Gear of the Year 2019 – Dale’s choice: Laowa 15mm Zero-D

20 Dec
Photo: Dan Bracaglia

I feel like I’m stretching the rules a wee bit for my 2019 gear of the year by choosing a lens that was technically launched a couple years ago. However, Venus Optics released the Laowa 15mm F2 Zero-D in Nikon Z-mount and Canon RF-mount this year, and since I’ve been using the Nikon version I’m going to call it a 2019 product.

Before you protest, let me review the rules for our gear of the year selections:

  1. The gear you enjoyed using most this year.
  2. If there’s any ambiguity, refer to rule #1.

OK, with that out of the way let’s do this.

If you’ve been visiting the site for a while you may have noticed that over the past few years I’ve become a keen aurora borealis photographer. No matter how many times I see the northern lights I never get tired of them. It’s addictive, and I mean that in a good way. In the process I’ve experimented with a lot of different gear in an effort to find my ideal kit, and I’m really loving this Laowa lens.

Processed to taste in Adobe Lightroom.
ISO 10,000 | 2 sec | F2

I should clarify what ‘ideal’ means in this context. What it doesn’t mean is absolute technical perfection. I know there are hardcore astrophotographers who care very much about technical perfection, and for good reason, but that’s not me. My goal isn’t to create technically perfect images. It’s to create art, to tell a story, to share a unique experience with others.

Yes, I want good technical quality, but I also care about factors like weight, cost and my enjoyment when using the equipment. Why? Because like everyone else I have a budget. Also, when I photograph aurora I often carry three cameras (‘carry’ being the operative word), but that means I have to carry three lenses, three tripods, yada yada yada… It starts to add up pretty quickly, so keeping things on the small side is really helpful. My back appreciates it more every year.

Processed to taste in Adobe Lightroom.
ISO 5,000 | 6 sec | F2

One of the advantage of mirrorless cameras with short flange distances is the ability to create smaller lenses at wide focal lengths, and the Laowa leverages this fact. My other favorite lens for this type of work, the Sigma 14mm F1.8, is both larger and heavier.

In terms of absolute image quality, I think the Sigma 14mm F1.8 – which I picked as my gear of the year a couple years ago – is a bit better. It’s also slightly brighter. The downside? It’s pretty freakin’ big. Three of them in my pack would be noticeably heavier and more crowded than three Laowas; enough so that it matters to me.

The Laowa 15mm F2 (left) is significantly less bulky than the Sigma 14mm F1.8 (right).

Another thing I love about this lens is its build quality. I would describe it as feeling dense; despite its all metal construction and small size it’s still a bit heavier than it looks. It reminds me a lot of my old manual focus Nikkors, including the very nicely damped focus ring.

Speaking of which, it’s entirely manual focus, but I’m shooting the night sky and it’s not like the stars are running an AF test on a bike. (I’m not suggesting Richard Butler isn’t a star in his own right, but you know what I mean.)

Is it perfect? No. There’s definitely vignetting wide open, and even for a couple stops beyond, but the lens profile in Lightroom does an admirable job of correcting it. If I really needed perfection corner-to-corner that would bother me, but I don’t.

Processed to taste in Adobe Lightroom.
ISO 5,000 | 2 sec | F2

Similarly, there are some minor ‘angel wings’ on stars in the corners due to coma, but all things considered it’s not bad. Fortunately, most people aren’t focused on the stars in my photos, but rather the lights.

I’ll admit there’s one thing that drives me bat**** crazy. The metal lens hood doesn’t lock into position securely enough, and the slightest bump knocks it out of alignment, which is easy to miss in the dark. This results in some occlusion of the image in a couple corners. I did it by accident a couple times at first, but I’ve trained myself to be ever vigilant.

Processed to taste in Adobe Lightroom.
ISO 5,000 | 4 sec | F2

Some will argue that the wide angle Rokinons are better and even more affordable. Maybe they are, but in my experience it depends a lot on the particular copy you get. For what it’s worth I own two of them, and neither is as good in the corners as the two Laowas I’ve used.

Is it the best wide angle lens I’ve ever used? No. Do I love using it? Yes. It’s not the right lens for everyone, but it’s certainly a great lens for me, and that’s why it’s my gear of the year.

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