The Laowa 12mm f/2.8’s main competition comes from lenses with slightly longer focal lengths, in the range of 14mm and 15mm. Below, I’ll compare the Laowa against five other lenses: the Samyang 14mm f/2.8, Rokinon 14mm f/2.4, Irix 15mm f/2.8, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, and Tokina 15-30mm f/2.8. Eventually I would like to add the Irix 11mm f/4 to this comparison, since it is one of the only wider lenses that competes directly with the Laowa in price and size, but I have not yet had a chance to test it.
1. Laowa 12mm f/2.8 vs Samyang 14mm f/2.8
Purely by focal length and aperture, the Samyang 14mm f/2.8 appears to be one of the closest competitors to the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 on the market today. However, it costs much less than the Laowa: $250 for the Canon base model, $290 for the Nikon model (includes AE chip), and $370 for the Canon model with an AE chip. How does it perform? Here’s a comparison of the two lenses:
As you can see, sharpness numbers on the Samyang are higher overall, especially in the corners. Although the Laowa comes out ahead in center sharpness at f/2.8, the rest of the aperture range either puts the Samyang ahead or tied with the Laowa. Unless you need 12mm rather than 14mm – which, of course, depends on your needs as a photographer – it seems like the Samyang is the better deal here.
2. Laowa 12mm f/2.8 vs Rokinon 14mm f/2.4
Rokinon is the same company as Samyang, above, but they brand some of their lenses differently than others. So, this comparison is between the f/2.4 version, Rokinon/Samyang’s higher-end 14mm lens. Some photographers may wonder why this lens costs $800, while the Samyang 14mm f/2.8 costs just $250-370. The answer should be clear below:
The Rokinon 14mm f/2.4 is a truly exceptional lens in terms of sharpness. It beats the Laowa across the board until f/8, at which point the two lenses are comparable. The Rokinon also costs $150 less. If maximum sharpness is your goal, the 14mm f/2.4 is about as good as you can get. Note, however, that in terms of distortion, the Rokinon has significantly more than the Laowa – 3.48% vs 1.11%. Overall, though, I prefer the Rokinon’s performance by a wide margin. It is one of the sharpest ultra-wide options on the market today, and the difference is immediately clear in something like Milky Way photography.
3. Laowa 12mm f/2.8 vs Irix 15mm f/2.4
Venus Optics has some competition from another new lens manufacturer, Irix, which has been going all-in on wide-angle lenses recently. The Irix 15mm f/2.4 matches the Laowa in terms of build quality and is fairly similar in size and weight. 15mm is certainly different from 12mm, but the Irix lens makes up for it with a price of $400 for the Firefly version (not weather sealed) or $675 for the Blackstone version with higher build quality. Here are the sharpness numbers side by side:
As you can see, the Irix is not particularly sharp either. It actually loses to the Laowa overall at f/2.8 (and f/2.4), which is pretty disappointing considering the Laowa’s own poor sharpness performance. At f/4, the Irix is ahead, and it is also ahead in the center and midframe at f/5.6. By f/8 and beyond, the lenses are about the same. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend the Irix for most uses, especially with the cheaper Samyang 14mm f/2.8 outperforming it in most respects.
4. Laowa 12mm f/2.8 vs Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8
One of the finest 14mm lenses on the market isn’t a prime at all, but Nikon’s famous 14-24mm f/2.8 zoom. Although this is an aging lens, it still stands as an incredibly sharp option if you need an f/2.8 ultra-wide. But how does it look next to the newer Laowa? Here’s a comparison (only 14mm shown):
It really is no contest – the Nikon is far sharper, about the same as the extremely impressive Rokinon 14mm f/2.4. The Nikon is ahead from f/2.8 to f/5.6 in every way, and only at f/8 and beyond do the two lenses measure similarly. Of course, these two lenses are made for different purposes – although used 14-24mm lenses aren’t far more expensive than the Laowa. And there are now 14-24mm or 15-30mm lenses from third-party manufacturers with a smaller price gap, without losing much performance (if any) versus the Nikon.
Given that Venus Optics paid so much attention to the Laowa 12mm f/2.8’s minimal distortion, I wanted to see how it compared to that of the other lenses tested in this review. Here is a comparison chart:
True to Venus Optics’s claims, the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 has the least distortion of all these lenses, and it really is not even close with most of them. Only the Irix puts up a performance in the same ballpark, while the others are all within the range of 3.5-6% barrel distortion. (Note that our -5.92 figure for the Samyang 14mm f/2.8 was based on a correction of high mustache distortion more than barrel distortion.)
Most photographers care about sharpness more than distortion, particularly for a lens that may be used for astrophotography like the options above. In that regard, the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 has some major weaknesses, especially wide open at f/2.8. Only the Irix 15mm f/2.4 is on par with the Laowa. The other options – the Samyang 14mm f/2.8, Rokinon 14mm f/2.4, and Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 – all come out ahead to varying degrees.
In terms of distortion, though, the Laowa has the least of all these lenses by a fairly significant margin. It is also the widest. As the comparison on the previous page of this review demonstrated, there is a visible difference between 12mm and 14mm, and one that might be critical to your work. If that’s true – or if distortion matters more to you than sharpness – the Laowa may still be worth the $950 price. I don’t suspect that will apply to most photographers, but certainly to some.
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