Canon 8-15mm Fisheye Zoom: One Fisheye to Rule Them All

After spending some quality time with Canon’s newest L-series lens, the EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye, we can safely say it is the undisputed king of the fishes. Though fisheye lenses are pretty niche overall, so you could say it’s a big fish in a small pond. That said, it’s so versatile that it replaces at least five other lenses: the Sigma 8mm, Peleng’s 8mm, Tokina’s 10-17mm, Canon’s own 15mm, and the Zenitar 16mm. It covers the same focal length as all five of these lenses (for the most part) while being sharper across the zoom range, delivering crisp, contrasty images that are to be expected from a lens bearing Canon’s lofty “L” designation. With this lens in your bag, there’s little reason to consider another fisheye lens, regardless of what camera body you are using.

Compatible with Full Frame and Crop Sensor Bodies

If you’re shooting with a full frame camera like the 5D Mark II, the 8-15mm provides a full circular 180-degree, half-hemispherical perspective (see below for examples). If you’re on a crop sensor, you will not get that full-circle effect as it’s simply not wide enough, and at the long end you’ll be at the equivalent of 24mm. Learn more about this in What You Must Know About Full Frame vs Crop Frame Sensors Before Choosing a Lens. This leaves a bit of breathing room for the Sigma 4.5mm, which produces full circular images even on the crop cameras (the only fisheye this zoom doesn’t totally replace).

8mm on Canon 1Ds Mark III full frame camera produces a half-hemispheric image

15mm on a Canon 1Ds Mark III full frame camera.

What is a Fisheye?

The fisheye look is characterized by barrel distortion, especially strong on the edges, that renders straight lines as curves unless they pass through the center of the frame. In some cases the distortion is distracting, so many photographers opt to use an ultra-wide rectilinear lens (which lacks the fisheye curvature), such as the Canon 16-35mm or 10-22mm, in order to produce a more realistic rendition of their subject matter where both the the horizon and other straight lines are straight.

Surf and skateboard photography are perfect examples of where the 8-15mm excels. On a full frame body you’d probably shoot at 15mm, stop down a bit to take advantage of the extreme depth of focus inherent in these lenses, and set a manual focus distance. For example, you’re shooting someone skating a halfpipe and there’s enough light to shoot at f/8. Everything from a foot or two in front of the lens out to infinity will be in focus, so rather than have your camera’s slow autofocus hunting around on every shot, you can just park your focus in that range and concentrate on shooting.

Image captured with the camera held at arm’s length inches from the rider using fixed manual focus.

As with any wide angle, fisheyes demand that you get very close to your subject. You’ll often shoot without your eye to the camera, instead holding it at arm’s length to safely get as close as possible and composing by feel. Surf photographers are regularly seen with only their camera above water as they’re already duck-diving underwater and out of danger.

This image was taken with the camera pointed straight up at the center of the sky. Notice the entire horizon along the edge of the circular frame.

You wont likely go much wider than 15mm on a full frame sensor unless you go all the way to 8mm. Almost immediately when you start zooming out from 15mm, distinct black corners rapidly appear taking up more and more real estate until 8mm, where they form a complete circle. At this point the lens has transformed into an all-seeing beast, sucking up a complete half-hemisphere of view. At this focal length, anything in front of the lens will be photographed. If you point it straight up you see the entire sky and anything that is higher than the camera.

Technical and scientific applications for this type of lens include astronomy, meteorology, solar site-selection, and forestry – to name a few. These applications drove the development of early fisheye lenses. The circular look is so extreme that it’s really fun to use even if you aren’t in a lab coat doing science. You’ll get these little snow-globe, fish-bowl microcosms with the whole world shoved into a little circle. But the look can get old quickly unless used carefully, so be selective on when and where you zoom this out to 8mm.

Mounted to a crop body, the 8-15mm covers nearly the range of Tokina’s cool little 10-17mm fish. The big difference is the Tokina doesn’t cover a full frame sensor or approach the “full circle” capability of the 8-15mm. On a crop body, you’ll be able to get more room between you and your subject and the fisheye look will be less pronounced than with a full frame camera.

Cropping-in on images makes the fish look less pronounced. Notice the rider (who was centered in the original capture) is rendered realistically while the edges are quite distorted.

With today’s high megapixel cameras you also have considerable leeway to crop into these images and make them look even less fishy and instead convert them to simply “super wide”.

The Canon 8-15mm is a crowning achievement and is destined to become the fisheye for Canon shooters. We’d even go so far as to say it will set the standard industry-wide for years to come. We imagine a ton of pros will run out and buy the 8-15mm to replace and expand on their old 15mm Canon fisheyes, if they haven’t already.

Granted, this lens might not be for everybody to own since, at $1,500, its costs more than a 24-70mm f/2.8L and is not even in the same ballpark in terms of flexibility and usefulness for general photography. That said, the 8-15mm certainly makes for an excellent lens rental because of its specialty nature.

Sohail Mamdani is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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