Archive For: Gear reviews

Review: Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro lens

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.

Portrait of a katydid nymph with erythrism (intense pink coloration)

Portrait of a katydid nymph with erythrism (intense pink coloration)

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.

Portrait of a male jumping spider (Phidippus arizonensis)

Portrait of a male jumping spider (Phidippus arizonensis)

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.

Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Vs. Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X

Size matters? Next to the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x lens, the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X looks cute. Both lenses are fully extended to their maximum length here (5x magnification).

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.

Male jumping spider (Thiodina sylvana). Spiders make excellent subjects for the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X lens.

Male jumping spider (Thiodina sylvana). Spiders make excellent subjects for the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X lens.

Caterpillars are often difficult subjects to photograph well, not to mention when using a high magnification macro lens. However, this camouflaged looper caterpillar (Synchlora sp.) posed nicely.

Caterpillars are often difficult subjects to photograph well, not to mention when using a high magnification macro lens. However, this camouflaged looper caterpillar (Synchlora sp.) posed nicely.

Lens construction
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.

Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro

Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro

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.

Laowa 25mm and Canon MP-E 65mm sharpness test at 2.5x under identical light conditions and camera settings. Notice the difference in color rendition by the Laowa.

Laowa 25mm and Canon MP-E 65mm sharpness test at 2.5x under identical light conditions and camera settings. Notice the difference in color rendition by the Laowa.

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.

Laowa 25mm and Canon MP-E 65mm sharpness test at 5x under identical light conditions and camera settings. The image quality is nearly identical, with the Laowa having the edge at low apertures settings.

Laowa 25mm and Canon MP-E 65mm sharpness test at 5x under identical light conditions and camera settings. The image quality is nearly identical, with the Laowa having the edge at low apertures settings.

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.

The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X has a DOF that can be a little shallow when photographing highly 3-dimensional subjects like this long-snout weevil (Hammatostylus sp.). Still, it manages to squeeze in enough detail to make the image visually pleasing.

The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X has a DOF that can be a little shallow when photographing highly 3-dimensional subjects like this long-snout weevil (Hammatostylus sp.). Still, it manages to squeeze in enough detail to make the image visually pleasing.

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.

"Blizzard" - These scales on the hindwing of a brassolid butterfly reminded me of snowfall at night. In this case the lens flare in the image was intentional, to mimic the light reflecting from falling snow.

“Blizzard” – These scales on the hindwing of a brassolid butterfly reminded me of snowfall at night. In this case the lens flare in the image was intentional, to mimic the light reflecting from falling snow.

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.

Operation
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.

Thanks to its white face mask, I was able to locate and photograph this spotted jumping spider (Phiale guttata) quite easily.

Thanks to its white face mask, I was able to locate and photograph this spotted jumping spider (Phiale guttata) quite easily.

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.

Although extremely active and skittish, I was able to track this ant-mimicking planthopper nymph through the viewfinder while using the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X.

Although extremely active and skittish, I was able to track this ant-mimicking planthopper nymph through the viewfinder while using the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X.

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.

This juvenile whip spider (Phrynus barbadensis) was exactly the right size to fit its face into the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X field of view.

This juvenile whip spider (Phrynus barbadensis) was exactly the right size to fit its face into the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X field of view.

The long-nosed fulgorid planthopper nymph was too big to fit in the frame, but it made for an interesting and intimate perspective.

The long-nosed fulgorid planthopper nymph was too big to fit in the frame, but it made for an interesting and intimate perspective.

Portrait of a membracid treehopper (Membracis sp.)

Portrait of a membracid treehopper (Membracis sp.)

Small subjects like these marching nasute termite soldiers are easy to photograph using the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X.

Small subjects like these marching nasute termite soldiers are easy to photograph using the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X.

Anyone ordered a noodle salad? Just kidding, these are whip spider babies (Phrynus barbadensis) clinging to their mother's back.

Anyone ordered a noodle salad? Just kidding, these are whip spider babies (Phrynus barbadensis) clinging to their mother’s back.

The lens' small size makes it easy to sneak up on unsuspecting critters in order to capture some action shots, like this jumping spider enjoying a freshly caught cicadellid leafhopper.

The lens’ small size makes it easy to sneak up on unsuspecting critters in order to capture some action shots, like this jumping spider enjoying a freshly caught cicadellid leafhopper.

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.

Closeup on the wing scales of a brassolid butterfly, coming at an angle results in a shallow depth of field.

Closeup on the wing scales of a brassolid butterfly, coming at an angle results in a shallow depth of field.

Closeup on the wing scales of a brassolid butterfly

Closeup on the wing scales of a brassolid butterfly

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).

This focus-stacked image of a butterfly egg was composed of 10 frames taken at 5x magnification.

This focus-stacked image of a butterfly egg was composed of 10 frames taken at 5x magnification.

"Behind Bars" - A deep focus-stacked portrait of a whip spider (Heterophrynus armiger)

“Behind Bars” – A deep focus-stacked portrait of a whip spider (Heterophrynus armiger)

The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X lens also has potential for producing wildlife images with a more artistic style.

"Liquid Rainbow" - Detail on the pronotum of a jewel beetle (Chrysochroa ephippigera)

“Liquid Rainbow” – Detail on the pronotum of a jewel beetle (Chrysochroa ephippigera)

Closeup on the eyes of a jumping stick (Proscopiid grasshopper)

Closeup on the eyes of a large jumping stick (Proscopiid grasshopper)

"Ghost Bunny" - Black and white silhouette of a membracid treehopper (Notocera sp.)

“Ghost Bunny” – Black and white silhouette of a membracid treehopper (Notocera sp.)

Brightly colored bark lice nymphs aggregating on tree bark

Brightly colored bark lice nymphs aggregating on tree bark

Dramatically lit portrait of a male jumping spider (Parnaenus sp.)

Dramatically lit portrait of a male jumping spider (Parnaenus sp.)

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 –

Pros:
– 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
– Affordable

Cons:
– 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.

 

Review: Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens

The Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens has been around on the market for several years now. I mentioned it briefly in my series of posts about wide-angle macro photography. It is currently the only wide-angle lens capable of achieving 1:1 magnification ratio. When I first heard about this lens I was intrigued to say the least, but also immediately put off by the lack of automatic aperture control (I no longer see this is a problem – more on this later). Still I was curious about it and was waiting for a chance to give it a try. Fortunately, an opportunity to play with the lens came up during my last trip to Ecuador. My initial impression was that of – oh boy, this lens is a lot of fun. I was therefore delighted when Venus Optics Laowa contacted me a few months ago and asked if I wanted to give the lens a thorough test run. Despite this fact, this is not a paid review and the content below is based entirely on my personal impressions.

Dog day cicada (Neotibicen canicularis) molting to its adult stage

Dog day cicada (Neotibicen canicularis) molting to its adult stage

Also, this is not going to be a very technical review. If you are reading this post, I assume you already know the lens is lightweight, has full metal construction, a de-clicked aperture ring, and feature an innovative shift mechanism. What I am more interested in is its practical uses, more specifically – is it useful for wide angle macrophotography of small subjects?

Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens

Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens

After testing it for a while, I strongly believe that this is the most versatile lens existing on the market at the moment. It is a jack-of-all-trades. This is the one to choose when you can take only a single lens with you. However, no lens is perfect and the Laowa 15mm has its weak points (which I discuss below). I tested it on a crop sensor camera (APS-C). Unless otherwise mentioned, all photos in this post were taken at f/16 or close, with a twin macro flash used as a fill-light.

Lens attributes to note
Aside from its construction and weight, the Laowa 15mm lens is very sharp. Wide open it has very good sharpness in the center (corners are softer, typical for a wide angle lens), and it stays sharp all the way down to f/16. Diffraction starts creeping in and being noticeable at f/22, producing soft images. Overall I found f/11-f/16 to be perfect and most usable, but it depends on the desired result.

Soapwort flower (Saponaria officinalis) photographed with the Laowa 15mm lens

Soapwort flower (Saponaria officinalis) photographed with the Laowa 15mm lens

100% crop of the above image. The lens captured detail of tiny thrips crawling on the petals. Impressive!

100% crop of the above image. The lens captured detail of tiny thrips crawling on the petals. Impressive!

Chromatic aberration is typical for a wide angle lens, I did not see anything out of the ordinary. Of course if you shoot scenes that are very high in contrast (for example, sky peeking through the forest canopy) you will get very noticeable CA in the frame. If you like sunstars the good news is that this lens produces nice-looking 14-pointed sunstars. Lens flare is surprisingly well controlled in this lens. It comes with a detachable lens hood included in the box, but I never found myself using it.

Operation
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 darkens the viewfinder, making it difficult to track and focus on your subject. In this case liveview mode or a bright focusing light can help. Occasionally, when photographing with the sun behind your back the lens will cast a shadow over the subject. A setup with a diffused fill-flash is useful to light the scene. The lens can still be used in natural light, but you will benefit from holding a small reflector close to the lens in order to bounce some light onto your subject and eliminate the shadow from the front element.
One of the praised attributes of the Laowa 15mm lens is its ability to achieve 1:1 magnification ratio, taking it from wide angle to true macro realm. However, this is also its main shortcoming. Going to 1:1 will require you to get very close to the subject (about 4mm), at which point the large front element of the lens will cast a shadow over the subject, making it difficult to light it properly. I have seen creative solutions for this issue, so it is not entirely impossible.
The aperture ring is de-clicked and turns smoothly, but I found the focusing ring a bit to tight to turn. The position of the rings on the lens requires getting used to: the aperture ring sits at the front of the lens barrel, whereas the focusing ring is at the back (in sharp contrast to just about any other lens out there). I consider this a design flaw – I found myself mistakenly turning aperture ring when I intended to turn the focusing ring, and vice versa. It really does not help that the aperture ring is de-clicked in this case.

Wide Angle Macro
In my opinion this is the primary use of the Laowa 15mm lens. When used correctly, it gives an unparalleled perspective of the subject and its surroundings, shrinking us, the viewers, to become a part of its small-scale world. This is one of the only lenses on the market that can go from this:

Who's hiding here?

Who’s hiding here?

to this:

Can you spot it yet?

Can you spot it yet?

then this:

Hooded mantis (Choeradodis stalii) camouflaged on a leaf

Hooded mantis (Choeradodis stalii) camouflaged on a leaf

and finally this:

Hooded mantis (Choeradodis stalii) ambushing insects on a leaf

Hooded mantis (Choeradodis stalii) ambushing insects on a leaf

I find this flexibility incredible (but wait! There is more! Read on).
Here are some more examples for wide angle macro taken with the Laowa 15mm lens.

American toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

American toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) basking in the sun. This photo was taken in natural light.

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) basking in the sun. This photo was taken in natural light.

Northern stone (Agnetina capitata) resting on plants next to a river

Northern stone (Agnetina capitata) resting on plants next to a river

Yellow hornet (Dolichovespula arenaria) assembling at the entrance to their nest. You can imagine how close I was to the nest in order to take this photo. I got an adrenaline rush from it.

Yellow hornet (Dolichovespula arenaria) assembling at the entrance to their nest. You can imagine how close I was to the nest in order to take this photo. I got an adrenaline rush from it.

Automeris sp. (Saturniidae) resting close to a light trap in Ecuador

Automeris sp. (Saturniidae) resting close to a light trap in Ecuador

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) preparing to jump into the rainforest vegetation

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) preparing to jump into the rainforest vegetation

By the way, this lens produces very nice results for flower photography.

Sulphur cinquefoil flowers (Potentilla recta)

Sulphur cinquefoil flowers (Potentilla recta)

Wide angle macro is not all about “taking it all in”. Here are some examples of this style with less emphasis on the surroundings.

A more intimate point of view on an American toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

A more intimate point of view on an American toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

Aggregation of moth caterpillars on a communal web

Aggregation of moth caterpillars on a communal web

Dog day cicada (Neotibicen canicularis) molting to its adult stage

Dog day cicada (Neotibicen canicularis) molting to its adult stage

The background rendering of the Laowa 15mm lens is unique and might be a little difficult to describe. A friend of mine described it as being “metallic”, and I somewhat agree.

Ecuador poison frog (Ameerega bilinguis) active on the forest floor

Ecuador poison frog (Ameerega bilinguis) active on the forest floor

The important thing to remember is that the closer you get to your subject and the higher magnification ratio you use, the more you are stepping into real macro and out of wide angle macro. This means that details in the background will become less and less noticeable. Even if you photograph with a closed aperture most of the background will be out of focus. See my next point.

Pure macro mode at 1:1
This is probably the lens’ most-discussed feature, but it is also its greatest weakness. I would even argue that one should not push this lens to the extreme of 1:1 magnification ratio. As a wide-angle lens it provides a wide DOF, however when taking it to the macro realm the background rendering is completely different and may putt off some users. Everything in the background turns into an unrecognized blurry mishmash. Unless you photograph a subject in a very dense or against a flat background, do not take this lens to 1:1. In fact, I would not take it anywhere above the 0.6:1 magnification ratio.

Male bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax). I find the background a little distracting here.

Male bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax). I find the background a little distracting here.

With careful compositioning, the background can be made more appealing, like in this photo of a yellow-marked beetle (Clytus ruricola).

With careful compositioning, the background can be made more appealing, like in this photo of a yellow-marked beetle (Clytus ruricola).

Step back a little, and you will be rewarded with a better photo opportunity. Baby tarantula strolling on the rainforest floor in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador.

Step back a little, and you will be rewarded with a better photo opportunity. Baby tarantula strolling on the rainforest floor in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador.

That being said, it is still useful as a macro lens. The following two photographs were taken at f/8.

This tiny hover fly was busy pollinating and did not mind the huge lens right beside it.

This tiny hover fly was busy pollinating and did not mind the huge lens right beside it.

Closeup on purple-flowered raspberry flower (Rubus odoratus)

Closeup on purple-flowered raspberry flower (Rubus odoratus)

Landscape uses
I am not a dedicated landscape photographer, but will occasionally shoot the odd landscape if the opportunity presents itself. I tried the Laowa 15mm and the results are not too shabby. The following two photographs were taken at f/11.

The QEW bridge over Etobicoke creek in Mississauga

The QEW bridge over Etobicoke creek in Mississauga

Norway maple (Acer platanoides). Not exactly landscape, but not exactly plant photography either. Also, a good example showing the sunstars created by this lens.

Norway maple (Acer platanoides). Not exactly landscape, but not exactly plant photography either. Also, a good example showing the sunstars created by this lens.

“Microscope mode”
After experimenting a little with the wide-angle properties of the lens, I started wondering what else can be done with it. Let’s examine the properties of our lens here: it is an ultra wide-angle with a filter thread on the front of the lens, it has a manual aperture ring, and lastly it has a focusing range of 10cm to infinity. You can see where I am going with this. I am going to reverse-mount it.
You now understand why I no longer see the lack of auto aperture control as a disadvantage. When reverse-mounted the presence of a manual aperture ring comes as a blessing. Surprisingly the working distance for this high magnification (above x5.5 for APS-C cameras) is decent at a touch over 4cm. This is a lightweight alternative setup for Canon’s high magnification flagship, the MP-E 65mm. Keep in mind Venus Optics-Laowa are currently working on their own high magnification lens, which will be capable of 2.5-5x magnification.

One of the main difficulties at this high magnification is to figure out what to use it for. Many macro subjects are just too big to fit in the frame. Nevertheless using the Laowa 15mm reversed opens up a whole new world of possibilities. All of the following photographs were taken at f/5.6. My first attempts were on common household pests.

Baby thrips strolling in a miniature garden. The “bushes” are clusters of mold. If you are wondering about the purple color of the habitat, that’s because they are photographed on a red onion.

Baby thrips strolling in a miniature garden. The “bushes” are clusters of mold. If you are wondering about the purple color of the habitat, that’s because they are photographed on a red onion.

A tiny (0.8mm) psocopteran wandering through an alien landscape that is a sweet potato.

A tiny (0.8mm) psocopteran wandering through an alien landscape that is a sweet potato.

I then moved to test the image quality of the reversed lens, using the classic “scales on a butterfly wing” approach. I was amazed by the sharpness of the lens when mounted this way. The DOF is shallow at this magnification, but this can be solved by tilting the lens towards the subject or focus stacking.

Closeup on the wing scales of an owl moth (Brahmaea hearsey)

Closeup on the wing scales of an owl moth (Brahmaea hearsey)

Closeup on the wing scales of the Sahara swallowtail (Papilio saharae)

Closeup on the wing scales of the Sahara swallowtail (Papilio saharae)

Closeup on the wing scales of the Sahara swallowtail (Papilio saharae)

Closeup on the wing scales of the Sahara swallowtail (Papilio saharae)

But what about typical macro subjects? No problem! The reversed Laowa 15mm can be used to photograph even larger subjects.

Closeup on a small jumping Spider

Closeup on a small jumping Spider

Springtail found in decaying wood

Springtail found in decaying wood

You can even use the reversed 15mm as a base lens for a relay system. Why you would want to use one wide angle macro lens to build another wide angle macro lens system is beyond me, but it is possible. In any case, regarding reverse-mounting the Laowa 15mm, what I really want to know is how on earth no one has done this before? This lens is perfect for reverse-mounting if you are into microcosmos photography.

To summarize my impressions of the lens –

Pros:
– Super versatile lens
– Impressive focusing range, ~10cm to infinity
– Highest magnification ratio possible on a wide angle lens, up to 1:1 but even higher when reverse-mounted
– Excellent sharpness and image quality
– Manual aperture (if you plan to reverse-mount it)
– Lightweight, small size for a wide angle lens
– Shift mechanism (if angle distortion is an issue for you)

Cons:
– Manual, no auto aperture control, no auto focus
– Placement of focusing and aperture rings not intuitive. A clicked aperture ring would be nice to distinguish it from the focusing ring
– Extremely short working distance when using 1:1
– Background rendering may put off some users
– Large front element makes it difficult to sneak up on live subjects

So the question is who is this lens for? The way I see it, first and foremost it is for anyone with a desire to photograph medium-sized subjects in their habitat. It is perfect for photographing reptiles, amphibians, plants or mushrooms. Use with arthropods can vary depending on the subject and context, but the results can be impressive. Regardless, the Laowa 15mm lens is a jaw-dropping piece of gear. It is so versatile and can be used for several different styles and purposes.

You can buy the Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens on Venus Optica Laowa’s website here.

Bursting the Trioplan bubble

There is a growing interest in legacy lenses in recent years. With the rise in popularity of mirrorless camera bodies, and the availability of various lens mount adapters, photographers are testing old glass on modern camera bodies and the results can be surprising. One such lens is the Meyer-Optik Görlitz Trioplan 100mm f2.8, which became famous due its “soap bubble” bokeh and unique chromatic aberrations. Some time ago, one could find this old lens listed for sale for about $150, but nowadays popularity drove its market price upwards to around $1000. I though I’d share my thoughts about this lens in the context of nature photography, and maybe offer a warning to fellow photographers out there who are considering getting this lens.

Leaf-mimicking Katydid (Cycloptera sp.) from Ecuador, photographed with the Trioplan 100mm lens

Leaf-mimicking Katydid (Cycloptera sp.) from Ecuador, photographed with the Trioplan 100mm lens

Meyer-Optik Görlitz is a lens brand made in Germany. Founded in 1896, it is most known for its Trioplan lens construction, based on Cooke Triplet. The Trioplan quickly became one of the most popular Meyer lenses because of its special visual properties, and a great deal of its increase in popularity is thanks to online image-sharing platforms that allowed photographers around the globe to learn of its existence. There are even photography groups dedicated to sharing photos of out-of-focus dewy blades of grass taken with the Trioplan. The Meyer-Optik brand stopped lens production in the 1970’s, but due to the high demand, another company, net SE, revived the lens in 2014 and started developing new version of lenses under the Meyer-Optik Görlitz brand (now available for jaw-dropping prices, I dare say). My experience is with the old version of the lens. In fact, the lens I got was even older than what most photographers use, as it belongs to a line that was manufactured in post-war 1952.

Meyer-Optik Görlitz Trioplan 100mm f/2.8

Meyer-Optik Görlitz Trioplan 100mm f/2.8

Meyer-Optik Görlitz Trioplan 100mm f/2.8 testing

Soap bubbles! Also, my first selfie on the blog.

The goal with this lens is to get the “soap bubbles” appearing in the background where specular highlights are present, and for this effect you must use the lens with the aperture wide open at f/2.8. The problem is that an open aperture also translates to a very shallow depth of field. In other words, if you are photographing a big, three-dimensional subject, most of it will be rendered out of focus. Another problem with the open aperture is the loss of contrast; the image comes out very “soft”. Sharpness also goes of out the window. And to top it all the lens signature feature is also its Achilles’ heel: the chromatic aberrations that are responsible for the “soap bubble” effect will cause color fringing in highlight areas of your subject. In addition, compositions rich in highlights will result in a busy background, and those desired “soap bubbles” can actually have a negative effect by distracting the viewer’s attention from the subject.

This photo of a longhorn beetle (Taeniotes scalatus) from Costa Rica shows a negative outcome of the Trioplan characteristics. Too many specular highlights in the background, and your photo might end up like this - a "beautiful" mess.

This photo of a longhorn beetle (Taeniotes scalatus) from Costa Rica shows a negative outcome of the Trioplan characteristics. Too many specular highlights in the background, and your photo might end up like this – a “beautiful” mess.

However, change the viewing angle a little bit, and you might be rewarded with a better, less-distracting result, sometimes with a better color rendition.

However, change the viewing angle a little bit, and you might be rewarded with a better, less-distracting result, sometimes with a better color rendition.

This photo of a splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer) shows another issue of the Trioplan lens - color fringing in highlight areas of the subject itself.

This photo of a splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer) shows another issue of the Trioplan lens – color fringing in highlight areas of the subject itself.

By the way, stop down the aperture to f/4 and the lens performs beautifully, producing punchy, well-rendered images. Alas, the “soap bubbles” are lost.

In this photo I closed the aperture to f/4. Very interesting result. I love the creamy background!

In this photo I closed the aperture to f/4. Very interesting result. I love the creamy background!

Another photo taken at f/4, notice that the background composition is important if you want to produce a smooth result like in the previous photo. It will not always work.

Another photo taken at f/4, notice that the background composition is important if you want to produce a smooth result like in the previous photo. It will not always work.

But my main issue with this lens is a very simple one – it is fully manual. I do not have a thing against manual lenses, in fact I own quite a few and love using them. My problem is the lack of communication between the camera and the lens. After all, this lens has no electronic contacts. The lack of focus confirmation with this lens is the real deal breaker for me here. This is a common thing with uncorrected lenses; whatever appears to be in focus in the camera’s viewfinder is not necessarily in focus in reality. So in order to get a properly focused image you must take several shots and review them on the back screen. Then correct focus by “eyeballing”, and try again. This can take some time, and if your subject moves or is blown by the wind this can be quite nerve-racking. Some of the images you see in this post took over an hour to get, each. I am surprised these subjects were so patient with me.

Spiny devil katydid (Panacanthus cuspidatus) from Ecuador, photographed with the Trioplan 100mm lens

Spiny devil katydid (Panacanthus cuspidatus) from Ecuador, photographed with the Trioplan 100mm lens

Could I have gotten a hold of a bad copy of the lens? Possible. The lens was old, and I am not sure what were the quality control standards when it was made. However, the lens was in overall good condition, despite its ~65 years of age. I do not think the minor scuffs and imperfections on its barrel were enough to deteriorate image quality. Nevertheless, because of the inaccurate focusing issue mentioned above I found the operation of the lens very challenging. This is the most unusable lens I have ever used. Maybe this was fixed in the new version of the lens (I‘d love to hear some input from someone who has it!).

Helicopter damselfly (Microstigma rotundatum) from Ecuador. Sometimes the Trioplan produces images that look like paintings. If you have a very artistic style as a photographer, you should definitely consider getting this lens.

Helicopter damselfly (Microstigma rotundatum) from Ecuador. Sometimes the Trioplan produces images that look like paintings. If you have a very artistic style as a photographer, you should definitely consider getting this lens.

I hate to say this, but the Trioplan lens is a gimmick. Although it does have some interesting capabilities, if you shoot with it wide open all your photos will have the same look, and this gets old very fast. It’s like the first months after buying a fisheye lens; suddenly your portfolio is flooded with distorted photos, until you realize they all look the same and this is boring. Head over to the flickr page I mentioned earlier and see for yourself, after you review 20 similar photos the wow effect will fade.

Spiny orb weaver (Micrathena cyanospina) from Ecuador. A slightly different take on the lens' photographic style.

Spiny orb weaver (Micrathena cyanospina) from Ecuador. A slightly different take on the lens’ photographic style.

Leaf-mimicking peacock katydid (Pterochroza ocellata) from Ecuador, photographed with the Trioplan 100mm lens

Leaf-mimicking peacock katydid (Pterochroza ocellata) from Ecuador, photographed with the Trioplan 100mm lens

Don’t get me wrong. In the right hands, this lens can create some of the most visually pleasing images. For some nice examples check out these photos by Nikola Rahme, Alex Mustard, and Matthew Sullivan. If you aim for the artistic look in your photographs, this lens might be the right one for you. But at the end of the day, I ask myself if it is worth it. Its inflated price, all this time spent on composing for the “soap bubbles”, shooting, correcting focus and reshooting, then post-processing to increase contrast, correct the color casts and fringing, and finally sharpening, only to end up with another photo that looks just like any other photo taken with a Trioplan. For me it was not worth it. In the time it took me to photograph a single photo with the Trioplan I could have taken dozens of other great photos, maybe even better ones. Yes, this lens can take some cool-looking photos, but for the financial and personal time investments it gets a huge thumbs down from me. Don’t say I did not warn you. Needless to say I got rid of my Trioplan lens, and treated myself to a true legendary macro beast instead.