Macro photography is one of my favourite genres of photography, and to satisfy my macro shooting I bought the Venus Laowa 50mm f/2.8X Macro lens for micro four thirds (MFT)! I will give a detailed review this lens and how it performs for macro and other types of photography. Before starting this review, I’d like to say that although I’ve posted quite a few shots in this post, there are a few more in my sample shots video that you might like to check out:
Back to the review!
Usually, I shoot birds. Nonetheless, when the going gets tough and the birds get going, I have to find alternative subjects! I don’t see many people these days and Ottawa is terrible for landscapes, so that pretty much leaves macros.
Yes, Ultra Macro!
I’ve been using the Laowa 50mm f/2.8 2X Ultra Macro for over two years. I use it exclusively on the Panasonic G9 camera, which is itself a beast. I also expect it to be even more of a beast on the Panasonic G9 II, which was recently released!
Now before this lens, I owned the Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX Macro. It was decent but I was somewhat disappointed by that lens and I sold it. The Venus is an entirely different beast. It is a manual focus lens and it is a 2X macro.
What does 2X macro mean? Most macro lenses are 1x or 1:1, which means the maximum size of an object on the sensor is the size of the object. The Laowa is a 2X macro, so that the maximum size of an object on the sensor is twice the size of the original object!
This magnification together with the pixel density of a 20MP Micro 4/3rds camera means serious magnification. But how does it perform? Read on!
Build quality and basic functions
The lens comes in a nice box with two caps and a hood. It has good build quality. The focus ring turns very smoothly. Much more smoothly than a typical AF lens. It has a good, smooth, and dampened feel like the manual focus lenses of old. It feels very sturdy and mounts on the camera with no play.
Despite being manual, it has electronic contact with the camera so that aperture is reported to and can be controlled from the camera. The camera also detects when the focus ring moves and that’s a nice touch.
The metal hood is a bayonet-style hood and snaps on snugly. I never felt any danger of it coming loose.
The lens itself has some distance markings and when you go closer than or equal to 0.25:1, you also get magnification markings. Those are somewhat useful because you can challenge yourself to get as close as possible!
About eight months into getting this lens, it stopped working with IBIS on my Panasonic G9, whereas other lenses worked fine. I documented the problem to Venus Optics, and they said I could send it back to Hong Kong for repair.
Laowa got the lens and within a couple days of receiving it, they fixed it. They sent it back with express shipping and it works again. Regardless, after this experience, I would definitely buy another lens from this manufacturer and I still am enjoying my Laowa 50mm 2X macro!
With a mirrorless camera like the Panasonic G9 with focusing aids like magnification and peaking in the viewfinder, manual focusing is very easy. And for macro applications, I think I would want to be on manual focus anyway. Nonetheless, for some applications like portraits, autofocus might be handy and indeed this lens also makes an amazing portrait lens.
The hood is easy to use but I found that sometimes I could block flaring a little better with my hand and the hood as opposed to just the hood. So theoretically it might have been possible to make the hood a little longer. However, if they did that then it would be harder to get to maximum magnification so I see why it isn’t longer. Therefore, I do not consider this a flaw.
However, even with the fairly appropriately-sized hood, you might have to take it off sometimes. You can reach maximum magnification with the hood on, but the hood will probably block out some precious light. And believe me, at 2X magnification, you need every drop of light you can get!
In the field I have found myself taking off the hood sometimes. You just have to be careful not to damage the front element or touch anything weird with it but so far I’ve not done that.
The minimum focus distance is said to be 13.5cm on the B&H website. That is flat out wrong and pretty much impossible. It would be cool if you had that much working distance but I just measured it for this review and it’s more like 4cm. So you actually have very little distance.
This minimum focus distance is a disadvantage for some applications like insects and an advantage for others if you need to get in a little close, like the bark of a tree where you can more easily balance the camera on your hand and your hand on the tree.
If an insect is very calm and bold you can very gently approach it but you almost can never get to 2:1 with an insect outside. With flowers or plants or other still objects it’s definitely more possible. But still, with practice I often got between 1:1 and 2:1, which is still better than a 1:1 macro lens.
Another problem with 2X magnification is that the working f-number is very small and so you will be starved of light. I have found that I can only get enough sufficient light at 2X magnification in either direct sunlight or using a flash.
Even on a bright day in the shade ISOs will quickly climb to 3200 and beyond and so image quality will start to degrade quickly. However that’s not the fault of the lens as this would happen at 2X with any macro lens.
Another important aspect of a macro lens is the focus throw, or how much you have to turn the focus ring to go from infinity to minimum. In practice, even at maximum magnification, I never found it to be too short and I have no trouble focusing on anything.
However, when you are close to the maximum magnification, it’s often easier to move the camera a little if you are working handheld. Otherwise if you’re using a tripod it should still be easy to get perfect focus, especially if you use your mirrorless camera’s focusing aids.
I would say this lens is pretty sharp, even wide open. Optical Limits has tested this lens and found it to be sharpest in the center wide open, and sharpest in the borders by f/5.6. However, there is also very little difference between the center and the borders, so this lens performs very well.
With such a large magnification, the working f-number is actually quite a lot smaller near the maximum magnification of 2X. In this case, you need to be aware of diffraction in the following sense: the lens loses sharpness very rapidly past f/5.6. I would go so far to say that at 2X magnification, the image is so soft as to be barely usable.
After some testing, I feel that at the 2X magnification, the best aperture is more like f/4 and the usable range is f/2.8 to f/5.6 if you don’t want to lose too many details. At this magnification, it might be temping to stop down more to get more depth of field, but since the depth of field is even quite thin at f/11, I suggest focus stacking instead with a software like Helicon Focus.
I don’t say that lenses are sharp very easily, but this one is sharp. I’m happy.
The lens flares pretty easily but not horribly and it’s controlled and actually somewhat artistic. But for most macro applications you probably won’t have to worry too much about that. I noticed it has some strange rainbow colours in its bokeh when used close to 2:1. I’m not sure if this is just a general optical limitation of this sort of design or if it could be corrected.
The Laowa 50mm 2X macro is my idea of a a perfect macro lens. Sharp, well-built, and easy to use. Some people might want autofocus but I have never felt it to be necessary. Often times in the past I have felt limited with just 1:1 magnification and having 2:1 is more than enough. There are macro lenses that go even beyond 2:1 but I feel I could never use those in the field.
Can anything be improved? Possibly, but in a practical setting, will you ever be limited by this lens for macro applications? I would say no. If you really need autofocus, Olympus makes an oustanding macro lens, but it’s only a 1:1. Therefore, unless you really want autofocus on your macro lens, I recommend this lens over any other.