This small, ultra-wide, and fast lens took me pleasantly by surprise. Well-made and giving clean, undistorted results, I can see the attractions of having one of these in your arsenal.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t holding up high hopes for this lens. But when it arrived for me to try, I had my head turned. Apart from my collection of vintage lenses, I have always stuck with Olympus Zuiko MFT glass because of its excellent quality. My expectations for what is, price-wise, a budget lens were set low, but it didn’t take long for me to become impressed.
The first thing I noticed when taking the lens from the box was its construction, as it was well-made. Slightly smaller and a little heavier than my Olympus 25mm f/1.8, which is a fine consumer-end prime, it has a quality feel. In fact, the all-metal construction of its body gave the same impression of class as from the prime lenses supplied with most film SLRs from the last century, just a lot smaller.
Unlike other Laowa lenses, it doesn’t have an aperture ring. Instead, it is controlled by the dials on the camera. This suits me as, after all, it is how all the other contemporary lenses I use have their apertures adjusted. Furthermore, being chip-controlled, the aperture setting is recorded in the metadata of the camera and can be viewed through the viewfinder.
It is, of course, manual focus. It has a reasonably firm and smooth action, less resistance than my Olympus pro lenses, and is on par with their consumer-end primes. Many mirrorless photographers are discovering the joys of manual focus with their focus assist features. It was not an ideal option for many DSLRs with their ridiculously small viewfinders.
Just like my film SLR lenses, it has a handy focusing distance guide and a depth of field scale printed on the side of the lens. For night-time photography, the scale is useful when wanting to adjust focus to, say, the hyperfocal distance or infinity.
It should be noted that, like those old lenses, it is possible to push the focusing distance to its end stop beyond the infinity marker. However, when manually focusing, I mostly use the camera’s peaking settings anyway. Through the viewfinder, that function outlines the in-focus area with a colored line. This worked better with the Laowa than with some of my soft, old vintage lenses. Using the Laowa, the camera was able to detect some low-contrast edges that I didn’t expect it to find.
Distortion, or Lack of It
For a wide-angle lens, a lack of distortion is a big claim, but it performed fabulously. Keeping the camera level, the edges of the frame were vertical and shooting the sea, the horizon was flat.
I normally use the Olympus 7-14 mm f.2.8 pro lens for super-wide-angle photography, and comparing shots at 10mm, for distortion, the Laowa held its own. This makes the lens ideal for shooting wide angles where straight lines are essential, such as seascapes and real estate photography.
Viewing Angle and Shooting Close Up
It's a 10mm lens, which gives more than 96° degrees of view. Of course, wide angle lenses allow you to handhold the camera in low light, and with the additional speed of this lens and using the Olympus' in-body image stabilization, this will be a super lens for low-light work. Additionally, the lens can focus to an incredibly close 12 cm. That and its wide angle of view make it perfect for exaggerating perspective.
I took the lens out for a few walks with my camera, shooting around 200 test shots. The results were impressive. I found the lens performed best between f/4 and f/5.6, but was no slouch even at f/2.0.
This lens is sharp; even at f/2, I got some nicely detailed images. Yes, my Olympus 7-14mm lens is even sharper. But then again, that pro lens retails at $1,399, as opposed to the Laowa’s $399; I would hope to see a difference when paying $1,000 more. Nevertheless, as most photographs are displayed on phone screens or computer monitors, where resolution is far less, or printed well below their maximum possible size, then few would notice that difference or complain about the results of the Laowa lens. I found it is slightly sharper in the middle of the frame, but again, the edges were still acceptably sharp.
Due to diffraction, sharpness did drop off a little at f/8, but again, the images were still acceptably crisp when pixel-peeping. However, when zooming out to more regular viewing sizes, it was not noticeable.
Nevertheless, even at f/5.6, the hyperfocal distance is just 1.23 meters away, so focusing there, everything between about 62 cm and infinity is in focus, which is fine for most landscapes. Even at f/8, where the HFD is just 88 cm away, everything from around 51 cm to infinity is in focus.
There was next to no chromatic aberration. This is the rainbow haloing you can get around high-contrast edges, seen especially with lower-quality budget lenses. Zooming in to 100%, I saw a very light purple edge along a post against the sky at the edge in one shot. On closer inspection, it was where I had not got the focus exactly right. I would not have noticed it if I hadn’t been looking for it, and I've used more expensive lenses on full frame systems that were not as good. Furthermore, it was fixed with a single click in Lightroom.
One other feature I like, and I appreciate that this is subjective, are the five straight aperture blades. The modern trend is for high-end lenses to have curved blades that give rounded balls of out-of-focus light. However, one of the features I really like in vintage lenses is that pentagon-shaped bokeh, and this lens gives results reminiscent of that. Unfocused backgrounds were pleasantly creamy.
Admittedly, with such a wide angle lens, even at f/2, it is going to be hard to achieve completely blurred backgrounds. Saying that, most users of this lens will be aiming for maximum depth of field, and so, this becomes irrelevant.
Aesthetics and Ergonomics
Although it is a small lens, it doesn’t look out of place on my OM-D E-M1s, and ergonomically, it worked well too. I could easily manipulate the focusing ring with my big, long fingers. On my E-M5s, it looked like the bees’ knees and was even better balanced on those smaller cameras.
Who Would Buy This Lens?
I can see this lens appealing to landscape and especially seascape photographers; anyone who has shot out at sea will tell you that the slightest distortion of the horizon is very evident. Creative photographers can also have a lot of fun with this lens, using its close-up abilities.
Additionally, this lens, combined with an Olympus OM-D E-M10 or E-M5, would be perfect for trade professionals who need to photograph buildings. I can picture real estate agents, property and facilities managers, builders, and surveyors carrying this combination in their pockets. Its brightness and lack of distortion partnered with one of those diminutive bodies would make it perfect for those professionals.
It is an affordable lens, and that will attract those who want to push their photography to the limits and cannot stretch their budget further. Nevertheless, the relatively low cost should not deter those who usually only aim for pro-end glass.
What I Like and Don’t Like About This Lens
As you can read from what I have written above, I was really impressed with this little lens. I will be sad to post it back to Laowa, who, by the way, is a super-friendly business, and that should be something we celebrate in reviews.
My one gripe is the lens cap. The thumb and finger grips to release and replace it were fiddly. They were just too small for my big fingers, especially with the lens hood attached. I found it easier to rotate the cap by 90°, so the grips were sideways, but, even then, it wasn’t easy to manipulate.
The lens is not weather-sealed, but at the price, I would not expect this.
Because I often get called upon to photograph real estate interiors, I am sorely tempted to buy one. Its convenient size and weight make it an attractive alternative to what I use now.
Overall, it’s a super little lens and has great value. The results are better than one would expect at this price range, and I can recommend it.