Lens review: Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-D

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Being a member of the Medium Format Club doesn’t come cheap. The camera body sporting the medium format sensor is just the entry fee and the very beginning of the torment. Things get darker when you start investing on lenses.

When I decided to join medium format, there was a reason I went for Fuji. Not only because they had the GFX 50R, which was – and still is – the cheapest medium format camera available on the market, and considerably cheaper than the Hasselblad X1D II that I was also considering.

I went for Fuji because, in the long run, I knew Hasselblad would be a lot heavier on my wallet due to the price of their lenses. But still, while cheaper than Hasselblad, Fuji’s medium format lenses are not cheap at all. The current most affordable lens in Fuji’s lineup is the GF 50mm f/3.5 which retails at USD$ 1000. And this is meant to be an entry-level, everyday lens for your GFX camera with a moderate aperture.lkhg58Depending on what focal length you are looking for, a Fuji G mount prime may easily set you back USD$ 1500 to USD$ 2000. And then on the peak of the hill you will find the GF 250mm f/4 which is worth a hefty USD$ 2800. In fact, even the 1.4x teleconverter will burn a USD$ 850 hole in your pocket.

So while Fuji medium format lenses are cheaper than Hasselblad – and Leica… – ultimately they are still quite expensive.

Any alternatives?

Fortunately, yes. Third-party lenses are not new to the industry and since the film days, we got used to brands like Sigma, Tokina, Tamron or Vivitar, not to mention the all so familiar Voigtländer for Leica M owners.

But with mirrorless technology taking-off, the industry witnessed a proliferation of new brands, as mount adapters and manual focus lenses became not only technically feasible, but also popular among enthusiasts who can now rely on focus peaking and other focus assist tools.

The lack of auto-focus or any kind of electronics in the lens reduces the complexities and know-how needed to design and build lenses. So, all of a sudden, we see new brands like Rokinon / Samyang, 7Artisans and Laowa with interesting products worth considering as alternatives to your native branded lenses.

The Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-D

Ever since I bought the Fuji GFX 50R, I’ve been contemplating the idea of getting an ultra-wide lens to have a go on landscape photography. My hesitation though was the money I’d have to spend: the only Fuji ultra-wide is the GF 23mm f/4 R LM WR which retails at USD$ 2100. This is a lot of money – at least for me.

But then while surfing the internet I found this lens called the Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-D. I’ve never heard about Laowa  – a Chinese brand – or this lens, and there is not much information available in the internet about its quality or image performance. However, the few reviews I managed to find were quite positive.

Considering the price point, which at approx. USD$ 1100 is basically half the price of the Fuji, I decided to have a go. And this is coming from somebody who advocates the best performance will always come from native branded lenses.

Now before I get into the review of the Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-D, let’s enjoy some nice product photos.

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Physical features

Overall

Build quality is extremely good. This lens is 100% made of metal and quite heavy, tipping the scales at 800 grams. Everything feels solid and there are no loosen parts or faulty joints. Everything feels machined with precision. The lens body is finished in a semi-gloss back paint and feels prime.

I’ve been using this lens for quite a while now. I usually take good care of my gear, but I use them in a heavy duty way and don’t mind – or even appreciate, to some extent – the occasional scratches here and there. The so-called wars scars that give you that nice patina of age… This is just to say in my Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-D there are already some scratches in the body, and checking those I can see the paint finish is quite thick and good.

The funny thing about this lens is its shape – it’s kinda like a trumpet, with the front end opening up and an extension I assume works as a lens shade, albeit a fixed one in this case.

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The front element of the lens is spherical and protrudes from the body. I guess this is typical for ultra-wide lenses. I used to own a Sigma 14mm f/2.8 EF mount lens that looked like a light bulb.

The engravings are all embossed with precision and the fill-in paint finish feels excellent. Call me picky, but I don’t like the fonts that much. Anyway, just a remark. In fact, since we are on this, that Laowa logo is not the most attractive and looks oversized in both the front and the side of the lens – I don’t know, it looks childish to me.

On the Fuji GFX 50R

The lens mount of the lens – which is normally a concern for 3rd party lenses – fits the body of my GFX 50R perfectly. It’s a tight fit, it’s extremely well-built so you don’t need to be concerned about this.

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One thing I fail to understand though, is the absence of any mount alignment marking in the lens body. For whatever reason, Laowa decided to have the marking in the mount ring itself. Design wise this is not the wisest solution, I must say. It makes it that little bit less user-friendly. If you are to mount your lens in a darkness, you may struggle that little bit.

Mounted on the GFX 50R, the camera becomes immediately front heavy. Don’t you ever consider shooting single handed because it won’t work – it’s heavy. The lack of a DSLR style grip on the GFX 50R means that you will most likely carry the camera around by grabbing the lens body.

And boy, that’s indeed a long lens body.

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The Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-D is probably more suitable to be used on a GFX 50S or the  GFX 100. The lack of a decent grip makes it very uncomfortable to shoot handheld in the GFX 50R, especially for long periods of time.

But, if you ask me, this is not necessarily a problem because this type of ultra-wide lenses are meant to be used on a tripod. More on this below.

Walking around with the Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-D mounted on the GFX 50R means a combined 1.6 Kg of ballast attached to your body. I know this is not much for a medium format combination, but it does not change the fact that it’s still heavy and cumbersome. Especially when you are hiking up mountains to get that landscape shot early in the morning… So yes, it hurts your back.

Rings

There are two rings in the lens: the focusing ring and the aperture ring.

The focusing ring is very smooth, not too heavy nor too light. It’s en point, providing the perfect resistance. It feels nice to turn it just for the sake of it, such is the quality of the feed-back.

Mind me, in actual use you won’t turn the ring that much, unless you get very close to your subject. Ultra-wide lenses like the Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-D have heaps of depth-of-field. Close it down to f/8 and basically you have DOF from 1.5m to infinity.

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The aperture ring, unfortunately, is not as good as the focusing ring: the click-stops are not strong enough to lock the aperture in position. It’s easy to move it accidentally.

It happened so many times to me – too many.

It sucks, because you set the tripod, you adjust the camera for your framing, you turn the focusing ring to make sure focus is good and somewhere in the process, without knowing, you had accidentally changed your aperture. And, usually, you will realize it only after the shot is taken.

When you turn the aperture ring you can actually feel the stops, you feel the clicks. But just not strong enough.

This is the first lens where I encounter this type of problem. The only way to overcome this is to make a mental note to check the aperture right before you press the shutter. But a mental note is a mental note, and you will miss it from time to time as I did.

Lens cap & filter

Nothing to say about this one: it looks boring, it’s made of plastic and it attaches firmly to the lens. It has that funny and unattractive Laowa logo.

DSCF8141When I bought the lens, it came with a filter as part of the bundle. The filter size is 86mm, by the way.

I never use filters in my lenses because as a matter of principle I don’t think we should put things in front of the lens that will interfere with the light path reaching the lens. It doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s like shooting behind a window. Yes, I’m exaggerating and I know there are some really, really high quality filters out there. But still… Anyway, it’s a freebie from Laowa, so it’s ok.

Image Quality & User Experience

So how good is the Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-D? In short, pretty good. Above all, this lens is quite fun to use and very useful. But… In terms of pure performance, I question if it’s up to Fuji’s standard. Care to know more? Read on.

All photos below are clickable to full size. You will notice many photos are underexposed. These were all straight out of camera and the result of the GFX 50R’s metering in Aperture Priority mode. I decided to leave as is to show what exactly comes out of this lens when coupled to the GFX 50R.

The ultra-wide focal length

The Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-D has the equivalent 14mm field of view in 35mm terms which is absolutely crazy. If you had never used an ultra-wide lens like this one before, be prepared to be surprised by how much information the lens will put inside the frame.

Common mistakes are your own feet – and I’m not joking – or your own shadow when the sun is behind you. Yet this is one of the reasons a tripod is important, because in those situations you put the camera on timer and run away from the scene once you press the shutter. Most likely the photo will still show the camera and the tripod’s shadow though.

Using a wide angle lens – or ultra-wide angle, in this case – requires you to get close to the subject. And then even closer. It’s not about getting everything inside the frame – that’s another common mistake that will lead to boring photos.

Shot with a tripod, otherwise my shadow would ruin the photo… And really, really close.

Therefore, the first thing when using this lens is to remind yourself to get close to the subject. And with the Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-D, in many occasions I knew I was not close enough, but I just couldn’t get closer due to the site conditions.

This made me wondering if there is any added value going so wide. This is of course subjective and it highly depends on your shooting scenario, but several times I thought I’d rather have a classic 17mm – 35mm wide angle zoom on hand. The zoom would allow me a tighter framing in situations where getting physically closer meant potentially falling off a cliff and losing my life.

See that boat?  For a better result I’d have to be closer and get my feet wet…

I know some of you are going to say “not a problem because you can crop and reframe in post-processing, after all you have 50 million pixels to play with”.

Sure, but I don’t think this is professional. You can do it when there is no other solution, but you ought to get things right at the moment you take the photo. Framing and exposure, get it right from the start. Don’t rely too much on post-processing.

To this point, putting money factor aside and on field-of-view alone, I wonder if the Fuji GF 23mm f/4 R LM WR is a better choice with its less extreme 18mm equivalent focal length. It may sound irrelevant, but actually the 4mm difference between a 14mm and a 18mm it’s a lot at this wide focal end. So you have to ask yourself if you really need to go so wide.

A note on using a tripod

I’ve said before that this type of ultra-wide lens shall be used on a tripod and there is a reason for that.

The Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-D is a linear lens so you don’t get line distortions. In other words, this is not a fisheye lens so you only get straight lines. Hence the “Zero-D” which stands for Zero Distortion.

But there is a caveat here: as with all wide angle lenses, from the center of the frame towards the perimeter the image gets stretched. You had probably noticed that in group photos shot with the iPhone’s 28mm equivalent lens, people closer to the perimeter of the frame are usually fatter, right?

Now imagine what happens with the Laowa, which has an equivalent 14mm angle of view: this same effect is here, only that further accentuated.

Unless you want to show this exaggerated stretched perspective as a feature in itself, under normal circumstances you want to make sure your camera is perfectly levelled, i.e. straight with zero tilting, at level with the horizon.

A minor tilt – a very minor tilt – and it will immediately distort and potentially ruin your photo.

Getting the perspective right (top) or, with just a minor tilt, things get out of hand (bottom). Note how the stairs suddenly became disfigured.

Likewise, if you want to shoot the façade of a building, a very minor rotation at the horizontal plane will immediately accentuate the perspective. Therefore, you have to be very, very precise and make sure the focal plane is parallel to the building façade.

Now… Fancy doing this handheld? Good luck to you. You’ll need to hold your breath before pressing the shutter button, like a sniper. And still, you are likely to fail. Skip this all and use a tripod instead.

Sharpness

Let’s set this straight: the Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-D is sharp, but not razor sharp.

In the last couple of years, I got used to ultra sharp lenses from several brands. Razor sharp levels even wide open, corner to corner. Stuff like Leica’s 35mm Summicron, the Zeiss 35mm f/2 from my Sony RX1R II, or Fuji’s legendary XF 35mm f/1.4 R. And more.

In the GF system, I have Fuji’s own GF 65mm f/2.8 R WR which is razor sharp at the pixel level. Insanely sharp.

And this Laowa is simply not there. It does not belong to this league.

Now this does not mean the Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-D is not sharp. It’s just that it is not razor sharp. And frankly, how many of us really needs razor sharp performance at the pixel level? If you are not going to print your photos on large size, like posters or banners, then how important is this?

I guess most of us, myself and yourself included, 90% we just screen our photos in the computer, iPad or – even better – iPhone.  Then we share online via Facebook, Instagram or whatever. And that’s it. Occasionally we may print some photos, large size indeed, and the Laowa is good enough for this because, frankly, its’ sharp enough.

The hell with the lack of pixel level sharpness, right? You don’t necessarily stick your nose to the artwork when appreciating its quality, right?

Sharp enough for you?.. All shot at f/8.

Objectively, I found the best sharpness performance at f/8. That’s when the centre of the frame is sharp and the corners as well – albeit visibly not as sharp.

Below f/8, the performance is noticeably weaker. Wide open at f/4, for instance, you better stay out of there as in some occasions it even gets a bit blurry, especially at the edges of the frame.

From f/8 all the way to f/32, I could not find any difference in terms of sharpness. But I didn’t investigate much, to be honest.

The one thing I found quite intriguing is that sharpness levels of this lens are somehow inconsistent. Depending on what you are shooting and probably the distance to your subject and the angle of the light (?), you may get better or worse results.

Weather this makes any sense from the technical standpoint I’m not sure. But my experience using this lens tells me so. Go wonder.

Light fall-off

Starting wide open at f/4 and there is considerable light fall-off, probably around 1 stop. It’s significant. Closing down the lens will improve, as always, and when you reach f/8 that’s probably where you want to stay because stopping further down doesn’t seem to make any difference.

Visible light fall-off: shot at f/4 (top) and f/8 (bottom), sun still rising early in the morning. 

So how is the situation at f/8? Well, I must say the centre of the image is often visibly brighter than the remaining areas of the frame. But it depends a bit on the overall condition of the scene: in the same image, the top corners of a clear blue sky with enough brightness will probably look less affected than, say, the bottom corners with a grass field not as bright as the sky.

Is this an issue? Yes and no. But I’m more inclined to say yes. You can obviously rectify this in post-processing, but you are not supposed to. I admire the excellency and optical qualities of a lens, the way they treat the light to hit the sensor. I’m not so much into post-adjustments on the computer. I’d rather have a lens that gets it right from step 1.

I’ve made a note before that when using the Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-D in the GFX 50R, the camera often underexposes. I guess if you manually set the exposure right, the light fall-off becomes less significant.

Colours

I’ve been shooting Fuji for many years now, ever since I bought my first Fuji X system camera which was the X-E2. Fuji is well known for its punchy, lively colours, and I’m not referring to their corny film simulations. Straight out of camera – weather JPEG or RAW – and you always seem to get pleasant colours.

With the GFX 50R and its medium format sensor, things got even better. With the GF 65mm f/2.8 R WR lens, the colours coming out of this combo are really next level.

With the Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-D though, you don’t always get these same results. Punchy colours will show up only when the conditions are right: good light levels, a bright sunny day and stuff like this. And oh, make sure the sun is behind you.

Textbook case: sun behind my back, bright colours showing off

When the conditions are not right, you easily get dull and flat colours. To some extent, I’m not sure if this is the lens per se, or just a typical condition of ultra-wide angle lenses. See, with such a large field of view, perhaps it just takes a funny angle towards the light source to ruin your colours.

Flat colours… This lens is tricky. I can assure you the colours were better than this.

Obviously, shooting against the sun and you can get interesting results as well. I guess the photos below are a good example?..

In any case, the GFX 50R‘s sensor provides heaps of latitude for post-adjustments. Move some sliders here and there and voilá, you get your desired colours. Not an optimal solution, but ultimately it works.

Autofocus

What autofocus? This is a 100% manual lens, remember?

Manual focus

It’s not difficult to get the focus right when you have so much depth-of -field on hand. With this lens you focus by controlling the aperture.

Mostly, you will keep the focus on infinity. At f/8, it means your DOF starts from 1.5m all the way to infinity. Not enough? Well, then stop down to f/16 and… And there is no f/16 marking on the DOF scale. Wtf?.. Smallest aperture marking is f/11, in fact.

Is this common practice? Never noticed this on other lenses before… So does it mean all the way down from f/11 EVERYTHING is in focus? Probably not, but whatever.

Shot against the sun at f/32 for maximum DOF and a 10 point sun star. Note the light reflections on the top left corner and the pentagon from the 5-blade aperture system.

You can still use your camera’s focus assist tools: peaking and magnifying. Mind me, forget magnifying because chances are, whatever portion of the frame you want to check focus on, it will show up really small in the screen – even with magnification. Because when using this lens, everything seems to be so far away.

So in the GFX 50R, sometimes I use focus peaking just for that extra confirmation that the closest subjects are indeed within the focus range. It works pretty well.

Bokeh

You don’t buy this lens for bokeh… But still, since it has a very useful minimum focus distance of 20 cm, you can play a bit with it as I did.

Super close distance, shot at f/4.

There is an online reviewer who actually took a macro photo with this lens. The result was quite interesting indeed. I thought it funny because, well… It’s not that you would often associate an ultra-wide lens to macro photography.

Final thoughts

I started this review talking about money: the fact that medium format lenses are not cheap and that the Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-D provides a good alternative to Fuji’s only ultra-wide lens at present: the GF 23mm f/4 R LM WR, which retails at USD$ 2100.

I bought the Laowa for USD$ 1100, so we are talking USD$ 1000 price difference. And with this money you can buy a camera, the latest Fuji GF 50mm f/3.5 LM WR lens for your GFX system, or even plane tickets for an exotic photo trip. You get the point.

Objectively, I’d say there are mainly 2 reasons why one would get the Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-D in lieu of Fuji’s ultra-wide: it’s either money, or any spec in the Fuji lacking in the Laowa that you find essential for your photography.

With the Fuji you pay more and, fairly, you get more: autofocus; electronics including aperture control through the camera and EXIF data; weather sealing. And perhaps better image quality?

Now how important are these extra specs, and do they justify the price difference – this is something for you to decide.

I don’t own a GF 23mm f/4 R LM WR and I’ve never used one, so it’s not that I can say much about it. However, I’m tempted to make this assumption: from the reviews I’ve read online, plus knowing Fuji’s reputation and quality standards, I tend to think the Fuji is a better performer in terms of sharpnesslight fall-off and colour rendition. But this is just an assumption, so take it with a grain of salt.

As for me, I’m perfectly happy with the Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-DI’m not a professional, I’m just a photo enthusiast like most of us, probably yourself included. I don’t need pixel level sharpness and I can live with the light fall-off and the occasional flat colours. Move some sliders here and there in post-processing and I’m done, happy.

Likewise, I don’t need the autofocus, weather sealing or electronics. Yes, the EXIF data is a nice to have, but then again using the Laowa the only info missing in the file is the aperture. And 90% of the time I’m shooting this lens at f/8… So not an issue at all.

Overall, the Laowa is a very good lens and good enough for me. And when I say good enough I don’t mean any disrespect. Very much the contrary. It’s about being moderate and not lusting over the best-of-the-best just because it’s out there and you can afford it.

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Indeed, I highly enjoy using the Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-D in the GFX 50R. I have a carbon-fibre Sirui tripod that is super light and it takes no effort carrying it in my backpack, but in the past I seldom took it out with me… It was brand new… Ever since I bought the Laowa though, this tripod became my best friend and is always with me now.

Walking around, setting-up the tripod, getting the frame right using the camera’s excellent flip-out screen and the built-in electronic level… It slows me down, it’s relaxing, it’s mind therapy, pure enjoyment, pure photography.

So, in a nutshell: the Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-D is not only a solid alternative to the more expensive Fuji, it’s a very good lens in its own right.

And I highly recommend it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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