Venus LAOWA 15mm shift macro review
Review: Venus LAOWA 15mm f/4 Wide Angle Macro
Looking at the 15mm 1:1 macro shift lens
In 2015, Venus Optics (Anhui ChangGeng Optical Technology Company Ltd.) announced what is the widest angle shift lens and also the widest angle macro lens with 1:1 reproduction.
It is sold under the Laowa brand.
Available in a wide range of mounts, it comes in around £450 (inc. VAT) in the UK.
It so happens that I do some specialised macro work as part of Northlight Images’ business, and regularly use the Canon TS-E17mm tilt-shift lens for much of my architectural work.
The fully manual 15mm lens is an interesting proposition: macro -and- wide wide angle -and- shift. The UK importer of the lens kindly lent me one to try out.
I’ve also reviewed the Laowa 60mm 2x Macro
Note – all non square images here are uncropped
Although the 15mm works with full frame and crop sensors, it’s most likely to find use with smaller sensors where the image quality is better over the full field.
I tested the lens with a Canon 5Ds (50MP) and a Canon 100D (18MP), although it’s available in a good range of mounts: Nikon F / Canon EF / Pentax K / Sony A, E, FE / Fuji X / m43
On my 100D its equivalent field of view is that of a 24mm lens. Given how often I use the Canon TS-E 24mm for architectural work, I was curious to see if the Venus lens was going to be useful for photography of the built environment.
I’m of the opinion that photography with wide lenses needs rather more care with composition for images that work. Indeed, quite a few people moving on from a DSLR kit lens, where ‘wide’ is ~28mm, find 24mm taxing, and anything below 20mm difficult to get to work.
So, I’m used to using fairly up-market lenses in this area – how was this new lens (~£450 in the UK) going to perform?
The Venus LAOWA 15mm f/4 Wide Angle Macro shift lens
The lens is solidly built and comes with a petal style lens hood.
You might look at the picture above and expect something fairly light and plastic? Definitely not, this is a mainly metal lens that has the feel and solidity of some of my old Mamiya medium format lenses.
The aperture setting ring is at the front (caught me out a few times) and has no click stops.
It’s marked up to f/32, but goes past this, so actual minimum aperture could well be pushing f/64.
The focus throw is fairly small – around a quarter turn. Most of it is at the close focus end, so take care if using as a normal wide lens.
Note that the measurements are metric only…
The lever next to the red dot is the clamp holding the lens shift in place. I’ll come back to this in more detail.
Design and MTF chart
Sample photos and videos can be found in the maker’s web site (http://www.venuslens.net)
The lens feels hefty and attached to my cameras with a solid action.
There is no electronic communication with the camera, so for my Canons, the camera thinks you are shooting with no lens attached (aperture reads 00 in the viewfinder). This makes any exposure evaluation (even with liveview) problematic, so be prepared to move to a completely manual approach to your photography.
I don’t find this approach too taxing, since I invariably work in manual mode for my architecture work, but YMMV.
Looks fine on my Canon 1Ds mk3…
The lens hood is solid, but do take care when attaching it, since the lens is quite capable of damaging the lens hood plastic mounting if you are clumsy.
The lens has a good centre-pinch style of lens cap.
The filter size is 77mm, but if you wanted to use one on a full frame camera, it needs to be thin, as with a crop sensor camera if you use any shift.
On a crop sensor camera , the lens hood is just intruding at full shift, and on FF it’s chopping off quite a bit of the image with much shift.
In the view of the mount below, you can see the ‘slot’ where the lens shifts.
It occurred to me that if I had the lens myself, I’d likely get an AF-Confirm chip from eBay and try it on the bottom of the lens mount – if you do this, please take care. You don’t want bits coming loose and getting into your camera.
My own macro work is mostly engineering related – so I’m sorry, no big collection of insects and the other staples of this field of photography ;-)
That said, here’s the first flower of the year to appear on my Loganberry bush in our back garden. I’m using the 5Ds with available light.
With wind and the difficulty of focusing a lens this close, such shots are always going to be a bit hit and miss without some careful staging.
I’ve set the aperture to f/5.6 and the DOF is pretty thin. At f/11 it’s still thin if close up, and you have a very dim viewfinder to work with.
With the camera thinking that no lens is attached, you can’t use liveview for estimating exposure.
So it’s time to see how good your estimation of light levels is, or get that old light meter out of the cupboard. Fortunately a couple of test shots and looking at the histogram confirms my estimate of lighting.
Here’s a 100% crop from the image.
If I’d used a longer focal length lens at the same magnification, the flower would be the same size in the image, but the background would be a narrower view. What’s unusual about the 15mm macro is just how much of the (blurred) background you get in the photo. This with the shift gives some interesting compositional potential, but don’t expect stunning images to be easy…
Back in my office, I’ve got the lens on the 100D.
You can see the camera mounted on a slide rail, allowing for fine movement. The slide rail is itself mounted on a StackShot motorised rail which I use for stacked focus shots with Hellicon Focus software. The StackShot is mounted on a rather hefty studio stand.
The lens is focused on the coin. This is not even at 1:2 enlargement, and look how close the 5p coin is to the front.
I’ve had to remove the lens hood.
As you can see – the camera is not quite pointing in the right direction, but is square on to the coin.
Shifting the lens downwards by its full extent shows the coin centred.
If you look at the top of the coin you can see that the camera is showing the top edge. By using shift rather than tilting the camera, the whole face of the coin is in sharp focus and there is no convergence of verticals – note how the edge of the die is also sharp.
This is at f/5.6. The blob in the background is a small pine cone.
Shifting vs. tilting the camera down
Look at this diagram which indicates the difference between tilting the camera forwards to see more of an object (the thick black line) compared to shifting the lens.
The green lines indicate the field of view of the camera/lens.
Note how both get more of the subject in the frame, but tilting also tilts the plane of focus (the red line).
So, tilting the camera gets more of the object in, but only a small part of it is going to be in focus.
I’ve written quite a bit about tilt/shift lenses that may be of interest (Using tilt/shift lenses)
Moving even closer, to get 1:1. The focal plane is now around a quarter inch from the front element. It’s almost as close as putting the ruler flat across the end of the lens, but not quite.
Lighting is not a trivial matter.
This is the full image (f/8 to get a tiny bit more DOF) and shows the basic barrel distortion of the lens on a crop sensor.
Notice the slight softness at the right hand side. This is partly the result of a slight tilt in the ruler. After taking several such photos I decided that corner to corner focus just isn’t an easy thing at 1:1 for this lens.
There is also a bit of field curvature, but working out the details takes considerably more patience and equipment than I have here.
The minuscule depth of field is one reason I use focus stacking for some of my technical work.
At the left side of this image you can see the softening of the image at the corners and a bit of chromatic aberration. With the crop sensor, this is fairly predictable and easily cleaned up. As I’ll show later, this can be applied even to shifted images.
At close distances, you really do need to consider quite carefully where you want the plane of focus.
Getting a shot like this is, much like the flower earlier, a bit hit and miss, particularly if you move the aperture ring by mistake (click stops would make this a bit less likely, since you’d feel the resistance to movement).
My coffee (100D f/8)
F/8 and using liveview for framing. Just before the shot I changed the shutter speed – the viewfinder image is dark at f/8 on a camera like the 100D.
It really would have been much easier with a tripod…
Here’s Colin, who lives down the road from me, and always says hello when I walk past.
At f/8 again, with focus set some 6-8 inches in front of the lens (100D) and fire away as he tries to sniff my camera.
It’s not cropped at all, so you get what you get (mostly images where the focus is not where you want it).
Colin is not a model, so it’s very much pot luck with a shot this close – insofar as cats have attitudes, this pic with it’s slight unbalance captures him well ;-)
With the full frame 5Ds (no shift), I’ve a distinctly wider view, such as these flowers Karen planted the other day in the garden.
A wide view (5Ds) of some of the small cacti in our conservatory I’ve grown from seed.
Using the lens as a wide shift lens
Although advertised as a macro lens, it was actually the shift movement that first caught my attention.
To be a bit more precise, you only get rise and fall with the lens, so in normal camera orientation you can raise the lens up or lower it
The small lever unlocks the shift.
It’s a solid metal lever – no easy to break plastic here.
A side view with the lens shifted by the full 6mm relative to the mount
A rear view makes this shift a bit more obvious.
There is no gearing with the shift, and the lever can feel a bit stiff, so you will need to take some care, but given that all but one of the outdoor shots in this were taken hand held, it’s not an impossible task.
What does shift do? Well, take this row of houses (100D, f/8)
I’m pointing the camera slightly upwards to concentrate on the houses, however they all seem to be leaning at a range of angles.
Sure, you can ‘fix’ this in software to some extent, but you then end up having to crop your image (see this article for more about shift lenses and why I use them).
Notice in the second photo, how I’m standing in the same spot.
All I’ve done is hold the camera level and shift the lens upwards to get the view I want.
There is no difference in exposure or aperture (f/8 in both).
Not far away, I’ve a similar view. I noted how the sun was just coming from behind the cloud, and I’ve no obvious flare.
In looking for a more modern building, I’ve the neighbourhood health centre, which I’ll use in a bit for showing how to correct some of the lens’s distortions.
As an aside, here’s the fairly light chromatic aberration towards the top of the frame (300% magnification).
The shots here are with the crop sensor Canon 100D.
A quick digression to the full frame 5Ds…
You can see in the (unshifted) image below how vignetting is quite pronounced at f/4
The lens distortion is also much more complex at full frame.
For a crop sensor it’s a fairly basic barrel distortion, but for full frame it drops off towards the sides and move towards a light pincushion distortion. This complex distortion is much more difficult to fix without using lens profiles.
Unfortunately, such profiles (when someone has made them) fail completely the moment you shift a lens.
Shifting the lens upwards on full frame shows vignetting from the filter mount in the extreme corners as well as the mixed (complex) distortions.
Back to the crop sensor (100D, f/8), with slight shift upwards, and distortion is not obvious. even with the clear lines of the health centre building.
One of the nice features of shift lenses is how you can stitch together shots taken with different amounts of shift, to get a wider view.
With two shots of the stairwell, the barrel distortion is quite clear.
I’ve processed the two RAW files with identical settings and combined them with the Photoshop PhotoMerge option (using repositioning).
With this square view, the curved lines are quite obvious.
Fortunately there is a simple way of fixing this.
The stitched image is about 5k pixels wide, by a little less high. So I create a blank document 10,000 pixels high by 6,000 pixels wide. I’ve added two guides bisecting horizontally and vertically (5k pixels and 3k pixels in).
I want these to identify the centre of the new document.
Now the crafty bit…
I drag the stitched image (having flattened it if need be) to the blank sheet. I then position it so that the centre of the image is at the same height as my camera was.
In this instance it was really easy since I could see my reflection very faintly in the window. Normally I take care to avoid such reflections in my work!
If I now open the Lens Correction filter, I can apply corrections to the image without worrying about the shift.
I may need to zoom in, but the controls now work as they would for an unshifted photograph.
A bit of correction fixes the barrel distortion, whilst a minor tweak to vertical perspective and rotation corrects for the slight error from my not using a tripod.
Looking at the result of the filter, shows just how much correction was needed.
All that’s required for the finished image is a simple crop.
I’ve somewhat arbitrarily picked 10k x 6k pixels for my background – the key is to have the centre point lined up to the centre of the lens optical axis. If the camera is level, then this point would be the exact centre of the frame with the lens unshifted.
Here’s a before and after view.
Here’s the final version… Well, I say final version, but…
I notice that I’m not quite square on to the building, and maybe I’ve not corrected the distortion fully?
The nice bit about this sort of fine tuning, is that I can go back to the merged/stitched image and try again.
With such a wide lens any movement away from perpendicular to the wall (in this instance) is very much more obvious, such as the line of the edge of the grass. If you get into using shift lenses, you’ll find such things more and more obvious as you gain in experience (and notice it as faults in other photos…)
I prefer to get this stuff right when taking the photos – one reason I take a hefty tripod with me when on a ‘paying job’.
That said, it isn’t bad for hand held and the lack of geared movement on the lens.
A bit further along the road and it’s the Merry Monarch. A pub I’ve been in precisely once in the 30 odd years I’ve lived in the area.
This photo has been corrected using the same process outlined above.
In this picture, I also tuned out the slight chromatic aberration visible for the twigs in the top left corner.
A note about stitching – Technically, you should keep the lens still and shift the camera up/down. I have a special mount for my Canon TS-E 17 and 24 lenses just for this. Certainly for macro use the parallax problems of moving the lens would be severe (hold your finger a foot in front of your face and alternate your viewing eye to get an extreme example).
You could mount the camera on an ‘L bracket’ (article) and attach the tripod head to the side to move it, but it’s not the easiest of techniques.
As I say, it’s technically the correct way to do it, but in my architectural work I need to consider this very rarely . There is a short blog post on our architecture site with some examples of stitching architectural images (all with lens only movement).
In another test, I tried a few short exposures of the night sky to see how the lens performed with point sources of light.Aberrations were relatively small with a crop sensor, but there was distinct (albeit small) coma in images towards the sides and corners of the frame with the 5Ds. Probably not a lens you’d pick for wide astro work.
Buying the Venus Laowa 15mm
Our review lens was kindly supplied by UKDigital
A thoroughly interesting lens.
If you’re not put off by its completely manual operation, then it’s capable of excellent performance as a macro and as a standard wide shift lens.
The 1:1 capability is likely to be unused by many for the sheer practical difficulty of having the focal plane only millimetres from the front element.
0.4:1 magnification increases this distance to a more workable 25mm or so.
The shift function works best with a crop sensor and allows for interesting control over background placement. I expect to see plenty of samples of small vertical objects (mushrooms/insects on twigs) with a perfectly placed soft out of focus background. Just take note that such shots will need a lot of care with camera mounting and lighting (I didn’t use flash once for this article).
Thinking about shift use for macro was genuinely new to me and I’d suggest will need some serious work to get the best from, if such lens movements are new to you.
If you’re not carefully staging and lighting things, then expect to take a lot of out of focus shots or not quite optimal composition. It’s one reason all the non stitched shots here are uncropped.
For ‘normal view’ shots, be careful with focus, since the movement of the focus ring is small at the distant end. The lens is good and sharp in the centre, but I found that f/8 or even f/11 benefited some of the architectural shots where I wanted detail across the field. I’d prefer my aperture ring to have detents at set values, since this makes it easier to open up the lens to see the subject and focus (or move the camera) and then stop down for exposure.
Despite the slightly clunky feel of the shift mechanism, I was able to use it very effectively, just as I would with a much more expensive lens on my 5Ds. The lock for shift will take a bit of getting used to, but even ungeared as it is in this lens, the shift was easy to slide as needed.
I’m almost ready to suggest that at last, there is a useful architectural shift lens available for users of crop cameras. My hesitation comes from the need for fully manual camera operation, pushing the lens out of the comfort zone for many, that and the need for post production work to ‘fix’ distortions.
The lens is very solidly built – machined metal has long been used in lens construction for good reasons.
If you use the lens much for close work, it is probably worth measuring actual focus distances from film/sensor plane to subject. On my Canon DSLRs there are marks on the top of the camera body. Quick focus setting in the field takes just a bit of string with a few knots in it.
I note that there is a classic depth of field indicator inscribed on the lens barrel. As with almost any such scale, don’t take the indications too seriously.
I rather enjoyed doing this particular review – it made me think a lot more about what I could show with the lens and how I might get a shot I wanted.
Ideal for someone who wants to experiment and doesn’t want it all done for them…
Feel free to add comments/questions below
At 15mm, the widest shift lens and the widest 1:1 macro lens you can get for any camera I’ve got. Available in a good range of mounts: Nikon F / Canon EF / Pentax K / Sony A, E, FE / Fuji X / m43
Solid build, optically best on crop sensor cameras. Fully manual operation
Check with Venuslens.net for latest (worldwide) availability and pricing
For US: B&H
See also Keith’s 2018 interview with Venus Optics
– looking at their design philosophy
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- Using a tilt/shift lens - what it is they actually do
- Focus with tilted lenses - lots more information about what's going on when you tilt a lens. See also: Focusing the view camera - External link to [very] detailed coverage of camera movements
- Keith's tilt table spreadsheet (zipped file)
- Using old lenses on your DSLR - fun with adapters
- Keith's lens reviews and lens related articles
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