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In the last month or so, I’ve had the opportunity to use Laowa’s 12mm F2.8 zero distortion lens along with its own filter holder and Nisi’s custom made filter holder. The version I have is for a canon mount. Overall, it’s a great piece of equipment for a reasonable price and takes up very little real estate in an already fully stuffed camera bag. Like most gear however, it’s not without its issues. I’ve only taken it out for three shoots and used it around the house, so there may be aspects that I haven’t had the chance to test entirely but I’m more than happy to test any aspect requested (if I get the chance to shoot!)
Unfortunately I’m not really tech-savvy when it comes to lens reviews, I just want to know how it serves my specific purposes. With that in mind, this is a rough index of what I’m going to comment upon.
- The lens itself
- How wide is 12mm ? Is it too wide?
- Night photography
- Sharpness stopped down
- Flare and sunstars
- Filter holders (native and Nisi)
I’m not going to bother with discussing things like packaging. It’s sufficient and professional . What surprised me out of the box was how compact this unit is. It weight (610g) would allow me to bring it on hikes though perhaps only those where astro photography is a priority. It feels solid in the hand and appears to be built like a tank. Its size also allows a huge bonus for a lens of this focal length ; the ability to use 100mm filter kits! As a prime lens with manual focus, it would be difficult to achieve quick ‘on the fly’ shots without risking focus issues. Having said that, because it’s a prime lens, it has a nice feature of charting hyperfocal length on the lens itself . You can hence position focus at infinity at one end , and make sure there are no objects closer than the focal length marked at the other end of the scale for your given aperture (see diagram below). I have yet to shoot panoramas with this lens but there is a marked ‘entrance pupil’ on the lens that assists with finding a nodal point .
How wide is 12mm?
The answer is VERY wide. This is probably best shown with some images which I took at Lake Bonney. The first image was taken with my Canon 16-35mm F4 lens. The second image was taken with the Laowa albeit, standing a few metres further back. You can see the inclusion of the tree on the left. This makes for a lot of possibilities with sweeping foregrounds but could lead to minimising of anything that’s not very imposing in the background.
As an owner of the 16-35mm F4 lens , I was making do with F4 for night images so once again, the prospect of a wide angle F2.8 lens was extremely appealing. The other lens I was considering was the 16-35mm F2.8 III. My version II has taken a fair battering and I had always had issues with coma and softness in the corners which meant that I was willing to sacrifice one stop of light to use the 16-35mm F4. Finding focus in the dark has always been a little finicky but achievable. With this lens, as in the example illustrated above, I set the far focus for my aperture at infinity meaning that I could have everything in focus from approximately 1.5m and beyond. During this shoot, I did not check to see whether the infinity focus itself is true infinity. This technique worked quite well for me. The main issues I wanted to explore were a) how sharp is this lens at F2.8 at the centre and in the corners? b) how does this compare with the canon 16-35mm F4? c) Did the focusing method above result in ‘missed’ focus. The images below demonstrate the results. The Laowa is a little soft at the corners but still better than the 16-35mm F2.8 II. Centre sharpness was just fine . One interesting phenomenon not related to the lens itself was the ‘ole 500/focal length rule for still stars. At 12mm , I though I could therefore get away with 40 second exposures and have no trailing. For some reason, exposures of 30 seconds or more still showed significant trailing which means that rule doesn’t seem to apply for very wide focal lengths??
Sharpness at F11 and beyond
Most of the time in the field, I’m shooting between F11 to F16 since I tend to shoot with foreground elements present. The images below show the centre vs corner sharpness at 100% viewing in LR of the RAW file (with shadows lifted so you can see the detail). They were taken within a minute of each other with the same lighting conditions. I think there is very little between the Laowa and the Canon lens at the centre while there is some softness of the Laowa in the corner comparison. Note there wasn’t a lot of chromatic aberration even with this kind of dramatic lighting going on.
Sunstars and Flare:
Stopped down to F22, I’ve had a couple of opportunities to shoot sunstars. The 7 aperture blades do seem to provide a good star but perhaps not as aesthetically pleasing as the Canon 16-35mm F4 ( and F2.8II). Shooting directly into light does give a circular flare which I’ll have to experiment with when there’s more direct sun.
I received my lens with Laowa’s own filter holder. I had heard some horrendous stories about it so I was prepared for the worst. In actual fact, the current version I received was nowhere near as terrible as was made out to be. It clips directly on to the front of the lens and has slots for two 100mm filter and a 95mm polariser. I don’t own a 95mm CPL so this was an aspect of their filter holder that I could not test. It did cause vignetting but once again, not that troublesome as you can see from the images below. It’s main limitation (other than the 95mm CPL ) is the fact that ND filters with foam gaskets to prevent light leak just do not fit into the slots in the correct orientation. In an attempt to slot them in with the foam facing outward, you can see the somewhat amusing result below.
Nisi filters however do provide a custom adapter ring which also easily slots on to the front ring of the lens. It allows their standard CPL to be used as well as slots for 2 ND filters. I wanted to see how the three slot filter would perform and unfortunately , with three filter slots in place, even the Nisi holder does result equivalent vignetting as Laowa’s holder. Since I have two filter holders, I will have to remove one slot from one but I can see that for many shooters, having to remove one slot might limit options stacking when using other lenses and wanting to stack three filters. I will be using the Nisi version of the holder simply because this allows me to use a CPL and ND filters.
Overall, I think the Laowa 12mm F2.8 is a good quality lens but not quite at the standard of the better Canon L lenses. It’s good for photographers whose style leans toward expansive foregrounds and grand scenes. It’s also a very good lens for milkyway photography. It’s a solidly built lens that so far seems durable (I’ll have to comment on this a year down the line) and there are options for using 100mm filters which is pretty unique for a lens of this focal length. The Nisi filter holder is definitely the more practical of the two filter holders that are available. I don’t think I would bring this as a sole lens for a backpacking trip since it would be too wide for many documentary or detail scenes. For those used to shooting not quite so wide , it may take some time to get used to finding different styles of compositions. For $1400 AUD, it’s less than half the RRP of the Canon 16-35mm F2.8 III and about the same price as the 16-35mm F4.
I’ll be honest in saying that before I received this lens, I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to buy it. But now that I have it, I do realise that it has opened up doors. I’ll pretty much use it exclusively for my milky way shoots and will definitely bring it for most other landscape shoots excluding the multiday backpacking trips. I hope that the images and information was helpful to you and for those of you who own it, I’d be interested to hear of your experiences! It’s a ‘wow’ to Laowa from me 🙂
I thought it might be interesting for those who hike a lot as well as those who don’t do much hiking to take a look at how I felt various pieces of equipment performed during our 6 day 5 night hike in the Western Arthurs. I’d say it was a pretty stern test for most pieces of gear as we experienced all sorts of conditions during that time. I’ll divide it into a few sections and I’d love to hear your comments if you’ve had more experience with a certain product or you want to know some more. Where products are currently available, I’ve tried to include links in case you’re looking!
- Berghaus Jacket : (too old to find a link) 9/10 . This black jacket has been with me for over 10 years now and is still going strong. Waterproof in light rain but as with other fancy jackets that claim 100% waterproof, it eventually does get wet when the rain persists for hours and comes in all different angles.
- Cheap rain pants ($20 from Rays): 5/10. They were super light and did a surprisingly good job at keeping out the water. I wore them over my hiking pants and gaiters . The 5/10 is because they were not at all durable and eventually ripped after snagging on a branch. I might look into some lightweight gortex alternatives eventually.
- Sea to summit Quagmire gaiters: 10/10. Can’t complain about these. Relatively light, did the job as best they could. Even when the buttons were clogged with mud and couldn’t snap shut, the velcro held out the moisture and mud .
- Salmon midcut boots: 9/10 : Remained waterproof throughout except when water came in from above. Awesomely comfortable for my wide feet. No blisters or even a hint of them despite some long days .
- Various beanies , gloves, neck warmers did fine. Nothing special about these that deserved mention nor a need for getting anything fancier than what I had.
Food and Food preparation
- Jetboil: 10/10. These are simply amazing for weight and convenience ‘if’ you are just preparing rehydrated meals. Not for anyone who actually likes to ‘cook’ while on the trek. This was never on the cards so it didn’t matter to me. 1 small sized gas cannister lasted the whole trip with some to spare. I used it for every lunch and every dinner on the track.
- Utensils: 1/10 I had some polycarbonate utensils that snapped early in the trip. Note to self : get some titanium ones for future treks. I brought a mug with me but really didn’t need to use it since I didn’t bring any hot drinks or soups as such!!
- Meals : 0-7/10. I went freeze dried meals for both lunches and dinners. Snowys outdoor store has them at a great price and free shipping around Australia. It was great for weight conservation, not good for the stomach. Overall, backcountry meals tasted OK and were easier on the stomach. For some reason, ‘outdoor gourmet’ brand tasted great but had terrible effects on my stomach causing diarrhoea on a few of the nights. At the end of a long day’s hike, I could easily finish a double serving for dinner (175g for backcountry or 195g for outdoor gourmet) but ended up giving some of my food to others where we were ‘base camping’ from a location. Mind you, I do only weigh 60kg. For convenience, you may wish to avoid meals which require opening two packets (often a second packet of mash). On future trips, I will be trying lunch wraps with packaged tuna and perhaps a box of rivita type biscuits with a tub of peanut butter . The BBQ pork I brought however, was amazing and I should have brought more than 2 packages for treats!
- Snacks: 7/10. I think it’s easy to overthink the snacks. Basically, bring what you’re going to eat and what you’re going to find palatable. I thought it would be a good idea to mix up M&Ms, raisins and nuts for trail mix. I ended up hating the nuts portion of it because guess what, I don’t snack on nuts at home. I wouldn’t worry about food groups too much for a trip of this duration , just make sure nothing goes to waste and the nuts did go to waste as I ate all around them in the end. Muesli Bars were great – I consumed about 2 a day on top of the 1kg of trail mix I brought. Just don’t bring anything crumbly or you’ll be sucking it out of the packets.
- Drinks : Water from flowing sources in the Tassie highlands was fine. I did bring a Sawyer filter system and used it when we were forced to camp at the top of Alpha Moraine on day 1 without any flowing water in sight. Filtering puddled water seemed a good strategy. I brought enough gatorade for 4L but wouldn’t do it again. There were times when I just wanted pure water and my nalgene 1L bottle was filled with gatorade. Unless of course you plan on bringing two water systems (which I didn’t : just a 1L bottle and 2L of sawyer fillable sachets for filtering). In the future, I’m going back to drinking pre-prepared milo/powdered milk/sugar combinations with meals.
** All up the meals and snacks weighed about 4kg**
- Pants: I found no role for softshell pants on their own for this trek. Though comfortable and relatively weather resistant, once wet, these weigh a ton and take forever to dry out and still need additional cover for extreme conditions. This was my experience from last years trip, so this year, I opted not to bring any and just hiked in regular hiking pants that had a zipoff option. This worked well for me. Camp shorts were useful for the warm day we had. Keeping a clean pair of thermals for the evenings was useful. Gross as this sounds, I only changed underpants every 2nd day but hey, the clean ones were only going to get soiled immediately yea??
- Tops: I’ve tried all sorts of stuff from merino to just simple sports running tops. For the conditions we were in, normal running T shirts did the job just fine. In fact, I just wore one the whole trip. Nothing fancy required. Merino stuff (I’ve found) just tends to rip with repeated use, and wearing it as a T shirt rather than a warming layer seems very cost ineffective to me. I also find they stink MORE when wet with my sweat (a personal oddity perhaps?). A thermal top for night time was also great. A mid layer is also good for the cooler days and while resting. I brought a down jacket but it never really got cold enough to require it so it was consigned to pillow duty at night.
- Other: I brought three pairs of explorer socks and like the jocks, changed them every 2nd day – often for pscyhological benefit. A pair of cheap crocs is useful for walking around campsites as well.
- How many sets of cloths? Too much! I actually brought 2 pairs of most things and ended up using one of everything I’ve mentioned above. That’s a fair bit of weight and space you’re saving. The second set ended up being used for the car ride home to feel clean but these could have been left in the car.
- Dry sacks: You want clothes to be 100% dry at the end of the day so despite the waterproofness of your bag, I’d still stuff clothes in a dry sack. Oh and reserve one for ‘that’ vomit inducing bag of soiled clothes that you’ll eventually have to rinse out on your return!
Pack / Tent / Sleeping
- One planet 80l Strezlecki backpack: 9/10. I’ve had this tank of a pack for the last 7 years now and have had no issues with its durability or waterproof-ness. Even in the horizontal rain from this trip, or drenching fiordland rain around Milford sound – the water simply does not penetrate despite hours of constant exposure (without a rain cover either). The only issue is that because of its toughness, it is fairly rigid and compared to the packs the other guys were carrying, there were far less options to attach gear on the exterior. My narrow waist means its always a challenge to find a pack with the right length yet be able to strap tightly enough around my waist to reduce the burden on my shoulders. This pack has done it the best of several I have tried.
- Hilleberg Nammatj2 : 9/10 Tank of a tent and withstood winds which I’m told were getting up to 80km gusts (possibly more?). Roomy inside for 2 and the vestibule is fairly large but can get filled quite easily with 2 occupants’ gear.
- Talus I sleeping bag with +8degree liner. 9/10 This was a good combination for me. The Talus weighs in at only 850g and combined with the liner, I was toasty and warm though the nights did not get below 5 degrees (I don’t think). I’m a very cold sleeper. I would need a warmer bag for colder conditions
- Sea to summit sleeping mat: 9/10: No issues at all with this. Before I started using these, I’d have restless nights sleep due to comfort. No longer! by 60kg bony frame does not touch the ground any more. The R value of the mat I was using was 3.3 – again more than adequate for the conditions we experienced.
- 5dmk4 : This was my main camera of the trip paired up with the 16-35 lens most of the time. This isn’t a camera review but rather how suitable it is for a multiday trek. Durability was no issue though I did not test it in serious moisture. The AF did very well for ‘on the go’ images. I went through 2 batteries during the trip (not right down to 0%) while firing off about 900 images. One thing that is very useful about the mk4 is the touch screen. I don’t feel like I have to use a remote when using the mk4 as even the slightest of glances will trigger the shutter and it can be used for bulb exposures.
- Sony A7r2 : I brought this along as Luke and Tim were both Sony users so it was good to have some redundancy. Since I brought it with me, I actually ended up using it quite a lot. For shoots after the first day, I was shooting with a 2 camera setup with each lens attached ready to go depending on whether I wanted a wide or telephoto style of image. To have this setup brings significant weight but I didn’t have any issue with carrying 25-28kg on my back for this trip so I would do the same for future trips. Despite not using it as much as the mk4 I still did go through 2 battery lifes for 400 shots. The convenience of the sony over the canon being that you can charge it directly and that if you’re using native lenses, it is a lighter setup.
- Gopro hero5: This was sturdy , provided great footage and I basically did not have to worry about it even any conditions. I’d bring it along for future trips without hesitation. The battery life went down to 50% a few times and was recharged without issue.
- Canon 16-35 F4L : Definitely bring a wide angle with you to the Arthurs. The F4 was even usuable for night images when paired with the 2 bodies I was using which had great high iso capability. AT 800+ grams, it’s quite a weight investment for the hike though.
- Canon 70-200 F4L : It’s personal choice as to whether you bring a mid range zoom like the 24-70 or 70-200 or a second lens at all! I used the 70-200 quite a bit and it gives many different opportunities for compressing planes and for images of people perched on ledges. I ‘d say bring the second lens only if photography is your primary priority for the trip. I’d have lived with just the wide angle though the 70-200F4 actually weighs less than the 16-35!
- Sirui K30x ballhead and N220 series tripod: These aren’t the lightest of tripods or combinations but they definitely did the job when the wind was blowing. Once again, how close you stick to your ‘normal’ set up depends on how high photography lies on your priority list when hiking in the wilderness. A sturdy tripod will be missed on a trip like this especially if you are planning on shooting long exposures.
- Nisi V5 pro and filters : To this point I have been more than happy with any Nisi product I have received. The V5pro holder is the sole exception. Unfortunately I received this very shortly before departure so its limitations came as a surprise on the trip. Once again, this post isn’t a photographic gear review as such so I will say that the holder itself is sturdy and more than capable of withstanding a wilderness trip. Just use the regular V5 if you’re a Nisi user. All up , my hard case and 5 filters I brought weighed close to a kilogram but it is my shooting style to use filters and I had accustomed myself to carry all of this gear. A rectangular slot-in filter kit could be foregone for simple screw on NDs if you want to do long exposures. For me, my regular set up is worth its weight in order to get the best out of the scenery photographically.
- Aquapac Stormproof : I used this case as a ‘front pack’ strapped on to my backpack straps with carabiners. This worked quite well for me (even if a little squeaky at times). I had no concerns with moisture infiltration as the case is pretty well described by its name. Ergonomically though, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to stuff a DSLR + UWA along with a second lens. Getting things in and out could be a little frustrating.
- Other camera accessories: Along with the filters, a few other odds and ends were stored in a waist pouch which sat on my hips attached to a waist belt. Inside the case were a ziplock bag of Kim wipes (highly recommended and easily obtainable from any friend you might have working in health care or science!), an air blower, a hahnel remote for the sony, a second neck warmer to use as a blackout tool for long exposures, 5 canon spare batteries and 3 sony spare batteries. I brought a rain cover which I never had to use.
- Headlamp : I used a pretty standard Kathmandu headlamp. Nothing exciting to say here.
- Charger: Xiaomi make an awesome 16000mah charger. During this trip, I charged 2 sony batteries, my go pro a few times and my phone to some degree every day and it still read 2/4 bars. This is a good weight investment if you need it for those purposes.
- Mobile phone /GPS : I had a Samsung galaxy 7 with Avenza and view ranger apps installed. Both worked fine on a previous trip to Canada but for some reason, the location finder chose not to work on this trip??? This made solo trips on my first visit more risky and I was disappointed that this did not work as intended. It now seems to be back working since I’ve come home? I’ll have to find out why it didn’t work during the last trip before I can take in confidence anywhere as my sole navigational device.
- My Garmin forerunner 235 watch went for the whole trip without needing a charge (though I did not record any activities).
- Toiletries : Normal toothpaste and toothbrush were fine though I did worry if the toothbrush was going to snap like my cutlery. I brought a whole toilet roll and used 2/3 of it (with several nights of diarrhoea mind you). For this trip, I successfully controlled my pace not to sweat too much so I didn’t feel like i missed having the option of getting clean with wipes but I did see the other guys using them regularly.
- Sunscreen is essential . I bought one which was a combined insect repellant and did not come away with any insect bites for the whole trip? I think that’s got to be a first!
- A small bottle of alcohol hand gel can serve two purposes. The first is for cleanliness around food preparation. The second, is to use any leftovers at the end of the trip to wipe down feet/socks and boot interiors with . I’ve found this to be a fantastic deodourising strategy , particularly if a plane flight or bus ride is coming up!
- Map and Compass should be part of anyone’s kit over and above the electronic equipment.
- PLB. We had three of these in our group and there was only one occasion where I borrowed one when going shooting alone. It’s advisable to have at least 1 between 2 on a trip like this I would think.
So there you have it ! Pretty much everything that I had on my back or wore during the trip. Your thoughts would be appreciated 😉
Along the way, the road conditions were fantastically smooth and not at all tricky like they were on the way north . Our travel time was therefore far shorter which allowed us a few stops at Lake Louise (to return the cards from Pyramid lodge which we accidentally hung on to) and then at Morant’s Curve before arriving in Canmore at 4pm with the girls having slept in the car. They were again very good during the travel time during the day and are fast becoming seasoned travelers in all modes of transport.
That evening, Marianne went out to Policeman’s creek where despite some nice cloud, no light occurred . The evening light gig certainly seems like mission impossible around here with the Rockies to the west. She met Stacy , the guy behind ‘sentinel photography’ and we’ve made another contact through this shoot.
Dinner was late at the ‘famous Chinese restaurant’ . Canmore is quite easy to navigate with north south avenues and east west streets. Or maybe the other way round. It was reasonable Chinese food which we always crave while we’re travelling. After a good fill, it was home for the last night of late dawns with the change back to non daylight saving time to happen in 24 hours.
Saturday November 5
Dawn at Policeman’s creek. Curiosity got the better of me as I got to the location in the still of night and wandered around looking for alternative spots but the spot people shoot from does indeed seem to be the best. That morning, I met a woman from Red Deer house sitting in Canmore, a mountaineering guy from Canmore and Stacy was again there so we all exchanged pleasantries while witnessing an absolutely amazing dawn unfold! Two in a row! What were the chances of that given our trip?? It was good to be back home not too late either given that this location was literally 1km from our accommodation.
Lodges of Canmore is very well set up and the 3BR apartment we have is the best we’ve had all trip. The price is a little higher than we would like but far better than what we have paid for similar setups elsewhere. That morning, we did as much exploring of the town streets as the girls could tolerate. They absolutely loved Café Books which is a great store on the main street (8th ave).
It was a pretty chill and relaxing day as we finished off with another attempted sunset shoot at Spray Lakes. The wind was blowing a gale and predictably, nice late afternoon light faded into nothing. A home dinner and bed time before readjusting clocks to the new time.
Sunday November 6
I had a couple of choices this morning – I could have hiked up to Grassi Knob and photographed the 3 sisters again, or I could explore Kananaskis county. I figured that the workout part of me wanted to go up the mountain, but I made up for that later in the afternoon by doing a 6.5 k run on a treadmill. Instead with rain and wind forecast, I headed down to Wedge Pond.
In the dark, it was clear that this would not be a great spot. The water was all rippled up from the wind and without any foreground matter of interest, it wasn’t that great a spot. I went briefly searching for the reflecting pools of Mount Kidd but didn’t look too hard after Dani told me that they had been washed away by floods. Instead, I just took a walk down the Galatea Lakes trail and made a random turn off the footbridge as I thought a bend in the river might give me great views of Mount Kidd. Fortunately, that hunch was proven correct even if compositions were limited. Light didn’t really happen at dawn but there was passing light over the mountain well after dawn. The sony seemed to perform very well in these green foresty conditions.
Later that morning , Marianne took a walk down the main street again while I entertained the kids at the train playground in the lovely set Three sisters village south of Canmore. As usual, it was time for Jaime’s sleep and I decided to have one as well. The lack of a sleep in was really starting to catch up on me.
Our last evening was spend attempting for sunset light again at Spray Lakes with some success as at least it fizzled out only after starting to go pink. We killed some time filling up petrol and using a car wash before heading to dinner again at the famous Chinese restaurant. Early sunsets were now at an Adelaide sunset time! That evening, we had a bit of resorting to do for the drive back out to Calgary . I offered Marianne one last chance to go out shooting at dawn to at least experience the light out in the field but she chose not to again.
Monday November 7
What a boom dawn! Even from 1 hour out you could start to see something happening and that’s the beauty of being out early. It allows for some degree of indecision before settling somewhere. I chose Two Jack Lake since the other easy access locations had already yielded some results such as Vermillion lakes and back at Policeman’s creek at Canmore. The problem with Two Jack is the distant mountain range and the relative lack of any foreground matter of interest particularly when there are no reflections to work with. For that reason, I think I was the only one out there until some late comers from Calgary arrived on the scene way after the peak light had finished.
After a quick packup routine (probably our record!) we headed out from Canmore since none of the shops were open until 11am. We ended up driving to Signal Hill in Calgary where there was an enormous Indigo bookstore. You could literally get anything book related there and we spent a good hour there exploring before having lunch at a random hillside. The girls were getting good at adapting play to whatever was around.
Thereafter, it was a final night in the downtown Best Western followed by an uneventful flight out from Calgary. There was an amusing moment going through US customs where Jaime had an adorably avoidant photo taken at the customs checkpoint but we weren’t allowed to keep it ! This was basically the end of our trip photographically and the rest of the time would be spent in California mostly attending a medical conference.