fun too.)

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Addendum:

        And then there are the extension tubes that take a reversed lens and have a cord with an electric contact to the lenses mount for aperture control – good for *anything* closer than 1:1, so long as you don’t run out of additional rings…and light!

    • philberphoto says:

      Kristian, thanks for the kind words! I wouldn’t presume to try to teach a man of your experience. All I can say is that, as for me, there are many parameters that define a lens, and I have to prioritize but a few in order to make a choice/decision. Regarding the Tamron Vs Laowa, it is fairly easy to separate them. The Tammy is 1:2 and AF, the Laowa is 2:1 and MF. That will trump performance differences IMHO. If you are aiming for many shots very close up, then MF and magnification make sense. If you are looking at not-so-close up and easier to use, then AF beckons. Just my $0.02. Either way, have fun!

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Philippe,
        true enough!

        > “..man of your experience..”
        Oh no, just an on and off amateur.

        > “..trump performance differences..”
        Well, that depends, it would also be an all-round lens for me and performance trumps in my case.
        (After all, extension tubes and reversing a lens can also go far.)

        IS is certainly good for an all-round lens, but I have that in a zoom (around f/4 at that focal length) so I could live without it if I should prefer the non-IS lens – for close macro they say it doesn’t really help anyway.
        ( Also I’m considering one of the Tamron 35mm & 45mm IS lenses which focus rather close and possibly cover the distances where IS is effective.)

        So, would you have any thoughts on performance of the two candidates?

      • Michael Fleischer says:

        Hi Philippe

        The Tamron is actually 1:1, at least the latest version from 2016. It has by the way a
        fantastic rendition of colours (flower petals + leafes looks gordious as well as wood texture) – and it is rather cheep as well.
        It’s main flaw is a little rough/busy background bokeh and
        bokeh out-linings in certain highlight situations…but wonderful vivid
        drawing style IMO! 🙂

        Cheers
        Michael

        • philberphoto says:

          Hi Michael. Thanks for the information. I am glad that there are so many fine choices out there for Sony FE, which, until recently wasn’t exactly the case for macro in native mode. Have fun!

  • Mikael says:

    Aww come on ! Everyone received their copy but me ?! I ordered this lens in July and am still waiting for mine… (Laowa says on twitter they are dealing with engineering issues at the moment)

    I’m glad to see another review however, it is still pretty hard to find.
    What closed the deal for me is the APO side of the lens, I already have the 85mm 1.8 G from Nikon, love it, but the CA is worst than I would like to, and my copy is more on the weaker side for everything close to landscapes. I wanted a nice all manual lens experience, little bit more close focus ability and beside Zeiss I did not found what I wanted, until Laowa showed up. And now that I read this, the wait became harder !

    Regards, Mikael

    • Philberphoto says:

      Sorry to read that, Mikael. For your info, I got mine through official distribution, meaning not from the e-shop, and did order around mid-July, when it was out of stock. At least I hope my post goes to show that this lens is worth the wait…

  • Danny Burk says:

    Hello Philippe! So nice to read you here again, and your accompanying images are lovely. By happy coincidence, I just picked up a copy of the Laowa macro too, and got my first chance to use it yesterday…I look forward to processing the results shortly, but I’m liking what I’ve seen about the lens so far. I await seeing more goodies from you!

    • philberphoto says:

      Hi, Danny! And thanks for the kind words, they are much appreciated. I hope you enjoy your Laowa as much as I do.

    • philberphoto says:

      Hi, Danny. Nice to hear from you too! I read the Laowa 100 thread on FM, and it is nice to see that others concur with my experience. interestingly, I am now playing with a A7R IV, and I thought the sensor would emphasize anything that is “not nice” in a lens that is not perfect. But, so far, I find that it mates wonderfully with the Laowa. I am really glad I took the plunge. Hope you will be as well.

      • Danny Burk says:

        Good to hear your thoughts, Philippe! At the moment I’m without a Sony camera, having replaced the “iii” several months ago with an S1r. I like the latter very much, but I miss the ability to use the Voigtlander 65 and 110 macros and recently decided to get a “iv” so that I can use them. Crazy, maybe, but the urge has become overwhelming!

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Very accurate way to describe this lens, Philippe… this kind of review is deeply useful.
    I have an eye on this lens since a moment; now; in the meantime, I “feel” that my Olympus OM 90F2 Macro is giving me a similar rendering, surprisingly enough.
    But your locker pic got me glued on the screen… it is just so “real”!!!… very tempted, damn!

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