Over the years Laowa has steadily been expanding its line up of shift lenses, after the 17mm 4.0 MSC and the record breaking 15mm 4.5 Shift we are now getting their third shift lens, the Laowa 20mm 4.0 Shift. Let’s have a closer look at this latest addition.
Most of the sample images in this review can be found in full resolution here.
- Sample Images
- Specifications / Version History
- Handling / Build Quality
- Flare resistance
- Chromatic aberration
- Focus shift
- Sample Images
- Further Reading
The Laowa 20mm 4.0 Shift was kindly provided free of charge by Venus Optics / Laowa for reviewing purpose for two weeks.
Specifications / Version History
This Laowa 20mm 4.0 Shift comes in Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony E, Nikon Z, Canon RF and L-mount. I am reviewing a Sony E sample here which has the following specifications:
- Diameter: 91 mm (without cap and hood)
- Field of view: 94.4°/117° (diagonally, unshifted/shifted)
- Length: 129 mm (without caps)
- Weight: 745g (without caps and hood)
- Filter Diameter: 82 mm
- Shift range: 11mm
- Number of Aperture Blades: 14 (rounded)
- Elements/Groups: 16/11
- Close Focusing Distance: 0.25 m
- Maximum Magnification: 1:6.7 (measured)
- Mount: Sony E
You may also have a look at the official page.
Handling / Build Quality
Regarding Shift and what it can be used for best have a look at my article Working with Tilt/Shift lenses.
Unlike most of the other Laowa lenses this one features a red ring. As far as I know there have been two versions of the Laowa 15mm 4.5 Shift: one with a blue ring, indicating 5 straight aperture blades, and one with a red ring, indicating an to me unknown (but much higher number) of aperture blades.
As this one features 14 blades, this might be the reason for the red ring.
The focus ring has a really nice resistance which has been the case for all the latest Laowa lenses.
The focus ring travels ~90° from the minimum focus distance (0.25m) to infinity.
The narrow aperture ring is situated right behind the focus ring and has full-stop click stops – which is always my preference – and travels ~60° from f/4.0 to f/22. Considering the complexity of this lens I wonder why the click stops are not equidistant though.
Next is the shift ring and here we have a very different design compared to the Canon TS-E and Nikon PC-E lenses. The Nikon and Canon lenses feature a locking knob on one side and an adjustment knob on the opposite side. These have often been criticized for being rather delicate and hard to operate when wearing gloves.
Those critics may like the Laowa approach: here you have a big ring (almost same size as the focus ring) to adjust the shift value and on one side of the lens you have a scale that tells you the amount shifted from -11 mm to +11 mm.
The ring has a high resistance and I have the feeling the mechanism is also stiffer than that of the Canon TS-E lenses, I never felt the need to use the shift lock knob.
Close to the bayonet you can find a little lever, if you push it the whole lens can be rotated 360° (with 15° click stops) therefore allowing you to shift in every direction. The lens not featuring any electronics is an advantage here, but this of course also means no EXIF data is transmitted to the camera.
Unlike on Canon’s TS-E and Nikon’s PC-E lenses there is no tilt, the Laowa can only shift. To me personally this is all but a big deal, I never felt the tilt being very useful when it comes to ultra wide angle lenses, but if you need it you already know that and can choose your lens accordingly.
The build quality is pretty much in line with other recent Laowa lenses: the 20mm 4.0 Shift seems to be mostly made from metal, but to me it looks like only the markings on the focus ring and the rotator are engraved and filled with paint whereas the ones on aperture ring as well as the distance scale look like they are just printed.
There is a lens hood included, which is very rare for wide shift lenses. It is mainly meant to be used for the unshifted lens, more on this in the vignetting section.
The ring with the petals can be rotated though, so you can make some additional adjustments to the position of the hood when the lens is shifted.
The Loawa 20mm 4.0 Shift is a DSLR lens with built-in adapter, so compared to actual mirrorless wideangle designs it is a very big lens. There are no shift lenses designed for mirrorless available though and I am also not even sure they would be much smaller than the DSLR ones. Time may tell.
When using the the lens centered (unshifted) you are only using the central part of the lens, so vignetting should be less of an issue. Wide open there is still vignetting of roughly 2.0 EV, stopped down to f/5.6 this improves to only 1.3 EV and stopped down to f/11 it is still around 1.0 EV.
The results in the shifted area are of course very different. Wide open we are dealing with 3.2 EV in the most extreme corner. Stopped down to f/5.6 this improves to 2.4 EV and stopped down to f/11 about 1.8 EV remain.
Shifted the values are similar to the Canon TS-E 17mm 4.0L and noticeably better than those of the Laowa 15mm 4.5 Shift.
If you want to correct the uneven vignetting I can recommend using gradients in Lightroom.
The lens hood is mainly designed for the unshifted lens. It still allows for ±5mm shift up/down, but any amount of shift left/right will immediately lead to black corners.
The software only allows for showing you the unshifted area, as we would expect: vignetting is rather low here.
Our method of determining the vignetting figures struggles a bit with lenses this wide (e.g. stopped down you can see wrinkles of the tissue which also translates to the graphs being a bit wavy).
When reviewing the Canon TS-E lenses I was trying to find MTF graphs for the actual bigger image circle, but I couldn’t manage to find any, so I was delighted to see Laowa provided an MTF graph covering the whole image circle and not just the fullframe area.
We see very high image quality in the center of the frame and the midframe up to ~18mm, so almost in the complete fullframe area (edge is at 21.5mm). There is almost no astigmatism visible in this part of the frame.
We see a dip in resolution and contrast at around 25mm, so I am curious to see whether this will be visible in the pictures and how things improve on stopping down.
I would love to compare this graph to those of the Canon TS-E 17mm 4.0L and even more so to the Nikon PC-E 19mm 4.0, but their graphs top out at the fullframe corners. Within the fullframe area the Nikon’s MTF show higher resolution but also higher astigmatism.
Lenses with such a high viewing angle usually feature a wavy field and this Laowa 20mm 4.0 Shift is no exception.
We will first have a look at the performance unshifted. Interestingly there is an area not that far from the center where there is a very noticeable drop in performance at wider apertures. There is a dent in the MTF graphs visible here (around ~11mm from the center), but the dip is more noticeable in the real world than I would have expected.
Farther away from the center the performance is better, especially the fullframe corners that look great from wide open.
Stopped down to f/8.0 the across frame performance hardly leaves anything to be desired and I guess this is how this lens will be used mostly.
Now looking at the shifted corners I noticed that the very extreme corners actually look pretty good from f/4.0, but the area shortly before that (around ~28mm from the center) looks worse, so I decided to show you this area instead. In this area f/16 actually looks a bit better than f/11, which is rare, as usually the loss in image quality due to diffraction eats up possible image quality improvements due to stopping the lens down.
So long story short: the sharpness performance is pretty good.
close (0.25 m, 1:6.7)
100% crops, A7rII
With the minimum focus distance of just 0.25 m you can get really close to your subject. In the center the performance is very good already wide open and stopping down only slightly improves the sharpness.
If you place your subject close to the unshifted borders the resolution is quite okay, but when you fully shift the lens and place your subject near that extended border region the resolution never reaches really good levels, not even on stopping down considerably. Not sure anyone ever wants to use under these circumstances, but if you wanted to know: now you know.
I noticed the same behaviour on the Laowa 15mm 4.5 Shift, Canon TS-E 17mm 4.0L and also on similarly wide lenses like the Voigtlander 10mm 5.6 or Laowa 10-18mm 4.5-5.6. The exception here is the Laowa 9mm 5.6 that manages to maintain really good across frame sharpness at these distances albeit at the cost of higher distortion.
As always evaluating flare is a complex matter since you can get any lens to look bad if you push it hard enough and a slight change of scenario can affect results a lot.
Sun outside frame
With the sun outside the frame, especially close to one of the corners, many lenses struggle. The Laowa 20mm 4.0 Shift also shows a rather big flare in these situations, but the performance gets better when using the hood. Keep in mind: the hood does not allow for the complete shift movements.
Therefore I often went out without the hood and tried to shade the lens with my hand instead, which also helps a bit.
Sun inside frame
With the sun inside the frame also ghosts can appear. Generally I found this to not be a big issue, but if you want to make the lens look bad this is also possible, as can be seen in this worst case scenario:
One thing shall be noted though: at f/4.0 it was rather easy to catch a very obvious ring flare. I was told the sample I received was an early sample and later samples will have improved blackening of the lens elements and this effect should not occur anymore. Nevertheless, even stopping down just a little will make this go away completely.
Coma in the unshifted extreme corner is rather unobstrusive. Stopped down to f/5.6 the performance is already really good and it only improves marginally on stopping down to f/8.0 and f/11.
As was already the case with the Laowa 15mm 4.5 Shift the situation in the extreme corners when fully shifted is actually very similar, slight coma at f/4.0, significant improvements on stopping down to f/5.6 or further.
Unlike most of the other recent Laowa ultra wide angle lenses this one features 14 aperture blades, not 5.
We see no sunstars at f/4.0, rather frayed sunstars between f/5.6 and f/11 and well defined 14-stroke sunstars between f/16 and f/22.
If you find the sunstars created by 5 straight aperture blades too distracting you might prefer this lens and if you want to learn more about sunstars have a look at this article.
Usually lateral CA are easily corrected by just one click and unshifted this is also the case here. Shifted the situation is not that simple though, the lateral CA patterns are not symmetrical and therefore the auto correction does not always work properly, but surprisingly it did here nevertheless.
For the cases where it doesn’t work as well I recommend turning the auto correction off and using the manual defringe CA removal tool as an alternative (the one usually used for removing longitudinal CA).
The Laowa 20mm 4.0 Shift shows a really good correction of longitudinal CA. The sample below is a real stress test for purple fringing and we can rarely see any. A very good performance.
Sony A7rII | Laowa 20mm 4.0 Shift | f/4.0
33% crops, A7rII
The Laowa 20mm 4.0 Shift shows a tiny bit of front focus on stopping down, most noticeable between f/5.6 and f/8.0. This is actually the first lens where I observed a front focus on stopping down, usually it is back focus.
Nevertheless, it is minimal and will be hardly visible at longer focus distances, especially at infinity. And if you first stop the lens down and focus afterwards it is even less relevant.
Canon TS-E 17mm 4.0L:
This Canon lens can also be tilted, so if you are after that this should be the lens to consider. Optically I found it to be worse in most categories compared to this Laowa 20mm 4.0, especially in terms of corner resolution and flare resistance, but also in terms of distortion.
buy from amazon.com | amazon.de | B&H | ebay.com | ebay.de for $2150 (affiliate links)
Laowa 17mm 4.0 (Laowa 12mm 2.8 Zero-D on Magic Shift Converter):
Here you only get 10mm shift and it is slightly worse optically but you have the option of using it as a 12mm 2.8 for e.g. astrophotography, which can be a big benefit.
buy from manufacturer’s shop | amazon.com | ebay.com | B&H | ebay.de for a total of $1249 (affiliate links)
Laowa 15mm 4.5 Zero-D Shift:
The Laowa 15mm 4.5 Shift is the widest shift lens available. The optical performance is a little bit worse – which isn’t overly surprising considering the difference in focal length – and there is no easy to use filter thread.
Personally, considering the difference in price is only $100, I would rather get this 15mm 4.5 lens. It allows for more spectacular perspectives and can be used in even narrower cityscapes where you usually don’t have the luxury of “going a few steps back”.
buy from manufacturer’s homepage | B&H | amazon.com | amazon.de | ebay.com | ebay.de for $1199 (affiliate links)
Laowa 9mm 5.6 FF RL:
The Laowa 9mm 5.6 is noticeably wider than a stitched pano taken with this 20mm 4.0 Shift lens, and it is one of the strongest alternatives if you can live with less pixels.
buy from manufacturer’s homepage | B&H | ebay.com | ebay.de for $899 (M-mount) and $799 (E/Z/L-mount) (affiliate links)
PC-Nikkor 19mm 4.0E ED N:
Adapting Nikon E lenses to Sony cameras is not that much fun, so this is not a lens I recommend to Sony users. Nevertheless some Nikon users interested in the Laowa 20mm 4.0 Shift may end up here (welcome!). I have not used the Nikon 19mm personally, but it looks like it is a really great lens by what I have seen from some trusted sources. The Nikon lens also offers tilt and not only is it 1mm wider, it also allows for 1mm great shift range in every direction. The Nikon lens does not offer a filter thread though and needs a 150mm filter system instead and it is significantly more expensive.
buy from ebay.com | amazon.com | B&H for $3400 (affiliate links)
The Laowa lenses often feature unique, sometimes record breaking specifications. Laowa gave us the widest rectilinear lens (9mm 5.6), the fastest 35mm lens (35mm 0.95) and also the widest shift lens (15mm 4.5), to only name a few.
This Laowa 20mm 4.0 Shift does not feature such record breaking specifiations so may not seem as exciting at first sight, but its normal 82mm filter thread still is a unique selling point compared to the 15mm 4.5, Canon TS-E 17mm 4.0L and Nikon PC 19mm 4.0E.
The optical performance is very solid. The field is a bit wavy with local drops in sharpness at wider apertures, but stopped down least as good as the other ultra wide angle shift lenses I have reviewed. Longitudinal CA and distortion are very well corrected, vignetting and flare resistance are comparable to similar lenses. There are still no electronic contacts though, so no Exif information are being transmitted to the camera.
What the Laowa shift lenses really have going for them are the shift mechanics, which are in my opinion the best in the market and the only ones I would want to operate when wearing gloves.
Most of the sample images in this review can be found in full resolution here.
- Sony FE lenses: Our comprehensive and independent guide
- Ultra Wide Angle lenses for the Sony A7 Series
- How to: Environmental Portraits
- How to: Taking better pictures