The Laowa 50mm f/2.8 Macro for M4/3 is Small and Sharp


Over the past few months, pre-production copies of the new Laowa 50mm 2:1 F/2.8 Super Macro Lens for Micro Four Thirds (MFT or M4/3) had been going around among some M4/3 macro photographers.

With COVID-19 lock-downs happening across the globe, there weren’t any photos taken in the field with this new lens. After Singapore’s circuit breaker (lock-down equivalent) eased, I approached Venus Optics to let me try this lens out so that we can do some real field tests rather than rely on lab reviews which miss out on so many important and practical points to consider when choosing a macro lens.

This is NOT an in-depth technical review, but a practical field report from almost 2 months of intense usage. During these 2 months, I allowed my usual DSLR setup to rest at home and tried to get the best shots with the new Laowa lens.

Equipment Used for Field Test

The lens arrived very shortly. BUT, I didn’t have any M4/3 camera! With my friend Victor Cheah’s help and the generous loan of an Olympus PEN-F with his custom-made Victor flash diffuser (THANK YOU!), I quickly put together a simple M4/3 setup for high magnification macro.

Commonly Asked Questions

When I first received the lens, I asked for questions from the public about this lens, and have compiled the answers here.

What is APO, and what does it mean to me?

The Laowa 50mm is an APO (apochromatic) lens.

Achromatic lenses are corrected to bring 2 wavelengths (usually red and blue) into focus in the same plane. Apochromatic lenses are designed to bring 3 wavelengths (usually red, green, and blue) into focus in the same plane, and are also corrected for spherical aberration at two wavelengths.

What does this all mean to the layman? It just means that there is better control of chromatic aberration (less of those blue fringes between regions of high contrast). It will also have less bokeh fringing, leading to smoother out of focus backgrounds. i.e. better image quality.

How does it compare with the Laowa 100mm 2x? Which should I buy?

The Laowa 50mm is for Micro Four Thirds mount (Olympus and Panasonic only). The Laowa 100mm is for the typical DSLR full-frame mounts, such as Nikon F, Canon, Sony FE. You should not have to make a decision between the 2 lenses.

Does it have aperture coupling? Does it focus wide open?

Yes, the lens has no aperture ring, so aperture control is done via the camera body, and it can focus when the aperture is wide open.

This is probably the most welcome improvement over the older macro lens releases, largely due to the open specifications of Micro Four Thirds.

Any auto-focus?

This is a manual-focus lens. I usually recommend using manual focus for better precision in macro photography.

Does it focus to infinity?

It focuses from 2x to infinity. Just like the other classic Laowa macro lenses. 🙂

What is the working distance?

At 2x, it is about 44.45mm from the tip of the lens. Refer to the working distance table at the bottom of this review for a detailed list.

What is the focus throw?

The focus throw is 215°, which has a wider range than many other macro lenses, allowing for higher precision focusing. This is especially useful for tripod setups.

Is the front element recessed?

The front element is fixed and not recessed, so dust won’t collect inside and no spider is going to jump in.

How does it compare with the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 60mm f/2.8 Macro Lens?

The last time I used the Olympus 60mm was 3 years ago when I reviewed the Olympus STF-8 Twin Flash, so I can’t do a side-by-side comparison in the field. Honestly, I did not notice any obvious differences in image quality. So the key differences to note would be the lower magnification in the 60mm, the obviously longer focal length, and the auto-focus ability on the 60mm.

What is the price and where to buy?

The retail price at time of release is $399. You can either purchase it directly from Venus Optics or MacroDojo. Purchasing via MacroDojo helps me out a little bit. No obligations of course!

Field Trip Sample Photos

In total, I did 8 field trips over the span of 2 months, spending time figuring out the optimal settings to get the best out of this lens. Most of the shots here were photographed at 2x, unless otherwise stated. Here are the results!

Camera Settings

I used the settings below for most shots, unless otherwise stated.

  • ISO 200
  • Shutter 1/250s
  • Aperture f/6.3 (2x) or f/8 (1x)
  • Flash power ranges from 1/64 to 1/32

Ladybird mimic spider (Paraplectana sp.)

My initial test shots were set at f/11. The photo looks decent, but at 2x, the effective aperture is f/33 so if one were to pixel-peep, there would be some obvious diffraction. For more on ladybird mimic spiders, check out this article.

Treehopper (Coccosterphus sp.)

The diffraction is not very obvious when resized for viewing on the web. For those interested, I have a checklist for treehoppers as well.

Wagler’s pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri)

Many asked if the working distance was too short at 44.45mm. It was still very usable for me, and I was able to go up to 2x on this venomous pit viper. With proper flash diffusion, lighting wasn’t an issue too.

Planthopper (Dichoptera sp.)

Following the results with diffraction, I tried using wider apertures at f/5.6 and f/6.3. Sharpness improved considerably. This shot was a handheld stack of 3 shots. This planthopper belongs to the same family as the popular lantern bugs!

Tailless whip scorpion (Amblypygi)

At f/5.6, I found the DOF to be razor-thin and a little too uncomfortable. Personally, f/6.3 is a nice compromise.

Ogre-face spider (Asianopis sp.)

With stacks of 2 or 3 shots and at f/6.3, the DOF is pretty decent.

Huntsman spider (Heteropoda venatoria ♀)

This was shot at 1x, with a stack of 2 shots, revealing all the hairy details.

False lanternfly (Dictyopharidae)

A 2x lens on M4/3 image is equivalent to 4x on a full-frame DSLR setup. Using this setup allows me to take close-ups like this.

Panda caterpillar

One of the advantages of using a smaller sensor is deeper DOF. It allows us to get more details from a moving subject that is not possible to stack with. This caterpillar was moving around like a lion dance and almost impossible to stack.

Longhorn beetle (Pterolophia sp.)

Of course, when a subject is stationary, it would be a great opportunity for a simple stack and get a tremendous amount of detail from the subject. For more longhorn beetles, view my Cerambycidae checklist.

Scorpion-tailed spider (Arachnura sp.)

One advantage of a small setup is that it allows us to approach subjects in deeper foliage with minimal disturbance.

Plant louse (Psyllidae)

With a lighter setup, it is also easier to hold everything steady with one hand.

For an idea on how small the subject is, here’s a shot of my friend attempting a shot of the plant louse.

Katydid nymph (Tettigoniidae)

After several rounds of experiments, I had settled with an aperture of f/6.3 for 2x, and f/8 for 1x.

Crab spider (cf. Tarrocanus sp.)

I had gotten very comfortable with close-ups of most subjects at 2x magnification.

Orb weaver spider (Araneidae)

Orb weaver spider (Araneidae)

Another view of the above spider, showing pseudo-eyes on its posterior.

Heavy jumper (Hyllus diardi ♂)

This is a heavily cropped shot to show the details and sharpness of the image.

Leaf insect (Phyllium chrisangi)

Just for fun, I stacked a relay system onto the lens, consisting of 2 Raynox close-up filters, and a CCTV lens. The high magnification allowed the CCTV image to be relayed to the M4/3 sensor quite well. This is an experimental setup, so don’t try to look at the image quality. Image quality is typically low for CCTV relay systems.

It’s not every day that we can get to photograph the subject together with the person whom it was named after. Meet Chris Ang with Phyllium chrisangi!

Leaf insect (Phyllium chrisangi)

The problem with such systems is that with a close working distance of 1cm (not due to the lens, it is a trait of such setups), the subject can easily climb onto the lens. Not really a disadvantage to me, as I love sticking the lens up close to the subject’s face. Once, I stuck the lens into a chameleon’s gaping mouth. But that’s another story…

Here’s how the shot was taken. Wearing a mask in the field is quite an uncomfortable experience. Photo by Chris Ang.

Long-jawed orb weaver (Tetragnatha sp.)

Back to using just the Laowa 50mm. This time, I tried making stacks of 5 shots to get a sharp image of the spider’s dentition.

Lynx spider (Hamataliwa sp.)

Some of us called this the monkey-face. It is actually a tiny little spider at about 3-4mm long.

Jumping spider (Viciria praemandibularis)

Once in a while, I would still attempt some shots at slightly wider than 1x.

Jumping spider (Viciria praemandibularis)

But who could resist shooting at 2x again?

Ground beetle (Drypta sp.)

Photographed this last weekend, a beautiful ground beetle with a matte look. Check out the deeply pitted face!

Huntsman spider (Gnathopalystes sp.)

Close up of a green huntsman spider, focusing on the yellow rings around its eyes.

Ogre-face spider (Asianopis sp.)

First time encountering a juvenile ogre-face spider! They look so bizarre up close.

Crane fly (Tipulidae) with mites

This poor crane fly was covered with mites, but could still fly around!

Ladybird mimic spider (Paraplectana sp.)

The first test shot in this post featured a red ladybird mimic spider. It is only apt to round it up with a juvenile, white ladybird mimic spider. 🙂

Conclusion

This field review includes only a small subset of the photos that I had taken with this setup. In total, I should have taken at about 3000 test shots and uploaded over 400 keepers. To see the other photos, I have compiled them into a Flickr album.

Pros

  • Wide focusing range from 2x to infinity
  • Small size and light weight
  • Long focus throw
  • Decent working distance
  • Great image quality
  • Aperture coupling

Cons

  • No autofocus
  • Lower resolution compared to full-frame setups
  • Help, I can’t think of more…

After 2 months with this lens, I had gotten really comfortable with this setup, and wouldn’t hesitate to chase after the really tiny subjects. In terms of sharpness, like most Laowa lenses, it is unparalleled once you get the aperture settings right. It is also one of the smallest macro lenses around and easy to pack. Really, what’s there not to love about this lens?

You can order the lens directly from Venus Optics or MacroDojo. Shipping starts from end August 2020. Purchasing via MacroDojo helps me out a little bit (I am not paid to write any of this).


About the author: Nicky Bay is a macro photographer based in Singapore. You can find more of his work and follow along with his adventures through his website and Flickr photostream. This article was also published here.



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