Most of you have probably heard of the name Laowa by now. They were a rather unknown brand up until recently when they made name for themselves in the landscape photography world with the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 wide angle lens that was well received. Laowa (Venus Optics) is a Chinese brand known for their innovative lenses. Laowa is showing support to the Sony E-mount with releasing their 15mm f/2 that was specifically designed for the E-mount making it possible to make it smaller and lighter than the lenses they make for DSLR mounts. 2 years ago I met the Laowa guys at Photokina and I already briefly tested the prototype of the 15mm there. I was impressed with the sharpness across the frame and was eager to try out the final version. Now that I have this lens for a while I feel confident to write a decent review about it. I used this lens in my own country the Netherlands and took it to Dubai, Norway and Iceland. I have seen a bunch of reviews online but they were mainly technical without a lot of real world examples. In this review I’ll discuss how this lens performs in ‘real world usage’. Most people who are reading my articles know that I am a landscape photographer so you can expect a lot of landscape photography use with this lens.
Upon first seeing the lens you’ll notice that it’s rather small for such a fast lens. This is mainly because of the specific design for the Sony E-mount and the shorter flange distance of the mirrorless cameras. Not only that, the lens also does not have any autofocus or electronic connections. It’s a solid piece of metal, no plastic. The lens is well built. It’s not very light because of the metal but it’s also not heavy. With it’s small size the lens still weight 500 grams. The nicest thing about looking at it for the first time is the size and… how pretty it looks! It looks very nice on the Sony A7 bodies almost giving it a bit of a retro feel that you get when shooting the old film cameras. It just looks and feels good.
When we continue inspecting the lens we see a few interesting details. A nice little detail is the entrance pupil marker marked on the lens. This is handy for taking panoramas with a panorama rail. Next is the ‘Click’ switch at the side of the lens. This switch is used to make the aperture go smooth or in clicks. The guys at Laowa obviously had video in mind when designing this lens. The focus ring is very smooth and gives nice resistance. It’s not too smooth and I didn’t have it move by accident when using this lens in the field. Again, nice for video. On top of that the lens has the usual markers a full manual lens should have: focus distance (in both feet and meters) and aperture. This lens has no electronic connections so you can’t see what aperture you used in the EXIF data.
The Diameter of the lens is 72mm and the lens hood can be detached. This is very useful as this lets you attach filters with ease. Laowa was already known for their ‘filter-friendly’ lenses when they released their 12mm f/2.8 that had the possibility to mount 100mm filters as well. They continued that trend with this fast wide angle by making it possible to also mount 100mm filters with ease. The nice thing here is that the Diameter is 72mm, which is the same as the Sony Zeiss 16-35 f/4. So if you’re using the 16-35 f/4 with filters you can attach those to this lens without any modifications or rings. A small thing that could be improved here is the attachment of the lens hood. It often comes a bit loose and doesn’t ‘click’ well when attaching it. But then again, the thing that it’s detachable is great by itself as you do not see that a lot with other brand’s fast wide angle primes.
In The Field
So visually and on paper this lens’ first impressions are great. How how does it perform in the field? This is obviously most important. We already established it can use 100mm filter systems (72cm Diameter thread) so that’s a plus. When using this lens in the field the first thing I noticed was the focus is very precise. I have no problems with using manual focus in landscape photography. In fact, I prefer it because I sometimes do not trust autofocus 100%. Manual focus gives me the greatest amount of control. The focusing of the Laowa 15mm is very precise, especially with wide open apertures. The improves focus peaking of the new Sony bodies works great with it. Focusing in the dark with this lens is easy as well. Just pick a random light source and use it to focus on. Make sure you focus magnify though, because again: the focus is VERY precise. This took me some time to get used to and the first time I used it in the dark I missed focus a few times because it was so precise. But once you get the hang of it, it’s sharp wide open.
This lens is quite sharp when using it a bit stopped down around f/4 to f/14. All centre, corner and edge sharpness is very decent although it’s not on par with most of the (higher priced) Zeiss primes. The lens performs well on the highest resolution Sony cameras from this moment (the A7RII and A7RIII) but I’m not sure if it would do well on future 100mp sensors. However, this lens is priced very competitive I didn’t expect insane sharpness. What’s nice is that this lens is known for their ‘Zero Distortion’ promotion. This lens has indeed close to zero distortion. I have been told there are lens profiles available for Lightroom but I hardly use them. They’re mainly used to correct vignetting. The horizon has mostly close to zero distortion. Here’s a shot of a cityscape shot at f/11:
Bottom left crop:
These results are without are very decent overall. No extra sharpness was applied in post. Here’s a hand held shot at ISO 2500 at 1/8 second. The in-body image stabilisation of the A7RIII worked great here. Shot wide open at f/2.
Here’s a landscape shot at (If I remember correctly) f/14. Download the full resolution of this file HERE to check the sharpness.
This lens performs quite well regarding sharpness but it has a very smooth dreamy bokeh. Maybe that’s why they call it the Dreamer. The minimum focus distance is only 15cm so you can get very close to your subjects. Doing this gets you surprising results. It’s almost like shooting macro. The bokeh looks extremely nice. Some examples:
These were all taken with the minimum focus distance of 15cm, shot wide open at f/2 from the Sony A7RIII.
A thing to note here is that with this smooth bokeh, precise focusing and clickless aperture this lens would work very well for video, especially in low light. As I’m not focusing on video in this review I unfortunately have no video samples. But if some of you are interested in that, feel free to let me know and I’ll publish a bunch.
Low Light Performance
Now this is probably the most important aspect for many people that are interested in this lens: How well does it perform wide open at f/2. When focused properly (as mentioned in this review earlier, this needs some practise) this lens is sharp wide open. Center sharpness for such a fast aperture at a wide angle lens is very good. However, when we look at the stars in the corner the performance is not that great. We can see quite some aberrations and coma in the corners. You’ll notice this when zooming in for a 100% crop, but on ‘social media size’ no one will see it. Here’s an example:
100% crop top left corner:
I still did most of my night shots with this lens wide open as I didn’t care too much about the aberrations in the corners. The shots looked very nice overall. Especially when shooting night panoramas, the edges and corners do not matter too much. Here’s a panorama of about 16 shots:
This lens is very good for panoramas because of the next to zero distortion making it easy to stitch.
A cool (personal preference) thing about this lens is that it creates very nice stars even at fast apertures. Here’s an example of a photo of Dubai shot at f/4 where a light was coming straight into the lens.
This lens creates very nice stars when light hits it directly.
Here are a bunch of other example shots:
I have been enjoying using this lens. over the last few months. The combination of the small form factor in combination of the good performance in low light makes me usually bring this lens around.
- Small size.
- Very fast aperture of f/2 (for a wide angle)
- Close to zero distortion.
- Good build quality.
- 72mm filter thread with detachable hood. Takes 100mm filters.
- Good sharpness across the whole frame.
- Good functionality for video: clickless aperture, smooth & precise focus.
- Nice soft Bokeh.
- Close focus distance of 15mm that lets you take close to macro shots.
- Decent pricing.
Less good points:
- No electronic connection so no EXIF data.
- Corners when shooting wide open could be better
- No Autofocus (although this is not a negative for me)
Should I buy this lens?
This lens just does many things very well. The nicest thing about is is that you can use filters with it. If you’re looking for a fast prime with decent sharpness for the Sony E-mount then this is a good buy. If you’re a videographer this lens is great. For star and milky way photography this lens is very decent. I currently carry this lens in my camera back because it almost doesn’t take up any space and is rather light also. As a travel and landscape photography this is most important to me.
If we look at the competitors the only lens that we can compare this lens to is the Samyang 14mm f/2.8 designed for Sony E-mount (the new one). The Samyang does many things very well too. It’s the same weight. I did a ‘hands – on’ review for this lens a while back and the sharpness of this lens is very nice too, AND it has autofocus. So if you value autofocus, the Samyang might be for you. The Samyang is a bit cheaper also. However, the Samyang does not take filters, and is also less sharp than the Laowa at very wide apertures (the Laowa goes to f/2, and the Samyang was a bit soft at f/2.8). Another lens that’s currently interesting is the new Sigma 14mm ART f/1.8. From what I’ve heard this lens is very sharp even in the corners wide open. However, it’s more than twice as heavy and twice as expensive. It’s just a matter of preference and what you value most when using a fast wide angle lens.
Gear used in this review:
Sony A7RIII, Buy on Amazon
Laowa 15mm f/2, Buy on Amazon
About the Author
Albert Dros is an award-winning Dutch landscape photographer. His work has been published by TIME, Huffington Post, Daily Mail, National Geographic and more. He is addicted to landscape photography and capturing the beauty of the world. You can find out more about him on his website, follow his work on Instagram and Facebook or reach out to him through Twitter. This article was also published here and shared with permission.