One of the widest lenses on the market today is the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D, made by Venus Optics. Not only is this lens rectilinear (not a fisheye), but Venus Optics claims it has almost no distortion whatsoever. With so few 12mm lenses available today, anyone who needs an ultra-ultra wide has likely considered this one with some interest. Our review below covers everything you need to know about the 12mm f/2.8, both good and bad.
A Fantastically Wide Lens
At the time of this article’s publication, the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 is the widest full-frame f/2.8 lens on the market (not counting fisheyes). Only four lenses beat it in focal length: the Irix 11mm f/4, Canon 11-24mm f/4, Voigtlander 10mm f/5.6 (Leica M and Sony FE only) and Venus Optics 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 (Sony FE only). Samyang is also shipping a 10mm f/3.5 full-frame non-fisheye lens later in 2019. So, not many lenses on the market compete directly with the Laowa 12mm’s focal length, but we’re starting to see more and more that do.
There was a time not long ago when 14mm was considered exceedingly wide and required specialty lenses or image quality compromises to achieve. It seems that most manufacturers caught up to that standard long ago and some are now pushing for wider and wider options, perhaps in an effort to differentiate themselves. I certainly don’t mind; in my opinion, it is always nice to have more options.
In case you missed the memo, 12mm is wide. Really wide. This lens is so exceptionally wide that it can be difficult to find good scenes to capture with it. If you’re not careful, your images can turn into jumbles of stretched-out corners with too many subjects and too much empty space. To put it simply: not many photographers need a 12mm lens.
I found success photographing landscapes like sand dunes, which have interesting foregrounds and fewer perspective cues than other subjects (meaning that the stretched corners aren’t a real problem). But unless your foreground is your subject, you’re likely to end up with a lot of empty space and odd compositions overall.
Then again, 12mm works for some scenes. And if you need such an extreme perspective, you’re pretty limited in your options. That’s the whole appeal of this lens, isn’t it? You’ll see later in this review that the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 is a tug of war between focal length and image quality, and there are a lot of reasons to get a higher-performing 14mm instead. But if you need 12mm, you need 12mm.
The Laowa 12mm f/2.8 is a very solidly built all-metal manual focus lens, with approximately 180 degrees of focus throw and a hard stop at infinity. The lens also has a manual aperture ring that goes from f/2.8 to f/22 in full-stop increments (though you can turn it in between stops if you’re careful). The lens is built from 16 elements in 10 groups, including 3 extra-low dispersion glass and 2 aspherical elements. The front element has a water-repelling “frog eye” coating to keep it free from dust and moisture.
On the front of the 12mm f/2.8, you’ll find a slim fixed lens hood and a fixed front element. The rear element moves slightly when focusing, but that is not unexpected or problematic in terms of build quality. However, the Laowa doesn’t have a rear weather sealing gasket, which does harm the lens’s prospects for use in adverse conditions. Then again, I used it in windy, sandy environments for long stretches of time without much issue. A bit of sand got into the aperture ring, but none made it to the rear element or actually inside the lens.
Here is the optical design of the lens:
If you feel the need for filters on such a wide lens, Venus Optics sells two different filter holders, regular and lite, for $75 and $70 respectively. These both fit two 100mm square filters, and the regular version also fits a 95mm polarizer on front. Polarizers are often a bad idea on a lens this wide, since you’ll get massive darkening effects in the sky (see our article on polarizers). But if you mainly shoot photos in forests or other environments where the sky is not in your images, the ability to use one that is just 95mm with such a wide lens is pretty impressive.
All in all, the 12mm f/2.8 is a surprisingly small lens, but it is still pretty dense. At a weight of 609 g (1.34 lbs), it is about in line with other wide-angle, wide-aperture lenses, which are not known for their lightweight designs. Personally, I actually prefer plastic lenses over metal for a number of reasons, including weight – although there is no denying that the build quality of the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 is impressive overall.