There are multiple stories as to why Laowa are called Laowa. The recently-come-to-prominence Chinese lens-making company itself is called Anhui ChangGeng Optics Co. Ltd., and it trades under Venus Optics. So why Laowa? Laowa, basically, means old or venerable frog. One story relates this name to the first poem writen by a then very young Mao Zedong, his “ode to the frog”. Another one to an idiom in Chinese which means “old frog inside the well”, referring to seeing the world only through the mouth of the well, a very narrow view.
One way to see it is to consider quite appropriate for an elder Frenchman to feel at home with products called “old frog”. The other one is to note the special affinity of Laowa will all manners of macro lenses. Because, in order to feed itself, a frog needs to get very close indeed to its prey, often insects. Get very close indeed, like a macro photographer to its subject, often an insect…..
When it came out, the 58mm macro was a surprise. Laowa already made a 100mm f:2,8 super macro, and a 90mm f:2,8 super macro. So why now a 58mm super macro? In frog-speak, super macro, means a ratio of 2:1, enlarging more than the customary 1:1, and even more than some macro lenses that “only” go to 1:2.
Basically, a 58mm lens promises a wider field-of view than its longer siblings, which may or may not be a plus, depending on the image, but it more importantly delivers more depth-of-field, a key asset in many close-up situations, unless one wants to get involved with the much more cumbersome multi-shot process called focus stacking.
However, there is an important operational parameter to keep in mind when selecting a macro lens focal length. Distance to the subject. Yes, a shorter focal length delivers greater depth of field. Yes, a shorter focal length requires less light to achieve a stable handheld shot. But a shorter focal length requires one to get closer to the subject. For a flower, this may well not be an issue, if the flower is accessible. But for a living creature, it is another matter, as getting close is just what is needed to scare them away…
Which is why, now that I needed a new macro lens, I went for the new 58 (available in Sony, Canon, Nikon and L mounts) rather than another copy of my beloved 100mm f:2,8 a.k.a. Jonathan, or its more recent 90mm alternative. Also, it seemed from the pictures available on the Net that newer Laowa designs outperform their elders, showing that the frog is not so old that it can’t learn new tricks. Thus, I expected to have basically a shorter, lighter, somewhat crisper version of Jonathan, and I called it, sight unseen, Little John. Boy, was I WRONG!!!
Yes, Little John is smaller, lighter, crisper than Jonathan, and it does deliver a wider field-of-view and more depth-of-field. Actually, anything other than that would have meant Laowa had failed to deliver on their basic, factual promises. But as far as other parameters go, Little John is not the heir to Jonathan’s brand of magic. It is an altogether different species.
Macro lenses are designed for close-up shots, to the point that some of them are less-than-ideal at infinity. To do their designated duty properly, they need to be very sharp, detail-and-resolution-oriented, and free of field curvature and other aberrations that would mar proper subject reproduction. Hence their not-so-great suitability at portraits, where a clean, clinical rendition is not the solution of choice.
Yet, Laowa generally give their lenses an anything-but-clinical look. Lovely colours, and a romantic je-ne-sais-quoi, mated with clarity and a good dose of 3D are the common traits of a Laowa lens, and Little John is no exception.
But what sets it apart from other macro lenses is its sheer usability, its shooting envelope. 58mm is close to what is called a “normal” focal length, and 50mm is considered the single most useful focal length. So can this lens also be used for shots other than turning insect heads into 6′ posters? It can, in spades. Because its rendering, or “look”, is first and foremost one of balance between the various parameters a designer has to “play” with: sharpness, detail, colours, bokeh, etc.
The first impression one has, looking at an image shot with Little John, is how clear it is. Not only because of how much detail it reveals, and, believe me, there are lots of detail but maybe even more, because of how each subject-within-the-subject is identified with appropriate colours, textures, shapes, volumes, and spatial positioning. In that sense, it is a lens that attemps to “not be there”, to just be a silent tool, and to to show the subject “as it is”.
Rather than the standard macro look, which is very often dry, even clinical, Little John imbues the images it creates with a warm, happy character that brings a smile to my face as I open the files. So, in a way, it is a macro lens that doesn’t look like a macro.
And this extends to another major item in Little John’s visual signature. Background. Macro lenses are designed not for ambiance, or mood, or holistic images, but for highlighting the subject that is close at hand. Thus, getting the background out of the way matters. As is the case with Laowa’s 100mm lens, and its 90mm sibling. Not so the 58mm. Yes, the shorter focal length is a factor, but I sense that Laowa have gone further than that. They have designed a lens that prioritizes background over bokeh blur, and integration over separation. Oh, sure, you can still do the “bright object amid a dark, blurry rest-of-the-image”, but the lens won’t do it for you as a default look. When I want it, I must work at it, and hope the subject lends itself to it. On the other hand, Little John integrates subject and background in a way very few lenses achieve. Transition from in-focus to out-of-focus is remarkably gentle, and well managed, as is often the case with Laowa.
I could go on and on, but it is best to let images speak for themselves. Suffice it to say that, since taking posession of Little John, it has essentially been the only lens on my camera body, because of its sheer usability. Sure I’d prefer it to be a faster lens. But it would make it exponentially larger, heavier and costlier. There are also some things wrong with it. First, the plastic bits. It is just as well that Laowa make metal-body lenses, because their plastic bits suck. Little John’s lens shade is shockingly bad. How is it possible to make a bad lens shade? Ask Laowa. Obviously, while they indeniably are photographers, because of all the smart choices they make, they never bother using the lens shade, otherwise this one would ge gone, presto! The lens cap isn’t great either. Not that bad, but not great. The other significant weakness is that this lens, like the 100mm, has a good dose -I should say, a bad dose- of focus breathing. Meaning the magnification changes with the focus. Which requires having to recompose as one focuses. No bueno.
On the other hand, Little John shows progress compared to Jonathan in some areas. The 100mm wasn’t great with flare, whereas the more recent lens no longer suffers from it, though it isn’t totally immune to it yet. Similarly, while the 100mm was good with low chromatic aberration, the 58mm is now rated APO, and I could find no reason to challenge Laowa on that statement.
One other area where Laowa show progress, is the focus throw. With the 100mm, it is very gradual indeed in the macro and close-up ranges, but then quite snappy at mid-to-long-range distances. Which is great for the type of shots for which it is designed, but sometimes makes it overly demanding to achieve perfect focus in other usecases. Not so with the 58mm, focus throw is now equally well suited to all shots, which is important in an all-manual lens.
Which leads to another area of “progress”. I write “progress”, because it does not mean the lens is “better”. The 58mm is a lot easier to shoot. That was to be expected, but it is so much better to be able to testify to this, rather than only theorize about it. With the 100mm, it was fairly frequent for me to have to redo a shot more than 30 times to get it really right, and I peaked at 120 shots to get one image. Needless to say, this cost me countless images, because I did not always have the time, the energy and the gall to shoot over, and over, and over, ad nauseam. Not so with Little John. If I have to redo a shot 5 times, I get impatient, at more than 10, I get testy, and I can’t recall having ever gone over 25 iterations. This matters!
Another area of improvement, and an important one, is wide open performance. Because this lens is not immediately bokeh-intensive, I tend to shoot it wide open more often than any other lens I have owned. Some of those were just not that good, or too hard to use, others were just meh. The CV 50 f:1.2 a. k. a. Beep-Beep, for example, delivers great maximum aperture, but at the cost of a not insignificant loss of overall IQ. But Laowa have done their homework. They knew that the limited maximum aperture would tempt users to go for wide open quite often, and they delivered. While performance is not quite as crisp as f:4.0, the drop is among the mildest and best managed that I have come across, making wide open a totally useable option in all usecases. Very bueno. In this post, roughly one-third of all pics are wide open. Like the image of the 2 fire hydrants below. ‘Nuff said….
Of course, discussing a macro lens without showing its macro performance would be ridiculous, right? So here it is. The flower shot is full size, only cropped to square. Focus point on the small “glowing” bits, aperture is f:4.0, handheld. The other shot is what 100% magnification of the same image reveals. Lots of minute detail, but not in-your-face. Each one of the minuscule spheres is substantially smaller than an pin head. This highlights the resolution of this lens, seemingly showing each sensor pixel, not unlike a Zeiss Otus, but a shade less so and with a very different rendering. Which means that not all lenses are equal when it comes to capturing the very high pixel count of modern sensors. In this instance, Pascal J, grand panjandrum of the great House of DS, estimates that the minute spheres visible in the 100% crop are some 10 microns in diametre. And I have other shots where the most minuscule detail is not a sphere, but a hair…. Though, if I had to guess, I would say that, while Zeiss go to great lengths to achieve massive resolution -Otus are rated as good for 80Mp- Laowa in my opinion, achieve slightly less stellar results first and foremost by keeping images produced by Little John free of any distortion or aberration that could mar resolution. But yet without falling into the clinical look that I bemoan (matter of taste, what?) with other macro lenses, like the 65mm and 110mm Cosina Voigtländer. This choice, if I am correct, is all the more sensible as the Laowa cost roughly 20% of an Otus, and 50% of a CV.
One reason Little John reveals more detail than its older, longer sibling is that it is higher contrast. The 100mm is a mild/intermediate contrast lens, sort of halfway between a vintage lens and a Zeiss. Little John on the other hand is more contrasty, which gives it great 3D and detail, but not the dreamy, romantic rendering of Jonathan. Which shows in B&W shots, maybe a little bit too contrasty for my taste….
Higher contrast also translates in more saturated colours than the 100mm’s. Whereas Jonathan’s milder contrast could imbue its images with a slightly pastel look, Little John eschews pastel for punch
So, in conclusion, is that the Jack-of-all-trades lens that we all dream of? Well, yes and no. Mostly yes for some of us, who will end up buying it and fawning over it, and no for others. First, not all of us are happy with all-manual lenses witout full stabilization, electrical contacts or EXIF. The next and key question is not whether this lens is good for close-up and macro. Yes, it is, and then some. But most of us like to minimze the number of lenses we carry around and swap in the field. The more common, longer focal-length macro lenses do double duty as mild telephotos. This one does double duty as a normal lens. So you get great 3D, because it does not compress the image the way a longer lens would. But you do not get subject separation and isolation that a longer lens would get you. Horses for courses. Pick your pleasure.
Last thought as I close. Sony have just released a new version of their 70mm-200mm f:4.0 zoom. A very frequent “workhorse” lens. Very nice range of focal lengths, modern -meaning very good- AF, yet not too large and costly like a f:2.8 “big brother”. Why do I mention it here? Because Sony have given this lens a very unusual capability: 1:2 magnification! Sure, it is not 2:1 super macro like Little John, but that is still enough for 90% of the shots I want, and I am a close-up kind of guy. And Sony manage to hold this magnification range across all focal lengths, which is no mean feat. This, to me, indicates that not only Laowa believe there is demand for lenses that do multiple duty along with the traditional close-up and macro capabilities. But, back to the Laowa 58. Obviously, I recommend it very highly. For me it is close to a single-lens-does-it-all, and it approaches what I would consider the perfect blend of performance and looks, size and cost. The diversity of shots in this post gives taste of that all-round capability. Now if only Laowa translated into bald eagle, rather than old frog…
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