Laowa 20mm f/4 Shift Lens Review: An Affordable Architecture Optic
Venus Optics’s new Laowa 20mm f/4 Zero-D Shift lens adds a second option to the company’s shift lens line and provides zero distortion at a wider maximum aperture in exchange for a slightly less wide angle of view.
The new shift lens is available for Canon EF, Canon RF, Nikon Z, Nikon F, Pentax K, Fujifilm G, Leica L, and Sony E mounts for $1,099. That’s not cheap, but it is still more affordable than some first-party options from both Nikon and Canon. The lens may not be as wide as its 15mm Zero-D sibling, but it has a slightly faster maximum aperture in exchange.
A fully manual lens, the aperture and focus rings are joined by the shifting capability that helps remove any “keystoning” that shows up during compositions, especially those shot at an angle. “Keystoning” is a type of distortion that occurs when the subject is leaning away from the viewer — think about how an image looks when a projector is displaying footage against a wall that is at an odd angle.
Build Quality and Design
The 20mm f/4 Zero-D Shift lens has an entirely metal body (up to and including the lens hood), an 82mm filter thread, weighs about 1.6 pounds (747 grams), and is slightly bulkier than I expected, which does give the lens a very sturdy and durable feel to it. At the base of the lens sits the shift/rotation mechanism that unlocks by pressing the release lever on the side of lens that allows for a full 360-degree rotation of the lens barrel, guided by the markings along the static part of the lens mount next to this lever. Seated directly above this is the shift indicator with markings that go from 1mm to 11mm on either side of the barrel.
Seated just below the “shift” control ring, you’ll find a “shift lock” that prevents any accidental movements from bumps, focus adjustments, or even just gravity. The shift ring is large and relatively stiff for precise control of the shift adjustments with a smaller “clicking” aperture ring that goes from f/4 to f/22 seated directly above it on the barrel.
The aperture ring sits a tad close to the shift ring for my liking, as several times I accidentally bumped the aperture from f/5.6 to f/8 when making shift adjustments. Given the lens is fully manual and has no electronic contacts for the cameras to tell you what aperture the lens is at, it can be pretty easy to accidentally change the setting of your shots, so be cautious when setting up and always double-check the aperture is where you want it.
Additionally, the markings for the aperture (and focus) are only on one side of the lens barrel, meaning checking these settings can be tricky if the lens happens to be rotated and shifted away from your point of view.
At the very end of the lens barrel sits the focus ring that has a similarly textured grip to the shifting control ring that enables easy focus pulling by hand or a focus puller.
At the very end of the lens is the all-metal, removable lens hood that has a locking friction knob on one section that ensures it stays in position no matter what angle the lens rotates at. This also means if you have the lens shifted a certain way that is not “normal,” you can rotate the lens hood a full 360-degrees to avoid the hood’s petals from dipping into the frame while still blocking any light that could cause unwanted flaring in the shot.
Inside, the lens features 16 elements in 11 groups with two aspherical elements and three ED elements that the company claims will effectively eliminate chromatic aberration and provides a consistent image sharpness from center to edge. The lens is also cable of close focusing at 9.84 inches (25cm).
Like the last few Laowa lenses I have reviewed, the 20mm f/4 Shift lens also has an internal focus design to help reduce any dust or moisture from entering the lens. This is important as the 20mm Shift lens is not weather-sealed, so users should be wary of this when planning on taking this lens out in anything other than ideal weather conditions.
It is also worth noting that unlike the more expensive Nikon and Canon counterparts, there are no “tilt” options present on the Laowa shift lenses which many architectural photographers may demand. While I don’t personally find this to be a dealbreaker due to the price of the Laowa, I fully understand that the lack of tilt will make this a non-starter for many.
Image Quality and Performance
Like most affordable lenses, there is some vignetting and softness present when shooting at wider apertures like f/4, but those issues go away once you step up a notch or two. Once you get to f/8, the images are pretty much sharp and consistent across the board from edge to edge. Based on most architectural, real estate, and landscape photos, at least f/8 is about where this lens will be used anyway.
I always assume there is going to be a fair bit of distortion in a wide-angle lens, even when the brand is billed as “zero distortion” but Venus Optics really does live up to the moniker. Just like the marketing materials state, there really is very little distortion along the edges.
It feels to me that the lens hood is really meant for photographers using the lens as a “normal” lens, and not using the shift at all. As you can see from my initial test images below, when shooting shifted frames with the lens hood still mounted on the lens, it will cause blockage on the far edges of the frame, especially when you have extended the shift all the way to 11 on either side. You can rotate the hood to avoid this — as mentioned above — but it is often easier to just remove it entirely.
You can see the lens hood at the very bottom and top of my frame in this setup. Lesson learned.
With a shift lens, the ideal situation is to position the lens in a purely level sitting, this will help avoid unwanted keystoning when making adjustments to the shift of the lens. The framing may not be exactly how you want to compose the shot, but the shifting will help you achieve the view you want without any weird distortions.
Once you have the camera and lens leveled, you can shift the lens to get the composition you want for the shot, with lines that should be nearly perfectly straight, providing a much more pleasing and “natural” view.
Above I stiched seven frames together versus the image below, which is a single center leveled shot of the same light tunnel. Depending on the individual need and creative direction, the shift lens allows for a lot more versatility in a wide shot, without any leaning and distorted edges, making for a much more natural-looking image that requires far less editing/post-production fixing.
Why is this keystoning elimination a big deal? Well, if you have ever photographed a larger building from the street level, it always feels like the subjects are leaning away from the viewer. The shifting of the lens helps capture the full scenario while keeping the structures looking more natural and symmetrical. This applies to use in both landscape and portrait orientations (vertical panos).
Below are a few more sample photos I captured with the lens.
Fantastic Shifting Capability on a Budget
The Laowa 20mm f/4 Zero-D Shift lens seems to be targeted at a rather specific audience of real estate and cityscape photographers and offers some pretty impressive specifications to appeal to that market. While there are cheaper 20mm lenses available that are arguably sharper, they lack Laowa’s shifting capabilities that provide for a much wider field of view with a much more natural-looking perspective, even when making panoramas and composite images.
The optical performance is pretty solid with minimal distortion, chromatic aberration, and flaring, and the sharpness only starts to noticeably drop once you start to go wider than f/8. That said, seeing as how the lens is meant for the more “everything visible in focus” market, most interested in this lens wouldn’t shoot faster than f/8 anyway.
Are There Alternatives?
There are a few alternatives on the market, including the $2,150 Canon TS-E 17mm f/4.0L that hasn’t always received the highest praise for its performance (let alone price), the $3,400 Nikon 19mm f/4.0 ED lens which offers 1mm of extra width but at three times the cost of the Laowa. Finally, we have the 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D with “Magic Shift Converter” available from Laowa for $1,150, the $1,199 Laowa 15mm f/4.5 Zero-D Shift is also an option, and the $499 Laowa 9mm f/2.8 Zero-D should also be considered.
While that last lens is not a shifting one, it gives users a much wider field of view that can allow for an easier panoramic or interior photo that would just require some additional time in post spent fixing the lines. It may be some extra work, but the lens is less than half the cost and offers more than double the field of view.
Should You Buy It?
Yes. For anyone that already shoots, or plans to shoot real estate, architecture, and interiors, the Laowa 20mm Shift lens is more than worth the $1,099 price.