Tips & Tidbits: Shooting Landscapes with Fisheye Lenses

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Though there aren’t any hard rules on the subject—and all rules are made to be broken—wide-angle and ultra-wide-angle lenses are often considered to be the go-to lenses for landscape photography. It’s not like you can’t capture wonderful landscapes with normal or telephoto lenses (you absolutely can), but due to their broad capture angles, wide- and ultra-wide-angle lenses usually win out over the alternative choices. For those who wish to go wider than ultra-wide, you have to turn to fisheye lenses.

Photographs © Allan Weitz 2020

What Is a Fisheye Lens?

In 1906 the American physicist Robert Wood added “fisheye” to the optical lexicon, believing the ultra-wide lenses approximate the hemispherical view a fish would have from underwater. The benefit for fish is that the 180° angles-of-view afforded by their eyes enables them to spot both predators and food sources quicker and easier. The advantage of fisheye lenses for photographers is that they deliver the widest possible views of most any given scene. Fisheye lenses can also be used to turn everything into exaggerated plays on perspective and image composition. 

All of the fisheye photographs in this feature were captured using a Sony a7R III and Samyang 12mm f/2.8 ED AS NCS Full-Frame Fisheye Lens and Sigma 8mm f/3.5 EX DG Circular Fisheye Lens.

Fisheye lenses are non rectilinear in design as opposed to conventional wide- and ultra-wide-angle lenses. Rectilinear lenses render straight lines straight and parallel lines parallel. Non-rectilinear fisheye lenses neither correct for linear barrel distortions nor maintain straight, parallel lines.

The least amount of barrel distortion can be found in the central portion of fisheye image files, with increasing degrees of distortion as you venture toward the edges of the frame.

In the case of circular fisheye lenses, straight lines are nonexistent—everything swirls around the center point of the rounded image field.

Fisheyes Come in Two Flavors: Circular and Rectangular

Most people associate fisheye lenses with circular photographs, but this isn’t always the case. Fisheye lenses come in two types—circular and full-frame rectangular. Circular fisheye lenses capture round images that take in 180° angles-of-view of the scene and reproduce them in the form of a round circle. When viewed on a camera or computer screen, you see a circular fisheye image centered within a rectangular field of black. Full-frame fisheye lenses fill the entire viewing field but at the cost of narrower (100-175°) angles-of-view. In the case of circular fisheye lenses, straight lines are nonexistent—everything swirls around the center point of the rounded image field.

The same scene captured with a circular fisheye, featuring a sun starburst that flares off into the surrounding black border of the image, and a full-frame fisheye.

Tip: The extreme angle-of-view (AoV) coverage of fisheye lenses make them excellent choices for astrophotography.

How Are Fisheyes Different from Rectilinear Ultra-Wide-Angle Lenses?

Aside from the wider angles-of-view afforded by fisheye lenses, the key difference between fisheyes and rectilinear ultra-wides is that, with few exceptions, rectilinear ultra-wides maintain straight, parallel lines while fisheyes inherently distort perspective and all but do away with any forms of parallelism.

The same scene captured with a rectilinear ultra-wide-angle lens (Voigtländer Super Wide-Heliar 15mm f/4.5 Asph III), the full-frame Samyang 12mm fisheye (center), and Sigma 8mm circular fisheye (right).

Fisheye Lenses—Fixed Prime or Zoom?

In addition to fixed focal length fisheye lenses, fisheyes are also available as zooms. Fisheye zooms are unique in that they capture circular fisheye images at the wider-angle end of their respective zoom ranges and gradually transition to rectangular full-frame fisheye images as you zoom toward the longer end of their respective zoom ranges.

For full-frame cameras there are currently four choices for fisheye zooms: Canon’s EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye Zoom, Nikon’s AF-S Fisheye NIKKOR 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E ED, and Tokina’s AT-X 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 DX Fisheye, which is available for Canon EF and Nikon F mount cameras.

Fisheye zoom lenses are also available for APS-C format cameras from Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Tokina, and Meike, as well as Micro Four-Thirds cameras.

Tip: When shooting with fisheye lenses, the depth-of-field becomes near infinite when shooting at smaller f/stops. For this reason, always make sure the front element of your fisheye lens is dust-free, because when you stop down, all those little particles will come into focus.

By keeping the camera level, this photograph taken with a 12mm full-frame fisheye offers few clues that it was captured with a fisheye lens.
By keeping the camera level, this photograph, taken with a 12mm full-frame fisheye, offers few clues that it was captured with a fisheye lens.

Using Fisheye Lenses for Shooting Landscapes

Fisheye lenses lend themselves to landscape photography for a number of reasons. Unlike architectural photography, in which distortion is like an unwelcome guest at a dinner party, landscapes seldom, if ever, contain straight lines, which masks many of the distortions common to fisheye photography.

Visual Anchors: Many of the rules for shooting landscapes with wide- and ultra-wide-angle lenses apply equally to landscapes photographed with fisheye lenses. For starters, it’s imperative that you have a strong visual element front and center, or perhaps off-center, depending on what works best for the image. This is because when we look at photographs, our eyes seek out a dominant visual anchor point that they can return to as they scan the four corners of the frame.

A well-defined vanishing point and the strong form and angles formed by the white fence help guide the viewer’s eye in a balanced manner.
A well-defined vanishing point and the strong form and angles formed by the white fence help guide the viewer’s eye in a balanced manner.

The extreme AoV coverage of fisheye lenses makes them excellent choices for astrophotography.

To Minimize Distortion, Maintain a Level Camera

Something to keep in mind when framing both fisheye and wide-angle photographs is that the closer you are to your subject, the greater the degree of distortion. For this reason, you should carefully frame your photograph in a way that prevents your main subject from overwhelming the totality of the photograph.

When the camera is level, the center horizon line remains, depending on the lens, fairly straight and level. Tilt the camera downward (middle photo) or upward (right photo) and the straight, level horizon line disappears.

Even though distortion is an inherent attribute of fisheye lenses, there are a few measures one can take to control certain aspects of these distortions. As an example, when shooting with a fisheye lens with the camera mounted level on a tripod or similar support, the horizon line is the only dimension in the image field that remains arrow-straight—everything else arcs around the straight horizon line. If you tilt the camera upward, the horizon line becomes concave. Tilt the camera downward and the horizon line will go convex.

By shooting at ground level, I was able to play the textured yellow stripe in the road against the blue of the sky. A starburst from the sun is a total bonus that helps make for a graphically dynamic image.
By shooting at ground level, I was able to play the textured yellow stripe in the road against the blue of the sky. A starburst from the sun is a total bonus that helps make for a graphically dynamic image.

Correcting Fisheye Distortions Post-Capture: When desired, fisheye distortions can be corrected to varying degrees using “debarrelizing” software, which corrects distortions electronically. These corrective software applications and plug-ins are available from OEM and third-party sources. Wide-angle and fisheye distortions can also be corrected in Adobe Lightroom.

Ultra Wide-Angle Lenses or Full-Frame Fisheyes?

B&H sells a number of lenses in the 10 to 16mm range. Some are rectilinear ultra-wides and others are full-frame fisheyes. The widest rectilinear ultra-wide lens currently in production is the Voigtländer Heliar-Hyper Wide 10mm f/5.6 ASPH, which is available for Sony E and Leica M-mount cameras and produces full-frame, distortion-free photographs with a diagonal field of view (FoV) of 130°.

The widest full-frame fisheye lenses deliver comparable photographs with 180° field-of-views. Field-of-views aside, the key differences between the two types of imagery is that while the 10mm Voigtländer hyper-wide lens has a field-of-view of only 130°, it displays far less distortion compared to the funhouse mirror-like photographs you capture with fisheye lenses.

Flare entering the lens at an extreme angle causes circular flare in the normally black area of this circular fisheye photograph.
Flare entering the lens at an extreme angle causes circular flare in the normally black area of this circular fisheye photograph.

Fisheye Attachments for Smartphones? Yup! We Got ’Em

If mobile photography is your thing, you too can join the party. B&H carries over two dozen fisheye attachments that enable you to shoot fisheye pix with your smartphone. These attachments are available individually or in kits containing lens attachments designed to enhance your abilities to capture creative landscape and street photography using your smartphone.

Do you have any tips for shooting fisheye landscapes? If so, let’s hear your thoughts on the subject in the Comments field, below.

4 Comments

Actually you can have straight lines in a circular fisheye photo.  A perfectly level camera will produce a horizon that is straight.  Or more extremely, take a photo of a (cut) pizza looking straight down exactly above the center.  The radial lines where it is cut will be straight.  Generally speaking fisheyes distort the image in the radial direction, thus purely radial lines won't be distorted.

Just to add: This is a fact I enjoy exploiting when shooting inside cathedrals and churches.

Thanks for the input Jason!

Allan, nice article summarizing fisheye lenses.

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