Buying and Using a Fisheye Lens

Because of the unusual images they create, fisheyes are often unfairly dismissed as special effects lenses. However, thanks to the way a fisheye curves lines at the periphery, used in the right way it can help you shoot images with a unique twist on common views. Work with that distortion and you can create something very special.

What is a fisheye?

In photography there are basically two types of lenses – rectilinear and curvilinear. A rectilinear lens captures straight lines as straight lines, reproducing what the eye sees. This is the category most lenses fall into, including wide-angle. A fisheye, however, is a curvilinear lens because it gives you a hemispherical view of the world – the distorted view a fish sees. This is known as barrel distortion and results in curved lines around the periphery of your photo. The effect is more pronounced the wider you shoot. As a wide-angle lens is rectilinear, if you were to shoot the same scene at 12mm on a fisheye, and then 12mm on a wide-angle, you would see considerably more of your scene with the fisheye.

That focal length is key. From 15mm down to 8mm on a full-frame camera, you get an increasingly wide angle of view (and increasing distortion to match) in an image that fills the entire frame – known as ‘full frame fisheye’. However, from 8mm down, vignetting closes in at the edges and your scene becomes enclosed in a circle. This is known as ‘circular fisheye’.

When fisheye lenses were first developed in the 1920s, it was for meteorological purposes, and this circular effect was exactly what they were looking for. Also known as ‘whole sky lenses’, they could be trained on the sky for 180° panoramic sky monitoring shots. Nikon was the first company to mass-produce fisheye

Architecture shots can be enhanced by the fisheye effect. Taken with a 12mm fisheye on a full-frame camera, this shot from London’s Underground network looks like something out of a Kubrick movie.

You’d never guess this one was shot with a fisheye, but stairwells work well with this type of lens because you can get so much in view. Just make sure you don’t get yourself in the shot, too – because of the wide angle of view, it’s easier than you’d imagine to inadvertently include your own feet.

A massive angle of view

One of the main attributes of a fisheye is that it focuses very close and gives you a big angle of view – and when we say big, we mean huge! A traditional wide-angle lens gives you a field of view of around 70-120°, but with a fisheye, that angle of view can be more than 180° across the diagonal. The lens with the widest angle of view ever is the ridiculously rare Nikkor 6mm f/2.8. Launched in 1972, it can actually see behind itself thanks to a whopping 220° field of view. It comes with a price tag to match – only about 300 were ever made, and one was last sold at auction in 2012 for an eye-watering £100K.

Key benefits

Here you can see how the lens affects straight lines. Notice how the horizon is completely level, but the lines in the jetty curve towards you.

The effect doesn’t work well with the jetty because the distortion is obvious, but use the same effect on the water’s edge and you’d never know it wasn’t shot with a rectilinear lens. To get this shot, the lens was just a few inches from the ball.

Where does a fisheye work best?

When shooting with a fisheye, one of the most important things to remember is that tiny changes to your framing will have dramatic effects on your composition. If you’re shooting architecture, make certain your camera is completely level and the lens is square-on to the scene (a hot shoe spirit level is a cheap but worthwhile investment).

There’s a range of situations where a fisheye lens can be your best friend…

• It’s perfect for shooting interiors where you might not be able to stand back far enough to include the entire scene in a single shot (like the ceiling pictured above).

• Objects nearer to the camera appear much larger than those further away so a fisheye is ideal in situations where you want to emphasise scale. 

• Fisheyes are almost always used for underwater photography where there are no straight lines to worry about. They also produce sharper images with brighter colours than a rectilinear lens.

• Shooting the horizon? Depending on your composition, a fisheye can be used to enhance the curvature of the earth.

• The short focal length is perfect for action shots where you also want to retain context – you can get very close to your subject yet still capture plenty of background.

• A fisheye works well for particular landscape shots. There’s no distortion in the centre so a line passing horizontally or vertically through the middle appears completely straight. Shoot a landscape with the horizon through the centre and it will look as if it’s been shot with a rectilinear lens, while objects closer to the camera appear to stretch towards you. This effect works particularly well with beach scenes – the horizon stays straight while the leading edge of the tide distorts towards the viewer.

Also known as ‘whole sky lenses’, it’s no surprise that a fisheye works well for astrophotography. Not only does it give a huge angle of view, it also lets in a lot more light than a wide-angle lens, so you can shoot faster and avoid the dreaded star trails.

Dealing with distortion

The distortion you get with a fisheye is the reason for using it, but when you need to straighten things up, you have options.

Software can perform miracles these days and you can remove distortion effects through the Lens Corrections panel in Adobe Lightroom – just select the make and model of your lens and let the software do the rest. Depending on your shot, Lightroom is pretty good at this, but not perfect. A better but more time-consuming approach is to manually use the transform options in Adobe Photoshop.

If you’re shooting with a drone, the barrel distortion you get with a fisheye can be an irritant, but finding the centre lines and working with them is one way to straighten the horizon. Software is another. Adobe After Effects does an excellent job of fixing barrel distortion. There’s also PTLens – free for PC and Mac, it gives you full control over lens correction.

Another way to fix the distortion is to shoot three images as if you’re aiming for a panorama, then take them into Lightroom and perform the lens correction. Then piece the three shots together, replacing the distorted edges with the middle sections of the images either side of the capture. Try it – it works.

No excuses

If, after all that, you’re still unconvinced about investing in a fisheye, there’s one more reason to give it a go – the price. With lenses starting at just £249 for the very respectable Samyang 8mm f/3.5 UMC Fisheye CS II Lens, a fisheye is likely to be one of the cheapest lenses in your bag. For more options, take a look at Jessops’ full range of fisheye lenses.

Inspired by our love for fisheye? We want to see your images so we can showcase the best on our Facebook page.

Photos by Mark Higham. For more fisheye inspiration, take a look

@ Instagram: mhigham.photos

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