Throughout much of my photography career, I’ve tended to avoid ultrawide lenses as I dislike the whole fisheye distortion effect.
However, recently, the manual focus Laowa 9mm F2.8 Zero-D came along, promising claims of “zero distortion” which piqued my interest. This review focuses on the Sony e-mount (APS-C) version, but the lens also comes in many other mounts: Canon EF-M, Fuji X, Leica L, MFT, and Nikon Z.
So, does this ultrawide lens actually live up to its claims of zero distortion? Let’s find out. (spoiler: it’s a great lens)
Looking for a quick summary before jumping in?
- Ultrawide with no distortion
- Beautiful and premium build
- Precise manual focus
- One of the best ultrawide lenses
Size & Weight
Starting this off the way I start every other review, let’s talk about size and weight.
The Laowa is incredibly compact, measuring only 2.09 inches (5.3cm) long and weighing a light 7.6oz (215g). I’m a HUGE fan of compact setups, and this lens fits perfectly on my Sony a6000.
Over the years, I’ve found that a lot of manual lenses are able to shave off a lot of weight and size due to their lack of autofocus components.
Is the lens well built?
As for build quality, the Laowa 9mm F2.8 is, frankly, fantastic.
I don’t want it to seem like I’m overselling it, but literally every bit of the lens is made of metal, even down to the (reversible) petal-shaped lens hood.
One aspect that’s rather interesting is that the lens includes some sort of special coating that prevents moisture buildup on the front element. Much like waterproof fabric, rain will bead up and fall off the glass upon impact. Really cool, and something I haven’t seen on any other lens.
Between the waterproof coating, all-metal build, and my experiences with previous Laowa lenses, I truly do believe this thing is built to last. It feels like an absolute tank.
Aesthetics & Ergonomics
Next up, beauty is subjective, of course, but I think the Laowa 9mm F2.8 is absolutely aesthetically gorgeous.
The barrel is finished in sleek black, which contrasts extremely well with the white and red text engravings. The blue line adds that nice little bit of premium touch, reminding me a bit of the red line on Canon L glass.
Ergonomically, the lens is a joy to use. The small size yet heavier build allows it to balance extremely well on my a6k, and it felt quite comfortable to use on a long day of shooting.
Next up, we’re talking about sharpness. My lens tests don’t get very scientific, so don’t expect any crazy complicated measurements or anything. I generally just pixel-peep to the extreme.
So, to cut right to the chase: the Laowa 9mm F2.8 is incredibly sharp, at least when stopped down a bit.
Shooting wide open at F2.8 delivers near-flawless centers, with heavy fall-off near the corners. Stopping down just a bit, to F5.6, shows pretty much flawless performance across the entire frame.
Major diffraction does start to set in at F16, so if you’re looking to do any long exposures on sunny days, I’d suggest investing in an ND filter (this lens takes 49mm filters).
Optical Quirks & Flaws
The only real flaw of the Laowa 9mm F2.8 would be the extremely heavy vignette. To put it bluntly, corners are about -5EV when shooting wide open, and stopping down really doesn’t do much to remedy that.
This vignette is generally fixable in post, but you do run the risk of introducing some heavy noise if you’re already pushing your ISO in low light situations.
Otherwise, chromatic aberrations and flaring are essentially non issues.
Finally, let’s talk distortion. Are Laowa’s claims of “Zero-D” true?
Mostly, yes. The lens isn’t absolutely flawless, but in the vast majority of situations, you’ll hardly notice anything.
At close focus (5in/12.7cm minimum), the lens suffers from some very minor barrel distortion, but that’s easily fixable in post-processing.
At long distances, the zero-d portion shines. When standing back and shooting sweeping landscapes or architecture, distortion is pretty much non-existent.
So, while the claims of zero distortion aren’t necessarily completely true, its close enough to where I’d say: good job Laowa.
Overall Optical Performance
Overall, I’m incredibly impressed by the optical performance of the Laowa 9mm F2.8.
Despite the drawback of heavy vignette, the lens handles distortion, chromatic aberration, and flaring nearly perfectly.
Sharpness, despite corners being soft wide open, is absolutely phenomenal when stopped down.
Focusing & Other Notes
Next up, focusing. As stated prior, the Laowa 9mm F2.8 is exclusively manual focus and, my goodness, it does it well.
The focus ring, though a little bit small, is extremely well dampened, allowing for ultra-precise and smooth focus. I’ve used a lot of manual focus lenses in the past, and this one definitely hits near the top of my list.
The focus throw is about 170 degrees, which may seem excessively long, but as this lens is so wide you’ll be getting everything in focus most of the time anyway. The only you’ll have to refocus is when doing close-up work.
No Electronic Connections
In addition to being entirely manual focus, the lens has no electronic connections to the camera. This is pretty typical of many manual lenses, though some higher end glass (such as from Voigtlander) do retain electronic connections.
What this means is that you’ll miss out on EXIF data and will have to control aperture with a physical ring on the lens.
Speaking of which, the aperture ring is clicked, meaning there’s hard clicks every full stop. Some photographers (and videographers) prefer clickless, but I absolutely love the premium feel of a clicked aperture ring.
My Final Thoughts
Generally, at the end of my articles I like to offer a few alternatives. Do note that the other recommendations below cannot come close to the “zero distortion” of the Laowa, but I figured I’d offer them up for your consideration anyway.
First up, if you’re looking to save some money, consider the Rokinon 12mm F2.0. It’s not quite as wide, but it offers similar optical performance (sharpness), a nice build, and is substantially cheaper.
Second, if you’re willing to deal with some post-processing, the cheap Rokinon 8mm F2.8 is technically a fisheye, but with proper distortion correction becomes a pretty solid ultrawide.
Finally, if you’re looking for the closest competitor with autofocus, the Sony 10-18mm F4 is pretty much the closest you’re going to get to this focal range. Expect heavier distortion and lower image quality, though.
Anyway, if you’re looking for low distortion, I honestly don’t think the Laowa 9mm F2.8 can be matched.
It’s razor sharp, small, built like a tank, and nearly lives up to its Zero-D claims.
If you’re looking for the perfect ultrawide yourself, this one can’t be beat. I’ll include purchase links below if you’re interested. Thanks for reading. 🙂
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