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 🙂
This January, I had the good fortune to hike part of the Western Arthurs Traverse with Luke Tscharke, Tim Wrate and Francois Fourie. This was a trip that we had planned for last year but had to pull out due to the bushfires preventing access to the trailhead. The weather gods this year did smile upon us at times and we all head a great trip. In all, we spent 6 days and 5 nights on the trail and experienced just about everything we could have hoped for. This is an ‘adapted’ version of the diary I kept while on the track.
Saturday : 21st Jan :
Hobart’s as beautiful as ever but there’s some strange connection between my arrival here and fatal hit and run incidents. Last year, a woman and her unborn child, this year 6 dead as a result of a crazed driver hurtling through Bourke Street. I’m in a better frame of mind thanks to a far lesser state of anxiety from Marianne and a happy farewell. I was sad to be leaving Charlotte’s affections while it was hard to feel the same about screaming Jaime as I left for work that morning. Ah the terrible twos. QANTAS really do need to get their act together. Nearly all of their flights were delayed or late as I listened to announcement after announcement in at the boarding gates. The rest of the process though, was smooth and thanks for Francois’ hospitality, I spent the night resting up here in Hobart before hitting the trail. Marianne predicted 130,000 steps for the week but I thought it could have been more!
Monday 23rd January
(Written in retrospect and also some parts added in after the trip)
Reviewing the last 3 days will be difficult to put to paper as the expectations of the hike are just too incredible. Last year , I wrote an article for Australian Photography Magazine about managing expectations (which will be published in April). So this year, as we were headed in, I’m not sure whether it was a defence mechanism on my part to play down expectations or whether I was distracted ; but there wasn’t the same degree of hype.
Luke & Tim were waiting for us with their massive bags undoubtedly full of post trek comforts I wish I had packed . With all things jammed in the rear of Francois’ car, we headed for the trailhead in somewhat grey conditions and stopped at New Norfolk Banjos for morning tea and a lunch pickup. This seems to have become a routine for us in the last two years! Getting past the town of Maydena was a huge psychological relief as that was where our literal roadblock form last year lay. Once we were at Scott’s Peak Dam, it was hard to gauge what the Arthurs would ultimately look like as we knew we had hours of scrub and mud to squelch through before the plains opened up for views of the range. Two people who had just completed the full traverse looked reassuringly ‘not that muddy’. Famous last words!
The first hour of walking saw little in the way of mud but for the next two, approaching and beyond Junction Creek, it was pretty foul stuff to get through. Keep your head down and walk, you just had to. Most of the decisions to be made were around going through the middle or attempting to skirt around the puddles and bog. Both ended up in many a foot, knee and even hip into the mud. Not the most pleasant of experiences and the mud would never truly leave the equation for the rest of the trip.
Our walking time was 1315 to 1600 to Junction Creek. After the plains slog and a short unintentional detour off route, we arrived at the base of Alpha Moraine at 550pm. We decided to push for the top of the range that evening and while I didn’t sweat much , it still took a lot of energy to get there at 745 pm for ‘no light’ as a reward. We couldn’t look far for camping spots as light was fading by the time Tim and Luke arrived at 830pm. The wind was also picking up at our relatively exposed camp site. I thought I would sleep a welcome sleep of the dead, but it wasn’t to be; yet another restless and sleepless camp night after the first of many freeze dried meals cooked in the vestibule of our tent.
The morning looked grey as I peered out of our tent, but I was keen to head for Mount Hesperus. The others were initially more keen to take it easy after the previous day’s slog, and given that my phone GPS failed, I was not keen to roll the dice on getting lost in the mist covering unknown terrain. Now that I’ve walked the terrain, I’d have had a little more confidence in doing so. The light ended up being absolutely beautiful but I was in no position to shoot the peak of it. Ironically, the light was best seen from closer to the camp site. Nonetheless, we all still captured a stunning introduction to the range.
The rest of the day was spent making our way up and down toward the saddle between Mount Sirius and Orion. As we did this , we passed Lake Fortuna in the mist, and Lake Cygnus which were both remarkable spots on their own but for the waiting jewel of the range in Lake Oberon beyond. Climbing up and down Mount Hayes was a challenge , particularly one section of steep scree. Our aim was to have lunch at Square Lake past Procyon Peak. We thought we would be there on a few deflating occasions , only to be led to another ascent and descent en route. When we finally did get to Square Lake, we stopped for an hour’s lunch and napped on the rocks in bright sunshine. It was there that I ate my infamous Kung Pao chicken meal.
Following our sunbaked snooze, we gathered water from Square Lake’s outlet creek and headed to the pass above Lake Oberon. The uphill was surprisingly short , taking only 30 minutes or so. Francois and I then darted off to take a look at the famous entrance to Oberon and its numerous Pandani. We believe that we found the 3 pandani made famous by the late Peter Dombrovskis and for personal reasons, I opted not to take an image here.
After pitching tent and relaxing , the late afternoon and evening blue sky shoot was from Mount Sirius and Square Lake. Despite plain skies, it was such a beautiful evening and we knew we wouldn’t get much sleep due to astro conditions being on offer. The milky way was predicted to rise at around 230am.
Quadrantic: Beautiful evening light illuminates the quarzite peaks of Mount Procyon and Mount Hayes in the background. Luke Tscharke is seen in the mid ground as well as two tents along the shores of Square Lake for scale.
Sleepless while waiting for the stars is one thing, sleepless because of Kung Pao diarrhoea is another (or was it the Beef Bourginon???). Explosive diarrhoea all night including an effort at the Oberon entrance was not a pretty sight and left me drained for the rest of the day. Luke, Francois and I shot some astro frames before meandering along the numerous intersecting paths offering views of Oberon with pandani in the foreground. It was a magical kind of dawn and morning as we watched moonrise, milkyway rise and then sunrise within a few hours and I’m hoping the images represent my wonderful memories from that morning (health issues aside) . Following breakfast, it was yet another jaunt up to Mount Sirius to catch receding shadows of Mount Pegasus on the Lake. I think we had more photographic success from up here again.
After breaking camp, we bumped into two very seasoned brothers who were 100% gristle and sinew and knew the path probably better than anyone. They gave us some pointers while we listened and soaked in the experience. Then, it was time for the famous descent into Lake Oberon.
Honestly speaking, some may make light of it , but I had never done anything quite like this before. It really was rock climbing for 30-50m of the trail where false moves could have resulted in serious injury. Nonetheless, we all made it down (several times during the next few days) without incident. On arrival to the camp site, the weather was balmy but expected to turn. With that in mind, we all took a cleansing dip in the freezing waters of Oberon while getting ourselves refreshed. A quick afternoon nap came and went and the weather began to look inclement.
Francois and I tried to head up Mount Pegasus before dinner but I chickened out at the sight of ascending fairly smooth and sheer exposed rock faces. I feared with my 2 hours of sleep that coordination might not be at my strongest. I earned a new respect for those who continue on to do the whole traverse with heavy packs on.
We all settled down to use our phones at a tarn just above the campsite which still strikes as being odd. Yes , the weather forecast is helpful but the sight of four walkers sitting down staring at their phones seems kind of like an antithesis. After dinner, there was no opportunity for photography as strong winds, then heavy rain set in and did not let up. By 8pm , I was asleep in bed and having the best camp sleep I had ever had.
6am : no sunrise , steady rain and we were getting battered by wind. To pee or not to pee, that was the question ……bladder wins out and an opportunity to refix a few stray guy lines.
8am: everyone decided to skip breakfast and stay asleep. A good call as the buffeting continued. it was good opportunity to catch up with diary writing.
1pm. Finally we ventured out of our tents for lunch and inspected the sogginess of our beach /mud camp. In retrospect, it wasn’t the best idea given the rain would predictably transform the sand into a boggy morass. After lunch, more snoozing as the rain continued but finally by about 4pm, it relented! I decided to go walking to the tarn for some attempted long exposures while Luke shot the various streams around the base which are clearly visible from above.
730pm: After an early dinner, I decided that I would go up for sunset on the saddle given that there were patches of blue sky. What a grand decision that ended up being as I made the ascent in surprisingly short time (20 minutes). I was greeted by blazing pre-sunset light and shot this from halfway up Mount Orion before heading to the Pandani forest overlooking Oberon. The sunset eventually petered out and as I was heading back to the trail, I bumped into Luke and Tim who had decided to come up after me. Together we went down in the dark with safety in numbers. The only incident being Tim’s shoe getting wedged between a root and rock necessitating some extraction. That night, sleep did not come at all which wasn’t surprising given that I had slept 18 of the last 24 hours.
A keen 430am awakening to the sound of our alarms and we set ourselves to climb up for one more view of Lake Oberon. Each time we did the climb I felt that it had become more instinctive and less of a risk. The conditions themselves looked promising and ended up delivering in rays of golden light! So much so , that we hung around shooting well after peak light. It was one of those mornings where you start to pack it all in with satisfaction, and then even more light happened. In a small cove of pandani, it was difficult not to get in each other’s way but I think we managed to do it well enough. A few selfies later, many SD cards later and we were headed back to camp quite satisfied with what we had achieved. We even dared to dream about other epic shots for the rest of the trip that would unfortunately never eventuate.
Packing up the tents was messy business that morning as the waterlogged bog of a beach had infiltrated all of our gear. Even Tim’s tank of a tent suffered some minor tent pole damaged from the high winds. The climb out from Oberon was a last hurrah and a fitting farewell to an epic location. Timelapsed selfies were done and the plans adjusted to Lake Cygnus for lunch.
Though we thought we were prepared for all the ups and downs, there were still seemingly more than we thought. At the top of our ascent out of Oberon, the weather started to turn a little funky. By the time of the ascent to Mount Hayes and its scree slopes, it was nearly 2pm and we thought that we’d have arrived at Cygnus already. That last section dragged on and the weather forecast was poor, so we pushed on to pitch tent at Cygnus. Along the way, a father-son duo and pretty clueless French dude were the only other walkers we saw on the trail.
When we arrived at Lake Cygnus, Francois ducked off and discovered the cache of beer he had hidden a year ago when he did the trek with Ben Wilkinson! Legend! If only I actually drank beer, the moment would have been even more momentous. The plan was to spend the next 2 nights here and wait out bad weather for a walk out on Friday. The site was pleasant enough with matted floors but a few things conspired against us.
- Weather : this turned foul late afternoon to the point of whiteout at dinner time. Luke returned from a search for a Dombrovskis composition overlooking Mount Hayes and was soaked through.
- Toilets: F*@*#@me ! overflowing and with maggots no less.
- Poor calculation: It was going to be fairly unrealistic to leave after sunrise on Friday and still make it back to have Francois meet his promise to Erin to be at the Hobart beerfest by 5pm.
Dinner was had in our vestibules where we narrowly dodged a gas cannister explosion. For an awkward few seconds we just watched the fire slowly recede around the cannister kind of just hoping it wouldn’t escalate. Sleep actually came fast until the diarrhoea arrived again at 1030pm. It was near whiteout conditions outside and I began to frantically search for a spot to dump since I knew I wouldn’t make it to ‘that’ disgusting toilet on time. So much for eco camping – I ended up having to dig a hole just off the path and hope it wouldn’t contaminate the water source. I suspect the French dude we bumped into , whose tent was adjacent to ours, may have heard some interesting sounds. Fortunately this was a once off and I did sleep the rest of the night.
We awoke to greyness and showers. This consolidated a last minute decision to head out one day early and it was a good one. After having some sips of my beer and sharing the rest around, we broke camp and prepared for a long hike out. We calculated 8 hours on the trail and our start was delayed by a Luke toilet call, in ‘that’ toilet.
For the ridge sections, we battled horizontal wind and rain the whole time with no visibility whatsoever. So much for epic views from atop Mount Hesperus! Luke still managed to stop for some photos though in those conditions, the sony was proving its liability in damp conditions. We were glad to reach the leeward side of the mountain for the 750m descent down Alpha Moraine. Tim and Luke’s bulging knees held up but not Tim’s already torn boots.
Alpha Moraine was a soul destroyer on the way up and to a lesser degree on the descent. It did require constant concentration not only to negotiate drops , but the ever present mud. On the way down there were passing showers and light typical of our whole time on the range. Francois, Tim and I managed the descent in 75 minutes and waited a good 30 minutes for Luke before deciding on lunch at Junction Creek only 3km away. The Aus Geo article should have some pretty good passing light from that descent. As predicted, the track was a boggy stream which worsened on the approach to Junction Creek. Thanks to Tim’s steam train efforts, we made rapid time to the campsite in 45m minutes where we had our last freeze dried fill of food for the trip. HOORRRAYAY. Luke arrived at camp a little while later and after lunch we were off again on our last leg! The weather down below had warmed significantly so I ended up leaving waterproofs only below but hiking in a T shirt.
Our approach for this boggy section was simple. Mud in the way? Bash right through it! This did make things easier to the point that the last 10km went by in 2.5 hours. This included a waist deep episode for Francois and three false ends in forests that were morale sapping. Tim and Luke were only 30 minutes behind for this leg. Along the way, we met a few parties heading out on Australia day. A guided group of 4 led by the same guide we met on the ferry out from the Overland Track last year. He was leading Hobart photographer Sohee Kim to Lake Oberon. There was an ill prepared trio with no gaiters ! I’m sure their feet were suffering from each sucking step threatening to pull their boots off. Finally a solo traverser who gave us an indication that we were only 1 hour from the car.
When the end finally came, it was sweet! Our gear was scattered, my excess weight in fresh clothes was put to good use and overall, we felt just that much more human. 100,000 steps and 1400 storeys of climbing, 1300 photographs and a few hours of footage concluded here. The 3 hour drive back was rewarded with pizza, soft drink and a 5 minute shower before crashing into a mattressed bed. END
I’ll remember this trip with fondness for a long time. The group banter, the quality tent time, the wild, changeable, beautiful and horrendous weather, the amazing views of grand and prehistoric scenery, the f@#$ explosive diarrhoea, the sore shoulders, the fatigued legs, the scoparia riddled cuts. It was ALL worth it and I’d love to do it again ( and again) in the future! It might even be worth hiding a cache of beer up there again 🙂
Thursday October 27 :
Dawn from Vermillion lakes was a pure grey one in the rain. I didn’t think I had anything good from this first shoot, but it turns out I must have still been in a dream state from jetlag!
Rain which would persist for most of the day. That morning, after having to wake the kids from a deep sleep, we ventured out to gear them up for the upcoming cold and snow. An exercise that again cost us more than we expected since we had marked out clearance stores in California for this purpose that we had no time for. Pink snow jacket and pink overpants for Jaime (why on earth do they not make any other colour for girls???) and boots for both of the girls. They were now set for snow which was not very evident around the Banff township. After a scenic drive to ‘surprise corner’ we settle back for a quiet afternoon and headed back out at sunset for a shoot at Two Jack Lake.
A few things we noticed that day: There is no local term ‘alpine’ fuel, I was told it was all season fuel and looked the fool when asking for it !Many of the stores in Banff seemed to be manned by Asians, Phillipino in particular? Driving on the right hand side of the road needed a bit of adjusting, especially wiper controls and roundabouts.
Friday October 28
Another morning out and another grey one! This seemed to be a recurring theme. After yet another sleepless night of poor adjusting to new time zones, I headed out to Castle Mountain to see if I could get a reflection image. The mountain wasn’t even visible so I tried some car trails from where it was barely visible just outside Johnston Canyon (which was closed for trail upgrades) . Upon my return the kids were still sleeping and needed to be woken yet again. At this stage , we were wondering if they would sleep until 10am every day!
That morning we stocked up on Asian supplies (I know, we just strengthened a racial stereotype!) before taking a drive in inclement conditions up to the base of the Banff Gondola. The views could have been spectacular but we would never know since the cable car operators informed us that visibility up top was about as far as your own hand. We also visited the Bow Falls area and photographed some clearing light which is the best display of light we have seen this trip – no blazing sunsets or anything thus far!
After Jaime’s late afternoon nap, we went back to Vermillion Lakes where I entertained the kids while Marianne shot perhaps our most colourful sunset to date. During that entertainment session of jumping up and down jetties and making piles of rubble, Jaime needed to be stripped in the cold to do a wee and managed to wee on herself in full view of some serendipitous visitors….Ughh , the joys of young kids out and about! . Thereafter – more poor sleep as Dani Lefrancois warned me that in the clear night air, there was aurora visible from Banff itself!
Knowing I wouldn’t be sleeping much anyway, I headed to the local go-to spot where there were crowds of people already lined up tripod to tripod! When I went to the lake shore , there was a series of overly alpha male statements that just grated at me no end. Yelling about people’s car headlights – yep, that’s right, any new visitor was expected to somehow turn up driving in the dark??? The vitriol was disturbing me , so I left for a few other locations that were again fogged out before settling back at Minnewanka . Fortunately the auora display was actually good so at 130am I headed back for a little rest before another dawn sortee.
Saturday October 29
I think this dawn could have been pretty amazing had I been in the right spot. I was driving along Bow Valley Parkway and settled for a shoot at Muleshoe Lake which from the roadside, yielded some sweet reflections. There was another photographer Ron (from Canmore) who was there and definitely a great talking companion to distract me from the cold! It turned out to be a reasonable shoot and by the time I headed back, Charlotte , for the first time was awake while Jaime still slept on. We rushed on out of Banff by 11am departure enroute to lake Louise where the weather promised to be colder and more snowy!