Laowa 9mm f/2.8 Dreamer Lens Review

bythom laowa 9mm

What is It?

This little lens—and yes, it's little—provides a very wide angle manual focus option that's free of linear distortion. It's a DX lens, so appropriate for use on the Nikon Z50 and Zfc. Effective focal length is about 14mm. Angle of view is near 105° horizontal. Since there are no electrical contacts on this lens, mounting it on an FX body doesn't immediately invoke a DX crop. On those full frame cameras, the top and bottom of the frame don't really vignette, but the left and right sides do at just past the DX boundary.

Let's start with the size: at less than 2" (50mm) deep and (mostly) slimmer than the Z-mount, the lens weighs in at only 7.6 ounces (215g). The Zfc body seems to draft the lens, even when you mount the included lens hood on the 9mm. 

bythom laowa 9mmzfc

Focus can be down to 4.7" (0.12m), and the lens has DOF markings at f/2.8, f/5.6, f/8, and f/11. Focus the lens at 2' and f/5.6 and from 1 to 9 feet should be in focus. Hyperfocal distance at f/2.8 is about 5' (1.53m), by the way, though there's no focus marking that would help you find that. The focus ring does rotate almost 180° to go through the full range of focus capability to infinity. But focus markings are only provided at:

  • 0.4, 0.56, and 1.64 feet, plus infinity
  • 0.12, 0.2, and 0.5 meters, plus infinity

The lens has apertures from f/2.8 to f/22 set on a clickable aperture ring at the back of the lens (old school). Focus peaking works pretty well with this lens, and I'd suggest that you keep magnification on a customizable button to verify focus point quickly (the OK button is typically the default).

Surprisingly, the 9mm f/2.8 has 15 elements in 10 groups, two of which are aspherical and three of which are extra-low dispersion. The front element has a coating (named Frog Eye ;~!) to repel dust and moisture. Curiously, the front and rear elements are actually quite small in diameter compared to the already small diameter of the lens itself. Amazingly, we have a 49mm front filter ring on the lens, so yes, you can use filters with it.

Note, however, that the Laowa 9mm f/2.8 does not have electrical contacts to talk to the camera, and 9mm isn't something you can set in Non-CPU lens data (8mm and 13mm are the closest Nikon-allowed settings). 

Body build is mostly polycarbonate over metal, and the lens is said to be reasonably weather sealed. 

The 9mm f/2.8 comes with a plastic pouch and a pinch-type front cap and sells for US$499.

Source of the reviewed lens: B&H loaner (purchased)

Laowa's Web site for the lens.

How's it Handle?

We have a few things to talk about here. 

First off, the supplied lens hood bayonets onto the front of the lens (good) but does not lock into position (bad). It's not only possible to get the lens hood cockeyed to the optical view easily, but I found that there's a tendency for it to fall off if bumped.

The focus ring is smooth and the long, near 180° throw gives you a lot of ability to fine tune the focus (thus my recommendation of having a magnification button available). Absolutely not issues with focus.

However, the aperture ring is also smooth, and it is click stopped at the full stops. There's a fairly long move from f/2.8 to f/4 that's not clicked at one end (f/2.8 is bump-stopped, but not clicked). It's pretty easy to be setting something that's not f/2.8 and f/4 with the lens if you're rough with handling and not paying attention. Of course, since the lens doesn't have electrical contacts, the camera won't report when you do, so you have to get into the habit of looking at the aperture ring, which means peaking over the top of the camera. 

The handling issues aren't out-and-out flaws, but I'm pretty sure that one of the two problems (hood not latched, aperture moved) will trip you up in the field from time to time.

How's it Perform?

Sharpness: Surprisingly sharp wide open in the center, with a modest decline as you stop down. I'd call the center excellent out through f/5.6, Very good at f/8, and good at f/11. The corners are somewhat the opposite: on the poor/fair border at f/2.8, improving to good- at f/5.6, and then peaking at a strong good at f/8. The center of the frame edges (top, bottom, left, right) do better than the corners out through f/8, so the lens is probably going to perform well for most uses.


Linear Distortion: Yes, this lens is close to Zero-D, as Laowa advertises, with well less than a percent of barrel distortion uncorrected. The distortion appears to have a small amount of mustache to it, mostly in the far edges. I found I could correct the results easily with the Adobe converters to near zero distortion. Funny thing is, the Nikon Coolpix P5000 correction actually is quite close to what's needed. 

Chromatic Aberration: Not as much as I was expecting. Less than a pixel width (at 20mp) wide open, and that goes up to about a full pixel width as you stop down.

Vignetting: Probably the Achilles heel of the lens, if it has one. Wide open the corners approached 4 stops of vignetting, and even stopping down to f/8 reduced this only by about half. The vignetting starts relatively close to the center of the frame, too, though the worst impacts aren't seen until you're at what would be about the 2.3x crop mark on a full frame sensor.

Flare: No obvious negative attributes here with in-frame light sources. 

Bokeh: Okay, it's tough to generate enough out of focus to provide meaningful bokeh, but it's possible wide open. You'll find a bright ring on OOF highlights with some rough onion skin (caused by the aspherical elements, no doubt). Curiously, in the far corners you don't get cats eye, but the spherical aberration ends up distorted circles into oblong spaceships. No, I wouldn't go out of my way to get out of focus bokeh on this lens. You're likely going to be going the other way and trying to pull more in with depth of field.

Final Words

At US$499, this simple, manual focus lens doesn't seem inexpensive. That said, it provides a DX option that we don't have, something very wide angle without linear distortion to speak of. While the f/2.8 maximum aperture vignettes strongly, that can be corrected in post processing (use High in the in-camera Vignette control for JPEGs). 

I hesitate to say that the lens is great for interiors (real estate) and architectural type photography, but my hesitation is on the word "great." Let's call it "good" for those purposes with a little bit of care (stopping down and controlling vignetting). I should also point out that this is probably the lens for Instagrammers and vloggers. On a Zfc, I don't even have to extend my arm out to get into the Selfie position (and the Zfc is the correct body to use this lens on, due to its articulating Rear LCD and Self-portrait mode function).

While I don't get corner to corner sharpness quite high enough to fully endorse the lens as a goto landscape lens, it can do that work quite competently, just not exceptionally. The big issue will be getting the focus plane set right, since you'll be doing it by eye, not autofocus. 

I keep hearing people use the word "fun" when related to photography, particularly with cameras such as the Zfc. As many of you know, I don't buy into that idea (that cameras or other gear are fun). However, I will say this: with this lens on a Zfc you can indeed have some fun trying to figure out how to show off what this lens can do. It takes unique subjects, managed in unique ways, with a bit of thought about perspective, to show off what this lens can do; I can see someone describing that as a fun thing to try. Hmm. Maybe I should go over to the local zoo and feed the giraffes (they have a platform built for that). Would that be fun? ;~)

One very unusual idea I found was to set my Z9 to 3.8K/60P ProRes RAW HQ (which uses a 2.3x crop). Holding the camera just over a foot from my iMac the combo took in the whole iMac 5K monitor. This is a remarkably interesting wide angle optic for that particular video setting, indeed, one of the few you can find that doesn't distort linearly. 

As a "practical" option that you'll use often on a Z50 or Zfc, the 9mm f/2.8 probably isn't that lens. I can think of other wide angle lenses that I might prefer, though none that go this wide. On the other hand, this lens absolutely has uses many will appreciate. So:

Recommended (for some) (2022)

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