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Review: Laowa 24mm f/14 relay macro

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Laowa 24mm f/14 relay macro review

Unique 2x macro lens design


The Laowa 24mm relay lens is a very different lens. That’s immediately apparent when looking at it.

This lens is one Keith first tried a while ago at a UK photo show, and we’ve been lucky enough to have a good long look at it.

A fascinating design, but what are you going to use it for?

See all the products are currently available from Venus Optics

laowa 24mm relay lens

The Laowa 24mm relay lens

Despite the odd look to the lens, it’s worth remembering that it is basically a 24mm f/14 lens with macro capability that goes to 2x magnification.

Unlike a specialist macro such as the Laowa 25mm 2.5-5x macro, it also focuses to infinity.

The lens is a fully manual one, so no electronic communication with your camera. If settings are important to you then it’s time for a notebook.

control rings

Specifications

The lens I’m looking at is for Canon EF mount.

Laowa 25mm f14 specifications

It’s available in a number of other mount options including PL mount. For this you can have 0.8 pitch gear rings added for control of focus and aperture.

cine mount options

MTF and construction

MTF

As you can see from the optical design below, there’s a lot of glass extending the optical path.

construction

There is a flat window at the end covering the end of the lens and the built in LED lights.

This glass is part of the optical design of the lens.

Lens features

The lens is waterproof up to the side USB power connector for the lighting.

lens power socket

The lens comes with a lead that incorporates an adjustment control for LED intensity.

power cable

The ring of 9 LEDs gives a very flat light.

led lights

In this example, I’ve turned the LED brightness right down to show ambient lighting as well. At full brightness, the LED lighting in bright enough for hand held shots at close distances.

end lighting

The lighting turned down.

LED lighting

The light intensity falls off quite quickly (it does cover the 24mm FOV after all). This means care is needed if the subject is at a range of distances.

light falloff

In this view, looking inside an old teapot, I’m using a small phone charging battery pack to power the lights.

teapot light

The lights do use up a fair bit of power, so I quickly switched to a larger (pocket sized 20A/h) USB power pack.

Inside the teapot [click to enlarge].

inside the teapot

The CRI of the lights is good, but will need white balancing.  If you want accurate colour then a DNG profile will help.

A similar internal view from the inside of one of my trainers…

inside a shoe

Ok, you can see inside things, but time to experiment a bit more…

A simple shot of a garden spider without and with LED lighting [click to enlarge].

daylight spider

The images also give a good feel for the out of focus performance of the lens.

lit spider

I’m shooting wide open at f/14 here, so the lens aperture is circular. Stop down a bit and the 7 blade aperture will show very slightly (see detailed examples later).

The lens I tested was an early production example and had no lens cap or cover. A simple one using a ziplock bag and rubber band made me feel happier transporting the lens.

lens cover

Update – when packing to send the lens back, lodged in the bubblewrap it came in, was a small well fitting lens cap. Oops…

lens cap

Using the lens

This isn’t a lens I’d put on my camera just because I wanted a 24mm lens. With a maximum aperture of f/14 you’re going to get some diffraction softening right from the off, with a camera such as my 50MP Canon 5Ds.

Similarly, if I want a 2x macro, the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 is superbly sharp lens with a good working distance (see my review).

No, this lens is useful for where it lets you place your viewpoint.

I’ve no examples of using it in liquids here, but this example from when I saw the lens on show a while ago should give a feel for its use this way.

laowa lenses

The lens in the foreground is the Laowa 25mm 2.5-5x macro.

It’s this viewpoint aspect that’s actually made the lens one of the more difficult ones to illustrate in a review.

Stacking shots

Take this pot of small cacti – grown from seed a while ago.

pot of cacti

A simple shot, showing the low down viewpoint [click to enlarge].

cactus

During the setting up of this shot I realised just how easy it was to adjust focus, with the very smooth focus ring.

This makes it very easy to take a series of photos, moving the focus ring by a millimetre of so and creating a stack.  You can process these with focus stacking software, such as Helicon Focus, which I use for some of my commercial macro work.

The set stacked fairly well, although on a paying job I’d do rather more retouching where some overlaps of spines are not quite right.

focus stacking

That said, it looks quite effective [click to enlarge]

cacti collection

A simple video of the frames shows the amount of focus breathing going from macro to the background.

Model cars

A similar shot, but using the very small plastic cars that sit on my desk [click to enlarge].

cars setup

The shot here is a stack of some 25 images – all shot at the widest f/14.

Note the cable release I’m using. The focus ring was manually rotated by just over millimetre per shot.

cars

The individual RAW images were opened in ACR before saving as JPEGs for stacking. The adjustments show the shift in white balance needed for the oldish CFL lighting, not the LEDS. I’m using a custom DNG profile (X-Rite CC Passport) for the CFL lights, it makes quite a difference with the strong colours here.

acr processing

A second version showing some small electronic components, and a small amount of extra light from the LEDs on the lens.

cars and chips

The image is partly based on one I created for a commercial client using gummi bears [more info].

Shiny metals

This view shows very small (2-3mm long) electronic components, fresh from a copper plating bath, along with the small copper source pellets.

copper plating

These have been tin plated.

tin plating

For gold plating, the source metal comes from these small lumps of pure gold.

small gold lumps

These larger gold balls most clearly show the LED lighting layout. Definitely something to be aware of when thinking how you want to light a shot.

gold beads

As an aside – the value of the pure gold balls visible in the shot above probably exceeds my 5Ds and the relay lens ;-)

Whilst visiting a specialist metal platers, I poked the lens into several parts of the plating line to see some of the metal strip running through the continuous plating baths.

I’d note that surrounded by dangerous and corrosive chemicals. I’d not want to poke a normal lens into these areas, whilst the line is running. Knowing the relay lens was waterproof at the end was important.

The pins in electronic connectors are formed in long strips and are often metal plated. There can be several different metals for different parts. However, metals and especially gold are expensive, so you don’t want to plate the whole strip. Rubber belts expose only part of the strip to the plating solution.

All these shots are wide open (f/14) and hand held

strip-of-pins

Beyond the next bath you can see the right side of the pins is now gold plated.

drive-belt

The fully plated strip of pins emerges from a cleaning bath.

gold-pins

I was taking these shots hand held to get a feel for looking inside working equipment but even an avowed stills photographer like myself could see some great opportunities for video…

Add in camera movement and focus pulling (along with the significant DOF at smaller apertures) and I’m starting to think of commercial uses for this lens, both for animation and video.

Exposure

The lens is fully manual, so from the camera’s point of view, there is no lens attached.

Initially this really threw the metering on my Canon 5Ds.  Even using live view, if I set the image to look OK, I’d have to set my shutter speed to underexpose by around 5 stops. Then I remembered that I needed to turn off exposure simulation in the settings. This issue will likely occur with other cameras, it just depends how they react to not having a lens present, and one that is f/14 at its widest..  One option would be to fit a third party AF confirm chip, but it’s not my lens ;-) It also helps reading the manual…

The lens doesn’t have any T stop info, but with all that glass I’d expect values to be well down on F numbers. Then again, if you’re going to be using a lens like this and need the info, you’re probably used to working it out.

Lens performance

I shot quite a few close up examples trying to show how the lens performed at different settings.

The three shots at f/14, f/22 and f/32 give a good feel for the overall image quality.

The photo is of a SODIMM memory module – the connector pitch is 0.6mm, and it’s lined up at ~45º

light falloff

The lighting is only from the LEDs. [click to enlarge]

relay-f14

relay-f22

relay-f32

Note the slight haze in the unlit area at wider apertures. This seems to come from light being reflected back from the very reflective subject, onto the front glass cover. It wasn’t an issue in normally lit subjects, but it worth noting.

This image shows the focus and depth of field at 100% (on a 50MP image) – click to enlarge (note: image is ~3600 pixels wide).

relay lens 100 percent

Looking at out of focus areas, there’s quite a smooth gradation, giving a a perfectly reasonable look to images.

out-of-focus

I’ve seen much harsher looking views, and once again I’d remind you that this is not a lens you can simply compare with ‘ordinary’ lenses (I know of nothing similar).

Image quality across the field improve with some stopping down.  After a while testing the lens I found its ‘sweet spot between f/22 and f/32.  f/40 was usable but you could really start to see diffraction blurring in fine detail. Even so, you might find f/40 gives you the depth of field you’re after.

Extension tubes

Someone was going to ask…

Here’s a closest focus (2x magnification) shot at f/14, followed by one with a 21mm extension tube.

2x magnification

21mm extension tube

You might be able to get fractionally more magnification with an even longer tube. The working distance with 21mm is just a few millimetres though.

working distance

One more thing…

The long tube lets you get close to things – what if there’s no easy way of getting in?

This was a quick experiment with a small prism to let you look round corners. It’s held in place with blu-tac, so safe for lens and prism.

right angle prism

It didn’t work well for the full field of view. However, my stock of 90º prisms and small front surface mirrors is not extensive, so I didn’t pursue it.  I’d suggest a small mirror would would work best – perhaps ~2cm square?

What use? I expect it would be great for ‘flying through’ architectural models, or taking a stacked series of shots to give enough depth of field not to look like a model.

Conclusions

Quite the most unusual lens I’ve tried out. Relay lenses have been around for a while, but at typically 10 times the cost of the Laowa. The lens is a challenge to use – not technically (it’s excellent), but in expanding your creative vision to see what it could let you achieve.

It’s solidly built with very smooth focus and aperture controls. The focus throw (~160º) is enough to make manual focus stacking very easy.

It’s waterproof, up to the USB power socket. The lens is an all metal construction, but is not weather sealed beyond the waterproof area.

The USB socket is the only design area I’d query. I’m minded to suggest it might be easier to use nearer the lens mount, and facing forward. The micro USB connector feels a bit exposed, compared to the rest of the lens. The LED lighting system worked just fine, but you will need a good power source for anything but the shortest use.

The power cable controller is a bit loose on the cable, so it could twist where it goes into the control unit. This caused a broken internal connection. Now, I used to be an electronics designer (many careers ago), so I took it apart, re-soldered the wire and applied hot melt glue to prevent a re-occurrence of this (and a potential short of the USB power).  HOWEVER – this is was a pre-production unit, so I only include this as a warning to be careful with the power lead and don’t pull the lens around with it!

Using a lens starting at f/14 forces you to think about aperture and depth of field, but as I’ve said, this is a lens to challenge your normal assumptions.  If you’re thinking that you need a much faster lens for 2x macro and really fine detail, then yes, you may well do, that’s not what this lens is for.

In many ways, this has been one of the more difficult reviews I’ve written – not because of any failings of the lens, but for me to find examples of its use that truly show some of its creative capabilities.

Buying the lens

The lens is currently listed at Venus Lens for pre-order (~$1500) with estimates of delivery in late 2018/early 2019.

Other Laowa lenses are listed at their web site: Laowa lens availability

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