Affordable Macro. But Be Careful! Laowa 85mm F5.6 Review

For a long time, I wondered why Macro lenses needed to be so large. And then the Laowa 85mm f5.6 came out. It’s a very small full-frame lens. Granted, it’s got a lot of trade offs to meet a certain price point and a few other parameters. Before writing this introduction, I took some time to process my thoughts on this lens. Is it good? I think there are surely folks who would want it. To them it will be a great lens.

But in the grand scheme of things, there are factors that make the Laowa 85mm f5.6 difficult to use. I’d probably only want to use in a studio.

Too Long; Didn’t Read

The Laowa 85mm f5.6 is a small, lightweight macro lens that does a lot right. At the same time, it still feels like Laowa needs to make major improvements to their lenses since we began reviewing them years ago.

Pros and Cons

Pro

  • Metal build quality
  • Small
  • Very Lightweight
  • Neutral colors might be great for some photographers who want to edit a lot later. Otherwise, if you don’t, then Leica’s colors should be able to save you.
  • Affordable
  • Sharp

Cons

  • Not weather sealed
  • I wish there were more aperture stops.
  • A super small front filter means it’s almost impossible to find the right CPL filter to prevent reflections.

Gear Used

We tested the Laowa 85mm f5.6 with the:

Tech Specs

Specs taken from the Adorama listing:

  • World’s Smallest 2:1 Macro Lens for Full Frame Cameras
  • Super Compact and Light in weight
  • Up to 2x magnification
  • Apochromat APO design
  • Internal Focusing
  • Fixed Focal Length: Focal Length: 85mm
  • Lens Type: Macro Lens, Medium Telephoto Lens
  • Image Stabilization: Image Stabilization: No
  • Filter Size: Focal Length: 46mm

Innovations

The Laowa 85mm f5.6 is the smallest 2:1 macro lens we’re aware of. They do this while giving it apochromatic elements and also having a metal exterior build.

Ergonomics

Here’s an look at the Laowa 85mm f5.6 overall. The focusing ring is towards the back while the aperture ring is up top in the front. The apertures are declicked.

This lens requires a very small filter to make it useful, especially when photographing through glass. We say this because we feel it could benefit a lot from a CPL of some sort.

Here’s a look at the important bits. There is a full zone focusing area on this lens, which is very important for a macro lens.

More often than not though, you probably won’t end up using it.

Build Quality

The Laowa 85mm f5.6 is in a weird spot. It has a metal exterior, which is highly praised amongst many photographers. As the rest of our staff affirmed, metal lenses feel high-quality. And while it doesn’t feel as nice as the Leica lenses I’d put on my SL2s, this lens feels better than a few other options.

Further, the Laowa 85mm f5.6 maintains a very lightweight feel. It does this by a few things. For starters, there are no AE/AF communication contacts. That means you’ll be relying on focus peaking or magnification when you focus the lens. What’s more, this lens isn’t weather sealed. So you’re not going to be taking this out into the rain.

Basically, you should use this lens at home whenever you can. When I saw the marketing for this lens with it being used in the rainforest and other places, I was shocked. Personally, I wouldn’t take a lens like this into rough areas despite the metal build.

Ease of Use

Laowa lenses have always been challenging to use, but high on their return, and the Laowa 85mm f5.6 is no exception. I’m an experienced reviewer, and even this was tough. It’s for good reason too.

  • This is a long focal length. You need to rely on image stabilization to manually focus an already slow lens.
  • You need to use a combination of focus peaking and magnification to ensure that your subject is in focus if you’re not using a tripod of some sort.
  • Since it’s a slow lens, you need to crank up the ISO if you’re shooting handheld.
  • The lack of focus communication with the camera means you need to be meticulous about your focusing.
  • Even at 85mm, f5.6 is fairly shallow.
  • When you think you have something in focus, you need to double check that you’re not going to have issues with camera shake.
  • The Leica SL2s would sometimes think the lens was at f11 when it was at f8.

Truly, I think this lens belongs on a camera mounted to a tripod in a studio. Combine all this with the lack of weather sealing, and you’d probably agree.

When it comes to weather sealing, we’re seriously emphasizing this. Weather sealing doesn’t only protect your camera sensor when there is inclement weather, but it also keep debris out of your images. Also, be sure to grab a small circular polarizer to get more sharpness from this lens if you’re photographing subjects behind glass.

Focusing

The focusing with the Laowa 85mm f5.6 is done manually. Like we said earlier, you need to use a combination of focus peaking and magnification. We really wish Laowa started including focusing contacts with their cameras. At least that way, we wouldn’t have issues with the use. This is ideally how we’ve like every lens.

While the Laowa 85mm f5.6 had focusing contacts, we’d highly recommend it for Canon as Canon has a rangefinder system that works well.

Image Quality

The Laowa 85mm f5.6 produces beautiful image quality. We think lots of photographers will like it. But to us, it’s a tad too clinically perfect. I like character, and so does the rest of the staff here. When I’ve used Leica’s Apochroamtic lenses, I’ve come to expect some signature “pop” to the subject. But that’s lacking with the Laowa 85mm f5.6, and I’m instead relying on Leica’s colors to make images truly shine.

Bokeh

Make no mistake, the Laowa 85mm f5.6 can give you some positively beautiful bokeh. Part of that is because it can focus so closely. Combine that with Leica’s colors, and the photos will have a very special look to them. I thought exactly that as I shot the photo above.

Color Rendition

I think the colors in these photos are happening more because of how Leica’s rendering works with their sensors and processors. I’ve used Panasonic’s 85mm f1.8, and it has a completely different look from this. Panasonic has character; Laowa is more about clinical perfection.

Lens Character

There is no lens character to speak of with this lens. It feels very clinical. And if you’re a fan of Sony lenses, then you’ll like the Laowa 85mm f5.6.

Sharpness

Wide open, the Laowa 85mm f5.6 is pretty sharp. And it does that without using other tricks like excessive contrast. Stop the lens down and it becomes even sharper. Use it with a flash, and you’ll truly see the sharpness it’s capable of.

Extra Image Samples

From day one, The Phobographer has been huge on transparency with our audience. Nothing from this review is sponsored. Further, lots of folks will post reviews and show lots of editing in the photos. The problem then becomes that anyone and everyone can do the same thing. They’re not showing what the lens can do. So we have a section in our Extra Image Samples area to show edited and unedited photos. From this, you can make a decision for yourself.

Unedited

Edited

Conclusions

Likes

  • Small
  • Lightweight
  • Metal build quality
  • Apochromatic design, though you can’t really see the effects of it
  • Pretty damn affordable

Dislikes

  • Really need focusing communication
  • Lacks weather sealing
  • Some folks may hate manual focusing.

Let’s get a few things straight here. If you’re shopping for an 85mm lens, don’t get this one. Panasonic makes a fantastic 85mm f1.8 that isn’t much more expensive. If you want a macro lens, then get the Laowa 85mm f5.6, but prepare to deal with some issues. There’s no weather sealing, focus confirmation is difficult because of the nature of focus peaking and magnification, and the image quality is just standard. Honestly, I wanted to edit all the images I shot (and that’s not good). It was sort of difficult to get a photo right out of the camera that I liked. In most instances, that would be a failing mark from me. But where the Laowa 85mm f5.6 is saving itself is with the Apochromatic design that shines with Leica rendering. It’s also very affordable, but makes some sacrifices to get there.

In the end, I wouldn’t buy the Laowa 85mm f5.6 Macro lens. As I write this, I’ve got mixed feelings on it. Laowa has some lenses I’ve fallen head over heels for, but this isn’t one of them.

The Laowa 85mm f5.6 receives three out of five stars. Want one? Check them out at Adorama.



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