CLOSER STILL: first forays with the Venus optics LAOWA 15mm f/4 wide angle 1:1 Macro lens

The phone call from the courier came late afternoon on Tuesday 7th July – a familiar scenario since we live, hidden away, off the main road and the usual practice is to arrange a rendezvous on the main road rather than our track and go and meet them. The Italian customs had finally deigned to release the lens from its clutches for the payment of a few tens of euros…

The test zone for the lens: The Piano Grande and its explosion of flowers in July - this once glacial lake is now a vast hay meadow where lentils are grown at the edges and the cornflowers and poppies become indicators of ripeness...when they fade the lentils are ready.

The test zone for the lens: The Piano Grande and its explosion of flowers in July – this once glacial lake is now a vast hay meadow where lentils are grown at the edges and the cornflowers and poppies become indicators of ripeness…when they fade the lentils are ready.

In record time, the package was opened and a new lens, much awaited, was in my hands. This is the revolutionary Venus Optics LAOWA 15 mm F4 wide-angle macro lens that boasts a 1:1 capability and  I am fortunate to have an early example of this wide-angle lens that has been attracting a great deal of attention since its announcement. Since I already possess Venus Optics’ recently released 60 mm f/2 .8 macro lens (that gives x2 magnification unaided) I was particularly keen to get my hands on this new lens. That 60 mm macro lens is extremely well-built and its sharpness superb, the equal of any other macro lens I have used. The Venus optical company is a new venture created by a group of macro enthusiasts who clearly know their optics and are unstinting in their demands for quality…an outlook I really appreciate being a bit of a stickler for optical quality. Find out more here about both lenses and their other equipment for macro work.

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Poppies and cornflowers just that tiny bit closer than I can usually get…but what I want: realism but enough perspective distortion to give added impact

Each of these lenses involves both manual focusing and setting of the diaphragm – there is no coupling to the metering of the camera. Some used to all singing, all dancing optics might be slightly perturbed but you become au fait with this and I have found no problems in using them, particularly when live view is involved for the inbuilt image intensifier in the camera provides a clear view for focusing. Anyone using a mirrorless camera with legacy lenses has to face this anyway.

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And then even closer…I kept the depth of field fairly shallow using an aperture of f/8 at around 1:2…Often I have just gone for f/16 and beyond

Thanks to our particular interest in what has become known as wide-angle macro, both Clay Bolt and I have been approached to appraise this lens. For the past two years and more, I have been trying to squeeze extra magnification from a 15 mm F2 .8 Sigma diagonal fisheye by using helical focusing tubes and a Nikon fit lens on a Sony NEX 7 body. The results have been very pleasing and many people have shown interest in various blog posts and articles I’ve written telling of these experiments.

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This image of a horsefly (Tabinus bovinus) is certainly not up for any awards. The LAOWA lens can get much closer than this but I plead duress…hand holding camera plus lens and a Nikon R1C1 flash system wrapped around the lens. My other hand held the plant stalk to try and get some stability in the wind.

Both Clay and I shall be using this lens extensively and will include new chapters on this lens and various other techniques with which we have been experimenting in a new edition of our ebook, Wide-angle macro | The Essential Guide.  We shall certainly pool resources and publish our separate findings and experiences in a series of posts on the Learn Macro website.

Thus, here in one conveniently sized package is a lens that allows one to get much closer than any other ultra-wide angle and produce some really stunning wide-angle images with impact. Whether the life-size capability it offers is usable (and when and how) will be discussed in a much more detailed review due in the next week or so.

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A typical poppy shot from the Piano Grande…the lens copes beautifully with the textures of the subject and produces an image with contrast and superb definition.

Realising that I was itching to use this lens in the field, Lois suggested, we took a trip up into the mountains – to the Sibillini  National Park, some 3 hours drive away, where the annual flowering of the Piano Grande with its lentil fierlds filled with cornflowers and poppies is underway. The alternative was smoothing wood and drilling holes in walls presenting me with a choice that was far from difficult to make.

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The corncockle (Agrostemma gitahago) has long been one of my favourite flowers and so it was appropriate to test the 15mm f/4 macro on it. To get this close up shot has been impossible previously because my lens plus adapter system just did not get this close with the perspective I wanted. I used a marked lens aperture of f/16.

Whenever I am dealing with new equipment I have to ‘play’ and familarise myself with it. That  is the only way I can  get up to scratch and produce results for which I do not have to make excuses. However, in the images included in this introductory account of the 15 mm f/4 wide-angle macro I have also included a few of those “ones that got away” because they have stimulated my thought processes in working out solutions to potential problems. It forces me to do better and quickly! The day was not helped by a persistent wind that made insect photography a challenge, to say the least but I was able to see what could be achieved if I construct a suitable and simple bracket to use a heavily diffused flash vertically above the front of the lens… or even the Nikon R1C1 macroflash. Trying to hold that around the lens and focus in the wind defeated me! There is very little clearance between subject and lens front as you move towards 1:1 and, when shooting against a sky the contrast range between a subject (shaded by the lens front) and the background will need to be reduced.

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St John’s Wort (Hypericum sp) – another effective plant portrait with the surroundings in evidence…I would tend to use the lens at 1:2 or lesser reproduction scale because that way I get more background. It is a question of personal choice.

I’m working on a much more detailed review of the lens, its capabilities and solutions to the things that I had found challenging and thus, as I said, this is an interim report because I found the whole day extremely exciting – the moreso when I looked at the images after importing into Lightroom 5 this morning.

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Not quite what I wanted with this active rose chafer but the system of hand held flash was more ad hoc than it will be next time.

I have read one or two comments about chromatic aberration (CA) – which was, of course, one of the earliest defects of lens systems to be addressed by combining lens elements (a converging lens of crown glass with a diverging lens of flint glass with high refractive index). This combination acted as a converging lens for telescope objectives and could be made to bring the extreme ends of the visible spectrum – the red and blue rays to a single focus, as near as dammit.

With ambitious ultra-wide angle and designs, it is almost impossible to eliminate this aberration totally at the close-focus end and this lens certainly goes much further than any other in that sense. As far as I am concerned, the designers of this lens have done an excellent job in controlling CA:  it really is no more than one might reasonably expect in any ultra-wide-angle lens of very high quality. To me it is not an issue at all. Where possible you avoid setting things in silhouette against a bright sky – that is where you might see the colour fringing most strongly. However, I did not obtain anything that could not be quickly corrected at the post-processing stage in Lightroom 5 – it is better than most wide angles I own in this respect.

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I am a sucker for the orange lilies (Lilium bulbiferum) that grow beside mountain roadsides in Italy. They are photogenic to say the least and this is the type of image I could get previously…taken here with the 15mm f/4 wideangle.

My efforts of yesterday have now been downloaded and minimally tweaked  in Lightroom. With particularly white areas of sky, a deft touch with the graduated filter function is all that is required to produce a more balanced result.

The long and short of it is that this is an exceptional lens – extremely sharp (which is a must for me) and constructed to a level of quality reminiscent of lenses of yesteryear. It has an all-metal body with a smooth but firm focusing movement. I like it when a new piece of equipment covers existing work I do and also suggests thoughts of new avenues.

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Here the lens begins to show its paces with every pollen grain on those anthers sharp when examined on screen…here a real close-up is created with background incorporated.

The aim is now to get a pile of chores out of the way, load up the camera bags and head off next week to some high mountains full of flowers and butterflies – summer storms permitting…MUCH MORE VERY SOON.

 

© Paul Harcourt Davies 2015

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