I am currently out in Sedona Az on vacation. I always love this time of the year as the wildflowers are starting to bloom. This week I have been using the Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 macro lens on a Sony A7 and I absolutely love it. I figured this may make a fun blog post to do sort of a review on this lens/camera combination for this purpose. I have always been into macro photography but 60 and 100mm are always so tight. You can get the subject but the background is usually pretty non existent, at least, it does not really become as big of a part of the photograph as the main subject.
Up to this point my favorite wildflowe lens was the Nikon 10.5mm fisheye, while it is not a “macro” lens it had such a huge DOF that you could pretty much focus on something that was touching the lens. However the fisheye aspect made it a bit tricky to use. I had that lens for about a year and ended up selling off all my Nikon gear in a move to mirrorless. Personally I really prefer mirrorless over DSLR, the battery life is not awesome, but the cameras are small and light, they take very little room in a backpack, and are not as conspicuous as a large DSLR.
They almost always include an articulating screen which I find remarkably handy with timelapse work, and there is no mirror assembly to get jammed up. Not that there is a huge problem with that, but the less moving parts the less potential mechanical failures.
I loved my setup from Fuji, I had an Xe1, Xm1 and an XT-1, all which produce fantastic results, however I never had a very good close focus wide angle lens that would get the results I wanted with wildflowers.
The moment I saw the Venus Optics Laowa 15mm F/4 macro lens I knew I wanted one. It is a very niche lense to be sure. 15mm is extremely wide on a full frame camera, and it has fairly low distortion which would make it a pretty solid landscape lens. However the macro aspect is what really fascinated me.
I finally picked one up in late july 2016, well after the wildflower season. I played around with it a bit but missed the prime time to use it for what it would excel with.
The lens itself is very well built. it appears to be all metal and glass. It has a very solid feel to it that many lenses are missing these days. Physically it has a few quirks. First off, the aperture ring and the focus ring are reversed. This takes some time to get used to. even after using this lens non stop for a week, I still want to reach to the end of the lens to adjust the focus.
The focusing is very precise but a bit odd. Being a wide angle lens it naturally has a deep DOF, and the first 75% or so of the rotation shifts the focus only a few cm. From 1 m to infinity is almost instant. They are marked in meters which yankees like me sometimes struggle with. I know what 4 inches, 1 foot, 1.5 feet look like, but i get a bit hazy with 17cm. So it takes a few shots before I usually get it right.
Both the focus ring and aperture ring feel fantastic. There is a very smooth yet solid feel to them. No slop, no play.
The image quality is outstanding. I have never looked for MTF charts, but I would expect the sharpness scores very high. Off to the corners it does soften a little bit, but not enough that I have noticed it to be a problem. There is an ever so slight vignetting that occurs, but I personally find some slight vignetting to be aesthetically pleasing and it brings attention to the center of the frame(as long as it is not drastic)
The bokeh is pretty good too. While this lens is f/4 and wide angle it is not really great at blowing out the background. I normally find myself shooting between f/11 to f/32 in full daylight. It still manages to render the background content out of focus enough to isolate the subject.
This lens is also sort of a tilt shift lens too. The lever for it totally sucks, and it is one of those scenarios where you push the level and start trying to shift the lens, and it finally gives free and moves to the extreme. Same when returning it back, so you have to put effort in and pace your motion in order to move it partially. When using the tilt shift the vignetting gets very severe at the opposing side. It does do a good job of correcting distortion though. I spend some time playing with that today at Courthouse Rock.
Lens flare can be a bit of an issue. I have shot with some lenses that can give very pleasing lens flare, this is not really one of them. It manifests as a very sharp tight chain of shapes, and I tend to try to avoid lens flare with this one.
My main gripe with it is the barrel flange is stupid huge. it extends well out further than it really needs to. It has a 77mm filter thread and could easily have been just a 70. The flange flare at the end is just obnoxious and creates shadows where you dont want it. The close focus on this lens is literally just a few mm away from the glass, so with the size of the flange you take up nearly half the light hitting the subject. Good luck getting 1:1 with bugs unless they are walking on the lens……. which gives me a neat idea….
I have found to get real close you have to really pick and chose your shots. I picked up a cheap flash from Newwer. I generally dont like using flash, and have had some pretty hit and miss experiences with it. I much prefer natural light, but you have to work with what you got. I picked this one up because it provides TTL metering and only cost about $60. I used to have several Nikon flashes, two SB-600’s and an SB-900, and after experimenting around with them for several months I ended up hardly ever using them. So cheap was a factor. I liked the design of this flash as it moves the strobe head forward closer to the front of the lens. Then I picked up this cheap flash modifier from amazon. The idea was to curl the front of it down to roll the light over the flange and illuminate the subject.
After spending a few days I found that the flash works fairly well when aimed about 45 degrees to the side and hand holding the bounce to reflect the light back in, but my best results are without the flash, and just holding the bounce and using it as a reflector.
All the nitpicks aside, this has become my favorite lens hands down. The more I use it the better the results. Shooting Bee’s has been a LOT of fun. I set it to f/16 , iso 800, and 1/-500-1/800 shutter speed and set the focus about 1.5cm away from the front element, then just start shoving the camera into the faces of the bees and snapping away. I get quite a bit of bad ones, but some really good ones too.
As for the A7, well, its a decent body. I really wish Sony would pick up on fujis control scheme. I love the control of the XT-1, and pretty much always shoot manual because of that camera. The sony allows for manual control but I dont like the front and rear dials. If i could stuff the Sony’s guts into an XT-1 it would be a perfect camera for me. I really do dig the sensor of the A7 though. Beautiful colors.
I am eyeing the Sony A7r II very closely right now. Getting such high ISO performance AND IBIS would be huge with this lens.