Close up photography opens up a whole new world to photograph. Through the months of lockdown in South Africa, a number of photographers discovered (or rediscovered) the joys of the garden safari. So it seems apt to look at a special lens that is now available for chasing tiny insects around with.
The Laowa 100mm f2.8 2x Macro lens is a fairly unusual macro lens in that it allows a much closer minimum focusing point than any of the marque equivalents in the 100mm focal length range. Canon has their speciality MPE 65mm lens, which allows even closer focusing and 5x (5:1) life-size reproduction, but as I write this, the Laowa is the only 100mm lens currently available that allows this.
Doubling life-size doesn’t really seem that much, but when you put it into practice it is a huge difference visually. It is particularly evident when you are photographing really small animals like jumping spiders, or leaf-jumpers. Here is an example of shooting at 1:1 with the Laowa, and then focusing down to 2:1
Top: An image of a nymph plant hopper perched using the Laowa 100mm at F22 with a flash attached to an arm, and focused at 1:1 magnification ratio
Top: The same insect as above, now photographed while focused at 2:1 magnification ratio
The Laowa is a solid lens constructed entirely of steel and aluminium. Drop this on your toe and you will likely break your toe instead of the lens. It is actually comparable in weight to other similar 100mm lenses, albeit a little heavier at 653g. A clicked stopped manual aperture rings sit near the throat of the lens with f-stop markings from f2.8 to f22.
The all-metal body is continued into the aluminium focusing ring which has a tight ribbed pattern, and no rubber anywhere. The aperture ring similarly is an aluminium ring, differentiated from the focusing ring by the ribbed pattern (and the position which is right at the back of the lens for DSLRs, and about an inch from the lens mount on mirrorless cameras).
Admittedly, my first surprise came when I unboxed my copy of the lens to find that there was a Laowa UV filter already attached. This is odd, I thought, until I realised that when you remove the filter you potentially run the risk of dirt getting into the actual helicoid focusing system. The lens has such a long focus throw from infinity to minimum focusing distance, that rather than having an extending front element, Laowa chose to enclose the full movement of focus. This means there is less chance of damage through impact since the entire lens is enclosed and will not change shape as you focus. I’m not really sure why Laowa didn’t just permanently fit a front element, but essentially treat the UV filter as such (removing it makes no difference to the optical quality of the lens).
Also included is a deep lens hood made from tough plastic. When I say ‘tough’ I mean that it will probably outlast the plastic hoods from Canon and Nikon. When working at extreme magnification you won’t really be able to use the lens hood, as it almost touches any subject you would be photographing at 2:1 magnification. It is useful though if you are wanting to use the lens as a portrait lens, in which case side lighting might cause flare due to the attached UV filter (without the UV filter the front element is so recessed that flare is basically impossible).
The lens comes in various mounts: Nikon F, Nikon Z, Canon EF, Canon RF and Sony FE. Of all the mounts only the Canon EF has electronic contacts, which it needs as the Canon requires the contacts for aperture control. The mirrorless versions do not allow stop-down metering, while the Nikon mount, courtesy of the Ai coupling allows full stop-down metering and aperture without electronic contacts (tip: if you are shooting with a Canon R series camera, you might actually be happier with the EF mount lens on an adapter than with the RF mount version).
The Laowa is a manual focus lens without any electrical contacts, except for the Canon EF mount, which does couple via electronic contacts for aperture control. This means that apart from the Canon mount, the lens will not transmit any data to the camera body. You also have to get comfortable with using a traditional aperture ring again, as aperture control is done on the lens, and not through the body which has become the standard for most modern camera manufacturers (Fujifilm being a notable exception). Apologies for stating the obvious, but this also means that there is no autofocus. This is less of a problem with macro photography though as autofocus can’t really handle the extreme shifts in focus caused by tiny movements when working at such great magnification. So with most macro photography, if the lens can autofocus, photographers usually set the camera to manual focus in any case. The advantage of a dedicated manual focus lens for macro photography is the tactile feedback from a proper focusing ring, not something loosely attached or connected via electronic servo.
The focusing ring on the Laowa is buttery smooth with a reasonable amount of resistance (at least to my taste). Some photographers might find the resistance a little stiff for a macro lens, as it can be tricky to manually focus the lens when you are crouched in the mud under a plant in an awkward sitting position trying to photograph something tiny. It is stiff enough that you can’t gently focus the lens with one finger, but actually have to grip the focusing ring to turn it. I did discover though that a broad rubber band around the focusing ring actually does allow single finger focusing, so the lens isn’t overly stiff; it’s just the combination of a relatively smooth focusing ring with manual focus resistance gives the impression of being a stiffer than usual.
Top: A nymph bark Mantid photographed at f22 with a single Leofoto LED light held off to camera right on a flash bracket
The focus throw is surprisingly short (about 60 degrees), but reasonably easy to fine-tune. I would have maybe preferred a little more focus throw, but since most extreme macro work is done by moving the whole camera body as opposed to just the focus ring, it’s something that doesn’t bother me too much.
Where the focus ring has lovely resistance to it, giving good tactile feedback, the aperture is maybe a little loose, and I found myself accidentally changing aperture on several occasions. Bear in mind that this was with my copy of the lens which has a Nikon mount. It is possible that the Canon RF and Sony version have a different feel as they are built slightly differently and even have a better aperture mechanism of 9 rounded blades. The Nikon version only has 7 aperture blades. Yes, unfortunately the difference is apparent in out of focus highlights. The Canon EF mount is the only version with an electronic aperture, and I strongly suspect that it is the best example of the lens as there is no mechanical aperture to accidentally shift.
As an interesting aside, the manual focus means that this is an excellent lens for video. Quite by coincidence, we were shooting a short video of jewellery in the studio for a client. Using any of the other macro lenses that we have resulted in exposure and depth of field jumps as the aperture effectively shifted in stages as the lens was focused. Not so with the Laowa, which produced a beautifully smooth focus transition.
About those f-stop markings: they have very little to do with the actual light transmission values, and are purely theoretical focal stop values when focused to infinity. Macro lenses are strange optical beasts in that as you focus closer, less light travels through to the sensor since the optical array moves further away from the sensor plane of the camera. If you are using a modern Nikon or Canon autofocus lens you will notice that as you focus closer, the f-stop marking changes (effectively the f-stop is getting smaller as you focus closer and increase magnification). At 1:1 reproduction ration, the smallest f-stop is probably closer to f45 on the Laowa, and at 2:1, closer still to f64. This means that it is pretty dark when you look through the lens, but is normal for working with any macro lens.
The minimum focusing distance is a respectable 25cm. However, like all other macro lenses, that is a 25cm focusing distance from the focal plane, NOT the front element. This means that when you are focused at 2:1 ratio, the front of the lens is actually only some 9cm from the subject. This is extremely close and makes for difficulty in actually photographing nervous insects. At the end of the day if you need working distance, you need to use a longer focal length, and to my knowledge the 100mm Laowa is currently the longest focal length lens that offers 2:1 magnification.
Optical quality and traits
Laowa is making a name for themselves as the manufacturer of sharp, high-quality lenses at affordable prices. My first introduction to them was when I bought their 12mm Zero-D ultra-wide lens, which I continue to use. The optical quality on the 100mm is similar in terms of high sharpness and contrast. It has the Laowa CA-Dreamer branding on it which is meant to reduce chromatic aberration. This it does extraordinarily well. On the usual suspects (dark lines against light background) there was no visible chromatic aberration that I could find. This was in contrast to a Nikkor 105mm that showed very clear colour fringing in the out of focus roll off and against some black lines.
Top: Nikkor 105mm f2.8 on the left and Laowa 100mm f2.8 on the right, both at f11 (the Laowa looks like it has greater depth of field simply because the f-stops are theoretical…it was probably closer to a T-stop of f18 at this point.
Shooting against a clear background shows some vignetting wide open, but this clears up almost completely at f5.6 and smaller. Similarly, there is a tiny amount of pincushion distortion, but nothing that would detract from the image in any way. Neither the vignetting nor distortion would be noticeable in field photography and is visibly better than the Nikkor lens that I was comparing it to.
I shouldn’t say I was surprised, having used Laowa lenses before, but the sharpness was an eye-opener. If you shoot with the aperture between f4 and f8 the sharpness is extremely good, even to the corners. At f2.8 the corners are not quite as sharp as the centre, but not noticeable for field photography. At f16 and f22, diffraction definitely robs the lens of some of its sharpness, but you can get quite a lot of this back with careful sharpening technique in a raw editor like Lightroom or Capture One. So it isn’t to say that you can’t use the lens at f16, as there is a noticeable increase in depth of field at 1:1 and greater, but the sharpness is definitely impacted by the smaller aperture.
- Ability to get to go beyond life-size (1:1) magnification.
- Extremely sharp and at f8 is probably the sharpest macro lenses I have ever used.
- Robust build (built like a tank) with smooth focus control.
- No weather sealing, highlighted by the fact that you really need the UV filter attached to make sure that dust and pollen don’t enter the lens.
- A slightly longer focus throw would have been preferable.
- The aperture ring should be stiffer to avoid unintentional changes.
Top: Ants tending an aphid on a sunflower plant. The image was shot at f11 with a Godox flash on Leofoto arm above and to the right. The flash and lens were polarised (both with Nisi CPLs) to achieve cross-polarised light and reduce reflection on the ants’ bodies.
A lot of people think that a macro lens is a general lens that you can throw in the camera bag as an optional portrait lens and something to get a little closer from time to time. In reality a good macro lens is a speciality lens designed for a specific purpose; that is to get really close to a subject while retaining optical sharpness. If you are looking for a general close-up lens an easier and cheaper alternative is to put the excellent Nisi 77mm close-up adapter (now also available as a 58mm close-up adapter) onto a 70-200mm, or 70-300 lens. This gets you 1:1 or close to 1:1 magnification with a versatile generalist lens.
If, on the other hand the close-up bug has bitten you, then you know that you NEED proper 1:1 magnification and greater. Apart from the Canon MPE 65mm macro lens, every other 100mm and greater focal length lens on the market will only get you to 1:1. Macro photographers know the frustration of photographing insects with these lenses and the need to supplement the lens with a bellows, focusing tube, or additional close-up adapter. The Laowa 100mm is the first and currently only 100mm macro lens that can get you past 1:1 without any additional equipment.
Top: This tiny jumping spider has a body length (including legs) of about 12mm. At 2:1 magnification the spider is still small, which shows important it is to be able to get really close if you want to photograph subjects as small as jumping spider.
As an example, jumping spiders (salticidae species) are a favourite subject of macro photographers throughout the world. These spiders are invariably tiny - tiny enough that a 1:1 macro lens simply does not give enough magnification to photograph them properly. The Laowa 100mm 2x macro lens is the first single lens that I have been able to photograph these little spiders without having to either crop my image to a tiny portion, or use additional extension tubes to get anywhere close enough to see interesting detail.
That’s really the defining characteristic of the Laowa 2x Macro lens; that it gets to twice life-size magnification, and does so at a comparatively reasonable price. All the other marque 100mm macro lenses are more expensive, in some cases significantly so. Of the third party lenses (like Sigma and Tokina), only the Laowa focuses closer than 1:1. The fact that the Laowa is the sharpest macro lens that I have worked with is almost an aside to its ability to focus so close to the subject.
If you are considering a 100mm macro lens, you basically need to decide whether you want autofocus (and potentially vibration reduction). If you do, then the Laowa 2x Macro lens isn’t going to work for you. If you need greater than life-size reproduction, though, then the Laowa is the most convenient lens available. Dedicated close-up photographers are going to love it for that and it’s excellent optical sharpness and clarity.
Top: A tiny jumping spider (salticidae sp.) on the edge of a leaf, photographed at f8 with a Godox flash directly overhead being held by a Leofoto arm.
Emil von Maltitz is a professional landscape and commercial photographer who spends most of his time photographing industry and agriculture for clients like Tongaat Huletts. You can find his incredible body of work here.