Review: Laowa 15mm f4.5 Zero-D Shift lens
Review of the Laowa 15mm f4.5 Zero-D Shift lens
Keith Cooper tests an ultra-wide shift lens
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Keith has been testing the ultra-wide Laowa 15mm f/4.5 shift lens for this review.
The lens is in Laowa’s Zero-D range and it’s pretty good in that respect.
There are lots of examples of it in use, tested here on the Canon 5Ds and EOS RP. There is also a short comparison between it and the Canon TS-E17mm F4L lens, a regular for much of Keith’s Architectural photography work.
- Lens details & specs
- Using the lens
- A quick comparison with the TS-E17
There is a short video review to go with this article.
The lens will be available in several mount options: Canon EF, Nikon F , Canon RF, Nikon Z and Sony FE
EF and F late Nov, 2020 | RF, Z, FE Feb, 2021
Note: This review was written during restrictions in my home city of Leicester, so locations are within walking distance of my home.
The 15mm shift lens
15mm is a short focal length as it is. Adding ±11mm of shift to the lens lets you capture parts of a field of view that’s more like a 9mm lens (on a 35mm ‘full frame’ sensor’). That’s extremely wide.
Such width comes with advantages in what you can cover with it. It can also make composition tricky with those ultra-wide views.
If you’re unsure just how useful shift is, have a look at my article: How to use lens shift
There are many (60+) articles, reviews and videos looking at all aspects of tilt/shift lenses, See the Tilt/shift Index page for links to all, including my book about using such lenses.
I’ll look at examples of using the lens later, but first a look at the lens itself.
The lens is solidly made with metal parts and a distinctive curved front element.
Note: You can click on most images here to see larger versions. Images have been reduced in size for this web article, They have also had minimal sharpening, so take heed before deciding that the lens is ‘soft’. Also I only have one copy of the 15mm (and of my own TS-E17) so take this review as an indication of the sort of quality you should expect, not a rigorous optical analysis.
Fortunately there’s a securely fitting (bayonet) metal lens cap. With a lens like this, you really do want to get into the habit of fitting it when not in use.
The lens is manual focus. It has a long enough focus throw that focus is relatively easy with a DSLR viewfinder.
The aperture ring directly stops down the lens with clicks at full stops.
Further down can be seen the lock for setting the lens shift. Shift is via the lens ring directly above the knob. You rotate this ring and the lens shifts along the set shift axis.
Below this is a tab that releases the lens rotation (shift axis direction) movement. This is shown by the red markings. It has stops at 15º intervals. I find this much more useful than the 30º steps for the Canon TS-E lenses, since 45º is an option.
There is a scale indicating the amount of shift in mm.
Note the lack of electrical contacts on the lens. This is a fully manual lens. That means no lens EXIF data with your image files. So, no aperture info. I’ll come back to this in respect of metering and general operation.
At zero shift, it’s just a good quality 15mm lens.
It is a very solid shift mechanism. I’ve not come across this design before and rather like it.
Looking through the lens, I can see that at full aperture there is unlikely to be much vignetting from the mount.
As I’ll show, there is the normal lens vignetting you’d expect, but the EF mount doesn’t get in the way.
The round aperture is fully open or f/4.5.
Moving to f/5.6, the 5 blade aperture is very apparent.
At f/8 the aperture is small enough that I’d not expect much shift vignetting even on smaller mount openings (such as the Nikon F mount).
The lens specifications
This table is from the initial lens launch information
Internally, it’s quite a complex design, to minimise distortion and cover such a large image circle.
The image circle refers to the area behind the lens where it projects the image for your camera sensor to capture. This image is circular, and for a lens like this, much larger than is needed to just cover the sensor. When you shift the lens, a different part of the image circle is captured, giving the characteristic change in view associated with shift.
There are no filters for this lens – I’ve used the EF->RF adapter with the Canon R5 and TS-E17, where the polarising filter can be useful. For the front, you’d need big filters and an adapter. I believe Venus Optics may be working on this, but I wasn’t too disappointed not to be able to test it. I dislike the filter contraptions I’ve seen for such ultra wide lenses.
I’ve looked at quite a few shift lenses (some with tilt as well) and have found that using my old slide viewing light table is an easy way to check vignetting.
The camera is a 50MP Canon EOS 5Ds. It’s tethered to my computer allowing me to easily take a series of shots (at infinity focus) of the flat white panel.
All lenses fall off towards the corners and this is more pronounced at wider apertures.
I’ve shifted the lens fully, so as to move what is the lens centre line or optical axis off to the side. It’s roughly where the number 11 is.
Stopping down to f/11, the effect is much reduced.
Much as I’d expect.
You’ll need to look elsewhere for people with the equipment to accurately measure how much vignetting there is, but with a simple sideways shift it looks easy to deal with.
One way of enhancing visibility of the effect is to make some adjustments and posterize the view of the photos I took.
As expected, vignetting drops off as you stop down. I’m also looking for shift vignetting on the opposite side (where the aperture numbers are). This is caused by the lens mount, and as I suspected when looking in the back of the lens, it’s just not there. I’ve carried out similar tests in many of my tilt/shift lens reviews and it’s almost always there when wide open.
It can cause minor issues when stitching pairs of images taken at different shift. Normally it’s not a problem by f/8, and you generally tend to use such shifted lenses at small apertures if shifting much.
I found ~f/10 the best for the 15mm and most shots shown are at around this aperture (no lens EXIF so I’ve no aperture or focus data).
This photo has strong vertical shift, with the camera level and pointed into the entrance.
There is some darkening at the top corners, but not a lot.
This next image is shifted diagonally, up and to the right. Just the top right corner is being pushed well towards the edge of the image circle. The camera is pointing directly along the covered walkway at the left of the building.
The darkening of the sky is noticeable here and the image sharpness is dropping off quite noticeably. I’ll come back to image quality aspects in a bit, but what I do notice about the shot is minimal geometric distortion of the lines of the building.
This view shows the lens set for diagonal shift – up and to the left here.
Here’s a sequence of shots, with vertical shift, at different apertures to give a feel for how the vignetting looks in real world images.
I don’t have the equipment to do MTF charts (or patience/inclination if I’m honest). A series of shots of a brick building and some 100% crops give a good feel for the detail.
These are taken with my 26MP EOS RP. It was just easier to use than my 5Ds, and I was shooting some video clips to accompany this review. There are some 50MP 5Ds images used in the comparison with the TS-E17 notes at the foot of this review.
TLDR – more than adequate with my 50MP 5Ds
These have no chromatic aberration (CA) fixed in RAW processing. See later for more CA details.
Here’s the building at f/11, with quite a lot of vertical shift.
Here are top corner 100% crops.
Lastly, one with CA correction at f/8
With vertical shift the detail drops off in both top corners. At strong diagonal shift, the detail falls off considerably in the top shifted corner. This means that lens softness is not symmetrical in any shifted image.
My preferred sharpening solution for this is software that doesn’t assume the image is unshifted. At the time of writing, I’m getting best results with Topaz Sharpen AI (I have examples in my Sharpen AI review).
This image (f/11) is fully diagonally shifted. This means the top right corner is almost at the edge of the image circle.
First a 100% crop from the processed RAW image. CA has been fixed.
Now with Sharpen AI applied.
I’ve used a radial mask on the Sharpen AI layer in Photoshop
This reduces the strength of its application towards the optical centre of the image.
This lets me apply a higher level of sharpening to exactly where it’s needed.
I only need do this where there is important detail right in that corner. If it were sky I’d not be concerned by loss of sharpness.
Flare and CA
Putting the sun into the frame gives a not entirely unexpected amount of flare. The photo is looking out of a window at the low winter sun barely getting above nearby houses, at f/16.
In processing I’ve raised shadows considerably for effect. Look at the shot below for a more realistic example.
However, with the sun out of shot it’s at quite a low level for such a big lump of glass.
Sun is shining on the lens in this shot – I had to look quite carefully to find the flare
From the same photo, it’s also easy to see the improvement that the ‘fix chromatic aberration’ option in ACR does in removing CA, even with a strongly shifted image.
The CA is quite small – there is a tendency for some purple fringing on bright edges, also fixed by setting the purple fringing setting to +1 (the lowest).
The 5 bladed aperture gives very distinctive sun-stars at other than f/4.5. Not as obvious as the flare example above, but still very noticeable in this shot with strong vertical shift.
With no electronics, you’re going to be using a lens like this fully manually. If you’re inexperienced with manual operation, look on it as a way of thinking more what you’re doing, and an opportunity to better appreciate how light varies around you.
That said, you do need to use your camera for metering. I tested the 15mm with both a 50MP Canon 5Ds DSLR and an EOS RP (26MP).
For the DSLR, any shift will throw off the metering system built into the top (pentaprism) area of the camera. The effect with wide angle lens like this is quite extreme.
Switching to live view, there are two options. One is for the camera to produce a correctly exposed view on the screen, even if the settings are not quite right. The other (‘exp.SIM’) gives a simulation of what the captured image will look like, so going to a smaller aperture (or shorter exposure or lower ISO) wil produce a darker image on the screen.
The metering indication on the first mode is accurate, but with ‘exp.SIM’ enabled there was, on my 5Ds, about a 5 stop error. This is almost certainly because the camera does not know a lens is present – I’ve seen it with other mechanical lenses I’ve experimented with.
This sequence shows what appears to be a correct setting, followed by the result, and then how the correct exposure looks.
An exposure of 0.6 second looks OK on the rear screen, but the resulting. image below is burnt out
The aperture for all these shots is f/11
Taking the exposure to 1/13th looks too dark on the screen
However, the result is exposed as I’d want it.
I didn’t test this on other DSLRs. The correction needed (if any) should be easy to ascertain.
The 15mm at f/11 gives a huge depth of field – I found the lens distance scale perfectly adequate, especially if focusing at f/4.5 and then stopping down. My old Canon Angle Finder worked well
There is no AF confirmation, so using liveview and the rear screen may be a better solution for critical work.
The EOS RP metering for the lens worked just fine, with or without exposure simulation turned on. Setting the camera mode to aperture priority gave reliable results.
The vignetting examples shown earlier (with the deep blue sky) were shot in Av mode at 100 ISO. Shift did not cause any metering issues.
Enabling focus peaking made focusing a simple process, with direct viewing of the screen a distinct help for accurate focus. Using focus peaking and the inbuilt level made it very easy to use the camera and 15mm hand held, even with strong shift.
15mm is a very wide angle lens for normal use and I’m going to assume that you’ve seen enough wide angle shots to appreciate the effect that it has on composition, lending prominence to close up subjects and stretching corners, as a result of the wide rectilinear projection. If such short lenses are new to you, have a look at some of my other lens reviews for examples of non-shifted images.
You’ll note that all these lenses are quite a bit faster than the f/4.5 of the shift lens. The main reason for this is that in order to use shift, the lens image circle needs to be much bigger than the sensor.
So, those f/2 designs only have to project an image big enough to cover a 24mm x 36mm sensor, whilst the Laowa image circle (65mm diam) is big enough to cover a medium format sensor. Designing, let alone making a high quality 15mm f/2 shift lens would be a real challenge. It would be huge and extremely expensive.
The Laowa 15/4.5 focuses down to 20 cm, and even at f/4.5 the background isn’t going to be really soft.
This very close shot (vertically shifted) is at f/5.6 and is about as much ‘out of focus’ softness as you’ll get.
At f/5.6 the effect of the 5 blade aperture is clear. The central vertical blob of flare is from a bright light just in front of the camera, on the ground,
At f/4 highlights are rounded.
Nope, this is not lens for soft dreamy blur… You get this one for the shift.
Basic vertical shift
The normal use of such wide shift lenses is to be able to get a wide view of a scene, without having to tilt the camera upwards. Tilting the camera upwards causes convergence of verticals, not usually a desired state with buildings or trees in a landscape.
See How to use shift, for a lot more about this.
This view of the viaduct (EF14mm F2.8L II) at John O’ Gaunt in Leicestershire is far more interesting than one using shift to keep the columns vertical.
I wrote an article discussing aspects of this several years ago: ‘Vertical lines and movement‘
The examples in this review are to show the capabilities of the 15mm shift lens, not to suggest that I would have necessarily used it for a particular client or subject.
I have shift lenses of my own at 17/24/35/55/90 mm and the choice of what to use and how much much shift is one of those things that ‘just depends’. Oh, and there are no prizes for using the entire frame, so with plenty of MP to spare, both cropping and stitching multiple shots are options.
A simple example of vertical shift (sometimes known as ‘rise’) is in this shot. Vertical shift has moved the horizon downwards in the frame, enabling the whole building to be captured without an expanse of grass in front.
The VJ Patel building (VJP) at De Montfort University
Moving round to directly face the building lets me get this very strong single point perspective view.
I know this looks quite extreme, but print it at 6 feet by 4 feet and stand a few feet from it, with your eye level matching the person walking by and it will suddenly seem very realistic. It is all just a matter of perspective.
This is something I mention since I know that strongly shifted wide views bring on a sense of dislike in some people that leads them to dismiss such lenses out of hand – no, it’s tawdry over processed HDR type colours that deserve that (YMMV ;-) )
It is very easy to give quite blocky buildings a ‘spiky’ feel that can be a bit too much. Moving back a bit (if possible) and using a longer focal length may help.
Sometimes the wide angle and shift just lets you get more of a scene in.
These two views of a couple of bridges over the River Soar in Leicester have modest vertical shift to get the composition I wanted, but keeping vertical elements vertical.
A historical note: King Richard III would have ridden out over a bridge here, to go to the battle of Bosworth. It is also where his body was brought back into the city and buried about a quarter mile further in the direction I’m facing. Lost until found under a car park…
The lens works well in interiors too. Here, inside the VJP
Sometimes the view of the 15mm just helps you get all of a building in, in a cramped space, such as this shot of the new Yard building.
Rotating the camera
Vertical shift can be used just as well in portrait mode. Note the darkening of the sky in the top corner, from some vignetting (f/10).
A view of the Yard building from closer, on a particularly clear November day.
Sometimes a view doesn’t look that wide. Unless you happened to know the location I was standing.
All the normal effects of wide angle shots apply, just with shift they may be stronger in some parts of the image.
Deciding how the space will ‘look’ is very dependent on camera viewpoint and direction, with quite small movements of the camera having a noticeable change on the relative proportions of image elements.
Even at f/4.5 there would be little variation in focus in this image, but that’s not what this lens does.
Rectilinear views – round objects
The curvature of this building is not something you normally notice.
Note too the difference between the circular sign over the door and the circular symbol on the road sign. This distortion is because of the rectilinear projection of the lens. It’s why ultra wide lenses and shots of groups of people don’t mix well [see my review of DxO viewpoint for more about this].
Shifting and stitching
It may have occurred that a picture with no shift could be stitched with a shifted version. Especially since you’re not moving the camera.
This works really well. I regularly use it with and up/down shift to get ~80MP square images from my 5Ds.
Combining two images (flat stitched in Photoshop) gives me these two views of The Yard.
Very wide shots, but the sort that architects appreciate since it manages to show the whole of a project in one go, in context.
Of course, you can use the effect for more extreme views.
A normally busy shopping centre in lockdown.
OK, by this time I’m looking at creating shots ‘just because’. However I know from experience that photos like this (or a crop from them) are sometimes needed for very large wall prints.
Take this example of an up/down stitch in the foyer of the VJP.
It’s the lens fully shifted up and fully shifted down.
The images are flat stitched in Photoshop. There are some minor parallax stitching errors, because the lens is moved, even though the camera wasn’t. Venus Optics is working on a mount for the lens to alleviate this issue – it’s normally only seen with scenes where near/far objects cross.
A look at the vertically shifted image shows just the shifted view.
However, the lens mount lets you rotate lens relative to the the mount. Although there are 15º steps you can move it smoothly between.
In this next view I’m pointing the camera directly at the stairs. However, I’ve shifted the lens diagonally upwards and to the right. This is giving me a similar view to before.
Similar, but distinctively different. Note how the logo above the lift doors is larger, and the steps are level.
What we’re seeing is the normal ‘expansion’ towards the edges of a very wide angle view but just part of it. Remember that the camera is pointing to the stairs. Because of the vertical upwards component of the diagonal, it’s roughly pointing at the step with the (lower) yellow sign.
This offset viewpoint can be useful in letting you choose where the camera is pointing and then shift the frame around to get an overall composition you like. By facing along the walkway, I’ve managed to keep verticals and many horizontal lines level.
A simple left/right stitch gives a wide panoramic view. which I know some like for landscape views.
A disadvantage of this is that with a level camera, you’re stuck with the horizon running through the middle of the image.
However combining a bit of vertical shift with the left/right shift gives a left/right diagonal pair of images to stitch, giving width with vertical shift.
Shot at f/11, the darkening of the shifted corners is noticeable, and that building visible in the lower right faces the back of the VJP, not where I’m standing. Note the cloud in the left corner, showing the characteristic stretch you get with wide views like this. It varies drastically with only a bit of cloud movement, so it’s sometimes worth shooting several shots to see what looks best.
This next view of a new building beside the Soar has a distinct ‘Ministry of Truth’ feel to it – probably not the feeling the architects wanted to convey? (left/right diagonal shift)
I think I prefer the view of it from under one of the bridges I showed earlier. Shot with downwards shift.
I’m quite used to using manual focus lenses with shift and very quickly became very comfortable shooting with the 15mm. The metering issue with live-view on the 5Ds was an annoyance, but easily fixed once I’d figured how many stops there were between the ‘exp.SIM’ view and the correct exposure. I tend to use such lenses on a tripod so AF and speed of use rarely impinge.
The lens was extremely easy to use on my EOS RP, with focus peaking and a good level, available in the viewfinder if I didn’t have my glasses with me to read the screen on the back.
Physically, the lens is solidly built, and the twist to shift mechanism much easier to use than some small adjustment knobs I’ve seen. The ability to rotate the shift axis by 15º steps is appreciated. There is a very nicely fitting lens cap that you should get in the habit of using as much as possible – that front element does stick out.
Image quality apart from the extremes of the image circle is excellent, more than adequate for my 50MP 5Ds. A lot of shift can push some corners into showing vignetting and loss of detail. Both are fixable to some extent if needed in post production, especially with modern ‘smart’ sharpening software.
Optimal overall image quality came close to f/10 for both the RP and 5Ds. Whilst some might wonder about diffraction issues, this is a shift lens and experience tells me that smallish apertures make a big difference to the periphery of the image circle.
The geometry of the image has very low distortion with a touch of overall barrel distortion visible in very few images. The natural stretched ‘look’ of a wide angle rectilinear lens is just that, not distortion in my book. Chromatic aberration is slight and easily fixable. Flare is fairly well controlled for a lens with a big front element like that, but do keep direct sunlight off it. The 5 blade aperture gives very prominent 10 ray sun spikes at anything other than wide open. Indeed the one area where I’d like to see the 15mm improved is with curved aperture blades – the spikes on highlights are just a tad too strong for my liking.
All in all a very enjoyable lens to test. The lack of tilt wasn’t much of an issue for me. You get so much depth of field that many uses of tilt are redundant, and at f/4.5 the plane of focus is not going to be obvious if used to draw attention to subjects. The only lenses near to this one are the Canon TS-E17mm F4L and Nikon PC-E19mm F4E (links are to my reviews), They do have tilt, but are a lot more expensive. For other systems, the lens is available with adapters, and gives usable (but reduced) shift for medium format systems such as the Fuji GFX.
All in all I’m really happy to see Laowa pushing the boundaries with what is another relatively specialised lens.
A lens that will require practice to use effectively, but well worth the effort. 15mm with shift only seems excessive when you’ve room to step backwards, which for some of my work isn’t an option.
Currently listed at $1199 on the Laowa web site
I don’t normally compare products from different manufacturers, but since the Canon TS-E17mm is one of my key lenses for my architectural work, and several people have asked…
Those lens caps are vital
A similar look from the front.
Shift is by rotating a lens ring on the 15mm and via the knob at the left for the 17mm. Focus throw is much greater, and easier to use, on the 15mm. Shift axis direction steps are at 15º compared to the less useful 30º steps of the 17mm. The 17mm has electronics for aperture control and meters correctly (unshifted) with live view on my 5Ds. Tilt is available on the 17mm.
The 17mm is currently £2200 – the list price for the 15/4.5 is $1199
So, how does 17mm with ±12mm of shift compare with 15mm and ±11mm?
First, the 17mm, shifted upwards as much as possible.
Next, the 15mm shifted up by as much as possible.
Next, some detail from the shots (at f/10), with and without correction for CA
These are views at 200%
There is not a huge difference. For myself, I’d be happy from a practical usability point of view.
This is just one example and I could get usable results from either lens – both would benefit from adaptive sharpening at the extreme shift shown. On axis, the results are very close.
I’ve had the 17mm since it came out, and it’s paid for itself many times over. A lot depends on what camera system you’ve got. Compared to the Nikon PC-E 19mm the increase of coverage is considerable.
If you’ve any questions – please feel free to ask. There is a short video review to go with this article.
Curious to know more about what tilt and shift lets you do?
Keith has written a book that looks at the many ways that tilt/shift lenses can benefit your photography from a technical and creative point of view.
There is also a specific index page on the site with links to all Keith’s articles, reviews and videos about using tilt and shift.
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