ALWAYS LOOKING FOR NEW ULTRA-WIDE-ANGLE OPTIONS: VENUS OPTICS LAOWA 12MM F/2.8 ZERO-D IN-DEPTH REVIEW ON THE LEICA SL
For my Fine Art Landscape work, I find ultra-wide-angle lenses to be wonderful creative tools because of the different “view of the world” they provide: see in this Venus Optics Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D in-depth review my thoughts about this relatively new and promising addition to the ultra-wide pool, and about its place in a Fine Art Landscape photographer’s bag!
Laowa is a relatively new name in the photography arena having just been established in 2013. This Chinese manufacturer portfolio of lenses is still small, but already very interesting: as they say on their website, their “mission is to design and create our own portfolio of photographic lenses that are truly unique, practical and affordable”.
A quick look at their website (see LAOWA) will confirm you that this is indeed true: rather than going for “classic” lenses, Laowa decided to produce lenses such as this, the fastest 12mm on the market, or lenses ranging from ultra-wide lenses with claims of no distortion to ultra-wide macro lenses, 2x macro lenses, to a 15mm shift lens, and more. While “affordable” is a concept that depends mostly on each buyer’s wallet, their prices are certainly reasonable. Thanks to the Leica SL’s flexibility when it comes to accommodating third-party lenses, since I already had a Novoflex SL/EOS adapter I decided to buy the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D in Canon EOS mount.
As always, please keep in mind that all my reviews are made under the point of view of a Fine Art Landscape Photographer: if your genre of photography is different my findings might not apply to you and your work.
Disclaimer: I am not related to Venus Optics / Laowa in any way. I am a professional photographer looking for the best equipment for my work, I buy all my gear with my hard-earned cash and I don’t get paid by anyone to write articles for my blog.
Once more, I’d like to thank the great guys at NEWOLDCAMERA in Milan for their great service in getting this lens to me. Disclaimer: I have no business ties with NewOldCamera, I am just a very happy customer for about a decade now.
Let’s get started now and see in this Venus Optics Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D in-depth review if it delivers!
BUILD, SIZE AND WEIGHT
The all-metal Venus Optics Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D is built like a tank. The lens body is extremely compact, especially considering its fast f/2.8 maximum aperture. The lens feels very solid, with no rattles, internal moving parts or noises of any kind. While its all-metal body is not advertised as being weather-sealed, the front lens features what Laowa calls a water and dust repelling “Frog Eye Coating”. The lens has a bulbous front element, as most lenses with similar focal length; and, as pretty much all lenses presenting such a front element, the Laowa 12mm Zero-D also has a built-in lens hood. And, it has a bayonet-mounted removable hood, too. The small built-in hood serves as a protection for the front element only; the removable one serves as a proper lens hood. Its front lens cap slides inside the built-in lens hood, in a rather unusual arrangement, and stays put solidly enough. We’ll see in the USE OF FILTERS section below why this double-hood-and-cap solution works out perfectly for landscape photography. Finally, the lens has an internal focus design: focussing will not make the lens barrel extend, nor the front element rotate.
If you do panoramic photography and use stitching, you’ll know that to do so you’ll need to find your lens’ nodal point. With the 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D, Laowa solved that problem for you indicating with a very visible red dot placed just above the focussing ring where the nodal point, or entrance pupil, is. That said, my personal recommendation for panoramic photography is to use a longer lens: you’ll benefit from more magnification, better detail and less troubles with distortion and converging lines.
With its 75mm diameter and 83mm height, weighing at 609 gr, the Venus Optics Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D is smaller than anything out there covering the same focal length, bar the Voigtlander Ultra-Wide Heliar 12mm f/5.6 with its 67.4mm diameter and 74.3mm height for a weight of just 283 grams. However, we’ll have to keep in mind that the Voigtlander is an f/5.6 lens (2 full stops slower). As well, while the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D is available in traditional DSLR’s mounts such as Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony A as well as Sony E, the Voigtlander is available only in Leica M and Sony E mounts: and, given the shorter flange-to-sensor distance, lenses for the latter two mounts can be built much smaller.
USE OF FILTERS
While the double-hood-and-cap solution I mentioned above might seem slightly disconcerting at first, it’s actually perfect for photographers who, like me, need to use filters for their work.
So, what is the advantage? For me and my work, it is an extremely important one: removing the external bayonet-mounted lens hood, you can replace it with a bayonet-mounted filter holder’s ring, allowing me to use my beloved 100mm Formatt-Hitech Firecrest Ultra square filters with a solid, stable and easy to use configuration. If you haven’t got filters yet, I find the Firecrest Ultra simply to be the best on the market: thanks to my agreement with Formatt-Hitech, you can get your kit on FORMATT-HITECH at a 10% discount using code VIERIB10 at checkout (disclaimer: I am a Formatt-Hitech Featured Artist).
More, rather than having to take your adapter ring on and off every time that you put your lens in the bag, thanks to the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D’s lens cap design you can leave your filter holder’s ring permanently on the lens, sliding the original lens cap inside the built-in hood to protect the lens’ front element. Very ingenious indeed.
As a different example, the Voigtlander 12mm I mentioned above can also use 100mm square filter: sadly, though, only via the poorly manufactured, and extremely expensive for what it does, Bombo adapter. All other lenses covering 12mm, either zoom or primes, require you to use 150mm square filters instead. Going with the larger, heavier, more expensive and more cumbersome 150mm square filter system is not an option for me if I can at all avoid it.
Not only you can use 100mm filters with your Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D, but there are currently two different holder options to do so. The first is Laowa’s own, aptly called “Laowa 100mm Filter Holder”; the second one is NiSi’s “100mm Square Filter Holder Kit for Laowa 12mm”. After reading some not so favourable comments online about Laowa’s in-house solution, I got the NiSi adapter instead: it seems to be working very well so far, and I’d be surprised if Laowa’s worked any better. Since it’s much less expensive than the NiSi, it would be great if it did though!
In conclusion, with either filter holder you can use 100mm square filters with the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D. Since this is fundamental for me when I choose a lens, and since ultra-wide are normally very problematic to filter, the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D scores high points here.
IN USE: FOCUSING AND DIAPHRAGM
The Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D’s focus ring, positioned further from the camera, is a joy to use: it’s smooth and very well damped, and the long focus throw – together with the magnifications of focus area feature of the Leica SL – makes achieving perfect focus a breeze. As with all classic manual focus lenses, the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D features a hard stop at infinity. However, using the lens with the Novoflex adapter on the Leica SL you can easily forget it: at least with my lens/adapter combination, the lens focusses way past infinity at its infinity stop. This happens often using adapted lenses, and it’s not a problem at all: you just need to remeber it when using the lens in the field.
Aperture is controlled via a manual aperture ring on the lens body, positioned closer to the camera. The ring has full-stop clicks only, and the rotation’s angle between clicks gets smaller as you stop down. While someone might find this solution inconvenient, for me it provides a good “physical help” to teach your muscle memory where you are, at least between f/2.8 and f/8 where the difference between clicks is substantial. Past f/8, the distance between each click becomes equal.
THE NOVOFLEX SL/EOS ADAPTER
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, since I already had the Novoflex SL/EOS adapter I decided to buy the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D in Canon EOS mount.
The Novoflex SL/EOS adapter is an “intelligent” one, meaning that it would allow the use of autofocus and electronically controlled diaphragm on lenses in Canon EOS mount. Sadly, mounting the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D on the Leica SL via the Novoflex adapter, all you’ll see is a black screen without any image either in the EFV or on the back LCD. Strangely enough, you still can take a photograph, and the photo you’ll take will be recorded by the camera normally. This is a well-known bug of this adapter paired with some lenses, and I am sorry to report that the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D is one of these.
Luckily, there is a very easy solution to this problem: since the lens is completely manual and has no electronic contacts whatsoever, what you really need is just for the adapter to physically connect the lens to the camera body. So, sticking a tiny piece of transparent Scotch tape to cover the adapter’s contacts on the camera’s side will be enough to do the trick, allowing the lens to work perfectly on the Leica SL. If you don’t already have a Novoflex SL/EOS adapter, perhaps you’ll have better luck choosing a Nikon combination of adapter and lens instead.
SHARPNESS AT INFINITY
Methodology: using my usual “real world” test scene, I manually focussed on the trees on the far ridge in the middle of the frame using the maximum focus area magnification for precise focus, with the lens wide open at f/2.8. I then prepared 900x600px, 100% crops of the center, top left corner and mid-right side of the frame at full-stop apertures ranging from wide open to f/11. My Leica SL had Firmware 3.1 installed.
Let’s start looking at the full scene first, to see how much coverage a 121.96 degrees angle of view will give you in the real world, as well as to see the locations of the crops. For comparison, I added here an image taken from the exact same position with the Leica Super-Vario-Elmar-SL 16-35mm at 16mm to see the difference in coverage (click on the images to enlarge):
Let’s now examine the crops in detail, starting with the center of the frame (click on the images to enlarge):
Sharpness in the center is impressive indeed: the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D starts perfectly sharp wide open at f/2.8 and stays that way until f/11.
Let’s now examine the top left corner (click on the images to enlarge):
While not as exceptional as in the center of the frame, the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D put up a pretty good performance in the corner as well. While the lens starts a bit soft wide-open, sharpness improves constantly stopping down: at f/8 and f/11 the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D is perfectly sharp, and suitable for critical work.
Finally, let’s check the mid-right side of the frame (click on the images to enlarge):
Results at mid-right of the frame mirror closely those in the top left corner, with the lens starting off slightly soft at f/2.8, and sharpness picking up constantly when stopping down. Again, between f/8 and f/11 the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D is perfectly sharp, and suitable for critical work.
SHARPNESS AT CLOSE FOCUSING DISTANCE AND BOKEH
To examine sharpness at close focusing distance, as well as to see how the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D draws out-of-focus areas, I focused on the Phillips screw right under the mailbox’s red flag in the lower right corner of the frame (very close to the lens barrel). Together with the full frame image I included 100% crops taken at the point of focus, to check out sharpness, and center crops to see what happens in out-of-focus areas near infinity.
Let’s see the full image first, again to see how wide a 121.96 degrees angle of view is in the real world, as well as to see the locations of the crops. Again, for comparison I added here an image taken from a similar position with the Leica Super-Vario-Elmar-SL 16-35mm at 16mm to see the difference in coverage (click on the images to enlarge):
Let’s now examine sharpness at the point of focus (click on the image to enlarge):
Wide open at f/2.8, the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D performance is already very very strong, much better than what we saw in the top left corner at infinity. Sharpness improves steadily when stopping down, with best results at f/8, where the lens is perfectly sharp. At f/11, diffraction starts making the images softer again.
Let’s see now how the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D renders out-of-focus areas at far distances in the center of the frame (click on the images to enlarge):
While such an ultra-wide lens would not be my first choice to do bokeh, the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D renders out-of-focus areas nicely, gaining sharpness gracefully stopping down.
It is interesting to see how extreme depth of field is, with such an ultra-wide-angle lens: at f/11, despite focussing so close to the lens, you almost get everything in focus from very close up to infinity. This is something I suggest you keep in mind when you want to have perfect focus all over the frame doing near-far compositions: using hyperfocal distance or focussing half-way between the foreground and the background will produce better results than focussing either at infinity or on the objects closer to you.
The Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D’s performance is very impressive for a lens at the same time so fast and so wide. At infinity, the lens is perfectly sharp in the center of the frame at any aperture. While slightly soft wide open from the middle of the frame on outwards, sharpness improves constantly stopping down to become perfectly sharp all over the frame at f/8. At closer focussing distances, the lens is already impressive at f/4-5.6, again to become perfect around f/8.
For my Fine Art Landscape photography work, this is a fantastic performance: when I need everything to be in focus, to maximise depth of field I’d use such a wide-angle lens at f/8 anyway. When I don’t need everything to be in focus, the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D’s performance is good enough at larger aperture to keep your subject in focus unless your subject is in the far corner at infinity, which is not exactly something that happens often. After seeing the results of this test, I can’t wait to put the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D through its paces in the field.
VIGNETTE AND COLOUR RENDITION
As you can see looking at the top left corner series above, in real world use and without applying any lens profile in Camera RAW the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D shows a bit of vignetting wide open. This should be expected for such a wide-angle lens, let alone such a fast one. Vignetting clears nicely stopping down, and it’s pretty much gone by f/5.6. Personally, I find the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D’s vignette not disturbing at all, and if need to get rid of it for a particular image I can easily do so by applying the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D lens profile in Camera RAW.
Colour rendition is very pleasant to my eye, and while perhaps just a bit colder than my Leica Super-Vario-Elmar-SL 16-35mm and my Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm, I don’t see any problem in using this lens side-by-side with my Leica zooms for my work.
To check for distortion, I photographed my garage door, increasing contrast and adding straight red lines in PP to help seeing distortion better. Let’s see the results (click on the image to enlarge):
As you can see, the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D is extremely well controlled for distortion, keeping faith to its “Zero-D” label: straight lines stay pretty straight all over the frame.
FLARE AND CHROMATIC ABERRATIONS
During my test, on purpose I didn’t used the provided, removeable lens hood: all the lens had to protect itself from flare was its tiny built-in hood. In the “mailbox” sequence I was shooting against the sun, and with the sun in the frame. Nevertheless, as you can see in the full frame images above, the lens showed great contrast and resistance to flare. As well, even shooting against the sun, in my “real world” tests I have never seen any sign of colour fringing or chromatic aberrations.
The fastest 12mm lens for full-frame cameras as I write this article, the Venus Optics Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D is a great option for the ultra-wide loving landscape photographer. As well, the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D’s fast aperture, together with its focal length, makes it a great candidate for night photography: while I don’t do it on a regular basis, having the option in the bag is great for when I need it. I will report about coma and star rendition when I’ll have a chance; in the meantime, Laowa own website has various samples for you to check out (see LAOWA 12MM F/2.8 ZERO-D).
Under a technical point of view, the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D is extremely sharp in the center at any aperture. While is slightly weaker from half-frame out at larger apertures, it becomes amazing all over the frame at any distance at f/8: at this aperture, which is standard for landscape photography, it’ll guarantee you flawless images, perfectly sharp from corner to corner. The lens is very well contrasted at macro level and shows good micro-contrast as well – good in general, but very good indeed considering the focal length. Extremely resistant to flare even when shot against the sun, the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D shows very little to no distortion and no chromatic aberrations. While it does show vignette, this is easily fixable applying the lens profile in Camera RAW if you prefer a clean image. These would be great results for any lens: considering that this is a 12mm Full-Frame ultra-wide lens, and a f/2.8 lens at that, I’d say that its performance is just brilliant.
Under an artistical point of view, the lens draws quite beautifully, it’s out-of-focus areas are pleasant and, thanks to its f/2.8 large aperture, especially when focussing up close you can really put the background out of focus.
A PLACE IN MY BAG: THOUGHTS ON THE FOCAL LENGTH
As most photographers know, fine tuning our equipment is a never-ending endeavour. My bag, for me, is like any workspace: I need it to be organised, streamlined, efficient. I need to have with me everything I need, nothing less – but nothing more either. Therefore, a lens choice is very important for me: adding a new lens in means, most often than not, that I need to take one out (see CHOOSING THE BEST CAMERA SYSTEM FOR LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY for more details).
The recent arrival of the new Leica Super-Vario-Elmar-SL 16-35mm f/3.5-4.5 ASPH with its amazing image quality (see my LEICA SUPER-VARIO-ELMAR-SL 16-35MM F/3.5-4.5 ASPH IN-DEPTH REVIEW), meant that my beloved Voigtlander 15mm lost its place in my bag. When using the 15mm, I was carrying the Voigtlander 10mm to complement it. However, filtering it was a royal pain, having to use the badly manufactured Bombo adapter as my only option for 100mm square filters, and 10mm is so wide that I ended up using it very rarely.
True, there are equally wide (or wider) lenses that can be adapted for the Leica SL, such as the Voigtlander Hyper-Wide Heliar 10mm or the Voigtlander 12mm Ultra-Wide Heliar primes and a couple zoom lenses from Canon and Sigma. However, the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D is the only 12mm alternative that allows you to use 100mm square filters easily saving you from having to use the Bombo adapters or from having to move to 150mm filters. More, it’s the fastest 12mm available, and its f/2.8 aperture opens up possibilities for night photography impossible with any of the alternatives. Finally, it’s small and light enough (much smaller than the zooms) and its optical performance is very very good. In short, the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D opens new possibilities for ultra-wide-angle photography with the Leica SL in a small, compact package with great built and image quality. Therefore, the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D earnt a place in my bag – at least for now.
What about your bag? Well, as always it depends on your preference in terms of focal lengths. If, like me, you love to use wide and ultrawide-angle lenses, this lens is a great choice: both for Leica SL users looking to complement their new Super-Vario-Elmar-SL 16-35mm, and as a great option for Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony users to replace their heavy and large zoom lenses with a small, fast and easier to filter alternative.
In conclusion, I liked the Venus Optics Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D very much, I think it’s a really amazing ultra-wide-angle lens and I can’t wait to put it through its paces in the field. Highly recommended.
Thanks for reading this Venus Optics Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D in-depth review, I hope you enjoyed it! Why don’t you share it with your friends, or drop me a comment to let me know how you feel about this?
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Technical details: quick and dirty product images have been shot with the Leica SL equipped with the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 on a Really Right Stuff tripod equipped with an Arca-Swiss P0 Classic ballhead. All photos have been developed and finished in Adobe Photoshop CC.