Fisheye lenses are cool. What’s not to love? With a fisheye lens, you can get fun, quirky images unlike pretty much anything you can get with any other kind of lens. And the're surprisingly affordable too. Let's look at nine ways to create unusual images with a fisheye lens.
What is a fisheye lens?
Fisheye lenses differ from ultra wide-angle lenses because they capture non-rectilinear images. In other words, images shot with a fisheye lens don’t maintain those straight vertical lines that were in the original scene. Instead, you’ll get buildings that bulge, walls that turn in and straight lines that go all curvy. That’s where the name “fisheye” comes from—the images one of these lenses creates is a lot like how we might imagine a fish would see the world.
The amount of distortion you’ll get in an image shot with a fisheye lens depends on where you place the elements in the frame. When you put the horizon in the middle of the frame, for example, you’ll get an image that doesn’t have a lot of distortion in it. If you move the horizon up or down, you’ll start to see some curvature.
A fisheye lens can capture a huge, panoramic field of view, or it can take a close subject and make it look imposing and distorted. Fisheyes are really versatile lenses, and to prove it I’ve compiled a list of nine fun and quirky things that you can do with a fisheye lens.
Times Square Fisheye by Flickr user Randy Le'Moine Photography
Use it as a frame
Fisheye lenses, depending on how you compose the shot, will turn in the edges of whatever is on the peripheral of your photograph. So use that to your advantage and try shooting a photo through a natural frame, such as a doorway or an archway. Look through your viewfinder and watch what happens to those vertical lines as they get closer to the edge of the frame. They will appear straight towards the center, and more and more curved as they move to the left or right.
Somewhere over California by Flickr user Justin in SD
Use it to exaggerate size or content
A fisheye can make your dog’s nose look enormous. When used from a bird’s eye view, it can also exaggerate the size of a scene or the contents of a room. For example, if you stand on a ladder (please be careful) and shoot down at a construction site, you’ll make all those tools, construction debris, half-built structures, tarps and other construction-based things look extra-chaotic. The wide angle includes more of the scene, which makes the number of objects in the frame look more impressive.
Research by Flickr user Leo Hidalgo (@yompyz)
Capture radial blur
Motion blur is always fun to play with, and your fisheye lens can make it extra fun. Try capturing some radial blur with your fisheye lens—these can be completely abstract shots (as below) or you can use flash to freeze your subject before you add the blur. This is an experimentation-based technique, but start by setting the shutter speed to about 1 second, and then release the shutter and spin your camera for the duration of the exposure. You'll get a cool spinning sensation in your photograph—some will look a lot cooler than others, so keep trying.
The was the most bizarre looking camera spin of the night. by Flickr user Uffdah!!!
Exaggerate the curvature of the earth
You already know about all the wonderful things that a fisheye can do to a straight line. Why not exaggerate this even more? You can use your fisheye lens to make the Earth look just as round as Columbus said it was. To do this well, make sure that the horizon is either very low for a very high in your viewfinder. The higher or lower it is, the more exaggerated that curve is going to be.
Capture big landscapes
Another thing you can do with your fisheye lens is capture big, sweeping landscapes that don't look like they were shot with a fisheye lens. Instead, that huge field of view you get from a fisheye can be used to create an image that seems almost panoramic. In order to accomplish this, you need to be pretty clever, and you also need to have a good understanding of how your fisheye creates distortion. Start by placing the horizon in the center of your frame. Do this even if it goes against everything you've ever been told about landscape composition and the rule of thirds. Try not to include elements that have straight vertical lines—trees, for example, will still appear noticeably bent as they approach the sides of the frame. Take care that you're positioning your camera in such a way that you're not getting any of that visible distortion. In camera, your goal should be to that get those straight lines, even if you have to crop later to get the horizon where you want it. Don’t forget that you can correct fisheye distortion in post processing too, if you have to, but it’s always easier to get it right in-camera.
Lac de Genos (65) by Flickr user patdebaz
Finding unique angles
Fisheye lenses are great tools for teaching yourself to look for interesting angles and perspectives. Try shooting from the ground to exaggerate feet and shoes, for example, or place something else in the foreground to exaggerate the size of the entire scene. And make sure you place important subjects in the corners of the frame—with a fisheye lens, centrally-placed subjects will appear tiny and lost in that vast field of view, unless you are physically quite close to them when you take the shot.
The Years by Flickr user ecstaticist
Remember that you need to get pretty close to your subject in order to prevent him from looking really diminutive in the frame. On the other hand, the closer you get, the more distortion you’ll end up with. Which brings me to the next use for a fisheye lens, and that's humor. There's no question about it, fisheye lenses make people look funny. If your subject is on board, try taking a series of humorous photos that exaggerate the nose, the eyes, the ears or some other feature. Of course subjects who don't mind participating in a little photographic self-deprecation are likely to be few and far between, so if you can't find a suitable human subject, try photographing an animal instead. You could even get potentially funny images of inanimate objects, provided you choose your subject well. How about photographing your car? See if you can make it look like a clown car--with a fisheye, it won't be very hard to do.
Photograph the stars
Did you know that the fisheye lens was originally developed for astrophotography? In fact before they were popularized and dubbed "fisheye," they were called "whole-sky lenses." It makes perfect sense when you think about it--that spherical shape that is the hallmark of the fisheye lens is a perfect fit for photos that aim to show the domed sky and all the stars in it. So the next time you're marveling at the night sky, get your fisheye lens out and capture some star trails traveling across that big, fisheye canvas.
star trails in Tajuya by Flickr user rromer
Let's not forget how good fisheye lenses are at practical applications too. You can use a fisheye lens to capture very large subjects in their entirety, which is something you may not be able to do with other lenses. Take for example an interesting ceiling, such as one you might find in a cathedral or another old building. I'm sure you've experienced many situations when you'd have loved to be able to take a photograph of that entire ceiling, but because of the limitations of your lens, you ended up with only a sliver of it in your photo. The fisheye lens can solve that problem. Just point it at the ceiling and you’ve got the whole thing in a single photograph.
Large buildings look pretty good when shot with a fisheye, too. You can use your lens to distort the steeple of a church or to make the doors of a courthouse look enormous. Your lens will give those buildings an otherworldly feeling to them, which can be either silly or dramatic, depending on the other elements in the shot.
Church_Sunrise_3 by Flickr user shoebappa
Fisheye lenses are fun. Need you any more conclusion than that? If you've been looking for a reasonably priced toy to add to your gear bag, you really ought to consider picking one up. Every photographer should own one, not just because they're fun, but because they're great for stimulating those creative muscles. When you're stuck on a creative rut, nothing will get you out of it faster than a fun day out with your fisheye.
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