High-magnification macrophotography was once a niche mostly reserved for Canon users, thanks to the unique MP-E 65mm 1-5x Macro Lens, and for photographers willing to experiment with microscope objectives and focus-stacking techniques. This has recently changed, and slowly more macro lenses with a reproduction ratio higher than 1:1 are being introduced into the market. Two of them belong to Venus Optics Laowa: the 60mm f/2.8 2X Ultra Macro lens that was introduced in 2015, and the new addition Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro lens. Since I have been a user of Canon’s MP-E lens since 2006 I was intrigued by this new Laowa lens, especially how it compares in regards to ease of use and versatility. Venus Optics Laowa were kind enough to send me a pre-production copy for review. This is not a paid review and the content below is based entirely on my personal impressions.
Before we begin, a warning: The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X is a high magnification macro lens. As such it gives an unusual perspective of even the most mundane subjects. I could have gone through this review using closeups of everyday objects as examples, but I am a wildlife macrophotographer. There will be spiders.
The boxed lens comes with front and rear caps, but also a tripod collar that is compatible with the arca-swiss mouting system (note that I did not receive the tripod collar with my copy, so I cannot share any thoughts about it). Upon opening the box I was struck by how small and lightweight the lens is compared to the tank that is the Canon MP-E. That being said, the lens is definitely well built, mostly metal construction (with some exceptions, see below), and has some heftiness to it, weighing around 430g. It does not feel cheap or fragile in any way.
If you missed my previous review of the Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens, I don’t get too technical in my reviews to avoid repeating information that is widely available online. If you are reading this, I assume that you are mostly interested in the practical uses of the lens, what it can be used for, and how well it performs. If you are interested in a dry summary of its specs I will gladly refer you to the product page or Nicky Bay’s excellent technical review.
I tested the lens on a crop sensor camera (APS-C), which I found somewhat limiting because of the tight range and high magnification values, nevertheless I enjoyed using it. The lens is also suitable for use on a full frame camera body. For most of the photos shown here I used my existing Canon MT-24EX macro twin lite system, and occasionally a speedlite with a softbox as the main light.
Compared to its massive counterpart from Canon, the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X has a narrow lens barrel that ends with a small front element. The tip of the lens is slightly conical. The lens does not have a filter thread. I am not sure why Laowa went with this design, as it may put off some people who prefer using filters and similar lens attachments. Instead the lens has a special bayonet with grooves that click and lock the front metal cap in place (for those interested – the lens tip diameter is 41mm, however externally it is closer to 43mm due to the bayonet). It is an interesting feature, and very useful in preventing the small cap from accidentally snapping off and getting lost. Here I must warn fellow photographers: The interlocking parts on the lens tip and front cap are made of plastic (whereas the rest is aluminum). If you like to tinker with and customize your gear (like me), and plan to come up with an adapter to allow the attachment of a threaded filter or hood, use extreme caution because you can damage the tiny knobs that lock the lens cap in place! The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X has an 8-blade aperture, which produces nice looking bokeh compared to the hexagons coming out of the MP-E lens.
The lens itself is very sharp and produces high quality images. Depth of field, sharpness, and the level of diffraction change depending on the magnification used and aperture value dialed in.
When used at its lowest magnification an aperture of f/8-f/11 gives good results and good depth of field.
The above photos were taken under the same light conditions and camera settings, and they are unedited (except for cloning out sensor dust). I used a glittery backdrop because I wanted to emphasize specular highlights in order to show the difference in Bokeh between the two lenses. That did not work, however I discovered something else. At lower magnifications, the color rendition of the two lenses is slightly different, with the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X being more “punchy” than the Canon MP-E 65mm. I am not sure what can cause such a difference, but in any case this becomes less apparent as the magnification increases.
When taking the Laowa 25mm lens to higher magnification values I mostly used it at f/4-f/5.6 to get the best results, and wide open at its highest magnification. Comparison with the Canon MP-E at 5x shows very little difference in image quality, with the Laowa lens showing slightly more sharpness at f/2.8 and f/4.
These settings only serve as examples; it all depends on the desired end result, of course. If anyone is interested to view the high-resolution photos for pixel-peeping, I uploaded them to a Flickr album. Some people mention a higher depth of field achieved with the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X because of its shorter focal length compared to the Canon MP-E 65mm, but I will argue that because these lenses are constructed differently, this difference in DOF (if exists) is insignificant. There is a small difference in the field of view between the two lenses, but that is expected.
Chromatic aberration is well controlled and barely noticeable. One thing I noticed is that depending on the angle light is coming from, lens flare can sometimes be an issue. This can make some images look washed out or hazy, so in my opinion the lens can benefit from a small dedicated hood.
One of the points I heard people making against the lens was that it is unappealing in appearance (see the comments section of this post for example). I cannot understand why the external appearance of a lens is so important. If you buy a lens only to impress other people, you should take an honest look at yourself. As a photographer you should be more interested in the images you can create with it. More importantly, does the lens work and is it any good? Let’s see.
Although the operation of the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X is pretty straightforward, the lens requires a break-in period similarly to other specialty lenses like Canon’s MP-E. The learning curve is steep at first.
Shooting with a stopped-down aperture means that the viewfinder will be dark, making it difficult to track and focus on your subject. However, thanks to the narrower lens barrel compared to the MP-E I found it much easier to locate the subject in the viewfinder and follow it, even at the highest magnification. This is a huge plus, especially after years of exhaustion trying to chase down subjects in the viewfinder when using the Canon MP-E.
It should be noted that due to its high magnification values the lens cannot be used in natural light alone, and requires a flash as an additional light source. A good focusing light is also essential if using the higher magnifications but not always necessary. Surprisingly, even though the lens extends forwards a lot as you change the magnification from 2.5x to 5x (from 83mm to 137mm, respectively), the working distance stays consistent at around 40mm. This is another huge plus compared to the MP-E, for which the working distance changes considerably while changing magnifications.
The lens is fully manual. The aperture ring is located at the end of the lens barrel, it is clicked and turns easily, perhaps a little too loosely. That is not really a problem, and when the lens is extended you do not need to reach out and look for the aperture ring in order to turn it – you can just turn the whole front lens tube to change the aperture, pretty cool! The magnification/focusing ring turns smoothly as well with adequate resistance, however one should be very observant of its behavior. If the lens is pointing down gravity can pull the weight of the lens barrel causing it to extend further on its own and change the magnification in the process. Many times when I captured frames for later focus-stacking I found that the magnification has changed between exposures.
High magnification macro in the field
One of the main difficulties at this high magnification range of the lens is to figure out what to use it for. It sometimes forces you to think outside of the box in order to find a subject that is just the right size. Many macro subjects are just too big to fit into the frame, however the lens can still offer an intimate perspective on those.
No high magnification lens review is complete without a classic shot of a butterfly wing, because it is a good method to test the lens’ sharpness.
Focus-stacking is not really necessary with this lens, but is a good technique for achieving a greater DOF. I almost never do “deep” frame stacks, most of the stacked images that are shown here were comprised of 2-10 frames. If you are into deep focus-stacking, I recommend checking out the test John Hallmén’s performed in his review here (in Swedish).
The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X lens also has potential for producing wildlife images with a more artistic style.
One thing I regret is not being able to test this lens for snowflakes and frost photography. Even though we had some cold snowy days here in Canada, the flakes were not of the right type (needles as opposed to star-shaped) and the ambient temperature was too high for the flakes to retain their structure after hitting the ground. I believe this lens has high potential for this type of photography, especially when taking into account its excellent optics and overall size. It should be easier to photograph snowflakes with this lens compared to other lenses.
To summarize my impressions of the lens –
– Lightweight, small size for a high-magnification macro lens
– Highest magnification lens available for non-Canon users
– Excellent sharpness and image quality
– Consistent working distance
– Narrow lens barrel makes it easy to find and track subject
– Manual, no auto aperture control
– No filter thread (but still customizable with caution)
– Dark viewfinder when closing aperture makes focusing difficult in poor light conditions
– Magnification range is short 2.5-5x compared to the competition
The key question is who is this lens for? First and foremost, this lens is for any non-Canon user who is interested in high magnification macrophotography. Aside from a Canon EF mount, the lens comes in Nikon N, Sony FE, and Pantax K mounts, making it accessible for a wide range of users. But I would also recommend it for Canon users who are not yet invested in the high magnification flagship, the MP-E 65mm. The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro is a smaller and lightweight alternative for the MP-E lens, and in some situations it is easier to use. With its superb optics the Laowa lens packs a lot for its value, and with a price tag of USD$399 it is very affordable, especially when you cannot shell out USD$1050 for the Canon MP-E lens. On the other hand, the MP-E lens offers auto aperture control and a larger magnification range. Regardless of the brand, there is no doubt that it takes time and experimentation to get used to a high magnification macro lens. However, I would argue that the investment is well worth it, because it opens a whole new world of possibilities for macrophotography. When using it, you will see even the most boring subjects in a new light.
You can buy the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro lens on Venus Optics Laowa’s website here.