Now that the Fujifilm X system is more mature, plenty of lenses are available not only from Fujifilm themselves but third-party manufacturers are also starting to provide quality options. One such company that has just released it’s first native Fujifilm X mount offering is Venus Optics with their ultra-wide Laowa 9mm f/2.8 Zero-D.
This lens marks a couple of milestones on the Fuji X system. Firstly, it is the widest rectilinear lens available on the system. Second, it shows just how small and light a wide-angle lens can be on a mirrorless camera. Although longer focal lengths (especially with fast apertures) necessitate larger lenses, wide angles do not need to be large as they don’t have to compensate for the extra flange distance that the mirror-box creates. Let’s take a look at this minuscule lens and what it is capable of.
The body of the lens is completely constructed from metal components and feels very solid because of it. Laowa also provides a metal hood to complete the overall package. The hood feels flimsy compared to the overall lens, but still much stronger than the one Fujifilm provides with the 35mm f/1.4. The engraved markings on the lens barrel for aperture and distance scale complete this premium feel. Overall, despite all the glass and metal used, this lens weighs in at only 215 grams!
The filter ring for this lens has a 49mm diameter. This is both a blessing and a curse in my experience. The tiny diameter means that filters are cheaper than for larger lenses but, because of the angle of view, there are some limitations. You will need rather large filters if you plan to use a step-up ring with your existing kit. Using step-up rings, the lens could see the edges of both my 52mm and 62mm ND filters. My MacGyver solution to this, while I was out testing, was to dangle the larger filter off the lens with a piece of tape until my 49mm filters arrived. Even with slim filters, don’t expect to be stacking them on the front of this lens. A square filter system may be a better solution here.
The aperture ring feels well made and fits in with the high-quality design of the lens barrel. However, for the Fujifilm version, it turns the opposite direction to native lenses. That is somewhat distracting in the beginning but is easy enough to get used to.
Although not a huge problem unless you’re trying to achieve a specific shutter speed, the aperture ring only moves in full stops. Fujifilm users will be used to the ability to fine-tune exposure and depth of field with the aperture as well. This is not possible on the Laowa.
Another small detail with the aperture ring is that the difference between f/16 and f/22 is a tiny movement that is not a rigid click like the other stops. This makes it easy to knock the aperture ring at the narrow end. I hope that future lenses will not have this issue.
One more thing that would be great on future lenses would be a chip to communicate with the body so aperture values can be recorded. Nikon achieved this with it’s AI system, but since the X mount has no such system, a CPU is needed to communicate the related information to the camera. This would also allow for automatic lens profiles to be created for Lightroom as the lens name could also be recorded in the camera. These are small details, but it would improve the overall incorporation into the X system.
A small, but important, detail is the lack of a mounting mark on the lens barrel near the mount. There is a dot on the inside of the mount, and a line on the barrel near the focus markings, but not one where other Fujifilm lenses have it. Changing lenses on mirrorless cameras needs to be done quickly, and that mark is a simple way to make sure you can mount the lens quickly and accurately. I hope to see it in future Laowa lenses.
The first thing I noticed when picking up the 9mm f/2.8 was just how dense it felt. Taking a look at the optical design very quickly reveals why. A total of 15 elements are used in 10 groups, including three extra-low dispersion elements. The complexity of this design relates to needing to correct for all the aberrations that occur from making the lenses so small. So, as you can imagine, CAs are well controlled.
Sharpness is good throughout the aperture range in the central area of the image. However, the corners don’t sharpen up until f/8. Sharpness is even across the frame from f/8 or f/11 depending on how detail oriented you are. So if you’re planning and shooting with wider apertures, this may be something you should consider.
The minimum focus distance for this lens is 12 cm. Sharpness is still good at this distance and being able to get this close offers some really interesting framing possibilities.
Comparing the 9mm f/2.8 to Fujifilm’s 10-24mm f/4 at 10mm, there are some interesting findings. With both lenses wide open, the Laowa resolves more detail than the Fujifilm in the center of the frame. However, the Fujifilm has significantly sharper corners. The Fujifilm catches up to the Laowa for center sharpness when both lenses are stopped down to f/5.6. However, by f/5.6 the corners of the Laowa image are looking better than the Fujifilm. At f/16 and beyond, the Laowa retains more sharpness than the Fujifilm.
The number of elements used in this lens also means that vignetting is an issue. Wide open, you’ll see somewhere between 2-3 stops of shading in the corners. This lessens as you stop down. However, even at f/11, there’s still some vignetting to be seen. At this aperture, it is relegated to the far corners. However, by f/22, the vignette is back to about the same level as f/4. Luckily, at all apertures the falloff of this vignette is linear, so it’s easy to correct for in post-production. Just don’t let the corners get too dark while you’re shooting and it shouldn’t affect image quality too much.
The optical design of this lens is quite interesting, and in a discussion with Laowa’s designer, Dayong Li, I was able to discover some of the reasons why. The Zero-D denomination in the name stands for Zero Distortion and denotes Laowa’s design which reduces barrel distortion to a “close-to-zero” value. This is especially important when focusing close with a wide-angle lens. Li notes that he took design cues from macro lenses to make this possible. In simple terms, no matter what your focus distance, you should not see any barrel distortion with this lens.
Frog Eye Coating
The front element of this lens is coated with what Laowa calls “Frog Eye Coating.” This is essentially a hydrophobic coating like we have seen on some filters in the past. By repelling water that gets on the front element, Laowa is attempting to ensure you don’t have to wipe your lens too often when working in less than ideal conditions. I did some testing with this and found that although it doesn’t allow streaks to form or large amounts of water to gather on the element, small droplets still form and affect image quality. You can see an example of this in my video below.
At $499, this is neither a cheap or a particularly expensive option for a wide angle lens on Fujifilm. Comparable offerings include the Samyang/Rokinon 12mm f/2 at $399, the Zeiss Touit 12mm f/2.8 at $999 and the Fujifilm XF 10-24mm f/4 at $999.
What I Liked
- Small and light
- Takes small filters
- Great build quality
- Excellent image quality when stopped down
- No barrel distortion
What I Didn’t Like
- Aperture ring rotates in the opposite direction to Fujifilm lenses
- Soft corners at wider apertures
- Huge vignette
- Not chip for recording aperture values
- Frog Eye Coating could be more effective
Overall, the size, weight, and optical quality of this lens make it an excellent choice for your ultra-wide-angle needs. The major downsides of this lens are its vignette and softer corners wide open. Otherwise, it is an excellent performer and one worth looking at. You can pick up your lens from B&H here. The lens is also available for Canon EF-M and Sony E mounts.