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The choice of camera lens always represents a crucial moment for every photographer. But it is not always easy to find the lens that fits our actual needs, as too often we get seduced by features that we don’t really need, and are therefore just useful in raising the price.
Have you chosen a stabilized lens and you always use the camera on a tripod? You exclusively take landscape photos in the daylight but have chosen to rely on a f/2.8 lens. Sound familiar?
Especially if you are at the beginning of your journey through the world of photography, your budget won’t likely be particularly high and you may want to maximize your investment by choosing something that can be really useful to you now.
This is why today I want to tell you about the Venus Laowa 15mm f/4 Lens (with macro), an entry-level lens that every landscape photographer should take into consideration.
Why? Let’s see it together.
The Venus Laowa 15mm f/4 Macro is a lens that has been on the market since 2015. Although it certainly does not stand out for its cosmetic appearance, it comes with features that really make this a unique lens in the world. So much so that it can simultaneously seduce landscape photographers, lovers of macro photography, and architectural photographers.
Here are its main features, that I’m going to examine with you:
Exactly, you’ve read it right. The Venus Laowa 15mm f/4 is a Macro 1:1 lens with an angle of view of 110° and a shift function that allows a translation equal to +/- 6mm.
The optical scheme is composed of 12 elements in 9 groups, including 3 high refractive index elements and one low dispersion element, and on paper that holds great promise for excellent performances in terms of sharpness.
And in case that wasn’t enough, add the fact that this lens is compatible with most of the mounts currently available on the market.
One last point, and it’s absolutely not a negative one, is the price. While I’m writing, the list price of the Venus Laowa 15mm f/4 Wide Angle 1:1 Macro is only $499.
When evaluating a lens, we’re always going to start from the analysis of its MTF charts, and then we carry out an almost infinite series of laboratory tests so as to bench-test it, from a perspective that is more theoretical than practical.
Of course, these tests are absolutely fundamental and I encourage you to look at them. But I also think that you are likely more interested in the real-world behavior of the lens. Knowing that certain optical limits of the lens will be then invisible in the real world, and what you are more concerned about is understanding whether the lens has the features that are really essential to you or not.
While there are many online reviews available regarding the use of this lens for macro and architectural photography, I haven’t found much regarding its use for landscape photography. So, my purpose here is to examine this lens from the point of view of the landscape photographer, omitting other features that are not fundamental for us hunters of sunrises and sunsets.
So let’s start to analyze the features seen in the previous chapter, now with a more critical eye.
The fact that this is a prime lens and not a zoom gives us great hope with regard to quality, as the optical scheme will be optimized for a single focal length.
We are not afraid at all of the maximum aperture available, which is f/4. As good landscape photographers, we’ll be normally working around f/11, where sharpness will also be clearly higher.
The lens does not have stabilization or autofocus. While this may make you turn your nose up at first sight, surely you will soon realize that you really don’t care about those things. As you likely use the camera on a tripod you should turn off stabilization anyway, and you may choose to adjust the focus based on hyperfocal distance, making use of the hyperfocal marks available on the lens body.
So, those are two fewer functions that you don’t need, and their absence has certainly had a positive impact on the market price of the lens.
With regard to the focal length, this clearly is not the first 15mm lens available on the market. But it is the only one with a feature that has convinced me to test this lens in action – the 77 mm filter thread.
Normally all wide-angle and ultra wide-angle lenses (usually 15mm is considered the boundary between those two worlds) have a front optical element that is particularly curved. They often come with a built-in lens hood that makes it impossible to mount filters, unless we resort to particular solutions. Ultra wide-angle lenses whose front lens is not so curved and without a built-in lens hood, usually come with a large diameter and it’s therefore impossible to find filter threads smaller than 95 mm.
Thanks to the absence of a built-in lens hood (it does have a bayonet one) and to the 77 mm filter thread, the Venus Laowa 15mm f/4 lens opens the door to using a tool that I deem absolutely essential for every landscape photographer – drop-in filters.
As I was saying above, with a lens that has a built-in lens hood or a 95 mm filter thread it is possible to use systems that can hold 150 mm filters. But with a 77 mm filter thread, you will be able to use the same system that you use on any other lens equipped with a filter thread up to 82 mm. In a word, it is priceless.
The last of the features coming with this multi-purpose lens is the shift function. Thanks to a lever mechanism positioned next to the lens mount, it is possible to shift the lens by +/- 6mm. Even if this function might not seem very interesting for landscape photography at first sight (after all a rock is always a rock), it turns out to be useful in case there are human artifacts, like buildings, within the frame.
If this lens appears very promising on paper, despite a very moderate price, let’s see its actual real-world behavior.
I have tested the Venus Laowa 15mm f/4 lens with my trusty Nikon D810, a full-frame camera body.
Since this is fundamentally the reason why I decided to try this lens, again thanks to the existing 77 mm filter thread, I quickly mounted my loyal Nisi V5 Filter Holder, which holds 100mm filters. Even if it is possible to mount the holder, the fear of vignetting is too high, considering that we’re talking about a 15mm lens after all.
Although the Nisi filter holder is guaranteed to be vignette-free up to a 16mm focal length, once mounted on the Venus Laowa 15mm the result was doubtlessly amazing. Vignetting was practically invisible, as you’re going to see below, and it’s possible to quickly remove it in post-production by activating the lens correction profile.
A little dream of mine was substantially coming true. The dream of using an ultra wide-angle lens, and adding up to three 100mm filters and a polarizer without vignetting!
On the lens body (which is sturdy metal, not plastic) you find the focus and aperture rings, whose operations are smooth and precise.
On the aperture ring, I would have preferred a locking system or a snap selection so as to make sure that I never lose the desired aperture. But actually, I haven’t encountered any problems during real-world use of the lens.
The focusing ring is really precise, as well as the existing focusing marks, which allow you to focus using the hyperfocal distance in no time. Just for the sake of being fussy, I would have placed the metric indications of distance upside down, or a vertical line next to each distance, just to be really precise. But you simply have to check the photo you’ve just taken, so as to make sure you have got the desired focus.
Although the manufacturer does not formally advertise this lens as weather sealed, most of my tests have been carried out in the rain (just for a change!). I protected the lens using only an umbrella or makeshift means, and no problems were detected.
When I examine the images, the results were really comforting.
Shooting at both f/8 and f/11, the image definition is really excellent in the center of the frame. Obviously, the image becomes softer the closer you get to the edges, but doubtlessly the result is much more than acceptable. If you try to use higher apertures, you can naturally start to see that optical phenomenon called diffraction. But, as good landscape photographers, we know that we can go past f/16 only for situations of extreme necessity.
There are no particular problems with regards to chromatic aberration with this lens. I mean, some chromatic aberration is there, but nothing that can’t easily be solved using the automatic chromatic aberration removal included in any post-production software.
As for vignetting, as I said above, the problem is almost non-existent when using the 100mm Nisi filter holder. For me personally, this fact alone is worth the purchase price of this lens.
It is worthwhile to talk a little about distortion. It is predictable that a 15 mm lens will have barrel distortion. To landscape photographers, this is not a great concern. As I said before, a little distortion on a rock will not invalidate your image, as an irregular rock will always remain an irregular rock. Unfortunately, though, barrel distortion will invalidate the only real line included in your landscape – the horizon.
The distortion caused by this lens to the horizon is of the “mustache” type, which doubtlessly is the most annoying kind. If when we take a first look at the live view this problem may give us some concern,
Unfortunately, at the present time, there is no automatic correction profile for this lens included in Adobe software (Lightroom and Photoshop). But the Venus Laowa technical support is very efficient and within a few hours, they emailed the correction profile that I needed. Once installed, one click was enough to do the job and the image automatically recovered from both distortion (completely removing the mustache horizon) and peripheral shading.
The Venus Laowa 15mm f/4 lens has really turned out to be a surprise, exceeding my expectations. Although it comes with a very moderate price, this lens really provides remarkable results in terms of image quality.
Once the lens distortion is corrected, the only thing that still needs attention is edge softness which is absolutely within acceptable values for an entry-level lens.
Construction quality is really remarkable and you can notice that as soon as you take the lens into your hands. Lastly, the possibility of using a 100mm filter holder makes this lens really priceless.
If you are a landscape photographer who is looking for an ultra wide-angle lens with a very advantageous quality to price ratio, then the Venus Laowa 15mm f/4 lens is undoubtedly what you are seeking.