Considering the Venus Optics Laowa 65mm f/2.8 2x Ultra Macro Apo Prime Lens for APS-C Fujifilm X-Mount Cameras

Venus Optics Laowa 65mm f/2.8 2x Ultra Macro Apo Prime Lens for Fujifilm X-Mount Cameras

The COVID-19 pandemic lockdown provides ample opportunity to reflect on what I am doing, how I am doing it and what I am doing it with in photography and video, and this time I am considering portraiture, close-ups and even macrophotography with the Venus Optics Laowa 65mm f/2.8 2x Ultra Macro Apo Prime Lens for Fujifilm X-mount cameras. 

Fujifilm X-T3 with Venus Optics Laowa 65mm f/2.8 2x Ultra Macro Apo Prime Lens for Fujifilm X-mount cameras, the lens’ focal length equivalent to 97.5mm in 35mm sensor format, close to my preferred close-up portrait focal length of 105mm.

It has been a long time since I had the pleasure of making photographs with macro lenses, dating back to my art student days when I first explored portrait photography with the school’s Nikon F and F2 cameras and Micro-Nikkor 55mm and 105mm macro lenses.

The first two macro lenses I ever used, made by Nikon

The legendary Nikon F3 electronic shutter-equipped 35mm DSLR with Nikkor 50mm lens, one of three Nikon cameras I owned over the years including the Nikon FM and Nikon F.

Both lenses’ close-up capabilities were a revelation and I soon took up portrait photography seriously, eventually leading to a career in magazine editorial portraiture after moving to Sydney.

I didn’t invest in my own macro lenses though, despite owning a Nikon F3 for use with borrowed ultra wide-angle and telephoto lenses as assignments demanded.

Instead, I mostly relied on one of my view cameras for portrait photography, choosing either a 210mm, 135mm or 90mm large format lens with 4″x5″ Tri-X or Ektachrome sheet film, Polaroid Type 55 instant positive/negative film or 120 roll film in a variable format magazine.

I still find shooting portraits in the narrower 3:2 and 2:3 aspect ratios irritating, mitigating against perfectly designing an image to fill the frame especially when aiming for a magazine cover, a double-page spread or a full page intro image to be supplemented with close-up detail images of a portrait subject’s possessions and environment.

My work as a magazine editorial portrait photographer

Linhof Master Technika Classic 4″x5″ sheet film view camera, one of my favorite cameras for portrait photography. Photo courtesy of Linhof.

My portrait work essentially fell into two classifications – highly emotive close-up and extreme close-up portraits mostly in monochrome, and environmental portraits shot in wide-angle saturated colour so the background provided plenty of useful information about the subject, their work and their world.

My ideal assignments allowed me the page count to shoot for a magazine cover candidate, a big close-up for the article opening page, an environmental portrait for a double-page spread, and a handful of close-up and extreme close-up shots to scatter through the text and as article closing images.

Most often, though, page space and shooting time were limited with little to no choice of setting in which to place the sitter, so my default in those circumstances was a full-face close-up portrait with hard lighting and direct eye contact aiming at a feeling that my readers were face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball with my subjects.

More aspect ratio guide frames please, Fujifilm

Fujifilm X-T3 with VG-XT3 Vertical Battery Grip. The 3×4 aspect ratio of Micro Four Thirds is much better than the 2×3 aspect ratio of APS-C and 35mm sensors for vertical portraits and is close to the aspect ratio of magazine pages. We need 4:3/3:4 added to aspect ratio choices in all APS-C and 35mm sensor cameras via firmware.

I do so wish Fujifilm would provide its X APS-C series cameras with a choice of suitable aspect ratio frame guides in 3:4, 4:5 and 6:7 in portrait format and thus 4:3, 5:4 and 7:6 in landscape format as it does with its GFX medium format cameras.

My view cameras allowed me to use non-closeup lenses with the bellows racked out to frame faces beautifully, using tilt, swing and shift camera movements to choose the precise points of the face upon which I wanted readers to most focus their attention.

My 210mm Schneider lens threw non-crucial features of face and background into a range of lush-toned and soft-edged greys, a useful trait given I had to work with a variety of environments many of which had little useful to contribute to my portraits.

Small, often-messy inner-city office environments and limited back space further motivated me to rely on my set of Broncolor monobloc flash units narrowed-down with mesh grids and barndoors close to my subject, in combination with Polaroid Type 55 for its rich tonality when correctly exposed for the negative at 12 ISO.

All my analog photography equipment, with the exception of my Leica M-Series rangefinder cameras and lenses, was stolen from a Mayfair share studio during my second stint in London.

I don’t miss analog photography and the attendant severe photochemical dermatitis I acquired after a couple of decades of processing and printing my own colour and monochrome work, but I would love to come up with an affordable  way of working in digital photography that is as close as possible to how I used to create my magazine editorial portraits.

Autofocus, manual focus and manual clutch focus

Polaroid Polapan 55 black & white instant sheet film, now long discontinued, allowed one to shoot 4″x5″ monochrome negatives at 12 ISO and positive prints at 20 ISO .

One big thing that working in 4″x5″ taught me, especially when shooting close-up portraits with little to no depth of field, is that deadly accurate focus on the tiniest of facial features is crucial and auto-focus cannot be relied upon.

“Tiny” including a shot of a reflection in an eyeball if the story warranted it and if my subject had the time and patience to forebear it.

Manual focus for portrait photography is the way to go in my humble opinion, and I have learned that the best lenses to do that with are either fully manual primes, or zoom or prime lenses with manual clutch focus and dampened hard stops at near and far distance.

Unfortunately, Fujifilm has chosen to make only X prime lenses with that option, in 14mm, 16mm and 23mm, and not in the longer focal lengths required for non-environmental portrait photography.

Fujifilm makes only three lenses with manual clutch focus 😦

I still find focus-by-wire-only lenses somewhat challenging for fast and ultra-fine manual focusing, and so my interest was piqued when I spotted the Venus Optics Laowa 65mm f/2.8 2x Ultra Macro Apo prime lens online this morning.

I have not had the pleasure of trying out any of Venus Optics’ lenses though I have read reviews of their ever-growing set of lenses with interest over the years.

If I am lucky, I may be able to find a retailer in Sydney that has this particular lens in stock so I may try it out after the lockdown ends, though the ongoing reduction in local camera retail stores is a worry.

A foray into our nearest shopping centre on the weekend revealed that the last camera store there seems to have fallen victim to COVID-19’s economic wrecking ball and I suspect more stores there will join it by also falling into oblivion.

Two Fujifilm X-Mount macro lenses, in 60mm and 65mm focal lengths

Meanwhile, I will continue searching online for reviews by well-qualified professionals of these and other lenses for use in the kind of close-up portrait photographs I have been longing to make once more.

Almost the only portrait from my analog days that was not stolen along with the rest of my prints, transparencies, negatives, portfolio and equipment

This image of a member of the art world was shot with a Hasselblad Zeiss Makro-Planar 120mm f/4.0 and is framed wider than I would usually choose for full-page portraits, instead preferring a more tightly-designed close-up image most often made with one of my 4″x5″ view cameras with bellows at near-full extension.