LAOWA to Receive Editor's Choice Awards from PC Magazine
Written by by JIM FISHER, 1st July, 2016
The Laowa 105mm f/2 (t/3.2) Smooth Trans Focus is a manual focus lens that captures images with silky smooth backgrounds and offers dual aperture control for photographers and videographers.
EDITOR RATING: EXCELLENT
Extremely sharp. Wide aperture design. Dual aperture control rings. Apodization element smooths backgrounds. Available for multiple systems.
Dim corners at wide apertures. Manual focus isn't for everyone.
The Venus Optics Laowa 105mm f/2 (t/3.2) Smooth Trans Focus is a manual focus lens that captures images with silky smooth backgrounds and offers dual aperture control for photographers and videographers.
Changgeng Optics (formerly known as Venus Optics)is a relatively new player in the US market, but it has already earned a reputation among photographers as a lens maker to watch thanks to unique macro designs, including a 60mm prime with 2:1 magnification and an ultra-wide 15mm with both shift and 1:1 macro support. Its newest lens, the Laowa 105mm f/2 (t/3.2) Smooth Trans Focus ($699), isn't a macro, but rather a short telephoto prime in a classic portrait focal length. It's incredibly sharp and solidly built, and includes an apodization element, which cuts incoming light but smooths out of focus backgrounds, so images have very pleasing bokeh. It doesn't support autofocus, however, which can be a turnoff for some photographers. But those who don't mind using a manual lens will be rewarded by a stellar performer, and one that's worthy of being called Editors' Choice.
The lens ships in black only, and is available in five versions: Canon EF, Nikon F, Pentax K, Sony A, and Sony FE. Venus will also bundle a lens with an adapter for Micro Four Thirds or Fujifilm mirrorless cameras for a $20 premium, and the lens can be adapted to other mirrorless systems via a simple mechanical adapter. Regardless of which version you get, focus and aperture control are fully manual.
The lens has a couple of design elements that set it apart from the crowd. There's one that you don't see: the apodization element in its internal design. It's not a new idea—Minolta developed a similar lens in 1999, and Fujifilm offers a 56mm f/1.2 prime for its mirrorless camera system in two versions, one without$999.00 at Amazon apodization and anAPD$1,499.00 at Amazon version with it.
The apodization element does its job, as backgrounds captured with the Laowa are very smooth, even with tricky settings like leaves on trees. It does have one side effect that can be a detriment to shooting in dim light, in that it reduces the amount of light that gets to the image sensor. The 105mm has an f/2 aperture, but in terms of transmission, measured in t-stops rather than f-stops, it's a t/3.2. Think of it as a permanent, 1.5-stop neutral density filter.
The other differentiating design choice is a dual aperture control system. A standard aperture ring with detents, adjustable in full stops only, can be set from f/2 through f/22. It adjusts a rear diaphragm, an eight-blade design, roughly circular at wider apertures, but distinctly octagonal at f/8 and narrower. The second control ring is clickless, and is marked in the t-stops preferred by cinematographers. It can be set from t/3.2 through t/8, and its 14-blade design is perfectly circular.
You can use either ring to adjust the diaphragm, controlling the depth of field and amount of light reaching the sensor. And, if you really want to fine-tune how the background looks you can opt to use both together, though for that level of control you really want to work from a tripod with Live View enabled for focusing.
The Laowa can focus as close as 3 feet (0.9-meter). That's a fine working distance for portraiture, but you'll want to look elsewhere for macro photography, as the Venus' maximum magnification ratio is 1:6.25. You can opt for an autofocus lens like the Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD$649.00 at BUYDIG.com for life-size magnification, or if you prefer a wider aperture and a manual focus design, the Zeiss Milvus 2/100M ($1,843) supports 1:2 magnification.
I used Imatest to evaluate the performance of the Laowa 105mm when paired with the full-frame, 36-megapixel D810$3,296.95 at Dell. At f/2 the lens scores 4,585 lines per picture height on a center-weighted sharpness test, well in excess of the 2,200 lines we want to see from a lens at a bare minimum. The average score carries through most of the frame, but the edges do lag behind the center. Even so, they still show 3,800 lines.
At f/2.8 the overall score jumps to 4,946 lines, with edges approaching 4,200 lines. As you stop down the overall score does drop a bit, but edges start to pull in line with the center. At f/4 the average score is 4,817 lines, and at f/5.6 it's 4,828 lines with a periphery that is within 100 lines of the average score. You can feel comfortable shooting through f/8 (4,752 lines) without a significant drop in resolution. Diffraction cuts into resolution starting at f/11 (4,329 lines). It's more of an issue at f/16 (3,523 lines) and f/22 (2,929 lines).
Distortion isn't an issue; the lens shows less than 0.5 percent barrel distortion, which is negligible in field conditions. Evenness of illumination from corner to corner—measured using Imatest's Uniformity tool—is an issue at wide apertures. At f/2 the corners lag behind the center by 2.2 stops (-2.2EV), and sides are noticeably dimmer (-1.3EV) as well. Stopping down to f/2.8 brings the sides in line with the center, but corners are noticeably dimmer (-1.3EV), and just outside of our 1EV threshold at f/4 (-1.1EV). At f/5.6 they pull to within 0.9EV, and at narrower apertures the gap is negligible.
If dark corners are a concern, they can be brightened using software with ease. Adobe Lightroom has a slider tool to compensate for the vignette you'll see when shooting the Laowa wide open.
Photographers who rely on the convenience of autofocus won't take much interest in the Venus Optics Laowa 105mm f/2 (t/3.2) Smooth Trans Focus lens. That's a shame, as it's an incredibly sharp optic, with a design that smooths out of focus backgrounds—a big plus for portraiture. That said, manually focusing a handheld shot at f/2 can be tricky with the focusing screens in modern SLRs, so if you really want to work with a razor-thin depth of field you'll likely reach for a tripod and magnified Live View to nail the shot. But with a full-frame camera and a shorter working distance you can still make your subject pop at narrower apertures, where depth of field is ample enough for handheld work.
At $700 the Laowa is a bargain compared with manual focus lenses from the likes of Zeiss, and maintains the image and build quality you expect from top-end optics. It also offers you the choice of a clicking or clickless aperture, the latter of which is a boon for video use. Even at f/2 it takes full advantage of the D810's high-resolution sensor at all but the periphery of the frame, and earns Editors' Choice marks for its impeccable image quality.