I had never really warmed to a fish-eye lens in the past. The extreme distortion made the images shot with it somewhat aesthetically undesirable for my tastes, and for the longest time, I had consigned my Zenitar fish-eye converted for a Canon to the bottom drawer (it eventually got sold – and now I regret it). The thing is, fish-eye lenses – like all lenses – have their purpose in the right environment.
The first environment that I discovered that they worked well in was while photographing ceilings – especially those where you had to look straight up, and even more so when the ceiling was not particularly high up.
A rectilinear fish-eye lens lens provides one with a field-of-view of at least 170-degrees, which makes it ideal to capture ceilings – especially those which are circular or polygonal (as opposed to square or rectangular).
They are especially useful when the ceiling is not very high, and will allow you to shoot and cover almost all of it without needing to lie down on the ground and shoot upwards.
The two most important things that I had to keep in mind were
- to keep the centre of the frame locked onto the centre of the ceiling; and
- to keep the plane of the camera lens parallel to the plane of the ceiling.
In the sets above, the images shot with the fish-eye lens are the ones on the left. They were shot using a Rokinon 8mm fish-eye lens on an Olympus E-PL5 (2x crop factor). In both cases, the articulated screen of the camera allowed me to shoot without having to arch my back all the way, or lie down on the ground.
I soon discovered that the fish-eye lens had other uses.
The capability of a rectilinear fish-eye lens lens to provide one with a field-of-view of at least 170-degrees makes it great for an extreme wide-angle shot when applied to a circular element in the foreground. While these elements are relatively rare, they do occur often enough, in the form of fountains, flower beds, and mosaics. A couple of great examples are the fountains in front of Parliament House in Canberra, and the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne.
Both these images could have been captured with a wide-angle lens as well. The only difference is that you would have to have stood a lot further back, and that you would have lost the curvature of the circular element in front of the buildings. There are a couple of key things to consider when taken such shots.
They only work well when the plane in front of the building, and the building themselves are the same. This is usually the case when situations like this arise, and it is rare to have a building with a fountain in front on an incline;
It is important to ensure that the central horizontal axis of the fish-eye lens (i.e., the horizontal axis that passes through the centre of the fish-eye lens) remains in line with the horizon of the image. This minimizes any extreme distortion of the horizon line;
It is just as important to ensure that the primary vertical of the image remains in the centre of the primary vertical axis of the fish-eye lens (i.e. the major vertical element and the imaginary vertical line that runs through the centre of the fish-eye lens are in alignment with each other). This minimises undesirable perspective distortion.
Images of this nature are best photographed head on. Even the slightest mis-alignment can make the image look less than aesthetically pleasing.
In the sets above, the images shot with the fish-eye lens are the ones on the left. They were shot using a Rokinon 8mm fish-eye lens on an Olympus E-PL5 (2x crop factor).
One of the situations where fish-eye lenses really come into their own is when you are shooting from a perspective where you are surrounded. They really provide a sense of enclosure that other lenses just cannot extend.
The best example that I can perhaps provide is that off Webb Bridge. This happens to be one of those locations which draws people all the time, and looks different under different light conditions. It completely encloses visitors inside it, and the hairpin section is perhaps the most appealing bit. The wide-angle lens doesn’t do a bad job; the fish-eye does an amazing job. Now, both these images were captured by the same camera (an Olympus-E-PL5) mounted at exactly the same position with the same settings. If there ever was an apples-to-apples comparison, this would be it.
Similarly, the images of the Senate, and the House of Representatives in Old Parliament House in Canberra illustrate two places where a viewer is enclosed in an environment. In both rooms, the furniture is arranged in a ring. Wide-angle shots of such rooms appear flat and two dimensional. The fish-eye lens lends depth into such environments.
The important thing about such shots , once again, is to ensure that both the primary horizon line, and the primary central vertical line of the subject intersect at the centre of the lens. This assists in creating the illusion of minimising the extreme geometric distortion of this lens.
There are times where you might be attempting to photograph a large structure and have run out of space. This is yet another environment where a these properties of a fish-eye lens comes into play.
There are two locations in Melbourne which I find very difficult to photograph because of their sheer size, and their location (and the lack of space to be able to manoeuvre to get the best composition). St. Patrick’s Cathedral, because of its sheer height and relatively small compound, and the Melbourne Cricket Ground, because its massive size, yet mostly tree-covered approaches. When faced these situations, the fish-eye comes into play.
The images in these sets were shot with an Olympus E-PL5 (2x crop factor). The shots on the left were shot using a Rokinon 8mm fish-eye lens; the shots on the right were shot with a 9-18mm wide-angle Zuiko lens.
The use of the fish-eye lens is not limited to the “landscape” or horizontal orientation. It can also be used in vertical orientation.
Consistent with previous cases, it is important to ensure that both the primary horizon line, and the primary central vertical line of the subject intersect at the centre of the lens, to create the illusion of minimising the extreme geometric distortion of this lens.
I am going to somewhat embarrass myself in this last section, as I have had to model for these shots myself. Fish-eye lenses have their place in portrait and product photography too, and allow you to unleash your creative side.