There are a lot of gear reviews for new photography gear. Many focus on technical specifications and others focus on sharpness and precision of the optics. I had a chance to spend a few weeks with the Laowa 17mm f1.8 lens for Micro-Four-Thirds (MFT) mount. This is a bit of a different lens that requires a slightly different approach to a review. I am hoping this approach will help you decide if this is a lens for you.
I will run through the technical specifications of the Laowa 17mm f1.8 lens as they have some interesting but limited impact on this review (aside from the price). As a 17mm lens on an MFT mount, this has a corresponding field of view that corresponds to a 34mm lens on a full-frame (FF) sensor (65 degrees). The lens has nine elements in seven groups with a seven-bladed iris. The filter diameter is 46 mm, and the weight is 172g. It is not weather-sealed, and the MSRP is $149USD.
Aside from the mathematics of technical specifications, I think a lens review should provide more practical details. Details that describe the intangibles about the lens. Things you only realize when you have the lens in your hand or on your camera.
For starters, this is a completely manual lens with manual focus and manual aperture control.
It is a small but solid – really solid – lens with metal construction and even a small metal lens hood (not much shading from this guy). This lens does not feel plastic-y in any way shape or form. The movement of the aperture ring and focus control feels great, and the aperture ring has quiet click settings (it is not clickless but moves easy) and the markings on the focus ring are clear.
This lens feels like something from the best film era vintage lenses and is well-sized to match the size of smaller MFT camera bodies.
At 34mm FF equivalent, the Laowa 17mm f1.8 is a prime lens size that, along with a 50mm FF equivalent, should be in any photographer’s bag. Some famous photographers have operated with only lenses in this range. At a 34mm FF equivalent, it provides a relatively wide field of view and a more forgiving range for focus. Wider lenses tend to be more forgiving when trying to focus them. With the manual focus on this lens, not getting focus perfect can still result in usable images.
As for image quality, the lens does reasonably well. It is not the sharpest (even when you nail focus) and it is clear that when fully wide open, the lens is sharper in the center of the image but softer at the edges. Saying this doesn’t really describe the image results from this lens. The image is sharp where it needs to be and softer where is it okay to be softer. The look from the lens is great. In addition, the seven-bladed iris produces very nice starbursts when closed down for night shots of light sources.
As for size and usability, this Laowa 17mm f1.8 lens fits smaller MFT bodies really well (like a Pen F) and looks a little dwarfed on a bigger body (like an EM1X). Not only does this lens fit well on smaller bodies, but it looks entirely old school like the cameras that are going for that stylistic approach.
I had many people asking me if I was shooting with a film camera when I had this lens on my Pen F. I seemed to reinforce this feeling when I tried to focus and take a photograph and took forever. This is not a run-and-gun lens.
Old-school feel and slow approach to photography
I am old enough to have shot film with manual film cameras. I thought I had left that all behind to use all the technical horsepower in modern cameras to really nail technically-challenging circumstances trying to get the best images. As a consequence, I had forgotten about the slower process of taking photographs when all you had was a split prism and a needle for a light meter.
When you connect a manual lens on an MFT camera, you operate primarily with the histogram/light meter to get a good exposure. You have to think about ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and focus. It takes time.
Slow photography is like slow food
I remember years ago traveling in Italy and going to a slow food restaurant.
The whole concept with slow food is to make it more of an experience and to take time to savor the flavors and textures. I think shooting with a manual lens is similar. It means that you are shooting slower and have to think way more about your images – no run and gun.
Slow photography is forced on you when you shoot with this type of lens. With cell phones, you pull them out and shoot. You barely focus. There is no thought to the process, and maybe that means that people can focus on the subject matter of their images. However, at other times, it means that you really aren’t thinking much about the images you are taking.
Trying to nail focus with a manual focus lens also means you have to slow down. Back in the old manual focus film camera days, you had split prisms and micro prisms in your viewfinder to help you get your focus right. These tools are not available on modern digital cameras.
However, with mirrorless bodies on MFT cameras, you have other tools at your disposal including magnification and focus peaking. I was able to custom set my camera’s buttons to allow me to set one button for magnification and another for focus peaking. It’s still not fast, but it worked fairly well.
This magic of this type of lens is that you need to slow down and think about the image you are composing. You need to think about everything from ISO to aperture to shutter speed and finally focus. If any are off, you can instantly see that you have screwed up. If you think back to the film days, it wouldn’t be until you got your images developed that you would know you messed up. When I was using this lens, I knew immediately when I screwed up, even when I thought I had all the settings right.
That process of slowing down and understanding what you are doing was a great deal of fun. The lens was wide enough and fast enough (aperture wise, not in any other way) that I would feel comfortable taking only this lens out to take some shots.
Not for the faint of heart
Slow means you can’t shoot fast. This seems obvious, but when someone says to you, “take our picture, “…they pose and wait for you. This lens will not do that quickly, regardless of how good you are.
You can take portraits, but you need to plan the shots and be ready when the opportunity comes up. An old street photography trick used to be to set your exposure with an intermediate aperture, put your focus at 3 feet, and point and shoot. In practice, this is not quite so simple. Nailing the exposure is a little trickier because you need to be looking through the lens to get the exposure balanced.
I really enjoyed the Laowa 17mm f1.8 prime lens. I have other similar prime lenses, but all are equipped with autofocus and electronic apertures. They also feel pretty plastic. They are more expensive, but sharper. This lens feels great, is super-solid, shoots well and needs lots of attention to your images. It forces you to shoot like a photographer. You feel like a photographer. It also makes you look like a photographer.
At $149 USD, the Laowa 17mm f1.8 lens is quite the value. My images turned out great and I fell in love with taking slower pictures again. I had a chance to slow down and smell the roses, or in this case, take more deliberate thoughtful images.
Would you use a lens like this? Share with us in the comments below.