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A Wow for Laowa?

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.

  1. The lens itself
  2. How wide is 12mm ? Is it too wide?
  3. Night photography
  4. Sharpness stopped down
  5. Flare and sunstars
  6. Filter holders (native and Nisi)

The lens:

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 .

The lens with its bulbous front element.

The rightmost number indicates the current aperture. The middle row of numbers indicates that focus at F5.6 will be between approximately 0.45 to 0.7m. If you wanted to use this as a walkabout lens without thinking, you could adjust the leftmost marker to infinity and not shoot anything closer to the focal length indicated on the right marker

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.

16mm shot taken at Lake Bonney

12mm showing the inclusion of the additional tree on the left but minimising of the furthermost trees as seen in the 16mm version

Swirling foregrounds for waterscapes become very interesting with the 12mm. Unfortunately, given I was standing in the water, I did not take a comparison shot with the 16-35mm

Night photography:

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??

100% crops from the same image taken at F2.8 30 seconds. You can see some softness in the bottom image but not a great deal of coma.

Corners of the Laowa vs Canon 16-35mm F4. The Laowa was a 30 second exposure, the Canon 25 seconds.

Final edited image of the scene demonstrated in the first image. A second foreground exposure was taken at lower iso for cleaner noise in the dark water.

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.

Not much difference in centre sharpness between the two lenses

Both are a little fuzzy in the extreme corners but canon seems a reasonably clear winner here?

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.

Different types of flare evident between the Laowa and Canon lenses.

Laowa’s sunstar is quite appealing

Filter Holders:

 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.

Vignetting of the Laowa holder with 2 slots vs Nisi holder with 3 slots

Attempted (and unsuccessful)  long exposure with the Laowa and a successful one with the Nisi holder

A) Laowa filter holder B) Nisi adapter ring attached C) Nisi holder with 3 slots attached D) Nisi with standard CPL

Conclusions

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 🙂

Beautiful skies over Encounter Bay. Shot with a Nisi filter holder and 4 stop soft GND.

Our Secrets Revealed!

In this month’s Australian Photography magazine we have listed 8 accessories that you should think about having with you when shooting landscapes.  Dylan’s image of Mellon Udrigle in Scotland also graces the front cover, so pick up your copy today and tell us what you think!

-M

The World Through Filtered Eyes

Abbreviations are plentiful in photography these days. Some of the more common ones that had me searching wiki for definitions include : ND, GND, HDR, CPL. As it turns out, except for HDR, these are all filters of some sort and the topic of the following discussion is based on Marianne and my collective experiences. I’m by no means a gear-head when it comes to photography, so much of this will be based purely on limited field experiences with these filters of varying quality and prices. Sadly, with few exceptions, the quality did tend to rise proportionally to the price. However, be mindful that price doesn’t always guarantee a good result.

Now for the abbreviations and simple real-world definitions.

ND: Neutral Density. A uniformly dark piece of glass that allows you to lengthen exposures (slow shutter speeds). These come in various strengths.

GND: Graduated Neutral Density: A piece of glass that’s dark at one end and clear at the other with a gradual (soft-stop) or sudden (hard-stop) transition. Allows you to take pictures of scenes that are bright at one end and dark at the other with varying degrees of transition.

CPL: Circular Polarising Filter: A screw on filter that minimises reflections and glare, and also enhances natural colour and contrast.

HDR: High Dynamic Range : A process of using several exposures (either from several exposures taken at the scene or from several simulated exposures generated from the single file) to allow visualisation of highlights and shadows that would otherwise be featureless in a single exposure.

Some people have asked me how I go about determining what filter to use and how many stops of light to adjust for. Unfortunately, photography is not one of the areas where I have progressed from theory to practical. Rather, I’ve learned almost entirely from practical experience while filling in some holes in the theory along the way. ‘Gut feeling’  and the use of ‘live view’ modes would be the most honest and recommended way I could answer these theoretical questions. Reflecting on my practice though, I do seem to have an algorithm when it comes to filters.

1. Would the scene benefit from the use of a circular polarising filter? (the default answer is yes since the CPL lives on the end of my lenses)

2. Do I want to slow the shutter speed enough to require the use of a neutral density filter? (beyond what I can do by lowering theISO and making the aperture as small as possible)

3. Is the lighting contrast enough that I will need to use a graduated neutral density filter? – If  yes, what strength and what strength of transition? Will I need to stack more than one filter?

4. Would capturing the scene be better off achieved with blending exposures rather than filter use?

(5.) Should I get a functional filter holder? I tend to hand hold my filters but more on that later.

With those questions in mind, here are some examples:

Example 1: Godafoss Iceland: Marianne’s image

EXIF data : 80 second exposure, F16, ISO200, 16-35mm F2.8 II lens, 5dmkII

The questions answered:

1. Would the scene benefit from the use of a circular polarising filter?

– Yes. This image demonstrates two advantages of using a polarising filter. Firstly, it reduces the glare of wet surfaces reflecting ambient light (eg. rocks). Secondly, it allows a see through effect in water. Without the polariser, the colour of the water would have been a reflection of the sky.

2. Do I want to slow the shutter speed enough to require the use of a neutral density filter? (beyond what I can do by lowering the ISO and making the aperture as small as possible).

– Yes. When capturing waterfalls, very long exposures result in the dreamy look of water flowing smoothly. The exposure of 80 seconds was achieved with a 10 stop Heliopan filter. At F16 and ISO200 without this filter, the exposure time would have been a fraction of the final result. (To be exact, 2^(-10) of 80 seconds which approximates to about 1/10)

3. Is the lighting contrast enough that I will need to use a graduated neutral density filter? – If  yes, what strength and what strength of transition? Will I need to stack more than one filter?

-Yes. The end result may look like smooth lighting, but in reality, the sky and waterfall were significantly brighter than the foreground water. The transition across the water isn’t abrupt, so I would have chosen a GND with a soft (gradual) edge. Marianne in this instance didn’t use an ND filter but simulated the effect by holding a black object (hence blocking out light) over the top half of the lens and gradually lifting it off during the exposure. This technique is probably best used when exposure times are over 10 seconds.

4. Would capturing the scene be better off achieved with blending exposures rather than filter use?

– Probably not. A similar result could have been achieved by exposing the the water for 80 seconds, and then the sky for 20 seconds and then blending them manually afterward. I don’t believe that in this case, this would have achieved a better result than what was done in the field. Moreover, 20 seconds of exposure for the sky  may have resulted in less cloud movement. Finally,  at a pragmatic level, the manual blending of exposures would have required more post processing time.

Example 2: The Tarkine Coast , Tasmania: Dylan’s image

EXIF : 4 seconds. F16, ISO50, 16-35mm F2.8 II lens, 5dmkII

1.Would the scene benefit from the use of a circular polarising filter?

– Probably Not. Polarising Filters have their maximum effect 90 degrees to the source of light (imagine pointing at the sun with your index finger ; the polarising effect is maximal in the arc created with your outstreched thumb as you rotate your hand). The CPL may have some effect reducing glare off the metal surface. In this situation, I wanted the light reflected off the water rather than trying to ‘see through’ to the sand below. The desired effect here is subjective I think.

2. Do I want to slow the shutter speed enough to require the use of a neutral density filter? (beyond what I can do by lowering the ISO and making the aperture as small as possible).

-No. As it is, I think I allowed for too long a shutter speed. In seascapes, when waves are crashing, if I’m aiming to catpure motion but not freeze it, I usually aim for a shutter speed of 0.3-0.5 seconds.  A very long shutter speed gives an entirely different look of almost mist like water floating through the scene. As it turned out, 4 seconds was not quite long enough to get rid of the sense that water was flowing around the pylons but I did take a series of further images with a higher iso and wider aperture to allow that faster shutter speed.

3. Is the lighting contrast enough that I will need to use a graduated neutral density filter? – If  yes, what strength and what strength of transition? Will I need to stack more than one filter?

– Yes. As you can imagine, the lighting in the sky was very significantly greater than that of the foreground. Also, the transition of light occurs very abruptly at the horizon where the sun was setting. The clouds above gradually faded off  in light. The effective use of a reverse graduated ND filter (darkest at the point of transition) requires these two conditions to met. If there are objects protruding above the horizon, using this kind of filter results in a very unnatural black line through the middle of that object! To smoothen the very harsh transition of a reverse GND, I often stack a second GND with a soft edge. Beware the dangers of stacking GNDs though – this can result in a colour cast for certain filter brands (Lee filters give the least cast) and it will also lengthen your exposure time which may or may not effect your desired composition.

4. Would capturing the scene be better off achieved with blending exposures rather than filter use?

– Probably not. Once again, the same result can be achieved with blending images exposed for the sky and foreground respectively. However, manual blending of scenes with such harsh transitions takes a skill and alot of patience  to end up with a result that looks as natural as a well placed filter.

Example 3: Dove Lake & Cradle Mountain, Tasmania: Marianne’s image

EXIF: 20 seconds, F16, ISO100, Sigma 10-20mm lens, 7d

1. Would the scene benefit from the use of a circular polarising filter?

– Yes. Without the polarising filter in this example, the foreground rocks under the still water would not have been visible. There will always be a degree of reflection in the distance despite the use of a CPL. In this example, Cradle Mountain’s reflection is still present as well as some foreground underwater rock detail

2. Do I want to slow the shutter speed enough to require the use of a neutral density filter? (beyond what I can do by lowering the ISO and making the aperture as small as possible)

– No. Given the still conditions and the lack of any appreciable movement, there was no need to have a long exposure. The exposure of 20 seconds was the result of the requirement for a large depth of field (F16) and low iso to reduce noise on the 7d. If anything, for this kind of image with plants in the foreground, it may be desirable to shorten the shutter speed such that there is no motion blur on the foreground plants. This can be done for this given scene by either increasing the ISO or perhaps using a slightly wider aperture up to F11 (without compromising depth of field significantly). We were fortunate that the evening was dead still.

3. Is the lighting contrast enough that I will need to use a graduated neutral density filter? – If  yes, what strength and what strength of transition? Will I need to stack more than one filter?

– Yes. In at dusk, the foreground lighting was minimal while the sky was relatively bright; hence the need for a GND. The point of transition of light is not a straight line , hence a GND with a soft edge was used. For this image, the ‘guestimate’ was 4 stops of light which resulted in this look. It would not have been wrong to use a 2 stop or 3 stop GND – the difference in result would have been a brighter sky. A hard edged filter would have resulted in an abrupt line across the already shadowed mountains.

4. Would capturing the scene be better off achieved with blending exposures rather than filter use?

-Possibly. Any situation where there are jagged lines of light transition or patches of light, forces me to consider the use of exposure blending rather than (or combined with) filters. Once again, it does take skill, practice and patience to achieve a natural result when exposure blending this kind of image. A common mistake would be to give to much ‘lightness’ to the shadowy mountains resulting in a halo at the transition between land and sky.

Example 4: St Giles Cathedral, Scotland: Dylan’s image

EXIF: 3 exposures, F16, ISO 100, 16-35mm F2.8 II lens, 5dmkII

1. Would the scene benefit from the use of a circular polarising filter?

– Not likely. I’ve found interior shots rarely enhanced by the use of a polarising filter.

2. Do I want to slow the shutter speed enough to require the use of a neutral density filter?

– No. There’s no requisite in a still scene like this to increase shutter speed. Having said that, providing that you have a steady tripod, there’s no real reason to compromise intended picture quality by increasing iso or reducing the depth of field to shorten the shutter speed either.

3. Is the lighting contrast enough that I will need to use a graduated neutral density filter?

– There is a big difference of exposure between light and shadow but the light source is coming from multiple directions. There was no effective way that I thought I could use GNDs to benefit in this scene.

4. Would capturing the scene be better off achieved with blending exposures rather than filter use?

-Yes. I took several exposures exposing for the bright light and for the shadowed recesses in the wall and blended them through manual methods as well as incorporating an automatic image produced by photomatix pro.

Example 5: Quality Control Testing!

Brighton Jetty, South Australia.

EXIF Data : 70 seconds, ISO100, F16, 16-35mm F2.8 II lens, 5dmkII

1. Would the scene benefit from the use of a circular polarising filter?

– Debatable. I chose not to use it for this image because I wanted the light reflected off the water rather than a see through effect. The image would have looked different had I used one, but not necessarily better.

2. Do I want to slow the shutter speed enough to require the use of a neutral density filter? (beyond what I can do by lowering the ISO and making the aperture as small as possible)

– No. At that time of day (predawn) , there was little enough light that I could achieve the smooth water effect through long exposure simply by using a small aperture and low iso.

3. Is the lighting contrast enough that I will need to use a graduated neutral density filter? – If  yes, what strength and what strength of transition? Will I need to stack more than one filter?

– This image was a test of GNDs. I held a ‘Hitech ‘(AUD40) 2 stop hard edged GND over the left of the image and a ‘Lee’ (AUD100)  2 stop hard edged GND over the right of the image. If I was taking this image for a smoother transition of light, I would have used soft edged GNDs. The aim of this set up was to test the colour cast that the filters were likely to produce. As you can see, on the left of the image, the Hitech filter has produced a magenta cast. On the right of the image, the Lee filter has maintained the murky blue hour colours of the day. Sometimes, I will exploit the cast of the Hitech filters  if I want to produce an image with that magenta cast in mind.

4. Would capturing the scene be better off achieved with blending exposures rather than filter use?

– Probably yes. Holding two filters at strange angles can result in grief from either scratching or, worse still, dropping them into the sea. I like to hand hold my filters so that I can easily change the angle at which they are held but those are the 2 constant risks I take by doing so. The disadvantage of using an exposure blend method is that the shorter exposure for the bright sky may not be of sufficiently long shutter speed to produce the blur of cloud motion or water motion.

To sum up my recommendations :

– Try all of the techniques available to you and find something that suits your style.

– I would recommend starting off with a few of the ‘cheaper’ filters. If you find that you get good results that are better than your exposure blending efforts, – I would then move on to purchasing the more expensive Lee (or Singh Ray) filters and expanding your repertoire of filters.

– MOST IMPORTANTLY :  Know the theory but realise that nothing replaces experience in the field for finding out what works and in what situation. Go out and shoot!

Thanks for reading and good luck with the new-age old dilemma 🙂

Canon 5dmkII, 16-35mm F2.8 II lens, ISO 50,F16, 15 seconds, 3 stop reverse GND

-D