Shift lenses provide crucial solutions to problems faced by architectural and real estate photographers, and until recently, options have been extremely limited. Let’s take a look at this new shift lens option from Laowa.
This new Laowa 20mm f/4 shift lens is the second shift lens from the brand. Laowa is well known for many out-of-the-box lens ideas and in 2020, they launched the Laowa 15mm f/4.5 Zero-D shift lens which has been recognized widely for its unique design and execution. You can read our review here.
The new 20mm f/4 shift lens comes in as either an alternative or a good combination with the 15mm counterpart. On the other hand, it also comes in as a wider (and more affordable) alternative to the older 24mm tilt-shift lenses from Canon and Nikon.
Build, Design, and Ergonomics
The Laowa 20mm f/4 Zero-D shift lens features an all-metal construction from the mount to the hood, which is typical of Laowa lenses. It comes in at 3.74 x 3.58 inches and weighs 747 grams, notably bulkier and heavier than the wider alternative.
Closest to the mount is the rotation mechanism. By pressing the release button on one side, about 60% of the lens barrel can be rotated 360 degrees which are guided by degree markings that can be found right at the end of the stationary mount portion of the barrel. Along this line is also the shift indicator with markings from 1 to 11 mm on both sides. Along with these is a shift lock knob to prevent accidental shifting by gravity. Next to this is a one-inch thick shift control ring. Similar to the 15mm f/4.5 shift lens, shifting is done with an action similar to zooming in and focusing through a ring.
The middle ring is a thin aperture ring with markings on f/4, 5.6, 8, 11, and 22. Similar to what was observed on the 15mm, this ring is significantly close to the shift ring and is less than an inch thick which may cause an accidental change in aperture when adjusting the shift. The markings can only be found on one side, which can be quite an ergonomic challenge when the lens is rotated away from the photographer’s line of sight. This means that one would have to physically bend to the side to see the aperture setting since the lens also doesn’t have electronic contacts to give lens information to the camera. This could have been improved by having the same indicator on the perpendicular side to make sure that one of the two can always be kept on the side visible to the photographer. On the most distal part is a thick metal focus ring with a textured grip just like the more proximal shift control ring.
On the front-most part is a removable metal lens hood with a literal twist. The hood mounts similar to a traditional lens hood but is locked in place by another friction knob on one side. An interesting feature of this lens hood is the fact that while it is locked in place, the petals of the hood can be rotated 360 degrees to avoid the axis of the shift movement and not cause a vignette while still blocking any direct light that would cause a flare. The lens also comes with a standard 82mm filter thread that makes it compatible with most circular and even square filter systems. However, because this lens shifts, the appearance of a vignette due to the filters or the filter holder would depend on the width as well as the inner opening.
A foreseeable challenge in shift lenses is the fact that for the shifting to happen, there has to be a much larger effective surface area on the lens. That’s why shift lenses relatively have larger barrels to be able to have a larger image circle. This new 20mm shift lens has a 65mm image circle made to ensure good optics across the frame and reduce the probability of a vignette.
For the sake of testing, we will focus on 3 crucial portions of the effective area of the lens; the center frame at the neutral position, and the two distal edges of +11 and -11 shift positions at various aperture sizes. For the center frame and general performance, good sharpness is seen at f/4 which is consistent up to f/8 with a notable increase in sharpness at f/11. This sharpness is maintained on the inner 2/3 of the shifted frames (at +11 and -11 positions) while the outer 2/3 seem to have a slight decrease in sharpness. At f/16, we can see the sharpest output on the said outer 1/3 which gives a better average sharpness across the frame.The aperture blades give a 14-point light burst at f/16 which is notably more subtle than what we’ve seen on the Laowa 15mm shift lens.
This new shift lens option offers a lot of practical applications in architecture and real estate photography, as well as other genres that would benefit from perspective correction. A crucial question to be answered is whether a 20mm is a better choice than a 15mm shift lens and the answer will always vary depending on the actual structure to be shot and how much space is available for the photographer to use in photographing bigger structures such as architectural exteriors.
In the context of shooting tall buildings, a wider shift lens would be more versatile when shooting locations wherein buildings are too close to each other. A wider angle of view would somehow create separation between structures close together. This would also mean that less space is needed in terms of getting an unobstructed view of the entire building.
In contrast, a 20mm shift lens will do great in shooting scenarios when there is enough space to back up to get the entire building in the frame. At the same time, it can also give a wide enough perspective to show major structures and patterns while still effectively filling the frame. This lens can give more options in isolating specific portions of the design while still maintaining perspective and scale. When options are limited in terms of shooting large exteriors, the shift of the lens can minimize the necessary physical tilt which can also reduce the resulting warp when corrected in post.
In the same way, the 20mm shift lens would be a great option when photographing interiors to highlight certain portions of a room instead of just capturing the entire space. Similarly, this shift lens would also be a good option in shooting wider tabletops and flat-lays for large products or arrangements.
The Laowa 20mm f/4 Zero-D shift lens is a great option for architectural and real estate photographers. The lens offers great optics and a wide range of practical uses that would allow for more flexibility when shooting challenging projects. While some design issues can be improved, the lens still offers a more convenient way of use and control compared to older tilt-shift lenses in the market, especially when it comes to controlling the shift movement. On top of that, this is a much more affordable option at $1,099. The Laowa 20mm f/4 Zero-D Shift will be available in Canon EF and R mounts, Nikon F and Z mounts, Sony FE, PK, L, and GFX mounts.
What I Liked:
- Great image quality
- All metal build
- Standard filter thread
- Rotating lens hood
What Can Be Improved:
- Shift, aperture, and focus ring spacing and width
- Aperture markings visibility