I’ve very recently discovered medium format and I’ve fallen head over heals in love with the system’s output. But as a real estate photographer, there isn’t a native lens in the Fuji system that meets my requirements for wide-angle.
In full frame equivalent terms, I look to shoot between 14-17mm. The widest native lens in the Fuji GF ecosystem is the GF 23mm f/4, which in 35mm terms is just shy of 18mm.
Now for the work I do, 18mm will cut it about 25-30% of the time. Which could make it a worthwhile addition, but certainly not a workhorse.
The popularity of the GFX cameras has captured the attention of third party lens manufacturers. And now with the introduction of the new GFX 100S, the prices of the first generation Fuji GFX cameras have come down considerably. This makes medium format cameras that much more accessible to more photographers. Seeing an opportunity, third party lens manufacturers are creating lenses that fill the gaps Fuji has left open.
Two big hurdles I have to overcome working with the Fuji GFX
There were two big reasons why I was reluctant to consider the GFX line. The first was with their massive sensors and huge megapixel counts that coincided them, the second was the lack of an ultra wide that met my requirements.
Huge megapixel count
Because I do such a high volume of real estate work, I outsource a lot of the post production. It’s a practical thing to do.
However, some of my editors are overseas and their internet connections aren’t always reliable or high speed. One room can have 8-12 images that need to be layered in Photoshop. When I consider a single RAW file from the GFX 50S can be upward of 116 MB, multiplied by 8-12 photos then multiplied by 12-15 rooms per property … you can see where this can add up quickly and hamper the post production process. My editors may be spending several hours just downloading images. The massive amount of data I need to transfer is certainly a hindrance and an obstacle I still need to overcome.
Lack of a native ultrawide lens
There have been a lot of rumors, but the reality is, as of this writing, the widest native lens from Fuji remains the GF 23mm f/4 — an 18mm equivalent, which simply isn’t wide enough, enough of the time.
Enter the Laowa 17mm f/4
Wanting to capitalize on the surge in popularity of medium format brought on by Fuji, Laowa saw an opportunity and pounced. Offering a full frame equivalent field of view of 13.26mm, the Laowa opens the door wide to real estate photographers considering the system.
But can a third party compete with the high quality standards Fuji has set?
Laowa is known for decent build quality in their lenses, and the 17mm is no exception. Made out of metal and coming in at a hefty 1.82 pounds (829 grams), the Laowa is anything but svelte Mounted to the girthy GFX 50S, the combination can feel like wielding a kettlebell around.
Rotating the focus and aperture rings gives a nice quality dampened feel and they move with a perfect sense of resistance. The aperture ring gently clicks from setting to setting.
The profile of the 17mm looks more like a telephoto lens than wide-angle, and that’s because it’s relatively long and narrow. More often than not, wide-angle lenses are stout and fat with big, bulbous front elements, the 17mm is almost slender by comparison. Though the front element protrudes, it’s tiny when compared to other wide-angle lenses. This may also be because the maximum aperture is f/4 as opposed to f/2.8.
The only mention of weather sealing is something Laowa calls “frog eye coating” which is used to repel dust and moisture off the lens elements. I don’t see any rubber gaskets at the mount to indicate much in the way of weather sealing beyond said “frog eye.”
One big negative on the build is the quality of the lens cap It may be the worst I’ve ever encountered. It falls off constantly, exposing the front element to potential environmental dangers — like rolling around in the back of my car during a hard right (or left) turn. At this price point, I would have expected something a bit more robust. All in, build is very good, save the front lens cap.
Ease of use and ergonomics
The first thing I noticed about the Laowa, is that it is a completely manual lens — there are no electronic contacts between the lens and camera. It’s a totally analog experience. That means I’m reliant on the exposure meter to get the look I want/need in the image.
It takes some getting used to, but eventually I got it. To insure accurate focus, when I’m shooting the usual suspects a lens like this was designed for — landscape or architecture — then setting the focus ring at or near infinity will usually do the trick. As mentioned previously, my only real contention with the lens is the design of the lens cap.
With it’s massive 113-degree field of view (13mm full frame equivalent), I’m able to capture huge scenes with aplomb. Most importantly, I’m able to capture those scenes without a lot of distortion.
That said, like most wide-angle lenses, performance definitely suffers toward the edges. In real estate and architecture, I’m most often shooting at f/8. Even stopped down, edge performance still leaves something to be desired. It’s not terrible and most importantly, it’s not something the majority of clients will focus on. Fortunately, the frame center — which is where most people’s attention is — is tack sharp, especially at f/8.
Flare is a bit of an issue, but no worse or better than the majority of ultra wide lenses. Chromatic aberrations in the high contrast areas are virtually non existent.
Out of focus bokeh rendering is actually very nice. In general, as photographers, we don’t buy a wide-angle lens to be dazzled by it’s bokeh. Moreover, it’s challenging to get any sort of bokeh out of a 13mm f/4 lens, but if you get to the minimum focus distance of just under eight inches, you can in fact get some background separation. With the massive medium format sensor, the bokeh is even exaggerated a bit. I find it surprisingly smooth and beautiful/ Surprising again because the Laowa only has five aperture blades.
Bottom line for optics is for real estate and landscape — which are this lens’s intended purpose — optical quality is very solid from f/8 on.
There are a couple of things to consider here. First things first, if you’re a real estate or architecture shooter who’s considering Fuji medium format, there really isn’t a lot of choice right now. Unfortunately, Fuji doesn’t make a native lens for the GFX that’s any wider than 18mm equivalent. Even though 18mm equivalent is nice for a lot of real estate or architecture, it’ll leave you wanting something wider.
As I mentioned previously, I’m usually shooting somewhere between 14-17mm — 18mm equivalent won’t cut it for the majority of what I shoot. Meaning that if I were to make the switch to medium format for my real estate work, then the 17mm would be a professional necessity. That said, I can also tell you that 13mm is often too wide.
Fuji medium format is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Without a 16-35mm or 14-24mm equivalent lens, it’s a big hole in the line up. With just 13mm and 18mm equivalent to work with, you’ll have to make some compromises. Not the end of the world, but a nice constant aperture zoom would sure come in handy.
When I factor in the price, which is reasonable to me for such a lens — given it’s optical quality and field of view — there’s a lot of value for the money. As mentioned before, usually with such a lens, you want to get everything in focus and at or close to infinity will get the job done.
- Focal length: 17mm (13mm full frame equivalent field of view)
- Aperture range: f/4–32
- Aperture blades: 5
- Elements/groups: 21/14
- Dimensions: 3.46 x 4.9″ / 88 x 124.5 mm
- Weight: 1.82 lb / 829 g
- Angle of view: 113°
- Excellent build quality
- Some weather sealing
- Sharp in the frame center at f/8
- Heavy, especially when combined with the 50S
- Build quality of the lens cap is very mediocre
- Edge performance is average to below average, even stopped down to f/8
Venus Optics Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-D Lens for FUJIFILM G
Exceptionally wide, the Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-D from Venus Optics is an impressive ultra-wide prime designed for FUJIFILM G-mount mirrorless medium format cameras. With a broad 113° angle of view, this lens is well-suited to a range of subjects, including architecture, interiors, landscapes, and astrophotography. The optical design incorporates a series of extra-low dispersion and aspherical elements, which correct a variety of aberrations in order to produce high sharpness, clarity and color accuracy.