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All My Life's a Circle: Getting Goofy with the Lensbaby Circular Fisheye Lens

By Jeff Wignall   Thursday October 6, 2016

Circle

All my life's a circle,
sunrise and sundown;
The moon rolls through the nighttime;
till the daybreak comes around.
All my life's a circle;
but I can't tell you why
The season's spinnin' round again;
the years keep rollin' by

It seems like I've been here before,
I can't remember when
But I got this funny feelin'
that I'll be back once again
There's no straight lines make up my life
and all my roads have bends
There's no clear-cut beginnings
and so far no dead-ends

    —Harry Chapin


Here's a fisheye view of a cat's eye. The hardest part about getting offbeat shots like this with a cat is getting close enough without getting a nose smudge on the lens. I shot this at f/4 at 1/125 second, ISO 200. I would normally use a smaller aperture but the porch was kind of dark, so I needed to gather more light.

Snapshot:

Name: Lensbaby Circular Fisheye
Focal length: 5.8mm
Formats: APS-C (compatible with full frame)
Focus and exposure: Full Manual
Field of view: 185 degrees
Aperture range: f/3.5 to f/22
Minimum focus distance: 1/4 inch
Available Mounts: Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony E, Sony Alpha A, Fuji X, Pentax K, Samsung NX
Dimensions: 2.75" (6.99cm) high x 2.75" (6.99cm) wide
Full specs: Here


The scope of the scenes that you can capture in a single frame with a fisheye lens is truly astounding. My toes are literally touching the rocks in the foreground and yet you can see the entire marina and the sky over my head. Wild. Shot at 1/320 second at f/8, ISO 250.


This is the now-dark American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut where I booked Harry Chapin in concert more than 40 years ago. The theater building is enormous and to fit it into a single shot is pretty amazing. I'm standing just five or six feet from the front doors. Shot at 1/250 at f/8, ISO 250.

All My Life Really Is a Circle

The lyric above by Harry Chapin has always had a special meaning to me. Back before I decided to go into photography and writing full time, I worked as a concert producer and the very first show that I ever produced starred Harry Chapin at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut in 1974. Harry had a pretty huge hit at the time with the song “W.O.L.D.” and we felt pretty confident that we could sell out the 1,500 seat theater for two shows that night, so we book a double-header. There wasn’t much risk to my partner and I because we knew that one show would certainly sell out and pay the freight for both sets. There was a risk for Harry because there was a possibility that he’d walk out to a half-empty house for the second set if we guessed wrong about the number of tickets we could sell and that’s exactly what happened.

Harry arrived (with his brother Tom, whose band Mount Airy was the opening act) in the afternoon to do a sound check. My partner and I had to tell him that we’d sold out the first set, but we’d only sold a bit more than half the house for the second set. He looked shocked and we were momentarily terrified. Then Harry burst into a great big smile and said, “You guys sold out the entire first set, that’s fantastic!” He told us that his fear was that neither show would sell out and to hear that one had sold out completely was great news to him.

Sadly, just seven years later Harry died in a car accident on Long Island. Here I am, some 35 years later, listening to his music, telling this story and using his lyrics to introduce a review. Talk about circles.


How wide is wide? I'm standing about six feet or less from the front steps of this house and I was able to not only take in the entire house, but the houses to the left and right of it. Shot at 1/320 second at around f/8, ISO 250.


Would you like fries with that fisheye? One of the fun things about fisheye lenses is that you get to see old familiar things, like the MacDonald's drive-up window, in a new way. Shot at 1/320 second at f/8, IS0 200.

Fisheye Vs. Ultra-Wide-Angle

Speaking of circles, I’ve always had a thing for fisheye lenses. As odd as they are in some ways, they are also a lot of fun and they force you to look at the world in a new way. The reason that most photographers choose a fisheye lens is that only a fisheye lens can produce an image of 180-degrees or slightly greater than that (Nikon made one a long time ago that had an angle-of-view of 220-degrees, but it’s no longer manufactured). Technically there are lenses with a fisheye design that don’t capture such a wide angle-of-view, but most lens makers use the term fisheye only when they are talking about lenses with an angle-of-view of 180-degrees or greater.

What’s the difference between a fisheye lens like the Lensbaby Fisheye and an ultra-wide-angle lens? First, most ultra-wide-angle lenses (non-fisheyes) are designed to capture images with straight lines (walls or telephone poles, for example) and are called rectilinear lenses. Most super-wide-angle lenses (good ones, anyway) are rectilinear lenses and they produce good straight lines, even at the edges of the image area where distortion typically gets worse in cheap lenses. Lenses that produce images with curved lines (like a true fisheye lens), on the other hand, are called curvilinear lenses. Curvilinear lenses are designed to distort straight lines.


Also, there are actually two kinds of fisheye lenses: those that produce a circular image (like this Lensbaby lens) and those that produce a rectangular full-frame image. The full-frame fisheye lenses produce images that have wickedly curved lines, particularly at the edges and usually a very curved horizon. Circular fisheye lenses produce a round image—like the ones that you’re seeing here. I’ve owned both types and while both are fun to play with, the circular type lenses really don’t have much practical value (at least not to most photographers).

The nice thing about full-frame fisheyes is that you can use a technique called “remapping” to straighten out the curved verticals and horizons in post production (fisheye junkies call this “de-fishing”).  Here is an excellent article on how that's done. There are techniques for doing it in Photoshop that are pretty simple, but there are also plug-ins (like this one from Imadio) that are designed just for that purpose.

The reason that I bought my first fisheye lens (it was a Nikkor full-frame) was that I had an assignment to photograph the control booth in a recording studio and there simply wasn’t any other lens that could capture the entire room in one frame. I think I spent about $750 for the lens for that one assignment, but hey, the assignment paid for the lens and I got to keep the lens.


Me and my shadow. Shot at 1/640 second at around f/11, ISO 250. You can see my legs and my sneakers at the bottom of the frame and the sky that was directly above me. The dock is a good 100' long or so.

The Joy of Fishing

Circular fisheyes like the Lensbaby are pretty much considered a novelty lens because, let’s face it, there’s only so much you can do with a circular image where the entire world is grossly distorted. You also (as far as I know) can’t really straighten out the image—once a circular image, always a circular image. That said, I’ve always had a blast using circular fisheye lenses because doggone it, they are just plain weird. Any time I’m bored with my surroundings or my subject, it’s fun to pull one out of my camera bag and re-invent the world.

You might think that finding subjects to shoot with a fisheye lens would be kind of tough; I mean, how many things do you really want to show in a circular and an extremely distorted format? Ahh, but that is where the fun comes from. Once you start to explore the world using the combination of a 180-plus-degree angle of view and wickedly bent reality, it becomes downright addictive. After an hour or so you start to think you’ll never go back to straight photography again—it’s that much fun. You’ll see landscapes in a way you never dreamed and you can take in scenes that go from your toes to the sky.  Essentially what you are capturing in one frame is half of the world. If you were to shoot a landscape looking forward and then turn your body around 180 degrees and shoot a second frame, you’d have taken a spherical view of the world. And just how cool is that?


Some of your friends may not appreciate the humor in how they look in a fisheye portrait, but my neighbor Doug (top) and friend John cooperated (I only had to do a little arm twisting with John). As wild as these look, I could actually have gotten much closer and exaggerated the perspective even more! Both were shot at f/8, ISO 200.

One odd thing about this lens is that it has a polished rim at the front which causes you to get this bright circle of glare around the image circle itself. I’m not sure what the point of that is, but it was intentional and Lensbaby talks about it on their site. At first I thought I would paint it out of all my frames but I ended up kind of liking it. Go figure.

Using this lens is pretty simple, but there are some things to keep in mind:

Suck it up: The angle of view with this lens is so great that while I was shooting I had to continually suck in my gut (no easy chore) to keep my sweater out of the photos and I had to lean forward so that I wasn’t taking in my feet. I even found that I had to hold the camera by the body only. If I placed my hand on the lens barrel I often captured my fingers and if I didn’t put my free arm behind my body it would end up in the picture. Obviously it’s nearly impossible to use a tripod because the legs would show up in your shots.  

Full manual: The Lensbaby lens is completely manual and there are no electronic connections of any kind (in fact, oddly, while most of the lens body is metal, the lens-mounting plate is plastic). I had to place my Nikon body in manual exposure or it wouldn’t fire a picture. I long ago sold all of my handheld light meters so I just kind of guessed at exposures and then fired a few test frames (since I shoot in RAW all the time, I can be off by several stops and correct it in post anyway).


Just what is he thinking about? Perhaps he's thinking that you can, of course, frame things vertically but all you're doing is changing the orientation because the size of the image circle remains constant. You can use the Lensbaby on either APS-C or full-frame bodies, but if you shoot with a full-frame body the circle is smaller in the frame. You can see a comparison here. Exposure was 1/100 second at f/8, ISO 250.

Depth of field: There is an aperture ring on the lens (it’s a bit loose, I think it needs to be tightened up, but no big deal) and as you adjust it you can see the image getting lighter or darker. I shot most of the photos here at around f/8 because I wanted good depth of field and I could see the difference between say, f/2.8 and f/8 or smaller once I blew up the image. You might not think aperture matters much (in terms of depth of field) with a 5.8mm lens, but it does so use smaller apertures when you can.

Focusing: Because there is no lens-to-body communication, you can’t use your camera’s focus-assist to tell you when you are in sharp focus. It’s not easy to see when you are in sharp focus with such a wide lens, but it’s worth paying attention because it will make a big difference in the sharpness of the final image.

Rotate later: A lot of times it’s impossible to get the horizon level with a circular fisheye so don’t bother trying. It’s simpler to just level the horizon or whatever needs leveling in post.

Color and contrast: Both color and contrast seem fine to me and the color fidelity is excellent but beware of sun flare because if the sun is anywhere near you, you’re going to see some lens flare—though in lots of cases that’s a good thing.


Another cool thing about this Lensbaby lens is that you can focus down to a quarter inch in front of the lens. I was probably two inches from this rose. Look to the upper left and you can see an entire house in the background. You can also see the power lines that are directly over my head. Exposure was 1/250 second at f/11, ISO 200.


Looking straight up into a grove of pine trees that are probably 100' tall or taller. Look carefully and you can see the sun in the upper left. It's impossible to aim this lens up at the sky and not take in the sun. Shot at 1/80 second at f/8, ISO 250. The reflective circle you see around these images is the result of a polished front ring on the lens and is an intended part of the lens design. As you can see the shots of the marina and the theater above, it's easy to paint it out in editing if you decide you don't like it.

Conclusion:

I was kind of apprehensive that this Lensbaby lens wouldn’t be much of a competitor to the other fisheye lenses that I’ve owned, particularly compared to my Nikkor fisheye which is optically blazingly sharp. And, naturally, this lens is not as sharp as a Nikkor that costs more than three times as much. However, when you use careful technique it is a surprisingly good and sharp lens. As I said, you must set a small enough aperture to get good DOF and you need to pay attention to focusing (and holding the camera steady), but if you do the images are absolutely sharp. I really didn’t like (or understand the point of) the glowing circle around the image at first and I was mentally cropping it out at first, but I have to say that once I got used to seeing it I also found myself wondering how different subjects would alter its appearance. It’s kind of cool and you can simply paint it out if you don’t like it.

The truth is that this lens is a lot of fun and it kind of re-birthed my interest in fisheye photography. For occasional fisheye photography this lens is a bargain and it’s just the kind of thing that I suggest for wiping away the creative blahs. If you’re going to be at Photo Expo in New York in October 19-22, stop by the Lensbaby booth and I’m sure they’ll let you pop a lens onto your camera and shoot a couple of photos.

This lens is a lot of fun and I think that if you’re bored and looking for something new to try, you’ll have a lot of fun with it. Your friends might not like their portraits too much, but everyone besides your subjects will crack up.

New Product News:

Adobe Photoshop Elements 15 & Premiere Elements 15. Adobe has released Photoshop Elements 15, the latest update of their popular entry-level editing program, as well as Premiere Elements 15 their basic video editor. You can purchase them bundled together or separately. Both programs use a common organizer tool so that you can easily manage your still photos and videos. In addition to editing and organizing, you can also create photo slideshows, calendars, scrapbook pages, and cards, and combine both videos and still images together in collages. A text editor lets you add text and then add effete like an embossed look and drop shadows to jazz up the text. Both are available now.

MeFOTO Air Tripods. The new MeFOTO Air collection features three new photo tripods and one monopod in seven colorful anodized aluminum finishes. The tripods, says MeFOTO are lightweight and speedy to set up and they feature a removable telescoping center column converts to a selfie stick an comes with a smartphone holder and a Bluetooth remote so you can take pictures of yourself taking pictures, I guess. The tripods are also Arca-Swiss compatible so you can use existing Arca-Swiss mounting plates. The tripods come with a five-year warranty and they really do look cool. I hope to test one vert soon.

Alien Skin Exposure X2. Alien Skin has just introduced Exposure X2, the updated version of their very popular Exposure X non-destructive editing software. In case you missed it you can see my review of that software here. New features include a spot healing tool, a history panel and the ability to do metadata searches. You can purchase the software as an Exposure Bundle that includes Alien Skin’s Blow Up, Exposure and Snap Art apps. You can use the software as a complete solution for non-destructive RAW editing, or as a creative editing plug-in with Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. I had a blast with the software and can't wait to try the updates.

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