A few years back, I wrote an article here about choosing a 35mm lens for the Fujifilm X system. At the time, there were only a few viable options if you wanted a quality option that wouldn’t break the bank. Today, I’ll be adding another lens to that list, the brand new Laowa Argus CF 33mm f/0.95 APO.
To get started, let’s break down the name of the lens. Argus is Laowa’s new super-fast line-up. The CF is for APS-C (Crop Factor) lenses and APO is for apochromatic, which means we should see a lot less chromatic aberration than we might with other designs. 33mm gets us just that little bit closer to the traditional 50mm “normal” field of view. Enough of that, though, let’s dig in and see what this lens can do.
Technical optical characteristics
Optically, this is a very interesting lens. So, let’s quickly skip over the boring technical stuff and get right into the interesting areas of how this lens performs.
As we’d expect, the lens is a little soft wide open (still very good, as you can see in the image here), but is much sharper by f/1.1 or f/1.4, and excellent by f/2. All of the interesting rendering happens wide open, just like most fast lenses, so you have to be willing to accept that you can’t shave with the images if you want to make the most from this lens.
We also see a fairly significant vignette when using the lens at wider apertures. At f/0.95, I found the corners to be approximately 1.7 stops darker than the centre. This is something to be aware of while you’re shooting if you plan to correct it. Darker areas in the corners can become blocked up and you may lose detail or increase noise when recovering them. But, the vignette is a part of the unique rendering of this lens, so you may just want to keep it.
The APO (apochromatic) designation on this lens suggests that Laowa has done everything they can to ensure all colours of light meet at the focal plane. In practice, Laowa have done an excellent job. Unlike many other fast lenses (think ZhongYi Mitakon), we can use the Argus wide open without fear of massive green and purple fringing. In fact, I had to put the lens into the nightmare situation of photographing backlit water ripples just to see any fringing. Even that wasn’t a huge amount as we can see below.
Creative optical characteristics
With those boring bits out of the way, let’s take a look at the interesting flare and ghosting to be found when working around bright lights.
First of all, the red rings. By placing a bright light, such as the sun, in the frame and using the lens wide open, we can get blazing red rings emanating from the light source. Being careful with your composition can allow for some interesting additions to the frame. Since it’s spring here in Korea, I’ve been out photographing some flowers on the few sunny days we’ve had and really enjoyed working with the red rings.
Next up, flare. Putting a bright light close to the edge of the frame results in some fairly extreme flare when used wide open. I’ve enjoyed this for creating a nostalgic low contrast feel in certain street scenes. It is to be stressed that just as with the red rings, this flare disappears immediately as the lens is stopped down. It’s quite dramatic as all you need to do is knock the aperture ring a millimetre or two to the right and the entire image regains full contrast.
Another fun aspect of this lens that we don’t often consider with a “normal” focal length is sunstars. The 33mm produces gorgeous soft-edged sunstars when stopped down to its minimum of f/11. These can look great in natural scenes where we might rather a softer appearance than lenses like Laowa’s Zero-D lenses tend to produce.
The bokeh produced by this lens is some of my personal favourite from any of the ~35mm lenses available for the X system. It mixes a little swirl with some very soft rendering that makes for pleasing backgrounds both close up and for medium length portraiture. When it comes to night shooting, we do see some cat’s-eye shapes around the edges which lends itself to central compositions with bokeh balls to draw you into the subject. I found that combining the extra shallow depth of field with all the other characteristics of this lens can produce some very interesting images at any time of day.
The build quality of this lens is excellent, as we expect from Laowa. The all-metal and glass construction means that it does weigh in at 590g, so that’s definitely something to consider.
Overall, it seems Laowa is aiming this lens more at video use as it has very good resistance and an extremely long throw to the focus ring (almost 360 degrees!). To compliment that, there is almost no focus breathing as well. In addition, the aperture ring is de-clicked for smooth exposure transitions.
In still photography, the de-clicked aperture ring means that it can be difficult to choose a specific aperture without looking at the lens if that is meaningful to your photography. The focus-throw and dampening lend themselves very well to small, precise changes in focus, but not so much to fast, large changes in focus. Overall, this translates to a slower way of working that results in beautiful, considered images when using this lens.
Laowa includes a metal square hood with this lens that puts Fujifilm’s own hood for the XF35mmF1.4 to shame. It is of excellent quality, attaches securely, and doesn’t bend when you look at it. I hope we can see similar quality from upcoming hoods from Fujifilm, as well.
The obvious comparison to draw with this lens would be the similarly priced ZhongYi Mitakon 35mm f/0.95. I have owned that lens in the past and sold it due to its loose focus-ring and aperture ring, along with unpredictable flare and ghosting. The Laowa corrects both of those and seems to produce images with more fine detail to my eye. Personally, my pick between the two would be (and will be) the Laowa. I dive into this a little more in the video linked below.
I’ve really enjoyed the month I’ve spent with this lens and am sad that I had to send it back to Laowa. It has definitely found its place on my wish list and I look forward to adding it to my kit. If you’d like to see more sample images and hear some more details about my experience using this lens, I have made a short video detailing what it was like to use and you can see that here.