Laowa is a lens manufacturer that is making waves over and over again. I had a chance to use their newest macro lens and put it through its paces to see if it can really rival its counterparts.
I originally got into photography to shoot macro. I know, that's weird. Something about seeing the intricacies and details of the world that the human eye misses captivates me. As a result, I was interested in Laowa's newest lens being that it's not only macro, but it's 2:1 (up to 2x magnification). Laowa macro lenses were made particularly famous with their bizarre probe lens that went viral for being able to capture some incredible footage. However, given the lens required the light of a thousand suns to get the shot, it was never going to be viable for me. I do macro photography for fun, but also on a commercial basis for jewelry brands (mostly watches). I'd settled with 90mm to 100mm primes and have used a number of different brands, and currently, my workhorse is the Sony 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS. It's going to be a tough fight to topple that.
Let's begin with the spec sheet:
Focal Length: 100mm
Maximum Aperture: f/2.8
Angle of View: 24.4°
Format Compatibility: Full frame
Lens Structure: 12 elements in 10 groups
Aperture Blades: 9 (Canon), 7 (Nikon), 13 (Sony FE)
Minimum Focusing Distance: 24.7cm
Maximum Magnification: 2:1
Filter Thread: 67mm
Dimension: Ф72 x 125 mm (Sony version: Ф72 x 155 mm)
To make real sense of these figures, I need to compare it with other, similar macro lenses. The primary issue with that is — and it's worth keeping this in mind the whole way through — it's the only 100mm 2:1 lens on the market. "Extreme" macro lenses with magnification of more than 1:1 are usually rare, specialist, and expensive. Laowa has done its best to remedy that with multiple 2x (2:1) magnification lenses, and one that goes all the way up to 5x! Nevertheless, I'll be comparing this lens to the more common macro lenses of the same or similar focal length to begin with. These are the Sony FE 90mm Macro G OSS, the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro IS USM, and the Nikon Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8. The first two I have used for years and taken thousand of images with, but I have no experience with the Nikon and am going on spec only.
The minimum focusing distance is slightly better than Sony and Canon, and better than Nikon by a whopping 16cm. The size of the lens is pretty similar again, and the weight is marginally more than the other brands, but given its 2:1 magnification, that's unsurprising. Handling it, I didn't notice either a weight or size difference particularly. The maximum aperture is the standard f/2.8 for macro lenses of this focal length, which means they double up as pretty nifty portrait lenses too.
Really, the lens has a spec that puts it completely on par with its rivals, except three areas: one, it hugely exceeds its rivals, and two, it falls behind. The 2:1 magnification is a great addition for us keen macro photographers who bother ourselves with challenges like "I wonder how close I can get to this bug." However, unlike the lenses from Sony, Canon, and Nikon, it has no image stabilization and no autofocus. These are both pretty big deals in some ways, but irrelevant in others. If you're doing macro photography at 2:1 or even really 1:1, you're probably not using autofocus. I know some photographers do, but it's generally worse than moving yourself gradually if you know what you're doing. That said, there are times when you're shooting slightly larger subjects where autofocus is nice. Image stabilization is a bigger loss.
I did notice the lack of IS when I was shooting handheld, which I like to do. It's not the end of the world, but it would be one of my fundamental criticisms. I found myself using a monopod or a tripod where I'd rather have not had to and wouldn't have had to with my Sony, for instance.
There is one more aspect of the spec sheet that caught my eye and made me double take: aperture blades. I can't remember ever seeing a lens that had a different number of blades depending on which mount it was (I'm sure there are, though). I asked my contact at Laowa, and he confirmed that the number of blades does differ and it's related to the mechanical design. This probably isn't that impactful, though I'd like to see side-by-side comparisons of the Nikon and Sony lenses given that Sony has nearly twice that of the Nikon version (13 instead of 7.) The number of aperture blades affects a few things, but most notably the bokeh rendering, which is why the original bokeh monster was hailed for having 15. For reference, I was using the Sony mount lens on a Sony a7 III.
I wasn't sure what to expect from the build quality in all honesty. Laowa is known for making affordable lenses, but also stand-out lenses in function or utility. They're somewhat of an emerging brand, and this is my first contact with them, so I did my best to clear any preconceived notions of what the product might be like. Ten years ago, emerging Chinese manufacturers creating affordable products were seldom worth your time. Now, however, they're nipping at the heels of the more expensive brands in just about every area of camera equipment.
My neutrality was rewarded. The lens is very well built indeed. The barrel is metal and beautifully finished. The focus and aperture rings are smooth but tactile enough to be accurate and satisfying. The trademark glossy black with the blue ring is eye-catching in person and in no way indicated that this lens wasn't thousands of dollars. The design isn't particularly original other than the blue ring, which is the only criticism I can think of here — not much of a drawback.
With macro lenses, there have been two camps for a while now: the main camera brands and the "alternative" lens brands. By alternative, I mean Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, and so on. This is by no means a slight; while they are invariably cheaper, they are often excellent lenses and I use several. Laowa would naturally land themselves in this alternative camp, and their price point further validates that decision. Here is a price comparison from most to least expensive:
Sony FE 90mm Macro G OSS: $998
As you can see, it's the cheapest by some distance and yet the only lens on the list that offers 2x magnification! Yes, you sacrifice autofocus and image stabilization, but that's still quite the deal. There is a Tokina macro lens around the same focal length and maximum aperture for $400, but I've never seen it in the flesh, and it's still a 1x magnification macro.
There exists a sort of holy grail macro lens among us photographers of small things, and that lens has been on that pedestal for quite some time: the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro. This offers a varied magnification from 1x through to 5x (5:1), but it's a dedicated macro lens (a close maximum focus distance) and over twice the price of the Laowa 100mm.
So, now we get to the most important part: the images. Generally, I was impressed. Optically, the lens isn't behind its more expensive counterparts, and I did two full shoots with it in the same way I would usually, subbing it in for my Sony 90mm macro. Vignetting wasn't noticeable, and chromatic aberration was almost never present, which is a feature of this lens that Laowa pushes: "[The lens] features an apochromatic characteristic that chromatic aberration at both 'in-focus' & 'out-of-focus' are both invisible." A little awkwardly worded, but simply put, it has some anti-chromatic aberration wizardry going on, and having looked closely at the images, I'd agree it works. My very first macro lens was an old Canon 100mm from the late 90s, and it was probably its biggest flaw.
The sharpness and behavior of the lens around large lights was exactly what I need for my commercial work, and I put it in rather testing conditions. Firstly, I did a macro stack of about 50 images, and if your lens has a flaw, for all intents and purposes, it gets magnified 50 times over! Secondly, I used multiple large lights, strong colors in places, and lots of reflective surfaces. If a lens isn't crystal clear or it flares easily, I can't use it for these sort of jobs. Also, this is where chromatic aberration can run amok, but alas, it didn't. I cannot tell you the number of times I used to shoot stacks and had to fix purple fringing.
However, there is a problem I've mentioned that needs to be unpacked: the lack of image stabilization. The eagle-eyed readers will say "well, your Sony a7 III has in-body image stabilization (IBIS)," and they would be right. However, lens stabilization is generally better, and two are more desirable than one anyway. But something irritated me. My handheld shots of insects on my Sony 90mm macro seemed sharper at a 100% crop than with the Laowa. I put this down to the lack of IS, but it still bothered me. If you went close to a subject and weren't using a monopod or tripod, getting a tack-sharp subject wasn't easy; I wasn't near my usual hit rate.
After a discussion with fellow editor Alex (sadly, after the lens had been returned), we may have figured it out: the Laowa 100mm doesn't have an EXIF data chip. That is, when you look at the EXIF data for a shot, it will only show you the camera and the settings, not the focal length, etc. That isn't explicitly said anywhere obvious in the lens material. This has never bothered me, but it might have been the problem here. For IBIS to work its best, it has to know the focal length to accurately calculate shifts, and without an EXIF chip, it didn't. You can input this manually, but I hadn't realized that might be the problem during my brief stint with the lens.
I can't say for certain this is why it appeared to be harder to get a perfectly sharp image of an insect handheld than with my Sony 90mm, but I'd say it's likely. So, it's worth noting that if you don't have IBIS, handheld is going to be tricky to pull off. Not a problem if you're taking pictures of objects, but of insects who are rather flighty, it could be trickier.
Let's get right to the point: Would I buy and recommend this lens? Yes on both counts, but it's not for everyone. It isn't without its drawbacks (lack of IS and AF in case you haven't read anything before this point), but a 100mm 2:1 macro lens with the build quality and the image quality it has for such a ridiculously low price point is staggering. Speaking frankly, I don't know how the anti-chromatic aberration works on this lens, but it's also superb and a key selling point for me.
One word of warning I would give — and this isn't necessarily about this lens per se — is that the price for this piece of kit is low enough that new photographers interested in macro might be able to justify its purchase. Without AF or IS and the ability to go to 2x magnification, you're in for a very steep learning curve. I would say that this lens is rather aimed at macro photographers who have a little experience behind them and want to take things further (read: closer). If you're a macro photographer with a little know-how and you have a camera with IBIS, this lens is an absolute no-brainer purchase. Similarly, if you seldomly shoot handheld, you can join that camp too. The fact it can do both 2x macro without being dedicated to macro (it can focus to infinity and shoot portraits and so on too) is another useful piece of justification for buying it.
All in all, it's a fantastic macro lens for the money that I would use in both my hobby as an insect botherer and in my commercial work for jewelry brands. It isn't for everyone, but few lenses are, and it's not trying to be. You can pick up yours here.
What I Liked
- Great image quality
- 2:1 magnification
- Anti-chromatic aberration technology
- Can be used for portraiture too
What I Didn't Like
- No image stabilization
- No autofocus
- No EXIF chip
- Only the Canon version has a CPU chip and motor for aperture control via the camera
Have you any experience with Laowa's macro lenses? Share your shots and thoughts in the comments below.