Buildings Gone Wide: A Review of the Laowa Full Frame 10-18mm for Architectur­al Photography

Buildings Gone Wide: A Review of the Laowa Full Frame 10-18mm for Architectur­al Photography

Anyone who has shot buildings and interiors might wonder what possibilities shooting at 10mm could unlock. This lens definitely triggered my curiosity. 

One of the most common obstacles to shooting architecture and interiors stems from the fact that most of the time, what the photographer is shooting is way too big to fit into the frame. Shooting high-rise structures while trying to maintain perspective, or even shooting relatively smaller structures when there are a lot of obstacles present in the location can be really challenging without the proper equipment. Of course, there has always been the option of investing in a tilt-shift lens, but anyone who knows what that is knows that it’s not that easy to acquire such a lens.

Venus Optics (Laowa, since the brand emerged a few years back), has been creating some really out-of-the-box lenses. One of their first lenses out in the market was a full frame 12mm lens with absolutely zero distortion. In more recent years, they’ve developed lenses like the 9mm Zero-D for APS-C mirrorless cameras, the Laowa 24mm Macro Probe, and recently announced a 9mm full-frame lens. When I first heard of this full frame 10-18mm lens, I immediately assumed that it was some sort of a typographical error. Especially when I first saw product photos of the lens, I thought that it was pretty much impossible to have such a wide lens in such a small size. When I confirmed that it was indeed a full frame lens, I’ve always had such a desire to try it out for architecture. This lens is available for Sony E mount and Nikon Z

Build, Design, and Ergonomics

One of the most impressive points about Laowa lenses, in general, is the fact that most of their lenses have an all-metal build. They are the kind of lenses that you know can, to an extent, survive a few bumps. The Laowa 10-18mm is not an exception to that. It features an all-metal body from the front cap to the mounting thread, weighs about half a kilogram, and is only 9.1 centimeters long and 7 centimeters thick. This alone is impressive, since most photographers are used to humongous lenses that aren’t even as wide as this.

The focus ring was given more width and can be found on the most distal portion, which may not be what most people are used to. The zoom ring is in the middle and is about half the size of the focus ring, and the aperture ring sits near the bottom of the barrel. While this lens has a varying maximum aperture of f/4.5-5.6 as you zoom in, most practical applications of the lens wouldn’t require anything wider anyway. Given that this lens was made generally for outdoor shooting, the practical uses of it would often require an aperture of about f/8 or smaller, so that doesn’t really take anything away from the design quality.

Output

At 10mm with a full frame camera, the lens gives a whopping 130-degree angle of view, which is obviously the biggest selling point. Though not entirely devoid of distortion, it is generally something that can easily be corrected in post-production. The distortion generally breathes as you zoom in from a mustache type to a pincushion type towards the tighter end. At about 15mm, there is a distortion-free point, which can be quite comparable to Laowa’s 15mm f/2.0 prime.

The lens does suffer from significant vignetting at the widest aperture, and this slightly improves as you stop down to f/16. However, the vignette doesn’t disappear at any point. It’s, of course, nothing that proper post-processing can’t fix, so it should not be much of a problem. Chromatic aberration is present, but at a minimum that can be fixed in post.

Overall, sharpness is about an 8.5 out of 10. It does render details quite well but could definitely be improved. Although, of course, given the lens construction and the glass elements in mind, such output is definitely not that bad.

Application

Having this lens solves two of the most common problems of an architectural photographer. First, of course, would be to be able to capture the entirety of a tall structure in the frame while maintaining a vertical perspective. Having the lens at 10mm allows the photographer to capture the entire structure from about 30 to 50 meters or virtually from across the street. For structures beyond 25 stories, a bit of tilt can be feasible and can easily be corrected in post-processing.

One thing I'm fond of doing is capturing multiple levels of a high-ceiling structure. You can only do this with a tilt-shift lens, or something this wide.

Another problem that a lens this wide can solve would, of course, be the difficulties of photographing interiors from relatively tight spaces. In the absence of a tilt-shift lens, shooting interiors can be quite challenging if you want to show the entirety of a room while avoiding too much keystone effect. The minimum focusing distance of 15 centimeters does quite well in shooting in tight spaces, especially if you want to capture something in the foreground and ensure accurate focusing.

Squeezed into about a 2-foot gap between the wall and this couch

One thing that I do appreciate is the simple fact that this is a zoom lens. I have personally been using prime lenses when shooting wider than 15mm simply because most available lenses at that range are primes. At focal lengths wider than 15mm, the difference that a millimeter makes is much more significant, and simply moving forward and back to zoom in and out is, of course, not as simple as it seems, especially if you are very meticulous about your composition in such tight spaces. Being able to zoom in optically gives you a significant amount of efficiency in shooting.

Using the distortion to amplify diagonals. This can be effective in giving your shot a bit of a punch but not in situations wherein you want to maintain accurate perspective.

The evident mustache-type distortion can also be something used to the photographer’s advantage. Whether shooting interiors or from outside, this distortion can amplify certain diagonal elements to give a complementary visual path towards the structure that you are shooting. Whether diagonal structures in a room or even linear clouds in the background, they can be used to direct your viewers’ eyes towards the structure and reinforce your visual design. However, this should be observed very carefully, and you should avoid placing significant structures in the outer fifths of the frame to avoid any unwanted skewed perspectives that could ruin the perspective accuracy of your photos.

Generally, this lens is quite remarkable, thanks to the unique range that it offers, the well-built feel, and the output that it is able to deliver. Though it may not be the staple lens for architecture photographers, it would be a nice addition to an existing lens line-up. Given all that, for a fair price of $849, it can be quite a worthwhile investment.

What I Liked

  • All-metal build
  • Image quality
  • Angle of view
  • Value for money
  • Rear-filter compatibility

What Can Be Improved

  • Significant vignette
  • No embedded metadata
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8 Comments

David Boyars's picture

How does it compare to other lenses that go wider than 15mm? Sure it goes wider, but what about everything else? Have you compared it against the 12-24 or 14mm lenses?

Nicco Valenzuela's picture

While I have shot with the 12-24mm, I havent had the chance to do a side-by-side comparison because I don't own a 12-24mm. Generally I can say that it's sharper, much less vignette and of course has AF. If I get to do a side-by-side, I'll update you here.

Noah Goodrich's picture

I have the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero Distortion. When comparing it to the photos in this post, I would hands down go for the 12mm. I actually considered the 10-18mm, but the dealbreaker for me was the disortion. Happy to take a 2mm hit on the wide end and no zoom.

Still super wide, but has significantly less distortion, you get nice streight lines when shooting interiors or exteriors. Sharpness wise, they look about the same.

I also use to have the Sigma 12-24mm f/4 Art, and again would choose the Laowa over it for shooting interiors and exteriors. I found there was significant disortion at 12mm when using that Sigma.

Nicco Valenzuela's picture

Ever tried the 12mm with the shift adapter? I'm looking into using that as my main shift lens workhorse

Ivan Muraenko's picture

Im Laowa 12/2.8 + MSC owner since 2016 on Sony cameras. My main weapon of choice as an architectural and interior photographer. Absolutely happy with it.

will rambo's picture

Thanks for the review! This should perform well in low light applications (night/street photos and astro) then I would think as well? I shoot a 15-30 now and have thought it would be interesting to try something wider like the 12mm Noah mentions.

Kerry Bern's picture

"One of their first lenses out in the market was a full frame 12mm lens with absolutely zero distortion."

You are joking, right? Or, what do you mean by "zero distortion"?

Nicco Valenzuela's picture

have you tried it?