Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Fisheye Fun

I bought my first fisheye lens a few months ago, to see if I enjoyed using one. With no previous experience, I didn't want to shell out for a Canon L-Series right off the bat, in case I didn't like the style. 16mm wide angle was the widest I'd shot at, and I loved that, so it seemed like it was time to try something more. So, I went with a cheapie at first, with the option to upgrade later if I liked it. I got the Samyang 8mm T/3.8. (Samyang also licence their lenses under brand names Rokinon, Bower, and a few others.) It's a medium frame lens, so no good on the 5D, unless you're into solid black circular vignettes, which I'm not. On a medium frame, however, in this case my 60D, it is a pretty solid little performer. Having been designed for video, it has a stepless aperture ring (ie, no clicks, just a smooth continuous motion) on the lens barrel, so you can't control aperture from your dial. However, being able to stop anywhere between your normal values is a good feature, and adjusting a physical aperture ring is no different from a focus or zoom ring. So it's really no issue at all, except for when you check your metadata, where aperture will be listed as 0, as it is on your lcd when shooting. If that doesn't bother you, you're fine.

So, anyway, the fun stuff. What I have come to love most about shooting fisheye, is the way that it changes my composition. I've started looking at my framing in a completely different way. The usual curved-earth or collapsing walls style is fun, sure, but there's so much more to it. Let's go through a few of the different ways to use the lens to accentuate or distort specific elements. All shots were taken with the 8mm fisheye on the Canon EOS 60D. I'm not bothering with listing settings on these - The point of this post is more about looking at form and visual effect.

The Curved Earth Effect. 
You've all seen plenty of examples of this. It seems to be the most common use of the fisheye, so I'll keep it to a couple of examples.

Changwon City, South Korea. My home for 4 years before moving to Daegu, about 80-90 minutes north. A view from the 35th floor rooftop near the centre of town. Tripod stem was extended horizontally, with legs laid out flat for maximum stability. Camera was extended out about 30-40cm over the edge of the building, on around a 30 second exposure. A friend of mine had done this shot with a regular wide angle lens, and I wanted to see how the fisheye would compare. The centre of both shots are pretty much the same, but the fisheye creates much more interesting framing with the horizon, and the vertical edge of the building at left. 
Yongji Lake, Changwon, South Korea. The carp and birds love to swim around here, as the locals throw them crumbled up bits of puffed rice cakes. At bottom right and left corners, you can see the concrete edge of the bridge. I held the 60D through the bars with my right hand, while adjusting aperture and angling the articulated screen with my left. 

Substituting for a regular wide-angle lens.

One of the great positives of the fisheye is using it as a super wide angle lens. Used correctly, it can result in massive vistas, with little to none of the typical distortive effects. The trick is to keep your horizon at the centre of the lens, and avoid straight lines at the edges as much as possible.

Not the sharpest of shots, but notice how the horizontal line, close to the centre of the lens, has little of the standard curvature so typical of fisheye shots. Framing this way gives a result very similar to a regular rectilinear wide angle, such as the Canon EF-S 10-22 or EF 16-35, but with a much wider field of view.
Well, that's nice, but...

What happens then when you place the horizon at or near to the centre, but introduce straight lines at the edges? Well, in some cases, the distortion can ruin the shot, but in others, it can actually create a nice frame.

The same 35th floor rooftop as above, in Changwon. Note the level horizon, distortion free, but now with the ceiling and side column adding a little sense of context and perspective. 

Note the hedgeline at centre shows little distortion, but the sculptures either side of me (about 1.5-2 m apart) which are neat vertical steel beams with their statues, create a kind of vignette, tightening the frame. If they were undistorted, they would need to be much closer in to the rule of thirds lines to work, but when they become part of the frame itself, they manage to get away with being so far out on the edges of the shot. 
Using low angles to create a more imposing effect.

Placing your camera at ground level, on a slight angle, helps create a strong effect of the subject bearing down upon the viewer. Frame your shot with strong lines, and keep your horizon line low. The curvature of your lines at the bottom will be clearly visible when you look for it, but this kind of shot draws the eye naturally towards other parts of the picture. 

I like the way the slightly curved flooring, coupled with the semicircular arching, creates a frame that resembles the shape of an eye. Strong converging lines take on new shapes, the handrails distorted and bulging outwards at foreground.

The entrance to my new apartment complex, with my girlfriend at bottom left. Hi Angie! Low horizon line with clear vertical lines again creates a strong distorted frame, while central elements stay normal. This keeps the viewer's attention on the distorted front elements, which take on a more looming nature than they would with a rectilinear lens. 

These apartment blocks, about 10 m apart, at the centre maintain a regular converging lines effect, but at the edge of the fisheye lens, the angle quickly steepens to near vertical, almost like a funnel where the sky pours in. An extremely simple frame, but very effective.

The camera, now at ground level, pointed up at about a 30' angle, framed via the articulated screen, pulls in everything from the base of the trees in front of me, right through to the canopies of the trees behind and beside me. The long exposure time needed at night keeps the background of passing clouds, now all streaked from motion blur, well separated from the treetops. In a short exposure shot, that separation would not be noticed, as the sky and treetops would be underexposed. The struts that support the trees also fill the lower foreground with a nice pattern.
City 7 Towers, Changwon, South Korea. A very simple frame, just me lying flat on my back, pointing the camera directly upwards. With the horizon at dead centre, the vertical lines don't distort, but simply come together as converging lines. 

Curved lines, and the fun that can be had with them.

As well as the fascinating effects a fisheye can have on straight lines, it also offers some interesting views of curved lines. Look around for circles, spirals, loops, curving paths, etc. They can be even more fun to shoot.

City 7 Mall, Changwon, South Korea. The main foyer of the mall is a large domed roof, with 3 circular balconies over top of the main meeting area and fountain. By framing the horizon line of the balcony I was standing on at centre of the lens, the far side of the balcony appears level, but the right and left sides twist sharply, creating a shape that reminds me of the lines of a magnetic field, or horseshoes.

A very unusual result. We can clearly see that the road leading into this underground carpark is sloping downwards, from looking at the angles on the left, but instead of reflecting that slope, it appears to merely be level, with a pronounced camber. Of all the unusual effects I've seen from the fisheye so far, this one interests me the most.

Changing the shapes of existing frames.

Look out for frames. All around you there are seemingly dull objects that can be totally transformed with the fisheye's distortion. Get up nice and close, and use those drab square boxes to create a brand new way of enclosing your subject and capturing the viewer's eye not only to the subject, but to the frame itself.

A dull square box in the fence suddenly becomes the very frame of the shot. This same perspective with a rectilinear lens isn't half as interesting. It's the fisheye distortion that makes this shot what it is.

Just having some damn fun with the thing.

So, all those arty concepts aside... The whole reason anybody buys a fisheye in the first place is just to have some good old fashioned fun with it. Take regular shots and recreate them in a way that no other lens can.

Just a bunch of corrugated steel pipes. I took a shot of the same kind of thing once before with my old EF-S 10-22 (equivalent to a 16-35 on a full frame body) and it looked dull as could be. Not with the fisheye though!

Camera pointed right, as I rode the escalator up to Yongdusan Park, in Busan, South Korea. The old man's cautious look back to make sure I wasn't photographing him was in vain... Another wonderful thing about the fisheye - It pulls such a massive amount into the frame. The strange mix of curvatures in the shot is a complete exaggeration of how this appears in real life. 

So there you have it. A great way of shooting and refreshing your photographic imagination. The fisheye has helped me reinvent a lot of my old thinking, and look at my environments with a new eye. I totally recommend it to anyone, especially if you're feeling like you're just rehashing the same old ideas - It will soon put a stop to that!

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