With the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 Ultra Macro, Venus Optics has introduced an ultra macro lens that can achieve an impressive magnification between two and a half and five times the size of the subject. This allows you to capture minute subjects and discover exciting details that you can barely notice with the naked eye.
The Canon MP-E 65mm is comparable in terms of maximum image ratio, but is more than twice as expensive. Unlike its Japanese counterpart, the Laowa lens is compatible with a wide range of cameras, including the Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony E, and Pentax K models with full-frame sensors.
In this article, you will find out how the Laowa 25mm Ultra Macro performs, whether it can compete with the Canon MP-E 65mm, and if it’s a worthwhile buy.
The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 Ultra Macro stands out not only because magnifying glass lenses have gone out of fashion in the last few decades, but also due to its short focal length of 25mm. At macro magnifications greater than 1:1, shorter focal lengths are preferable because of the critical depth of field.
However, this shortens the working distance, which is helped by the optical and physical design of the lens. The Laowa does not have infinity focus or a focus mechanism. You have to adjust the focus manually by moving the camera back and forth.
The working distance from the front of the lens is small, but reasonable, at about 45mm at 2.5x and 40mm at 5x. The narrow front of the lens prevents light blockage and allows less oblique lighting with macro flash units.
You can set the aperture between f/2.8 and f/16 via the aperture ring, located at the front of the lens. Though smooth, we would have preferred it de-clicked, especially since you need to frequently shift between f/2.8 and the desired aperture. The click stops can cause vibrational shifts in focus that impact your image.
An eight-blade diaphragm enables excellent circular bokeh. The rear lens element has a rectangular baffle to reduce reflected light, improving contrast.
Though not weather-sealed, the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 Ultra Macro is well-built with a metal body.
With an ultra macro lens, we can easily say that both the quality and speed of production depend mainly on your use of technique, and how methodically you go about it. Given that, the optical quality of the Laowa 25mm is pleasantly surprising.
There is a bit of highlight fringing at f/2.8, and slight softness across the frame, which is well controlled on stopping down. Likewise, f/16 exhibits visible diffraction softness. This is why you should avoid extreme apertures. The sweet spot is from f/5.6 to f/8, where overall sharpness is excellent across the magnification range, even on higher resolution sensors.
At the maximum magnification of 5x, an object of approximately 5x7mm will completely fill a full-frame sensor. On an APS-C sensor, the object appears 50 percent larger, owing to the cropped view of the image circle by the lens.
To achieve sharp focus, you need to shift the camera minutely, by fractions of a millimeter. This almost excludes handheld use unless you are well-practiced, extremely steadyhanded, and prepared to spend a lot of effort on perfecting your shot. For best results, you can use a decent macro focusing rail on a macro tripod not just for accuracy, but also to employ techniques like focus stacking. Manual focusing and the short working distance limit you to shooting stationary subjects.
Live view focus on the selected focus area further magnified on the LCD is the most accurate way to achieve focus, but there are issues. The amount of light actually reaching the sensor is much lower than what is indicated by the aperture. All ultra macro lenses suffer from this. To calculate effective aperture, the formula is: (magnification + 1) times aperture.
So at 5x and at f/8, your effective aperture is f/48. Live view with newer cameras can brighten the view on the LCD, but it shoots up the noise in low light. Unless you are shooting in bright light, the Laowa 25mm needs a continuous light source to aid focus via live view.
Another area for improvement is the zoom, which, despite being damped, tends to creep out slowly when the lens is pointed downwards. A lock, or more dampening, would have been welcome.
How Does the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 Ultra Macro Compare?
The only significant competitor to the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 Ultra Macro is the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro.
The Laowa 25 mm is compatible with a healthy array of cameras. The Canon MP-E 65mm, however, is only available for the Canon mount. It’s possible that you could use a lens adapter to fit it with other cameras, but that’s not particularly practical. Besides, the adapters are usually not cheap.
The Canon MP-E 65mm has a clear advantage in the magnification range. If you want a lower magnification such as 1:1, you have to switch to the normal macro lens. With the MP-E 65mm, you are more flexible.
While both have excellent image quality, Canon has the advantage of a better working distance and an MF ring for tiny adjustments. But considering Canon’s price, more constrained depth of field, and larger front lens diameter, we would rate the Laowa a very worthy alternative.
|Laowa 25mm f/2.8 Ultra Macro||Canon MP-E 65mm|
|Compatibility||Sony (E-Mount), Pentax-K, Nikon F and Canon EF||Canon EF|
|Magnification Range||2.5:1 to 5:1||1:1 to 5:1|
|Working Distance||45mm (2.5x) – 40mm(5x)||101mm (1x) – 41mm (5x)|
Is the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 Ultra Macro for you?
It’s not a must-have by any means, but what this lens does, it does well. It’s also a fact that there isn’t exactly a wealth of counterparts to choose from. The Laowa 25mm certainly has the flexibility advantage over its Canon alternative, with the ability to buy it for Canon, Nikon, Sony, or Pentax mounts.
So who should buy it?
Macro photographers who need very high magnifications with still or stationary subjects. It’s a small, specific audience where photography equipment is concerned. But for those who do want or need what the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 Ultra Macro offers, it’s a solid purchase. This lens gives itself beautifully to anyone willing to adhere to methodology and technique, for an excellent price.