If you’re currently shopping around for a wide-angle lens, it may be just worth going a bit left-field for a change. In this case with the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D lens. The focal length of 12mm is probably as wide as many people will go until you get into fisheye territory. This lens has some unique features which may just tempt you away from the rest of the pack.
These include almost distortion-free images (thus the ‘Zero-D’ bit), filters can also be fitted, plus a shift adapter which will turn the lens into a 17mm f/4 shift lens. Basically two lenses in one. So, let’s dig in and see what this lens has to offer.
Firstly, this lens can be strapped to either a Nikon, Canon, or Sony DSLR although it can be used on the crop sensor body, you’re obviously getting the widest view on a full-frame combo. Due to its price point, the lens is also aimed at the more pro-end of the spectrum, which means a very useful aperture of f/2.8 which is not always found at this focal length.
The lens is also manual. A deciding factor for many, but with such a wide lens, f/4 and above means there’s always plenty depth of field to play with. As above, the added bonus is for Sony users a Laowa Magic Shift adapter can be fitted which will turn it into a 17mm f/4 shift lens or just a straightforward 17mm f/4 lens if needed.
As for the basic specifications, it’s a very compact lens, mainly due to no autofocus gizmos inside, with a reasonable overall weight of 609g. It’s not as light as you would expect for this type of lens, but this is due to the all-metal construction, which does give a feel of quality.
The lens mount is also made of metal with a weather-sealed gasket to keep out the majority of the outside elements. There’s also a very small but useful lens hood included which can be useful for cutting out the odd stray lens flare.
Inside the lens are 16 elements in ten groups, which use ‘floating elements’ with seven diaphragm blades. The aperture range goes from f/2.8-f/22 and you can get relatively close up to a subject at 18 cm.
The outside of the lens has all the manual functions you would expect. A smoothly turning focus ring with a nearly 90-degree turn, which gives plenty of leeway for such a short focal length. There’s also a manual aperture ring with different distributions of clicks as you move around. f/2.8 to f/4 has the widest range, with the shortest going up to f/22. Very useful if you want to adjust the aperture by feel. Overall, a very well constructed lens with all the markings you would need for manual usage.
The Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D in Use
If you’ve ever had a play with an ultra-wide-angle lens, they can be a lot of fun. Having such a wide view of the world with sharpness easy to obtain, almost makes you not notice having no autofocus.
Fully wide open at f/2.8 the center sharpness is already spot-on, with no stopping down needed. However, the corners do suffer from softness when fully wide-open, starting to clean up very nicely at f/5.6 and hit their zenith at f/8. After f/11 the lens copes well with diffraction, with little need to go any higher in the majority of circumstances.
These findings are not really a surprise with such a wide-angle lens, as it always seems to be the rule that you will be hovering around f/8 if you need everything to be as sharp as possible overall. For such an extreme field of view letting in high levels of light, there will always be a trade-off when completely wide-open in the corners.
One other thing to be aware of is that the lens can suffer from large amounts of vignetting, especially wide open. Stopping down from f/5.6 and above starts to clear things up, but you need to be hitting around f/8 for everything to look its best. Chromatic aberration is also evident wide-open in the corners, but as usual, this can be easily corrected in software.
As for the zero distortion, a lens this wide has to cope with a lot. This being perspective distortion, line distortion, and barrel-shaped distortion. The first two are usually inherent with this width of lens. Things like keeping lines straight at the edge of the frame, but the zero distortion thing here is to do with barrel-shaped distortion or ‘mustache’ distortion.
In reality, the distortion levels are extremely low, but still evident. Easy to correct in postprocessing, but it still may be an idea to put your subject in the middle on critical shots.
How Does It Compare?
Being such a specialist lens, the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D is in an odd category. A prime lens at a specific focal length, fully manual and claiming distortion-free. One possible cost-effective alternative is the Irix 11mm f/4. This lens comes in at roughly half the price of the Laowa and has some very similar features.
The Irix however, only goes to f/4, but you could also argue that at this focal length, to keep everything as sharp as possible, you may not use the full aperture width all the time. The Irix is very good at rendering Rectilinear images and it’s very sharp with low chromatic aberration. It’s also quite heavy, but it could also be a very good cost-effective alternative for things like landscapes.
Then again, you could opt for the zoom route, like the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art lens, which is clearly a very good performer and cheaper than the Laowa, but what you gain in zoom ability, you lose in overall width. As other considerations, there’s the Canon 11-24mm f/4 and the Sony 12-24mm f/4 zoom.
|Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-d||Irix 11mm f/4|
|Elements||16 elements in 10 groups||16 elements in 10 groups|
Overall, the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D can be labeled as a specialist lens, for specialist needs. The ability to add a shift adapter extends the usefulness, but it’s really as the lens is intended, which is the focus.
The lens is very compact, lets in loads of light, and acts more like a regular lens than a fisheye. Plus it can use a variety of filters. The Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D a very interesting lens and worth a look if you want a more left-field solution for things like interiors and landscape photography.