Laowa is a dab hand at creating unusual lenses and the Laowa 105mm f/2 STF lens is a case in point. It’s one of the very few lenses that features what is known as an apodisation element.
The weighty metal lens has two diaphragms, one your regular f/stop aperture and another a T stop aperture (apodisation element) halfway up the barrel. In this case, the element is labelled Smooth Transition Focus (STF).
STF creates images with extra smooth out-of-focus areas while keeping the area in focus particularly sharp. It is THE selling point of the lens and the results are wonderful. When using the T Stop aperture wide open, you get perfectly circular bokeh with next to no fringing (chromatic aberrations).
Of course this lens can be used to make pictures of a variety of subjects – including telephoto landscapes – but it is aimed squarely at portrait photographers.
For portraits we are deeply impressed. With the spectacular quality of images possible out of this lens, its RRP of £750 is very reasonable.
But, and it’s a big but, this is a manual focus lens only.
Another example of STF can be found in the Sony FE 100mm f/2.8 STF GM OSS (£1,600) lens that was released this year. Nikon has it’s own take, as seen in the Nikon 105mm f/2 D AF DC lens, which costs £900. Both of these lenses have autofocus.
Now, I don’t mind manual focus lenses. In fact, I rather like taking manual control. But there are lens focal lengths and subjects that really benefit from autofocus. A mid-telephoto lens for portraits like the Laowa 105mm f/2 is one of them.
Throughout testing the lens my hit ratio of sharp shots was much lower than I would like. Even with the large Nikon D850 viewfinder at my disposal and live view focus magnification, it’s exceptionally difficult to obtain pin sharp focusing on the eyes of your subject at f/2.
You can forget about moving subjects too, unless luck is on your side.
In the end, I resorted to manual focus bracketing. Taking the same shot around 5 times in quick succession while making micro adjustments to focusing. That way I could ensure one of the shots was pin sharp on the eyes and discard the rest.
One other downside is that lens flare is a bit of a problem. I like to shoot towards the light for backlit portraits. Yet, when doing this the chances of substantial lens flare are higher than normal – I got a few shots that were totally unusable.
Otherwise, when the focusing is spot on, the image quality and control over lens distortion of the Laowa 105mm f/2 STF lens is top notch.
What I did find was that I enjoyed the precision required of me to get images that I am happy with. I may have numerous slightly blurry images from my shoots, but this lens has sharpened my technique up. Whether your lens has autofocus or not, I’d recommend switching it off every now and then and giving manual focus a go.
Tips on using a manual focus lens for portraits
• Try ‘focus bracketing’ by taking multiple pictures with manual micro-adjustments to the focus
• Use live view magnification to view the subject as clearly as possible
• Pre-focus to a specific distance and ask your subject to move into that area
• Be OK with it if the focusing is not pin sharp on the eyes – do you always have to be sharp?
Six reasons we love the Laowa 105mm f/2 STF lens
• Wonderful looking, perfectly circular bokeh (out-of-focus areas)
• Excellent control of fringing (chromatic aberrations)
• Tack sharp in the centre of the picture
• Soild and durable build quality
• Barrel and pincushion distortion are completely absent
• Micro-Focus adjustments are easy because of the wide distance between focus extremes
What’s not to like about the Laowa 105mm f/2 STF lens
• Manual focus is extremely difficult to use with a lens like this
• Severely affected by lens flare when shooting towards the light
• Detail is softer in the corners
• No profiles for Laowa lenses for editing raw files in software like Adobe Lightroom CC
• No electronic contacts means no aperture information in the EXIF data
• Supplied lens hood is poor quality