Fisheyes are more than a gimmick by George Sutton

Fisheyes are more than a gimmick.

A recent post discussed the choice of fisheye lenses for 4/3 cameras, particularly the Panasonic f3.5. The comment was made that these lenses are mostly a gimmick because of the severe barrel distortion. That is true in many instances. These lenses do not work for portraits, for example, unless you want to show someone with a really big distorted nose. I would not take a fisheye to walk around a city.

But I have found a fisheye an indispensable lens for shooting some landscapes, especially wide open desert vistas in southern Utah. Some of the best shots are those that capture as much of the whole vista as possible and a fisheye, used correctly, is the ultimate wide-angle lens. Here are some examples.

This is an early morning shot from an overlook at Island in the Sky in Canyonlands National Park. It takes in a nearly 180 degree view. Island in the Sky is a 6000′ elevation mesa with the Colorado River on the east side and the Green River on the west. Both sides of the mesa have 1000′ cliffs dropping to a level of concrete hard white sandstone named the White Rim. From the White Rim a maze of canyons drop another 1000′ to the two rivers (which eventually converge at the southern end of the mesa). This view is to the east. The mountains in the distance are the second highest in Utah at over 13,000′. Capturing all of this in one shot is key to depicting what is so spectacular about this region. The secret to getting the shot without distortion is to put the horizon in the middle.

There are three iconic arches in this area. Two are in Arches National Park (Delicate Arch and Landscape Arch) and the other is in Island in the Sky, named Mesa Arch. It is a spectacular sight at any time but especially on a clear morning when the sun hits the cliff below the arch and reflects up making the bottom of the arch glow a brilliant orange as if it were on fire. There are thousands of photos of Mesa Arch but virtually all show only a portion of the arch. The best shot shows the many formations that can be seen through it down to the White Rim but you have to stand close to get it. Only a fisheye can both capture the full arch and the scenery below it. Shot straight on a fisheye makes the arch appear like a big mouth but off to the side it works better than any other lens to capture the whole scene.

This is a shot of the goosenecks of the San Juan River near Bluff, Utah. Again, the most spectacular feature is the whole scene, the number of meanders the river takes through this section. Monument Valley is in the distance. Only a fisheye can capture this whole scene in one shot. A very wide-angle like a 14mm would only get three meanders. The fisheye gets all four. Another option would be a series of stitched shots but sometimes you also want the foreground and the sky with the sun. This is not that spectacular because it was shot mid day but that is the only time to see the details down in the canyons.

This final shot is of a place named The Citadel in Cedar Mesa, near Bluff, Utah. This was a defensive site accessible only across a very narrow neck leading to a rock outcrop surrounded by deep canyons on both sides. These 600 year old Anasazi ruins cannot be seen from the neck and there is very little room to back away from the ruins for a shot. I wanted to get the ruins and the canyon next to it so show how precarious this site is. Again, only the fisheye would do the job. A 35mm lens would only capture a portion of the ruin and none of the canyon to the side. My son is only about 4 feet from me when this shot was taken.

Obviously a fisheye is not a take everywhere lens but at times it is the best lens for the job.


  1. Excellent images! Thanks for sharing! I am bookmarking this article, and moving it near the top of my bookmarks.

    I have a Nikkor 16mm 2.8 AF-D Fisheye, and have enjoyed the few times I have used it thus far. The huge expanses of the the American West have been high on my list of goals since acquiring the FE.

  2. WOW!
    these shots are amazing, especially the first one.
    I’m a huge fan of deserts – and I live near one (Israel), and soon will move to a much bigger one (Australia) , and Ive always wondered how to grab that feeling of vastness in what is otherwise a pretty monotonic landscape.
    I would love a UWA, but unfortunately can’t afford one, so those fairly-cheap Rokinon/Samyang fisheyes could be the answer for me.
    BTW – I think this stuff might work on tundra too….

  3. Great pictures. I love that you don’t talk about camera specs or whatever, and choose, instead, to talk about the subject. I’ve never been there, so I learned a lot. Thanks.

  4. For 360 degree virtual reality photographers, a fisheye is the lens of choice, it keeps the number of images required at a manageable level.

    Here is a backyard panorama created using a Samyang 7.5/3.5 on an OM-D.

      • A panorama created with a fisheye lens normally consists of 6 images around, 1 up and one down.
        For best results with the stitching, a specialized panorama head is used – I use a Nodal Ninja 5. (This model is now replaced by the Nodal Ninja 4.)
        The images are processed with PTgui, which with very little effort will identify control points in the various images, and warp and stitch them to a complete equirectangular image.
        The equirectangular image is converted to cube faces, and displayed on my web site using krpano.
        See panoguide for more information on how to create panoramic images.

      • It’s basically the same process you’d use to shoot a “regular” panorama: shoot multiple images, making sure that there’s a 25-50% overlap with the adjecent shots. Then stitch them all together to create the final result using specialized software like PTGui or Autopano Pro.

        This works best with a dedicated panoramic head, especially when there’s both close and distant objects in the scene. A properly adjusted panoramic head helps prevent parallax errors when shooting foreground objects from different angles to create the overlaps. I use a Nodal Ninja head for my 360 degree panos.

        Using a fisheye, I shoot a 360 degree panorama with 9 separate exposures: 6 around on the (horizontal plane) one straight up (the zenith) and two straight down (the nadir). Shooting two nadir images (at 0 and 180 degrees) makes it easier to clone out the tripod footprint in post.

  5. Wow! Amazing first picture. The rest were very nice as well, but the first is by far my favorite.

    I think I just figured out an option for “wider than 12mm” the next time I head back west over the 7-14mm.

  6. Wow! This is the first time I see fisheye images I really like. They are great! Maybe I should try it out as well. When you are looking at your portfolio how what’s the percentage of images you took with the fisheye?

    best regards

    • Depends on the setting. In the desert, I take about 1/3 of shots with the fisheye. 75% with fisheye and other wides. I never use the fisheye shooting family and people. Maybe 5% or less when traveling. But it is all personal style.

  7. The thing about fisheyes is that you can hide their undesirable effects in vast landscapes but it’s a one trick pony and once you’ve seen one trick you’ve seen them all.

  8. Or you could take a 3 or 4 shot panorama using a 35mm equivalent or longer, with the camera in a portrait orientation.

    • That is what I have thought too, but in reality you have to take 6 to 12 shots if you want a 3×4 for tablet, or square

  9. Nice pics and use of a fisheye! However, i worry that in the first pic for example, the shot taking almost 180 degrees of landscape horizontally, the look of the lanscape in the pic end-up being too different from reality. As beautiful as the pic is, I believe that this distorted reality might be too different than the real deal for some!

    Regarding the last pic, i was wondering if the free-standing big rock is known to have the shape of a human (or ape?) face profile? Looks like that to me anyways!

    Take care and keep up the good job!

    • Hi Herve,

      I understand your point about the first photo but disagree for this reason. The big vistas are the main attraction of these overlooks. The fisheye concentrates that, perhaps somewhat unnaturally, but it captures what I feel when I am there. Narrower lenses don’t do that — they would show a tree but miss the forest. Even other wide angle lenses just don’t have the same punch. Narrow lenses are good for getting some rock art and cactus flowers and strange rocks but just can’t capture the astonishing scope of this land. But that is just me.

      Re the last photo, the rock in the center is actually there and is not distorted very much in this shot. It is like an Easter Island head and has actually been illustrated that way in some paintings of the site.

  10. Great shots! George!

    I too, i have the Samyang/Rokinon equivalent in my bag all the time, it’s an amazing lens (although manual focus…)

    Best regards,


  11. Thank you so much for this post. Until this, I’d assumed that fisheye lenses only produced the gimmicky images so often seen in magazines and on the web. Now I see!

  12. It’s a pity that with fisheyes for landscape you virtually have to put the horizon smack bang in the middle of the shot every time…

    These are amazing photos however so thanks for sharing!

    Being primarily an architectural photographer I ditch fisheye in lieu of tilt-shift but they do make for some great photos nonetheless in limited circumstances. Also great for easy panorama work.

    • Horizon line in the middle of pict ( to keep it straight) is no problem. You can always crop the excess of sky of foreground thus shifting horizon up or down.

  13. I love the last two…people will always complain I guess. The problem is that some people think first on what they like to do or what they want. These are great examples of knowing what to do and how to use the gear you have.

    Best regards!

  14. Really great post, I had no idea one could capture non “skate park” images with a fisheye. I particularly enjoy your last photograph.

    Nice tips and NICE WORK!

  15. I like fisheyes too, fisheye distortion is a great way to express surroundings. But I’m not afraid of using them for shooting in cities (and portraits :D). May be that’s because I prefer and use samyang stereographic projection and their latest 8/f2.8 excellent lens for Sony NEX, Fuji X and Samsung NX
    A couple of recent samples which I quite like:

    • I really like the shots of people. I must try that. I have always gotten too close to people so I get a huge distorted nose. Thanks!

  16. Don’t forget that in many cases barrel distortion can be corrected in software! They’re also fantastic for architectural photography.

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