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One Fisheye to Rule Them All!

Gear Talk

After spending some quality time with Canon’s newest L-series lens, the EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM, we can safely say it is the undisputed king of the fishes. It’s so versatile that it replaces at least five other lenses: the Sigma 8mm, Peleng’s 8mm, Tokina’s 10-17mm, Canon’s own 15mm and the Zenitar 16mm. It covers the same focal length as all five of these lenses (for the most part) while being sharper across the zoom range, delivering crisp, contrasty images that are to be expected from a lens bearing Canon’s lofty “L” designation. With this lens in your bag, there’s little reason to consider another fisheye lens, regardless of what camera body you are using.

Full-Frame and Crop Sensor Bodies

If you’re shooting with a full-frame camera like the 5D Mark II, the 8-15mm provides a full circular 180-degree half-hemispherical perspective (see below for examples). If you’re on a crop sensor, you will not get the full-circle effect as it’s simply not wide enough, and at the long end you’ll be at the equivalent of 24mm. This leaves a bit of breathing room for the Sigma 4.5mm which produces full circular images on the crop cameras (the only current fisheye it doesn’t totally replace). 

8mm on 1DSmk3 full-frame camera produces a half-hemispheric image

15mm on 1DSmk3 full-frame camera

 

What is a Fisheye?

The fisheye look is characterized by barrel distortion, especially strong on the edges, that renders straight lines as curves unless they pass through the center of the frame. In some cases the distortion is distracting so many photographers opt to use an ultra-wide rectilinear lens (which lacks the fisheye curvature) such as the Canon 16-35mm or 10-22mm in order to produce a more realistic rendition of their subject matter where both the the horizon and other straight lines are straight.

However, if you do choose to shoot with a fisheye lens you’ll find they really shine when used carefully with organic subjects where straight line rendition is of secondary concern or straight lines don’t exist. Check out Canon’s short film, “with”, (shot entirely with the 8-15mm on the 5dmk2 and 7d). Canon really shows off what can be done with its lens in this video, and you too could re-create it if you have some dolphins, divers, RC helicopters, aquatic pianists and bundles of money. You’ll notice Canon embraces the distorted fishy look for some shots and minimize it for others.

Surf and skateboard photography are perfect examples of where the 8-15mm excels. On a full frame body you’d probably shoot at 15mm, stop-down a bit to take advantage of the extreme depth of focus inherent in these lenses and set a manual focus distance. For example, you’re shooting someone skating a halfpipe and there’s enough light to shoot at f/8. Everything from a foot or two in front of the lens out to infinity will be in focus, so rather than have your slow Canon AF hunting around on every shot you can just park your focus in that range and concentrate on shooting.

image captured "blind" with the camera held at arm's length inches from the rider using fixed manual focus

As with any wide angle, fisheyes demand that you get very close to your subject. You’ll often shoot without your eye to the camera, instead holding it at arm’s length to safely get as close as possible and composing by feel. Surf photographers are regularly seen with only their camera above water as they’re already duck-diving underwater and out of danger.

this image was taken with the camera pointed straight up at the center of the sky: notice the entire horizon along the edge of the circular frame

You wont likely go much wider than 15mm on a full-frame sensor, unless you go all the way to 8mm. Almost immediately when you start zooming out from 15mm, distinct black corners rapidly appear taking up more and more real estate until 8mm where they form a complete circle. At this point the lens has transformed into an all-seeing beast, sucking up a complete half-hemisphere of view. At this focal length, anything in front of the lens will be photographed. If you point it straight up you see the entire sky and anything that is higher than the camera.

Technical and scientific applications for this type of lens include astronomy, meteorology, solar site-selection and forestry to name a few, and these applications drove the development of early fisheye lenses. The circular look is so extreme that it’s really fun to use even if you aren’t in a lab coat doing science. You’ll get these little snow-globe, fish-bowl microcosms with the whole world shoved into a little circle, but the look can get old quick unless used carefully so be selective on when and where you zoom this out to 8mm.

Mounted to a crop body, the 8-15mm covers nearly the range of Tokina’s cool little 10-17mm fish. The big difference is the Tokina doesn’t cover a full-frame sensor or approach the full-circle capability of the Canon. On the crop body you’ll be able to get a more room between you and your subject and the fisheye look will be less pronounced than with a full frame camera.

cropping-in to images makes the fish look less pronounced: notice the rider (who was centered in the original capture) is rendered realistically while the edges are quite distorted

With today’s high megapixel cameras you also have considerable leeway to crop into these images and make them look even less fishy and super-wide.

Final Thoughts

In the end the Canon 8-15mm is a crowning achievement, and is destined to become the  fisheye for Canon shooters. We’d even go so far as to say it will set the standard industry-wide for years to come. We imagine a ton of pros will run out and buy the 8-15mm to replace and expand on their old 15mm Canon fisheyes, if they haven’t already.

Granted, this lens might not be for everybody to own since at $1,500 its costs more than a 24-70 f/2.8L and is not even in the same ballpark in terms of flexibility and usefulness for general photography. That said, and we might be biased here, the 8-15mm certainly makes for an excellent lens rental because of it’s specialty nature and it’s a ton of fun to explore its various personalities. If the fish look suits your style, technique and subject matter, then the Canon 8-15mm is a no-brainer for your next rental.

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