We all know this lens is currently the widest rectilinear lens in the market today. But how well does it actually perform?
Venus optics released the Laowa 10-18mm for full frame mirrorless cameras not too long ago. Even just on paper, as the widest non-fisheye full frame lens in the market, that ultra-wide angle zoom was definitely ground breaking. Not long after being able to test it out for architecture photography as I wrote about in my previous review, Laowa has yet again released another revolutionary ultra-wide angle lens, this time a prime at 9mm with an unusual maximum aperture of f/5.6. While absolutely impressed by the simple thought of being able to shoot at 9mm with a full frame camera, it was of course crucial to see whether the lens lives up to Laowa’s reputation of having amazing optics.
Build and Design
The Laowa FF 9mm f/5.6 follow’s what can be dubbed as Laowa’s signature lens aesthetic with a full metal body from the lens hood to the mount, a metallic black finish with a blue ring just below the lens markings, a 2-inch focus ring below a half-inch clicking manual aperture ring topped off by an all-metal lens cap that protects the bulbous front glass element from potential damage. Laowa also offers an add-on of a magnetic mount 100mm square filter holder for this lens which might interest landscape photographers who would like to try doing long exposures with such a wide angle view.
Interesting enough, the lens’ size and weight are definitely not what one would have expected for a full-frame 9mm rectilinear lens. It may be safe to assume that Laowa made the decision to produce this lens with a max aperture of f/5.6 to minimize the size and weight that this lens would have, at the same time keeping the lens at a friendly and attainable price. The lens weighs in at only 350 grams with a length of just 66mm and an external diameter of 62.4mm; that’s two-thirds both the length and weight of the Sony Zeiss FE 16-35mm. The 350 grams carries 14 glass elements in 12 groups with 5 diaphragm blades that produce 10-point light bursts.
Angle of View, Distortion, and Minimum Focusing Distance
Of course, the main selling point of this lens is its unique angle of view. The lens produces an image with a whopping 135° angle of view and is capable of focusing from up to 12 centimeters away.
Unlike many of Laowa’s ultra-wide angle prime lenses, this is not really being advertised as a Zero-D (distortion) lens and it does show on the images. However, considering that Laowa’s widest full frame Zero-D lens is at 12mm, this minimal barrel-type distortion is definitely impressive and something that one can work with. This lens currently doesn’t have a compatible distortion and vignette correction profile on Adobe Lightroom but manual adjustments or even using the profile for the Laowa 12mm Zero-D does offer a lot of improvement.
One of the major setbacks of this lens is very much similar to the Laowa 10-18mm and that is a noticeable vignette with a blue tinge. Like the latter, this lens has a visible vignette throughout its aperture range. As expected, the heaviest vignette is observed at f/5.6 and is lessened towards the narrow end of the range at f/22. The vignette, however does not disappear entirely but can definitely be remedied in post. This may be a valid flaw of the lens on its own but considering the size of the lens in relation to the angle-of-view that it offers definitely makes it acceptable.
Image Quality and Optics
This is the aspect of this lens that definitely exceeded my expectations. What stood out about this lens was that even with such a wide angle of view, it delivered quite astounding detail and sharpness not just in the center but also towards the corners. I found the sweet spot of this particular copy at f/11 where the sharpness very minimally declines towards the edges by only about 10%. With my personal experience with a handful of Laowa’s ultra-wide angle lenses (comparing to the 15mm f/2, 10-18mm, 12mm f/2.8 and the 9mm for APS-c), this may well be Laowa’s sharpest ultra-wide angle lens to date.
Personally, the first time I heard about this lens made me wonder what it could do in shooting interiors and architecture and they may be the best applications of this lens. In my opinion, this lens still can’t replace the value of doing panoramas with a tilt-shift lens but can produce something similar in certain instances, specifically if working on a proper vertical level. Working with huge interiors can definitely be made easier by shooting it with a 9mm lens followed by a bit of distortion and vignette correction in post processing.
Such a wide angle of view may be quite limiting when shooting landscapes and cityscapes without expecting some cropping. 9mm can definitely bring justice to wide vistas and cityscapes from just a few meters away from the front-most row of buildings. What I definitely enjoyed doing with this lens was shooting unusual 90-degree angles looking up from the middle of the street in between tall buildings. Photographing singular structures is definitely possible, of course with the aid of perspective correction or cropping in post.
With the very short minimum focusing distance, this lens can also offer unique wide-angle perspectives that can be seen by peeking through small openings. The small diameter of the lens also helps this purpose.
It can be safe to say that this lens will also offer some value in shooting wide-angle environmental portraits, especially because it would offer a bit of depth between the subject and the location itself.
The Laowa FF 9mm f/5.6 RL W-Dreamer is a revolutionary lens by mere numbers alone. While it does have its own manageable flaws, this lens is definitely something that would be nice to have as an extra option when in search of unusual or even unexpected perspectives. Much like a fisheye lens, its application relies almost entirely on the creativity of the photographer. Given the portable size and weight of the lens, along with a very reasonable price point, this lens can definitely be an adjunct to a photographer’s lens lineup.
What I Liked:
- Solid build and portable size
- Excellent sharpness
- Specifically designed filter holder
- Competitive pricing at $799
What Can Be Improved:
- Chromatic aberration