Venus Optics is a fairly young company but it has carved itself a reputation making some fairly unique Laowa branded lenses for both the DSLR and the APS-C market. They made interesting forays in macro lenses, some of which I had the chance to test out like their 60mm f2.8 2:1 Ultra-Macro Lens or their 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro. These and their other macro lenses, including the superior and recently released 100mm f/2.8 2X Ultra Macro APO lens, were however all designed for full-frame cameras, therefore requiring an adapter to use on the Fujifilm X system. In fact, the only Laowa lens built with an X mount was their ultra-wide angle 9mm. Then, catching my interest more than any previous offering, enter their 65mm f2.8 2x Ultra Macro APO specifically designed for APS-C and available in the Fuji X mount (as well as Sony E, Canon M and Leica L) and directly following in the footsteps of their full-frame designed 100mm, offering its quality, technological advances and of course a similar field of view, taking into account the APSC 1.5 crop factor.
What is this new beast?
The Laowa 65mm f2.8 2x Ultra Macro APO, otherwise known on the box (and the lens itself) as the CF 65mm F2.8 CA-Dreamer Macro 2X. It impresses at first glance as a high-quality lens, constructed fully in anodised metal (including the hood), that feels solid in the hand and in use. It’s just 100mm in length and weighs 335g, which will balance fine on any X camera. Its size, focal length and weight are most comparable to Fujifilm’s older macro lens, the XF 60mm f2.4. But that’s where the comparison stops as the Laowa’s petite allure is deceiving. Make no dyslexic mistake here, this is a lens that can go to 2:1 or four times the maximum magnification of the XF60mm (1:2). It is also double the native 1:1 magnification of the current Fujifilm star true macro lens, the XF80mm f2.8, yet in a much smaller and lighter format (not to mention roughly half the price).
With such specs, I jumped at the chance to road-test it with thanks to Laowa Australia and Radbitz (www.radbitz.com), quickly realising that it was something special and unique that would not just compete with but complement the rest of my already bulging macro gear. Gosh, a sharp, compact, luminous, affordable lens with high quality glass in X mount, going all the way to twice life size while still able to focus to infinity, was until then unheard of in the Fujifilm X world. What’s not to like? Spoiler alert, not very much and I did end up acquiring my own copy as my first Laowa lens.
Built and Specs
Without going into all the rather impressive technical details that you can readily find on Laowa’s website (Laowa 65mm), it is notable that the lens is constructed with 14 elements in 10 groups, including three extra-low dispersion glasses. I could not fault the optics in day to day use and the lens is in my opinion Venus Optics’ best quality and most technically advanced macro offering yet, at least for Fujifilm X users. I found that the lens is sharp corner to corner even wide open at f2.8, regardless of focal distance. Sharpness in the corners will further improve however at f4 and even a bit more at f5.6. I found no visible aberrations either, which calls for a little explanation around the APO in the name of the lens. It stands for Apochromatic and is a design directly inherited from the lens’ full-frame 100mm version. APO lens design is different to the usual achromat design and is intended to provide an almost complete correction of chromatic and spherical aberration as well as a high level of contrast and sharpness, which is clearly apparent when using this lens.
The Laowa 65mm lens rings are nicely engraved with a wealth of useful markers. First, there is a ‘clicky’ aperture ring that will select full stops from f2.8 to f22, although pausing incrementally between full stops is feasible without a holding click.
The other ring is the entirely manual, wide, precise, well-dampened and nicely ridged focus ring, that can be dialled from infinity to extreme close ups. Such an outstanding manual focusing range calls for a long adjustment course for precise focusing and the lens certainly delivers on that front, very aptly assisted by Fujifilm’s peak focus features. It displays the focusing distance from 1 m to infinity and the equivalent imperial measurements. Most of the dial however also displays the magnification from 0.25:1 (@ 0.37m) to 1.5:1 (@0.17m), then goes on all the way to 2:1 without further displaying the focusing distance.
The lens finally has a 52*mm filter thread, which comes very handy, more on that later.
A very nice build overall, both aesthetically and practically. If I was to nit-pick, I would say that engaging the lock on reversing the bayonet lens hood is a bit finicky and removing the lens cap from under the hood could be a tad easier. I would also prefer the red dot designed to properly align the lens mount to the body was visible from the side, rather than just from under the lens… but these are really very minor issues that don’t detract from the quality of the lens.
A Versatile Lens
As the proud owner of a sizeable collection of Fujifilm and compatible or adaptable third party prime and zoom lenses in all focal lengths, I can’t say that I was drawn to the Laowa 65mm for its portraiture or landscape prowess. More as a niche macro lens to go beyond the 1:1 magnification.
That is not to say that the Laowa is not a quite capable all-rounder lens. It is. It captures images without distortion, superb micro-contrast and in my eyes with a beautiful rendering of colors, details and textures. This applies at all focusing distances from the extremely close to the infinitely distant. In that sense, it feels almost like a ‘zoom’ in the one focal length. When walking around on a macro hunt with that lens only, I would also happily and satisfactorily snap a more distant scene or portrait. It may also be a good focal length for food or product photography if you are that way inclined. Anything…as long as it doesn’t move too fast for my mediocre manual focusing reflexes that is.
While not a bokeh monster with its f2.8 maximum aperture, I find its bokeh creamy and quite pleasant. And once you hit the macro range, the depth of field becomes so shallow that you’ll hit that bokeh at pretty much any aperture.
A Closer Look
While some non-macro Fujifilm shooters like Jonas Rask may laud the Laowa 65mm for its creative value, as beautifully illustrated in his review, the ultimate drawcard for me is the (relative) ease of effectively composing a miniature scene beyond 1:1 without unnecessary addons or cropping. Even though 2:1 magnification is not always required or desirable to fill the frame with your tiny subject, the flexibility it offers to compose exactly and seamlessly the way you want beyond 1:1 is a priceless asset that the XF80mm cannot match. When shooting tiny things, I am not so concerned about what magnification I am at but rather how best it can fit the frame. In some ways, when adjusting the focus ring say between 0.25:1 and 2:1 the adjustment feels more akin to ‘zooming’ from a wider field of view to a narrower on compared to manually focusing, even though of course this is a prime lens.
I’d be lying if I said that shooting sometimes fast-moving subjects handheld in the field at these magnifications was easy and that I can nail a high proportion of shots. The depth of field is punishingly shallow and the smallest movement of either the camera or the subject will invariably create blur and/or focus away from where you may want it. But these are the physical limitations of ultra-macro photography rather than lens shortcomings. If you can be steady, with whatever support available, use lighting where necessary to increase your shutter speed, manage to manually stack focus with a macro rail or shoot in bursts to maximise your chances of an image in perfect focus, the lens can deliver quality results in spades.
What adds to the challenge of shooting live subjects so close is the focusing distance required. Given its focal length, the lens does well but may leave one wishing for more than the 7-10cm a true macro shot beyond 1:1 requires. The below table provides an idea of my experience with the lens and some additional accessories as well as a comparison with the longer XF80mm. In all cases the distance is expressed as an approximate value measured from the end of the lens to the subject, rather than from the sensor as usually described in the manufacturer specs. I find this more telling of how threatening the lens may become to a potential victim, huh I meant model. For example, the manual will tell you that the minimum focusing distance is 17cm, but that is from the sensor. At 2:1 this distance from the tip of the lens goes down to around 5.5cm, which becomes less than 2cm should you wish to keep the hood on. Enough to scare almost any bug, not to mention potentially create unwanted shadows. Tip: if you want to shoot live subjects that close, do yourself a favour and remove that hood.
Beyond 2x Macro
What I value as well is the Laowa’s 52mm filter thread and the opportunities this present to further enhance the magnification power of the lens. This is ideal for example to fit accessories such as the DCR150 and DCR250 Raynox dioptres to great effect, albeit at the cost of workable focusing distance in the field, as illustrated in the table above. The new 58mm Nisi close-up lens may also be a worthy complement but I am yet to try it out, so watch this space.
Furthering the power of the Laowa can also be achieved with extension tubes and even the Fujifilm teleconverters, even more effectively and with a better working distance than with the Raynoxes, as illustrated in the table. For example, simply adding a 16mm extension tube (I used Fujifilm MCEX16) will easily yield an increase in magnification to 2.3x without undue loss of light, working distance or depth of field. Further adding a Fujifilm 2x teleconverter to this combination (note this requires to fit the TC first to the camera, then add a sufficiently wide extension tube before the lens to deliver a whopping 4.5x magnification (a bit more in fact but I got lost in calculations). A 16mm tube works comfortably but a 10mm may be a bit tight to cover the TC protrusion.
Beyond this one could completely monsterise their Laowa throwing the kitchen sink at it with 2xTC, extension tube(s) and a combo of Raynox. I reached 5.6x magnification with this just as an experiment. Once you get in that quasi microscopic spectrum however you may be better off with an even stronger macro lens such as Laowa’s own 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro (which will however require an adapter) or the Zhongyi Mitakon/ 20mm F2 4.x-4.5x, which comes in an X mount and has been my solution. Neither focus to infinity and both have a very short working distances (albeit slightly better in the Laowa) that few live bugs would tolerate.
Against the Elephant in the Room
So, what’s the catch? Not very much but the Laowa, by design, misses some of the features of lenses such as Fujifilm’s flagship macro lens, the XF 80mm. Yes, the Laowa is fully manual, so no AF and no EXIF data beyond the focal length, which must be entered manually in your body’s menu. It also lacks optical stabilisation, weather sealing and compatibility with the Fujifilm TCs. To be honest, most of these omissions can be worked around, at least when actually shooting in close macro mode. And in terms of relative value for money and magnification power, the Laowa is a clear winner. I am glad I don’t have to choose but where a lens like the XF 80mm maintains the advantage in some circumstances however is:
- When shooting skittish small wildlife, the somewhat more forgiving working distance of the XF80, assisted by its longer focal length, may yield more successful captures before they fly/run/crawl/scurry away, but not by a huge margin. At 1:1, to keep things comparable, your subject will be at around 7.5cm from the glass, versus 10.5cm or so for the XF80mm.
- While the need for OIS may not be as acute in a more compact and lighter lens such as the Laowa 65mm, stabilisation remains a distinct advantage in macro photography. This is because in order to stop down to achieve workable depth of field, a longer shutter speed may be required and the OIS will greatly assist with sharp results. Granted, the Laowa can effectively benefit from the IBIS offered by both the X-H1 (with which I shot most of the pictures for this review) and the X-T4, but the highly effective OIS of the XF80 offers more options in terms of body choice.
- When shooting macro, the lack of auto-focus is generally not a big deal and manual focus may in fact often be preferable and more accurate. In order to effectively make use of the automated focus stacking features of some of the Fujifilm X cameras however, AF becomes indispensable. With moving macro subjects, like a bug in motion or a flower swaying in the wind, an effective continuous AF may come in handy as well.
- When shooting portraits, the fast and accurate auto-focus and ability to detect faces and eyes of the XF80 may also present an advantage, but most people interested in the Laowa will in my perhaps biased opinion acquire it primarily for its outstanding macro capabilities.
- The weather resistance offered by the XF80 will offer some additional reassurances to those who like to shoot in the rain or wet environments.
If you want to explore the plethora of little worlds around us on your Fujifilm camera and 1:1 doesn’t always cut it, the Laowa 65mm f2.8 is a no brainer as you won’t find these attributes from any other lens currently available in X mount. It’s well made, produces outstanding results at all focus distances, has a nimble profile, and won’t break your back or send you broke. It may not have all the bells and whistles of Fujifilm’s prime macro offering but it has tricks of its own well worth considering. I won’t sell my XF80mm for it, but the Laowa found a proud place for keeps in my growing macro stable.