by Klaus Schroiff, published August 2020
Laowa has released a couple of very interesting lenses over the last years. Like many other Chinese players, they are focusing on rather extreme designs. Their 24mm f/14 2x Macro Probe is probably the most exotic one and quite famous in the video community by now. And regarding their more conventional macro lenses, we were very impressed by their recent 65mm f2.8 2x APO Ultra-Macro for APS-C mirrorless cameras as well as the 100mm f/2.8 2x Ultra Macro APO full-format lens. However, Laowa hasn’t forgotten about the Micro-Four-Thirds (MFT) community. So in this review, we are going to discuss the new Laowa 50mm f/2.8 2x Ultra Macro APO. So ANOTHER all-manual lens? This is not entirely true anymore. Laowa managed to provide electronic coupling so EXIF data is available and you can also control the aperture via the camera. In fact, for the better or worse, there is no aperture ring on the lens anymore. That being said, it’s still a manual focus lens. Thus for accurate results, you have to rely on a magnified focus view. This mode can also be activated by turning the focus ring if you have configured your camera accordingly. It’s worth noting that Laowa doesn’t participate in the firmware update procedures that are provided by Panasonic/Olympus.
As far as pricing is concerned, Laowa is comparatively boldly priced with an MSRP of USD399. This is within shouting distance of the Olympus M.Zuiko 60mm f/2.8 ED macro which is available for about USD100 more. However, keep in mind that the Laowa can provide a maximum object magnification of 2:1 thus if you are into extreme macro photography there’s some value-add just based on the paper specs already.
In the best MFT tradition, Laowa 50mm f/2.8 2x Ultra Macro APO is very small and light-weight. This doesn’t have a negative impact on the build quality. While it doesn’t provide any kind of weather sealing, it is based on an all-metal body. It’s also worth pointing out that it doesn’t extend during focusing (internal focusing mechanism). The focus ring operates smoothly. A barrel-shaped lens hood is also part of the package.
|Equiv. focal length (full-format)
|“100mm” (in terms of field-of-view)
|Equiv. aperture (full-format)
|“f/5.6” (in terms of depth-of-field)
|14 elements in 10 groups inc. 3x ELD elements
|Number of aperture blades
|min. focus distance
|0.135m (max. magnification 2:1)
|barrel-shaped, bayonet mount, supplied
Typical for most macro lenses, image distortions are basically absent.
Micro-Four-Thirds cameras are auto-correcting vignetting unless deactivated. Laowa has taken a very aggressive approach here by not only reducing the vignetting but eliminating it which is a little unusual. Other than a somewhat increased corner noise at large aperture there’s nothing wrong with this though.
Laowa’s macro lenses have been very sharp so far and the 50mm f/2.8 2x Ultra Macro APO is no exception in this respect. The center is already excellent at f/2.8 and the outer image region is easily on a very good level. Stopping down doesn’t increase the center sharpness anymore but the border and corner quality receives a slight boost, and a tiny bit more so at f/5.6. Typical for micro-four-thirds diffraction is having a higher impact from f/8 onward. The sharpness is still very good here and it’s also more than usable at f/11. However, f/16 should be avoided and at f/22 there isn’t much more left but a pixel soup.
The centering quality of the tested sample was good. The field curvature is minimal.
Please note that the MTF results are not directly comparable across the different systems!
Below is a simplified summary of the formal findings. The chart shows line widths per picture height (LW/PH) which can be taken as a measure of sharpness. If you want to know more about the MTF50 figures you may check out the corresponding Imatest Explanations.
Chromatic Aberrations (CAs)
Lateral CAs (color shadows at the image borders) are absolutely negligible at around 0.1px. Loawa is an APO design so this does also apply to longitudinal CAs (not shown).
The Laowa 50mm f/2.8 2x Ultra Macro APO is a reasonably fast lens so regardless of whether you intend to use it for portraits or macro photography, the quality of the bokeh becomes a major criterion.
As you can observe below, out-of-focus highlights are nicely rendered at f/2.8. The inner zone of the discs is perfectly clean and there’s just a minor degree of outlining. Stopping down reveals a bit of an unfortunate effect though – the shape of the edgy aperture becomes very apparent at f/4 already. Obviously, Laowa didn’t implement rounded aperture blades on this lens.
When looking at the highlight rendering across the image frame, you can notice the usual deterioration of the shape towards the corners. This is a mechanical vignetting effect. That being said, it happens fairly “late” and “cat eyes” occur in the corners only. Stopping down pushes the corner highlights back to a sort of circular shape but by doing so the already mentioned edgy aperture shape emerges as well.
As far as the general rendering is concerned, the results are good albeit not perfect. The foreground blur is very silky indeed. The background blur is nicely symmetrical but obviously somewhat harsh at high contrast transitions.
Flare and Sunstars
The Laowa lens has one major weakness – flare. It’s not a first – we have seen this in previous Laowa tele lenses before. In extreme situations like the one shown below, you have to expect a reduced contrast as well as some ghostings.
Sunstars at small aperture settings are, obviously, possible but somewhat coarse. That’s a fate it shares with most tele lenses though.
The Laowa 50mm f/2.8 2x Ultra Macro APO MFT is an impressive lens … with a few hiccups. Its primary asset is the extreme sharpness starting at f/2.8 and peaking at f/4-5.6. The center resolution is essentially diffraction limited at f/2.8 already. The almost non-existing lateral and axial CAs contribute to the very high sharpness perception. Image distortions are basically absent as well. Most users will not spot any vignetting due to image auto-correction although there is some vignetting at large apertures present in RAW files. The bokeh could be a little better though. Other than at f/2.8 out-of-focus highlights are too edgy and the background blur could be a little smoother. Flare can also be an issue in contra light so better mount the provided lens hood in difficult light situations.
Laowa has finally progressed with the camera integration. Providing electronic coupling is a major step towards a mainstream offering. While the 50mm f/2.8 2x Ultra Macro APO MFT is still a manual focus lens, EXIF data and a camera-controlled aperture is finally possible. The focus ring can also automatically trigger a magnified focus view which makes accurate focusing fairly easy in static scenes at least. The build quality is in line with what we have seen from Laowa before. While light-weight, the lens feels very sturdy thanks to an all-metal body. There's no weather sealing though.
The question of the day is whether there's a case for preferring the Laowa Laowa 50mm f/2.8 2x Ultra Macro APO MFT over the Olympus M.Zuiko 60mm f/2.8 ED macro. If you are a macro "extremist" the answer is straightforward - the Laowa offers a max magnification of 2:1 vs 1:1. The Laowa is also sharper whereas the Olympus offers a better bokeh, less flare, and, of course, autofocus. Such is life - nothing is ever perfect.
Price / Performance