During my last trip to Svalbard, I had the oportunity to test the Laowa 9mm f/2.8 Zero-D ultra-wide lens. Here is my experience with it.
Disclaimer: All photos were made with the Fujifilm X-T2 and I adjusted them as usual, including some sharpening, etc. By the way, I am definitely not a landscape photographer, so consider them rather as a document from the trip.
It is great that we can have ultra-wide rectilinear lenses for APS-C cameras like excellent 10-24 mm and 8-16 mm Fujinon zooms. But there is no ultra-wide prime lens currently in Fujifilm X lineup and this niche didn’t remain unoccupied.
Third party Chinese manufacturer Venus Optics usually tries to offer a special optics that do not have a direct competition (like their full-frame 15 mm 1:1 macro lens). The Laowa 9mm f/2.8 Zero-D APS-C lens is not as unique because some alternatives exist, but it still offers a mix of features that make it interesting.
Really small lens
The big benefit of this lens is its size and weight. It’s not a pancake lens, but it’s probably most subtle ultrawide lens I ever used – with 53 mm in diameter, 60 mm in length and 215 g weight it doesn’t need a lot of space in a bag and does not burden too much. Even the petal-shaped lens hood does not add too much to the length of the lens – it is not a surprise that it is very short for such focal length. The diameter of the filter thread is 49 mm – unfortunately, you don’t find this size on Fujinon lenses, so you cannot share the filters with other lenses (you can use an adapter rings, of course).
By the way, the small size of the lens caused me a curious accident – it fell over a divider to the other compartment of my backpack with XF16mmF1.4 lens where it scratched its UV filter and own front flange. Of course, I do not blame Laowa – the problem was in my backpack which had interior adapted for carrying the XF200mmF2 which I was testing too and the smaller number of dividers couldn’t hold the shape of backpack well which allowed the lens to travel inside.
But I don’t want to complain about lens small size – contrarily I really appreciate it.
Build quality and controls
Since Laowa is a fully manual lens, controls consist of aperture and focusing rings only. If you are Fuji shooter, you may be a little bit confused by aperture ring which has reversed orientation compared to Fujinon lenses.
Focus ring behaves like these on Fujinons, so there should be no confusion. I appreciate the presence of a depth-of-field scale – by the way, it is worth to say that even such a wide-angle lens does not render everything perfectly sharp from zero distance to infinity. This is mainly due to the fact that depth of field scale (and calculators) typically shows an acceptable and not perfect sharpness. In many situations, f/8 aperture and focus set to about 1 meter will be sufficient, but you can still ruin the photo by incorrect focusing. It happened to me a few times – not because I was not able to focus correctly but because I forgot to focus at all (AF lens habit). It is quite easy to overlook bad focusing in the viewfinder without zooming an image, but you will stop forgetting after some time :)
The build quality of the lens is great. The lens body and event the hood is made of metal and everything fits perfectly. It is a significant improvement compared to the first Laowa lens I had in my hand a few years ago.
Zero-D means almost zero distortion
The main promise of the lens is to have minimal distortion, which is a big challenge when designing ultra wide-angle lenses. Engineers in Venus Optics did a really good job. There are not many straight lines in nature, so I made a test shot for this purpose in front of the FujiFoto shop:
Although you can fix distortions quite easily in postproduction, it is definitely better if geometric corrections are not needed, as they always have some impact on the quality and may also lead to a slight change of composition or loss of parts of the image information around the edges and in corners.
However, it would be a mistake to expect that no other distortions will occur in the photos made with such a wide angle of view (113 °). Some objects may appear stretched at corners because of distinct perspective. It depends on the subject and composition – scenes with objects parallel to the plane of sensor like in the photo above won’t be affected, but in many other situations, you will see noticeable stretching. The following photo quite clearly shows what I am talking about:
It is typical for such wide lenses (not only for Laowa) and you should consider it at the moment of shooting and choosing the composition. If this effect appears in the photo and bothers you, it can be partially suppressed by forced correction of pincushion distortion (and thus, paradoxically by artificially introducing barrel distortion). But it is, in any case, the choice between two evils – stretching the edges or bulging the center of the photo.
Laowa is a really solid performer for the wide-angle lens. I don’t test lenses using some patterns, I prefer to take it outside. 100% crops from the following image show that the lens is quite sharp even near edges of a frame:
However, the lens needs to be stopped down for optimal results – edges of a photo can be noticeably worse when shooting wide open:
Vignetting is quite strong – probably as a result of lens compactness. When shooting wide open, the difference between center and corners reaches almost 1 EV (according to the correction I had to apply in Capture One). This problem gradually disappears when shooting at larger aperture numbers.
Chromatic aberration is really well corrected:
I have a bit ambivalent feelings about lens behavior in backlight. While the contrast does not suffer much, you can see strong reflections from the sun in the following image:
Of course, this is the extreme situation with the sun composed into the image, but I think it is good to see even this worst-case scenario. There were no issues caused by a more subtle backlight from the sun setting in the clouds:
Extra Tip for Fuji users
If you use Laowa or another manual lens, make sure you set its focal length in the camera’s settings – it will be saved in the EXIF photo. You can store more lenses, but then you have to choose the right one manually from the menu each time you change lens:
As I already said, there are alternatives to the Laowa 9mm f/2.8 Zero-D lens, but the mix of its features – especially focal length, small size, lens speed, ability to focus to just 12 cm and fairly low price – makes it unique and basically has no direct competition now.
Regarding similar focal lengths, I have used Fujinon XF10-24mmF4 only and I like it’s output a bit more, but I did not test these two lenses in the same situation. Its f/4 aperture is limiting for the night sky photography, but otherwise, I can recommend it. The latest addition to the Fujinon lens line, the XF8-16mmF2.8 zoom lens can compete with Laowa’s speed and it is even 1mm millimeter wider (it is more than it looks – its field of view is 8° wider). However, both zooms are more expensive and they are bigger and heavier.
If you are looking for an ultra wide-angle glass that does not add too much volume and weight to your gear and you don’t mind to stop the lens down for optimal qualities, you will get very solid quality for your money. Of course, you also have to accustom to full manual controls and the fact that the lens does not communicate with the body, so EXIF data won’t contain the aperture used for example. You can buy Laowa 9mm f/2.8 Zero-D here for example.
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