#1075. The vanity lens. Or is it? The truly excellent Laowa 15mm f:2.0, a.k.a. Gargantua

By philberphoto | Review

Dec 30

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.

The mandatory UWA shot. Not exactly indicative of “the short game”

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.

Aha, the game gets shorter….

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.

This, with a 15mm? Uncropped? You gotta be kidding, right?

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.

The one usecase (churches) for which I bought the lens. And it does deliver!

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.

If you got a wide lens, flaunt 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?)

the 2 faces of Gargantua;: the close-up and the deep, wide field of view

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.

When a short MFD and a f!2.0 max aperture let you go shortgaming handheld before dawn

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.

A 15mm for short-game/walkabout/street? I vote: yes!

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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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I can appreciate why you want an UWA for churches – my w/angle is the Otus 28 and much as I love it [even my spectacles have Zeiss lenses!], that’s way too long. Just lately I’ve been pondering whether to get one of the Laowa’s, myself – but as summer is upon us again, and the bees and the skinks and the mantises & dragonflies are all with us again, I bought an AF 105mm macro instead.

    Laowa glass enjoys a good reputation in all respects bar auto-focus. And to be honest, I don’t NEED AF for most of my photography, so I don’t see that as a negative.

    Gauging this one from your photos, the sharpness of the lens seems excellent. The problems of adjusting the aperture can be compensated by adjustments within the camera (shutter, ISO), so not being able to get in between F-stops is not a handicap. Doesn’t vignetting come under control if you stop down?

    Youi imply that some lenses “add” colour, while the Laowa simply “gives what you see”. If that’s a fault, I’m upside down – for me, photography is capturing what I see, and if I found one of my lenses was “adding colour” I’d probably want to rid myself of it.

    Altogether an absorbing and informative post – thanks for sharing all those images, and you8r experiences with this lens, Philippe.

    And as this is the final day of a rather “unusual” year, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish everyone in this group all the very best for 2021. Remember to change diaries, stop quoting “2020” in your dates. At midnight, take care – there’s an auld scots tradition, that whoever you are with at the stroke of midnight tonight is the person you’ll spend most time with throughout next years, so choose your companion for the evening with care!

    Bonne année, auguri pel capo d’anno, feliz año nuevo, Tau Hou hari, bon any nou, Frohes neues Jahr, नववर्ष की शुभकामना, boldog új évet, whatever! – to each and every one of you.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Merci Jean-Pierre! Bonne année à toi aussi 🙂

      And, if you ever find that Otus 28 tiringly long, send it my way 😉 😉 I’ve been longing for one every since my review all those years ago … Truly a masterpiece by Zeiss.


      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Sorry Pascal – fat chance! – I’ve been a “Zeiss junkie” since my first Super Ikonta, in my early teens. By the age of 19 I had a Contaflex, and by 21 I had the Contarex, with all the trimmings, including the Planar they scaled up for one of your Hassy’s, to become the first ever lens on the moon.

        I admit that I traded in all of my film gear to go nuts in digital, but no – I love what I have, even if MF lenses don’t suit other people. I wish I could afford that monstrous 800mm Nikon for some of my more bizzarre stuff (at the opposite extreme from Philippe’s UWA). But I’d have to win Lotto, to buy one – I have just about the same chance of getting one of them, as I have of replacing my piano with a Fazioli!

  • Ian Varkevisser says:

    You have taken to this lens like a duck to water – looks like a match made in heaven from the images shown. Stunning results. I have always enjoyed the challenge of shooting street photography at 10mm on an APSC sensor – with total disregard to the distortion. It introduces a rather interesting point of view to street photography.

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