Laowa 100mm f2.8 CA-Dreamer Macro 2x Review

Venus Optics has successfully shaken up the market in recent years after the launch of many unique optics and “World’s First” kind of lenses. Under the brand name “LAOWA“, a great deal of their focus was on the niche market of macro photograhy, introducing wide-angle macro lenses, the crazy-looking macro probe lens, extreme macro lenses and a line-up of lenses that offer higher magnification (2:1) while retaining infinity focus.

Needless to say, I was thrilled when I received a review unit of their new 100mm f2.8 CA-Dreamer Macro 2x lens that was made available in June 2019.

First Look

Upon unboxing the product, I was delighted at the gorgeous full-metal construction of the lens. Made completely out of glass and metal, the lens only weighs 638g. Compare this to the widely popular Canon EF 100mm f2.8 L that weighs in at 625g, while giving twice the amount of magnification at 2:1. Its overall size and length is also similar to other 100mm lenses in the market.

cr: nikonrumours

The internal movement of the internal lens elements are pretty large from infiinity to 2:1. However, all the moving elements are kept within the lens housing and there is no external visible movement that can be seen during use. Focus travel is short as well, it does not require you to turn the focus/magnification ring multiple rounds before reaching both ends of the magnification spectrum. The lens also comes with a standard 67mm UV filter to protect the front element and to prevent dust from entering.

The front element moves to the edge of the lens barrel at 2:1 and retracts about 3 inches into the lens barrel at inifinity as shown above.

A lens hood is also given but I would think it is more useful for outdoor portraiture rather than outdoor macro work as it affects your focusing distance and cuts out too much light. You may purchase a separate tripod collar for $30 USD but it may be uneccessary for most experienced macro photographers due to its light weight and size.

This lens can be used on both full-frame and cropped sensor cameras. For this review, I used both the Canon EOS 80D as well as the Canon EOS RP (coupled with the Control Ring Mount Adapter EF-EOS).

Technical Specifications

cr: https://www.venuslens.net/product/laowa-100mm-f-2-8-2x-macro-apo/#tab-description

The lens is available in the Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony FE and Pentax K mounts and all come with slight variations. According to Laowa, the Canon version has a 9-bladed iris, Nikon/Pentax has a 7-blade aperture diaphragm and the Sony version has a 13-blade aperture diagphram. This ultimately affects the bokeh rendering which I am unable to test across systems. Physically, the Canon model does not have a manual aperture ring whereas the others do.

The Canon model is the only one that is equipped with a CPU chip and aperture motor which allows the user to control aperture values and exposure through the camera body itself as well as record EXIF data in the photos. This auto-aperture feature is the first of its kind in Laowa lenses. The aperture only closes during shutter-release which allows you to compose your image without the viewfinder getting dark when using smaller apertures.

Should you use a different system and want to get the Canon model, you have to use an electronic adaptor with the appropriate contacts to be able to change your aperture settings.

Image Quality & User Experience

A 100mm focal length is perfect for macro photography as it allows you to get closer to your subject without bothering it. It also grants you a fantastic minimum working distance. For this lens in particular, even at 2x magnification the distance to your subject from the front element (not sensor) is 7.5cm.

The 12 elements in 10 groups optics design delivers crystal sharp images at both ends of the magnification spectrum. You get great subject isolation and smooth bokeh too.

<Huntsman Spider (Heteropoda venatoria)
EOS 80D
1/200th, f/9, ISO 100 (single shot @ < 1:1)

Depth-of-Field

The ability to get to 2x magnification makes it a breeze to photograph smaller arthropods. In the case of Depth-of-Field (DOF), we all know that when magnification increases, the DOF decreases. However, the DOF does not suffer much at the maximum magnification. Technique (such as aligning focus planes, stacking etc) however, play an important role in how much DOF you get.

<Forest Ant (Polyrhachis armata)>
EOS 80D
1/200th, f/9, ISO 100 (single shot @ 1:1 and cropped)
<Green Crab Spider (Thomisidae)>
EOS 80D
1/200th, f/9, ISO 100 (4-image stack @ 2:1 and cropped)

The lens is so sharp and it delivers amazing image quality. If conditions do not allow 2x magnifcation, you can photograph at 1:1 and crop in without sacrificing too much image quality while retaining a larger DOF as compared to a single shot at 2x. If the photograph is taken well, you won’t have issues making large prints even if you crop.

Here are some sample images shot at full 2x magnification, uncropped. Note the DOF and detail.

The lens does not have image stabilization and autofocus. However, in the hands of the experienced, this is not an issue. Furthermore, modern camera bodies are equipped with In-Body Image Stabilisation (IBIS) which may help you in some tricky situations. I’ve seen reviews online that mention a tripod/monopod is a must. I’m here to debunk that. All the images you see here are shot handheld (even the stacks) and are shot at 1/200th or less. In fact, I find carrying a tripod out in the field a hassle unless I’m looking at capturing more abstract work (UV) or going for extreme macro images. Good technique and skill is all you need.

<Lacewing Larva>
EOS 80D
1/200th, f/9, ISO 100 (6-image stack @ 1.5:1 and cropped)

Macro photographers mostly manual focus especially when dealing with higher magnification and low contrast/light situations as it is both accurate and fast, so no autofocus? Not much of an issue. However, for those who want a macro lens that can double up as a portrait lens, it may not be that enticing without autofocus.

<Eight-Spotted Crab Spider (Platythomisus octomaculatus)>
EOS RP + Control Ring Mount Adapter EF-EOS
15s, f/10, ISO 100 (single shot)
<Huntsman Spider (Heteropoda sp.)
EOS 80D
1/200th, f/9, ISO 100 (single shot @ 2:1 and cropped)
<Ant-mimicking Jumping Spider (Synemosyna(?))>
EOS 80D
1/200th, f/10, ISO 100 (single shot)

Ant-mimic jumping spiders are known to be tough subjects to photograph due to their constant, erratic movement. This individual measured only about 5mm. I shot this close to 2x and cropped in further.

Colours

This lens also features an Apochromatic (APO) characteristic that generally, only premium macro lenses have. It renders chromatic aberration (CA) non-existent. Laowa prides itself in the performance of this lens as it suppresses CA in the entire image and not just areas in focus. Thus, this makes it easy for photographers who want to get better backgrounds for subject isloation/contrast and not worry about any color fringing.

<Planthopper nymph (Fulgoromorpha)>
EOS 80D
1/200th, f/9, ISO 100 (single shot)

Although white balance and light play a vital role in colours of the image, I would say that the colours captured without much post processing, is very accurate.

<Jumping Spider (Cosmophasis)>
EOS RP
1/125th, f/9, ISO 100 (single shot)

Summary

To sum up my opinions on this lens, here is the list of its advantages and disadvantages.

Pros:

  • Overall construction and build quality
  • First inclusion of electronics for automatic aperture control (Canon)
  • In-built 2:1 magnification
  • APO charateristic grants good contrast and CA control
  • Accurate colours
  • Simple handability
  • Inexpensive

Cons:

  • Presence of greese within the lens barrel that facilitates the internal movement of the front element.
  • No weather sealing

In my time spent with it, there really is not much to dislike as the lens truly delivers when it comes to performing in the field and getting great images. That said, I would definitely prefer to pair this with a mirrorless system due to it being a full manual lens, focus peaking will immensely increase your hit rate and help in low light situations.

This review is solely based on macrophotography which is why I did not touch much on bokeh which potrait photographers may be more interested in.

The biggest drawback for me would be the greese in the lens barrel. My only advice is to leave the UV filter that it comes with on permanently. You do not want any dust or fine particles to come into contact with the greese for obvious reasons. Laowa should definitely find a better way keep internal movement smooth instead of using greese.

At its price point, the value you get far supercedes its imperfections. It would be an exciting lens to add to your arsenal. Do feel free to contact me should you have any queries and do share this article if you enjoyed reading it!

If my review has enticed you to get one of these lenses, do refer to this link to further support me in generating more content like this!

https://www.venuslens.net/product/laowa-100mm-f-2-8-2x-macro-apo/ref/429/

For more sample images, do visit my instagram portfolio.

Macrophotography Equipment

Having the right gear and being prepared for multiple scenarios can significantly increase your chances of getting that winning/record shot. As a follow up from my previous article “Introduction to Macrophotography”, this article serves to help photographers of all levels in deciding on what kind of equipment they would need for macro photography.

<Western Rough Wolf Spider (Venator immansueta)>

Let’s start off with the type of camera body, namely DSLR, Mirrorless and Micro 4/3 systems. Ergonomics aside. These cameras have sensors of different sizes which affects the amount of light the camera takes in, the crop factor, low light performance and many more. There are several factors to consider when deciding your type of camera body, do note however, that all types are capable of taking fantastic photos. To ease the discussion, I will group mirrorless and m4/3 systems together under ‘mirrorless systems’ due to their vast similarities. My recommendations and opinions are also skewed towards the macro photographer that shoots out in the field, rather than studio work.

DSLR vs Mirrorless / Micro Four-thirds (m4/3)

The cameras I own are all DSLRs. Having tried all the systems, I noticed a large difference in terms of the user experience in the field. Lets look at some factors to consider when deciding on your body type.

Ergonomics, Size & Weight

Undoubtedly, DSLR cameras are heavier and bulkier, so if you are looking to carry as little weight as possible, especially while travelling, or having a set up that is easier on your wrists, DSLRs may not suit you. Lugging around a set up that weighs approximately 3kg could potentially reduce your stamina and could tire you out extensively during long (~4hr) shoots. In most occasions, you will be required to shoot with one hand, while the other is holding a leaf / stick that your subject is on (just like the photo I took of Andrew above). Note however, that the sheer weight of a DSLR, large lens, a flash and a diffuser could make shooting one-handed a pain and that is probably the biggest advantage of using a mirrorless system. If you have larger hands, the grip of DSLR cameras would benefit you. Getting used to the button placements on your camera is helpful, you wouldn’t want to fumble around with your camera out in the field. DSLRs have generally more buttons than Mirrorless systems and I find it easier for quick changes but not for one-handed operations.

Functionality

Most mirrorless systems and the newer DSLR cameras come with the latest technology and fancy features like touch screens, wifi and what not. These features are hardly used in macro photography and it should not be a concern, good to have but not a necessity.

A major difference between the systems are the viewfinders. DSLRs have a mirror that reflects light coming through the lens into another mirror or prism which then reflects the light into the optical viewfinder (OVF) that allows the user to preview the photo. This is also the main reason for the bulk of DSLR cameras. A mirrorless system, as the name suggests, lacks the mirror and prism which then allows it to be so compact. They then make use of an electronic viewfinder (EVF) to simulate the optical viewfinder to preview the shot.

If you shoot with a DSLR, turn your camera to live view and adjust your exposure, the preview of your shot would change as well, just like an electronic viewfinder. There are many considerations here. The colours when shooting in live view may not be an accurate representation of your image and in some mirrorless systems, there is a terrible lag present during the preview, especially in low light. When shooting at high magnification, you simply cannot afford any lag. Focusing is generally done manually by moving the camera forward and backwards until you get the subject in focus so with all the magnified movements, coupled with lag, it only results in missed shots and tons of frustration.

The batteries from DSLR cameras are of higher capacity and can last for hours. If you go for a mirrorless system, you definitely need more than 2 batteries since the EVF takes up battery as well.

All this being said, look out for the newer full frame mirrorless systems from Sony and Nikon, they seem really promising!

Choosing your lens

Regardless of your system, there are a vast variety of dedicated, true macro lenses for you to choose from. Do your due diligence before making your purchase as it may affect numerous factors down the road.

Focal length & focusing distance

DSLR macro lenses have a much larger range of focal lengths compared to Mirrorless macro lenses. Standard focal lengths to look out for is 60mm to 100mm primes although Canon even has a 180mm macro lens. The focal length of your lens would affect your minimal focusing distance. This is extremely important. Having the ability to shoot further and still fill your frame would greatly increase your hit rate especially when shooting skittish subjects such as jumping spiders. Not to mention it is definitely safer and preferred to keep those fingers away from dangerous vertebrates such as scorpions or venomous arachnids. Personally, I usually shoot with the highly popular Canon EF 100mm f2.8 L Macro lens on an EOS 80D (APSC) body and shooting macro is simple even at an effective 160mm (1.6x crop factor).

I had the opportunity to take the newly introduced EOS M50 and EF-M 28mm f/3.5 STM Macro Lens with Built-In Ring Light out for a review. I coupled the setup with a diffuser I borrowed from Andrew.

The results from this combination was fantastic and I was getting tact sharp images handheld even with the super macro mode that goes 2:1, however, the largest issue was in fact the short focusing distance to get to just 1:1 (almost just a cm). It resulted in many missed shots especially when attempting to shoot orb weavers or insects deep in bushes. Cropping power was not great either. The combo is more suited for studio work and the built-in focus light is definitely not bright enough to help you in focus in the dark. I’ll attempt to build a separate diffuser for this set up and try again. That being said, having a decent minimal focusing distance to get to 1:1 would greatly increase your hit rate.

Depending on your shooting style and what you would like to achieve you can explore other options such as wide macro lenses such as the Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro Lens for more interesting compositions, the MP-E65mm f2.8 1-5x Extreme Macro Lens to get even closer, or the newly introduced Laowa 24mm f/14 2x Macro Probe which can help you pull of some interesting shots not possible with normal macro lenses. Some of these lenses may not allow you to focus to infinity so just to reiterate, do your research before purchase!

My recommendation however is to get the basics right with a regular macro lens before venturing out into these specialised macro lenses as they can be extremely difficult to handle and beginners will have a hard time getting good results with them.

Alternatives

For those who are unsure or unwilling to invest fully in a macro set-up yet can turn to simple alternatives that are available in the market such as extension tubes, close up filters, diopters, reversal rings etc. The popular ones are extension tubes from Canon/Kenko that can be stacked for you to focus even closer (note, not really useful in the field). The more expensive extension tubes come with contact points that still allow autofocus and full aperture control, others are fully manual. Users can also explore into getting diopters such as the Raynox DCR 250, an inexpensive method to get up to 2.5:1 but depth of field (DOF) would be severely reduced (more on this will be touched on in an article about settings and mastering DOF).

Supplementary

Full-Frame vs Crop-Sensor

Is it worth the investment in an expensive full frame camera for macro? Not necessarily. In order to achieve the highest detail and magnification possible, what matters is pixel density. Trying not to get too technical here, the most pixels per square millimetre of your camera’s sensor would give you more detail. To illustrate, even if you have a 50 megapixel full frame camera, you would probably get more detail using a 24 megapixel APSC Crop sensor camera as the smaller sensor has more pixels per square millimetre as compared to the full frame sensor. Furthermore, in most wildlife/macro photography, the unspoken truth is that most of the photos are cropped. With the larger field of view on a full frame camera, you will still have to crop in to match the same magnification of a photo from a cropped sensor.

Nonetheless, full frame cameras are really useful due to their superior low light performance and image quality. You do not always have to shoot at 1:1 in macro, sometimes you just can’t! It would not be possible to project a large tarantula or large mantis at life size on a full frame 35mm sensor. This is where cropped sensors lose out as you will have to take steps back and there will be the issue of getting more ambient diffused light on a huge subject.

In conclusion, the advantages that come with full frame cameras are not as essential in macro photography and you can get away with awesome images with just a cropped camera.

Flash

Flashes are essential for macro and don’t bother leaving home for a macro shoot without it unless you tons of natural light. Pop-up flashes don’t work because of the output and how low it is located. You would not want your pop-up flash to cast a shadow over your subject because of your lens! To compensate for the relatively higher shutter speed (for magnified shakes or longer focal lengths), the large DOF (F8-16) and during low light situations (night shoots), get yourself a flash unit.

For basic macro photography, you do not need to be a master of flash photography, a simple speedlight, whether fully manual or with TTL functions will get the job done. Flashes can be expensive especially if you go for the big brands but cheaper alternatives are available (Yongnuo, Godox etc). Do note however, that if you go for the 3rd party flashes, there may not be after service support available in your country. After my YN 568EXii died on me, I opted for a cheap SGD$30 Neewer TT560 manual flash and it has been working fine ever since. (FYI, cheaper flashes may not come with full hotshoe contact points and may only have a single contact point to trigger your flash, this means that you may not be able to trigger your flash in live view, rendering your articulating screen useless).

Once you get used to your flash, you can explore other techniques like slaving another flash for additional lighting/backlighting, 2nd curtain sync etc.

Canon EOS 6Dii + EF 100mm f2.8 L + MT-26EX-RT Macro Twin Lite Flash

Canon EOS 5DSR + EF 100mm f2.8 L + YN-14EX Ring Flash

Besides standard speed lights, there are other options such as ring lights, twin strobes, twin flashes, or even small slave flashes that you can trigger wirelessly. It is really up your creativity on how you want your set up to work. Choosing a flash unit is important as it determines how you will build your DIY diffuser which is probably the most important aspect of macro photography. Stay tuned for tutorials on how to diffuse light for macro.

Other Considerations

Look out for build quality in the gear you are purchasing. Other features such as optic/image stabilisation are really especially useful if you intend to shoot handheld and not with a tripod/monopod. If all your gear is weather-sealed, you wouldn’t have to worry much about rain, it happens sometimes!

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or if you would like to contribute some pointers to this discussion!

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#macrophotography #tutorial #singapore #biodiversity #wildlife #discovery #insects #arthropods #photography #gear #canon #mirrorless #DSLR