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

November 08, 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): The fisheye lens is a very special-purpose lens, which of course visually alters reality. Up to now, how have you fit this into your nature and landscape photography?

Jennifer Wu (JW): I use the existing Canon EF 15mm f/2.8 fixed fisheye lens when perspective distortion can enhance the image. If the lens points above or below the horizon in a landscape shot, the horizon appears to bend. When the horizon line runs right through the center of the image, little distortion occurs.

I use the close focus ability of the EF 15mm f/2.8 fisheye for flowers and plants. Photographing from the ground while looking up at the flower is a fun shot. I often turn the sun into a sun star. Using f/16, 1/125 of a second and ISO 100 on a sunny day provides a good exposure. Setting the aperture to f/16 so the blades of the iris generate the sun star is far preferable to a blob of light an f/8 or wider aperture would record.

A fisheye lens exaggerates the curve of natural arches. Shooting from the ground while looking up at the arch, with a sun star near its edge, makes for an effective composition. The distortion works well when foreground is important, such as photographing the dunes and cracked earth of Death Valley National Park with the lens pointing down emphasizes the curvature of the earth. More

I employ its close focus and distortion with the animals too. Photographing captive lions up close at Cat Haven allowed me emphasizes the faces. Recently, I visited Iceland while co-leading a workshop where we had a chance to photograph puffins. They were not afraid of people, allowing us to up close and personal with them. With the fisheye lens, the curved horizon line in background created a unique stage for the nearby birds on the cliff.

CDLC: What camera bodies do you typically use?

JW: I use the EOS 5D Mark II. The low noise for night photography and exceptional image quality make it my first choice. For wildlife or when sealing against moisture and dust are critical, I reach for the EOS-1D Mark IV.

CDLC: Does the zooming ability of the new EF 8-15mm f/4L fisheye, and ability to get fisheye coverage on any EOS camera, open up any opportunities for you in your work?

JW:The Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L fisheye lens is now a zoom, so I can use just one lens for both 8mm and 15mm when I'm working with a full-frame camera.

The lens works differently on the full frame camera than the crop sensor cameras. I use the 5D Mark II, a full frame camera. Setting the lens at 8mm it has a circular fisheye coverage of 180 degrees. The image does not look like the traditional shape but instead it is a circle. The circular fisheye coverage is new to me, as I have not used it before. Some new opportunities I am looking forward to include photographing clouds, the night sky, trees in the forest and buildings at dusk. There are so many nature images already shot, so I keep an eye out for a different perspective and the 8mm provides that!

For those using crop sensor camera such as the APS-C size sensor of the EOS 7D, EOS 60D etc., will find that the 10mm setting is similar to 15mm on a full frame camera. This opens up new fisheye opportunities for those using the APS size sensors.

Using the lens at 8mm is a wider area of coverage than 15mm on the EOS 7D so part of the circular aspect comes into view. To avoid this heavily vignetted look, I would shoot the lens at 9mm to 10mm instead.

I'm looking forward to shooting more stars and night sky with the lens racked towards its widest angle of view. We are not used to viewing the stars with the 180-degree coverage in a single image.

CDLC: Do you shoot any video with EOS SLRs? If so, do you see opportunities to use this fisheye lens in your nature shooting?

JW: Yes, I shoot some video. I can see a number of applications for the fisheye zoom. The combination of the ultra-wide angle of view with the strong distortion of the horizon and panning across a conifer forest or any other composition with strong lines will be unique.

CDLC: With ultra-wide lenses, do you like to get really close to foreground subjects? Do you see opportunities with the fisheye lens's roughly 6-inch minimum focus distance?

JW: The shorter the focal length the greater the depth of field, so backlit flowers or plants shot inches away as well as distant mountains can both be tack sharp. Animals will be fun to photograph as well up close. Imagine a kitten or the puppy, all nose and eyes whether shot as a still or video. It could be Youtube gold.

CDLC: One significant improvement in the new fisheye zoom lens is its ability to minimize ghosting and flare when shooting into the sun and similar bright light sources... does this open up visual opportunities for you in your work?

JW: When shooting directly into the sun at midday for backlit subjects or at sunrise/sunset with the sun just over the horizon line, I demand minimal ghosting and flare effects. This new fisheye zoom lens is exceptional with the limited flare effects.

CDLC: How often do you find yourself shooting outdoors in wet, misty or dusty/windy weather? The fisheye lens's weather-resistance and new coatings for easier cleaning of the front/rear elements should make life a bit easier. Can you comment on what that might mean to you in your typical shooting?

JW: For nature photography, having weather elements adds interest to the scene so I often photograph in the rain, snow, under misty waterfalls or in the windy weather conditions. The weather sealing of the 8-15mm makes it ideal for challenging weather. Knowing it won't stop working when photographing in the rain gives me peace of mind.

CDLC: How often do you shoot ultra-wide images on a tripod?

JW: I usually use a tripod for all nature and night images. On a bright sunny day, I use the camera handheld and get close to the subject, which works because I can use a wider, faster aperture and still enjoy adequate depth of field.

CDLC: Do you see the change from an f/2.8 max aperture on the current 15mm fisheye lens to f/4 on the new 8-15mm zoom fisheye to be much of an obstacle?

JW: The f/4 is limiting for night photography. I much prefer f/2.8 for photographing on a dark night or faster, but I can switch to the fixed 15mm fisheye lens for that. For photographing the stars, I would use the 8-15mm when there is some moon present in the sky. The brighter sky with the moon allows the use of f/4 aperture compared to f/2.8 on a night of the new moon when the moon is not present in the sky.

With wide-angle lenses for landscape shots, I rarely use them at widest apertures. I aim for f/8, a sharp aperture on most lenses and stop down towards f/16 if more depth of field is required.

CDLC: Now that you've had a chance to try this lens, what are some types of future subjects and situations you'd like to try using it in?

JW: I would really enjoy taking the lens underwater when I get a chance. I love photographing dolphins with the 16-35mm lens on the 5D Mark II, so shooting them with the fisheye lens (no pun intended) would be a treat, albeit a challenging one. Another technique where the lens could shine is splitting the image by apportioning half of the image half below with the water line and half above. The water produces a difference in light. A graduated neutral density gel filter can correct that imbalance. Just pre-cut a gel filter to size, and drop the gel in the slot the back of the lens. I buy a gray gel and cut it to the size I need and put it into place.

When shooting landscapes, using a full gel filters reduces the light to the subject, allowing for a slower exposure even in bright outdoor lighting. This works well with the rushing water of a stream or ocean surf to create a velvety smooth texture to the water.

CDLC: Tell us your experience in using the EF 8-15mm f/4L fisheye lens?

JW: I enjoyed photographing with this lens. I found I could shoot most of what I wanted with just the 8-15 and my workhorse, the EF 24-70 f/2.8L. Check out the Focus On article and photographs I did for the 24-70mm lens to appreciate how I depend on it.

The EF 8-15mm f/4L fisheye zoom opens new possibilities, allowing me to be more creative and see subjects in a new way. I couldn't always imagine how certain subjects would appear with an ultra-wide fisheye lens before trying it out. I enjoyed experimenting. Some things didn't work well, such as a water wheel, while other subjects took on more visual power, such as Spanish door knockers and painted ceilings shot from directly below. I'm sure I'll find a host of applications as I continue my experiments, and for some subjects it will become a go-to lens.

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