Laowa 20mm f/4 Shift Lens Review: An Affordable Architecture Optic

Venus Optics’ new Laowa 20mm F/4 Zero-D Shift lens offers a second option in its shift lens range. It provides zero distortion at a larger maximum aperture, but a slightly narrower angle of view.

For $1,099., the new shift lens can be purchased for Canon EF and Canon RF, Nikon Z and Nikon F, Pentax K, Fujifilm F, Pentax K, Pentax K, Pentax K, Pentax K, Pentax K, Fujifilm L, Leica L, Sony E mounts, and Canon EF. Although it’s not the most expensive option, it’s still cheaper than many first-party options from Canon and Nikon. Although the lens is not as wide as its 15mm Zero D sibling, it offers a faster maximum aperture.

The fully manual lens features an aperture and focus rings that can be combined with the shifting capability. This allows for the removal of any keystoning that may occur during compositions, particularly those that are shot at angles. Keystoning is distortion caused by the subject leaning away towards the viewer. Think about how an image would look if a projector projected footage against a wall at an unusual angle.

Build Quality and Design

The 20mm f/4 Zero D Shift lens is made entirely of metal (including the lens hood), and has an 82mm filter thread. It weighs approximately 1.6 pounds (747g), which gives it a sturdy, durable feel. The shift/rotation mechanism is located at the base of the lens. It can be unlocked by pressing the release lever located on the side of the lens. This allows the barrel to rotate 360 degrees, as guided by the markings that are found along the static portion of the lens mount. The shift indicator is located directly above the lens barrel. It has markings measuring from 1mm to 11.mm.

Laowa 20mm f/4 Zero-D Shift Lens Side Profile

The “shift lock”, which is located just below the “shift control ring”, prevents accidental movements due to bumps, focus adjustments or just gravity. The large, stiff shift ring allows for precise control of shift adjustments. It is seated on the barrel directly above the smaller aperture ring which goes from f/4 up to f/22.

For me, the aperture ring is a little too close to the shift rings. I have accidentally changed the aperture from f/5.6 up to f/8 several times when making shift adjustments. The lens is completely manual, and does not have electronic contacts to indicate the aperture. It is easy to change the settings of your photos accidentally.

The markings for the aperture and focus are located on only one side of the lens barrel. This can make it difficult to check these settings if the lens is rotated or shifted from your view.

Laowa 20mm f4 Zero-D Shift Lens Control Rings

The focus ring is located at the end of the lens barrel. It has a similar texture to the shifting control rings. This allows for easy focus pulling either by hand or with a focus puller.

The all-metal, removable lens cover is located at the end of the lens. It has a locking friction knob in one section. This ensures that the lens stays in place no matter how it rotates. This means that if the lens is being moved in a way other than “normal”, you can rotate it 360 degrees to prevent the petals from entering the frame and block any light from flaring.

Laowa 20mm f4 Zero-D Shift Lens front view

The lens has 16 elements inside, with 11 groups of two aspherical and three ED elements. This company claims that the lens will effectively eliminate chromatic Aberration and provide consistent sharpness from the center to the edge. Cable of close focusing is available at 9.84 inches (25cm).

The 20mm f/4 Shift Lens has an internal focus design, just like the other Laowa lenses that I’ve reviewed. This helps to reduce dust and moisture entering the lens. This is crucial because the 20mm Shift lenses are not weather-sealed. Users should be aware of this fact when taking it out in any other than ideal weather conditions.

Laowa 20mm f4 Zero-D Shift Lens

Notably, unlike Canon and Nikon counterparts, the Laowa’s shift lenses do not have tilt options. This is something that many architects may want. While this is not something I find a dealbreaker because of the Laowa’s price, it is understandable that many will be disappointed by the lack of tilt.

Laowa 20mm f4 Zero-D Shift Lens Profile
Laowa 20mm f4 Zero-D Shift Lens Side View Shifted to 11
Laowa 20mm f4 Zero-D Shift Lens on Nikon Z
Laowa 20mm f4 Zero-D Shift Lens

Image Quality and Performance

As with most affordable lenses, you will experience some vignetting or softness when shooting at larger apertures such as f/4. However, these issues disappear once you go up a few notch. The images become sharp and consistent from edge to edge once you reach f/8. This lens is most likely to be used for architectural, landscape, and real estate photos.

Laowa 20mm f4 Zero-D Shift Lens

Although wide-angle lenses are advertised as having zero distortion, I assume that there will be some distortion. But Venus Optics is true to its claim. As the marketing materials indicate, there is very little distortion at the edges.

The lens hood should be used by photographers who use the lens as a normal lens and not for using the shift. You can see in my first test images that the lens hood will block the edges of the frame if it is mounted on the lens. This is especially true if you have extended your shift to 11 on one side. While you can rotate the lens hood to prevent this, it is easier to remove it completely.

Laowa 20mm f4 Shift at -11
Laowa 20mm f4 Shift at -11
Laowa 20mm f4 Shift at 0
Laowa 20mm f4 Shift at 0
Laowa 20mm f4 shift at +11
Laowa 20mm f4 shift at +11
Laowa 3 frame pano (uncropped)
Laowa 3 frame pano (uncropped)

In this setup, you can see the lens cover at the bottom and top of the frame. Lesson learned.

The ideal position for a shift lens is to place it in a level, straight sitting. This will prevent unwanted keystoning during adjustments to the lens. Although the framing might not be the best, shifting can help you get the look you desire without creating any distortions.

10+ frames merged unedited to show the different perspectives from all the 20mm shifts

After you have levelled the camera and lens, you can adjust the lens to create the composition you desire. Lines that are nearly straight will give you a more natural and pleasing view.

Below, I stitched seven frames together. The image below is one center-leveled shot from the same light tunnel. Depending on the individual need and creative direction, the shift lens allows for a lot more versatility in a wide shot, without any leaning and distorted edges, making for a much more natural-looking image that requires far less editing/post-production fixing.

Why is keystoning elimination so important? If you’ve ever taken a photograph of a large building from street level, you know that it feels like they are looking away from the viewer. Shifting the lens allows you to capture the entire scene while still keeping the structures natural and symmetrical. This is applicable to both portrait and landscape orientations (vertical panaos).

Here are some more photos that I took with the lens.

Amazing Shifting Capability with a Budget

The Laowa 20mm F/4 Zero-D Shift lens appears to be targeted at cityscape and real estate photographers. It has some impressive specifications that will appeal to this market. Although 20mm lenses are sharper than Laowa’s, they don’t have the same shifting capabilities. This lens provides a wider field of vision and a more natural-looking perspective when creating panoramas or composite images.

The optical performance is solid, with very little distortion, chromatic aberration and flaring. Sharpness starts to drop when you go beyond f/8. The lens is intended for those who want “everything visible and in focus”. Therefore, the majority of people interested in it wouldn’t shoot faster that f/8.

Laowa 20mm F/4 Zero D Shift Lens

What are the Alternatives?

There are a few options on the market. The $2,150 Canon TS E 17mm f/4.0L has not always been praised for its performance. Also, the $3,400 Nikon 19.mm f/4.0 ED lens offers 1mm more width, but is three times as expensive as the Laowa. The Laowa 12mm f/2.8 zero-D lens is available for $1,150. Also, the Laowa Laowa 15mm F/4.5 Zero Shift lens costs $1,199. Finally, the Laowa 9mm F/2.8 Zero D lens costs $499.

Although the last lens isn’t a moving one, it offers a wider field of vision that allows for easier interior or panoramic photos. However, this lens will require additional post-processing time to fix any lines. Although it is more work, the cost of the lens is half that of the original and the view area is twice as large.

Should You Buy It

Yes. The Laowa 20mm Shift Lens is well worth the $1,099 for anyone who shoots interiors, architecture and real estate.