Verdict: 5 stars ★★★★★
Who wants to return to the bad old days of fixed focal length lenses, manual focus and manual exposure? After trying the Laowa 9mm f/2.8 Zero-D, we do! It’s small, light, nice to use and produces terrific image quality. It’s even affordable! After using it more and seeing what it can do in a variety of conditions, we’ve increased the rating from the original four stars to five.
Manual focus prime lenses seem to be becoming a thing again. It’s like a new generation of photographers has discovered that you can get by without a zoom lens, you can learn to focus yourself, and that you can afford exotic lenses like this one after all.
The Laowa 9mm f/2.8 Zero-D is an ultra-wideangle lens made for APS-C mirrorless cameras including Fujifilm X models, Sony E and Canon EOS M cameras. Allowing for the crop factor of APS-C cameras, it gives an effective focal length of 13.5mm. There are ultra-wide zooms that offer a similar minimum focal length, but they cost twice as much as this lens and they weigh twice as much too. And you won’t find one that offers a maximum aperture of f/2.8.
Most of the time, when we want an ultra-wide lens we only want it for its widest focal length anyway, so a prime lens could save both weight and money.
This Laowa lens comes from Venus Optics, a Chinese company that produces a number of interesting super-wide and macro lenses. It has a sophisticated optical construction, with 15 elements in 10 groups, including two glass aspherical elements and three extra low dispersion glass elements. It has the designation Zero-D, which means it’s designed to deliver zero optical distortion, so these Laowa lenses are designed for proper optical quality, not just value.
But what about the manual focus and manual exposure? So this is the drawback, though it’s not as bad as you might think. The Laowa has no electrical or even mechanical connection to the camera’s focus or aperture control systems.
This means you focus by turning the focus ring, just like the old days! It’s not so easy to see when your subject is in focus in an electronic viewfinder, and the camera won’t know you’re in manual focus mode (no connections, remember), so if your camera does have a zoom-in mode you’ll need to activate it manually. Many also offer focus peaking displays, which can help judge focus more accurately.
But with this lens there’s so much depth of field that you might not be doing a whole lot of focusing anyway. Even at f/2.8 it gets everything sharp from infinity down to a couple of meters, so it’s likely you’ll need to pay attention to the focusing only of your subject is a couple of meters away or less.
Getting the exposure right might take a little more practice, but the advantage of digital cameras is that there’s no film to waste. You need to switch to the camera’s manual mode, set the lens aperture to what you want and then either turn the camera’s shutter speed control until the bar shows the exposure is correct… or guess.
This is a good time to remember the ‘sunny 16’ rule. If the sun is shining, you can get the correct exposure by setting the lens aperture to f/16 and the shutter speed to the camera’s ISO setting, e.g. 1/200sec if it’s set to ISO 200. If you want a different lens aperture, just balance it out by shortening the shutter speed.
Though actually, you can use auto exposure on your mirrorless camera via the aperture-priority A mode, thanks to the lens’s primitive stopped-down operation and the viewfinder/LCD’s auto-gain function. Reducing the lens aperture reduces the amount of light reaching the sensor, which the metering system and the screen brightness will react to automatically!
Build and handling
This Laowa lens is really nicely made. It’s reminiscent of classic good-quality SLR lenses, with a small but hefty-feeling barrel, a nice smooth focus ring with a long travel and a ‘clicky’ aperture ring with just the right weighting and no play. It’s actually really, really nice to use.
It has a small petal-shaped lens hood, though this is so shallow (to accommodate the super-wide angle of view) that it’s hard to imagine it makes a whole lot of difference. This lens also has depth of field index markings to make the most of the depth of field available and to aid ‘hyperfocal’ focusing.
For example, let’s say you’re shooting at f/11. If you turn the focus ring to line up the ‘outer’ f/11 depth of field marker with infinity on the focus scale, the focus index lines up with a distance of a little under 0.5m on the focus scale (the focus distance) and the ‘inner’ f/11 marker lines up with a distance of a fraction under 0.2m – so with the focus set this way, you have depth of field all the way from 0.2m to infinity!
This kind of depth of field measurement and hyperfocal focusing is only possible on an old-school prime lens like this one, with a long focus travel and depth of field index markers. New camera users will probably wonder what we’re talking about; old-school camera users will likely let out a cheer.
We’re used to seeing a lot of barrel distortion and edge softness with ultra-wideangle lenses, but the Laowa truly lives up to its promise of zero distortion. Obviously you get perspective distortion, such as converging verticals with tall buildings, as you tilt the camera to ‘get everything in’ when you’re right up close to your subject, but straight lines remain resolutely, uncannily straight, right up to the edge of the frame.
That’s not all. The edges are so sharp you end up doing a double-take, until you get used to what this lens can do. Most ultra-wide lenses turn to soup at the edges of the frame, but this one stays pin-sharp. Amazing.
It’s not completely perfect, though. There is some visible vignetting at all lens apertures, which only gets exaggerated if you carry out any kind of contrast adjustments. And the Laowa does show some pretty strong ‘volumetric’ distortion, where objects near the edge of the frame become excessively elongated or artificially ‘taller’, depending on their orientation. There is some chromatic aberration too, but nothing that a typical raw converter couldn’t process out.
Overall, though, this lens performs very well indeed. Yes, it’s a nuisance having to go back to manual focus and manual exposure, but the size, weight, cost and optical quality are your reward. This is old-school photography and old-school optical quality, and it’s brilliant.
Rating: 5 stars ★★★★★
More information: Venus Optics website
Guide Price: $499