Nikon’s 105mm f/1.4 lens made a big splash when it was announced last year. Being the world’s fastest 105mm prime lens, it’s not much of a surprise. Having been in the hands of photographers for a few months now, it’s done nothing but impress. It’s a top quality lens, with a price tag to match. But what about those who don’t want or can’t afford to spend $2,200 on a 105mm lens? Are there other options?
Well, there’s the Venus Optics Laowa 105mm f/2 STF at a mere $699. But how does it compare? That’s the question this video from Ling at Zero-Day Photography hopes to answer. Smooth Trans Focus (STF) is Laowa’s technology which “soften[s] the borders of the bokeh” to create the effect of a wider aperture lens. In theory, this should let it provide images with a similar appearance to the Nikon. Should. In theory.
So, there’s reasons the Laowa lens cost about a third of the Nikon. It’s a stop slower, for a start, and doesn’t require as much material to make. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, as it does make the lens substantially lighter (985g vs. 745g). It’s also a fully mechanical manual focus lens, so there’s no fancy electronics to potentially go wrong. But a lack of autofocus is going to put some people off.
So, let’s have a look at how they compare. This first test might seem a little unfair at first. After all, the Nikon goes a stop wider than the Laowa, so it’s naturally going to have a shallower depth of field. Out of focus areas are going to be rendered more softly. As mentioned, though, in theory, the Laowa’s STF technology should be able to compensate. Can you tell which of these images was shot with which lens?
If you guessed that the top one was shot with the Nikon, then you were right. Although I don’t think this comparison’s entirely fair. You can tell in the second shot that the subject is much closer to the camera. So the focus distance is closer. Even focused a few inches closer to the camera, your background is going to get thrown out a little more.
The effects of STF aren’t unpleasing. They’re a little softer around the edges as one would hope, although I do wonder how much the closer focus distance is contributing to that look.
In the next test, things seem a little more even. The subjects look about the same size in the frame, so focus distance will be comparable. How about in this pair? Can you tell which is which?
If you said the top image was the Nikon, then you’re right again. I think the difference here is more noticeable, especially as we get further away from the subject.
The next test is resolution and sharpness. The differences here are difficult to distinguish. The first three images here are the Nikon 105mm shot at f/1.4, f/2, and f/4.
Even wide open, this lens is ridiculously sharp. You can even make out Ling and his video guy in the eye’s reflection.
When it comes to the Laowa, there is no f/1.4 test. So, it’s just f/2 and f/4.
A side by side comparison here of the close up detail shows that it, too, is extremely sharp, especially once you stop down to f/4. F/4 seems to be the sweet spot for both of these lenses when it comes to sharpness.
So far, while there are some minimal differences, there doesn’t seem to be a lot in it. The Nikon does have autofocus, though, which will make a big difference in workflow speed.
The final test is where you really see a big difference between the two lenses, though. And that’s how the lens renders flare. If you light shooting against the sun, then the Laowa may not be the lens for you. In this test, Ling simulated the sun with a flash covered by a CTO gel.
Whether or not flare is something you want to include in your photos is up to you. But sometimes it can be difficult to avoid when shooting on location. You can see in the Nikon shot that the flares are well defined, with lots of rings, and the subject still holds a lot of detail.
The Laowa, on the other hand, reminds me of a lot of those less popular old M42 lenses that really don’t handle flare well at all. There’s little-to-no defined rings, an overall weird texture, and much reduced contrast.
Perhaps this is a look you like, though. But, I think you’d probably be better off picking up an old M42 Helios 135mm f/2.8 for $20 if you do like this kind of flare.
If you’ve been on the fence about whether or not the Nikon’s worth the cost, hopefully this’ll offer some insight. If you do end up going for the Laowa, don’t forget to check some guides on manual focusing tips, and manual focus aids.
In conclusion, Ling feels that the Laowa 105mm f/2 is a potential alternative to the Nikon 105mm f/1.4. For him, the Laowa Smooth Trans Focus system just gave those out of focus areas a look he prefers. He admits that it’s a very subjective opinion. And it is. It will depend a lot on what you like to shoot, how you shoot it, and the final look you prefer.
Do you agree with Ling? Do you think the Laowa stands up well to the Nikon at three times the price? Or will you just get the Nikon?