Home ReviewsLenses Wide angle macro photography – Laowa 15mm f4

Wide angle macro photography – Laowa 15mm f4

by Güray Dere

I remember the first article I published on the site, I mentioned that I missed the macro mode shots I took with my old compact camera. No matter how primitive the camera was, there was something that made those photos different: Something that I had forgotten after I got caught up in the magnification challenge, but something that I miss every time I see similar photos.

In a normal macro photo, we go in close to the subject and completely dissolve the background so that the subject is highlighted. With a high level of detail we can turn the photo into a visual feast. The more we magnify the subject, the more detail we give, the more impressive it is to the eye. “Likes” and “Favorites” will come in droves. High magnification is a very fun area, I never give it up, but sometimes I feel a lack of it.

I can’t get into the scene while watching! 🙂

I can’t get into the scene when I’m watching it! :)What does that mean? If I really shrunk down and went next to that insect, how would I see it? Or if I looked through the eyes of that insect, how would it look?

First, I will have to digress a bit. Since I have evaluated the following concepts based on my own perception, there may be points where I am wrong or missing, please correct me.

A sense of reality and wide-angle lenses

What I mean by a sense of reality is as if we were looking at it with our eyes, as if we were there.

Our single eye sees the world at an angle of about 125 degrees, which is quite wide. We need such a wide vision to feel in control and safe while perceiving our surroundings. Otherwise, it would be as if we were looking through a narrow hole, worrying whether we would step into a hole or bump into the person next to us. We would not be able to take a step without constantly turning our heads in all directions and scanning every angle through that narrow window.

  • Wide-angle lenses offer us a sense of a familiar and wide world like this. We feel inside the image. Photographs taken at an angle similar to what we see with our eyes enhance the sense of reality of the scene.

Another component of the sense of reality is the background.

A perception of the world without depth is unrealistic. No matter where our eyes look, we can more or less see what’s going on in the background. There is a bokeh effect, but there is a clear enough image to see what is going on in the background. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to survive. Even when we look close, we have to see threats coming from far away.

  • Wide angle lenses show most of the background. A portrait photographer looks for the widest aperture lenses for the background to eliminate, while landscape photographers who are trying to show the background with wide angle lenses and narrow apertures. Wide angle lenses give much more background than a tele lens of the same aperture value.

When we talk about reality and depth, we come to the last concept. Perhaps the most important one is perspective. I will elaborate on this a little bit more.

Yeğenimin bacağını yakaladığım bir perspektif oyunu.
A perspective game where I catch my nephew’s leg.

Perspective simply means that objects appear smaller as they move away. We shape the relationship between depth and dimensions in perspective according to the angle our eyes see. If an airplane in a photograph is smaller than the person there, we know that the airplane must be far away. We determine the distance of an oncoming car according to its size; the faster the car grows in front of our eyes, the faster it is coming. Accordingly, we estimate the time it will hit us. Cross or die! As vital as it is to be able to see the background, it is just as vital to estimate the distance of objects in the background. That’s why perspective is part of our expectation of reality.

We also perceive the size of objects through perspective. Imagine an empty room. If it is a small room, the height of the wall next to us and the height of the far wall appear very close to each other. This is how we realize that the room is small. However, if it were a big room, like a giant hangar, the walls would go on and on, and at the farthest point it would look tiny. And this is how we would perceive that the room was very big.

Arkadaki duvarın perspektif olarak gözümüze görünen yüksekliği bize odanın derinliği hakkında fikir verir.
The visible height of the wall behind, gives us an idea of the depth of the room.

All this perceptual math is calculated by our brain based on the focal length of our eye lens. But what would happen if the focal length of the lens changed? That would be very confusing. And as photographers, we have the luxury of confusion. We have lenses with different focal lengths that allow us to create different perceptions.

For example, perspective shrinks with tele lenses. The higher the focal length of the lens, the closer objects appear even though they are far away. Going back to the airplane example I gave above, it is very difficult to perceive the distance between the people nearby and the plane in the distance in a movie shot with a 2000mm lens. Because the extreme tele lens almost destroys the perspective, it looks like the airplane will hit the people at any moment. Let’s watch the movie below:

Dramatic Filmmaking with a 2000mm Lens from Vashi Nedomansky on Vimeo.

Now let’s think the opposite. Can we make something small look big? Yes, we’ve known how to do that since the Renaissance. Renaissance architects used the trick of perspective to make the inside of cathedrals look bigger than they really were. When you enter a hall, they made the columns at the front taller, and towards the back, they lowered the ceiling and reduced the height of the columns. And our helpless brains looking at this place say, “Wow, what a big hall, the columns at the back are so far away that they look tiny!”

So we have a tiny object. It’s a bug! But we want to make it look like a giant. What should we do? We have to give extreme perspective. If the part of the insect close to us looks big and everything else in the scene shrinks rapidly towards the back, our poor brain, which is only used to our eye’s lens, starts talking again: “Wow, I think I’m next to the bug, either everything is too big, or I’ve shrunk down and landed there!”

  • Wide angle lenses increase perspective. Large objects appear very small in the background. If we photograph small objects too closely, they appear larger than they really are.

Wide angle macro

When we look at wide-angle lenses for macro shooting, we see that the three features I have bolded above will be useful to us. We can get down to the insect’s point of view and look at the world from there. By including the background, we can transfer the natural habitat of a flower or insect into the frame as it is. Of course, these statements are very ambitious. In practice, there are a lot of technical problems and we can’t achieve exactly what we want, but it is absolutely true that it gives us brand new possibilities.

Macro by definition means 1X magnification and above. It is very difficult to get 1X magnification with wide angle lenses. Although the term close-up is more appropriate here, I see no problem in calling it “macro” when flowers and insects are involved.

So how do we photograph an insect when a wide-angle lens makes everything look so far away and small? We have the option of an extension tube to do this. But to force a lens wider than 20mm into a close-up, you need very thin tubes. The shortest of the standard pieces is 12mm. Even this is too much and it can pull the focus distance into the front glass of the lens. So you can never achieve sharpness. There are different problems with different wide angle lenses and some solutions, but these will be the subject of future articles. Right now we have a brand new player that solves our problem: Laowa 15mm 1:1 macro lens.

Venus / Laowa 15mm f4 1:1 Macro


Chinese manufacturer Anhui ChangGeng Optical Technology is shaking up the world of photography with lenses that started out as Venus and were later rebranded as Laowa. Their first lens, the LAOWA 60mm f/2.8 2:1 Ultra-Macro Lens, made a splash as the only macro lens on the market to exceed 1X magnification other than the Canon MP-E 65mm. After the 60mm, which can also be used as an daily lens thanks to its infinity focus, the 2nd bombshell was even more impactful: LAOWA 15mm f/4 Wide Angle 1:1 Macro Lens. And Laowa keeps on working, constantly expanding its lens range with other rare quality lenses.

There is currently no real alternative to the Laowa 15mm for wide angle macro. I would like to see other manufacturers enter the same field quickly, but until then Laowa will be the lens that does it best.

Giving 1X magnification at 15mm is not an easy task. You have to get very close to the subject. Our lens provides this opportunity. It can focus 4.7mm in front of the lens. That’s less than half a centimeter! This value is valid for 1X magnification and we don’t have to work at such high values. 0.5X and even 0.25X create very nice images.

Let’s list the strong features of the lens

  • We can go up to 1X magnification.
  • We can read the magnification value from the focus ring. It adds to the fun.
  • It can focus at infinity and fulfills our other daily wide-angle needs.
  • It is very sharp because it is a macro lens.
  • Supports bodies with full-frame sensors.
  • The 14-blade diaphragm provides a soft background, which is a serious advantage.
  • The aperture switches continuously and smoothly. An added advantage for video.
  • It can be closed down to f32. Normally f32 is a very exaggerated and unsharp aperture, but it has different uses at wide angle.
  • It has a “shift” mechanism on itself. For example, in architectural shots, wide angle perspective distortion in buildings can be prevented by shifting.
  • A filter can be attached. Some ultra-wide angle lenses have a very bulging front glass, so no filter is possible. It is important to protect the glass in close-ups.

As you can see, a lot of things were thought out and put into practice when designing the lens. There can be a lot of prejudice about a Chinese product. Like everyone else, I started to wait for first impressions and soon very pleasant photos and admiring comments started to appear on the internet. I didn’t want to say anything without seeing and testing the lens. Then I think Hakan Uğurlu was the first person from Turkey to get this lens and sent it to me for testing. I thank him again.

Macro photography with Laowa 15mm

The first thing I felt when I picked up the lens was that it was like a tank! It’s a really heavy lens that holds up really well. Because it’s a Canon lens, I had to put it aside for a long time and keep it until my Canon-Sony adapter arrived. I even desperately pretended to attach it to my camera and tried to take some pictures by holding it in front of the body with my hand. As soon as the adapter arrived, I attached the lens and ran out into the garden. And what did I see: snow and ice everywhere! Yes, unfortunately winter was coming and there was no proper subject to shoot.

When I saw some sun, I wanted to see the capacity of the lens on my favorite models.

After these shots, it was immediately clear that it would be a very fun lens. But it also showed that it requires some experience. I’ll touch on the difficulties again. First, let’s examine its sharpness a bit. I continued shooting indoors because the weather was bad again.


The eye and nose detail above is 100% cropped. I suggest you enlarge it and examine it. I had to use high ISO because of the light problem in the indoor shot. There may be some grain.

Afterwards, our friend Hakan let me keep the lens for months. The lens hibernated in its box and waited peacefully for spring. Anyone can take a tea and coffee break here and experience the feeling of my wait. Patience, the chief virtue of macro, is at work again 🙂

Spring has finally arrived, flowers and insects have taken center stage. When March came, I took the lens and threw myself into the garden. At wide angle, objects don’t look big in the overall frame. That’s why I’ve uploaded all the photos you’ll see below larger than in the other posts. Still, instead of giving the original 24MP size, I reduced it by 50% to 3000 pixels so as not to push mobile devices too hard.

But I was thinking about something other than photography.

Video shooting with Laowa 15mm

Yes, macro video. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but I haven’t spent much time on it because it’s too laborious. Since the magnification of normal macro lenses is high, these lenses are very sensitive to vibration. When the depth of field problem is added to this, a controlled environment and tripod are needed for video shooting. Wide-angle lenses, on the other hand, have the advantage of wide depth of field and low vibration. I felt that it would be possible to shoot handheld and the first thing I tried was video shooting. Let’s watch first and then comment:

Laowa 15mm video test

In the first half of the video I’m chasing a fly. As you can see it’s not easy to adjust the light. At the beginning the aperture is not too low. As a result, the depth of field is small and I had a hard time keeping the focus on the fly. At the very end of the first scene, I close the aperture more. You will notice that the background becomes clearer. In the rest of the scene the shadow of the lens and the cameraman(!) falls on the fly. When I adjust the light according to the fly in the shadow, the background is too bright. The other remarkable point is the working distance. Since the lens hits the grass, it requires planning to approach without shaking the flowers where the fly lands. For the light issue, if the body supports it, there are SLog2 gamma curve style video shooting methods similar to RAW format. It’s a bit annoying that I didn’t think of it at the time.

In the second half we watch a poor butterfly being attacked by ants. The butterfly must be at the end of its life because it doesn’t even have the energy to resist the ants. Since this scene takes place in a shadowy area, I don’t have to work very hard for a balanced light. The light is very soft. And since there are no fliers, I don’t move the body around in my hand, I can almost completely avoid vibration by using a mini monopod support. It is normal that when the light and vibration problems are overcome, a clearer image emerges.

I used a low aperture of f16-f22 and high ISO. The advantage of using a mirrorless body is that I can watch the scene bright and clear on the screen while shooting and control the focus. With conventional mirrored DSLR bodies, it is very difficult to see anything through the viewfinder at f22, especially if you are in a shadowy area. When it comes to our eyes, we cannot compete with modern technology. New generation mirrorless bodies can shoot in almost moonlight like night vision. Those who use handheld shooting with reverse lenses will understand what I mean very well. If there is no mirrorless body, it is like you have no chance to see what you shoot through the viewfinder.

Laowa 15mm field test

Although some of the shots above were taken outdoors, I don’t count my home garden as open field. On a windy day in the middle of a field, there’s a fine line between fun and a nervous breakdown. For me, the conditions were far from ideal that day.

It was almost dark when we arrived at the location. It was a cold and very windy March weather. But these things can be overcome. It just takes a long time 🙂 Since I will be shooting with handheld flash, each photo will be a single shot. No focus stacking. No hours spent in front of the computer. This alone is a cause for great joy. Since we will use the aperture in the f16-f22 range, our depth of field will be sufficient even in a single photo.

I wait for the wind to die down, bend down, take 3-5 frames and move on to another target. After years of focus stacking, it happens so fast that I feel I can document every single species in the field at that moment.

It takes some effort to balance the flash light. I’m constantly playing with flash power, exposure time and ISO to match the diminishing background light as it gets darker. I start with 1/100 sec, ISO 320, and as the clock ticks, it gets to 1/20 sec, ISO 800. Each photo has a different setting. I’ll have a hard time finding a formula that combines these four values without hundreds of shots. Since the wide-angle lens captures the surrounding terrain in a wide frame, we have to use only natural light in the background. The flash only illuminates a small section in front. The balance of front and back is constantly changing. I was able to take about 150 photos, most of them were taken as light tests and then they end up in the trash.

When the sun goes down I feel I have enough photos. The Laowa test is over. I pack the camera in its bag and my little daughter is already testing the meat on the barbecue. I move to the family by saying her let me test a little bit too 🙂

Note: You can enlarge the photos below by clicking on them. Clicking on the enlarged version again will take you to an even larger size.

All the tests were passed that day. Then Laowa was properly packed. It thanked again and sent to its owner Hakan.

Why is Laowa 15mm a difficult lens?

Because macro is always difficult. It would be easy if we could just set the lens out in the field and ask it to take an impressive picture. But we will take that picture. If we want it to be impressive, we need experience. Laowa has its own experience requirement.

Working distance problem

Imagine a working distance of 4.7mm for 1X magnification. It’s a joke. But it’s normal. At an angle as wide as 15mm, we can’t magnify the target object much without the lens almost touching it. Getting into the vegetation is also an issue. When the front glass is so huge, we can’t shoot an insect standing in the weeds without getting it to the top of the weed. Because we can’t get the lens in between without bumping it around. When we put the 77mm wide lens on the insect, we create a shadow that is almost impossible to illuminate. Look what happens when you calculate the angle of the sun and stubbornly say I’ll shoot 1X without casting a shadow?

Lensin camında yürüyen arı
Bee walking on the glass of the lens

The insects are jumping onto the glass of the lens which is just a step away! Above is a photo of a honeybee at 1:1 magnification 🙂

This creates a risk in keeping the lens clean. There is always the risk of touching grass, getting it wet or even scratching it. You can’t imagine how hard I tried to stay away from that nose while taking the cat photo above! You can consider using a transparent filter for protection. One of the best quality should be chosen so that internal reflection and sharpness problems do not bother.

As you can see, the 1X magnification was chosen for commercial reasons. 1X is not practical for live objects. If we reduce the magnification a bit and go down to values like 0.5X and 0.25X, we get very good details and it is much easier to work with. The lens seems to be practically made to work in this range.

Lighting problem

As I wrote above, the shadow of the lens is a serious problem if we are too close to the subject. Even if we somehow illuminate from the sides, it is still problematic to illuminate the front of the subject facing us.

The other issue concerns all wide-angle lenses. While the flash illuminates only the near distance, the wide angle and wide depth of field allow even the mountains in the background to be included in the photo. Balancing the differences between the intensity and color of the flash light in the foreground and the natural light in the background is tricky. Even the angle of the flash light, which differs from the angle of the sunlight, sometimes looks awkward. It’s best to use the flash only as a fill light and make the most of the natural light. This requires long exposures and high ISOs.

The combination of our efforts at effective lighting and the lens’s wide view results in images like these:

Kutsal difüzör halesi
Holy diffuser halo

The wider the diffuser, the more effective and soft lighting we can achieve in such wide frames. When the diffuser is wide, the flash illumination and the natural light behind are softly blended together. This time, our diffuser is a guest in our frame like a holy halo on the top.

Dark viewfinder

Focus stacking with a wide angle lens is both easy and difficult. Easy because even a few photos are enough to make everything look sharp. Difficult because with such a wide frame, there is always something moving. When we have the opportunity, we never fall into contradiction and never do focus stacking. By using the lens at f16-f22, we get enough sharpness with a single shot.

It is difficult to see through the viewfinder on mirror bodies at low apertures. Since the lens is fully manual, the aperture stays at the set value continuously. With fully automatic lenses, even if you stop down all the way, the aperture stays wide open until the moment of shooting. The viewfinder is bright, everything is visible. But not this time. In fact, everything is exactly as we want it. So a macro photographer is usually a full manualist. Take me for example. I only drive my car in automatic 🙂 The rest is all manual. Laowa too. So what we see and what we take are the same.

In short, if you have a body with poor live-view performance, you risk squinting or getting a cervical hernia. Wide angle macro shooting should be done by looking through the screen, not the viewfinder. Rotating lcd screens are a great help for those who don’t want to crawl. It is a great comfort, even a necessity, to be able to watch the shots taken at ground level by looking from above.

Mirrorless bodies are perfect for this. A screen that gives a bright image even in dim light and at low aperture, the possibility of fine-tuning by zooming in where we focus, showing the focused areas in color… These are incredible features.

Final words

Laowa 15mm is very enjoyable. Although its main purpose is macro, it is a very sharp lens that can meet all wide-angle needs, even for Milky Way photography. The difficulties I mentioned are more or less present in all wide angles regardless of the lens model. They can be easily overcome by habit and experience. They are nothing compared to the challenges of microscope lenses. And besides, a rose is a thorn in the flesh, isn’t it?

Finally, I would like to give a few sample photos from my cousin Kerem, who has been using the Laowa 15mm for a while. I am sure he will increase the sample shots rapidly.

You can follow Kerem’s photos on his Flickr album: Ozgur Kerem Bulur

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