FOCUS ON: EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM

November 18, 2011

Are great images a product of the photographer, or their camera equipment? This series (formerly known as "Lens of the Month") explores the idea that it's BOTH: Featuring a professional photographer and a single Canon lens, the Canon Digital Learning Center focuses on the relationship that artists can have with their gear.

Canon Digital Learning Center (CDLC): What are some of your favorite lenses for underwater shooting?

Stephen Frink (SF): Water is 800 times denser than air, and typically contributes a cyan cast to the scene, so an underwater photographer is best served by working close. To that end, the most efficient lenses are wide-angle, to capture large marine life and expansive reef scenes; and macro lenses that will work for both fish portraits and reef minutia. Given those restrictions, the lens choice is then somewhat modified by whether working a full frame camera (EOS 5D Mark II and EOS-1Ds Mark III), a 1.3 crop (EOS-1D Mark IV), or a 1.6 crop (EOS 60D).

I use the same lens arsenal for my EOS 5D Mark II, EOS-1Ds Mark III, and EOS-1D Mark IV, including the EF 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye, EF 14mm f/2.8 II USM, EF 16-35mm f/2.8 II USM (all for wide-angle), and the EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro and EF 100mm f/2.8L Marco IS USM for fish portraits and macro.

With my EOS 60D I would add a macro lens specifically for the cropped sensor, the EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM, and the EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM to cover the wide end of the spectrum.

Now, with the addition of the Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM More I have an exciting lens that will work on all four of the Canon bodies I use in underwater housings. With my full frame cameras, the EOS 5D Mark II and EOS-1Ds Mark III, I have full 180-degree fisheye coverage which gives an angle of view equivalent to my existing EF 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens at the 15mm end of the zoom, and at 8mm I get a full circular fisheye. On my EOS-1D Mark II I now have a true 180-degree fisheye, which was lacking previously with only the existing 15mm lens. And with the EOS 60D (or any other APS-C sensor Canon like the EOS 7D or EOS Rebel T3i) I have a lens that will give me 180-degree fisheye coverage at the 8mm end but will zoom to a very useful field of view of approximately 100-degrees at the 15mm end of the range. If I want to shoot circular fisheye shots I mount the lens on one of my full frame bodies, but for my APS-H and APS-C bodies this lens is essential in order to achieve true 180-degree fisheye coverage. To me it is an essential lens for any Canon shooter venturing into the underwater realm.

CDLC: How is a fisheye lens traditionally used underwater?

SF: The two characteristics of a fisheye that are meaningful underwater are the extraordinarily wide field of view and close focus. The Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM, for example, covers 180-degrees at the widest, and focuses as near as 6 inches. When shooting large subjects in potentially turbid water, the incredible corner-to-corner width is critical. No other optic will allow the photographer to minimize the water column between lens and subject, yet still cover the subject.

When water clarity is an issue, working close maximizes resolution and color, and with many large subjects or vast reef scenics, only the fisheye will do. Additionally, the close focus characteristic of the fisheye allows some very interesting perspective views that may be used quite creatively. Sometimes I’ll have a small clump of colorful soft coral in the foreground, but by working very close with a fisheye lens and lighting it tastefully with my strobe, I can make it appear massive and impressive in the foreground, while my dive model in the distant background becomes an element of composition in silhouette.

CDLC: What sorts of underwater subjects lend themselves to the fisheye lens?

SF: A fisheye lens will exhibit barrel distortion. That is to be expected. So, some subjects that must be rendered in a totally accurate rectilinear fashion may not be appropriate. For example, when I shoot catalogs or ads for dive equipment manufacturers I have to show the regulator or mask or fins free of perspective distortion, and so will most often use my EF 16-35mm f/2.8 II USM lens. But, in editorial work a more whimsical view is often encouraged. The fisheye allows me to work very close to a foreground subject, typically a beautifully colorful bit of reef; and then by blending the strobe light in the foreground with the ambient light in the background I can show the expanse and structure of the reef. Most coral reefs do not exhibit strong rectilinear characteristics, so there is nothing to really reveal the fisheye characteristics, other than a very wide view.

Likewise, with very large marine life, like a 35-foot whale shark, the fisheye is the only way to cover the whole animal from a near distance. I was recently photographing the whale sharks off Isla Mujeres in Mexico and I discovered that to see the whole fish I could either shoot my EF 14mm f/2.8 II USM from 8 or 10 feet away, or use my EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM from 2-feet or less. As they were there to gorge on masses of tiny bonito eggs, the visibility was sometimes challenging. The ability to work close with the 8-15mm really transformed my photo opportunities. I couldn’t have been as successful without the fisheye view, but the ability to zoom from 8-15mm really increased the options I had with such a large subject underwater.

The other underwater photo opportunities where fisheyes are traditionally favored are shipwrecks. Again, these are very large subjects, and to get near enough to maximize color from the strobe and optimize sharpness, the enormous field of view of the fisheye is often the perfect solution.

CDLC: Do you find ways to use fisheye lenses above-water, for commercial shoots, lifestyle images, and so on?

SF: One of the things I use the fisheye for quite often is for the over/under shot. With such a shot the dome is half underwater and halfway above, to capture both the underwater and topside view simultaneously. I often use the 10-frame-per-second capability of my EOS-1D Mark IV to capture fast action at the interface between sky and sea, like a scuba diver doing a giant stride entry off a dive platform or a freediver breaking for the surface after a deep breath-hold dive. Because there is a focus disparity (caused by refraction and the virtual image of the dome port) between the underwater view and the topside view, often the fisheye lens is the only lens with sufficient depth of field to hold both in focus simultaneously. In an editorial application, in remote locales I might want to capture a pristine coral reef below with some native islanders paddling by in a dugout canoe. Again, the over/under with a fisheye lens is the solution. The traditional corner-to-corner fisheye is a familiar view. Now with the new EF 8-15mm f/4L USM lens I look forward to capturing the same kinds of images in a full circular composition.

For product illustration above water, I would use the fisheye sparingly, so as to not introduce exaggerated perspectives, but for landscapes and lifestyle images, the fisheye is on every shoot with me, and rarely stays in the bag the whole time.

CDLC: What opportunities do you envision for a zoom fisheye lens?

SF: With my full frame cameras the zoom characteristics tend to be either/or … either full circular or full rectilinear fisheye shots. The interim zoom settings between 8 and 15mm reveal a bit of the circular aspect, but unless cropped as panorama may be distracting. Still, having those two options at the extremes of the zoom range is very powerful.

I think with the APS-C sensor cameras, this 8-15mm lens becomes almost a mandatory tool. It allows the 180-degree coverage at the 8mm end, and approximately 100-degrees at the 15mm end. There is no other lens with the build quality and optical excellence of the Canon 8-15mm lens that will empower this field of view on a Canon Rebel T3i, EOS 60D, EOS 7D, or EOS 50D. Not only is it substantially wider than the existing 15mm prime fisheye, the ability to zoom underwater is a massive advantage.

Unlike the topside photographer who can pause long enough to swap lenses should a new and different composition present, the underwater photographer has the same lens mounted for the duration of the dive. While moving closer allows some compositional latitude to the subject, still the useful range for sharp focus and good color in an underwater photo is between 1 foot and 5 feet, strobe-to-subject distance. Clearly, to have compositional options within the physical constraints of working underwater, the zoom lens is very powerful.

CDLC: What camera bodies do you normally use?

SF: I have housings that allow me to use the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, EOS-1D Mark IV, EOS 5D Mark II, and the EOS 60D. Each have slightly different characteristics and I will choose according to the subject or assignment. However, if I had to go on a distant and demanding assignment with only one camera and one housing, I’d pack my EOS-1D Mark IV. Fortunately, that has not been the case and I have enjoyed the versatility and redundancy of having multiple systems on location.

CDLC: Will the ability to zoom a fisheye lens, and get equivalent, corner-to-corner fisheye coverage on small-sensor cameras, encourage you to use or recommend less-expensive camera bodies for underwater shooting?

SF: I think this EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens is revolutionary for the smaller sensor APS-C camera bodies. Image quality from these cameras is getting ever better, and even the more discriminating of my stock photography and commercial clients are now willing to accept images from a camera like the EOS 7D or EOS 60D. For an underwater photographer the advantages of these cameras are more compelling because the housings tend to be smaller and less expensive. For the hassle travel has now become, smaller and lighter is a huge advantage. And, while we don’t like to think about the possibility of ever having a housing leak and flood a camera or lens, these less-expensive cameras present far less financial risk when used in an unforgiving environment like salt water.

Yet, for all the advantages of the housed APS-C format cameras, the one significant impediment was the inability to get ultra wide coverage. Take a 20mm prime lens for example. On a full frame camera that is a 94-degree angle of view, but at the 1.6 crop that becomes the equivalent of a 32mm lens, with an angle of view of only about 70-degrees. The solution might be to use a lens made for this sensor, like the Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM, which then offers wide-angle coverage of 107-degrees and the convenience of a zoom. But, still, there was a big void in the focal length range between 107-degrees on the EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM zoom and the 180-degree coverage of the new Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens. With this lens, along with the others typically already used underwater, an underwater photographer can cover any of the subjects a full frame shooter might capture, except of course the full circular fisheye.

CDLC: Circular fisheye with a full-frame camera is now possible -- what opportunities do you see for that?

SF: The circular fisheye is so unique I found myself shooting it quite often when I first got my new lens. Maybe too much, actually, for some of the shots would have looked better captured more traditionally. But, that’s the beauty of the 8-15mm lens, I can use it as a circular when I want to, and then zoom to the 15mm end to capture more conventional fisheye views in a rectangular format.

Actually, the circular field of view is wider, when you consider field of view is measured on the diagonal and with a circular fisheye top-to-bottom and side-to-side are all 180-degrees, so with some subjects more can be captured from a given distance at the 8mm end than at the 15mm end. But, I think it comes down to more a compositional and creative application of circular versus rectangular. I will always shoot substantially more rectangular than circular, but it is nice to know the circular is there, easily accessible at the other end of the zoom range.

CDLC: What's your typical underwater set-up -- housing, ports, lighting and so on?

SF: I shoot with Seacam housings, with a variety of special viewfinders. There is the S180, which gives a magnified view and the ability to dial in the viewing diopter to my own vision, and the S45 curved viewfinder especially good for shooting over/unders. Sometimes I use the pro viewfinder as it is lighter, especially advantageous when doing breath-hold dives to photograph pelagic animals like humpback whales or dolphins. For strobes I use either the Seacam Seaflash 150 or an Ikelite DS-161. Most often, I’ll use one of each in a dual strobe application.

Ports are especially important to select properly as the lens’ nodal point must be positioned properly to assure optimal optical performance. I like the 9” Superdome for most wide-angle work, and especially for over/unders because it spreads the water more smoothly, making for a more attractive air/water interface. Also, it gives better corner performance on lenses like the EF 16-35mm f/2.8 II USM lens and EF 14mm f/2.8 II USM. For macro shots I’ll generally use a flat port, but for wide angle I typically use the Superdome and whatever port extension is best suited to position the nodal point of the lens being used. For a 16-35mmII, the port extension is 57.5mm, while for the EF 14mm f/2.8 II USM it is 20mm. The housing manufacturers are quite good about providing reference material for optimal port extension, but sometimes a little trial-and-error/real-world-testing is necessary as well. Fortunately, once dialed in for my full frame cameras, I know the performance in the corners will be even better when I use my APS-C or APS-H cameras.

CDLC: Do you anticipate that a correct dome port will be readily available when the Canon 8-15mm lens becomes available?.

SF: There will be no issues with port compatibility with the EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens. The larger diameter domes will work now with this lens (at the 15mm end) and the only issue will be whether the integral sunshades will cause the image to vignette when zoomed to 8mm on a full frame camera. Seacam has easily removable sunshades, so it was not an issue for me my first time out with the EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye, and I assume most other manufacturers either offer removable sunshades now, or with the inevitable popularity of this lens will figure a way to do so.

(p>There is a popular new port offered by many housing manufacturers, the mini fisheye port. These enhance the close focus capability of a fisheye lens because it draws the virtual image much closer to the front of the lens. In simplistic terms, using a dome port underwater creates a virtual image that exists at about twice the diameter of the lens away. So, my 9-inch dome has a virtual image at about 18 inches, and that proscribes the minimum focus of any lens underwater. However, a mini fisheye might have a 4-inch diameter and an 8-inch virtual image. For a lens like the EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye, that focuses to as near as 6 inches, the smaller dome allows greater utilization of the close focus capability of the lens. It also provides less mass to push through the water when pursuing free swimming marine life or diving in currents. It wouldn’t be as good for over/unders, but for most strictly underwater applications with the EF 8-15mm lens, the mini fisheye ports are a good solution. However, these ports are so shallow, it will require a port extension to fit the length of this lens, usually about 20mm. On a full frame camera the mini fisheye sunshades will vignette. (Seacam has created a fisheye macro port specifically for the EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye that has no sunshades. I expect other manufacturers will do the same).

CDLC: Underwater, what's your principal lighting technique?

SF: I will shoot available light only on rare and compelling occasions. Color does not really exist in underwater photos without artificial light, so I chose and use my strobes with great care. For macro photos and fish portraits, I almost always use twin strobes, a Seacam Seaflash 150 on the left and an Ikelite DS-161 on the right. I vary the light ratio so the fill light (typically from right side) is ½ to a full stop less than the primary. Generally for fish and macro, I shoot without diffusers, preferring a bit more contrast to the light, and taking care to fill the shadows with the fill light.

For wide-angle I always use diffusers, but don’t always necessarily use two strobes. To cover a wide and colorful reef scenic like I might have in Fiji or the Red Sea, I’ll use two strobes. And if I have a secondary subject in the near distance, like I might have when working with multiple models, I like the versatility of having dual strobes so I can adjust according to the strobe-to-subject distance of each model. But, sometimes I like the freedom of carrying only a single strobe and hand-holding it, aiming to exactly where I want to throw a splash of light and color, while at the same time paying special attention to the ambient light in the background. The foreground strobe value is determined by a combination of aperture, strobe power, and strobe-to-subject distance; while the background exposure is largely determined by shutter speed. To learn more about my wide-angle lighting techniques, visit: alertdiver on the web.

CDLC: Do you feel that the f/4 maximum aperture will be much of a problem for underwater shooting?

SF: I don’t see the f/4 maximum aperture to be an issue. The depth of field is so good on the EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye lens that even using it wide open the coverage from the center of the frame to the corners is excellent. Viewing through any f/4 lens is a bit dimmer than viewing through an f/2.8, but the light gathering characteristics of the EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye are quite good, and it seems very bright in practical use. The fact that it has an ultrasonic motor to enhance quick auto-focus is an advantage, and with 14 lens elements in 11 groups and Canon’s Super Spectra lens coating I feel certain this is the state of the art in fisheye lens technology.

CDLC: Any video applications with an EOS SLR you potentially see for this lens, above or under water?

SF: I see the EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye as a very strong asset to a video shooter. In fact, I used it, in conjunction with both the EOS 5D Mark II and the EOS 60D while photographing the whale sharks in Isla Mujeres. Some of the results may be viewed on VIMEO. The kinds of subjects this lens is so very compelling for capturing in stills will be equally powerful in video.

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