Macrographer’s Delight | Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro

 

In a zone where options are few and costly, the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro is a welcome introduction. K Madhavan Pillai finds a world of detail, and the devils in it.

This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Better Photography.

Ultra macro lenses allow users to move in closer than 1:1. The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro goes from 2.5:1 to 5:1. At the maximum magnification of 5x, an object of approximately 5 x 7mm will completely fill a full frame sensor. On an APS-C sensor, the object will appear 50 percent larger (approximately 7.5:1 at 5x on the lens), owing to the cropped view of the image circle by the lens.

Features
At macro magnifications of greater than 1:1, shorter focal lengths are preferable because of the critical depth of field, justifying 25mm. However, this also shortens the working distance, which is helped by the optical and physical design of the lens. The Laowa does not have infinity focus, or a focus mechanism. Focus occurs by moving the camera back and forth. The working distance from the front of the lens is small, but reasonable, at about 45mm at 2.5x and 40mm at 5x. A well-damped ‘zoom’ ring shifts magnification. The narrow front of the lens prevent light blockage, and allows less oblique lighting with macro flash units.

Apertures from f/2.8 to f/16 is set via the aperture ring, located at the front of the lens. Though smooth, I would have preferred it declicked, especially since one would need to frequently shift often between f/2.8 and the desired aperture, and click stops can cause vibrational shifts in focus. An eight blade diaphragm enables good circular bokeh. The rear lens element has a rectangular baffle to reduce reflected light, improving contrast.

The lens is well made, all metal. It is not weathersealed. Laowa sells accessories separately, and they are reasonably priced. I consider two of them absolutely necessary— the dedicated LED ring light (powered by USB) that bayonet mounts at the front of the lens, and the removable tripod collar.

Handling
The camera needs to be shifted very minutely, by fractions of a millimeter, to achieve sharp focus. This almost excludes handheld use (unless you are extremely practiced and are prepared to spend a lot of effort on getting your shot) and precludes the use of a good macro focusing rail on a heavy tripod (not just for accuracy, but also to employ techniques like focus stacking). All this, and the short working distance limits you to perfectly stationary subjects.

Live view focus with the selected focus area further magnified on the LCD by 10x is the most accurate way to achieve focus, but there are issues. The amount of light actually reaching the sensor is much lower than what is indicated by the aperture. All ultra macro lenses suffer from this. To calculate effective aperture, the formula is… (magnification + 1) x aperture. So at 5x and at f/8, your effective aperture is f/48. Live view with newer cameras are able to brighten the view on the LCD, but only up to point, and it throws up noise if light levels are low. Unless you are shooting in bright light, the Laowa 25mm needs a continuous light source to aid focus via live view (thus the LED macro ring light accessory).

The only lacuna is that the zoom, despite being damped, tends to creep out slowly (particularly with the LED ring light attached), when the lens is pointed downwards. A lock, or more dampening, would be welcome.

(Clockwise from top left): Synthetic sponge at 5x illuminated by the front LED Ring Lite. Exposure: 12sec at f/11 (approx. effective f/64), ISO 800. Fallen jackfruit tree leaf section at 3.5x, backlit with natural window light, balanced with the LED Ring Lite. Exposure: 32sec at f/5.6 (approx. effective f/22), ISO 100. Old, cracked plaster at 3.5x in reflected window light. Exposure: 1/50sec at f/2.8 (approx.effective f/11), ISO 6400. Frosted glass pattern at 5x, backlit by indirect sunlight. Exposure: 1/20sec at f/5.6 (approx. effective f/32), ISO 400. Dry, cracked bamboo at 4x, direct sunlight. Exposure: 6sec at f/8 (approx. effective f/40), ISO 400. Binding of an old book at 5x, illuminated by the LED Ring Lite. Exposure: 1sec at f/8 (approx. effective f/45), ISO 400. Photographs/K Madhavan Pillai

Performance
With a lens of this nature, I can easily say that both the quality and speed of production depend largely on your use of technique, and how methodically you go about it. Given that, I was very pleasantly surprised by the optical quality of the Laowa 25mm. There is a bit of highlight fringing at f/2.8, and slight softness across the frame, which is well controlled on stopping down. Likewise, f/16 exhibits visible diffraction softness. I avoided the extreme apertures for this reason. The sweet spot is f/5.6 to f/8, where overall sharpness is excellent across the magnification range, even on higher resolution sensors.

Conclusion
The only significant competitor to the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro (priced at Rs. 42,000), comes from the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro, which costs almost twice as much. Both are excellent lenses, though. Canon has the advantage of a better working distance and a MF ring for tiny adjustments. But considering Canon’s price, more constrained DOF and a larger front lens diameter, I would certainly rate the Laowa a very worthy alternative. For Nikon, Pentax and Sony users, this is simply the best ultra macro lens available in India, at the moment.

FINAL RATINGS
Features
25mm focal length, 2.5x to 5x zoom
magnification, no infinity or focus mechanism
17/20
Performance
Very sharp at f/5.6 and 8, minimal aberrations
32/35
Build Quality
All metal construction, no weatherproofing
23/25
Ergonomics
Narrow front for better lighting, convenient
aperture ring, dampened zoom
13/15
Warranty & Support
One year warranty, limited service centres
2/5
MRP Rs. 42,000
OVERALL 87%
VALUE FOR MONEY 4.5/5
Who should buy it? Macro photographers who need
very high magnifications with still or stationary subjects.
Why? Excellent pricing for a lens that gives itself beautifully
to anyone willing to adhere to methodology and technique.
Tags: Laowa, Laowa 25mm, Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro, Ultra Macro