For decades, Japanese brands have ruled the photo industry and while that hegemony continues to this day, Chinese brands like DJI and Venus Optics have begun to make inroads.
For Venus Optics, the plan of attack on the U.S. market is clear. They’ve been hitting the market with unconventional focal lengths where other third-party lens brands aren’t always competing. Take the Laowa 12mm f/2.8. Many lens makers deliver 10mm or 12mm prime lenses with a fisheye effect, but the Laowa 12mm has much less optical distortion and little of the pronounced fish eye curvature of its rivals.
We turned the Laowa 12mm over to N.J. photographer and director David Patiño (www.davidpatino.com) to see how this unusual lens fared on his Canon 5DS.
The Laowa 12mm is a manual focus lens with seven aperture blades. It stops down to f/22 and can focus on objects as close as 18cm from the front of the lens with a maximum magnification of .2x. It delivers a 122-degree wide-angle of view.
The front of the lens is coated with what Venus dubs “Frog Eye” coatings which, besides sounding cool, work a bit like fluorine coatings in that it makes the front lens element easier to clean.
In addition to the EF mount we tested, Venus sells the 12mm lens in Nikon, Sony A and E and Pentax K mounts.
The lens packs two surprises. First, for such a fast, wide-angle prime, the 12mm is rather light. At 21 ounces, it’s lighter than Canon’s EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM lens and Nikon’s AF Nikkor 14mm f/2.8D ED. Second, it’s not shoddily built. “It’s really built quite nice,” Patiño tells us.
The focus markings are large and easy to read at a quick glance. The focus ring has a nice, slow long pull which makes it easier to dial in a precise manual focus.
Patiño did say he wished the lens offered the ability to de-click the aperture.
Image Quality and Performance
Patino used the Laowa 12mm to shoot several architectural exteriors. The lens is able to keep images sharp at the center but at apertures below f/11 we spotted some noticeable softening of sharpness on his 5DS files out toward the edges of the frame. Out at the edges, the image degraded enough in some of our test shots that it almost looked like camera shake (the camera was on a tripod and triggered remotely).
Even at around f/5.6, near the center of the lens there was some loss of sharpness at 100 percent. We compared the lens to images Patiño had taken with his Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 and found the Tamron did a much better job resolving details out to the corners of the frame.
That said, there was very little chromatic aberration, and what we did find was quickly removed in Lightroom. The Laowa also delivers on its promise to deliver a mostly distortion-free image. What wide-angle warping you will inevitably experience is quickly flattened in Lightroom. For one assignment, Patiño had to shoot an exterior angle of a commercial property on a major road, but the lens’ wide angle of view enabled him to stand close to the building (and out of traffic) and still capture the entire exterior.
The Laowa 12mm lens is less than half the cost of Canon’s EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM and Nikon’s AF Nikkor 14mm f/2.8D ED. However, Canon’s lens supports autofocusing. The closest competitor would be Rokinon’s 12mm which is slightly less expensive (list price of $500) but delivers a more pronounced fisheye effect. Given that Patiño’s wide angle needs are pretty well covered with his Tamron SP 15-30mm and the Laowa’s difficulty resolving all the pixels of the 5DS, he says he would pass on this particular lens. But for architectural and real estate shooters in the market for a wide-angle prime that won’t break the bank, it could be worth considering.