Laowa 12-24mm f/5.6 C-Dreamer Review: Not Quite a Dream
Venus Optics has continued to expand on an already extensive list of ultra-wide-angle lenses with the addition of the Laowa 12-24mm f/5.6 C-Dreamer for full-frame mirrorless systems. Where many ultra-wide lenses can be big, bulky, and incredibly pricey, this new “slow” lens becomes even more impressive with its relatively small $649 price. While the entry-level affordable lens is available for Canon RF, Sony E, Nikon Z, and Leica M (for $50 more) mounts, is it really a “dream” to use?
The new $649 12-24mm f/5.6 C-Dreamer is a fully manual lens (Like most of the other lenses from Venus Optics) that features a fixed f/5.6 aperture and an all-metal body that, in total, weighs only about 500 grams. In addition to it being one of the more affordable ultra-wide angles lenses on the market — it is nearly half the price of most of its own-brand rivals — it boasts a distortion-free optical design that frees you from having to apply a lens profile to your images during post-processing.
Most other 12-24mm ultra-wide-angle lenses come in the “fast” f/2.8 style, which often makes them larger, heavier, and a lot more expensive. Taking this into consideration, the slower f/5.6 lens from Laowa starts to make a lot more sense since when most people shoot with an ultra-wide lens they will stop down for a deeper depth of field anyway.
Design and Build Quality
Despite the lower cost of the lens, the quality of the construction of the 12-24mm f/5.6 C-Dreamer looks and feels like it is worth a lot more. The small and dense design gives it a very high-quality feel even if it is not particularly fast.
The aperture ring features a “clicking” design with stops that range from f/5.6 to f/22 with a very small under 30-degree rotation that ensures you won’t experience any aperture drifting while making zoom or focus adjustments. Conversely, the zoom and focus rings are smooth with no click-stops along their respective rotations, but they are stiff enough to not have to worry about them drifting when positioned at odd angles. The focus ring has a long travel that allows for very detailed distance markings
The lens cap is also fully metal and locks into position securely to ensure it doesn’t fall off in transit. There is also a non-traditional lens hood built into the body of the optic that will help you avoid damaging or scratching the glass element when you place the lens on a flat surface. The rear of the lens features a solid metal mount with the lens elements also protected from damage when placing flat on a surface.
Laowa does include a small external filter ring/lens hood that provides a standard 77mm filter thread so you can attach a variety of filters without having to purchase additional step-up rings.
The small form factor and lightweight design make it easy to pack and travel with, but you should be aware that the lens is not weather-sealed, so be sure to take that in mind when heading out into the elements with it and bring proper protection.
Handling and Performance
Something nice about ultra-wide-angle lenses is that they tend to be able to focus extremely close to subjects. The Venus Optics Laowa 12-24mm f/5.6 C-Dreamer is no exception on this front with a minimum focus distance of just about one inch from the front of the lens. This means with some additional lighting it is even possible to treat this wide angle as pesudo macro lens.
Additionally, the new lens adds a bit of a welcome change to the boring and soft sun stars that many of the recent lenses I’ve tested have produced with some impressively sharp ten-pointed star patterns. The downside however, is when shooting wide open the lens does seem to lose a lot of contrast. This might be where the company came up with the “dreamer” name since it can be a little softer than one would like at that aperture. Stopping down a little (f/11 to f/16) seems to to fix this issue and handles the contrast a lot better while still providing some incredible-looking sunstars.
Being a manual lens, you will have to trust the focus distance markers (tricky at best) or leverage your camera system’s focus-peaking tools to ensure they get a sharp image, but this can be challenging in bright outdoor positions when shooting shallow and closer up items and often times (since I am a glasses wearer and have to put a lot of faith in the autofocus/peaking systems) it wasn’t entirely accurate, leaving me with many throwaway slightly out of focus shots.
While the lens was mostly distortion-free at the widest settings, there was still a large amount of vignetting, ghosting, and fall-off along the edges in regards to sharpness along the edges. Again, stepping down cleans this up a little, but it is a little disappointing. From testing the distortion, while slight, cleans up when you shoot around the 14-15mm mark and then once you get past the 18mm mark there is a slight pincushion type distortion. None of this is a dealbreaker and were all surprisingly easy to correct in Adobe Lightroom.
Additionally, there is a slight green color cast present when shooting at the wide end of things as seen in the “macro” images above and a few of the other samples here. For the most part, this is easily cleaned up in post with a white balance adjustment, but still worth being aware of as something that needs addressing once back at the computer.
Using filters on the lens works smoothly with no issues as long as the filters are adapted 77mm and used in conjunction with the provided filter ring/lens hood. If you happen to use a step-up ring to use larger filters or square systems, when shooting wide at 12mm you will almost always see the filters in the corners of the shot. If this is in the cards for you, be sure to just zoom in a little bit to say 14mm or 15mm and things should be okay.
Overall, the lens is sharpest all around at about the f/8 to f/11 range and this is pretty consistent from 12mm to 24mm which is a pretty big improvement from the other wide angle lenses from Laowa which previously have been best performing at the widest field of view.
Sadly though, the corners still tend to fall off noticeably across the board. Chromatic aberration is very minimal in the corners of this lens, yet there can be some flare-ups near the center of the frame in certain situations. It’s nothing huge though and is very easily corrected in post. Stopping down to f/8 or f/11 helps clean this up pretty significantly as well. Still though, sharpness overall disappointed me.
Finally, since this is an entirely manual lens with no electrical components built in, you should be aware that there will be no EXIF data transmitted to the camera. For most users this shouldn’t be much of an issue, but for people like myself who do a lot of testing and need to keep track of the f-stop and focal ranges, it can get rather frustrating to monitor.
Somewaht Useful, but Not So Dreamy
While the lens is useful and affordable, it isn’t the sharpest of lenses, leaving me feeling like it wasn’t so much of an actual “dream” to use. Much like the “cookie” lens I reviewed recently, there are definitely use case scenarios for this lens, but I didn’t really find much joy in bringing it out to shoot with compared to many of my other lenses.
The Laowa 12-24mm f/5.6 C-Dreamer gets some points for how affordable it is and it can provide some interesting and fun images, but beyond the low price, you will most likely spend most of your time with this lens living in the f/8 to f/11 range to get the most out of it, and that feels pretty limiting for a lens that is already fastest at f/5.6.
I think if Laowa was to improve the design by making it sharper wide-open while also providing some electrical connections to allow for the transmission of EXIF data it would be much more appealing, even if the price had to move up a little bit to accommodate the improvements. As is, it feels niche.
Are There Alternatives?
The good news is there are quite a few alternative options for the ultra-wide angle lenses for mirrorless systems out there, and some are even close to the same price as the new Laowa 12-24mm f/5.6. These include the $699 Laowa 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 C-Dreamer FE and the $899 Laowa 9mm f/5.6 FF RL. Additionally you can nab the $1,299 Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 Art DG DN or if you are willing to jump up a fair bit, the $2,998 Sony 12-24mm f/2.8 , the $2,497 Nikon Z 14-24mm f/2.8 or the $2,299 Canon RF 14-35mm f/2.8 are all solid options for their respective mounts.
Should You Buy It?
Probably not. If you need an ultra-wide angle lens for your kit and can’t justify paying $1,500 to $3,000 one of the larger f/2.8 ultra-wide options with autofocus, then I could see it. Otherwise, this lens probably isn’t for you.