Laowa 24mm f/14 2x Macro Probe Lens Review

You have probably wondered on occasion how wildlife documentary shooters are able to get such incredibly close macro shots of small insects. Well, one of the ways to do it is through the use of a periscope or probe lens. Lenses such as the Innovision Probe 2+ and the T-Rex SuperScope are just two of the options available, but being speciality lenses they are expensive to buy or rent. Affordable options are far and few between, but Laowa is aiming to change all that with their 24mm f/14 2x Macro Probe lens.

The Laowa 24mm f/14 2x Macro Probe is the world’s first consumer-grade probe lens, and it really does allow you to capture some very creative shots. Unlike conventional macro lenses, the Laowa 24mm Probe lens can create a perspective that cannot be replicated with a conventional macro lens. Not only can it focus really close (2cm @ 2:1), which is perfect for showing a great amount of detail and texture, but it is also capable of creating a compelling wide angle ‘Bug Eye’ view (84.1°). This allows you to get a macro wide-angle perspective that is very different than y0u are used to seeing. For telephoto macro lenses, the subject will fill most of the frame and appear isolated from the surrounding environment instead.

Full frame coverage

The Laowa 24mm f/14 Probe can cover both standard 35mm full frame and Super 35 image sensors. This makes the lens suitable for use on just about any camera. The lens is available in Canon EF, Nikon F and Sony FE mounts. A cine version with a click-less aperture and focus gears in Arri PL mount is also available to order.

Size and weight

The lens tips the scales at only 1.04 pounds (474 grams) which is fairly light, but you do have to take into account that it’s a very long lens. The Canon EF mount version I was testing measured in at 40.7cm (16.02″) from the camera mount to the tip. That’s longer than a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens (34.3 cm).

The lens does come in its own metal case and if you are going to put it into a bag with other lenses you will need to be mindful of its length.

The long protruding barrel could potentially be a problem if you are using the lens in certain locations where it may well get mistaken for the barrel of a gun.

Optical design

For the optical design, Laowa has divided the lens (27 elements in 19 groups) into 3 functional groups. These functional groups are: Macro lens + Relay Lens + Objective lens. That’s also one of the reasons why this lens is a bit more expensive than a normal lens as its basically 3 lenses merged into 1.

Macro Lens – At the front of the lens to capture the image (2:1 macro)

Objective Lens – Near the camera sensor to expand the image to fit on the full frame sensor

Relay Lens – To relay the image from the macro lens to the objective lens along the long barrel without image quality loss

2:1 Magnification to Infinity Focus

The lens has a focusing range from 2:1 macro magnification to infinity focus. With a 2:1 maximum magnification you can shoot really small bugs/objects and reveal details that cannot be seen by naked eye. The wide focusing range (from Macro to infinity) is useful for capturing both the finer details as well as the background all in one shot. This really does make it quite a unique lens, as you can actually use it as a normal 24mm wide angle lens if you wanted to. I probably wouldn’t, but you could.

Deep Depth-of-Field

The challenge when using macro lenses has always been trying to follow tiny objects that you can barely see and keep them in focus. This is very difficult to do when the error for getting sharp focus can be as little as a fraction of a millimetre. To overcome this, the Laowa 24mm f/14 2x Macro Probe utilizes a wide angle design so it can achieve a much greater depth of field at a close distance (compared to a telephoto macro lens). Being able to focus so closely while still having a deep depth of field is a huge advantage for both studio and wildlife shooting. Too often with extreme macro shots, all you can see is your subject and not the background.

This deep depth of field makes it way easier to capture macro images that are actually reasonably sharp and in focus.

A waterproof front lens barrel

Laowa has made the front barrel of the lens waterproof so it can be used to shoot in and out of the water. The waterproof design allows you to get shots in water and liquid, and it also has the added benefit of keeping fine powders and dust out of the lens.

Now, you can’t put the whole length of the lens in water. About halfway down the lens, there is the USB input for powering the small inbuilt LED ring light, so you can’t go past that point.

40cm long tubular lens barrel

With a 40cm (15.7″) long barrel, you can focus really close to the subject but still keep your camera away from the subject. The long lens barrel also allows shooters to keep a safe distance away from animals such as spiders when shooting. Being able to get the lens really close to your subject is great, but you do have to take into account what you are shooting. Trying to get the lens close to insects that fly isn’t that easy as they are likely to fly off before your lens even gets near them. For slow moving insects, it’s great.

Tiny 2 cm lens tip

The tiny 2cm diameter lens allows you to capture unique perspectives. With such a small diameter you can insert the lens into tiny crevices, inside a glass bottle, or places where a normal lens just can’t go. The smaller lens tip also makes it easier for lighting. A typical macro lens with a larger lens barrels blocks more light, but a small lens barrel allows you to get light a lot closer to your subject. This is important because the Laowa lens has a max aperture of f/14 so you are going to need all the light you can get. According to Laowa, they would rather use external lighting to compensate for the exposure, than make a lens with a bigger front tip. There are some probe lenses on the market which have a higher effective max. aperture but they feature a much larger lens tip which limits their usage.

LED Ring Light

In a clever move, Laowa has also built-in a LED ring light at the tip which is powered through the micro-USB slot on the barrel. In somewhat of a strange move this light is tungsten and not daylight. This is not ideal if you are using the light outdoors in daylight conditions. I measured the lights output and Kelvin color temperature with a Sekonic C-700. Why bother doing this? The ring light is a key feature of this lens and you are probably going to use it quite frequently, therefore, you should know how it performs. Below you can see the results.

As you can see the LED light on the Laowa 24mm f/14 2x Macro Probe lens recorded a Kelvin color temperature of 3995K. At its minimum focusing distance of 2cm, the output of the light was 178000lx (16500fc). Herein lies the problem, even though the lenses aperture can be set between f/14 and f/40, if you are using the lens to shoot very close objects with the built-in ring light it is still incredibly bright. In somewhat of a surprise, I found a lot of small insects seemed to get hypnotized by the ring light and I was able to get the lens very, very close to my subject.

This becomes very evident if you are shooting anything with a reflective surface as you get these big light reflections in your images. I would have liked to have seen Laowa include some way of being able to dim the lights output. After I mentioned this to Laowa they told me that, “The LED light will be dimmable through an additional cord that we are going to include with the camera.”

As far as accurate color rendition is concerned, above are the results for the LED ring light.  The LED ring light might just be an extra addition on a lens, but the quality of that light should at least be up to the job. The in-built ring light recorded an extended CRI (R1-R15) of 73.46. In 2018 this is a pretty horrible score for any LED light, let alone one that you are probably going to use quite often with this lens.

You need a lot of light

You need a lot of light to use this lens. With a maximum aperture of f/14, even outdoors you will need some sort of extra light unless you are using the lens in sunny conditions. I tried using the lens outdoors on a sunny day in the shade and even at f/14 you couldn’t get enough light at an ISO of 800. You really need to think carefully about how much light you will need when using this light and plan accordingly.

If you are going to shoot anything at higher frame rates then you will need a lot of extra light to obtain the correct exposure.

Unique shots

I found that I could use the Laowa 24mm f/14 2x Macro Probe lens to get some very interesting shots that are not usually possible. Some of the most interesting shots I got were when using the lens on a small motorized slider and then tracking across or back over objects. Because you are shooting at such close magnifications a move on a small slider feels like it is going on forever. For shooting small objects or documents you can create some very interesting camera moves using this combination.

I did, however, find that because the barrel is so long and lightweight it was susceptible to bouncing around and moving which you can see in some of the example shots I did. At really close magnification it is very hard to shoot tiny insects if they are on a branch or a leave and there is even the slightest amount of wind. The movement gets amplified so much that it looks like you are wildly moving the camera all over the place.

Bokeh

This is a not a lens for creating gorgeous bokeh. The bokeh and out of focus areas when using this lens take on a very muddy and not very pleasing form. If you are expecting nice bokeh when using this lens you will be disappointed.

Image quality

The Laowa 24mm f/14 2x Macro Probe lens might have a lot of bells and whistles, but that won’t mean anything if it can’t produce good quality images. Below you can see examples shot with the lens where I tested sharpness, bokeh, flare control, and use as a standard wide angle lens. Below you can also see some shots where I put the lens on the Smartt SliderMini motorized slider to track across small objects.

Usually, if you shoot with lenses at high f stops you risk degrading the sharpness of your images, but due to such a complex optical design, the Laowa 24mm f/14 2x Macro Probe lens actually performs reasonably well. When you are shooting extreme macro shots, things are not always going to appear sharp because you are looking at incredibly small details. There is a difference between actual sharpness and perceived sharpness. In saying that, the lens is not what I would describe as tack sharp and you shouldn’t expect the sharpness to be as good as most traditional maco lenses.

The lens certainly performs a lot better when shooting extreme macro shots than it does when used at infinity. If you use the lens as a regular wide angle at infinity it is not very sharp and there is quite a lot of barrel distortion.

It’s not the best lens optically, because Laowa has certainly had to make some compromises in making it. The lens does show signs of barrel distortion when using it for wide-angle shots and it’s not that sharp out towards the edges of the frame. It certainly performs a lot better on S35 sized sensors than when using it on a full frame camera. I shot material with the lens in 4K, 5K, and 6K and it held up well. If you shoot in 6K and nail the focus you can crop in quite significantly on an image and get some amazingly close ultra macro shots.

The lens doesn’t have much contrast and it is very susceptible to flare which makes the lack of contrast even worse.

Color Fringing

The lens does exhibit some color fringing. I found that in certain lighting conditions I got color fringing around objects. While it’s not super bad, it is still there.

Dust, water, hair etc.

With such a close focusing wide angle macro lens with a f/14 aperture, any small bit of dust, hair or water shows up on your vision. I constantly had footage ruined because of specs of fine dust were on the front of the lens. You really do need to keep the front of this lens as well as your sensor absolutely spotless to avoid this from happening. Above you can see the dust and hair spots on the image.

Using the lens outside is tricky. When you are getting very close to insects or animals or pushing the lens through grass, leaves or plants it is so easy to get tiny marks on the front of the lens. You really need to keep this in mind at all times when you are shooting.

You need a tripod

This is not a lens you want to use handheld for video unless you are running very high frame rates. At super close magnifications, the slightest bit of movement gets magnified as well, so you end up with unusable footage. You really need to use this lens on a good tripod or have your camera placed on the ground.

As the barrel of the lens is so long and relatively light it is prone to moving around, especially if there is any sort of wind. I wish Laowa had of provided, or at least made, some sort of lens support that could attach further down the barrel of the lens. This would help alleviate some of the flex you get when using it.

Availability

The lens is expected to retail for $1,499 USD.  The lens was available to pre-order via Kickstarter at a discounted price, but that campaign has now ended. The earliest expected delivery date for backers on Kickstarter is this month. The lens will also be available via authorized resellers from October onwards.

Conclusion

The Laowa 24mm f/14 2x Macro Probe is definitely a speciality lens, but at $1,499 USD it’s not going to break the bank. If you do a lot of extreme macro shooting or like to capture wildlife, the lens is a great alternative to more expensive offerings. It’s certainly a niche lens but you should really think hard about whether you actually need it, or just want it.

It’s not the easiest lens to use, but it certainly is fun and you can get some really unique shots that aren’t possible with other lenses. Optically it is not going to be as good as most other lenses you own, but I’m willing to give Laowa a hall pass on this one because of what the lens can do, rather than what it can’t. At the end of the day, it’s just a really unique and interesting lens that allows you to capture shots that are just not usually possible.

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