What is a fisheye lens, and how can you capture incredible fisheye photography?
In this article, I explain everything you need to know to create beautiful fisheye images. I start with a simple definition of fisheye photography; I then offer tips, tricks, and techniques for beautiful fisheye portraits, landscapes, and more.
And I share plenty of fisheye examples along the way, so you know exactly what a fisheye lens can do.
Are you ready to become a fisheye photo master? Let’s dive right in, starting with:
What is a fisheye lens?
A fisheye lens is an ultra-wide lens with extensive (deliberate) distortion. As a result, fisheye images are heavily curved around the edges:
Generally speaking, distortion is problematic – but fisheye photographers work to embrace the distortive effect. Indeed, fisheye photography is all about capturing unique perspectives and compositions.
Fisheye lenses, unlike most standard lenses, feature a bulbous front element. For this reason, you cannot use a regular lens cap on a fisheye lens, and you cannot use standard filters, either.
Note that you can get either a prime or a zoom fisheye lens. The majority of fisheyes are prime lenses, and they typically offer an f/2.8 maximum aperture and a focal length of 8mm or 15mm. Manufacturers do sell a few zoom fisheye lenses, which feature smaller (f/4) maximum apertures but – thanks to the zoom range – deliver greater flexibility.
When should you use a fisheye lens?
Fisheye lenses are a great way to capture stunning creative effects. The intense distortion produces eye-catching, even disorienting, compositions, and you can use fisheye lenses for all sorts of unique shots.
Photographers rely on these lenses to produce fresh, original images of dozens of subjects, and here are just a few of the many popular choices:
- Architectural interiors
- Sweeping landscapes
- Street scenes
- City skylines
Remember, however, that fisheye shots are heavily distorted and therefore unrealistic – and sometimes shocking – in their rendering of everyday subject matter. Therefore, fisheye lenses are not ideal if your goal is to capture accurate documentary photos, flattering portraits, meditative still-life shots, or naturalistic landscapes.
So before pulling out that fisheye lens, ask yourself:
Do I want a creative, unusual, unnatural image? Or do I want a more conventional, yet also more accurate, rendering of my subject?
The choice is yours!
5 fisheye photography tips for beautiful results
Now that you’re familiar with the fisheye photography basics, let’s take a closer look at how you can create amazing fisheye photos.
1. Create distortion on the horizon line
If you’re after creative landscape photos and you don’t mind heavily emphasizing the fisheye effect, then start by including a horizon line in your image…
…and position it so as to create a heavy curve across the image.
The result is very cool, and it’ll certainly cause the viewer to do a double take:
In fact, by adjusting the position of your fisheye lens, you can make the horizon curve downward (as in the example above) or upward.
To make the horizon line bend downward, simply aim the lens toward the ground (i.e., the lens should be below parallel to the ground). Note that a large portion of the photo will feature the foreground, so make sure you include plenty of close-up interest!
And to make the horizon line bend upward, aim the camera toward the sky. Try to create this upward effect when the sky features dramatic clouds, such as at sunrise or sunset; that way, the heavily featured sky will pull its weight.
2. Take photos of architecture
Yes, it’s a simple fisheye photography tip, but it’s important to emphasize:
The fisheye lens is an absolute gift for architectural photographers.
The distortion can be used for amazing creative effects, whether you’re shooting outdoors (and capturing beautiful building facades) or you’re shooting indoors (and capturing museum interiors, images of tight spaces, or even photos of your own living room). I love to use the fisheye distortion to frame my subject:
And you can often even incorporate elements from behind the lens; the focal length really is that wide!
Because fisheye lenses distort architecture so radically, as soon as you find an interesting architectural subject, I recommend you mount the lens on your camera, then simply spend some time walking around and looking through the viewfinder. Over time, you’ll start to understand the fisheye perspective – and you’ll also have a ton of fun along the way!
3. Use intentional camera movement
Intentional camera movement (ICM) is a creative technique that involves moving the camera during the course of an exposure to create an impressionistic blur:
More specifically, you set your camera to Manual mode, dial in a long shutter speed (often around 1/15s and beyond), then – as you fire the shutter – move the camera from left to right, up and down, in circles, and so on.
Now, intentional camera movement works with all types of lenses, and there are plenty of non-fisheye photographers who love the technique.
But if you combine ICM with a fisheye lens, you can capture incredibly novel effects. For instance, you can create a cool radial blur effect; here, you simply rotate the camera around an imaginary central point while shooting. As you can imagine, fisheye distortion actually intensifies the result. (In fact, the radial blur technique is how I captured the image displayed above!)
And if you’re shooting at night, you can use a kinetic light painting technique to create photos like this:
Just put your camera on a tripod, use a long shutter speed, and – after triggering the shutter – rotate the camera in a circle, stopping every so often to create areas of sharpness in your image. For the best results, choose a location with plenty of lights and shoot at night.
4. Don’t forget to do fisheye portrait photography
Fisheye photographers tend to neglect portrait subjects, but in my view, that’s a major mistake.
Sure, fisheye distortion isn’t always the most flattering, but the effects are plenty eye-catching (and by carefully positioning your portrait subject in the frame, you can avoid distorting the model).
For disorienting shots, try getting up close to your model, then ask them to point a finger, a prop, or even their eye toward the camera.
Alternatively, if you want to keep your model looking normal, position them in the center of the frame, but use the fisheye effect to distort interesting architecture all around the scene edges. Be sure to back up slightly so that the model is smaller in the frame.
When done correctly, this can create an interesting framing effect around the subject:
5. Use a fisheye for a (standard) ultra-wide perspective
Throughout this article, I’ve emphasized the creative potential of fisheye lenses.
But did you know that you can actually use fisheye lenses…normally? In other words, by carefully angling your fisheye lens, the resulting images will feature an ultra-wide perspective but very little distortion:
Of course, you can do this with an ultra-wide lens, but purchasing a second lens can be expensive. Plus, even the widest lenses don’t quite reach fisheye focal lengths.
Here’s how it works:
Aim your lens at the horizon line. And keep the angle completely flat (so the lens is perfectly parallel to the ground).
You will need to avoid objects on the edge of the frame because they’ll still distort – though if you do include a few edge objects, you can always correct the distortion in post-processing.
In my experience, this type of “standard” fisheye photo is great for locations with a minimalist feel, like coastlines and deserts. That said, you can always use it to capture interesting architecture, skylines, and so much more.
Bonus: Create the fisheye effect with a lensball
Fisheye lenses can be expensive, but if you like the idea of fisheye photography and can’t justify the price, you do have another option:
The lensball effect.
Simply purchase a glass ball, then – when you find a nice subject – hold the ball in front of your camera. The lensball will replicate a fisheye lens, and you’ll get a distorted, circular result:
Of course, the effect isn’t exactly the same, and you won’t get an image that’s sharp throughout. But you can have lots of fun experimenting with the lensball effect, and you can certainly capture some stunning images!
Fisheye photography: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re ready to do some stunning fisheye photography!
So grab a fisheye lens (or a lensball) and get shooting.
Now over to you:
What do you plan to photograph first with your fisheye lens? Which of these tips will you incorporate into your own workflow? Share your thoughts in the comments below!