This review will cover my experiences from buying the lens all the way to using it for my day to day photography.
Disclaimer – I bought this lens with my own cash, this review reflects my own findings, like them or not, they were not influenced by any outside parties
Laowa has always produced some interesting lenses, the 100mm F2.8 is no exception to that rule, providing a fun two times magnification, it can not just get you close to your subject but it can get you supper close, falling more in line with super macro and not your conventional macro lenses, where more conventional macro lenses cover up to one to one times magnification only. Macro lenses that provide a magnification of two times and at the same time allows you to focus to infinity, that’s a versatile tool that cannot be ignored, yes it lacks autofocus, but then again most times at macro distances autofocus has trouble properly grabbing focus, which makes manual a normal occurrence when it comes to proper macro photography.
Getting the lens
One of the challenging things for any South African photographer is finding a supplier of lenses such as the Laowa lenses, they are not something that most photographers here even know of let alone search for. My options were to import it through Amazon.com or to buy it directly from Laowa. We also have another option – a local company, LandscapeGear (https://landscapegear.co.za). They sell some interesting bits of kit as well as a wide range of Laowa lenses, more specifically, they sell the macro lenses.
At a total cost of R9 999 South African Rand, more or less 660 USD, a great price for the lens, I picked it up as soon as they had one available for the Nikon Z mount.
The process of buying was simple and straightforward. Once the order had been placed and paid for, the lens was delivered the very next day. I mean hell what more do you want right?
Unboxing and build quality
There is something to be said about the experience of opening a well-packed lens, no loose clunky bits falling around, no random unneeded paper sitting all over the place. Simply put, it arrives packed to last.
The build quality on the lens also reflects this cold metal from the front to the back, at the front sporting a solid blue ring followed by the focusing ring, turns as smooth as butter, a good amount of throw to get from max focus to minimum focus, extremely easy to make pinpoint adjustments as you shoot, while focusing the inner lens moves forward and backwards. The movement is nice and elegant no stiff random bits to slow down the movement. The included UV filter already mounted to the front of the lens helps keep dust out and you should keep it mounted at all times. This is due to the design of the lens where it would be easy for dust and other bits to get into the front of the lens should you remove that filter.
Following the focus ring is an aperture ring positive clicks as you move it from one to the next, Once clicked into position small bumps or movement from my hand did not change the aperture by accident. Always a good sign when the aperture ring stays where you put it. At the back of the lens, you will find a solid metal mounting ring, no weather sealing at the back though the mount is secured with 4 metal screws and firmly clips into the camera mount.
From a build point of view, the lens is assembled like a small brick shit house, built to withstand bumps, built to last a lifetime, excited to say Laowa lenses always have a solid feel to them.
Real World Studio use
Studio use was my primary goal when looking at a lens like this one, it allows the maximum amount of macro that I would need for product shots as well at F2.8 some creative portraits could also be an option.
Shooting products using the lens is fun, a bit different to get used to how the aperture and focus works properly. Once you get the hang of it then things start to feel better on full-frame. Getting super close still needs a bit of focus stacking and this is where this lens might struggle a bit, focus breathing is something that this lens loves to do at times, to combat this moving the camera and not the focus seems to have worked the best, the all-metal design also is great in the studio when I might bump things against it, shooting flat lays was super easy as well and at F8 the lens along with my Nikon Z7 gives me some damn fine and sharp results, not only me but my clients should be more than happy with what I can achieve using this lens. Here is a sample of me playing around with some beans, notice that my focus is a tiny bit off even though I was at F8 focus always is a bit harder on macro distances, or maybe it was due to shooting handheld. Ether way in the studio it has become my most favourite bit of kit to get the job done, it will surely deliver heaps back on the investment made.
Real-world use day-to-day
One of the things I enjoy the most in my free time is hunting little critters and insects. A macro lens, therefore, has to be something I not only enjoy using but needs to be something that I can use without struggling, meaning the macro lens I pack into my bag for my day trips needs to handle well and deliver on quality out in the field. The Laowa lens delivers on both ends, due to the nice solid build I can bump branches, stones and even walk with it at my side without needing to “baby” the lens as it can take a beating, apart from the build quality handling it out and about has proven to be rather fun.
When handheld, it balances perfectly on my Nikon Z7, it is not extremely heavy to boot so prolonged trips were rather easy.
Focusing was where I struggled a bit, with insects darting away and not giving me proper time to achieve critical focus it was a bit of a pain, the focus assist mode on my camera kept reading incorrectly, meaning even if my focus peaking showed the subject to be in focus it would still be off by a tiny bit, from the looks of it the peaking was front peaking a bit. Once I adjusted the way I shoot though, I had more keepers, a bit odd though. I will calibrate my camera at some point to see if I can fix that.
Grabbing focus on little critters is hard at 2-times magnification and on a full-frame to boot, can be done by properly pre-focusing the lens.
All and all, what a joy to use outside, no complaints, apart from the annoying focus peaking.
Pros and Cons
It is hard to summarize the good and bad of this lens, however, let us give it a try.
With the lens being full manual build and controls means that it does not record proper EXIF data, nor does it allow the user to use other modes such as aperture priority, or even shutter priority, some users might find that to be something they cannot live without, the manual focus could have done with an additional 20 degrees throw on the barrel to help pinpoint focus even better, with the current throw at super macro 2-times magnification, even the smallest nudge can shift focus a large amount, having a larger throw would improve this.
Sturdy as hell build quality, it feels expensive in hand, its a damn joy to use, Nothing more fun than being able to focus as close at 2-times or as far as the eye can see, the lens is stupidly sharp when you nail focus, this is extremely important for proper macro lenses, they need to be stupid sharp and nothing less, having sharpness far outperforms anything else, this lens not only delivers sharpness but it brings the entire damn sharpness boat along for the ride, chromatic aberration controlled damn fine to boot.
As someone that enjoys a good bit of kit and tech this lens sparks joy not only for the fun it is to use it but for the damn good build quality and at a price point that will have your wife never asking about it. Those are things that work for me, can I recommend this lens? Hell yes.
Recommended if you are looking to do macro at a 2:1 scale, or if you are already a macro photographer looking for a proper upgrade.
Not recommended for those who love autofocus - for everyone else, life is too short to waste money on sub-par products and lenses, rather spend the decent price this lens costs and enjoy the absolute joy and quality your photos will have. Just remember as with everything else, practice, practice then practice some more, the world of macro is interesting and fun, but she can be a hard one to properly navigate, therefore it is highly recommended to arm yourself with the proper tools for the job, and this lens, well, she is that type of tool.