StackRail Test: Venus Optics (Laowa) 60mm F/2.8 2x Macro Lens

When I first started doing macro photography, I have heard a lot of macro lenses, such as Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, Canon EF 60mm f/2.8 macro lens, Nikon 105mm f/2.8 macro lens, and some third party macro lenses, such as Tamron 90mm f/2.8 macro lenses. However, these have maximum 1:1 magnification and because their focal length is fairly long, it is hard to get to, say 2:1. However around the same time, there is this lens, named Laowa (老蛙, old frog, in Chinese) 60mm f/2.8 with 2:1 magnification.

lLaowa (老蛙, old frog) 60mm f/2.8 2:1 Macro Lens

I was a little skeptical as it is a Chinese lens and it sounded just too good to be true. Then again, being in China, I have seen enough of images taken with this lens and my curiosity grew and eventually bit the bullet last Feburary (2016).

Overview & First Impression

It was quick to get the lens as China probably has the best shipping companies in the world — it only took 1 day to arrive from 1,200 km away. So I eagerly opened it up and it was packed in a vacuum plastic bag with simple packaging, a pouch for it. Not being discouraged, I opened it up and the first impression was : wow, it is heavy. Yep, it is a full metal lens (except glasses of course) and judging from the finish, pretty good workmanship, too.

Most of the outer shell of the lens is the focus ring, as shown as A in the picture below, or maybe the magnification ring as it has both focus distance and magnification marks on it. Too excited, so I eagerly started turning this shell back and forth. The feel is very good, the shell is very tight but easy to turn with enough damping feel. This is important because I have used some kit lens (even Japanese ones) where if you point the lens downward, it will not stay at its position, too loose. With this lens, that is definitely not a problem at all. One little drawback is, there is some kind of friction sound and feel, not enough to be annoying, but it is there.

Canon EF mount Laowa 60mm f/2.8, A – large focus or magnification ring, B – aperture ring

The focus or magnification ring is rather large, takes up almost half of the barrel length. When you turn it, magnification changes from 1:10 (0.1x infinity side) to 2:1 (2x at 0.185m or 0.61ft). This allows you to do quick composition depending on your subject size.

An important feature I noticed is that when you turn the focus or magnification, the lens moves internally and does not extrude outside the barrel. The reason this is important is that first if you have any attachment on the lens, such as a ring light or a filter, it will stay stationary and not move with the lens. The second reason is that, when you shoot an insect, it will not extrude and scare away your subject.

Another feature I like the lens about is that it has long throw when you turn the focus or magnification ring, about 120 degrees. This long throw gives you better or more precise control over focus/magnification.

So far, I was very happy with the focus ring, a well thought out design with good enough handling and feel. The bottom part of the lens lies the aperture ring ranging from f/2.8 to f/22 with full stop adjustments as shown as B in above picture. It feels clicky and responsive, well engineered. The only issue is that it only has full stop click vs a finer one, say 1/2 stop. You can, however, so of leave the aperture in the middle of click, but it only works for wider apertures from f/2.8 to f/11, after f/11, the space between stop marks is too small. But hey, this is probably due to the limitation of iris construction rather than a design issue with the lens, I have not complain about it.

Technical Details

The Laowa 60mm f/2.8 lens is a full manual lens. It is designed for APS sensor cameras, although I have seen some good images taken with this lens using full frame camera. The things I heard about this lens with full frame camera is that it has slightly vignetting issue i.e. darker corners when used as normal lens, in macro mode, there is no problem with vignetting at all. Here are some details

  • 9 elements in 7 groups
  • 0.1x to 2x magnification
  • Full manual lens designed for APS sensor cameras and work with full frame camera in macro mode
  • Magnification ranges from 0.1x to 2x
  • Aperture range from f/22 to f/2.8 at full stop click
  • 14 aperture blades (beautiful bokeh)
  • It is 95mm long and 70mm in diameter
  • It is not just a macro lens, it can be used as normal lens, too
  • Full metal construction
  • Internal focusing, no extrusion out side its barrel
  • It supports Canon EF, Nikon AI, Sony Alpha, and Pentax K mount

Because of it relatively short focal length, it is easy to extend it to higher magnification and it still remains very sharp. One thing worth notice is that, at 2:1 or 2x magnification with about 120 mm extension, the magnification is about 4x, so it is very, very extensible and is perfect for stacking. The best thing is, when extended to 4:1 (or 4x), the working distance, i.e. the distance you can get a sharp focus is about 3cm, easily surpass a lot of microscope objective.

However, one common issue with MANUAL macro lens at high magnification level is the issue of light. This is not an issue with this particular lens, it is with ALL manual lenses. The problem is when set to higher magnification level, your view finder get darker quickly as you stops down. For example at 2:1 or 2x, setting aperture to f/11, the view finder is almost completely dark, without focus assist light, it is hard to see thing and focus well. In field macro photography, smaller aperture (i.e. higher f number) is need to gain deeper depth of focus, so a focus assist light is highly recommended.

Actual Images Taken With Lens

Beside the above technical specifications, one thing I love the most is its beautiful, dreamy bokeh as shown below.

Shot with Laowa 60mm f/2.8 2:1 macro lens at f/11. Notice beautiful and dreamy bokeh

Another thing that impressed me is that it is so sharp! It is comparable to my good microscope objective even at 4x magnification when it is extended.

Laowa 60mm f/2.8 2:1 macro lens is very, very sharp at 2:1. Stacked from 80 images

Laowa 60mm f/2.8 2:1 macro lens is very, very sharp at 2:1 Stacked from 73 images

Even extended at 4x, it is still very sharp, Stacked from 107 images

There is one thing that is worthy caution about — it has rather large chromatic aberrations when set wide open. This is a common problem for general purpose photography lenses and only expensive high end microscope objectives (costing 1000s of dollars) can mitigate this issue. So I always shoot a stack at f/5.6 with this lens, two stops down from its maximum aperture.

Conclusion

Laowa 60mm f/2.8 super macro lens is a superb lens, well thought out (rumor has it that it was designed by macro photographers) design and well optically engineered piece of equipment that is worth owning. I have personally recommended it to at least a dozen of close friends. Highly recommended.