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Photography Glossary

What is a Fisheye Lens?

October 23, 2022 by

This is a guide covering the fisheye lens.

Maybe you’re thinking about buying one or you bought one but now you have no idea what to use it for!

Well no need to fret, we’ve got you covered.

Table of Contents

What is a Fisheye Lens?

Technically speaking fisheye lenses are wide-angle lenses. Ultra wide-angle to be precise. A typical fisheye lens will offer you an angle of view that is 167 degrees or more. Some lenses offer an angle of view of up to 180 degrees. It is this larger than normal angle of view that produces this circular (non-rectilinear) perspective.

Fisheye lenses are special purpose lenses that are designed to give you a very wide perspective of a scene.

They are often used by photographers to capture unusual and weird perspectives of everyday subjects that are impossible with normal lenses.

Fisheye lenses can be a lot of fun to use provided you don’t run out of creative ideas to explore.

What is a Fisheye Lens
image using fisheye lens

Starting from weird portraits of your family and friends, pets, and the odd stranger on the street, to seeing the world from the perspective of a peephole can make some pretty interesting images.

I have defined an ultra-wide-angle lens below. Fisheye lenses are also ultra-wide-angle lenses but they offer extreme non-rectilinear perspectives something unusual for any other normal lens.

And that is precisely the reason why these lenses are so sought after by outdoor photographers, especially those who shoot skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, and other similar types of action photography.

Fisheye Lens vs Wide-Angle Lens

A wide-angle lens is any lens with a focal length that is shorter than 50mm.

A 20mm prime and a 14-24mm zoom are both wide-angle lenses, but one with a fixed focal length and the other with a variable focal length.

But both lenses offer a focal length of no more than 35mm.

Fisheye Lens vs Ultra-Wide-Angle Lens

Among wide-angle lenses, anything that is shorter than 24mm is considered an ultra-wide-angle lens.

Fisheye lenses are also ultra-wide-angle lenses as we shall see shortly. But they offer a wider angle of view than typical ultra-wide-angle lenses.

The primary use of fisheye lenses

  • For shooting extreme sports like skiing, skateboarding, snowboarding, etc.
  • For producing a weird non-rectilinear circular perspective of normal everyday moments.
  • For shooting a peep-hole scene
  • Mimicking security camera footage
  • For fun images of human and animal close-ups

The real-world applications are limited and largely confined to a few genres of photography.

fisheye lens skating
using fish-eye lens

The History Behind Fisheye Lenses

Originally designed and developed by physicist Robert W. Wood this lens was designed as an experiment to figure out how the world would appear from the perspective of fish underwater.

But barring a very limited few applications this lens did not generate too much interest among photographers.

These limited uses included meteorology or the study of cloud formations a reason why sometimes these lenses were also referred to as ‘whole-sky lenses’.

That was until the 1960’s when this lens started to be in demand and mass production began.

Then in 1966 director, John Frankenheimer used this lens in his film Seconds, creating an eerie horrific perspective that completely shook the audience.

Photographers and filmmakers suddenly realized the potential of the fisheye lens.

Interestingly one of the most prolific uses of the fisheye lens has been in movies.

After it was made popular by John Frankenheimer many other Hollywood directors started using this lens to great effect.

If you are a budding filmmaker and looking for inspiration try digging up some old footage of how fisheye lenses have been used in Hollywood movies.

This lens is inexpensive if bought from a preowned store or you can invest in a new one. I can guarantee you that the lens will pay for itself if you are willing to experiment with it.

Why Get a Fisheye Lens?

Is it worth investing in a fisheye lens?

I know I have recommended buying one above and at the same time I have also mentioned that the real-world applications of fisheye lenses are very limited.

This is one of the prime reasons why many professional photographers would prefer not to invest in one.

My top reasons for investing in a fisheye lens are:

1. Unique Perspective

If you want to impress your clients with a unique perspective that no other photographers in your line of business are doing then a fisheye lens makes sense.

Wedding photography, e.g., is a genre where almost no one uses a fisheye lens. Or perhaps no one dares to explore the creative opportunities that a fisheye lens has to offer in wedding photography.

This is a perfect opportunity for someone who might be interested in taking his or her photography to the next level to start experimenting with a fisheye lens.

2. Action Shots

Action sports is a genre that routinely exploits the capabilities of wide-angle and ultra-wide-angle lenses including fisheye lenses.

Whether it is the POV or third-person perspective that one is looking to capture, fisheye lenses are a must-have for action sports such as snowboarding, skateboarding, and skiing.

action fisheye lens
using fisheye-lens for action shots

Even paragliders, base jumpers, and skydivers use fisheye lenses to record their actions, often shooting videos and stills in selfie mode or using a third-person photographer who records their actions while also taking part in the jump.

3. Architecture Photography

Architecture photography is one genre where ultra-wide-angle lenses have been used for years.

Wide-angle and ultra-wide-angle lenses have the capabilities to capture an extreme angle of view, something that can fit in a large building or facade.

architecture fisheye lens
using fisheye-lens for a unique perspective

Adventure photographers would use a fisheye lens to capture the skyline of a city from a high altitude, and hikers and mountaineers can use a fisheye lens to capture the panoramic vista in front of them from a high altitude.

4. Curvilinear Perspective

Not only a circular perspective from high above, but you can also capture the interesting curvilinear perspective of buildings from the ground up too using fisheye lenses.

What is a Fisheye Lens
using fisheye-lens for a curvilinear perspective

Using different camera angles and not keeping the horizon line perfectly parallel to the ground can be a great way to use a fisheye lens.

You can also use an exception to that approach, that is keep the horizon line perfectly parallel. That way the horizon will not appear to be curved and you can capture an ultra-wide-angle perspective of the scene.

5. B-Roll

Vloggers can find a fisheye lens to be useful in areas such as shooting a B-roll or shooting behind-the-scenes footage.

Let’s say that you are shooting a time-lapse of a scene and you want to capture the whole behind-the-scenes process as separate footage that you can use in your vlog or as tutorial material for your students.

A fisheye lens is a perfect lens for that purpose because of the extremely wide angle of view that it can capture.

6. Abstract Photography

As a general-purpose lens for shooting abstract photography, a fisheye lens is a special purpose lens, just like a tilt-shift or a macro lens.

abstract photography fisheye lens
using fisheye-lens for abstract photography

They all have limited usability but in the right hands, they can produce stunning images and videos. It is all up to the creativity of the individual that is wielding the lens.

You can experiment with a wide number of different everyday moments, shooting everyday items of use and capturing a unique look that would make interesting photos.

To further explore reasons why you should use a fisheye lens, check out this in-depth video by Hk Visuals:

Best Fisheye Lenses

Here are our top recommendations for the best fisheye lenses:

1. Canon EF 8-15mm f/4 L

The Canon EF 8-15mm f/4 L is a special-purpose lens designed to capture ultra-wide-angle perspective (or fisheye) and produce non-rectilinear images that captures a large field of view.

The angle of view offered by the lens is 180 degrees to 175 degrees across the zoom range. This L lens comes with a good build quality. It weighs a whopping 540 grams.

There are a total of 14 elements in the lens arranged in 11 groups. The front element of the lens bulges out and this is a characteristic of all ultra-wide-angle lenses including fisheye lenses.

Designed to match the mount of a full-frame Canon DSLR camera (using EF mount) this lens offers a decent f/4 maximum aperture. The lens features an ultrasonic focusing motor.

Mind you the lens has no image stabilization built in.

Also, check out a full list of the best Canon fisheye lenses.

Canon EF 8-15mm f/4 L

2. Sigma 8mm f/3.5 EX DG

The Sigma 8mm f/3.5 EX DG is an 8mm prime fisheye lens designed by Sigma. This prime lens offers an angle of view of 180 degrees. This is a well-made lens weighing about 400 grams.

The lens consists of 11 elements and 6 groups. These elements include one SLD glass element that is responsible for suppressing chromatic aberrations.

The lens comes in three different mounts – the Nikon F mount, the Canon EF mount, and the Sigma SA mount.

Although the lens is designed for full-frame camera systems it will also work on APS-C camera systems but with an elongated focal length.

Please note crop cameras use only a portion of the image coming through the lens and that is why it appears that the lens is zoomed.

So, the effective focal length changes to something longer. For Canon cameras that is 1.6x of the original focal length and for Nikon that is 1.5x.

Sigma 8mm f/3.5 EX DG

Final Remarks

We hope you enjoyed this guide on fisheye lenses and learned more about them!

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