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