Venus Optics Laowa have made a name for themselves by producing unique lenses for all the major camera systems. From the 24mm f/14 probe lens to their series of Zero-D lenses, Laowa have produced excellent optics at reasonable prices. Today's focus is on the exact opposite of the spectrum from their Zero-D series - the 4mm f/2.8 Circular Fisheye.
As with all of Laowa’s lenses, the 4mm fisheye is all metal and glass and carries a premium feel because of it. Markings on the lens are engraved and painted, adding to the overall feeling of the lens. The lens feels like it was built to last despite its low price.
The lens body itself is extremely small, making it easy to toss in any corner of your bag and have on hand when you might want to make a photograph with it. However, it can actually be quite hard to get a firm grip on when mounting or removing the lens. Because of the tiny construction, the aperture and focus rings take up a good portion of the lens body. It is definitely easier to get a grip with the lens cover mounted (which I’d recommend anyway so as not to accidentally put fingerprints all over the bulbous front element.)
To aid in focusing without getting your greasy mitts all over the lens element, Laowa has included a focus tab like you might find on some Leica lenses. This makes moving the focus (not that you’ll be doing that often!) easy without having to clean the lens. The aperture ring, however, is at the front of the lens and you’ll need to be a little more cautious when changing that.
As we’ve come to expect from Laowa, optical quality is excellent. The lens is sharp in the center wide open and despite the extreme field curvature, becomes sharp across the frame by around f/5.6.
I did several tests with extremely high contrast scenes to look for fringing. I found that the center of the frame holds up well and fringing is completely absent after f/4. However, as we move away from the center, fringing becomes much more prevalent. This is to be expected from a fisheye, especially one this wide, and can be corrected in post easily. As you can see in the image below, the fringing is a few pixels wide.
Another surprise was that flare and ghosting are extremely well controlled. Even working with the sun in the corners of the frame produced contrasty images almost free from artefacts. With the wide angle of view, it can be really difficult to keep the sun out of frame. So, this is an especially welcome attribute of this optical construction. When you do get flares and ghosts, they can be quite interesting. In certain situations, I have seen a rainbow form in a circle around the edges of the image, for example. You can also see in the image below that the sun can cause circular ghosts at certain angles as well.
The 8cm minimum focus distance allows for extreme close-up photographs with lots of distortion. There's even an element of depth of field separation possible as you can see below. However, for most subject matter, focusing this lens is a matter of "set and forget". Typically, I would just set the aperture to f/11 and the focus to somewhere around 1.5 meters. This resulted in images that were sharp throughout the frame every time.
A fisheye is not for everyone or for every frame, especially one this wide. However, it’s a lot of fun to play with and offers a unique way to look at the world. If you’re struggling with the concepts of perspective distortion and barrel distortion, this lens will certainly give you an extreme example of both!
Since this is a circular fisheye, only the center of the sensor is covered by its small image circle. With the M43 version of the lens, much more of the sensor is covered and the top and bottom of the circle are lost. However, with the lens mounted on an APS-C sensor, the full circle fits and only about 1/3 of the sensor's resolution is used in the end.
Aside from the compositional challenges of being able to see so much in your frame, there are a couple of additional challenges you’ll face. Three parts of your body are likely to be visible in every frame if you’re not careful: your feet, the top of your head, and your fingers where they grip the camera body. I’ve taken to flipping out the screen on my Fujifilm cameras and holding the camera at arm’s length with my hands behind the body and my thumb on the shutter button. Not the most stable platform, but a good way to keep myself out of the frame.
The final challenge I faced every time I used this lens was keeping it clean. With the front element exposed so much, it’s best to keep the lens cover on when you’re not actually making images. It’s extremely easy to get fingerprints or dust on the front element in between shots. We had a couple of rainy days during my testing as well and those proved almost impossible to get photographs on as droplets build up so quickly. Keeping a spare microfiber cloth in your bag along with some lens cleaning fluid and tissues is a great idea when working with this lens.
Of course, there are other use cases outside of the novelty of a circular fisheye. The M43 version, for example, could be mounted on on the DJI Inspire for some really interesting footage. Laowa's product page also shows some great examples of VR imaging for interior tours and 360-degree panoramas.
A circular fisheye is a novelty for most people but does have some applications for professional use as well. Laowa have created an optically excellent fisheye, so if this is something you're in the market for, it is certainly worth checking out. At only $199, it's worth just picking one up for those few times you think "Wow, wouldn't this look cool shot with a fisheye?"
Things I Liked
- Well constructed
- Great optical quality
- A fun new perspective
Things I Felt Could Be Improved
- A somewhat larger lens barrel or knurled surface to help with mounting the lens
- Including a microfiber cloth in the box