It’s always a challenge to use such a high magnification lens as the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 Ultra Macro, especially when you’re shooting handheld or your subject is moving. You’re simply fighting physics: There’s less depth of field, more diffraction, more motion blur, and less light. None of this is specific to the Laowa, but that’s small comfort when you’re struggling to get sharp photos. High magnification macro photography is not easy for the casual photographer.
I’ll go through some of the biggest difficulties on this page of the review so that you know what to expect if you’re buying the Laowa 25mm f/2.8.
Composition and Focusing
One of the most basic issues at these magnifications is just getting the composition you have in mind. Even moving your camera a fraction of an inch in any direction will change your composition substantially. The problem is more pronounced at higher magnifications, but even at 2.5×, I routinely missed the composition I had in mind. If it’s windy, it can be almost impossible to get a good composition, let alone focus properly.
Still, with practice, you should be able to get a decent keeper rate, at least at 2.5×. Focusing is another matter, but the more photos you take, the better your odds will be of getting at least one shot with good focus. I personally stayed at 2.5× magnification most of the time with this lens, and my rate of totally sharp photos with the right composition was about 1 in 5. If there wasn’t wind, and I had time to crouch in a stable position, I could bump that up to at least 1 in 3.
Given that the Laowa is a manual focus lens, you may think that it’s harder to focus on your subject, but that’s not really true. Autofocus is not very helpful at such extreme magnifications anyway, since it can’t keep up with the shakiness of a camera very well. I found that the best method to focus with the Laowa was to select a magnification and then carefully rock myself forward and backward to align the focus plane on my subject.
Another compositional challenge with the Laowa is to avoid scaring away your subject. Imagine how terrifying a human must be if you’re the size of a bug. Now imagine the human took an interest in you and is approaching just centimeters away! It’s a wonder that it’s possible to photograph bugs at all with a lens like this. And it definitely takes some patience. Given that the Laowa has a working distance of just 45mm (at best), the front of the lens won’t be far from touching your subject. I found that some bugs were almost impossible to photograph this close, such as butterflies, while others didn’t seem to mind, like honeybees.
One bit of good news is that the Laowa’s small front element makes it easy to pinpoint a subject you’ve noticed and actually capture it in your photo. That’s a surprisingly big challenge with some other macro lenses: You see a tiny subject in the real world, pick up your camera to frame a composition, but have a hard time getting the subject to show up in your composition. The Laowa’s small front element makes it easier to find that bullseye, and so does the fact that your working distance with this lens remains about 4 cm regardless of magnification. (I think the wide angle 25mm focal length helps too, showing you a wider field of the foreground and background to help locate your subject.)
All of this to say that composing and focusing isn’t easy with the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 Ultra Macro, but it’s no harder than with other high-magnification lenses. In fact, it may even be a bit easier.
Because the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 Macro is an all-manual lens, it doesn’t communicate with your camera to say what aperture it’s using. That’s more of a problem than you may think.
At extreme magnifications, particularly anything 1:1 or greater, the “actual” aperture size in your lens no longer represents the “effective” aperture that you’re really using. In other words, the aperture’s physical size may indicate you’re at f/8, but in every meaningful way – depth of field, exposure, and diffraction – you’re actually at something like f/16 or f/22.
This is an irritating fact of macro photography, particularly with an all-manual lens like the Laowa. With other macro lenses (those which can communicate with the camera), most cameras actually read out the effective aperture, which is how it should be. But the Laowa can’t do that, so you’re stuck not really knowing what aperture value you’re actually at.
Actually, that’s a bit of a harsh way to say it. You can know your effective aperture; it just takes a bit of math to get there. Here’s the formula:
- Effective f-number = (Magnification + 1) × (Stated f-number)
For example, if your magnification with the Laowa is at 2.5×, and you’ve turned the aperture ring to f/8, then you’re effectively at an f-number of (2.5 + 1) × (8). AKA 3.5 × 8, which equals an aperture of f/28.
That’s a huge difference from what you’d expect if you thought you were at f/8! You’d need a substantially stronger flash power than you may think, and you’ll get far more blur from diffraction as well.
And, of course, the problem gets worse at the higher magnifications like 5×. In fact, at 5× magnification, even the Laowa’s widest aperture of f/2.8 is actually an effective aperture of about f/16!
So, if you’re considering the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 Macro, effective aperture is one concept you really need to be aware of. It doesn’t come into play with many other lenses out there, and it’s not even a concept most photographers know about. But if you ignore it with this lens, you may end up shooting at something unreasonable like f/64 without even realizing.
Related to the issue of effective aperture is that your viewfinder will be extremely dark when you’re using the Laowa 25mm f/2.8.
Specifically, if your effective aperture is something like f/22 or f/32 – which, as you’ll see in a moment, it probably will be – very little light passes through the lens, giving you a dark image in the viewfinder. Normally, your camera gets around this issue by showing you a viewfinder image at a larger aperture like f/2.8, then quickly stopping down the aperture the moment you take a photo. But – again, thanks to the lack of electronic contacts – the Laowa won’t do that. It’s like you’re permanently holding down the “depth of field preview” button on the side of your DSLR.
With a mirrorless camera rather than a DSLR, you won’t get such a dark viewfinder image. Instead, you’ll get a much noisier view as the camera has to boost the brightness of the image on your EVF or rear LCD. This, too, can make focusing harder, although in my experience it’s not quite as bad as having a dark viewfinder on a DSLR.
The easiest way around this issue is to attach some sort of constant light to your camera to make focusing easier. My dual flash setup (interestingly, also made by Venus Optics) has a focusing light built in, but there are plenty of attachments you could use if you have some other flash setup. It’s certainly not essential to use a constant light – I tended to leave mine turned off to save battery, except when it was getting dark out – but it will help.
It would be nice if Venus Optics could release a version of the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 with electronic contacts so this problem could be avoided, but until they do, you’ll have to accept a bit more difficulty focusing with this lens.
Depth of Field
Another major challenge with high magnification lenses is to get enough depth of field. The Laowa is no exception.
If you’re not used to macro photography, you may be under the impression that apertures like f/8, f/11, and especially f/16 give you almost limitless depth of field. But – drumroll please – macro photography is different.
As your magnification increases, your depth of field decreases proportionally. Even at (effective) apertures of f/16 or f/22, your depth of field on the Laowa 25mm may be just a few millimeters or less! That’s true at all magnifications, although 5× is of course much worse than 2.5×.
Look at this photo:
That’s f/32. And, in fact, that’s f/32 at just 2.5× magnification. If you’re at 3×, 4×, or 5×, you’ll get even shallower depth of field than this.
The photo below is one of the very few handheld photos I was able to take successfully at 5× magnification, and just look at how shallow the depth of field is:
My effective aperture here is f/32. The depth of field is so shallow that less than half of a microscopic fly’s eye is in focus.
It’s not the fault of the Laowa. What you’re looking at here is an unavoidable result of physics. Quite simply, depth of field decreases when your magnification increases – and 5× is a wild magnification for photography. You can technically fix this by using apertures like f/64, but at that point, why even bother? Diffraction will be so harsh that it almost completely ruins your sharpness.
So, given all this, what’s my recommendation to get sharp photos with the Laowa?
On one hand, you could shoot focus stacks at such extreme magnifications, which allows you to use more reasonable apertures without giving up depth of field. However, focus stacking is very difficult to do when shooting handheld, and it’s not really possible if your subject is moving substantially.
I’ll explain more about focus stacking in a minute, but I’ll mention first that my preference for handheld photography is f/32 (effective) with this lens, regardless of magnification. That actually offers pretty reasonable depth of field at 2.5×, although at 4× and 5×, it’s a huge challenge to get sharp images. There’s a lot of diffraction at f/32, but not enough to ruin a photo, so I’ve found this is my favorite balance. Even at 4× or 5×, I’m not willing to shoot at an effective aperture of f/45 or f/64.
To get an effective aperture of f/32, here are the apertures you should set on the Laowa’s aperture ring at each magnification:
- 2.5×: f/9.1
- 3×: f/8
- 3.5×: f/7.1
- 4×: f/6.4
- 4.5×: f/5.8
- 5×: f/5.3
Although the Laowa only has full aperture stops (f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, etc.), you can turn the aperture ring partway between these stops if you want a slightly different aperture. Personally, I just round to the nearest aperture stop most of the time. For instance, at 3.5× magnification, I would just set f/8 rather than trying to pinpoint f/7.1.
It’s also true that not all photographers will prefer an effective aperture of f/32 for this type of photography. Some photographers may prefer a different tradeoff of diffraction versus depth of field, and others may be focus stacking anyway, at which point the issue is irrelevant. It’s up to you what method you prefer, but if you were wondering how I took the photos in this article, I was at an effective aperture of f/32 pretty much the whole time. I hope you have a clean camera sensor, or you’ll be cloning out dust spots for hours :)
Focus Stacking with the Laowa 25mm Macro
Arguably the best way to get enough depth of field with the Laowa, especially at magnifications like 4× and 5×, is to use the technique of focus stacking. With focus stacking, you take multiple images of your subject – every photo focused at a slightly different distance – and then combine together the sharpest parts of each.
If you’re in a studio, the best way to do this is by using a macro focusing rail. In other words, rather than spinning the focus ring for each image in the stack, you’re physically moving the camera closer or farther away by millimeters at a time (or less). Here’s a single image taken at 5× magnification:
And now a 33-image focus stack:
For all of these images, I set the aperture ring on the Laowa to f/2.8, which is an effective aperture of f/16.8. The focus stack clearly looks better, at least for the type of shot I’m after. But if you’re shooting a moving subject handheld, you can’t exactly take a 33-image stack and expect it to look good. This technique is much easier in a studio environment where nothing is moving.
Still, if you need to, it is possible to focus stack handheld with this lens. Your error rate is going to be higher, but it’s more doable than you may think.
Here’s an example. Damselflies make a great subject for macro photography because of their interesting shapes, but their eyes pop out from their heads pretty far, so depth of field is tricky. I’m happy with how the photo below looks overall, except the damselfly’s eye is clearly out of focus:
Luckily, the damselfly stayed in place long enough that I could capture a second photo. This time, my composition is skewed, and most of the damselfly is out of focus. But take a look at the damselfly’s eye:
It’s much sharper this time!
Even though there are just two images, it’s still focus stacking to take the sharp eye from the second photo and merge it with the otherwise preferable first composition. This isn’t something that most focus stacking software can do automatically, but it was easy to blend them manually in Photoshop. Here’s my result:
Given the minimal depth of field at such a close focusing distance, it wouldn’t have been possible to get a sharp image without focus stacking. It’s obviously a difficult technique handheld, and it still requires that your subject stays in roughly the same spot, but it beats missing the shot completely.
When you’re using such narrow apertures like f/32, almost no light reaches your camera sensor, even during the middle of the day. That makes lighting your photos a significant challenge, and you’ll likely have to turn to artificial light.
Most constant lights aren’t bright enough to help very much, so the solution I’d recommend instead is a flash in combination with a diffuser to soften the light. Of course, that’s for situations where you’re shooting handheld or your subject is moving; if you’re in a stationary studio environment, feel free to use constant lights instead.
However, be aware that macro photography with a flash can lead to extremely dark backgrounds – almost as if you shot the photo in a studio against a black backdrop. It’s a quirk of the inverse square law that I talked about some in my macro photography lighting tutorial, and it looks like this:
I personally don’t mind this look, but whether you feel the same or not, it’s hard to avoid. The farther your background is from your light source, the darker it will be.
That said, you don’t necessarily need to use a flash with this lens, either. For example, I took the following photo at 2.5× magnification without a flash, and it’s plenty sharp:
But you’ll notice that I was at ISO 2200 here, even though my subject is in bright sunlight. So, while it’s technically possible to use this lens handheld without a flash, it’s really pushing things.
A much better route is to use a high powered flash, or stick with nonmoving subjects and photograph them from a stable tripod. Even then, you have to contend with camera shake from your shutter mechanism, but it’s still a much easier way to get sharp photos with this lens.
On the next page of the review, I’ll cover the optical characteristics and image quality of the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 Ultra Macro lens.
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