If you’re looking to get into macro photography, the first party lens options can seem too expensive for a lens with a more niche use, particularly on the latest Z and R mounts. Laowa, however, has a very promising 100mm lens that even exceeds those other 100mm options in one notable way. hould it be the lens you choose when shooting up close?
I’ve always enjoyed reviewing Laowa’s lenses, as they certainly offer something unique compared to many other third party lens makers, who seem to just imitate the typical lenses that are already on the market. If you’ve not heard of Laowa before, you might still have seen one of their more unique lenses, the wild looking 24mm f/14 probe lens. While some of their other lenses are a bit tamer, it still seems that their philosophy is to create optics that are unique to the market, or at least bring a unique feature set to a traditional focal length.
In the case of the 100mm f/2.8, this lens is more towards the “unique feature set” end of the spectrum. All the major brands offer a 100mm macro lens, with both Canon and Nikon having DSLR mount and mirrorless versions of the lens, and Sony offering an A mount and E Mount version. What sets Laowa’s version apart is the ability to go to 2:1. Translated from macro terms, this means that something can be represented on the sensor twice the size it is in real life. As a result, you can get incredibly close to your subject, and represent it with a ton of detail — no cropping required.
Additionally, this lens is designated as apochromatic. An apochromatic lens is designed to converge the different wavelengths of light (read: different colors) onto the same point. That should translate to reduced color fringing and visual artifacts, which can be particularly helpful when shooting focus stacks, high contrast subjects, or when reproducing art and text.
The body of the lens is metal, and it’s quite long. The version I tested was set up for the Z mount. There aren’t significant differences beyond the mounts between the different versions, although one Canon model does come with the ability to pass aperture information to the camera. The lens is roughly in line with the size and weight of other 100mm macro lenses, although mirrorless-native versions may have a slight edge when compared to adapted EF or F mount lenses. The construction and engraving are of good quality, and the focus ring is quite generous, a big plus for a manual focus and macro-oriented lens.
In use, the Laowa 100mm is competitive with other 100mm macro lenses. At 1:1, I found that it matched the performance of my F mount 105mm macro, and was somewhat behind the Z mount 105mm. Of course, neither of those can do 2:1, so if you need that degree of magnification, this lens would have superior performance over cropping an alternate lens or using a diopter filter.
Sharpness is very good, with performance being consistent across the range of focus distances. At very close distances, camera shake, focus accuracy, and occluding the light on the subject are all going to be more of a limiting factor than the actual sharpness of the lens itself.
Vignetting isn’t a major problem. It can be slightly more prominent at very close distances and very wide apertures. Even still, it can be corrected quite easily, although you’ll have to do this manually, as the lens doesn’t pass aperture or focus distance information to the camera.
Chromatic aberrations are very well controlled, as the APO designation would indicate. Even at f/2.8 (marked) and at 1:1, there’s basically no chromatic artifacting, even at 45 megapixels. That’s really nice to see, as I find CA to be particularly problematic with many macro subjects. Whether you’re shooting product photos on a seamless backdrop, or just have to accurately reproduce colors and edges, this feature is very nice to see, especially at the price point.
Manual focus is easy, thanks to the large ring. The rate of change in focus distance may be the only issue. For some applications, like studio work, a greater degree of precision may be preferred, while field use may require a quicker shift between focus distances. In combination with focus peaking, I didn’t have an issue finding focus, although I did end up with a few more missed shots compared to the Z 105mm.
For focus stacking, a common macro practice, this lens is a good option. Between being apochromatic and exhibiting little focus breathing, it’s quite easy to stack the resulting images. One downside is the lack of autofocus, as I’ve really grown to enjoy the automated focus stacking available with AF lenses on the Z bodies. Still, focus stacking performance overall is quite good, and is almost a necessity at 2:1, as the depth of field is incredibly slim, even stopped down.
The Laowa 100mm f/2.8 2X macro lens is a very interesting value proposition. Compared to the 1st party macro options, it offers dedicated macro photographers a lot of performance at a good value. If you’re looking to shoot true macro, or go beyond 1:1, this lens is a great option. For those a little less dedicated to macro, one of the 1st party lenses might be a better option, even at the higher price. Without autofocus, this lens is less able to serve dual purposes as a portrait lens or short tele, and the slower speed of operation with manual aperture and focus control is more of a problem.
On the image quality front, the lens performs very well, especially for the price point. At 45mp, it held up well, with little chromatic aberration — the APO designation isn’t just pure marketing. Nailing focus will be a bigger factor in image quality than the actual sharpness of the lens, as at near macro distances, depth of field can be very unforgiving. There was some vignetting at f/2.8, but it corrects easily and is drastically reduced when stopping down. If I hadn't already picked up the Z 105mm, I'd strongly consider this lens. If you don't already have a macro lens, I'd recommend this lens over a 50 or 60mm macro option. The performance, capabilities, and skill ceiling is just much better, making this a lens you won't outgrow nearly as fast when learning macro photography.
What I Liked
- Strong price to performance ratio
- 2:1 macro ability is unique
- Good quality construction
What Could be Improved
- Autofocus would make this lens more versatile
- Focus throw speed may be too fast or too slow for some applications