Laowa 14mm f/4 Zero-D DSLR lens
Although it has a few issues, the Laowa 14mm f/4 Zero-D DSLR lens has a lot of points in its favour. It’s robustly built (although a little unrefined in places), relatively light and portable and its 114 degree angle of view is challenging (and interesting to use) yet not too wide to be practical. It’s also competitively priced.
Auto aperture adjustment and aperture coupling add to the appeal of this otherwise manual lens.
The ability to calibrate the lens is worth having, particularly for astronomical photographers.
Laowa’s 14mm f/4 Zero-D DSLR lens follows the 14mm f/4 FF RL ‘Zero-D’ lens, which was announced in September 2020 but is a different product, as shown in the table in the ‘Who’s it For?’ section of this review. While last year’s lens was designed for full-frame mirrorless camera systems the new DSLR lens has been designed specifically for Canon and Nikon ‘full frame’ DSLR cameras. Both lenses require manual focusing. This is the first time we’ve been offered a Laowa lens to review since Venus Optics, which owns the Laowa brand, entered the market in 2013 and we’re grateful for this review opportunity.
Side view of the Laowa 14mm f/4 Zero-D DSLR lens with the supplied lens hood fitted. (Source: Venus Optics.)
Venus Optics, which is based in Hong Kong, was established by a team of Chinese optical designers who previously worked for Japanese and German manufacturers. It specialises in creating affordably-priced lenses that are different from those released by the major camera manufacturers.
To date it has concentrated on ultra-wide-angle and macro lenses but this year added shift and cinematic lenses with four ‘Argus’ f/0.95 lenses with various focal lengths in M4/3, APS-C and full-frame mounts coming this year. The current range consists of 23 camera lenses, five cinema lenses and two adapters. Click here for details.
The 14mm f/4 Zero-D DSLR lens is the company’s latest release. Its optical design (shown below) consists of 13 elements in eight groups and includes two ED (Extra-low Dispersion) and two aspherical elements. No details have been provided about use of special coatings to suppress ghosting and flare or keep the front surface grime-free.
The optical diagram for the Laowa 14mm f/4 Zero-D DSLR lens showing the positions of the exotic glass elements. (Source: Venus Optics.)
The only claim is for very low (‘Zero-D’) levels of rectilinear distortion, an issue that commonly plagues wide-angle lenses. It’s also the first Laowa lens to provide a focusing scale adjustment system, which lets users calibrate the infinity point for the lens. Click here for the YouTube video.
While most Laowa lenses are fully manually controlled, the new DSLR lens provides some degree of aperture control. The Canon EF version includes a CPU chip and motor to control automatic aperture adjustment and enable apertures to be adjusted via the camera’s menu. Aperture coupling on the Nikon version supports aperture preview on the camera, although the actual setting must still be adjusted manually on the lens.
Who’s it For?
As it only comes with Canon EF and Nikon F mounts, the market for the 14mm f/4 Zero-D DSLR lens is limited. Last year’s 14mm f/4 FF RL Zero-D was designed for mirrorless camera owners and came with Canon RF, Leica M and L, Nikon Z and Sony E mounts which have wider lens ‘throats’.
Neither lens has supported autofocusing and the most models of the 14mm f/4 FF RL Zero-D have lacked electronic coupling, the exception being for the Leica M mount, which provided rangefinder coupling. The DSLR lens is a significant improvement, providing some degree of auto aperture control.
The table below compares key specifications from the DSLR and mirrorless mounts.
|14mm f/4 Zero-D DSLR||14mm f/4 FF RL Zero-D|
|13 elements in 8 groups
2xED, 2x aspherical
|13 elements in 9 groups
3xELD, 2xHR, 1xUHR
|Aperture adjustments||Canon EF: Auto Aperture; Nikon F: Aperture Coupling||Manual via aperture ring|
|Focusing||Internal; Full time manual|
|Depth of field scale||Yes|
|Minimum focus||14.5 cm||27 cm|
|Filter size||67 mm||52 mm|
|Dimensions (Diameter x L)||72.5 x 73 (Nikon) or 75 (Canon) mm||58 x 59 mm|
|Weight||Canon EF: ~320 grams ; Nikon F: ~360 grams||228 grams|
|Mounts||Canon EF, Nikon F||Canon RF, Leica M, L-mount, Nikon Z, Sony E|
|RRP US$||$499||US$549.00 – $649.00, depending on mount|
The lack of autofocus support will probably deter some potential purchasers, although with such a wide angle of view this lens is less sensitive to slightly off focusing than lenses with longer focal lengths. Purchasers may need to calibrate the lens against their own cameras. (See below for details.)
Purchasers will also need to adapt to the constraints of using an ultra-wide angle lens if they want to avoid unattractive distortions – while capitalising on the inherent distortion created by the very wide angle of view. Correct framing of shots is vital as even a slight deviation from square-on to the subject will throw its proportions out-of-kilter. Examples are shown in the Samples section below.
Because this lens is designed for ‘full frame’ cameras, it’s debatable whether it would be worth buying if you only have a cropped-sensor DSLR. On a Canon model the effective focal length would be 22.4mm, while on a Nikon it would be 21mm, neither of which is particularly wide.
Build and Ergonomics
The review lens was solidly built with a metal barrel and chromed metal mounting plate but not highly refined. We found the supplied lens hood difficult to fit at times due to a rather shallow bayonet fitting but, in contrast, the lens cap was easy to attach and tended to stay in place.
The front element is roughly 30 mm in diameter and surrounded by a ring of fine ribbing, which ends at a raised thread for 67 mm filters. The lens bulges out by a couple of millimetres so needs to be protected, which makes the relatively deep lens cap and petal-shaped hood essential items.
There are only two adjustable controls, the focusing ring, which is 31 mm wide and a second ring that is 5 mm wide and positioned around the leading edge it. While locked to the focusing ring by default, a simple twist unlocks it allowing it to used for focus calibration to ensure the infinity points of the lens and user’s camera coincide.
A second band of fine ribbing covers 17 mm of the main focusing ring, after which the trailing edge dips in slightly. This section of the barrel carries the distance scale, which lines up against a red mark in the centre of the depth of field scale.
Internal focusing means the lens stays the same length at all settings and the focusing ring turns smoothly and is well-dampened, making it quite easy to use. Both distance and depth of field scales are provided on the lens barrel, the former clearly marked in feet and metres.
The lens barrel ends in a solid metal mounting plate but there’s no rubber gasket to indicate weatherproof sealing. However, the lens fits tightly and with internal focusing there should be little chance of dust and moisture getting in.
It’s impossible to design a perfect lens that is small and relatively light with a fast maximum aperture; compromises must be made to bring the lens within the price and performance ranges that normal consumers will accept. As a result, we’ve assessed this lens on the basis of those necessary compromises.
Imatest showed the review lens to be nice and sharp in the centre of the frame – with resolution well above expectations for the test camera’s sensor when raw files were analysed and close to expectations for JPEGs. However, it declined quickly towards the edges of the field of view, although less than we expected for both file formats, as shown in the graph below.
Lateral chromatic aberration was an issue with the test lens, although in-camera corrections delivered significant reduction for JPEG files. Uncorrected raw files, showed it to be up in the ‘moderate’ band, although not reaching ‘severe’ levels. This was confirmed in test shots.
In the graph of our test results below, the red line marks the border between ‘negligible’ and ‘low’ CA and the green band the start of the ‘moderate’ band.
When composing shots with wide angle lenses, potential for perspective distortion must be kept in mind all the time if distortion is to be minimised. It’s not good enough to get one edge in the subject aligned parallel with the edge of the frame and expect the rest of the frame to follow so our tests were shot with the camera square-on to the subject.
In camera corrections tend to address both rectilinear distortion and vignetting in JPEGs so all assessments must be made on raw files. When we checked the uncorrected raw files we shot, the review lens showed better inherent distortion correction than most other ultra-wide angle lenses we’ve reviewed.
We found very slight barrel distortion in our dedicated tests but, as mentioned above, only when the lens was absolutely square-on to the subject. This is a remarkably good result for a lens of this type.
Vignetting is also common on ultra-wide angle lenses and the Laowa 14mm f/4 Zero-D DSLR lens isn’t any exception. It was clearly visible at f/4 and, even though stopping down reduced the edge darkening, some still remained at apertures of f/8 and smaller. For most potential users, this aberration would represent a minor problem.
The review lens was remarkably flare-resistant and capable of producing attractive 10-pointed sunstars at apertures smaller than f/16. We found a few, relatively small flare artefacts in contre-jour shots but otherwise no obvious ghosting.
Nobody buys an ultra-wide angle lens for its bokeh qualities so it’s no surprise to find they’re not great in this lens. But with careful shot composition and well-placed focusing, nice close-ups with blurred backgrounds can be obtained at wide aperture settings.
Manual focusing is a bit of a mixed bag; for distant subjects it’s quite easy to ‘guesstimate’ the distance setting and stop the lens down to f/8 or smaller and be reasonably certain of obtaining sharp pictures. At wider apertures and closer camera-to-subject distances, it’s easiest to focus accurately with magnified live view mode.
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Picture angle: 114 degrees
Minimum aperture: f/22
Lens construction: 13 elements in 8 groups (including 2 ED and 2 aspherical elements)
Lens mounts: Canon EF, Nikon F
Diaphragm Blades: 5 (Canon EF: Auto Aperture; Nikon F: Aperture Coupling)
Weather resistance: Not specified
Focus drive: Manual focus only
Minimum focus: 14.5 cm
Maximum magnification: 0.3x
Filter size: 67 mm
Dimensions (Diameter x L): 72.5 x 73 (Nikon) or 75 (Canon) mm
Weight: Canon EF: ~320 grams; Nikon F: ~360 grams
Standard Accessories: Front and end caps, petal-shaped lens hood
Distributor: Venus Optics
Based upon JPEG images captured with the Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera.
Based on raw files captured simultaneously with the JPEGs and converted into 16-bit TIFF format with Adobe Camera Raw.
Recorded with the review lens on the Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera body.
Vignetting at f/4.
Close-up; ISO 200, 1/640 second at f/9.
Close-up; ISO 200, 1/800 second at f/5.6.
ISO 200, 1/500 second at f/8.
ISO 200, 1/80 second at f/11.
Crop from the above image at 100% magnification showing edge softening and coloured fringing.
Sunstars at f/22, ISO 200, 1/80 second. (Note the small flare artefact in the lower third of the frame.)
Perspective distortion; ISO 200, 1/100 second at f/11.
Perspective distortion; ISO 200, 1/100 second at f/10.
Perspective distortion: ISO 200, 1/400 second at f/8.
ISO 200, 1/125 second at f/11.
ISO 200, 1/100 second at f/8.
ISO 200, 1/15 second at f/7.1.
ISO 200, 1/200 second at f/8.
ISO 200, 1/640 second at f/8.
ISO 200, 1/50 second at f/10.
Backlit subject; ISO 200, 1/100 second at f/22.
RRP: AU$850; US$499
- Build: 8.7
- Handling: 8.6
- Image quality: 8.7
- Focusing: 8.5
- Versatility: 8.5