I’ve been photographing real estate for nearly a decade. If there’s one genre of lenses I have a strong handle on, it’s wide-angle lenses. I photograph around 1,000 homes per year. I’m always in search of the best possible image quality at the lowest possible cost. When I see a 12mm lens with an f/2.8 aperture for less than $1000, my interest is peaked!
First impressions and build quality
In a word? The Venus Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D lens is robust! Like a big bowl of Texas chili! It’s made out of metal and comes in at 1.34 pounds — surprisingly light for a lens with a massive 121-degree field of view.
In addition to taking real estate images, I’m a real estate videographer as well. If you’re anything like me, you’ll use these big heavy lenses on a gimbal. When you carry them around, filming a house, it can get tiring. This isn’t to say the 12mm is light — it’s just a lot lighter than similar focal length competitors. To wit, I use the Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art for my real estate videos, and it’s heavy — 2.6 pounds — almost twice as heavy as the Laowa. The Laowa is much easier to deal with during a long day.
A completely manual lens like the 12mm should have easy to set focus and aperture rings. I’m pleased to tell you the focus and aperture rings are smooth and well dampened with the ideal amount of resistance. The aperture ring clicks into place with audible clicks and speaking of the aperture, ranging from f/2.8 to f/22. There are seven rounded aperture blades. Bokeh from a lens in this category is usually not a key consideration as we’re generally trying to get the entire scene in tack-sharp focus.
The front element is bulbous — typical for wide-angle lenses. Traditional screw-on filters need not apply. Even the lens cap has a nice quality feel and it fits into place snugly over the front element.
- Focal length: 12mm
- Aperture range: f/2.8 – f/22
- Aperture blades: 7
- Elements/Groups: 16/10
- Dimensions: 4.5 x 3 inches
- Weight: 1.34 pounds / 609 grams
- Angle of view: 121.96°
I have to be straight up honest, I am disappointed in the optics from the 12mm. Center performance is acceptable, but not great, even when I stop down to f/8. Almost every other lens in this category has noticeable improvements in image quality when stopped down that much. Based on my experience, that rule of thumb didn’t apply to the Laowa. Edge performance is weak and extreme edges borders on unacceptable.
Now it’s entirely possible that I got a bad copy of the lens — production variance is a real thing. I was also using the lens with Sony bodies, and in Laowa’s defense, the Sony a7 Mark III bodies do not have the best focus peaking. However, when I stop down to f/8, so long as the focus point is somewhere near the center of the frame, I’m usually going to capture a sharp image. At least that’s how it is with other manual focus lenses that I’ve used with my Sonys.
To Laowa’s credit, the lens does in fact live up to its “Zero-D” (zero distortion) billing. Unfortunately, it’s not very good at much else.
As a professional real estate photographer, I need sharp optics. Based on my experience with the Laowa, there are much better options out there. Nearly all of them have autofocus, and many are priced less than the Laowa. Granted, they’re not as wide, but they’re all optically superior. Even the far less expensive Samyang 14mm f/2.8 is better optically — and the Samyang has autofocus.
If you happen to be a real estate videographer, then I think there may be a place in your camera bag for the Laowa. It’s also just my opinion, but optical quality to my eyes isn’t as important in motion pictures as it is in stills. All I mean by that is, in my business, still images are going to printed on large brochures, and if the images aren’t sharp, my clients will notice! No one stops a motion picture to examine the edges of a frame to insure if it’s sharp.
The good news is, the Laowa’s zero distortion characteristics definitely come into play in video. My vertical lines are vertical without much bowing at the edges.
The bottom line for me is, I’d likely pass on the Laowa and would go for one of the numerous options available in the marketplace today.
- Incredibly wide field of view
- Relatively light weight compared to the competition
- Build quality is exceptional
- Distortion as well controlled as advertised
- Average to below average optics even stopped down
- Edge sharpness leaves a lot to be desired
- Likely copy to copy production variance as many other reviews give the lens higher marks
- Lack of any connectivity with the camera, it’s a completely manual lens
For up-to-date pricing of the Venue Laowa 12mm f/2.8 lens, visit B&H.