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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.

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Aligning the stars

Last weekend I managed to take the 150km drive out to Lake Bumbunga with a view to astro photography given that the forecast was for clear skies. Before going out for a milky way shoot, I check to see what kind of conditions I can expect with respect to :

1. Cloud cover and temperature : If there is plenty of cloud cover around I will usually head out later in hope that a good dawn might eventuate . Any of the sites for forecasts will be sufficient. I usually go with weatherzone.com.au

2. Moonrise /Moonset /Sunrise: It’s always useful to know approximately what time twilight will start when doing astro photography since particularly around the March and September solstice periods interesting zodiac light can light up the milky way from beneath the horizon. If I’m planning for a clear milky way I’ll aim for when the moon is absent. If I’m planning to shoot interesting landscapes with stars as a feature, I’ll try to coincide the shoot with the rising or setting moon. Many apps can be helpful in this regard including the photographer’s ephemeris (http://www.photoephemeris.com/) , or photopills (http://www.photopills.com/) Read the rest of this entry

Let the resolutions begin!

A new year is upon us and like millions of others out there, Marianne and I have joined in the collective resolutions of all would-be self improvers.  I wonder what fraction of these resolutions come to fruition or persist until December 31? Only time will tell. Photographically, we wanted to keep the fun and mystery of shooting while hopefully producing some portfolio images. As such, we have both embarked on a project 52. My project centres around my weekly travels as part of a ‘destress’ program after a long week of work. I will try to get to places I have not previously photographed or perhaps document familiar locations in different ways. Marianne’s project will focus on creative visions of our home surrounds , which will be dominated by Charlotte’s toys! We will try to keep you up to date with our intentions and results. Many of the images will be snapshots more suited for a diary, others will be planned landscape shots, and hopefully others still will be completely new to us.

Week 1:

Mr resolution begain early at 8pm on new years eve. Since our household is usually fast asleep by midnight, I thought I would buck the trend and walk the town leading up to the new year countdown. My intentions were to create a timelapse video while taking some stills of the scenes where I had set up the other camera for the timelapse frames. In between locations, I tried to experiment with hand held long exposures to create a rapid sense of motion between the scenes. These are some of the end results of week 1:

The timelapse  video:

Some stills  from the night:

Light Trails at Victoria Square

Celebrations at Elder Park

Marianne’s week 1 resolution was to try taking some images of Charlotte using our gopro. After years of using point and shoot cameras and DSLRs where feedback is immediately apparent, we have found it hard to take stills on the gopro without that feedback. This picture was one of a series taken on a 42 degree day in Adelaide , the likes of which seem to be more frequent this summer!

Charlotte in water!

Week 2:

There are so many locations in South Australia I have yet to visit. Many of these are within a 1 hour radius of my house! Since the construction of the southeast freeway years ago, access to Lake Alexandrina has never been quicker. At 4am in the morning, I can be on the shores of the Lake within 1 hour from hom . I had  previously visited Milang on  several dawns but had not ventured to Clayton a few kilometres further south. After doing some virtual scouting on google maps, I headed down hoping for some good light on my one weekly opportunity. Unfortunately the skies were a little too clear for colour but the sense of calm was as peaceful as ever.

Clayton town jetty

Marianne’s week 2 centred around Charlotte’s development. Recently, she has started trying to sing ‘Old Macdonald had a farm’ , rich with impersonations of animal sounds. Some of her favourite sounds include an emphatic ‘BAAA’ for sheep and ‘AHRRRRR’ for tigers.  Our lawn has also recently taken root over summer with some explosively green results! These were the themes for this image.

Shelby the sheep senses something just isn’t right ….

Week 3:

This most recent week gone by has been a combined effort from the both of us. We were given the privilege of photographing a three month old baby of dear friends. This is always a challenge due to the relative lack of control over the situation. The further challenge was that one of us was minding Charlotte while attempting this shoot! If there’s one thing we have learned from baby shoots, it’s that once baby has had enough, the baby has spoken! Also during this week, I went in search of a sunset at a local spot which I had not previously photographed. These are some of the results.

Feet!

Hands!

Light at Hallett Cove

We hope we can keep this up for the rest of the year and hope to keep you updated 🙂 As a preview, 9 of the weeks should be taken up by travel shots, 5 of the weeks with wedding images and the rest of the weeks will reveal themselves accordingly !

Cheers! Until we next have the resolve to type 🙂

-D&M