Review of the Laowa 15mm f/4 and U. monanthos

Review of the Laowa 15mm f/4 and U. monanthos

This review is not sponsored and the author has no affiliation the brands mentioned.

Over the past 2.5 years, I have developed my photographic style in conjunction with this blog. Whilst my previous set ups have gotten me to maybe 90% of my ideal shot, my recent investment in the Laowa 15mm f/4 wide angle macro lens for my Sony A7 has finally enabled me to capture both the detail of the plants and provide its environmental context in one photograph.

I’m finaly able to get my ‘ideal’ shot

I thought what better subject to test the lens on than Utricularia monanthos – a very tiny member of the U. dichotoma complex with blooms around the size of your pinky nail. The plants at this particular location on the Baw Baw Plateau have an abberant lower corolla, which is turned upwards at the edges.

The first thing to address is its macro capacity. I quickly discovered that the lens is absolutely impractical as a 1:1 macro as the focusing distance required for that is just a few millimeters away from the glass. To illustrate, the lens hood becomes a hinderance as, at these distances, it tends to either push your subject out of the way or cast a shadow on it. I opted to use a UV filter to protect the glass since I’ll be pushing objects right against it, but the focusing distance at 1:1 is actually between the glass element and the filter!

U. monanthos at around 0.8:1 magnification, the best I can get with a UV filter on the lens. Note the white water marks where the flower was pushed against the filter.

The redeeming feature for this is that the lens is very sharp. This permits you to crop quite severely and still get good shots with amazing detail.

The same image cropped in. The texture of the flower is clearly discernable.

Now for the good parts. Over the years I’ve been making do with extension tubes on kit lenses and my Samyang 14mm f2.8 (which I absolutely love for astro). The trouble is that I wanted to push both set ups just that tiny bit wider or closer and my ideal shot was just out of reach. With this new lens, I am finally able to get that shot.

Image straight out of the camera. The light is a bit contrasty and the colours are not overly saturated.

Whilst the lens doesn’t really work as a 1:1 macro, it functions perfectly fine in the 0.3:1 magnification range, which is what I usually go for anyway. At this magnification, you’ve got a good 12 or so cm to work with. Now this might seem ludicrous to some people but it’s absolutely my ‘working style’ to get up close and personal with my subject. The resulting shots at such a close distance really puts you in a bug’s perspective and brings life to your subject.

It’s a bug’s life

The short focal length was the biggest drawing card for me. I’m finally able to capture both the detail of my subject and its habitat in the same image whereas before it was one or the other.

Look at everything I was able to fit into one shot! (I should have opened the aperture wider here but you get the point)

The lens also has a handy shift function. Now on a full frame body and at a moderate focusing distance you can’t actually shift it that far until you start getting those black corners (so not great for architectural shots I imagine). This doesn’t seem to be a problem when you’re focused close though and is a good feature to correct perspective distortion, especially since I’m usually crouched down and shooting oblique to my low-lying subjects. Around the edges it has a bit of the typical barrel distortion you get with wide lenses but it’s something I’ve never minded in my shots (I reckon it adds to the bug’s perspective effect I go for).

So final thoughts?

Would I shoot insects with it? Nope, you have to get in very close to the subject and it will probably fly away.

Can it replace a dedicated macro or astro lens in your kit? Probably not since it’s impractical as a true macro and it’s not particularly fast.

Is it a lens that I love? Absolutely! The Laowa 15 mm f/4 is a niche lens with a niche application but it’s exactly right for the shots I’ve been trying to get all these years. This lens will probably be the main one on my camera for years to come.

Further comments: 16 August 2022
The construction of the lens is not great with screws frequently coming loose and getting lost. There appears to be an issue with the focus mechanism jamming up (corroborated by a friend with the same lens). The lens lasted about 1 year of very rugged use before the focus ring failed. A few months after, some screws came out and the lens body become detached (easily fixable though by occasionally tightening and replacing screws). Overall it’s a cheap and unique lens with excellent optics but unfortunately, the price is reflected in the build quality.

Update: 18 Nov 2022
Unfortunately, I can no longer recommend this lens. I bought a replacement after the issues listed above. Within three months of what I would describe as reasonable outdoor use, the front element has become unsettled from the rest of the body and is about to fall off (possibly due to an internal screw breaking or becoming loose). Due to marks incurred during regular use in the field, I could not claim a warranty on it. It has become clear that the quality of the lens is insufficient for field shooting and I will be seeking an alternative setup.

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