Some photographers scoff at the smaller sensors used in Micro Four Thirds systems. But, with the right lens, I can almost forget that I’m shooting with a smaller sensor. The Laowa Argus 18mm f0.95 MFT APO is one of those lenses. Combining an f0.95 aperture with close focusing capabilities makes it incredibly easy to create bokeh smoother than melted butter. And then there’s that metal barrel and $449 price point that make the Laowa 18mm f0.95 MFT even more attractive.
The Laowa 18mm f0.95 MFT is a manual focus lens. And, like most manual focus lenses, it strives for character rather than technical perfection. It’s the type of lens that pixel peepers will ignore, making its character all the more unique for artists. Micro Four Thirds photographers who crave bokeh and flare are going to find their appetite satisfied with this lens.
The Big Picture
The Laowa 18mm f0.95 MFT gives the Micro Four Thirds system the ability to create incredibly soft bokeh, even as a wide-angle lens. Make no mistake, this f0.95 lens is an important tool for the Micro Four Thirds system. Roughly equivalent to the classic 35mm focal length on full frame, it offers beautiful character with plenty of flare and soft edges. As a metal lens, it’s also well built, though not weather-sealed.
The Laowa 18mm f0.95 MFT is dripping with character. But, like basically all lenses that are full of quirky character, pixel peepers will find some things to complain about. There are sharper lenses, and some photographers may not like the ghosting created when shooting into the sun. It’s a manual focus lens, and the lens’ metadata isn’t saved to the files.
But, in the end, the character and $449 price tag will win many photographers over, myself included. I’m giving the Laowa Argus 18mm f0.95 MFT APO five out of five stars.
- Lovely metal build
- Aperture de-click
- Full of character
- Lots of flare
- Amazing, swirly bokeh for MFT
- 20 cm close-up focusing capabilities
- Affordable, for an f0.95
- Manual focus only
- No weather sealing
I used the Laowa 18mm f0.95 MFT with the OM System OM-5. Both are loaners.
There are relatively few f0.95 lenses out there compared to everything else, though Laowa isn’t the only one creating such an ultra-bright prime for the Micro Four Thirds Mount. This lens integrates chromatic aberration suppression with two ED and four refractive glass elements. And it has a close 20cm minimum focusing distance.
The Laowa 18mm f0.95 MFT is a classically styled metal lens. From the manual focus scale to the lettering, the lens has a classic look and feel to it.
The first control out from the lens mount is the aperture ring. This is a skinny ring that alternates texture and smooth areas. The aperture is clearly labeled, from 0.95 to f11. A silver switch allows the aperture ring to turn smoothly, or with a click to feel the changes you make as you shoot.
The manual focus ring takes up most of the lens. It’s accompanied by a depth-of-field scale printed on the lens. The classic printed scale reminds me of vintage or Leica M lenses. It tells you the range of distances that will appear sharp rather than just one distance. Those three simple controls — an aperture ring, a declick switch, and a focus ring — make for a very simple, classic design.
The front of the lens is flat, so despite the wide angle, this lens can accept 62mm filters. It ships with a lens hood that’s also metal.
As a metal lens, the Laowa 18mm f0.95 MFT feels lovely in the hands. If you’re going to get a manual lens that requires a near-constant touch, make it a metal one, and your hands will be happy. This lens doesn’t feel cheap: even the lens hood is metal.
Laowa, however, doesn’t classify this lens as weather-sealed. While it feels like it could take a beating without sealing, it’s difficult to say how it would hold up in the rain. Without weather sealing, lenses can also be susceptible to dust build-up over time. That said, I did take it out in light snow and didn’t experience any issues with it afterward.
The Laowa 18mm f0.95 MFT is manual focus only. Manually focusing an f0.95 lens is pretty difficult. Yes, you can stop down the aperture — but doesn’t that defeat the point of buying an f0.95 lens? You can get some sharp-ish shots manually, focusing at f0.95. Yes, some of them won’t be perfect. But when you hit that sweet spot, the result is lovely.
The focus ring turns nice and smooth, it’s just a matter of patience (and, sometimes, trial and error). But, focus peaking helps here. Because there’s no manual focus switch like on an Olympus/OM SYSTEM lens, the camera doesn’t automatically know that you want to use focus peaking. But, you can assign it to a button and turn it on and off as needed. This is a big help to getting sharp shots wide open. If you’re shooting really close at f0.95, however, sometimes the focus peaking is so slight that you may miss it.
While there’s no autofocus motor, the lens does still focus quite close. The Laowa 18mm f0.95 can focus as close as about .7 feet or 20 centimeters. That’s not macro. But, the close-up ability and f0.95 create a bokeh that’s otherwise difficult to achieve on a Micro Four Thirds system. And the wide-angle distortion used up close gives a different look and a bit of character to the resulting images.
Ease of Use
Manual focus lenses are never as simple to use as autofocus lenses. They require patience. But, that’s also one of the reasons that make them great. A manual lens literally forces you to slow down. When I slow down, I tend to put more thought into the shot. That’s the case here too. It’s not complicated to use if you know how to shoot in manual mode and with manual focus. But it’s more time-consuming to shoot with than an autofocus lens.
It does require an understanding of manual modes and manual focus. There’s no A option on the aperture settings. You can shoot in aperture priority and have the camera automatically select the shutter speed. But the camera won’t adjust the aperture if you shoot in full auto or on shutter priority. This is true for any fully manual lens, so this isn’t really a con, just something to point out for the newbies.
The other thing that would have made this lens easier to use would have been stabilization. But, without the electronic contracts between the lens and camera, I didn’t expect any stabilization. The in-body stabilization on the OM-5 was still plenty, but I can handhold long exposures a bit easier with OM System’s stabilized wide angles.
Full-frame purists tend to think Micro Four Thirds doesn’t produce great bokeh. Well, look at the photos from this lens. An f0.95 lens that can focus from 20 centimeters away creates beautiful bokeh. Throw in soft yet lovely colors and flare full of character, and it’s very easy to fall in love with the Laowa 18mm f0.95 MFT.
Yes, this lens is made for a Micro Four Thirds sensor, and it’s a wide angle; both of these tend to not do as great at producing bokeh. But, at f0.95 and focusing in close, the depth of field is so narrow that the red focus peaking highlights are sometimes imperceptible. Put this lens close and shoot wide open or slightly wide open, and you’ll get some lovely background blur. The Laowa 18mm f0.95 MFT is a lovely mixed bag of bokeh; you can get a bit of bokeh swirl, some round bokeh balls at the center and cat eye on the edges, sometimes with clean edges and sometimes with a bit of soap bubbling.
The edge softness and barrel distortion mix to give the background a bit of a swirl. Cat-eye bokeh, which forms towards the edges of the frame, also contributes to the feeling that the background is swirling. Most of the bokeh was clean with a clean edge, but occasionally I could find a spot with a bit of soap bubbling or a slight edge to it.
The colors from the Laowa 18mm f0.95 are soft but lovely. They are often a bit lighter and not quite as bold. If you want the most accurate colors, you’ll need to spend more time in post. But as a fan of Fujifilm’s Astia profile, I really loved the soft colors coming from this lens. I loved the warmer tones from a field of dead grass that was more brown than golden in real life. This was part lens, part setting the white balance to match the weather.
And I like the colors coming from this rose bush, even though it was more red than pink and the green leaves were darker than the bokeh.
Point the Laowa 18mm f0.95 MFT at the sun, and you’ll get some nice flare, complete with ghosting spots. This feels like the kind of flare that’s so good it could be digitally mimicked with programs like Boris FX Optics. I’m a bit sad I didn’t have more days of sunshine to test this lens in.
At narrower apertures, points of light will starburst. Mix that with the bokeh at wide angles, and there’s a lot of variety within this lens and plenty of chances for character. You can also find some barrel distortion and edge softness, but since I think this is largely why bokeh had that swirly feeling to it, I don’t mind it.
I find chromatic aberration more annoying than character building. Thankfully, Laowa does a pretty good job of keeping colored fringing at bay. I wasn’t distracted by any colored fringing when working with this lens.
Focusing an f0.95 lens is a challenge, particularly a manual focus one. If you nail the focus, you’ll get a sharp shot, but not too sharp. The edges of the frame do have an exaggerated softness to them. The Laowa 18mm f0.95 MFT isn’t a pixel peeper lens. There are sharper lenses with less distortion, but those lenses aren’t nearly as fun. Most manual focus lenses are designed more for character and bokeh than technical superiority and that’s the case with this lens as well.
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 lens 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 It?
Micro Four Thirds photographers who love bokeh and flare, and who photograph subjects that need a wide angle but don’t need autofocus, should buy this lens. The only downsides to the Laowa 18mm f0.95 MFT are what I already knew before testing it: there’s no weather sealing, and it’s manual focus only. The bokeh and flare are lovely and create images oozing with character.
If you’re a pixel peeper who cringes at things like flare, well then I’m surprised you’re still reading this. This isn’t the lens for pixel peepers. There’s flare with ghosting, and the edges are noticeably soft.
Laowa lists the following tech specs for the 18mm:
- Format: M43
- Focal Length: 18mm
- Aperture Range: f/0.95-11
- Angle of View: 61.9°
- Lens Structure: 14 elements in 8 groups, (2 ED elements)
- Aperture Blades: 9
- Min. Shooting Distance: 20cm
- Max. Magnification: 0.15x
- Focusing: Manual (MF)
- Filter Thread: Ø 62mm
- Dimensions: About Ø 80mm * 83mm
- Weight: About 500g
- Mounts: M43
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