The Laowa 15mm 2.0 Zero-D is a lens I have been waiting for eagerly since I took a few snaps with the prototype at Photokina in 2016. It is one of the very few lenses making actual use of the narrow flange distance of mirrorless cameras.
But does it only look good on paper or can it keep up with my high expectations? Find out in this review!
Last Update: Review finalized (12/03/17)
You can find most of the shots in this review in full resolution here.
Specifications / Version History
I am reviewing the final production model here which has the following specifications:
- Diameter: 77mm
- Field of view: 110° (diagonally)
- Length: 83mm
- Weight: 520g
- Filter Diameter: 72mm
- Number of Aperture Blades: 7 (straight), 5 (straight) when produced after Dec. 2019
- Elements/Groups: 12/9
- Close Focusing Distance: 0.15m
- Maximum Magnification: ~1:4.1
- Mount: E-mount
The Laowa 15mm 2.0 Zero-D was kindly provided free of charge by Venus Optics / Laowa for reviewing purpose for a few weeks. The first sample showed some centering issues but we got a replacement that was well centered. I liked the lens so much that I decided to buy it to add it to my kit.
Handling / Build Quality
The other two Laowa lenses we tested so far featured a good build quality, and the 15mm 2.0 is no exception. Most parts of the outer casing seem to be made from metal and the lens feels very dense and solid. Markings are engraved and filled with paint.
The focus ring has (for my taste) pretty much perfect resistance; a little more than the Zeiss Loxia lenses, maybe a tad less than the Zeiss ZM or Voigtlander lenses. I am not yet sure about the throw of the focusing ring, it is about ~85° from the minimum focus distance (0.15m) to 1.0m and only ~5° from 1.0m to infinity. Infinity is exactly in the center of the infinity symbol on my sample, and you can focus a bit behind that. This is a very good approach, though an even better one would be an adjustable infinity hard stop, but no one is doing that…
The aperture ring has one-stop click-stops and it takes about 45° from f/2.0 to f/22.
We have seen quite a few different methods to “de-click” the aperture ring so far, and we can now add another one, as this lens incorporates a small lever for de-clicking the aperture ring. It is very close to the aperture ring and it might be possible to turn it by accident. Time will tell if this happens in the field.
Part of the package is also a petal-shaped lens hood which seems to be made from aluminium and fits quite nicely. The hood of the second sample does not sit as tight as the one from the first though.
Unlike the Zeiss Loxia or the the Voigtlander E-mount lenses the Laowa does not feature electronic contacts to communicate with the camera, so there is no Exif data transmitted.
Unlike most of the ultra wide angle competition that needs lens specific 150mm+ holders this lens does not only take standard 72mm screw in filters but also works with 100mm square filter systems (only tested with NiSi 100mm V5 holder).
Vignetting and colorcast
The small size takes its toll here: wide open vignetting amounts to 2.9 EV, at f/2.8 it is 2.3 EV and stopped down further pretty much remains 2.0 EV. This is still less than the Samyang 14mm 2.8 (MF) or the Voigtlander UWA primes, but also more (especially stopped down) than the new Sigma 14mm 1.8 Art (see lenstip.com review).
Also similar to the Voigtlander UWA primes and the Laowa 12mm 2.8 this lens showed some green color cast in the corners on the Sony A7rII. The visibility depends highly on the subject and is more pronounced with very bright backgrounds:
I am pretty sure few of you will be bothered by this, many probably won’t even notice. Nevertheless – for the more critical among you – this is a real world shot where I can see it:
centering (second sample)
The second sample of this lens we received showed a significantly better centering quality with even corner sharpness.
The center always looks great, stopping down to f/2.8 (or further) only slightly increases contrast. The midframe does not lag far behind. The corners are quite decent already wide open, by f/4.0 they look very good and best at f/5.6. The negative effects of diffraction can be seen at f/11 across the whole frame.
Nevertheless, f/2.0 is certainly usable when the amout of light demands to shoot at this aperture.
There is some very slight field curvature at infinity, but this is really marginal and shot-to-shot focus variation is probably higher.
The corner crops have been pushed by 2 EV in post to reveal more details.
With the minimum focus distance of just 0.15 m you can get really close to your subject and in this case I mean so close you are shading the subject with your lens. In the center the performance is already excellent at f/2.0, the floating element design pays off here. Towards the borders the resolution never reaches levels as good, not even on stopping down considerably:
But it is hard to blame the lens for this: the competition doesn’t allow focus nearly as close, and many samples I am showing here wouldn’t have been possible at all.
Despite the “Zero-D(istortion)” in the name of the lens there is some slight barrel distortion visible even at infinity. Nevertheless, it is still very low for a lens this wide with a retrofocus design and it does not seem to be wavy as well (and therefore easy to correct in post if necessary by dialing in +5 in PS or LR).
Before: uncorrected | After: corrected (+5)
The astrophotographers among you probably hoped for a better performance here. There is slight coma visible wide open which improves a bit on stopping down to f/2.8, and a whole lot on stopping down to f/4.0.
This is not a bad performance; you can see the often recommended Samyang 14mm 2.8 (MF) in a direct comparison here:
Before: Laowa 15mm 2.0 @ f/2.0 | After: Samyang 14mm 2.8 @ f/2.8
Before: Laowa 15mm 2.0 @ f/2.8 | After: Samyang 14mm 2.8 @ f/2.8
The Samyang has a slight edge, but let’s see how they compare when shooting stars in the next section.
Use for Astrophotography
When shooting stars coma often is not as obvious as when shooting cityscapes. So let’s take a look at some stars:
Before: Laowa 15mm 2.0 @f/2.0, 10s | After: Laowa 15mm 2.0 @ f/2.8, 20s | A7rII | 100% crop from upper right extreme corner
There is a slight improvement on stopping down as we have already seen in the last section.
Now let us compare the Laowa 15mm 2.0 to the Samyang 14mm 2.8 (MF). Keep in mind though the camera position hasn’t changed between shots so we are looking at the Laowa’s extreme corner and an area slightly before that on the Samyang:
Before: Laowa 15mm 2.0 @ f/2.8, 20s | After: Samyang 14mm 2.8 (Nikon) @f/2.8, 20s | A7r|| | 100% crop extreme corner
The Samyang shows less coma, but you can also notice the Laowa’s shot is visibly brighter. By my calculation the difference is half a stop so I thought it would be fair stopping down the Laowa to f/3.4 to have the same exposure as the Samyang shows at f/2.8 in this area:
Before: Laowa 15mm 2.0 @ f/3.4, 20s | After: Samyang 14mm 2.8 (Nikon) @f/2.8, 20s | A7r|| | 100% crop extreme corner
The Samyang still has a slight edge but the difference has become quite small now. Still, the Laowa is not the revelation many astrophotographers have hoped for, but keep in mind so far no lens is. I will talk about this a bit more in the “Alternatives” section. Don’t get me wrong here, this is not a bad performance, just not as good as many had wished.
Update: I finally had the chance to shoot the milky way with this lens. As you already know coma correction is not perfect, but if the slight coma in the corners bothers you or not you need to decide for yourself. I have uploaded an A7s Raw file here for you to download and see for yourself.
A huge benefit of the fast aperture is the abilty to actually see the milky way in the viewfinder, which makes framing at night a lot easier.
Most of you already know I prefer 10-bladed aperture diaphragms and I really wish this lens would feature one as well. With it’s 7 aperture blades the Laowa produces sunstars which are not so well defined in my opinion, as the rays differ in length. Stopping down further doesn’t really change anything here.
This is a highly subjective topic so you might want to have a look at this article and decide for yourself, what you prefer.
Update: Laowa 15mm 2.0 lenses produced after Dec. 2019 feature 5 straight aperture blades that lead more distinct sunstars.
With the sun near the center of the frame there are no problems whatsoever. As with many other lenses I have reviewed the point light source placed near the corner leads to the worst results, which means small rainbow artifacts in the opposite corner.
There is one position though, which will result in a local loss of contrast, but I found even the slightest reframing will solve this.
This is still a much better performance than many other ultra wide angle lenses (especially the ones with bulbous front element) can offer. I think the lens behaves similar to the Voigtlander 15mm 4.5 E III in this aspect, which also features a rather small front element.
Update: I found the performance to be a bit worse near the minimum focus distance.
Sony A7rII | Laowa 15mm 2.0 Zero-D | f/11 | CA 100% crop before/after extreme corner
There are lateral CA present which can still be quite easily corrected in post.
Longitudinal CA (loCA) are nothing to worry about with this lens.
Not a category I usually pay attention to when reviewing ultra wide angle lenses, but with the Laowa 15mm 2.0 the situation is a little different. Because of the great minimum focus distance and the fast aperture of f/2.0 you really have to pay attention to your plane of focus as it can be very thin. The quality of the bokeh is very good, much better than that of any other lens with a comparable focal length I have used so far. Even circles of light in the background are evenly lit (despite the use of aspherical elements, see Zeiss Batis 18mm 2.8 for comparison):
Samyang 14mm 2.8 ED:
This is probably the alternative you are all thinking about. Cheaper, worse build quality, a tad better coma correction, worse flare resistance, hilarious distortion, worse vignetting wide open, way bigger and no filter thread. There are quite some quality assurance issues with this lens, I have had six of these lenses mounted to my camera, and four of them were badly decentered (3 of them new from store).
Update: In the meantime I replaced this lens with the Laowa 15mm 2.0.
Voigtlander 15mm 4.5 Super Wide Heliar III (E):
Similar build quality, a little smaller and also lighter. Sharpness is comparable, the Laowa might have the edge stopped down to f/5.6 or further in the corners though (I haven’t shot them side by side). The first batch seems to have been troubeld by centering issues.
The Laowa is more than 2 stops brighter which is a whole lot and makes it much better suited for astrophotography, but for blue hour shooting or having the sun inside the frame I prefer the 10 blade aperture of the Voigtlander. The Voigtlander may has a smaller 58mm filter thread, but because of the non removable hood using a filter system (or a bigger filter with a step down ring) poses quite the problem, which is not the case with the Laowa.
This is certainly not an easy decision. Don’t try to base it on the minimal sharpness differences, think about astrophotography, sunstar rendering and filter usage.
Sigma 14mm 1.8 HSM Art:
In terms of light gathering capabilities this is the only real contender. From an engineering point of view this is a spectacular lens, but not one I would like to use personally because with an adapter it weighs almost 3 times as much as this lens, is huge by comparison and needs gigantic filters. Flare performance doesn’t look too great either and there also seem to be centering issues.
From what I have seen so far coma performance does not seem to be significantly better, but vignetting (especially stopped down) does.
Samyang 14mm 2.4 Premium:
I did not yet have the chance to try this one.
Irix 15mm 2.4:
At first I was very much intrigued by this lens, but it turned out to be so big, and flare resistance looks so bad, that I lost interest.
When putting together the chart above, I noticed there is no weakness that really stands out to me (so far). This was interestingly also the case with the Laowa 12mm 2.8 Zero-D.
I still think the rating of a few aspects is debatable, so let me explain why I rated as I did:
Vignetting is quite pronounced but the Laowa still fares better here than the Samyang 14mm 2.8 (MF) or the Voigtlander 15mm 4.5 III.
The sharpness at closer distances away from the center is nothing to write home about, but this is also the only lens in this segment (apart from the Laowa 15mm 4.0 macro) that lets me focus as close.
Let’s be honest, we are all a bit disappointed by the coma performance. But when thinking about lenses that fare better I end up with a very short list, which so far only contains the Samyang 14mm 2.8 (MF) and maybe the Samyang 14mm 2.4 Premium.
The sunstars are my biggest personal concern. I would have so much preferred a 10-straight-blade-diaphragm as can be found in the Loxia or Voigtlander lenses.
When I first heard about this lens I thought it sounded almost too good to be true. But despite the few shortcomings this is in fact a pretty astonishing lens the guys at Laowa have put together. I also tend to think it is the most versatile ultra wide angle lens I have used so far:
It lets me take crazy close up shots, I can use standard filters on it, build quality is top notch, the size makes it a lens I want to put in my bag and yes, it can also be used for astrophotography. Personally I prefer it to the Samyang 14mm 2.8 (MF) for astrophotography because of the more even exposure and the speed advantage.
You can find most of the shots in this review in full resolution here.
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