Fisheye Lens for Landscapes

Shasta SM11-260

When people on photography forums discuss which ultra wide angle lens to buy for landscape work, they often will decide on the basis of which lens as the least “distortion.” This strikes as a rather superficial standard, since, in the first place, the differences in terms of distortion between the various ultra-wides available is insignificant and, even more to the point, it mostly doesn’t matter. In landscape work, oftentimes the distortion won’t even be noticed. Indeed, you can shoot landscapes with a fisheye lens and come pretty darn close to concealing the distortion. Consider the following shot:

It’s not obvious that this shot is taken with fisheye lens (i.e., with the Pentax DA 10-17mm, at 11mm). There is some minor distortion in the tree leaning forward the in upper left corner. But most of the other distortion is hidden in the maze of lines caused by the boulders in the foreground and the larger rocks and sea stacks deeper in the shot. When artfully used, the distortion of a fisheye can be concealed as it were. To be sure, it helps to fisheye zoom lens, like the Pentax DA 10-17 (available for Nikon and Canon via the Tokina 10-17), which allows one to dial down the distortion as one zooms in. But I’ve taken shots with that lens even at 10mm (where it sports and FOV of 180º) in which the distortion (which is fairly extensive at that focal length) is only barely noticeable.

One trick that’s highly effective for using fisheyes in landscape work is to shoot from some kind of high vista point across a lake toward higher mountains. Since the distortion is at it’s worst in the corners, conceal the distortion with sky on the top of the frame and the foreground in the corners. The trick is to get the horizon near the mid-point of the frame. If it gets too high, the fish-eye effect becomes prominent, as we see below:

In this shot, the horizon, because it’s too high in the frame, trails off toward the edges. This is clearly a shot taken with a fisheye lens, as anyone can see. But if we place the horizon toward the half way point of the frame, the line evens out, and the fishiness largely goes away, as in the following photo:

The key for shots like this is dramatic clouds: they add interest to the entire image, both foreground, background, and sky. Fisheye landscapes don’t work nearly so well with a cloudless blue sky, as one needs more variety when the sky takes up so much of the image. The following image, also taken at 10mm with the DA 10-17, is not nearly as interesting, although the distortion is mostly concealed:

Another way to mitigate the distortion of a fisheye is to shoot portrait orientation. Since this distortion is largely toward each end of the image, by turning to the side the distortion can be more easily masked by sky and foreground:

The disadvantage of this approach is you end up capturing a great deal of the sky, including portions of the sky almost directly above your head (remember, the FOV of a fisheye is usually 180º). This will get you a lot of sky, which may not be what you want, particularly if there’s not a lot of interesting clouds to capture, to set off the blue firmament. But it can work reasonably well under certain circumstances:

It could be argued, to be sure, that the whole point of fisheye lens is the distortion, and that, as this distortion is a feature, rather than a bug, there’s no point in hiding it. While that’s certainly true for some images, fisheye distortion easily can get wearisome if over-used. Moreover, the distortion is not the only feature of fisheye: there’s also the extremely wide FOV to be considered. This is a lens capable of capturing extremes of width not imaginable in other glass. Sometimes, that can be very useful. You will never, with a rectilinear lens, capture Crater Lake from end to end. But you just might succeed with a fisheye lens:

In landscape work, a 180º FOV occasionally has its uses. Yet 180º can be rather restrictive: not a huge amount of landscapes require that, and some can be captured with a narrower, rectilinear lens by stitching together a series of images into a panorama. For landscape work with fisheyes, it is therefore very useful, as I noted above, if the fisheye zooms, which enables greater flexibility when using the lens in the field. In 1995, Pentax released the first fisheye zoom, the F 17-28mm, for its 35mm SLR camera system. In 2006, Pentax released an APS-C version of the lens, the DA 10-17. Fortunately, for Canon and Nikon users, Pentax licensed the optical formula for the DA 10-17 to Tokina, which has released its own version of the lens for Canon and Nikon mounts. In the autumn of 2011, Canon plans to release its own fisheye zoom, an 8-15 which works on both APS-C and full-frame cameras (although it produces circular images when used at the widest focal lengths on FF). So there are options for Pentax, Canon, and Nikon shooters. A fisheye zoom allows the photographer complete control in the field when trying to capture particularly wide spaces. To get a hint at what is possible with such a lens, consider the following series of images, taken at 17mm, 13mm, and 11mm respectively: