FULL DISCLAIMER/Ethics Statement: I had recently become a Laowa Affiliate so I'm incentivized to write good things about their products. Having said that, I bought this lens with my own money and started writing this article under my own volition before the idea of even becoming a Laowa Affiliate dawned on me. I still stand by my thoughts and experience with this lens.
Disruption seems like such a buzzword.
Laowa is that upstart underdog from China operating under the name Venus Optics that have been coming up with seemingly quirky lenses that fill a niche you didn't think you would ever tap. I've coveted their 7.5mm f/2 ultra wide for the longest.
Then they come out with something slightly more conventional, a wide-standard prime with a fast aperture. The 17mm f/1.8 C-Dreamer. But for $150USD. I'm sorry, what? Talk about low-risk high-reward. Interest level: piquing. Why is this a big deal when other China-originating firms have come out with lenses for even cheaper? Because like all of Laowa's other Micro Four Thirds offerings, this lens is native. It isn't some two-birds-one-stone solution that Meike or 7Artisans produce. Its design and formula are optimized for this format alone.
The 35mm focal length is in kind of a no-man's land for me. Back in the day, I started with a 50mm and if I want to go wide I'll tag my 28mm in. For Micro Four Thirds parlance, that would be 25mm and 14mm or whatever's closest, hence my PanaLeica 15mm. Having said that, the 35mm focal length is actually pretty useful. It's often called the walk-around lens. While the 50mm is more subject-centric, the 35mm focal length is about putting your subject into context. It does so in a way that you find yourself stepping in as opposed to stepping back. In other words, you're standing by the curb as opposed to being in the middle of the street. And unlike a 28mm, you're not encroaching your subject's personal space. I've never owned a 35mm lens. That's what my Olympus XA is for. I technically still don't, but this little Laowa 17mm fills that niche.
Its aesthetic is tried and trued old-school. It matches perfectly with the slick-brick that is the GX85/GX80. On an OM-D, the combination becomes the perfect SLR impersonator. The barrel is all-metal. The focusing ring is not by wire but by helicoid. In other words, manual. More on this in a second. The focus throw is weighted but smooth. The rear focusing element moves back and forth within the length of the body, a nice touch. The aperture ring is out front and it clicks with a consistency often found in lenses made in a time from way back when. Though the indents for f/1.8, f/2.8, f/4 and f/5.6 are spaced out compared to f/8-f/22. That's probably a decision made for tactile feedback for when you don't want to take your eye from the viewfinder. I'm imagining in my head that this is what buying a brand new OM Zuiko or AI-Nikkor must feel like. But does this Laowa shoot like them too?
Why in this day in age would a brand new lens manufacturer that has access to the AF requirements for the open standard that is Micro Four Thirds choose to produce Manual Focus lenses only? Cost is the first thing that comes to mind. Speed I think is the other. Don't get me wrong, Auto-Focusing technology has never been better today than it ever was, though some manufacturers are determined to do things their own way (cough: Panasonic) Sometimes the even more determined, discerning user wants absolute total control. The "I know better than the camera does" crowd that's been shooting street photography with 35mm film for the longest know what I'm talking about. Here's another Photography 101 trick that film guys go to and swear by: zone-focusing with the Depth of Field scale.
On a fully manual lens, the focusing helicoid is directly linked to the focusing element. That helicoid has markings on the lens barrel to allow the photographer to determine how far away the subject is. One of the most basic principles of photography is understanding Depth of Field. To boil it down, the thing you want from Depth of Field is how much acceptable focus you want in a particular shot. There are really only two ways to do this. The first is playing with the distance between your subject to the front of the lens. This method though has its limitations because sometimes a lens is physically incapable of focusing close enough, so we rely on the other method which is to stop down or open up the aperture. To get sharper images across the frame, you have to stop the aperture down. In other words, pick a bigger number to get a smaller hole. The smaller the hole, the more gradual the light rays will converge towards the subject to get it in focus. This is how you get a "deeper" Depth of Field.
This is where the Depth of Field scale comes in. The Depth of Field scale is a literal way to express this quirk of physics. Basically they're paired brackets with corresponding f-numbers surrounding a center-line. The center-line is matched to the number on the focusing helicoid. The aperture values count down from smallest aperture value to largest towards the center-line. As the aperture values count down, the corresponding brackets get smaller and smaller. This is supposed to express how much acceptable focus you'll have in front of and behind your subject based on how far away the lens is telling you your subject is. This is your manual lens' way of approximating your depth of field without even having to nail the focus! This is the way. And yet, when you do in fact nail the focus, it brings a sheepish grin on to your mug. Kind of like back in the day when you'd wait for your roll to process and the prints would come back, you'd comb through the stack just to see if it came out sharp. This lens is shaping to become a tool for someone that just wants to see if they can do it.
Some people have the opinion that shooting a fully manual lens is slow and deliberate. Perhaps it's because they've never bothered with zone-focusing or maybe they entered the arena at a time when Auto Focus was finally dependable. When it comes to Street Photography however, Zone-focusing can't be beat. Forget focus-peaking. The only critical thing you need to worry about is gauging distance. Once you're comfortable with determining how far away your subject is on the fly, all you have to do from there is set it, forget it and live with the results. This way, all you'll have to focus on is the composition.
But does it have any faults or demerits? Sure, what lens doesn't? The front element is pretty exposed and the rim of the barrel doesn't protrude very far so it's prone to flare. Fortunately a petal hood is included. At the moment, the only other fault I can think of is that it is free of any circuitry. In camera, to enable IBIS you'd have to manually set the focal length. All EXIF data regarding focal length and aperture value has to be added post-import. Hope you like writing stuff down if this matters to you. This isn't really a fault of the lens though since there are many fully manual lenses devoid of any electronics. An easier solution would be for Olympus/Panasonic to have the ability to save that data in-camera. You'd think that in aperture-priority the camera is still able to work out the appropriate shutter speed even with a manual lens, that there'd be a way to for it to approximate the aperture value if it knew the focal length. Nikon's DSLR bodies have the ability to save EXIF data with manual lenses thanks to a mechanical tab and saving it in memory. Surely Olympus and Panasonic can come up with an electronic workaround using good ol' math.
But is it sharp? When you nail focus it sure is, but WHO CARES. You're more than likely going to be shooting at f/5.6 in daylight most of the time with this lens anyway and if the results aren't sharp enough for you, I don't know what to tell you. It's sharp enough and that's all that matters. Pixel-peeping measurbators will never be satisfied because they long for products that don't exist. This lens is about pure joy. Documenting life's perfect moments imperfectly, an artisan's tool. The highly-skilled can get the most out of this lens and inversely, this lens will increase your skill-set. It implores you to walk around with your camera. What Laowa pulls off here, much like what Panasonic did with the Lumix 25mm f/1.7 is bring top-notch quality at a reasonable and affordable price. The Micro Four Thirds standard isn't dead. Anyone who says the contrary is trying to manipulate an algorithm for the purpose of engagement, counting on people forgetting what they know about photography. Micro Four Thirds is very much alive and kicking. The new kid on the block straight outta Anhui Province is a testament to that.
Things I like:
-compact and balanced, this is the way
Things I'm not supposed to like:
-it flares like a motherfucker, but that's what the hood is for and also, why are you shooting against sunlight in the first place?
-CA wide open but who cares, correctible in post.
Who's it for: For those that have the PanaLeica 15mm f/1.7 or Olympus 17mm f/1.8, it may seem like a solid pass. For those that don't however, at $150USD what's there to lose?
To be fair, I bought this lens knowing what I wanted from it. A Manual focusing fast-aperture semi-wide prime that I can reacclimate myself to zone-focusing with for Street Photogaphy and some b-roll footage for vlogging and it does these things brilliantly.
I write these pseudo-reviews for the love of Photography. I also write them because of the chance of getting a little kick-back from businesses that sell these wares to minimize the self-loathing routine of sitting behind a desk working for someone else's dream. I also genuinely shop at these places. Adorama is but a mere train ride away and they now have it readily available. I've been using eBay for ages and that's where I got mine via Kenmore Camera. You could also do Laowa a solid and buy it directly from them here.
The black and white photos in the Flickr gallery were achieved by using Olympus' in-camera Art Filter No.5 with Yellow Filter applied. Those images are SOOC JPEG. The interior band shots were converted JPEG in-camera and post-edited using Snapseed on my Google Pixel. Other random color photos were desktop-edited to taste using Luminar 3.