I’ve never used a shift lens before. Until now, taking pictures of tall buildings involved an ultra-wide lens (sometimes even at 10mm on a full-frame camera). I’d then adjust the distortion and straighten the verticals. For the most part it worked, but it was often a compromise having to cut out portions of the image. After using the Laowa 15mm f4.5 Zero-D Shift lens for a few weeks, I can’t see myself taking photos of architecture or interiors using any other lens. The ability to shift perspective to capture images of buildings is mind-blowing. And at this price point, even with the lack of autofocus, it’s a lens I would recommend to any architecture photographer. Once you get the hang of using it, you won’t return to regular lenses for this kind of work.
Sometimes stepping away from the building to take a picture of it using a regular wide lens just isn’t an option. If you’ve ever used an ultra-wide angle lens to take photos of tall buildings, you’ll quickly notice distortion at the edges. No matter how high you can adjust the height of your tripod, you would see that you can’t get the whole building in the frame in many scenarios, but mainly when you’re composing in landscape mode. Providing a solution to this problem are shift (and tilt-shift) lenses. It’s all in the physics of how these lenses work; shifting the perspective basically moves a portion of the lens parallel to the focal plane. You can even use such lenses to stitch horizontal and vertical panorama photos without distortion.
At just under USD $1,200, the Laowa 15mm f4.5 Zero-D shift lens is a lot of bang for your buck. Available for full frame and medium format cameras, they say it’s currently the world’s widest shift lens. Coming in 5 and 14-aperture blade versions, the Zero-D tag lives up to this lens’s almost zero distortion claims. We tested the newer Red Ring 14-blade version.
Table of Contents
The Big Picture
I genuinely wish I didn’t have to return this lens. It’s opened up a whole new perspective (excuse the pun) for me regarding architecture and interior photography. No more fiddling around with tripod heights to try and fit as much of the top of the scene into my frame. Even when the shift feature isn’t used, this lens can take in quite a bit of the surroundings at 15mm. And while doing so, your verticals remain just that – vertical. I don’t do much architecture work, but I am considering adding this lens to my arsenal. It’s mostly sharp, allows you to look at buildings and structures differently, and makes your cityscape photos look more professional by keeping all lines straight. Plus, it saves you a whole lot of time in post-production.
- Zero distortion, for the most part
- 360° shift capabilities. Shift ring clicks every 15°
- Lock button/switch to prevent accidental rotation of shift ring
- 20cm closest focusing distance
- Lock screw for shift ring
- Optional 100mm filter holder available
- Optional rotatable lens support ring to achieve perfect stitching and panorama photography
- Available for medium format Fujifilm G-mount cameras too.
- Manual focus
- Not so sharp at f4.5. Since I received an EF mount and not a Z mount version of this lens, I’m going to assume that the latter would have been sharper if used on my camera.
- No EXIF transfer to your camera
- No weather sealing
- Slight vignetting depending on the angle of light
Much like my experience with the Laowa 45mm f 0.95 lenses, this lens has far exceeded my expectations. It’s making me want to take photos of areas and buildings I’ve seen before to try to frame them differently. Despite the lack of autofocus and the inability to transfer EXIF data to your camera, I absolutely love the Laowa 15mm f4.5 Zero-D Shift lens.
We’re giving the Laowa 15mm f4.5 Zero-D Shift lens five out of five stars and our Editor’s Choice award. Want one? Pick it up at Adorama.
Laowa claims this is currently the widest shift lens available for full-frame and medium-format camera systems. Nikon’s widest is 19mm, Canon’s is 17mm, and Fujifilm won’t have one for the G-mount until 2023. I am not aware of any that Sony currently has in their lineup. 15mm for a tilt-shift lens is an impressive focal length, and with zero distortion too!
We waited many weeks for a Z mount version, but Laowa still didn’t have one of these available for loan. Since it is a manual focus lens anyway, I finally opted to test the Laowa 15mm f4.5 Zero-D Shift lens (14-blade Red Ring version), Canon RF mount lens (loaned to us by Laowa) and an RF to Z-mount adapter. These were used along with the below gear (owned by me):
- Nikon Z6 II
- Leofoto Mr. Q tripod
At 1.3lb/597g, the Laowa 15mm f4.5 Zero-D Shift lens isn’t going to weigh your bag down. In terms of portability, it’s good enough to carry around all day without taking up too much space in your bag. That front element is massively bulbous, and Laowa provides a sturdy plastic lens cover that can be screwed onto the front. It did seem to attract a lot of lint and dust, so it would require periodic checking and cleaning before you stop down your aperture for photos.
The four primary areas of interest for this lens are:
Widest at f4.5, this lens can be stopped down until f22 using a thin ring. As there are no electronic contacts on this lens, no aperture data can be sent to your camera to save under the EXIF section.
Manual Focus Ring
The focus ring is smooth to turn, and you can make precise adjustments to it. Use the focus peaking capabilities along with the live view magnification feature to nail your focus. There are no autofocus capabilities in this lens.
This is used to rotate the lens elements around, so you can choose the focal plane angle in which you want to shift the lens. It can only be done when the lever is engaged. This is really useful to avoid accidentally turning the lens once it’s mounted to your camera.
Firstly rotate the lens to choose the angle at which you want to shift. Then unscrew the lock knob and use the large rotation ring to shift the lens up to 11mm in two directions (for full-frame cameras). If you’ve never used a shift or tilt-shift lens before, this activity will blow your mind the first time you try it.
Much like most Laowa lenses, the finish and the feeling when you hold the Laowa 15mm f4.5 Zero-D lens is pleasant – almost premium for this price. Laowa deserves a lot of credit for making innovative and well-built lenses that don’t burn a hole in your wallet. The only thing I feel could have been done differently was that the lens cap could have been metal too. It doesn’t feel like it could withstand more than a couple of drops on the floor. Aside from this, I have no real complaints. The rings feel smooth, and the shift mechanism is fluid without feeling like it’ll collapse if left unattended or unlocked.
Thanks to the smooth ring, which has about 100 degrees of focus throw, you can make exact adjustments to your focal distance. Initially, I looked at the focus peaking on the Z6II, but occasionally I found that zooming in on the LCD and then fine-tuning the focus was a safer method.
Ease Of Use
The learning curve on this lens isn’t steep, but you may find yourself hunting for the right ring to turn, even after a few days of using it. Especially when wanting to rotate the lens 90 degrees to shoot a vertical panorama instead of a landscape one, I often found myself turning the wrong ring. I would turn the shift ring, causing the lens elements to shift instead of turning the rotation ring. I did this many times while hunting for the release lever. Maybe different colored rings would have helped, or I just need more practice. You get a soft click when the shift mechanism is moved back into its base position.
Once you twist the rotation ring to get your angle right, lock in the focus and turn the shift ring to see the scene in front of you shift almost magically. No more extending your tripod’s central column to get the extra height to try and bring in the top of that tower in your frame. Shift lenses do this for you simply by shifting the lens element in parallel. I remember my grin during my first trial with this lens. I instantly felt like the Laowa 15mm f4.5 Zero-D was the one-stop solution to get straight verticals in wide shots without compromising an image area by cropping. Cityscape photography suddenly became a lot more interesting to me. As long as you get the horizon level correctly before taking your photos, this lens makes it much easier to go home with outstanding shots of skylines and buildings.
If you’re a landscape or architecture photographer, you’ll definitely enjoy the difference this lens brings to your work if you aren’t already a shift lens user. Again, I don’t think I can ever go back to taking cityscape and architecture photos without a shift lens.
There’s a slight lack of contrast (compared to Z or F mount Nikkor lenses) when used in bright sunlight. Aside from this, the images made by Laowa 15mm f4.5 Zero-D are pretty decent. Barrel distortion is exceptionally well controlled on the edges. Although focus peaking is evident when manually focusing, I didn’t notice it until after many days of using the lens.
The earlier blue ring edition of the Laowa 15mm f4.5 Zero-D Shift lens with its 5-bladed aperture produced (no prizes for guessing) pentagonal-shaped bokeh. This 14-blade version creates smoothly rounded bokeh in your photo’s out-of-focus areas.
Given the bright conditions I tested this lens in, I had to manually bracket several images to blend together in Capture One. Colors turn out very close to what the naked eye perceives. Blues and oranges especially stood out in my images. I didn’t photograph many people up close to test skin tones with this lens.
I can’t recall a single image where I had to correct the distortion. Even pictures taken with the lens shifted had the distortion well controlled. Vignetting is prominent, especially during shifting, but only when you shoot in bright sunlight.
Lens flare is prominently seen often and contrast can be lacking a bit. You’ll see this in many of the images taken with this lens.
I will assume for now that the slight softness I noticed at f4.5 was because the lens I received was the EF mount version and not the Z mount. Laowa isn’t awful regarding sharpness. Softness shouldn’t be an issue if you use a native mount lens though. It definitely felt better around f8 to f11. But the corners in images that are shifted are noticeably soft and need post-processing. The photos above show 100% crops of edges of images taken with the Laowa 15mm f4.5 Zero-D Shift lens.
Corner sharpness comparison photos of various brand lenses at different apertures, when compared to the Laowa 15mm f4.5 Zero-D, can be seen on the lens’s product page.
Extra Image Samples
From day one, The Phoblographer has been huge on transparency with our audience. Nothing from this review is sponsored. Further, lots of folks will post reviews and show lots of editing in the photos. The problem then becomes that anyone and everyone can do the same thing. They’re not showing what the product can do. So we have a section in our Extra Image Samples area to show edited and unedited photos. From this, you can make a decision for yourself.
Who should buy the Laowa 15mm f4.5 Zero-D Shift lens?
Architecture and cityscape photographers should snap this one up. It’s available in several mounts, even for the medium format Fujifilm G-mount. I don’t fall into either of these categories, and I’m seriously considering buying one for myself.
It’s not a perfect lens by any means. There’s no autofocus or weather sealing. And unfortunately, there are no electronic contacts to save aperture data on the image file. But even with these shortcomings, it’s still a brilliant lens. It’s machined well and feels expensive (some might say it is). It spares you from moving too far away to capture a tall building or a wide panorama. You’ll enjoy your wide-angle photography a lot more when using this lens.
Nikon F-mount version specs, taken from LensRentals
|Angle of View||110°|
|Autofocus||Manual Focus Only|
|Extra Low-Dispersion Elements||3|
|Lens Type||Wide Angle|
|Mfr. Model Number||VE1545N|
|Minimum Focusing Distance||0.7feet|
|Tilt/Shift||+/- 11mm Shift|
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