Venus Optics Laowa 12mm F2.8 Zero-D

Conclusion

It is rare to be genuinely surprised when testing lenses, as we were with the Laowa 12mm F2.8 Zero-D from Venus Optics. This lens, manufactured by a newcomer on the market, goes above and beyond all the expectations we could have had.

The lens is extremely compact for its focal length, dense and a bit heavy. It is beautifully manufactured, with a classic look immediately reminiscent of an FA Limited. We will venture to say that it is as well made as these Pentax legends, with fluid operation, smooth rings, a nicely textured exterior and clean engraving. The contrasted color accents might look garish to some, but they work well together.

With its aperture ring and A coupling, the lens is compatible with every K-mount camera ever made, and offers automatic exposure control on modern bodies. Focusing is smooth and easy to achieve, in particular thanks to the short focal length. The focus ring’s throw is still a half-turn long, and offers fine tuning at close distances (up to 18 cm).

At 12mm, this is not a typical walkaround lens. Newcomers to the extreme wide angle realm will have a short learning curve before they begin to enjoy the possibilities these focal lengths offer. With its “zero dispersion” design, the Laowa 12mm is easier to master than most.

Optical performances are for the most part clearly above expectations. Sharpness, in particular, surprised us greatly, with a high level of detail at all apertures, and even results across the frame. Chromatic aberrations are near-absent, and colors and contrast are bright and pleasing.

The company doesn’t lie with its “Zero-D” claim. Distortion control is class-leading, better than many lenses with less extreme focal lengths.

Bokeh is not ground-breaking but not disturbing either. Despite its close focusing capabilities, this is not a lens ideally suited for subject isolation. Vignetting is strong on full frame, and better controlled on APS-C.

The Achilles' heel of the 12mm is its handling of flare. While not unique to this particular lens, flare will have an impact on many pictures. Given the wide field of view, photographers will often find themselves with light sources in or near their frame, and will have to live with the consequences.

Flare and the high price tag are the only two real cons of a lens which is otherwise easy to recommend. It also offers no weather sealing, a feature which would have made it extremely useful for nature photographers. Still, seeing all that it can offer, the price appears justified. There is a lot to like here. The Laowa 12mm really is a hidden gem.

Pros

  • Superb build quality and small form factor for a 12mm
  • Excellent resolution at all apertures, even across the frame
  • Class-leading control over distortion
  • Beautiful, crisp colors
  • Fast maximum aperture
  • Manual focus easy to achieve thanks to long throw and useful gradations
  • Low vignetting on APS-C
  • No CA to speak of
  • Able to create beautiful starbursts

Cons

  • Strong vignetting on full frame
  • Flare and ghosting poorly controlled
  • No weather sealing
  • Flimsy, difficult to use lens cap
  • Pricey

Pricing

The Laowa 12mm F2.8 sells for $899 in the US as of November, 2018.

Rating

Build Quality 
 9
Sharpness 
 10
Bokeh 
 8
Aberrations 
 6
Distortions 
 10
Handling 
 9
Value 
 8
Overall 
 8.6 (Very Good)

Who is it For

This relatively small lens is an ideal lens for full-frame photographers on the go, hikers and nature photographers in particular. It works well as a landscape and cityscape lens. Its low distortion and wide angle make it particularly well-suited for interior photography. Lastly, it is a good choice for night photography thanks to its ability to create pleasing starbursts coupled with its fast maximum aperture.

The hefty price tag means that beginners or photographers unsure of their interest in extreme wide angles might be better advised to rent the lens before committing to a purchase.

This lens fills a unique gap in the modern full-frame Pentax K-mount lens line up.  APS-C users have many more (cheaper) ultra-wide options to consider, however, such as the Samyang 10mm.  Nevertheless, the Laowa 12mm would deliver exceptional image quality on APS-C as its "sweet spot" would be in use.

The Bottom Line

When weighting the pros and the cons of the Laowa 12mm F2.8, it clearly comes out as a lens worth having. Users should not be put off by the fact that Venus Optics is a newcomer with little reputation yet: this lens is a winner.  This 12mm is more expensive than the Irix 11mm, but this is justified by its speed and superior image quality

Be sure to check the user reviews or post your own if you already own this lens.

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