At the end of 2020, I had the opportunity to try out the new Laowa 50mm / 2.8 2x Ultra Macro APO lens optimised for Micro Four Thirds (MFT or m43) cameras. I have had a Laowa lens (Laowa 7.5 mm/2) in my backpack for several years using it, especially for pictures of animals with their natural habitat. Laowa is famous for its range of very unusual lenses, each of which boasts a unique position on the market. This new macro lens is no different. So far, this lens is the world’s first and only macro lens that offers 2:1 magnification with an MFT mount. Anyone who mistakenly thinks (like I once did, not that long ago) that this magnification is “just a little bigger than 1:1” couldn’t be more wrong. This is undoubtedly much-anticipated news for true macro lovers. Thanks to the microchip, the resulting magnification (2:1) is equivalent to a full-frame magnification of 4:1. Similar to the handling of telephoto lenses over 300 mm (eq. 600 mm), this macro lens requires quite a different approach to photography, dexterous hands and most importantly, a lot of patience. If you’ve ever used a Canon MP-E 65mm lens, then you know what I’m talking about.
Note: You will be glad to know that there are several photos, in this article, that you can download in full resolution. To do this, right-click on the link and select “Open in new tab/ window“. To view the image in full res, you just need to click on it.
Despite Laowa 50mm being slightly smaller and heavier than the Olympus 60mm, they are both really tiny.
MACRO OR CLOSE-UP?
If you plan to dive deep into the world of insects hoping to immortalise it in a photo, you often start with a close-up. This will allow you to take a picture of, for example, a tiny damselfly over the entire image revealing what is usually hidden from our regular view. You take many other pictures of damselflies, dragonflies, butterflies every time bewildered by their bodies’ structure. Soon, you’ll notice their beautiful eyes, and you will get a crazy idea to take their picture in detail, slowly but surely entering an entirely new realm called macro. Usually, a 1:1 magnification is considered as such. At that moment, your life turns into a little living hell. While for a photo of a dragonfly you will be perfectly content with natural light and a telephoto lens (such as the Olympus 100-400 or Olympus 40-150), getting the detail of its eyes is indeed a different kettle of fish. At first, you might try cropping, but that’s the path of destruction. So you are left but with one option – to look for an actual macro lens. Olympus offers two great pieces – 30mm and 60mm. I used to own both. The 30mm has a magnification of up to 1.25x (eq. 2.5x), and as soon as you throw yourself into that world, you will find that you have to be so close that you start casting a shadow on your subject. This leaves you with the only option to use a flash. It’s a tad easier to acquire a 60mm lens instead. This allows for a mere 1:1 magnification (eq. 2:1) yet at the same time, gives you the option of being relatively further away. Both have an AF, so it is possible to use the built-in Focus Stacking function. Why is this so often used in macro photography? To compensate for the measly depth of field. To have a perfectly focused eye of, say a dragonfly or a fly, you need to either increase the aperture to, e.g. F/18 (but be careful, the depth of field may be greater, but the lens diffraction will compromise the final texture sharpness – as you can see below). Alternatively, you can set a low aperture (e.g. F/ 5.6) where the lens excels and set a series of different exposures with a slight shift in the plane of focus. Soon you’ll find that without a flash, you are screwed. So you get a flash, which produces such disappointingly harsh light that you get a diffuser and holders, and various other widgets and this and that and … and in short, you realise that a small camera and a small lens won’t get you anywhere. Anyway, eventually, you realise that even a 1:1 magnification is not enough and you want more. Maybe you want dragonfly eyes over the whole photo. And it doesn’t stop there. Soon, you’ll wish to capture its mandibles, body and quite a bit of background. So you start fiddling with intermediate rings, adapters, spacers and other gadgets, which almost always compromise the bokeh, lack of light, etc. In short, macro photography is beautiful, but like any other field, mastering it requires some erudition to achieve decent results. And at this moment, Laowa enters. Full of promises that the 2:1 magnification (well, 4:1 after conversion, in fact) is the real deal. Maybe yes, maybe no.
So, what’s the Laowa 50mm like? It should be noted at the outset that the Laowa 50mm Macro lens has only manual focus (MF). The good news is that even though it is a specialised macro lens, it allows focusing indefinitely. The lens aperture is 2.8 (eq. depth of field 5.6). The great news is that the new Laowa lenses can now transfer information to/ from your camera and the aperture can be set directly in the camera, which seems to be an emerging trend, as it’s already standard on all the new Laowa lenses. It’s quite similar to the minuscule Olympus 60mm, perhaps actually even a little smaller, but feels heavier in your hand. The fact is, it’s heavier. Mechanically, the Laowa is well-crafted, the focus ring has a very smooth & precise action; although the Olympus 60mm is even more refined, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better in that respect. It’s more about personal preferences and getting used to. Lens hood comes as a standard, which has a completely straightforward & sturdy mounting mechanism.
Comparison of macro lens sizes using the www.camerasize.com server and my own graphic work (from left: Olympus E-M1 III + Olympus 60mm / 2.8, Olympus E-M1 III + Laowa 50mm / 2.8, Canon EOS 90D + Canon 100mm / 2.8 IS, Sony A7 III + Sony 90mm / 2.8 OSS)
WHAT I LIKE ON THE NEW LAOWA 50mm 2:1 F/2.8 Ultra Macro APO
+ compact dimensions exactly correspond with the MFT standards
+ feels sturdy & solid
+ lens hood is part of the package – simple and firm attachment
+ brightness F/2.8 – super
+ magnification up to 2:1 – so far no other MFT lens can do it, it’s much greater than 1:1 magnification
+ infinity focus – possible use for various purposes, not just macro
+ excellent performance when mounted on a tripod
General view of a kiwi slice and a sample of 1:1 and 2:1 magnification, Olympus E-M1 III, Laowa 50mm/ 2.8 Macro, ISO 64, f/ 6.3, 1/ 25s, LED panel [download full size]
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Native 1:1 enlargement , Olympus E-M1 III, Laowa 50mm/2.8 Macro, ISO 64, f/6.3, 1/6s, LED panel [download full size]
Native 2:1 enlargement, Olympus E-M1 III, Laowa 50mm/2.8 Macro, ISO 64, f/6.3, 1/6s, LED panel [download full size]
Is the difference between 1:1 and 2:1 really that crucial? It is! Especially in terms of the MFT world. The 2:1 magnification on MFT cameras brings the same view that full-frame cameras give you at 4:1 magnification. A truly incredible sight. In the pictures below, you can see how great the detail is, for example, on a slice of kiwi or a gerbera petal. A noteworthy aspect is that to achieve the 2:1 magnification, the subject is only 4.5 cm from the lens’. This creates a rather perplexing situation with lighting as it is necessary to “bend” the flash into this tiny gap. Similarly, the plane of focus is minimal.
General view of a gerbera flower and a sample of 1:1 and 2:1 magnification, Olympus E-M1 III, Laowa 50mm/2.8 Macro, ISO 400, f/9, 1/100s, flash, difuser [download full size]
Native 1:1 enlargement, Olympus E-M1 III, Laowa 50mm/2.8 Macro, ISO 640, f/9, 1/100s, flash, difuser [full size download]
Native 2:1 enlargement, Olympus E-M1 III, Laowa 50mm/2.8 Macro, ISO 640, f/9, 1/100s, flash, difuser [fullsize download]
This is perhaps a surprisingly important topic for me. Many people who take macro photos practically don’t use autofocus (AF). It just complicates things. Personally, I’m quite used to it and find the AF very helpful. Firstly, the focus and shutter buttons are separate. Therefore, it never happened to me that I lost the pre-focused subject by pressing the shutter button halfway. Because I photograph mostly handheld images and always different types of insects, I never envisaged how painful the absence of AF would be for me. I came to fully understand this quite recently in Costa Rica, where I had the Laowa 50mm lens with me, but I couldn’t take any decent pictures with it. I would walk through the jungle and discover a beautiful grasshopper, about 5 cm in size. Naturally, I wanted to take a picture of it, and of course, I had to focus manually. It’s okay, click. But the light from the flash on the camera bounced off a leaf soaked in the rain, and I don’t like the photo. So, I take off the flash, put on the control unit, hold the flash in my hand at a different angle, come closer to the grasshopper. At this point, I’d find out that the grasshopper’s tentacles are too long and it’s necessary to step back and re-focus again. Picture it: I have a camera in one hand, a flash with a large diffuser in the other, and I need a third hand, which would re-focus for me (damn, how I’d wished I had one back then). All right, I put the flash on the ground, find the right distance, re-focus, pick up the flash from the ground and in the meantime the grasshopper moves. It hides behind a leaf, and I can see only its eyes. This looks great and I want to photograph it. But my focus is set on the whole grasshopper. So, I put the flash down again, re-focus on the eyes, pick the flash up, the grasshopper flinches and is gone. Son of a b***h! A little further on, I can see the Atta ants. Great. So, I point my camera at them, but my focus is set on the size of the grasshopper’s eyes. I put the flash down, re-focus to the size of an ant, pick up the flash, I see two ants interacting, but I need to refocus again, the flash goes down and so on … You get it, right? The eq. 4:1 lens is practically screaming at you that it wants to be used in focus-stacking mode. Olympus has this function built-in but uses Autofocus to change the depth-of-field areas in specified steps. You are out of luck with any manual lens as it needs to be solved by some external device that will move the camera for you on a tripod. Another option is to take a focus-stacked image handheld, but I confess willingly, it was tough to resist my urge to throw the lens in the bush. The constant need to manually re-adjusting everything drove me crazy. I admit I was this close. However, it needs to be said that this says more about me and my style of photography than the lens itself. I highly recommend sifting through reviews and photos from the great macro photographer Nicky Bay, who will not leave you in any doubt that you can capture stunning images with this lens.
MF and time efficiency: Sadly, due to current cold winter weather, I wasn’t able to find that many interesting objects. So, this fly, which ended up on our window, had to suffice. I fixed it with a needle and tried one test. Both photos show roughly the same image format acquired in approximately the same amount of time. While with the manual Laowa 50 mm [download in full res here] I managed to focus (despite the great effort I didn’t quite hit the eye precisely) and take the picture (one can already see the introduced diffraction). With the Olympus 60mm with the AF [download in full resolution], on the other hand, I managed to focus and take a series of 15 focused-stacked photos at the same amount of time. At first glance, the resulting images may look the same. But if you look at them in full resolution, you will see how much more fine details the focus-stacked image has. Of course, the same can be achieved with the Laowa lens. You’ll just need some additional external device to re-focus (or re-focus yourself manually) and allow for a lot more time. I know that the image alignment is not perfect, but I believe it serves my point.
COMPARING LAOWA 50MM WITH OLYMPUS 60MM
In terms of sharpness, they are both equally matched. I tried to take a series of photos at different apertures, and I didn’t find anything noticeable—both lenses peak at around F/5.6. What’s nice is that at a 1:1 magnification, Olympus allows for a greater distance from the subject, and as such “bending” the light from the flash is much more manageable.
+ Laowa is not weatherproof – Olympus can withstand the humidity of the tropics, which is quite important to me
+ Olympus has a slightly smoother operation of the focus ring, which is beneficial for locating the exact focal point when shooting in manual focus (MF)
+ Laowa has only MF – I discussed this extensively above. It’s complicated for me to take handheld pictures with it having the flash outside the camera. Coupled with the fact that the lens does not support the built-in Focus BKT/ Stacking functions, it is necessary to solve these inconveniences with external gadgets.
+ Laowa, even at 1:1, requires a relatively small distance from the object, so it’s tricky to introduce the flashlight (with a diffuser)
+ Laowa is 50g heavier than Olympus
ERRORS DETECTED WHEN TESTING
During my testing of the loaned lens, I noticed two behavioural anomalies. The lens does not have built-in stabilisation, which is usually compensated for by the one in the body. I noticed that the built-in stabilisation did not work with this lens making it very difficult to maintain the plane of focus, especially at higher magnifications. The second oddity occurred when I changed, for example, the aperture from 2.8 in mode “A” to 5.6 without adjusting the EV. The end photo not only had a greater depth of field than expected but was also about 1EV brighter. I reported both of these anomalies directly to Laowa, and these findings will be incorporated into the next firmware update and eliminated. (Well done!)
TO WHOM WOULD I RECOMMEND LAOWA 50mm? Optically, the Laowa 50mm/ 2.8 Macro APO is a high-quality lens offering magnification that no other MFT lens has. Those who have worked with Canon MPE, for example, and can cope with the absence of AF, work with a tripod, and can solve the Focus Stacking by an external device, will be very satisfied.
TO WHOM I’D NOT RECOMMEND THE LAOWA 50mm? Those who already have the Olympus 60mm, who only need a magnification of up to 1:1, want to use the built-in Focus Stacking function and often take handheld photos (and especially with flash). I belong to this group.
I would like to thank Laowa (Venus Optics) for lending me this lens for testing. Thanks for friendly communication and appreciative response to my feedback. I’m looking forward to future cooperation and testing.