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I have a variety of lenses in my camera kit. One that I do not have, and has me curious, is a fisheye lens. I mostly understand what it does: it captures an image with distortion similar to what you see through a door's peephole.

Given the distortion, are there any particular types of shots for which a fisheye lens is useful?

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7 Answers 7

up vote 36 down vote accepted

When I started considering the purchase of a fisheye lens I was worried that I wouldn't use too often. Boy, was I wrong. I loved it so much that it actually gave me motivation to take more pictures and it grew to be my favorite lens. Unfortunately I had to sell it when I switched to a full frame camera and now I miss it a lot.

First of all let's start by clarifying that there are two types of fisheye lenses for SLR cameras:

  • Cricular - this one usually has a 180° (even more with some lenses) field of view and creates a circular, strongly distorted image in the center of the frame.

  • Full-frame - this one has slightly narrower (180° diagonally) field of view and produces an image that covers the whole frame with much less distortion.

Both types produce images that are significantly distorted but that is either is exactly what you want or it can be corrected with the software, but it certainly doesn't have to look as what you see through a door's peephole. Situation that I think a fisheye lens is useful are:

  • Close distance sport/action shots - people jumping on bikes, skateboards, snowboard or skis. Fisheye gives a very cool feeling of immersion in that type of shots. I wish I had taken more of those.

  • Landscape - when all the objects are far away from the camera it is possible to minimize the fisheye appearance by putting the horizon in the center of your image like I tried in the shots below:

    Sunset from Gannet's POV New Chums

    Personally, I'd rather stick to rectilinear wide-angle lenses (like the Nikkor 14-24) for landscape but fisheye can really produce a very compelling result as well.

  • Interiors/panoramas - fisheye helps shooting in confined spaces. Most professional shots of car or plane interiors are done with fisheye lenses and occasionally stitched together in 360° panoramas. Using a fisheye for panoramas allows to take less shots to cover the whole view.

  • Other situations where wide field of view is important. Sometimes choosing a good point of view will allow you to reduce the distortion to a point where it doesn't require software correction.

    Pakiri Beach in B&W Misty morning

Bottom line is that I wish for Nikon to release a new FX size fisheye every day.

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+1 Beautiful examples, however the distortion is still noticeable. - The panoramic views do however greatly distract you from it. –  Danny Varod Aug 1 '10 at 22:22
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Excellent answer! The only thing I'd add here is that even without using software to "correc the distortion of a fisheye lens, you can crop out a horizontal band (e.g. the middle third of the frame) to make something that resembles a panorama. There is the least distortion in that portion, and with high enough resolution many people will ask you what stitching software you used. Examples with my Nikon 10.5 fisheye on the D300: picasaweb.google.com/naseer/Honeymoon#5282598504562128386 picasaweb.google.com/naseer/Japan2009Kansai#5398158831463975074 –  Naseer Aug 2 '10 at 1:42
    
Nice explanation, and superb photos. Looks as if the distortion is not always obvious, but you still get the wide shot anyway :) –  Grant Palin Aug 4 '10 at 4:30
    
Fantastic answer! .. but out of curiosity, what's wrong with Nikon 16mm AF-D fish-eye ? –  Marco Mp Jan 2 at 9:38
    
@MarcoMp It's a bit old and therefore probably not as quick/quite/sharp as modern lenses, but I haven't really tested it so can't attest to that. To me (as in a person with limited budget) the biggest problem is that if I decide to spend money I would like to be sure that I get the latest thing that won't get replaced soon. Although, it's been years since this answer was published and it still wasn't replaced. –  Piotr Zurek Jan 6 at 7:29

Fisheye lens can be used to pack together some kind of action with environment, and don't mind the distortion (examples: 1, 2). I've also seen some nice portraits done with fisheye, but that really depends on what you can come up with.

Or, you can get rid of the distortion by software conversion and use your fisheye an normal rectilinear ultra-wide lens. (If you don't mind the loss of quality and the fact it's hard to predict what's going to be in the picture after you convert and crop it.)

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DXO Optics corrects fisheye distortion quite well (at least better than the photo.net example). –  Karel Aug 1 '10 at 19:58
    
Getting rid of the distortion when you have information regarding the lenses is more accurate. –  Danny Varod Aug 1 '10 at 22:29

They are useful for those times when you absolutely want the subject to know you are taking a picture, unlike a telephoto where you can shoot anonymously. ;-)

Not For Portraits Where the Troll Goes Self-portrait shadow Giraffe with Posers Waiting ANZAC Memorial

Seriously, fisheyes have a number of real applications:

  • They allow coverage of large fields of view, with a distortion that has a fairly simple mathematical model. They were invented for research imagery of the whole sky for measurement of cloud coverage (see wikipedia). Since the distortions are easily modeled, it is possible to make a quantitative measurement of the sky coverage from analysis of single exposures.

  • If used with a tripod or similar stable mounting point and rotated about the effective entrance pupil, one can capture a full sphere panorama with only two exposures. Fewer exposures allows the panorama to be captured faster, and more than one exposure makes it possible for the photographer and their gear to not be in the finished picture.

  • They allow documenting a confined space with very limited incursion, often just barely leaning in the window is sufficient.

  • They allow coverage of large, sweeping landscapes without resorting to panorama adapters and stitching.

  • They don't really require much aim, so they can be used for stealthy or automated captures where it is more important to catch some kind of image of the subject at all, than it is to have an artistic image.

I carried a borrowed NIKKOR 10.5mm f/2.8G ED on a recent tour of Australian tourist spots. It stayed on the D90 for much more of the trip than I expected as I found opportunities to take pictures that would not have been possible with a more "normal" lens. I'd strongly suggest borrowing or renting on and trying it out on a casual outing. You might be surprised at the results.

Edit: Let me add a couple of notes about nodal points, the entrance pupil, and panorama stitching.

One definition of the entrance pupil is the following, from Wikipedia:

The geometric location of the entrance pupil is the vertex of the camera's angle of view and consequently its center of perspective, perspective point, view point, projection centre or no-parallax point. This point is important in panoramic photography, because the camera must be rotated around it in order to avoid parallax errors in the final, stitched panorama.

According to Wikipedia in the section on the Cardinal Points, the nodal points are locations along the optical axis that have the property that a light ray intersecting the front nodal point (and entering the lens) will leave the lens as if it originated at the rear nodal point.

The section goes on to identify some common misconceptions:

The nodal points are widely misunderstood in photography, where it is commonly asserted that the light rays "intersect" at "the nodal point", that the iris diaphragm of the lens is located there, and that this is the correct pivot point for panoramic photography, so as to avoid parallax error. These claims generally arise from confusion about the optics of camera lenses, as well as confusion between the nodal points and the other cardinal points of the system.

In short, multiple images destined for stitching into a panorama should all be taken with the entrance pupil in a fixed location, and only changing the direction the optical axis points.

Unfortunately, one of the interesting properties of a practical fish-eye lens is that the entrance pupil is at a changing distance along the optical axis as you vary the angle of the incident ray makes with the axis. You can see this effect by holding the lens with its rear element facing a bright wall (making the entrance pupil more visible at all) and moving your head around the front. As you move from on-axis to off-axis you can clearly see the pupil move from deep inside the lens to far in front of the rim of the front element. In order for rays to enter the lens from more than 90 degrees off axis, the pupil has to be visible to those rays. The surprise is that the pupil doesn't stay in that position as you move to smaller angles.

This effect does not happen with a normal rectilinear lens design. In rectilinear prime lenses, the entrance pupil is at a fixed location. You can identify that location by carefully constructing tests for parallax error. One of the compromises in a zoom lens design is that the position of the entrance pupil moves as the focal length changes. This is one of the reasons that the f-number of the lens varies with the zoom.

This makes it difficult to pick a proper point of rotation for a fisheye lens used for panorama photography. One answer is to just live with the natural field of view. After all, 180 degrees or more is pretty darn panoramic compared to a normal lens. Another answer is to use the approximate average position of the entrance pupil in the region where the individual images overlap. If you minimize the overlap, then you can calibrate the result fairly well. With a full-circle fisheye with a 190 degree or better field of view, you can cover the whole sphere with just two pictures, but you need to rotate the camera around a point that is very close to the front face of the front element for least parallax error in the overlapping band.

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"effective entrance pupil" is called the Nodal Point. –  ysap May 4 '11 at 23:33
    
@ysap, sorry, no it isn't. Although it is possible that the entrance pupil is located at the same spot, in general they are at different points. And in a fisheye, the entrance pupil moves with incident angle. One kind of optical system where the nodal points, principle points, and both pupils are all at the same position is a pinhole camera. –  RBerteig May 5 '11 at 7:02
    
interesting read. Everyday you learn a new thing. Some days you learn two ;-) Assuming the definitions in Wikipedia are correct, then this ought to be one of the widely spread misconceptions in the art of pano photography! –  ysap May 5 '11 at 7:09
    
Pano is one of the dark arts of photography. Personally, I covet a quality fisheye and I'll probably never stitch anything again. Unfortunately the one I used on that trip had to return to its owner. One of the things I learned from carrying it is the same thing that Piotr observed in his answer. It is far more useful than you expect. I found that I was consciously not taking the standard tourist photos because it was more fun to make the shot I could take with it interesting than to change back to a normal lens. –  RBerteig May 5 '11 at 7:18

Back when I was a photographer at parties, I used my Tokina 10-17 fisheye ZOOM lens quite effectively to pack a bunch of people together with some scenery and a bit of a creative touch. The fisheye zoom had the advantage that you could make the effect bigger or smaller, depending on the occasion. I'm including some examples:

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

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The example link has rotten, could you add the example directly to the post? –  Imre Dec 27 '13 at 13:17
    
You're right. I've abandoned my Flickr account. I'll see what I can do. –  Dave Van den Eynde Dec 28 '13 at 13:19
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Wow! These examples were worth asking for. –  Imre Jan 2 at 8:43

Seeing a very large field of view at once, in cases where distortion does not matter.
E.g. front doors and security cameras, where you want see what is going on from every angle at once (except behind you).

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A fisheye lens can also be used for skate videos. Watch pretty much any skate video on YouTube and they will use a fisheye lens some point in the video.

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Some fisheyes have low Minimum Shooting Distances, e.g. the Walimex/Samyang fisheye for Micro Four Thirds has one of d = 9 cm. So you can get quite close to your -preferably organically shaped- subject to get some really unusual, almost macro-like viewpoints. May be nice for creative fotography. I plan to get oneof these lenses.

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