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Tantalizing Techniques for Fisheye Photography

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Within one hour of posting "I'll be testing out a 180° fisheye in Asia for six weeks" I had the normal replies all queued up. They said "I hate those pictures," or "everything looks weird with those lenses," or more technically, "the subjects are so far away, it's hard to see anything." In this tutorial, I'll share how I learned to work with the lens and hopefully overcome the skeptics.

With a healthy dose of people airing their grievances about fisheye lenses under my belt, I set out to learn more about using this unique lens. For seven total weeks I played with a Sigma 4.5mm fisheye (thanks to a lend from BorrowLenses.com) while leading photo tours in Asia.

I let my clients play with it as well to garner more input on creative ways to employ the lens. I found that while challenging, I got some really solid images with the fisheye. Here are some options you may have not thought of in order to get the most out of this fun and enjoyable specialty lens.


Find Circles

As this lens creates circular images, the first subject that came to mind were circles themselves which would fill the entire image area. Look not only for circles to shoot straight down, but also circles you can shoot from an edge or slightly above. The curves of the format lend themselves to accentuating man-made and natural circles alike. Garbage cans, pools, coins, oranges, the list is long when you open your eyes to this particular shape.

Tip: You will often have to lean far out with the camera if looking down on a circle. Otherwise, if you stand too close, you will likely highlight your body in the shot.


Get Close

The fisheye lens has a big advantage over most lenses; it can get ridiculously close to subjects but still cover a wide range. Not only can it, but most of the time it should. Because of the field of view, objects even 10 feet/3 meters away can become too small to recognize. Get close and soak up the details as you never have before.

Getting closer can also be beneficial in other context. Take a look at the series below. I took the shots at approximately 12 inches, 6 inches and 1 in from the wire cage surrounding the view out toward Kathmandu’s skyline from Dharahara Tower.

Because of the close focusing distance and relatively compact size, I was able to bring the lens close to the cage, minimizing the amount of interference the cage presented. If the hole was just a bit larger, I could have fit the lens through for an unobstructed view (later I did find another hole where this is possible).

Tip: Watch your feet! Lean in with your body when getting closer otherwise the 180 degrees will include your feet.


Bring It To A Point

I discovered this idea while killing time on a 14-hour layover in Delhi airport. Leading lines can get exaggerated and even grouped a bit closer together, giving each other relevance, when viewed through a fisheye. Take a look at this moving walkway with its helpful arrows, ceiling lights and path way right to a point in the center. The fisheye helps tighten the scene. Look for convergence in a scene and highlight it.

Tip: Moving just a few inches, to the left or the right, can have a big impact on where leading lines end up. Think about your shot before hitting the shutter release.


Lead With Space

This tip goes hand in hand with getting close. Not only get close, but leave some place in the image for viewers to travel. The habit is to get so close to objects that they fill the field of view almost entirely. Don’t forget to let viewers have something more in the frame, just as in non-fisheye photography.

Looking at the examples below, see where you start and where you end up. Because of the skewed perspective, I found it easier to set up these types of shots with the fisheye.

Tip: Use your camera’s depth of field preview button to check your background. Being so close, and with too open of an aperture, can blur the background which may not be desired.


Set The Camera Down, Looking Up

Set up the 10 second self timer on your camera and get ready for some ground level action. It’s important here to make sure nothing is above the lens that shouldn’t be, like you, a friend or the strap from the camera (I admit to making this mistake more than once, forgetting that 180 degrees is really wide!). This point of view will take a bit more imagination as you might not always be able to get down on the earth to visualize the shot before shooting.

Fitting the camera into a scene, surrounded by the subject, can give an interesting effect, as with the first shot below taken in a Bhutan rice field.

Tip: Duck! Be sure to get out of the shot. If you can see the front element of the lens, you will be in the picture (which may be desired at times).


Look To The Sky

Day or night, the sky offers the original subject for the advent of this lens. It can be great for capturing the Milky Way (a celestial body that can often become too large when viewed in a typical field of view) as well as the area around the scene.

The fisheye allows for nearby elements to come into play if desired. One project that did not enter my mind until after the lens was returned was to shoot a time-lapse movie of the sky on a partially cloudy day. I believe this would produce a spectacular movie reminiscent of childhood days spent gazing up at the sky for hours on end.

Tip: Using a tripod and pointing your camera straight up can give you a convenient place to hide out of frame.

Tip: Using a wide aperture is usually possible in this orientation as the nearest object is usually quite far away.


Show Some Action

If you decide to capture action with a fisheye, you will need to get much closer than is comfortable for some movements. Find a predictable pattern so safety can be assured. Moving your aperture to a higher number (smaller opening) will allow for a longer shutter speed, helping to add some blur to accentuate the movement.

Tip: Find large moments as small objects often shrink from view with a fisheye.


Exaggerate Width

Even a four foot wide wall can look huge with the right depth on a fisheye. Again, get close! This will help spread a flat surface out to the horizon on a fisheye.


Highlight Architecture

Architecture is a fun subject to explore with a fisheye. Repeating patterns, shapes and geometry all come into play and it might take a bit of exploring until you find the right perspective to capture a scene.

Don’t forget to look up toward ceilings with classic architecture as that is often a highlight. As the perspective is skewed, don’t expect your architecture pictures to be geometrically accurate.

Tip: Take on the classics, but also look for more mundane subject matter people often don’t shoot. When seen through a fisheye, even simple architecture takes on a new look.


Take A Different View On A Classic Subject

Most of the icons of the world have been shot from just about every angle. It’s a challenge to find a new way to shoot a timeless wonder and the fisheye can help.

It will force you to not stand in the same old spot and take the same old picture, as everyone else does. After taking shots at the Taj Mahal, I found myself mentally leaping to other man-made structures. What would the Eiffel Tower look like? Or the Great Wall of China, extending to the horizon? What about the Grand Canyon? From the bottom looking up? These ideas alone have me on the verge of purchasing my own copy of this fun lens.

Tip: Close isn’t always needed here as many icons as expansive. Instead, look for an angle that lends itself well to the lens’ abilities.


Fit It Into Small Spaces

One type of shot this lens excels at is the ability to snug into small areas and capture an entire scene. Take for instance the images below shot in a bath room (a room for baths, not the typical Western interpretation) in the Amber Fort located at Jaipur, India.

The room was no more than 7 feet across and my normal 10mm lens on a 1.6 crop factor lens would not capture the space well. I also wanted to show the depth of the bath as well as the finer touches near the ceiling. The fisheye allowed me to capture the entire scene with one shot.

Tip: Lean into these small spaces and draw your body back. The normal technique of holding the camera as far back as you can, to capture the scene, will not work as you will be in the photo.

Tip: Consider using your camera held out on a monopod or tripod to enter a space without your body showing in the field of view.


Patterns

When the world becomes rounded through the viewfinder, you will start to notice different patterns jumping out at you. Getting closer helps with patterns unless they repeat to the edge of the room or horizon. You will want to find a large enough pattern to fill the field of view and this can often be difficult. Look for geometric patterns but also look for repeating natural subjects, such as lampposts lined up along a road or birds covering a wire.

Tip: Even the smallest objects can have patterns. Now that the field of view is huge, something as small as a bowl of beads can become a world of patterns.


Frame With A Window Or Doorway

Windows are likely the easiest subjects to pick out and shoot with a fisheye lens. Creating a natural frame to further highlight the main subject, a window frame gives viewers a sense of place without being as distracting as it can be with a normal lens.

Additionally, the fisheye lens will allow you to get closer to the primary subject while keeping the frame in view. Look for deeply set windows to give an even greater sense of tunnel to an image.

Tip: Have I mentioned "get close" yet? Bring the edge of the window or doorway to the edge of the frame for dramatic effect.


Shoot Some Video

One down side with shooting video with this lens is the vast amount of wasted space. The images you have seen in this post were all cropped down to remove the unneeded black space on either side of the circular image. When shooting video, that black area takes up a lot of screen. That aside, shooting video with this lens can be a lot of fun.

Most people haven’t experienced a lot of video with a fisheye and it’s easy to find interesting subjects, especially moving objects. Below you will find a sample of our small plane landing on the remote airstrip at Lukla in the Nepali Himalayas, one of the trickiest airstrips to land at in the world. The lens allowed me to be front and center while still capturing the pilot and co-pilot’s actions.


Tip: Experiment! Watch the world through the lens for a while before deciding what you want to shoot. Again, get close because far objects are even smaller when there is not the advantage of cropping (which can be accomplished on higher end video software).


Have Fun!

There are surely more fisheye techniques to be found. Imagine what other styles have been found while playing with these unique lenses. The most important thing to remember is to having fun. While the fisheye lens can produce serious imagery, it's very easy to get caught up in the fact that it's not producing what you're used to. Remember to have fun, you're seeing like a fish!

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