Fisheye Photography: A Quick Guide (+5 Tips)

The post Fisheye Photography: A Quick Guide (+5 Tips) appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Simon Bond.

a guide to fisheye photography (+ tips)

This article was updated in April 2024 with contributions from Simon Bond and Jaymes Dempsey.

If you want to capture breathtaking photos that go beyond what the human eye can see, then it’s tough to go wrong with a fisheye lens.

Fisheye photos don’t exactly look natural, but that’s not the point; with a fisheye lens, you can create mind-bending, expansive images full of eye-catching effects.

In this article, I share everything you need to know about fisheye photography. First, I give a basic definition of fisheye lenses, and I discuss when this type of lens works best. Then – in case you’re looking to get started with fisheye photography but don’t have the right gear – I offer recommendations for the best fisheye lenses available today.

Finally, I end with a few of my favorite tips, tricks, and techniques for beautiful fisheye portraits, landscapes, and more. (I also share plenty of fisheye examples along the way, so you know exactly what a fisheye lens can do.)

Are you ready to become a fisheye photo master? Let’s dive right in, starting with:

What is a fisheye lens?

A fisheye lens is an ultra-wide lens with a near 180-degree field of view. The glass in a fisheye lens curves heavily outward; as a result, it captures far more of the scene than even an ultra-wide-angle lens.

When capturing this huge field of view, a fisheye lens produces extensive distortion. As a result, fisheye images are noticeably curved around the edges:

fisheye photography architecture
When you use a fisheye lens, you can expect heavy distortion. Notice how intensely the edges of the frame are curved; that’s thanks to fisheye lens optics! But distortion isn’t always a bad thing, and in this case, it gives the composition a stronger sense of movement, as the walls swirl around the person down below.

Generally speaking, distortion is problematic – but fisheye photographers work to embrace the distortive effect. Indeed, fisheye photography is all about capturing unique perspectives and compositions. You shouldn’t use a fisheye lens if you’re obsessed with creating natural-looking photos. Instead, you should use a fisheye lens to create artistic, eye-catching images!

Fisheye lenses, unlike most standard lenses, feature a bulbous front element. For this reason, you cannot use a regular lens cap on a fisheye lens, and you cannot use standard filters, either. These accessories are designed for non-fisheye lenses with relatively flat front elements, and they simply won’t fit over a fisheye model.

Note that you can get either a prime or a zoom fisheye lens. The majority of fisheyes are prime lenses, and they typically offer an f/2.8 maximum aperture and a focal length of 8mm or 15mm. Manufacturers do sell a few zoom fisheye lenses, which feature smaller (f/4) maximum apertures but – thanks to the zoom range – deliver greater flexibility.

Circular vs diagonal fisheye lenses

Broadly speaking, fisheye lenses fall into two categories: circular and diagonal.

Circular fisheye lenses do not cover the entire camera sensor. Instead, they cover a portion of the sensor to produce a circular image, which results in a black frame around each file, like this:

A circular fisheye effect

Diagonal fisheye lenses, on the other hand, are designed to cover the entire camera sensor. The edges of an image captured with a diagonal fisheye lens will be heavily distorted, but the frame will include detail throughout, like this:

Fisheye photography with a diagonal fisheye effect

Both types of fisheye lenses can create arresting images, and neither is better than the other. It all depends on the kind of photography you enjoy! Personally, I like using a diagonal fisheye lens, but the choice is really up to you.

When should you use a fisheye lens?

Fisheye lenses are a great way to capture stunning creative effects. The intense distortion produces eye-catching, even disorienting, compositions, and you can use fisheye lenses for all sorts of unique shots.

Photographers rely on these lenses to produce fresh, original images of dozens of subjects, and here are just a few of the many popular choices:

  • Architectural interiors
  • Sweeping landscapes
  • Street scenes
  • City skylines

Remember, however, that fisheye shots are heavily distorted and therefore unrealistic – and sometimes shocking – in their rendering of everyday subject matter. Therefore, fisheye lenses are not ideal if your goal is to capture accurate documentary photos, flattering portraits, meditative still-life shots, or naturalistic landscapes.

So before pulling out that fisheye lens, ask yourself:

Do I want a creative, unusual, unnatural image? Or do I want a more conventional, yet also more accurate, rendering of my subject?

The choice is yours!

The best fisheye lenses you can buy today

A fisheye lens in a camera bag

Most major camera manufacturers don’t produce many (or any) fisheye lenses. Fortunately, however, third-party lens makers do offer all sorts of fisheye lenses; not only are these products compatible with a variety of different camera mounts, but they’re cheap, too!

If you’re in the market for a fisheye lens, here are a few of the models I recommend.

For Canon DSLR shooters – or Canon mirrorless users who own an EF to RF-mount adapter – the EF 8-15mm f/4L USM is an outstanding pick. It offers great optics, and you get both a circular fisheye effect and a diagonal fisheye effect, depending on the focal length. But be warned: It’s extremely pricey! If you’re looking for a budget fisheye lens for Canon DSLRs, the Rokinon 8mm f/3.5 is a solid alternative, though it’ll only produce a diagonal fisheye effect on APS-C cameras (on full-frame Canon cameras, you’ll get a circular fisheye effect instead).

For Nikon DSLR shooters, the 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E ED is a solid choice: it’s sharp, well-built, and it even offers close-focusing capabilities. Like Canon’s 8-15mm lens, Nikon’s fisheye model can create circular and diagonal fisheye effects, so if you’re not sure which you prefer, you can have fun playing with both! And while the Nikon 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E ED is more reasonably priced than its Canon counterpart, a budget option is the Rokinon 8mm f/3.5 I recommended above, which is also available for Nikon F-mount cameras.

For Four-Thirds photographers, the Olympus M.Zuiko 8mm f/1.8 is a fantastic buy. Not only does it produce beautiful diagonal fisheye images, but the f/1.8 maximum aperture lets you shoot handheld in low-light conditions and still come away with sharp, well-exposed images.

Unfortunately, Sony doesn’t currently manufacture any fisheye lenses for its mirrorless lineup. However, this Rokinon 8mm f/3.5mm does work on Sony E-mount cameras (though for a diagonal fisheye effect, you’ll need to use it with an APS-C model).

5 fisheye photography tips for beautiful results

Now that you’re familiar with the fisheye photography basics, let’s take a closer look at how you can create amazing fisheye photos.

1. Create distortion on the horizon line

If you’re after creative landscape photos and you don’t mind heavily emphasizing the fisheye effect, then start by including a horizon line in your image…

…and position it so as to create a heavy curve across the image.

The result is very cool, and it’ll certainly cause the viewer to do a double-take:

fisheye photography landscape beach

In fact, by adjusting the position of your fisheye lens, you can make the horizon curve downward (as in the example above) or upward.

To make the horizon line bend downward, simply aim the lens toward the ground (i.e., the lens should be below parallel to the ground). Note that a large portion of the photo will feature the foreground, so make sure you include plenty of close-up interest!

And to make the horizon line bend upward, aim the camera toward the sky. Try to create this upward effect when the sky features dramatic clouds, such as at sunrise or sunset; that way, the heavily featured sky will pull its weight.

2. Take photos of architecture

Yes, it’s a simple fisheye photography tip, but it’s important to emphasize:

The fisheye lens is an absolute gift for architectural photographers.

The distortion can be used for amazing creative effects, whether you’re shooting outdoors (and capturing beautiful building facades) or you’re shooting indoors (and capturing museum interiors, images of tight spaces, or even photos of your own living room). I love to use the fisheye distortion to frame my subject:

fisheye photography architecture

And you can often even incorporate elements from behind the lens; the focal length really is that wide!

Because fisheye lenses distort architecture so radically, as soon as you find an interesting architectural subject, I recommend you mount the lens on your camera, then simply spend some time walking around and looking through the viewfinder. Over time, you’ll start to understand the fisheye perspective – and you’ll also have a ton of fun along the way!

3. Use intentional camera movement

Intentional camera movement (ICM) is a creative technique that involves moving the camera during the course of an exposure to create an impressionistic blur:

fisheye photography radial blur

More specifically, you set your camera to Manual mode, dial in a long shutter speed (often around 1/15s and beyond), then – as you fire the shutter – move the camera from left to right, up and down, in circles, and so on.

Now, intentional camera movement works with all types of lenses, and there are plenty of non-fisheye photographers who love the technique.

But if you combine ICM with a fisheye lens, you can capture incredibly novel effects. For instance, you can create a cool radial blur effect; here, you simply rotate the camera around an imaginary central point while shooting. As you can imagine, fisheye distortion actually intensifies the result. (In fact, the radial blur technique is how I captured the image displayed above!)

And if you’re shooting at night, you can use a kinetic light painting technique to create photos like this:

fisheye photography kinetic light painting

Just put your camera on a tripod, use a long shutter speed, and – after triggering the shutter – rotate the camera in a circle, stopping every so often to create areas of sharpness in your image. For the best results, choose a location with plenty of lights and shoot at night.

4. Don’t forget to do fisheye portrait photography

Fisheye photographers tend to neglect portrait subjects, but in my view, that’s a major mistake.

Sure, fisheye distortion isn’t always the most flattering, but the effects are plenty eye-catching (and by carefully positioning your portrait subject in the frame, you can avoid distorting the model).

For disorienting shots, try getting up close to your model, then ask them to point a finger, a prop, or even their eye toward the camera.

Alternatively, if you want to keep your model looking normal, position them in the center of the frame, but use the fisheye effect to distort interesting architecture all around the scene edges. Be sure to back up slightly so that the model is smaller in the frame.

When done correctly, this can create an interesting framing effect around the subject:

fisheye photography portrait

5. Use a fisheye for a (standard) ultra-wide perspective

Throughout this article, I’ve emphasized the creative potential of fisheye lenses.

But did you know that you can actually use fisheye lenses…normally? In other words, by carefully angling your fisheye lens, the resulting images will feature an ultra-wide perspective but very little distortion:

fisheye photography city skyline

Of course, you can do this with an ultra-wide lens, but purchasing a second lens can be expensive. Plus, even the widest lenses don’t quite reach fisheye focal lengths.

Here’s how it works:

Aim your lens at the horizon line. And keep the angle completely flat (so the lens is perfectly parallel to the ground).

You will need to avoid objects on the edge of the frame because they’ll still distort – though if you do include a few edge objects, you can always correct the distortion in post-processing.

In my experience, this type of “standard” fisheye photo is great for locations with a minimalist feel, like coastlines and deserts. That said, you can always use it to capture interesting architecture, skylines, and so much more.

Bonus: Create the fisheye effect with a lensball

Fisheye lenses can be expensive, but if you like the idea of fisheye photography and can’t justify the price, you do have another option:

The lensball effect.

Simply purchase a glass ball, then – when you find a nice subject – hold the ball in front of your camera. The lensball will replicate a fisheye lens, and you’ll get a distorted, circular result:

lensball fisheye effect

Of course, the effect isn’t exactly the same, and you won’t get an image that’s sharp throughout. But you can have lots of fun experimenting with the lensball effect, and you can certainly capture some stunning images!

Fisheye photography: final words

Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re ready to do some stunning fisheye photography!

So grab a fisheye lens (or a lensball) and get shooting.

Now over to you:

What do you plan to photograph first with your fisheye lens? Which of these tips will you incorporate into your own workflow? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

The post Fisheye Photography: A Quick Guide (+5 Tips) appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Simon Bond.

The post Fisheye Photography: A Quick Guide (+5 Tips) appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Simon Bond. This article was updated in April 2024 with contributions from Simon Bond and Jaymes Dempsey. If you want to capture breathtaking photos that go beyond what the human eye can see, then it’s tough…

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