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Review: LAOWA 12mm f/2.8 ‘Zero-D’ lens

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Review: LAOWA 12mm f/2.8 ‘Zero-D’ lens

Looking at the Venus/Laowa 12mm ultra wide angle lens



The Laowa ‘Zero-D’ wide angle lens was first mentioned in Feb. 2016 as coming some time later in the year. In July 2016 Laowa contacted Keith and asked if he’d like to try out a pre-production lens.

As a UK professional architectural photographer, it sounds a great tool for showing strong perspective views, but is it up to the quality I demand?

This review looks at using the lens on a 50MP Canon 5Ds (‘full frame’) DSLR. The lens is fully manual (focus and aperture) and will eventually be available in a rage of mount options. [Canon EF, Nikon, Sony A, Pentax K and Sony E]

highcross car park at dusk taken with Laowa 12/2.8

Ultra wide angle lenses

As an architectural photographer I often need fairly wide angle lenses to get enough coverage for interiors and exteriors of buildings. It’s for this reason that I have the rather hefty Canon EF11-24mm f4L lens, along with the EF8-15mm fish-eye and TS-E17mm tilt/shift lens.

The Laowa 12mm f/2.8 is a fully manual lens, in that you have to focus it and you have to set the aperture.

Not a problem for me, since I tend to shoot much of my work in fully manual mode, but even then I need to remember to do a few more things with the 12mm.

Here’s the lens on my 5Ds.

laowa 12mm lens on Canon 5Ds

The lens on its own.

laowa 12mm lens front

Since I’ve mentioned the EF11-24, here it is next to the Laowa 12mm

Laowa 12mm compared in size to ef11-24

If you look carefully you can see a double lens hood on the 12mm

lens top view showing 2nd lens hood

The larger lens hood detaches and you can fit a filter holder to the 12mm. There is no thread for attaching filters.

side view of the 12mm lens

I didn’t get to test this for the simple reason that I have no large filters – holders for my other wide lenses are generally so large and clunky to use that I avoid them.

The mount shows the lack of electronic connections for the 12mm.

side rear viw of the 11-24mm lens

Compared to the 11-24

lens mount details

One effect of this is that the camera thinks it’s shooting with no lens attached, so you get an aperture value of 00.

camera display showing aperture

It also throws the metering out, so (at least for my 5Ds) you actually have to think about the light and estimate exposure.

Actually fairly easy to do (with practice) and something that will give you a much deeper understanding of light and exposure.

If you insist on the camera holding your hand, then be prepared to stump up a lot more money for a full frame lens this wide…

If you look at the focus indicator on the lens you’ll notice a depth of field scale. If you’re accustomed to using modern lenses this may seem rather prominent. Part of the reason is that the lens focuses down to 7″ (18cm) and has a full 270 degree throw between infinity and closest focus.

lens focus marks

Like all such scales I wouldn’t rely in it for critical focus, but I found it gave a good feel for DOF.

I’d note that at f/8 you can focus at infinity, and anything beyond six feet is as sharp as you need (avoid the temptation to use hyperfocal distance calculations – they are usually a complete waste of effort – see ‘Why I avoid hyperfocal focus tables‘ for more).

Whilst I’ve a lot of examples and some broad tests here, I’m very aware that this is a test lens, so I’ve avoided detailed comparisons with the EF11-24 at 11mm, however I will note a few issues/differences in the conclusions (if you can’t wait, the Laowa can easily deliver photos on a par with the Canon lens).

Lens specs – LAOWA 12mm f/2.8

As far as I’m aware, these are the current specs and information for the lens.

lens specifications

The internal design

lens optical design

The MTF data

mtf chart for laowa 12mm

First impressions

It’s a solidly built lens – all metal construction and a comfortable easy to use focus ring. If you’re not used to it, the longer throw may catch you out, but unless you’re shooting fairly close, you don’t need to rotate the focus ring too much.

The aperture ring has click stops at whole stop values.

Since you have to manually stop down if you’re focusing at f/2.8 and shooting at a different value, the solid clicks give a feeling of confidence in changing the setting without looking to check.

I’ll run through some sample shots in different situations that give a feel for flare, bokeh etc. and I’ll finish up with a few more images taken in and around Leicester, where I live.

Using the lens – awkward lighting

A walk down the street at night gives plenty of opportunities for showing the effects of bright lights in the field (at f/2.8)

I’ve boosted the shadows here to try and show the effects of flare – yes, it’s there, but I’ve seen far worse.

street light and car

Just round the corner (f/5.6) – note how bright lights are showing slight diffraction spikes (14, from the 7 blade aperture)

The dot in the sky is the moon.

Browning Street Leicester

At the bottom of the street (f/5.6). The very bright sign and interior hasn’t ‘leaked’ too much.

Pizza shop, Narborough Road, Leicester

A tree in Oakham, with bright sun shining through light cloud (f/8)

large tree in Oakham

Note how the other trees all lean in – you can’t avoid this once you move the lens up from the horizontal.

A 100% crop (All 50MP 5Ds RAW files here processed with ACR and Photoshop CS6 – no sharpening)

detail of tree image

An indoor view with the sun directly in shot.

I’ve lightened the shadows a bit more to show the slight flare.

Highcross car park, Leicester (f/8)

Stairs at Highcross car park Leicester

Stars

The skies in the UK are never fully dark in the summer, and a nearly full new moon low in the SE didn’t help, but I went out into the country, a few miles from Leicester, to try a few star shots.

I’m afraid you’re never going to see stunning views of the milky way on a moonlit night in July here in the UK – well not without taking a lot of images and applying a great deal of processing to them.

This image is reduced to fit here – right click and save it or open it in a new window to see a 1/4 size JPEG from the 50MP RAW file.

stars - view of the night sky

Star images show up all kinds of aspects of lens design and in the corners at f/2.8, I was not surprised to see slight ‘Batwing’ coma towards the far corners of the field. Note that it’s an 8 second exposure, so the stars are trailed slightly as well, and more importantly I can’t be 100% sure I’ve optimal focus. In low light, even wearing my glasses, it’s difficult to be sure of precise focus.

If we zoom in to 100% then at f/2.8 it’s visible in this (top RH) corner crop from a 50MP image (no correction for Chromatic Aberration (CA))

BUT and it’s a big but – I’ve applied no corrections to this shot at all. All wide lenses show variations of this effect.

lens coma at f/2.8

Reduce the aperture to f/5.6 and it’s much less obvious, and by f/8 it’s almost gone.

I should note that even at 8 seconds exposure, the stars trail a small amount.

lens coma at f/8

The coma depends on how far from the centre of the field you are. How does this show up in daytime images?

Not that much… At f/2.8 and f/4 the far corners of the frame show a modest asymmetric softness, in that radial lines are sharper than tangental ones. By f/5.6 this is much reduced and by f/8 the lens may have just beaten the Canon 11-24 in edge sharpness at 12mm.

However, this is a test lens, so I’ve avoided the temptation to start measuring things too much or make precise comparisons with the 11-24 (I’d also note that I don’t have a lens test lab -and- my patience for such stuff rapidly wears out).

Chromatic aberration (CA)

The lens shows only a few pixels of CA, easily fixable with the automated adjustment in ACR.

An example (100% crop) – remember that these crops are from 50MP images (over 8,000 pixels wide).

chromatic aberration

After

fixed chromatic aberration

Taken from the top of this image of the stair at the Highcross car park (night time view)

stairs at Highcross, artificial lighting

I’ve many images that show it, but notice how straight lines are.

The lens exhibits very low geometrical distortion (pincushion/barrel). In this respect, compared to the complex distortions of the Samyang 14mm I looked at a while ago, it’s flawless.

I’m not making too many direct comparisons, but the straightness of lines at the edges even beat (at 12mm) the rather good EF11-24 I regularly use in my work (not much but I’d likely give the nod to the 12mm).

Look at the edge of the window frame in this shot taken from up the stairs.

staircase and windows

If verticals lean in or out a bit, you can assume it’s because you didn’t have the camera quite level (most daytime shots here are hand held at f/8 or f/5.6 in darker areas).

car park walkway and stairs

The wider the lens, the more pronounced this lean is, even for very small errors.

Leicester city bus station

Watch for large spaces turning into tunnels

inside Leicester bus station

The wide angle can give a very strong feeling of depth (Leicester market f/8)

Leicester market stall - shoes

A nearby shopping arcade.

modern shopping

You can of course exaggerate the effect.

new look store entrance, Leicester

It’s up to you to decide what sorts of composition work.

looking up starwell at the Highcross car park

If you’re thinking of the 12mm for landscape and previously thought 24mm was wide angle, then expect an interesting learning curve.

Wide angle composition is tricky and you’ll soon tire of giant (close up) rocks in streams. 
Work your way though things and remember the ‘new toy effect’ – where every problem seems like a nail to the person with a new hammer…
Personally I’d also suggest that cranking up the colour and contrast with ‘HDR’ type images is best avoided too – it seems popular but I know if I used it on photos for a client, I’d be out of the door pretty sharpish ;-)

farm gate in the English countryside

Close focus

The lens focuses to just a few inches in front of the front element.

close up view of bottle of soft drink

The view in the cafe also shows handling of out of focus highlights (f/2.8)

This is not quite the closest – how much of the ruler do you think is in the shot?

close focus setup

This much…

Four images show the DOF at f/2.8,4,5.6,8

close up views of ruler at different apertures

It took a lot of fiddling about to get the ruler all in focus, but these shots show how the corner image quality (of -any- lens) improves as you stop down.

100% crops from 50MP images.

f/2.8 Centre (it gets sharper at smaller apertures, but it’s difficult to show on a web page)

centre of field of view at f/2.8

f/2.8 corner

corner view at f/2.8

Note how the radial lines are softer than the tangental – just as you’d expect from the MTF chart

f/5.6 improves things

corner view at f/5.6

Whilst at f/8 it’s looking pretty good for a lens this wide – this is a 100% crop too.

corner view at f/8

It’s at this point I look at these 100% crops and wonder how many people are already thinking the lens is soft in the corners or has other deficiencies to be wary of? Even my expensive 11-24 falls off towards the corners. Take a look at some of the actual photos I’ve shown so far – I’ve more to come, but wanted to show some more techy details first…

Don’t forget too that the ruler shots are just inches from the front of the lens, so only give a partial reflection of the quality of the lens when used at infinity, like many shots here.

Distortion – or not?

The lens exhibits extremely low amounts of distortion relative to a ‘perfect’ rectilinear lens.

That means that straight lines are straight – just what I want for my architectural work.

However, when you project a wide view on to a flat plane you get other forms of distortion of shapes. Most noticeably with people and circular objects which become warped.

It’s important to realise that even a nominally ‘perfect’ lens would show such changes – it’s a fact of geometry.

If you want to remove this effect then you need to start looking at other projections of your image. …BUT… this comes at the price of losing those lovely straight lines.

Look at this animated GIF composed of a number of shots of myself, in our conservatory, with my morning cup of tea.

Look at the straight edges and straight lines (even allowing for my carpentry skills).

Then look at the plant pots in the RH corner and the distortions for myself. I noted the odd looking arm in the shot where I’m sitting down.

No wide angle lens produces flattering shots of groups of people.

Here’s 5 of me standing around drinking tea

flat rectilinear projection

Now I’ll apply Photoshop’s Adaptive Wide Angle filter, which correctly worked out that I was using a 12mm lens

Using photoshop AWA filter

Better people, but curved lines everywhere – the choice is yours…

Another example of a round coffee cup and saucer – this is not distortion.

Vignetting

ALL lenses fall off in light transmission towards the edge of the field – this is partly due to lens design, but also depends on some of the fundamentals of optics.

It’s not easy to measure lens performance without accurate equipment, but one simple way of looking at lens vignetting and transmission (how much light is absorbed/lost) is to photograph a flat field of light. The wider the lens, the harder this is to do.

I’ve set up a sheet of diffuse plastic over the diffuse lighting of a product photo table.

test setup for checking vignetting.

I’ve taken off the outer lens hood and the front element is only a few millimetres from the plastic.

Here are two frames (f/2.8 and f/4) both matched for similar brightness in the centre

vignetting examples 1

As you can see, the vignetting is quite a bit more at f/2.8

Just to compare, here’s a comparison between my 11-24 at 12mm and f/4 (wide open) and the 12mm at f/4

Both are exposed at 1/100s

vignetting examples 2

At f/4 the 12mm would seem to have less vignetting and absorbs less light than the EF11-24.

A relatively simple test, broadly what I’d expect given the complexity of the 11-24 zoom lens.

Wider still – stitching

Whilst 12mm is wide, I sometimes want to go wider still.

Here’s the space outside the Curve theatre in Leicester (Orton Square).

Orton Square, Curve, Leicester

To get the whole building in requires me to tilt up the lens

single shot view of Curve 1

or, I can turn the camera 90 degrees and take a series of shots like this.

single shot view of Curve 2

It’s then a matter of stitching them together.

I use Autopano Giga for stitching, simple, quick and very flexible. I’m using V4.2, but it’s still essentially the same as I reviewed a while ago [Autopano Giga review]

Here’s a panoramic version of the view (note how I’ve cropped out the big shadow area – using a 50MP camera helps, since the full size image below can easily be printed out 8-10 feet long.

curve - panoramic view 1

A different set of source images gives this view – picking where to stand makes a big difference in spaces like this.

curve - panoramic view 2

A wide rectilinear view like Halford House below, needed three images stitched.

Useful for flat fronts of buildings but needs some care in deciding what shots to use.

Halford House, Leicester - wide rectilinear view

Printing

For myself, the ultimate test of image quality is what sorts of prints can I make?

I’m currently testing the 24″ width Canon PRO-2000 printer and chose one of my evening views of the car park for Highcross.

Highcross car park at dusk

Here’s a 22″x33″ print on Canon Satin paper.

print of Highcross car park at dusk

A photo of the corner of the print

print detail 1

Zoomed in even more and you can read the text – I needed a magnifying glass for this. At this level of detail, the printer dot pattern starts to be visible along with sensor noise.

print detail 2

The shot is at f/5.6 and has been processed for colour/brightness in ACR and then sharpened using Piccure+.

I’ve a review of Piccure+ if you’re not familiar with it. The shot below shows a 100% view of part of the image before/after.

image sharpening with Piccure

Other than that, it’s as close to ‘straight out of the camera’ as I ever get.

Conclusions

With the proviso that I’m talking about a lens that isn’t in production yet…

When first mentioned in February, there was some discussion about just what the ‘Zero-D’ name for the lens meant.

Well, after a week or two of shooting with it on my 5Ds, I’m happy to say that from a geometric distortion point of view it has virtually no pincushion or barrel distortion.

That for an architectural photographer like myself is important – the built environment has a lot of straight lines, and I want them to be straight in my photos, ideally without having to correct them.

At f/2.8 & f/4 the lens shows distinct (but quite small) coma for off axis point sources such as stars. From a daytime photographer’s POV I can live with this since I’m likely to be shooting at f/5.6 or f/8 where the effect fades away.

With this particular aberration, you might well wonder about the benefits of a f/2.8 lens?

Focusing is easier at f/2.8 although at 12mm usable depth of field is pretty big by the time you are at f/5.6 and higher.

The lack of feedback from the lens to the camera means that the camera just assumes that you are not bothering with a lens today. This affects normal metering as well as live view and tethered use. I sometimes experiment with third party lenses and adapters and have found that adapters with AF confirm chips are easier to use on my Canon bodies (I can’t speak for other makes) – you can get these from eBay and the like, and epoxy them to the lens mount – this not being my lens, I decided not to try this ;-) It’s not a serious problem, just something you need to remember.

Photos with this lens are very amenable to more advanced sharpening techniques and I’ll be interested to see how the lens performs once specific correction profiles are available.

12mm is very wide – I enjoyed going out to use the lens, since I’d noticed that with my use of the 11-24 over the last year, my focal lengths had been sliding upwards. You need to think about the whole view and being forced to work at 12mm did my appreciation of perspective and composition a power of good. If you’re looking for the lens to photograph groups of people then be aware that even a technically perfect wide rectilinear lens wil massively distort people and faces away from the centre of the lens – this is just a basic optical fact. See my DxO Viewpoint review for info on one way I’d ‘fix’ this.

Making prints from the images led me to look at my old EF14mm f/2.8L II. I parted company with this lens when I got the 11-24 but had some good looking prints from it. Going back to the RAW files showed a degree of softness in the corners that I didn’t see with the 12mm.

The lens feels very solidly built, and with the removable ‘outer’ lenshood, you can use the lens with filters (not tried).

A few more photos

The car park for the Highcross shopping centre in Leicester and walkway to the shops

sunset at the car park

View across to John Lewis.

walkway at highcross 1

view back to the car park.

walkway at highcross 2

Early evening light for the stairs

stairs at dusk

Walkway and cars

walkway at highcross 3

Dusk and the walkway

walkway at highcross 4

Dusk and people walking back to their cars…

Note the different versions of colour balance for the lighting – this is a frequent issue for architectural shots at dusk with mixed lighting. When working for a client, it helps to offer a range of choices – they may not have even thought about the issue before.

walkway at highcross 5

I hope that’s given a bit of a feel for the lens and how you can use it.

Thanks to Laowa for lending me the lens to try.

Summary

A 12mm f/2.8 rectilinear prime lens from Laowa, with very low levels of geometrical distortion.

The version tested was for Canon EF mount. The lens is, as of late July 2016, not yet formally launched.

See the full range of Laowa lenses at Laowalens.co.uk
Manufacturer info.: [Venuslens.net]

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  • Kit Laughlin

    Truly excellent review, Keith. And this comment (“The line ‘splitting’ for radial lines is a consequence of differing sagittal/tangental resolution (see the MTF chart)” shows what a master of your craft you are. The Highcross shopping centre in Leicester and walkway to the shops images are exceptional. You are so right about clients not understanding the consequences of mixed lighting at dusk. Thanks, sincerely.