Venus Optics (Laowa), a small Chinese lens manufacturer founded in 2013, has risen to prominence with their sometimes off-beat, always different, and always high quality lineup of lenses for all the major lens mounts. They have launched niche lenses like the 24mm f/14 probe macro and a series of their flagship close-to-zero-distortion Zero-D lenses. Today’s topic is the latest in that line and the widest lens available for the Fujifilm GFX system, the Laowa 17mm f/4 Zero-D.
This latest lens from Laowa follows in the footsteps of their Zero-D (Laowa marketing speak for "close to no distortion") line of lenses. This means that provided you keep your camera level, you should see almost perfectly straight lines throughout the frame. This is great for architectural photographers who need to know that they're not distorting another artist's work with their choice of tools. But, the extremely wide field of view makes them great for landscape and cityscape photography as well. With that definition out of the way, let's take a look at the lens at hand.
Before we get started, I'd like to mention that Laowa sent me this lens on loan to test and make some sample images for the release. I was asked to test the lens in my own way and offer my critique with no strings attached. This is a final production lens, and it does not belong to me. I will be returning it to Laowa after I have made my reviews and samples. Now, on with the review!
Size and Weight
As we’ve come to expect from Laowa, the build quality of this lens is excellent. The barrel is entirely constructed from metal and feels sturdy in the hand. While not heavy for a medium format lens by any stretch of the imagination, it does weigh in at 829 grams (1.8lbs). This is actually just a little lighter than Fujifilm's own GF 23mm f/4. The Laowa does, however, feel a little heavier than the 23mm when it’s mounted. This is presumably because of its additional length meaning that more glass is farther away from the camera body.
Speaking of length, the Laowa is 124.5mm long and is shaped somewhat like a musket. This length does give plenty of room for the manual focus ring (which feels great — more on that below) and a large depth-of-field scale for additional focus checking. Behind that is a clicked aperture ring allowing you to move full stops from f/4 to f/32. The trumpet-shaped opening at the end of the lens functions somewhat like a hood to shade light coming from extreme angles towards the bulbous front element. It also houses the 86mm filter thread.
This filter thread can be used to mount circular filters. You'll want to check filters first though to make sure they're thin enough not to cause vignetting. While it might be beneficial to have a hood that could screw into this filter ring, it would need to be cleverly designed, as the field of view is so wide even a thick filter can be seen by the lens.
Laowa is also working on a magnetic filter holder just for this lens that will allow two filters to be stacked at any rotation angle with no vignetting.
The focus ring on this lens is excellent. While I always have misgivings about ridged-metal focus rings, as they tend to get slippery with a little sweat on the fingers, this one feels just fine and has been easy to turn even on the hottest days of our monsoon season here. Going from the minimum focus (marked as 18cm on the lens barrel, but listed as 20cm on the website) marker to infinity requires a full 180-degree turn of the focus ring. This gives you plenty of precision for focusing on the larger GFX sensor.
Another thing that can plague third-party lenses is the mount. Thankfully, this beast mounts flush to the GFX and doesn’t feel too loose or too tight. The mount is high quality and doesn’t feel any different from mounting a Fujifilm GF lens. One thing to note, however, is that like the rest of the lens barrel, the mount is not weather-sealed. There is no rubber gasket to cover any potential gap for dust or water ingress. While the connection feels air-tight, I still wouldn’t risk this expensive combination in anything more than a light drizzle.
One thing that I mentioned when I reviewed the Laowa 9mm f/2.8 Zero-D for Fujifilm X was the need for a mounting mark on the base of the lens barrel to align the lens with the body. Just like the 9mm, there is a mark on the inside of the mount, but this doesn’t really help with quick lens changes. I’d still like to see an external marking like you find on Fujifilm’s native lenses.
This lens is the combination of two optical systems with some rearrangement to make it optically fantastic on the Fujifilm GFX bodies. The combination of those two lens systems gives a total of 21 elements in 14 groups with two aspherical elements and three extra-low dispersion elements to keep the image quality high. I will be honest and say that when Laowa confirmed with me that the lens was indeed their 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D formula combined with their Magic Format Converter, I had my doubts about how the lens would perform on the GFX. I was wrong. Very wrong. This is an exceptional performer.
The detail this lens renders was the first big surprise I got when working with it for the first time. Sharpness is excellent, especially for a wide-angle lens. At f/4, the center of the image is great, while the corners are just good. At f/5.6, everything sharpens up a little, but the same story continues with the corners. By f/8, however, the whole frame is sharp and this continues through f/16. Diffraction begins to kick in at f/22, and images at this aperture value are softer than when the lens is wide open. At f/32, I would consider the images to be unusable for anything larger than social media sizes. They get quite soft.
The following image was made at f/11 with a 15-second exposure at ISO 100. I have included some crops below that are simply 1,200x900 pixel sections taken out of the full resolution image. You can see for yourself the detail that is rendered, event at infinity focus like in this image.
I have a video on my YouTube channel that has a condensed version of my thoughts in this review and also some additional sharpness samples if you are interested in those!
The second surprise I got was vignetting. As you may have seen in my 9mm f/2.8 review, the vignette on that lens never really went away at any aperture. I was expecting a similar performer from the 17mm f/4. However, I was surprised to see that the vignette is mild at f/4 (around a stop darker in the corners) and is almost completely gone by f/8. This is quite impressive for such a wide-angle lens with so much glass.
Flare and Ghosting
With the front element being so exposed due to the field of view, flare is bound to be an issue for this lens. So far, I’ve found that it is very well controlled when light directly enters the lens. I haven’t seen any major reduction in contrast from shooting directly into the sun or other light sources. Depending on the intensity and location of the sun in your composition, you will see artifacts. They are minimal and to be expected. For the most part, I found that they took on the classic "string of aperture shapes" look.
However, when light comes in at extreme angles, much more interesting artifacts start to appear and contrast reduces significantly in areas around the edges of the frame when the sun is close. A couple of good examples are below. In the first image, you can see a rainbow artifact appearing and some significant contrast loss. This one is quite small (only around one-tenth of the image width). I have seen similar artifacts a couple of times when photographing night scenes as well. In the second image, you can see a huge flare that takes up about one quarter of the frame when photographed at just the right angle. In both cases, simply shielding the lens was enough to completely eliminate the flare.
The great thing about having a lens with a manual aperture on a mirrorless camera is that you can see the flare that will form at the current aperture. This makes it really easy to recompose or shield the lens with your hand to reduce or remove the flare. As I mentioned above, it would be great if there were a hood available to help with this. As with many ultra-wide-angle lenses, this may not be possible.
Having said all of that, flare is well controlled until the extremes and easy to see when it does appear. It isn't really something I'd be too concerned about unless the light is coming in from very tight angles. Then you'll need to watch out for it and shield when necessary.
The minimum focus distance of this lens is just 20cm (marked as 18cm on my lens for some reason), which allows for a 1:3.6 reproduction ratio with this ultra-wide field of view. I put it to the test with some rain drop-covered leaves and was pleasantly surprised again at how much detail this lens renders. The length of the lens barrel and the flange focus distance of the GFX system mean that you have just under five centimeters of working distance in front of the lens. That made this shot fun to get as the leaves were blowing around in the wind and covered my lens in water more than once. This image is shot wide open at f/4, and you can still see that there's lots of detail being captured, and the bokeh is not horrible either.
Laowa chose to include a five-bladed aperture in this lens to produce large, beautiful sunstars. They are indeed large and beautiful. Depending on your taste, you can use the aperture to control just how large and sharp these become. As you can see in the image below, f/16 produces stars that could easily become a dominant feature of your composition.
In The Field
A 17mm lens is extremely wide on the Fujifilm GFX system. That can make the learning curve quite steep for this lens. When I picked up the Fujifilm 23mm f/4 for the first time, I felt right at home. It’s a much more manageable and versatile focal length. This lens, on the other hand, is quite specific in its uses as it is such an extreme focal length. It took some getting used to, just like any other ultra-wide lens. Once you’re past the “Oh, my feet are in the frame” stage of owning this lens, though, it becomes much easier to use and produces some very unique images.
Working with wide-angle lenses is a lot of fun, as we're able to play with the way we see the world to some fairly interesting extremes. The Laowa 17mm f/4 is no different in this respect. Perhaps the only major difference in use between it and its APS-C and full frame counterparts is that the nature of working with a medium format body forces you to slow down a lot more, especially when it comes to focusing and composing your images. While I found that the 9mm could actually be a lot of fun for street photography, the 17mm f/4 is not quite so strong for run-and-gun photography. I've found myself wanting a tripod more while using this lens so I can finesse my compositions, check focus, and stop down for depth of field.
Different GFX Bodies
My time with the Laowa 17mm f/4 has been dominated by working with my GFX 50R. On this “smaller” body, the lens is significantly front heavy, and hand-holding it will make your hand and wrist quite tired after just a short time working. I had the chance to mount it on the 50S body at my local Fujifilm retailer, and it balances much better with the larger grip. I can only assume that the large grip and extra weight of the GFX 100 would balance this lens out quite nicely. That being said, most of your time using this lens is likely to be on a tripod.
The same can be said for focusing on the GFX 50R. With it’s lower magnification EVF and somewhat sub-par screen, the 50R is definitely more suited to autofocus lenses. This does make using the 17mm f/4 from Laowa a little more difficult than on the 50S. After a few days use, I was able to get used to this idiosyncrasy and begin trusting that I was getting things in focus. A quick test on the 50S highlighted this difference and again, with the beautiful new EVF on the GFX 100, I’m sure it will be even easier to focus on that body. This is not a slight against the lens, but something to be aware of depending on which body you plan to pair it with.
I would love to see Laowa include CPUs and contacts in their lenses. By doing this, lens details such as make and model could be saved into the EXIF data by the camera along with aperture values. These would allow post-production software to do things like automatically apply lens corrections. Zeiss did this in the past with some of their lenses, and I would love to see it implemented in more third-party offerings.
While priced lower and offering better image quality than the 12mm and MFC combination, the 17mm f/4 Zero-D is not a cheap lens at $1,199. But, in the medium format world, there aren't many cheap lenses around. All things considered, this lens is a great value-for-money option if you're looking at a wide-angle lens for the GFX system. The only thing close to it at the moment is Fujifilm's own $2,599 GF 23mm f/4.
What I Liked
- Ultra-wide angle of view
- Zero-D design
- Excellent build quality
- Excellent optical quality
- No significant vignette
- Filter ring and upcoming filter holder
What I Felt Could be Improved
- Sharpness stopped down
- Weather sealing
- Flare can sometimes be an issue
- Chip to communicate aperture values to the camera body
This is a unique lens for the GFX system and offers a lot of possibilities. Overall, it is an optically excellent lens that is extremely well built. It's not nearly as heavy as I expected, despite all the glass and metal used in the construction. There are still a couple of small things I'd like to see improved in future lenses, such as weather-sealing and sharpness when stopped all the way down. These are minor things for most photography though, and I highly recommend this lens. You can learn more and pick up your own copy here.