Vanity of vanities, all is vanity in my photography, because so much of it is about me. My recent post on the “short game” underscores how this sort photography speaks to me because it lets me put more of my imprint on images than other genres.
So it is logical that, after having filled the middle focal lengths in my bag, I would be drawn to one very likely to produce vanity images, as so ably demonstrated on DS by Pascal Ollier and Dallas Thomas, and, before them by Pascal J. The ultra-wide angle. But, whereas both Pascal O and Dallas go whole hog and use a 12mm, I wimped out and limited my ambition to a 15mm.
This all the more so as I am really not a wide-angle guy. I owned an APS/C 10-22mm, a 15mm FF fisheye, and have few keepers to show for it. Later on, I owned two 21 mm, both excellent Zeiss lenses, and again, I felt that the lens’ ability went way beyond my skill in using them.
I had tried the Laowa 15mm f:2.0, and liked it, but it was a time of lean photography for me. But now I was ready for action. First I had to decide between it and their new 15mm f:4.5 shift lens, and I thought speed would serve me better than shift. So the 15mm f:2.0 it is. This also ruled out the CV 15mm f:4.5, as too slow for my purpose.
In a nutshell, the Laowa is everything I bought it for. It is wide, and it is fast. And, in line with other Laowa lenses, it delivers not only really excellent IQ, but also, it does it in a very IQ-friendly way. When there are weaknesses, they never offend the viewer or hurt the picture, as other lenses might. That said, don’t think that you are getting everything a überlens delivers, and with an extra stop of speed, and for half the money. What I feel I am getting is delicious-but-not-totally-state-of-the-art IQ, with a very wide (pun intended) shooting envelope, and niche applications and speed thrown in for free. It is built well, all-metal, but not in the Otus-Milvus class. It has no electronic connections, so no automatic adjustment of IBIS, nor EXIF. And it cost less than 1000$/€. Overall, compelling, outstanding VFM. Good enough that it immediately got a name: Gargantua. The Rabelais character with a humongous appetite. Because this lens eats up anything you throw at it.
The key to this is the very short minimum focusng distance: .015m, or 0.5ft. Meaning the front lens is 5-6 cm from your subject. Let me tell you, this lens is a close-up demon. And close-up shots do not suffer from the very pronounced keystoning one gets in architecture shots with any 15mm lens that doesn’t provide shift (another Laowa 15mm does). Close-up photography seems to be a favorite of theirs, because this lens, close up though it gets, is not their macro offering, they have yet another 15mm f:4.0 macro that gets even closer, and also offers shift for APS/C (how clever is that! -or not?)
What is it then that prevents this excellent lens from being anointed with DS’s coveted label of “überlens”? On the physical side, the absence of electronic contacts can turn some away and disappoint others. Its aperture ring only moves in 1-stop increments, rather than the finer 1/3 or at least 1/2-stop steps. And while it feels solid enough and well built, it does not have the jewel feel of the better Leica and Zeiss that cost upwards of twice as much.
On the image quality side, this lens is typical of Laowa lenses in that it displays detail and colours more than sharpness. Not that it is unsharp in any way, just it does not flaunt it and cannot be used as a substitute for a razor. Also, it vignettes heavily wide open, which is not surprising for such a fast and wide design that remains manageably light and compact, unlike for example the one-stop-slower 15mm Zeiss Milvus. The Voigtländer 15mm is smaller and lighter yet, but it is a f!4.5 rather lens than f:2.0. Lastly, also in line with other Laowa designs, the 15mm does not particularly shine at flare resistance, a feature which can be useful more often than not because of the wide field of view.
So, what is the usecase for Gargantua? First it will do what any UWA should: encompass a wide expanse of landscape or city scene, or a large church space. It does it handily, but without “over-beautifying” or “spectacularising” the scenes, the way a Zeiss Distagon 21 might. In that sense, it has shown itself to produce less of a systematic “wow!” effect than I might have expected, but also to be a lot less tricky and one-trick poney than I had feared. And I’ll take neutrality and versatility any day over beautification, though others can feel otherwise.
In actual use, as soon as you get your subject closer than 2m-3m, you may be surprised at the less-than-bottomless DOF. At 1m, which it handles with ease, Gargantua at f:4.0 will not give you a whole small leaf in full focus, so getting that right does matter, as does bokeh. Said bokeh which is not, obviously, as creamy and smooth as that of longer lenses, but really excellent for what it is, enabling full use of the lens’ possibilities without worrying about undue shenanigans.
In conclusion, the Laowa 15mm f:2.0 is a very solid performer, especially for the money/weight/speed. But that is only part of its attraction. Where it really shines is in making it easy for a non-UWA shooter to use, and enjoy. And that, in my humble opinion, is huge. As a result, while I thought it would be in my bag some 20-25% of the time, for landscape and churches mainly, it remained glued on my camera for a full month, and I never felt the need to change. And even now that I have started using other lenses again, I’ll not leave home without it. That is how good it is!
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