Wide and Wider... Playing with New Laowa 12mm Ultra-wide Lens
June 21, 2019 ~ A couple of times in the past I have done posts on wide-angle adventures. When I was still shooting Sony I had a great 16-50mm f/2.8 lens. With the Nikon I have been using my Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 which is very much like the more expensive Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. It is a great lens but heavy and I found I was using it mostly on the shortest side. I am so used to shooting prime lenses I forget to use zoom features; I zoom with my feet by moving back or forward. In fact, it is the only zoom I own.
Then I noticed on one of the FB sites some interesting images made with ultra-wide lenses. An ultra wide-angle lens is a lens whose focal length is shorter than the short side of film or sensor. So, for a full-frame camera like my Nikon D850, technically anything shorter than 24mm (Sensor Size: 35.9 x 23.9 mm) is classed as an ultra-wide. Others define ultra-wide as shorter than 16mm.
I had the 15mm but I wanted to go further than that. I did some research and chose the Laowa 12mm f/2.8. That is a picture of it I borrowed from B&H. It is a tiny thing; only 1.3 lbs and 2.94" x 3.26" / 74.8 x 82.8 mm. Yep. Barely 3 inches long including the little lens hood.
They say that wide angle lenses give you the whole picture; I wanted something that would put you IN the picture. Let’s look at some images made at 15mm and then with the new 12mm.
This was taken with my Tamron 15-30mm at 15mm. Bill and I stopped downtown one rainy afternoon on the way back from Anahuac to let the traffic die down. This is down by the old Enron building where that circular walkway spans the cross walks. We have photographed it numerous time BUT great images are often the result of returning to a location repeatedly. The time of day and light is always different and you may notice something new from a different vantage point.
The Tamron 15-30 has an angle of view of 110 degrees at 15mm measured diagonally. If you REALLY want to get in the weeds and understand this topic, check this out: Angle of View.
This is a similar image taken between tall structures looking up. It was taken with the new Laowa 12mm ultra wide. And it has a 121 degree angle of view.
It doesn’t seem like much of a difference but it is. Plus, the lens is so small and lightweight.
Here is another inside and under the rice mill structure. It had been raining… which seems to be a constant theme for us these days. Earlier we were at a different part of the old mills and we had to run for the truck during one shower. The new lens rig is small enough to fit inside your shirt. I tested it.
Here is Bill Maroldo coming down the stairs at the Observation Tower at Cullinan Park. I was standing right up next to the last step looking up at him looking down at me. He already had his 12mm lens (being an early adopter and all).
And this is from inside the new Observation Tower at Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary. We were there on a hot sunny day and there were no birds to be found. If you haven’t seen the new structure; check it out. It will definitely withstand hurricane force winds. I like the way the 12mm will include what is clearly above my head in this perspective.
This pier is just down the road from the bird Sanctuary. Black and white works so well on high contrast images. I was under the pier because of the angles but… it was really hot. Shooting from the shade is sometimes preferable in Texas. This was just one image of the five bracketed shots I took.
You know about bracketing, right? We have been using bracketed shots a lot with the ultra-wides because the lens is new and different and at least you have some choices to process while you are experimenting. You can either pick the best of the lot as I did above or use the five images to create an HDR image. If you want to do bracketing you will need to set it up; check your manual. For the Nikon D850 you have to set it in Live View and it is a real pain. We use five shots set at “Under >MTR > Over” for the order and 1 full stop increments. Just hold the camera very still while it takes the five shots at varying shutter speeds.
Some of these have been processed into HDR images and those are noted in the caption. To do HDR images, you set your camera to automatically take multiple (bracketed) shots so you end up with a series of images exposed from too dark to too light. Then, using software of your choice (I use the Google-NIK HDR Effects Pro 2 plug in) the images are aligned and details are taken from the range of exposures and blended into a single sharp, colorful image.
Any wide angle lens will have some distortion but the Laowa 12mm has minimal distortion along the sides as long as the camera is level. To achieve that, of course you could use a tripod but it is a lot of trouble to be hauling around. The lens weighs 1.3 lb / 609 g (which is nothing compared to a telephoto lens) so hand-holding is easy if you can keep it level. And keep your fingers away from the front lens element or they will be in the shot. And and watch your feet, too. This lens is WIDE and it does take some getting used to.
Two things have worked well for me:
First, activating the Virtual Horizon. You want the one in the view finder NOT the one you find in the setup menu. That one works in Live View and is use to level your rig on a tripod. The Virtual Horizon feature shows roll and pitch based on information from the camera’s tilt sensors. For the view finder version, it shows up by little squares above and below the horizon or to each side of the vertical axis. This is invaluable for ultra-wides because the tiniest shift will change the perspective completely. And I mean by shifting your weight or the smallest movement. If the camera is level (horizontally and vertically) then distortion is minimal. If not, you get some pretty interesting affects, which could be fun. If you are shooting a different camera, get to the online manual and search to see how to enable this feature.
For the Nikon D850 you have to map it an unused button. I have the Fn1 button (on the front of the camera) set for toggling the Virtual Horizon on when I am doing wide-angle shots.
And as an aside, if you aren’t taking advantage of programming those extra buttons on your Nikon D850 you need to read this Custom Control Assignment section from the manual. I have the Pv button set to Single Spot so I can change quickly from D9-spot or 3D. Also the Lens Focus buttons on my two 500s are mapped to Single Spot.
The other trick is to enable Focus Peaking. Oh, did I mention this ultra wide Laowa 12 mm is a manual focus lens? It does communicate with your camera body once you set it as a Non-CPU Lens. The EXIF data shows up in the viewfinder but you have to get it in focus with the focus ring. And the ring has little markers you match to your estimate the distance. This is a lens that lets you get up close and personal as the minimum focus distance is 7.09" / 18 cm. For this shot I was standing maybe a foot away from this sign looking down the curved wall.
But back to Focus Peaking. It uses colored outlines to show you what is in focus on Live View. Mine are blue but you can set the color you prefer. It is really useful for macro work and we have found it helpful with this lens. If you are looking at the settings to these ultra-wide shots, you will see they are taken mostly at f/11. At that aperture everything should be in focus from a foot to infinity. But you just don’t know for sure so the Focus Peaking is a good way to check.
This Bowl sign was taken in Live View although I hardly ever do that. I was not tall enough to get the Virtual Horizon lined up level so the words wouldn’t be distorted. I just held the camera up over my head and didn’t move while I fired off five bracketed shots. Then I picked the one that looked the best.
Some bracketed shots I did use for HDR processing. Here is another one from another downtown trip, this time to Green Street. The image has been all Grunged up with Topaz Adjust 5. Notice the stretch limo coming toward you? It actually is a Hummer moving through the five bracketed shots used to make an HDR image.
This is another one where I just picked the one with the best exposure. I was standing in the middle of the street looking up. Obviously I was in a big hurry and clipped a bit off the circle on the right.
A shooting buddy is necessary to watch for traffic while you try something like this.
We revisited the old Comet Rice Mill on the east side of Houston. It is used for venues and art shows periodically and has a lot of really cool graffiti/street art on the outside. Again this is one of a series of five bracketed shots where I picked the best exposure - and I am seeing that 1/50 sec works pretty well with f/11 and ISO 1000 if the light is not too bright. 1/50 sec seems unthinkable if you are used to shooting birds with a long lens, but it is definitely doable with a tiny light-weight rig.
You do it all the time when you take phone shots.
So that is the report on the new toy. I am still experimenting but I know I need to get down lower and up closer to take full advantage of the lens’ capabilities. And I want to see what I can do with interiors. We are thinking about a trip to Central Texas to see the Painted Churches; doesn’t that sound like fun?
Do you like taking wide-angle shots? Would an ultra-wide like this fit in your tool kit? Let me know in the comments below.