325 / $499, www.venuslens.net

Chinese company Venus Optics (Anhui ChangGeng Optical Technology Company Ltd.) is a new lens and camera accessory manufacturer started by a group of macro photography enthusiasts who design and create their own macro photography lenses. They began with the Venus 60mm 2:1 macro (which enables twice life-size reproduction), and have followed this up with the LAOWA 15mm 1:1 wide macro of this review. In addition to these lenses, they also offer a twin head macro flash unit, which we think looks quite a bit like an alien on top of a camera.

Features and specifications

The LAOWA 15mm lens is one of the widest full-frame lenses to offer a full 1:1 magnification ratio (meaning that the object in focus is projected at actual-size onto the film or sensor). Admittedly, this magnification only occurs when the object is 0.2 inches (4.7mm) from the rather large front element of this lens, but that's the trade off between a wide angle of view and the desire for 'true' macro abilities.

In addition to the headline feature, this entirely manual lens (manual focus; manual aperture; no communication to the camera body) also includes a shift mechanism to physically move the optics up or down along the lens mount. This shift provides perspective correction for converging lines, as well as a way to create seamless panoramas (though the shift direction is fixed to the frame's vertical axis).

Focal length  15mm
Max. aperture  F4
Min. aperture  F32
Angle of view 110° (135 frame) / 85° (APS-C)
Shift distances + / - 6mm
Aperture blades 14
Min. focus (1:1) 4.7mm
Filter thread 77mm
Dimensions 83.8 x 64.7mm / 3.3 x 2.5in
Weight 410g / 14.5oz
Available mounts

Nikon F / Canon EF / Pentax K /
Sony A, E, FE / Fuji X / m43

The lens is designed around 12 elements in 9 groups, with three High Refractive elements, and one Extra-low Dispersion lens.

Multi-layer coatings minimize flare and ghosting, while the overall optical design strikes a balance between close focus abilities and wide angles.

Of note is the 77mm filter thread around the non-protruding front element. This allows for easy filter use without requiring the more expensive square filter systems (although for ND grads, those are recommended). Given the wide angle of view, slim filters are still required.

The body surrounding the glass elements is made from aluminum and brass, with engraved aperture and distance scales that are necessary for the all-manual operation.

The aperture ring is 'clickless' and located toward the front of the lens, while the focus ring near the back has a relatively short throw for a macro lens (90° of rotation).

The lens comes with a shifting lens mount, allowing for perspective correction by adjusting the center of the image circle on the film or sensor. The range of adjustment is 6mm from the center, either up or down.

The small lever to engage the shift mechanism is just behind the focus ring, at the rear of the lens. There are no scales or gears to finely control the amount of shift.

Shooting experience

1:1 macro at F11. The flare comes from the combination of back-lighting and inability to use the hood at such close working distances.

The LAOWA 15mm is an entirely manual lens, but still easy enough to adjust and work with. This was aided somewhat by testing a K-mount lens on a Pentax APS-C camera body and a Sony a7 II (w/ Novoflex adapter), both of which provide image stabilization (from a manually entered focal length), stop-down metering, and focus confirmation/peaking, despite the low-tech, 'slab of brass' lens mount.

When ordering this lens in Micro Four Thirds, Sony E, or Fuji X mount, the folks at Venus bundle an appropriate adapter with either a Nikon F or Canon EF mount lens. (For single-system Sony shooters, there is the option of a native FE mount, without adapter.) However, as our friends at Lensrentals point out, testing a wide-angle lens with an adapter (regardless of manufacturer) can introduce issues, so much of the more technical analysis in this article is based on experience of using this lens on a native Pentax (APS-C) body. 

Ergonomics

The absence of autofocus is not much of a detriment when using this lens for wide-angle macro photography, since adjusting the subject distance while looking at the LCD or viewfinder is typically a much faster way to focus at these minute working distances. Stop-down metering and looking through a dim viewfinder or noisy LCD at smaller apertures (due to the lack of automatic aperture control), on the other hand, is a bit harder to adapt to.

The focus throw is somewhat short for a macro lens, requiring only a bit more than 90 degrees of rotation to go from the closest focal distance (and 1:1 macro) to infinity. Further, the helical is biased toward the macro and close-focus end, so there is only a tiny amount of travel between 2 meters and infinity. This took some getting used to, and initially resulted in enough mis-focused shots to warrant bracketing.

The biggest ergonomic difficulty was getting used to using an aperture ring positioned in front of the focus ring. Adding to the confusion is the fact that both rings are 'clickless' and identically sized. Of course, the lack of hard stops on the aperture ring, along with the wide angle and availability in many different lens mounts, combine to make this an interesting option for video work, but that's beyond the scope of this article.

Macro

The image quality of this unique lens is excellent at closer focus distances, and shows the commitment of the macro photographers at Venus Optics for getting very close and very wide. There is a high degree of sharpness in the center of the frame, even at wider apertures, and the inevitable distortion and falloff along the edges doesn't interfere at closer focus distances. Being very well corrected for aberrations is another plus as a macro lens.

However, this lens is differentiated by its 1:1 macro focusing, which, unfortunately, comes with some inconveniences. To keep the price of the lens reasonable, the LAOWA relies on manual focus and a manual aperture without linkage (resulting in the dim viewfinder when stopped down, as mentioned above), while the wide angle optical design means a minuscule 4.7mm working distance (for true 1:1) coupled with a rather large front filter ring and hood.

The petal-shaped hood prevents many subjects from reaching the tiny minimum focus distance for 1:1 macros, and furthermore blocks out light that becomes necessary for macros with acceptable depth-of-focus (narrow aperture). After a few experiments with macro flash rigs, resulting in images that looked like 'flash party photos' due to the lack of beam spread across the very wide angle of view, natural light (and a tripod for static subjects) was the order of the day. Thomas Shahan, of course, could probably overcome this with aplomb.

Shift ability

Unshifted Shifted +6mm

The addition of a shifting lens mount is a great bonus for a wide angle lens like the LAOWA 15mm, however the optical characteristics of the lens tend to make this function most useful on APS-C or smaller format sensors. In images shot with a full frame body (the Sony a7 II w/ Novoflex adapter), the vignetting and distortion at the edge of the image circle eclipsed the value of shifting the lens (although it is unknown how much of this is due to it being an adapted lens).

One troublesome aspect of the lens shift is that it lacks the gearing and markings for fine control of the shift found on most other perspective control lenses. Press the shift release button and almost immediately the lens slides up (or down) to the maximum shift amount. There is a detent in the middle to reset the lens to an unshifted position, but getting a small or precise amount of shift requires patience and a steady hand.

15mm wide angle

Toronto skyline, as seen from the islands offshore. On the full-frame Sony, the 15mm shows significant degradation at the edges, as evident in the lights on the right side.

When using this lens as a 'normal' ultra-wide angle, the results are something of a mixed bag. At close focus distances, the center is quite sharp (where most macro subjects tend to be) at all apertures, while at infinity the corner details appear smeared until the lens is stopped down significantly. Some night shots on the full-frame Sony, and attempts at astrophotography with the Pentax O-GPS Astrotracer, both show significant degradation of the lights at the edges. These examples are perhaps not quite as comprehensive as LensRentals' OLAF system, but still illustrative. Check out the full resolution images in the gallery below.

Many macro lenses are designed to have a 'flat field' for the in-focus region. The LAOWA 15mm is not one of those lenses. Similar to other wide angle lenses, the field of focus curves radically, yet does not flatten out as focus is shifted toward infinity. Add in some edge distortion, and the resultant lack of corner sharpness at infinity is perhaps the biggest issue with the image quality from this lens on full-frame cameras. It requires some acceptance of the 'dual nature' of the lens (macro and ultra-wide) to work within this limit. Oddly enough, shifting the lens provides some relief for at least two of the corners, due to the curved field being off-center.

Distortion

Very few ultra wide angle lenses are free from distortion, and this 15mm is no exception. In most shots with the APS-C Pentax, curved lines were minimal (see the shift photos above) and could be corrected in processing if desired.

However, on the full-frame Sony, the barrel distortion along the edges reached a point where it was almost un-correctable. The image to the left shows doors that have very straight edges, but look organically curved in the (uncorrected) photo.

Chromatic aberrations

One area where the LAOWA 15mm is quite competitive is in the control of chromatic aberrations. While there definitely is some lateral CA, particularly visible at high contrast edges in the corners, it is fairly well controlled when stopped down, and quite consistent. A few clicks in most modern Raw processing software removes these distractions very easily. In addition, longitudinal CA (color fringing in the out of focus areas) is almost non-existent, which is excellent for a macro lens, even though many other wide angle lenses tend to be similarly devoid of this aberration.

(Note: none of the images in this article, or the samples, have had software lens corrections applied; whether for distortion, vignetting, chromatic aberrations, or fringing.)

Bokeh

Close focus at F4 Close focus at F16

It's a bit unusual to discuss the bokeh of an ultra-wide lens: considering the typical design for this kind of lens provides such wide depth-of-field, there is frequently little out of focus anyhow. However, the close focus and macro abilities of the LAOWA 15mm give quite a lot of room for shifting the focal plane, so bokeh is not only visible, it can be an integral part of the image.

With a 16-bladed aperture, the blur discs produced by this lens appear round at all stops, with a slight 'onion-ring' artifact when examined closely. More importantly, the falloff in the blur is smooth and gradual, as one would expect from a macro lens. This combines to make the exaggerated field curvature less bothersome at closer focal distances and wider apertures, and becomes another one of the strengths of this lens.

Summing up

The Venus LAOWA 15mm F4 Macro is an unusual lens, both in its pedigree (or lack thereof) and its unique features. With a relatively reasonable price and availability in many different lens mounts, there is now an ultra-wide option for anyone who likes to get really close to their subjects. The lack of autofocus and auto-aperture prevents this from being a 'snapshot' lens, and may make it frustrating to use on camera systems that do not support low-tech lenses very well.

There are some compromises in the optical design of this multipurpose lens, including wide field distortion, and some edge softness at infinity. However, wide-angle macro enthusiasts will definitely enjoy this lens, while anyone with patience and a desire to explore the options it provides will similarly find the Venus LAOWA 15mm to be a fun and rewarding addition to their system.

Things we like:

  • Very close focus (1:1 macro)
  • Sharp in the center, even wide open
  • Well built and smooth focusing
  • Shift option is useful for APS-C
  • Nice bokeh for a wide angle

Things we don't like:

  • Extremely short macro working distance
  • No mechanical aperture linkage (K and F mounts)
  • Significant distortion on full-frame
  • Edges smeared at infinity with wider apertures

Real-world samples

Venus LAOWA 15mm F4 Wide Angle Macro samples

47 images • Posted on Oct 27, 2015 • View album
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