Venus Optics Laowa 9mm f/5.6 FF RL W-Dreamer Lens Review

This article is a review of the Venus Optics Laowa 9mm f/5.6 FF RL W-Dreamer lens, which is (as of this writing) the widest focal length available for full frame Leica M, Leica L, Sony FE, and Nikon Z mount digital cameras.


I love how ultra-wides can be used to open up tight spaces and radically alter perspective. I've been using ultra-wide lenses for years now, including the Canon 11-24mm, Tamron 15-30mm, Sigma 12-24mm, and Nikon 14-24mm, among others. Recently, I discovered the Laowa 9mm f/5.6 W-Dreamer by Venus Optics. Yep, that's right: 9mm on a full frame camera. That's not just ultra-wide, it's hyper-wide!


The exceptionally wide angle of view offered by the Laowa 9mm f/5.6 lens is perfect for both sweeping landscapes and cramped interiors, such as the inside of this sandstone cave along the south shore of Lake Superior.

For many years, the Canon 11-24mm f/4 offered the widest angle of view of any camera lens available that wasn't a fisheye (there are wider focal lengths available for crop sensor cameras, but once you factor in the crop multiplier, those lenses don't offer a field of view that is as wide as the 11-24mm on a full frame camera). Combined with excellent image quality and zoom flexibility, this made the 11-24mm the undisputed ultra-wide champion. Two extra millimeters may not sound like much, but the jump from 11mm to 9mm is actually quite significant. The real question is: can the Laowa 9mm dethrone the reining ultra-wide king?


The Laowa 9mm f/5.6 W-Dreamer lens by Venus Optics, featured here with a Sony E-mount camera.

What this review covers and what it doesn't

I don't have the equipment to perform MTF tests or anything like that. What I will provide in this review is my professional opinion about how this lens performs compared to other lenses I have used. Also, I will discuss how this lens can be used to its fullest advantage. Finally, I will discuss what makes this lens different from other lenses, and how it can expand your artistic opportunities. I'm mostly focused on the creative aspects of using this lens, but I will offer my technical observations to give you a more complete picture.


Financial disclosure

This is a completely independent review without direct compensation from the manufacturer. Affiliate revenue, however, helps support this site. We are committed to 100% transparency regarding financial relationships with equipment providers and brand partners, and we strive at all times to ensure that reviews are independent, honest, and free of bias.


Super wide field of view

Designed for full frame cameras, the Laowa 9mm f/5.6 is currently the world’s widest rectilinear lens, with a remarkable 135° angle of view (as compared to an angle of view of 126° 5' for the Canon 11-24mm at its widest). This allows you to capture shots that were previously impossible without panning and stitching multiple images together. Note that this lens has been corrected for wide-angle barrel distortion (that's what "rectilinear" means), and therefore is NOT a fisheye lens. As I previously mentioned, this is a full-frame camera lens, so if you use this lens on a smaller sensor camera, you'll lose some of that wide angle of view because of the crop factor (for example, on an APS-C camera with a 1.5x crop factor, the focal length equivalent would be 13.5mm).


Just be aware that the angle of view of this lens is so wide, you might have difficulty keeping your tripod legs, or your own feet, out of your compositions. Seriously!


Available mounts

Currently, the Laowa 9mm is only available for Leica M, Leica L, Sony FE, and Nikon Z mounts. Sorry, everyone else!


Fully manual

This is really important: before you consider purchasing this lens, you have to understand that the Laowa 9mm is a fully manual lens. And, I mean fully manual. There's no autofocus, so all focusing has to be done manually. You even have to set the aperture manually! You can still use your camera to set shutter speed and ISO electronically, but the aperture can't be controlled by the camera; you have to turn the aperture ring to your desired f/stop before taking a photo. If you did photography before the digital age, you've likely used a manual lens like this, but for most digital photographers, it will take some getting used to. As a practical matter, I compose and focus with the lens wide open, and then stop down to my chosen aperture when I am ready to shoot.

The Laowa 9mm f/5.6 is fully manual. Yep, that's an old-fashioned manual aperture ring!

The manual focus ring has a generous amount of throw (which is the amount of rotation needed to turn the focus ring from the minimum focus distance to infinity). This can make precise focusing easier than with a lens with short focus throw, as is the case with most modern autofocus lenses. As an added bonus, there's an old-fashioned depth of field scale printed on the lens, allowing you to easily find the optimum focus point for your chosen aperture. It's really easy to use: let's say you are photographing a scene where you want everything from one foot away to infinity to be in focus. Just make sure that the 1 foot mark and the infinity mark are between two corresponding f/stop numbers, and then stop down to that f/stop. In theory, everything should be sharp in your photo. I haven't really done much rigorous testing of the Laowa's depth of field scale (as I tend to focus stack my images), so I can't say for sure how accurate it is, but in the distant past when I have used these scales on other lenses, I would always stop down an extra stop just to be on the safe side.


Here's how to use the depth of field scale on the Laowa 9mm f/5.6 lens. Let's say you want everything in focus from about 0.7 ft. to infinity. Rotate the focus ring until you get both marks within a set of corresponding aperture numbers; in this case, f/16 is required to get everything in focus within this range. Notice that the focus in this example ends up at 1.5 feet, which is the optimal focus point at f/16 to extend depth of field to cover everything from 0.7 feet to infinity. Leave the focus ring where it is, and stop down to the required aperture. In theory, everything should appear acceptably sharp in the final image; in practice, the extreme ends of the focus range might appear to be a little soft. If you aren't getting the sharpness you want, try stopping down an extra stop beyond what the scale recommends, which will extend your depth of field. I prefer to focus stack to ensure sharpness throughout the entire image, but the focus scale comes in handy when focus stacking isn't feasible.

Maximum f/5.6 aperture

To keep weight and size down, and to avoid having a huge front glass element making filter use difficult, the Laowa 9mm has a maximum aperture of f/5.6. For landscape work, this isn't a problem, as you would typically be stopping down to f/11 or f/16 for most shots to ensure sharp focus from near to far within the picture frame. An f/5.6 aperture, however, is not ideal for fast action or star photography.


Build quality and size

With an all-metal construction, the Laowa 9mm is very solid. It is also extremely tiny, especially when compared to other ultra-wide lenses. Coming in at only 0.77 pounds and only 2.6 inches in height, it is much smaller than the Canon 11-24mm (which is 2.6 pounds and 5.2 inches high). A side-by-side comparison tells the full story:

(Left) The magnificent and massive Canon 11-24mm lens. (Right) Judge it not by its size, the tiny but powerful Laowa 9mm lens. The Laowa 9mm is at least a third of the size and weight of the Canon 11-24mm.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons why the Laowa 9mm is much smaller than the Canon 11-24mm and other ultra-wide lenses: it doesn't have autofocus, it has a maximum aperture of f/5.6, and it is a fixed focal length rather than a zoom. Even though I don't have the same zoom flexibility as I had with the Canon 11-24mm, I must say I love carrying around this tiny lens!


Close focusing distance

The Laowa 9mm has a minimum focusing distance of 4.72 inches (12 cm). Yep, you read that right! I guess, in theory, that means you can do extreme wide-angle macro photography, but for me, the practical application of this close focusing distance is the ability to do extreme perspective near-far compositions. With the Laowa, I can get a few inches away from my foreground, making even a tiny foreground object appear huge in the final composition, and juxtapose that foreground with a more distant part of the scene.


Built for focus stacking

Of course, with extreme near-far perspectives, you can't use depth of field to get everything in sharp focus from foreground to background, so you'll have to rely on focus stacking. I find focus stacking to be super easy with this lens: I focus on the closest part of my scene, and then I use the focus scale on the lens to progressively push the focus point farther and farther back until I reach the infinity mark. An extreme perspective shot might require as many as 10-12 images in the focus stack, but I can typically get through the entire range quickly enough.

I had to wait for a moment when the wind stopped blowing to make a quick series of exposures for this focus stack image of lupines blooming in Iceland.

Image quality

This lens is impressively sharp. As with any wide-angle lens, it is better in the center than in the corners and extreme edges, but when stopped down to f/8 or f/11, performance evens out and the edges sharpen up quite nicely. Although I saw some lens tests that suggest that the lens' peak performance is at f/8 across the entire image frame, I'm getting overall better results at f/11. With every ultra wide-angle lens I have ever used, the extreme edges and corners can look a bit "mushy" compared to the center, even when stopped down, and the Laowa 9mm f/5.6 is no exception. That said, I think that this lens delivers excellent results for an ultra-wide lens, every bit as good (if not better) than the Canon 11-24mm lens.

I did a focus stack blend of this sandstone cave along the southern shore of Lake Superior. Center performance is excellent, while the extreme edges and corners are acceptably sharp.

Distortion

The 9mm shows a fair amount of barrel distortion and some minor "mustache" distortion, but nothing that I haven't been able to easily fix for my landscape work. Of course, with landscape images, usually the only time you need to fix lens distortion is if you have a straight horizon in the composition; otherwise, distortion isn't typically noticeable when working with irregular landscape objects. Architectural photographers, on the other hand, might find the distortion of this lens somewhat frustrating to deal with.