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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.

If you look closely at the horizon line, you can see some minor waveform or "mustache" distortion. Overall, the Laowa 9mm's distortion is surprisingly well-controlled.

You'll notice, however, a huge amount of perspective distortion when using this lens. An example of perspective distortion is the "leaning in" effect you get with trees or buildings when you are down low and pointing the camera up; another example is getting low and close to a foreground object to make it appear larger and more prominent relative to the background. Perspective distortion is not inherent to the lens design; rather, it results from how you use the lens. Perspective distortion occurs with all lenses—it results from the fact that objects appear progressively smaller the farther away they are from the viewer—and its effect is particularly exaggerated with wide-angle lenses. So, be prepared for a lot of perspective distortion when using this lens. For me, perspective distortion is part of the point of using a wide-angle lens, and I frequently intentionally incorporate it into my compositions.

Perspective distortion does not result from lens design, but rather how you use the lens. I got low and close for this photo of a lighthouse, and perspective distortion is very obvious, most noticeably with the brick building (the closer left side of the building appears to be larger than the more distant right side, resulting in a "leaning" effect). I used perspective distortion creatively here to make my foreground appear large and prominent in this composition; this was accomplished by getting very close to the foreground.

Vignetting

This lens shows considerable vignetting of the edges and corners when wide open. Stopping down improves things, but even stopped down the vignette is noticeable. For my work, I often prefer a bit of vignette anyways, but I find the natural vignette of this lens to be too much, so I'll do some vignette correction when processing my image files. I've also noticed a blue/green color shift in the vignetted areas, which is more problematic than the vignetting but still easily fixed; I'll apply an adjustment brush or a gradient to the corners of the image, shifting the color balance as necessary to remove any color cast that I don't like.


The Laowa 9mm was perfect for this tight slot canyon in the Utah desert. I didn't do much to correct the lens' natural vignette, as I often like a slight vignette for my photos to hold the viewer's attention within the image frame.

Lens profile

The Lightroom lens profile for the Laowa 9mm f/5.6 can be manually installed, you can download it here.


Sunstars

Sunstar quality is very much a subjective choice; you either love the sunstars produced by a specific lens, or you hate them. So, take this with a grain of salt, but I think that the 5-blade aperture system of the Laowa 9mm produces a pleasing 10-point sunstar rendering. As you rotate the aperture ring, you can see how stopping down the lens changes the quality of the sunstar. I'm not sure that I love the sunstars created by this lens, but I don't hate them either. This lens also controls flare well (not great, but flare control can get more difficult the wider the lens is, so all things considered, I think this lens does a decent job), making it easier to get effective sunstar images.


I shot sunset from within a sandstone cave along the southern coast of Lake Superior. The Laowa 9mm not only opened up the small interior space, but it also rendered the sun as an attractive "starburst" effect.

100mm filter holder

Venus Optics offers a 100mm filter holder that they claim can be used on this lens without "serious vignetting" (their words, not mine, and I'm not sure whether the filter holder causes "unserious vignetting" and what that might mean). I didn't purchase the filter holder, as I rarely use filters these days, so I can't tell you how well it works.


How best to use the Laowa 9mm f/5.6 Dreamer lens

This lens excels at extreme perspective, near-far juxtapositions, as well as working in small interior spaces. I love it for sweeping grand landscapes as well, especially when I have great clouds at sunrise or sunset, as the wide angle of view allows me to include lots of sky. Ultra-wide lenses are tricky to learn how to use, as they make everything look a lot smaller than they really are, and many people using ultra-wides for the first time have difficulty wrapping their brains around how they need to change their approach to photography to fully optimize the potential of the lens. And that usually (although not always) requires getting really close to an important foreground element of your scene. And I mean REALLY CLOSE; sometimes, I am only a few feet—or inches—away from my foreground subject. This makes the foreground larger and more prominent in the composition, resulting in a mind-bending perspective shift for the viewer (this is known as "forced perspective"). Below are a few examples:

Merely inches away from a piece of driftwood in my foreground, I found a position where the wood framed the lighthouse in the distance. I did a focus stack blend of seven images to render the entire scene sharp. The ultra-wide angle of view offered by the Laowa 9mm f/5.6 lens allowed me to capture this extreme composition, one that would have been impossible with any other wide-angle lens.

I made this photo using the Laowa 9mm in Badlands National Park. I got low and close to exaggerate the size of the erosion lines leading from foreground to background. The ultra-wide field of view allowed me to capture the entire sweep of the curving features of this colorful landscape.

The Laowa's 9mm field of view was perfect for this sandstone cave interior on the south shore of Lake Superior. I was able to get low and close to some interesting striations in the stone, exaggerating them as a foreground feature, while at the same time capturing as much of the sculpted cave interior as possible.

Conclusion

The Laowa 9mm f/5.6 is a unique and remarkable lens. I absolutely love its compact size, low weight, and overall exceptional image quality. The fully manual operation of the lens is enjoyable for me, although I can easily see how it might annoy some users. The vignetting and color shift in the corners is a bit of a problem, but easily corrected without too much trouble. Be warned, however, that an ultra-wide lens isn't for everyone, and you have to learn how to use it to realize its fullest potential. If you can successfully master the trick of finding compelling near-far compositions, then this lens will greatly enhance your creative potential.


Where to buy

Please help support this site by buying the lens through the affiliate links provided in this review. Thanks!


If you purchase direct from Venus Optics, you can also get accessories like their filter holder, which can be difficult to find elsewhere. You can also peruse their entire selection of innovative lenses.


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About the author

Whether hanging over the rim of an active volcano, braving the elements to photograph critically-endangered species, or trekking deep into the wilderness to places most people will never see, world-renowned professional photographer Ian Plant travels the globe seeking out amazing places and subjects in his never-ending quest to capture the beauty of our world with his camera. Known for his inspiring images and single-minded dedication to creating the perfect photo, Ian has reached hundreds of thousands of people around the world in his mission to inspire and educate others in the art of photography. Ian is a frequent contributor to many leading photo magazines, the author of numerous books and instructional videos, and founder of Photo Masters.



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