Slowly but surely I am upgrading the lenses in my kit to be full-frame compatible. Longtime readers of my site already know I sport a deep collection of Nikkor AI-s lenses, ones that I could easily adapt to a full-frame a9000 or the like. As time goes on, however, I begin to notice the problems the old optics exhibit almost universally: low sharpness/contrast wide-open, mediocre flare performance, and relatively pronounced chromatic aberrations at larger apertures. I’m starting to see the benefits that modern optical formulas can provide where vintage lenses can rarely match.
With the Laowa 15mm f/2, I have found my wide-angle option to cement itself as part of a full-frame-ready kit. Featuring a native E-mount optical design, the compact and fast lens feels right at home even on an a6500, and performs quite admirably all-around. Does the lens perform up to its steep price point compared to the competition? Let’s take a look! As always, if you are unfamiliar with my lens review style, check this post first!
Full Name: Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/2 Zero-D D-Dreamer
Dimensions: 2.6 inches/66mm wide, 3.2 inches/82mm long, with a relatively light weight of 18 ounces/500 grams. Another inch and a couple ounces are added with the metal hood, lens is only available in E-mount currently.
Close-Focus: Marked at 15cm, and you can’t get any closer. This provides a maximum 1:4 magnification ratio for some seriously close-up shots.
Miscellaneous: 9-bladed aperture stopping down to f/22, 72mm metal filter thread, manual focus only, 90 degrees of focus rotation, aperture de-click switch, metal mount, metal lens hood, entrance pupil marked on lens body
Closest Competitor: Sigma 14mm f/1.8 via MC-11 adapter, coming in at almost twice the price. The lens is huge, heavy, and requires third-party solutions for filters, but it is a bit wider, faster, and probably sharper edge-to-edge than the Laowa 15mm f/2. If only shooting APS-c, the Rokinon 16mm f/2 is a budget alternative. Sigma has also announced development of a 16mm f/1.4 that promises great performance for APS-c mirrorless cameras as well.
So far my hands-on experiences with Venus Optics’ lenses have been very pleasant. It isn’t hard to believe that they looked to the build quality and all-metal construction seen from vintage lenses like the Nikkor AI-s’. Don’t let the “Made-in-China” moniker fool you, lenses like the 15mm f/2 and 105mm f/2 STF are built to last.
Compared to my old wide-angle standby, the Rokinon 16mm f/2, the Laowa 15mm focuses smoothly, mounts tightly, and takes up far less space both in hand and stowed in the camera bag. Considering that the lens covers about the same focal length and can completely project across a full-frame sensor, it goes to show just how much unnecessary space a mirrorless-only optical design can remove. So, how does this compact optic fare against my four pillars of shootability?
- Small size? You bet! Even without taking the lens’ coverage of a full frame sensor at such a wide angle and fast aperture into account, the Laowa 15mm f/2 is a very compact lens even on the APS-c a6500.
- Light weight? Somewhat. At a little over a pound, the lens is already a bit heavier than the a6500 itself. This is thanks to the metal construction and complex optical formula inside. However, since the lens is so short, the weight sits nicely in the hand.
- Smooth operation? No doubt! Not only is the focus ring damped well, the aperture can be de-clicked at will for smooth exposure adjustments for video work. The metal lens hood locks into place nicely as well, while the metal filter ring keeps filters from binding.
- Favorable optical performance? Especially so! Though it is to be expected at this price point, the Laowa 15mm f/2 provides an excellent optical experience on the demanding a6500 sensor, with only a couple minor issues.
Initial pre-orders of the lens came with three Laowa filters (you might be able to order them separately if placing an order directly with Venus Optics), a UV, ND 1000, and a slim circular polarizing filter. I have yet to use them extensively, but initial tests show they are at the very least decent in optical quality.
As a little bonus comparison, take note of the Laowa 15mm f/2’s size compared to the Rokinon 16mm f/2 with its needed adapter:
I had high expectations for the Laowa 15mm f/2 ever since I saw the pre-production copy at CP+ 2017. Though at the time a somewhat far-fetched idea, I hoped the lens could provide a high-performance shooting experience at a small size with an optical design specifically made for Sony’s E-mount. Fast-forward a few seasons and the production copies do not disappoint. Though only tested on an a6500, the compact full-frame optic scores high marks in sharpness, flare, and distortion. Small issues such as lateral chromatic aberrations are normal for wideangles and can be edited out anyway.
Sample photographs come from three photo outings around Yokohama, Kurihama Flower Park, and at Fuerza Bruta’s Wa! in Shinagawa.
On the pixel-dense a6500, the Laowa 15mm f/2 does a great job at rendering detail in spite of the proximity of the rear element to the sensor. Wide-open, the lens is already nearing the sharpest it gets, with a small amount of veiling haze robbing contrast. By f/2.8, resolution and contrast peaks! By f/4, diffraction begins to rob contrast, and the effect noticeably affects sharpness by f/16 and beyond.
The corners show a slightly different story. Thanks to vignetting and the pixel density of the a6500, sharpness and contrast is a bit lower wide-open. By f/4-f/5.6, sharpness and contrast peak in the corners at a very good level. Diffraction only comes into play by f/22, where sharpness and contrast take a noticeable hit. Important to note on this lens, there is zero corner-smearing at all apertures, a welcome sign compared to the Rokinon 16mm f/2 that suffers from it. On a full-frame sensor, the lens may be a tad sharper on less pixel-dense cameras like the Sony A7.
The Laowa 15mm f/2 exhibits zero focus shift, and doesn’t seem to show any signs of field curvature, a nice plus given the relatively extreme optical design. Just as with my Rokinon 16mm f/2 review, it is important to note that getting accurate sharpness test results in the corners is difficult due to the close proximity of the lens to the test chart (in this case, just over a foot!). Real-world sharpness cross-frame is higher than shown above.
Sharpness at Infinity
On the far end of focus, the Laowa 15mm needs to be stopped down just a tad more to take advantage of its sharpness. Click for 100% crops. Corner crop is slanted due to perspective distortion at the edges of the frame.
Sharpness at Macro
The Laowa 15mm f/2 features an impressively-close focusing distance for a fast wideangle lens. At 15 cm, the front element is just a few centimeters from touching a subject at close-focus. Click for embedded 100% crop. Optimal sharpness is reached at f/4 and is quite sharp indeed.
The Laowa 15mm f/2 is capable of resolving a lot of detail across the frame, but on a pixel-dense APS-c camera like the a6500, true cross-frame sharpness can’t quite be achieved. That said, images at f/4-5.6 are more than sharp enough to print large and crop in if need be.
One of the last things many photographs would think about an ultra-wideangle lens is its bokeh performance. Even on full-frame, you have to be uncomfortably close to a lot of subjects to get any real separation. Wide-open, some separation is possible, but only to about 8 feet or closer on an APS-c camera. At even closer distances, bokeh smoothness is actually decent for a lens of this class. Click below for full-size.
At all applicable apertures, close foregrounds and distant backgrounds are quite smooth. Backgrounds near the focus point are smooth at f/2-2.8, while foregrounds near the focus point are distracting with some noticeable doubling at those apertures. By f/4 and beyond, these areas are close enough to being in focus there isn’t any bokeh to analyze.
Turning to bokeh highlights, it is very rare to get a lot of them with this lens unless you are setting out to do so in photographs. The times you can get them, however, they aren’t bad! As before, click for full-size.
Wide-open and at f/2.8, bokeh highlights are smooth without noticeable artifacts. By f/4, the aperture shape becomes visible and artifacts likely stemming from the lens’ aspherical elements show up. By f/5.6 and beyond, too much of the image gets into focus for large bokeh highlights.
Overall, the times you can throw the background out of focus (namely, at macro focusing distances), the Laowa 15mm f/2 presents bokeh pretty well for a wide angle.
When it comes to chromatic aberrations, the Laowa 15mm f/2 is a mixed bag. Thankfully, it handles longitudinal aberrations very well.
In the above 100% crops of some dead twigs against an overexposed sky, there is a slight amount of purple fringing at f/2 about half a pixel wide, while at f/2.8 it goes down to about a quarter of a pixel wide. By f/4 any longitudinal aberrations are gone. What little aberrations there are at f/2-2.8 are easily correctable in Lightroom.
In regards to lateral chromatic aberration, though, the Laowa 15mm f/2 suffers. This kind of aberration is common in wide-angles, but it is even more pronounced here than my Rokinon 16mm f/2. Lateral aberrations manifest as magenta and green tinges around edges of objects, typically near the edges of the frame. They show up in high contrast areas especially, regardless if the image is focus. Though I do not specifically test for this aberration, you can scroll up to the infinity sharpness test photograph to see the magenta/green fringing on the left and right side of the building, respectively. It takes a bit more work to remove fringing of this type, but Lightroom still does a decent job.
I imagine lateral aberrations are more pronounced on this lens due to the short flange distance of the sensor to the rear element, compared to DSLR-designed lenses, in addition to the offset micro lenses of the a6500’s sensor. I remember back when people first started to adapt lenses like wide Leicas to the NEX-7, this issue cropped up often. Though I have no way to test this currently, I imagine lateral aberrations are yet another performance area that should improve on a less pixel-dense full-frame camera. Stopping down to f/5.6 and beyond reduces the lateral fringing somewhat.
A welcome departure from the flare-prone Laowa 105mm f/2 STF, the Laowa 15mm f/2 handles flare like a champ. There are few circumstances where internal reflections get in the way of an image. As always, though, I recommend leaving the lens hood on.
In fact, even in a worst-case scenario, I could only produce a couple tiny reflections during photographs, circled below.
As with most lenses, you may run across a bit more flare in video mode as the light continuously reflects from the sensor to the rear element:
The distinct lack of veiling flare and retained high contrast is notable in the above video example. There are a few small but mostly clear reflections to pick out as the sun moves to the center of the frame. Aside from a small corner flare when the sun hits the edge of the front element (seen near the beginning and end of the video), the Laowa 15mm f/2 does great under direct sources of light.
As a full-frame lens, the Laowa 15mm f/2 exhibits the “sweet-spot advantage” on an APS-c camera. Photographing a clear sky to test, there is a small amount of vignetting wide-open. To correct here, add +15 to the “Amount” slider in Lightroom. At f/2.8 the vignetting is nearly gone, with a +5 Amount giving cross-frame illumination. By f/4 there is no vignetting on an APS-c camera.
Expect heavier light falloff on a full-frame camera, and given the lens’ field of view, don’t expect it to fully go away (akin to how the vignetting on my Rokinon 16mm f/2 never quite fades). When I manage to test this lens on a full-frame camera, I will update this section with the necessary correction values.
The vignetting of the Laowa 15mm f/2 is never distracting, as it gradually falls off with only a slight hot-spot in the center. More often than not, you may find yourself adding vignetting in to a shot for some more emphasis than trying to remove what little vignetting the lens shows!
Marketed directly in its full title, the Zero-D moniker refers to the Laowa 15mm f/2 featuring little to no distortion. Venus Optics did a great job in correcting distortions in the 15mm f/2, as there really is nothing bad to see!
There isn’t a lens profile available yet for this lens, so if you want to be super picky and remove what little distortion there is, a +1 amount in the Lightroom distortion slider will get you there.
As an ultra-wideangle, the Laowa 15mm f/2 is prone to perspective distortion in regards to converging vertical lines as well as object sizes getting skewed near the edge of the frame. Be careful of the angle your camera is pointing before attempting architectural shots with this lens! The slightest tilt up or down will lead to converging verticals. This goes doubly-so on a full-frame camera.
I had high hopes the Laowa 15mm f/2 would outperform the Rokinon 16mm f/2 in many areas, with its handling of single- and multi-row panoramas high up on the wishlist. With great sharpness across the frame, negligible distortion, and zero corner smearing/field curvature, the lens is fully capable of high-resolution panoramas with minimal work needed in Photoshop. Venus Optics even intended the lens to be used this way, with the parallax-avoiding entrance pupil point clearly marked on the lens. When mounted to a proper panorama head, images shot around this point will seamlessly stitch in many programs without parallax error.
Now that everything is all said and done, how does this premium ultra-wideangle stack up as a full package? Let’s hit the recap!
Pros and Cons
- Stellar build quality with all-metal construction
- Relatively light weight and super smooth operation all-around
- Very high sharpness and contrast overall, especially in the center
- High 1:4 magnification ratio for a cropable wideangle macro
- Decent bokeh performance–when you can produce it
- Great handling of longitudinal chromatic aberrations
- Flare is a non-issue, impressive for a 12-element optical formula
- Little vignetting on APS-c
- Near-zero distortion, as advertised!
- Useful panorama tool, especially with a true nodal head
- Half the cost of the nearest competitor
- Corner sharpness never matches the centers
- Aspherical elements affect bokeh highlight performance past f/2.8
- Lateral chromatic aberrations show up often
- Short 90-degree focus throw can make critical focusing at f/2 difficult
- Expensive at $850 for a manual-focus only lens
The Bottom Line
There’s a whole lot to like about the Laowa 15mm f/2, and very little to complain about. At its price point, I would expect nothing less. The lens provides a pleasant shooting experience every time I take it out of the bag, and its high optical performance is notable given the compact size. While I can’t wait to use this lens to its full potential on a full-frame camera, it still performs admirably as a standard wideangle on APS-c. I highly recommend it to either E-mount camp looking for a versatile wide lens.
That’s all for this wideangle review, guys and gals, thanks for dropping by! As mentioned earlier, any purchases of the lens through this link helps support the site. I am not quite sure what I should review next, but I will keep my eyes open for whatever comes next. As always, have a great day!