Venus Laowa 15mm f/4.5 Zero-D Shift W-Dreamer FFS Review

Months after it came out, there is nothing really out there on this lens except for some stock factory pictures and writeups that are predominantly plagiarisms of promotional materials, “why don’t you get to the point” videos, and vapid clickbait reposts of said videos. There are a couple of decent reviews, but I don’t feel like they were really pushing the lens.

So in the Machine Planet tradition of going off half-cocked, I will give you the dirt on this after spending a day shooting the Nikon F version of this in -3º C weather with a Leica Monochrom Typ 246. No need to start simple, or even with the camera body on which this lens (ostensibly) was intended to mount.

A Typ 246 is an all-monochrome, FX, 24mp Leica mirrorless body that can shoot to 50,000 ISO without looking even as grainy as Tri-X. It has a short flange distance, which means that virtually any SLR lens can be adapted to it. It has pattern, off-the-sensor metering, so there is no messing around with exposure compensation or trying to figure out why shift lenses underexpose on Nikon F100s and overexpose somewhat on the F4 (yes, this is true). It also has an inbuilt 2-axis level that you can see in its EVF, a welcome aid when it is cold outside. These features mean that you can use a shift lens handheld. This lens is a ~22mm equivalent on APS-C (DX) nd I believe a ~30mm equivalent on Micro Four-Thirds. This probably is not a lens for MFT, since it is absolutely massive on any MFT body. In fact, it seems really big for a Sony Alpha body…

The physical plant

The first thing you ask yourself about this lens is, “how could a lens out of China possibly cost $1,199?” But this is a shallow (if not also culturally chauvinistic) observation. Your iPhone is made in China, and there is nothing wrong with its lenses. Or apparently, you iPhone’s price. Venus is something of a newcomer in the camera lens market, and it uses the designator “Laowa,” which is a reference to frogs in a well (not kidding… check out the Facebook page). The idea, they say, is to look up at the sky and keep dreaming. That, of course, is possible where the cost of manufacturing a zillion-element, double-aspherical lens is relatively low. The front ring reads “FF S 15mm F4.5 W-Dreamer No. xxxx.” FFS of course stands for “Full-Frame Shift.”

The 15/4.5 lens is available in a variety of mounts. Word to the wise: get the Nikon F or Canon EF version. Nikon has the longest flange-to-focal distance at 46.5mm, meaning that it has the shortest rear barrel, meaning the maximum compatibility with mount adapters (with simple adapters you can go from Nikon to any mirrorless camera, including Fuji GFX). Canon EF is a close second at 44mm. If you have an existing Canon or Nikon system, just take your pick. Your worst choice is buying this lens in a mirrorless version (Canon RF, Nikon Z, or Sony FE), since you will end up locked into one platform exclusively. Remember that this lens has no electronics or couplings, so adapting it is just a matter of tubes.

The lens comes packed in a very workmanlike white box, just like $50 Neewer wide-aperture lenses for Sony E cameras. This is a mild surprise, but nobody maintains an interest in packaging for very long after a lens comes in. Nikon lenses, after all, come in pulpboard packaging that strongly resembles the egg cartons your kids might give to their hamsters as chew toys. The instructions end with the wisdom, “New Idea. New Fun.” And that is very on-point: for most people, photography is about fun.

The lens is a monster, and it’s not lightweight. It feels at home one something at least the size of a Nikon F4 (and balances well on one, btw). On an M camera, you need to employ the Leica Multifunction Grip (or something similar) to effectively hold onto the camera (this combo can still break your wrist…). Weight as ready-to-mount on a Leica is 740g. For comparison, a Summilux 75 (the original gangster heavyweight for M bodies) is 634g. An 18/3.5 Zeiss ZM Distagon is 351g.

The front element is bulbous. And you must remember that you cannot simply set the camera nose down, since (1) the glass sticks out, (2) there is no filter protecting it from damage from the surface the lens rests on, and (3) this is a really expensive lens. This is also a lens whose lens cap you cannot, must not, ever, lose. It is solid, pretty, bayonets on, and probably can’t be replaced. It is not clear why – if you can mount a 100mm filter holder to the front of this lens – that such a holder is not simply built into the lens – if for no other reason than protecting the front element.

I mounted mine with a Novoflex LEM/NIK adapter, which is pretty much the only dimensionally accurate anything-to-M adapter. Proper registration is a big deal because a 15mm lens cell has very little travel from zero to infinity.

The Novoflex’s stepped interior suggests a place to stick a filter — since the lens has no front filter threads — but for reasons discussed below, this is not a big deal. And in the back of the lens, it’s gel filters – or nothing.

Controls/handling

First, this lens is easy to handle wearing gloves. Which, given the temperature yesterday, was fortunate.

This is a little bit different from a traditional PC lens, on which turning a knob would make the shift. The Venus has a third lens ring – behind the focus (front) and aperture (middle). This is different from a Nikon PC lens, for example, where the aperture is front and focus is rear.

The shift ring cams the lens back and forth along the direction of shift, 11mm in either direction. You would think this would interfere with focusing or using the aperture ring, but in reality, it’s likely the only ring you would be moving on a shot-to-shot basis. This lens has such staggering depth of field that you will put this roughly on ∞ and forget about the rest, and you will probably turn it to f/8 and leave it there. Shift is locked with a knob that looks like the knob Nikon uses to shift the lens.

There is a small tab that locks the rotation of the shift mechanism, which can be set to 0 for horizontal pictures, 90 or 270 for verticals, and 180 if you are strange. It moves in 15-degree increments. A 28/3.5 PC-Nikkor does not have a lock, which occasionally can make things exciting if you start framing and realize that your shift is now 45 degrees from vertical (or horizontal).

The aperture ring has light clicks and is logrithmic (unfortunately) – each stop at the wide end is the roughly the same amount of movement, but things do bunch up at f/11, f/16, and f/22. It’s puzzling in this price range.

The focus ring has a short throw, infinity to 1m being about 1cm of travel. Set it and forget it. If you’re looking at pictures on the net and wondering why the focusing scale makes it look like the lens focuses “past” infinity, it’s a mystery.

  • At the hard stop and no shift, the lens is indeed focused at infinity. But the scale is off.
  • At the hard stop and shifted, the focus is still correct at infinity.

I verified optical focus at the stop both on a Nikon F4 with an adapted red-dot R screen (grid/split prism/f<3.5), the Nikon F4’s phase-detection AF sensor, and with the Leica.

To understand the strangeness of the Venus focusing ring, consider that in an old-school, manual focus lens, you typically have three things in synch for “infinity.”

i. The lens is at its physical stop, meaning you can’t turn the focusing ring to make the optical unit get closer to the imaging surface. This is normally an inbuilt limitation. It is not typically a critical tolerance on a lens due to the two adjustments below.

ii. The lens is optically focused at infinity, meaning that an infinitely distant object is in-focus on the imaging surface. This is usually a matter of shimming the optical unit or in some lenses or using a similar adjustment for forward/backward position of the optical unit.

iii. The focusing scale reads ∞. In the old days, this was simply a matter of undoing three setscrews, lining up the ∞ mark with the focus pointer, and then tightening the screws. If you are a super-precise operator like Leica, your lens stop/focusing ring/scale are made as one piece and so precisely that no separately applied focusing scale is required.

When a manufacturer of modern autofocus lenses (or even high-performance manual telephotos) is confronted with design constraints, it generally omits the relationship (i), the physical stop, and (iii) the infinity mark. It will do this on telephotos (like the 300/4.5 ED-IF Nikkor) because heat-related expansion might otherwise prevent a telephoto from actually focusing on a distant object. With AF lenses, hard stops are not the best for the fallback “hunting” mode — and with the user relying heavily on AF anyway, there is no need to inject another thing to check in QC. By the way, on a lot of AF lenses, the focus scale is basically just taped on – eliminating the setscrews.

Cheaper lenses, like the Neewer I-got-drunk-and-bought-it-on-Ebay specials, don’t really couple any of these things precisely. The stop is set so that you can optically focus past infinity and yet when the lens is optically focused at infinity, the focus scale might read somewhere between 10m and the left lobe of ∞.

For reasons that are frankly baffling, Venus uses a different idea entirely, which is to match the collimation and the stop – the hard part – and yet to omit matching the focusing scale. This provides no ascertainable benefit unless the focusing ring is not just a ring but an integral part of the focusing mechanism. I don’t see any setscrews, so maybe this is the explanation. And really, something in this price range should have things line up, even if it means adding one more cosmetic part to make the focusing scale adjustable.

On the surface, this design choice is frustrating to perfectionists and degrades the value of the focusing scale. That said, in 99% of pictures you take with this lens, you’re going to set it to the hard stop and get more than sufficient depth of field for close objects just by virtue of stopping the lens down.

If you are reading this, Venus, the focus scale design needs to be fixed.

Shooting

There was nothing remarkable about shooting this lens, which is a good thing. As long as you realize it has no electronic connections or mechanical control linkages to the camera it… works like any Leica lens.

They used to advise that PC lenses had to be used on tripods. That was true when (1) cameras did not have inbuilt electronic levels and most did not have grid focusing screens, (2) viewfinders blacked out at small apertures and with shift, and (3) through the lens meters freaked out at the vignetting.

None of those conditions exist with mirrorless cameras, where viewing is off the sensor, focusing is by peaking, and signal amplification makes it possible to frame a picture even closed down to f/16. On the Leica Monochrom, for example, it is very easy to use this lens – no different from using any other with the EVF. The M typ 240 series cameras have inbuilt levels that are visible through the EVF; the later M10s do too. A visible level is absolutely essential if you are going to shoot this (or any shift lens) handled.

Speaking of the sky, the sweep of this lens, its vignetting, and its self-polarization mean that in many pictures, the sky will be darker than you expect. Most people will not mind. I suppose you could mount a 100mm filter to the front or a gel in the back, but this is highly dependent on what you are trying to do, your tolerance for the expense, and the light response of your camera.

One thing you begin to realize is that if you switch from a 28mm PC lens to a monster 15mm PC lens, you go from shifting exclusively up to avoid converging parallels – to also shifting down to cut down on excessive sky. You might think of the shift as the “horizon control” adjustment. The challenge is, at the end of the day, that this is still a 15mm lens with a super-wide field. Unlike a 28 or 35, you need to think about both the top and the bottom of the picture.

One other thing you will see in a couple of the pictures in the article is that a slight forward tilt of the camera can make things look slightly bigger than they should at the top. This is user error and the unintended opposite of converging parallels.

With wide lenses, you need to watch 3 axes of alignment – left/right tilt, front/back tilt, and critically, parallelism to the subject. This last point can be a major irritation with this lens since cameras don’t typically have live indications of whether you are square with the subject.

Sharpness

Note: WordPress scales pictures down and not in a flattering way; if you want pixel-level sharpness comparisons to other lenses, there are other reviews out there that do that.

The jury is still out here – at least until I get a sunny day and hook this up to an A7r ii, which is more representative of cameras most people would use with this lens. But the foreman is asking some of the right questions for the verdict we want. Field curvature is also something that needs more exploration. As it stands, though, the lens seems to be more than sharp enough for its intended purpose.

All wide-angle lenses have degradation toward the edges of the frame. Many cameras don’t have the resolution to make it obvious, but this is a well-known reality. Shift lenses have a bigger image circle, which gives them comparable performance (not stellar, but comparable) performance to normal lenses over a wide area. They are “average,” but average in the sense that they are reasonably sharp over the whole frame, not super-sharp in the center and falling apart at the edges.

Put another way, a shift lens for 35mm is essentially a medium-format lens. Medium format lenses do not have the highest resolution – because they don’t have to. But they do deliver their performance over a wider field. But by shifting the lens, you are bringing lower-performing edges of the field into the 35mm frame.

But… you protest… my AIA book has all of these perfect architectural pictures of xyz buildings.

No, it does not. First, they are tiny, and that with the halftone screens, they give off an impression of being much sharper than they are in reality. Second, if you look at an original print closeup – pixel-peeping on prints was never normal when people made prints – you’ll see that the pointy top of that building is fuzzy because someone used a 4×5 or 8×10 camera and shifted it to accommodate the tall object in the picture. But seeing it in a gallery or an exhibit, you would (i) be standing back from it and (2) paying attention to the center of the frame, which is where most pictorial interest is. That pointy top is in your peripheral, not central, vision. The central part still has adequate performance for the purpose.

For this reason, the sharpness of a shift lens can only really be understood in terms of shift lenses or shifted medium- or large-format lenses: if you leave a little sky above a tall building, you don’t have to confront so much the inevitable performance falloff in those last couple of mm of the frame. All shift lenses have this issue, and it goes both to illumination and sharpness. Go to maximum shift on anything, and you can expect image degradation at a pixel-peeping level in the top third of the image.

So what? This is the same thing that people with shift-capable cameras have faced since… forever.

And why do shift lenses exist? The answer is pretty simple; it’s easier to get to a good result than many types of post-correction. If you plan to do post-correction, you have to use a much wider lens than you normally would, you have to crop (because tilting an image in post makes the field a trapezoid that must be rectified), and you have to have an accurate measurement of the scale of the original object. On this last point, if you don’t know the XY proportions of a building’s windows, perspective-correcting it in post-processing will result in awkward proportions. So if you have a 42mp image that needs serious correction to make a tall building upright and correctly proportioned, you may end up with less than 20mp of image by the time the process is over. And since tilting magnifies the top edge of the image, you are magnifying lens aberrations in the process.

Post-correcting does have one advantage, though, which is that you can use a lens that performs highly across the frame. I do it a bit with the Fujinon SWS 50mm f/5.6 on a 6×9 camera: when you are working with a wide lens, from a 96mp scan, you have plenty of resolution to burn in fixing one degree of inclination. This is not so much the case with a 35mm lens on a 35mm body.

As of this writing, Leica just announced in-camera tilt correction for its 40mp M series cameras. This is an idea long overdue, since the camera knows what lens is mounted (or can be told) and the inclinations at the time of the shot. s.

You don’t escape post-processing with shift lenses, particularly when you have to fix skew between the image plane and the subject (rotation around the vertical axis of your body). PC lenses also have distortion to contend with, and simple spherical distortion sometimes seems less simple when the “sphere” is in the top half of the frame. But the corrective action is far, far milder.

The complication with digital and shift lenses is diffraction. With a shift lens, you need a small aperture to even out the illumination and sharpness, but that small aperture cannot be smaller than the diffraction limit without degrading sharpness overall. That’s f/11 on a Leica M246 and roughly f/8 on a Leica M10 or a Sony A7r II or A7r III series camera.

A further complication with all shift optics is dust. Small apertures, smaller than f/5.6, tend to show dust on the sensor. Shift optics have at least one extra place for dust to get into the camera body (the interface where the shift mechanism slides the two halves of the frame).

Sharpness seems to peak at around f/8 on the Venus, which is not surprising. The sharpness itself is good as well as consistent until the very margins of a shifted frame; I did not need to turn on sharpening on Lightroom. As with all lenses, apparent sharpness is higher on closer objects – because their details are bigger in the image, pixel-level aberrations are not as apparent.

Distortion

The goal is “Zero-D(istortion).” The lens gets close – and better than most SLR lenses in this range, and certainly better than a lot of SLR PC lenses – but not completely distortion-free. Unshifted, it looks like a relatively mild +2 in Lightroom (the shot above is uncorrected except for slight horizon tilt). Shifted might be a little tougher to correct, but you can either create a preset for Lightroom or use some of the more advanced tools in Photoshop.

Flare

Yes. It has flare when light hits it wrong. Check out the picture above. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it is an irritation. Luckily, it does not seem to happen very often,

Value Proposition

There is a real tendency to abuse superwides in photography today, usually to disastrous effect due to the inability of photographers to properly compose pictures. Companies like Cosina/Voigtlander have fed into this, as has Venus, with about a dozen high-performing superwide lenses that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago. “Wide” used to mean 35mm; now “wide” tends to mean 24mm, and “superwide” is below 15mm. The Venus has all of the vices of a wide-angle lens, notably posing the question, “what do I do with all this foreground?”

By the same token, shift lenses are very specialized tools. Old-school shift lenses were the least automated lenses in their respective SLR lines; new ones are marginally more automated (mainly having automatic apertures), but they are staggeringly expensive.

The Venus somehow manages to combine the best and worst of all of this. You cannot argue with the optical performance as a shift lens, but the lack of automation (and frankly, ease of use) makes it just as miserable to use on a native SLR body as any old-school shift lens was. You’ll note where people complain about this lens in reviews, that’s what they complain about. I’m not sure that merits much sympathy; you know what you signed up for. What makes the Venus more fun is that it connects to mirrorless bodies that, by virtue of their EVFs, remove a lot of the irritation that would occur using the lens on a traditional SLR body.

Whether you will always be shooting 30-story buildings from 200m away is a matter of your own predilections, and that might be the deciding factor. Unless you are really good with wide-angle shots – or are a real-estate photographer in Hong Kong, you may not have a very solid (or at least somewhat economically viable) use case. But in reality, the market is not driven by professional needs. If it were, the only things that would ever be sold would be full-frame DSLRs, superfast 50mms, and the “most unique wedding I’ve ever seen” presets package for Lightroom.

Bottom Line

Pros: solid build quality, clever shift mechanism, wide angle of view,* reasonably low distortion, actually collimated correctly for its native mount.

Cons: non-linear aperture control,** odd (incorrect?) focus scale calibration,** facilitation of compositional errors you never previously imagined possible,* bulbous front element, no inbuilt filter capability, and a lens cap that only mounts one way.

*Qualities that would be inherent to any lens this wide with shift capability.

**Qualities that do not typically belong on lenses in this price range.

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3 responses to “Venus Laowa 15mm f/4.5 Zero-D Shift W-Dreamer FFS Review”

  1. Fred says :

    Seems like a very thorough article (humorous too), though I didn’t read every word. The first photo of the building is noticeably wider at the top than the bottom which gave me a sudden shock of reverse vertigo! Never seen that effect, or experienced RV before. Congrats, a twofer!
    Fred

    • The Machine Planet says :

      Thanks! Sorry about the top-heavy building – I think that’s either from uncorrected spherical distortion that got hiked up the building with the shift — or more likely having the camera tilted forward. I may recorrect that picture.

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