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Canon EF 8-15mm f4L Fisheye USM Gordon Laing, Sept 2011
 
   
 

Canon EF 8-15mm Fisheye field report: Gordon Laing


  Canon EF 8-15mm Fisheye review contents
1 Canon EF 8-15mm main review
2 Canon EF 8-15mm field report: Gordon Laing
3 Canon EF 8-15mm field report: Scott Kennedy
4 Canon EF 8-15mm field report: Stefan Haworth
5 Canon EF 8-15mm optical results
6 Canon EF 8-15mm sample images
7 Canon EF 8-15mm verdict
 
As a self-confessed fanatic of wide-angle and scientific photography I was understandably very excited to get my hands on the Canon EF 8-15mm Fisheye - and it certainly didn't disappoint. Within five minutes of receiving the lens and mounting it on multiple bodies I insisted my photography friends meet up immediately to check it out.

We giggled like kids as we tried different compositions with the 180 degree coverage. That's the thing about extreme wide angle lenses: they're a lot of fun, and you can't help but smile when you're using the EF 8-15mm Fisheye.

Positive first impressions? The lens was surprisingly small, but reassuringly solid, the focusing and zoom rings felt silky smooth, and it really did capture an enormous field of view whether mounted on full-frame or cropped bodies. Did I mention it was fun? Big time.

Circular Fisheye on EOS 5D: Aperture Priority, 1/25, f4, 800 ISO, 8-15mm at 8mm
 

The photo above was taken by Scott Kennedy in Queenstown's Vudu cafe using a full-frame Canon EOS 5D body. This is with the lens at its shortest 8mm focal length where it delivers a full circular fisheye image (only possible when mounted on full-frame bodies). In order to squeeze a 180 degree angle of view into the frame, a fisheye lens suffers a lot of distortion and that's clearly apparent towards the edges of the frame where straight lines are rendered into highly curved bananas. Subjects in the middle can get away with minimal distortion, but you have to keep your distance. This was taken from a couple of feet away and already my face has become quite rounded. It's not exactly a flattering portrait lens, although again if you stay a little more distant you can achieve more natural-looking results.

So once again this lens is fun, but any immediate concerns? The highly curved front element looked extremely vulnerable, especially as the lens cap had an unnerving habit of coming loose with the lightest touch. The greatest concern though was whether the initial novelty would quickly fade. After all, unlike normal wide angle lenses, the distortion from a fisheye is extreme, unnatural and instantly recognisable.

After my Doctor Evil casting session in the cafe I headed out to grab some snapshots around Queenstown with a full-frame EOS 5D. One of the challenges with this lens is finding a subject to fill the frame. It makes everything look so small you need to get really close for a large reproduction on the frame. Luckily the EF 8-15mm has an extremely close minimum focusing distance of about one inch from the front element, and believe me, you'll regularly push it to this limit.

This in turn does however have some side-effects. First is at extremely close range very small adjustments in your position can have a major effect on the composition. Secondly I'd recommend keeping both eyes open as when you're composing with one closed you'll be blissfully unaware of how close you're actually getting to some subjects; glance up and you may be surprised to discover that precious front element virtually touching your subject and passers-by giving you some very strange looks.

Circular Fisheye on EOS 5D: Aperture Priority, 1/60, f8, 100 ISO, 8-15mm at 8mm
Canon EF 8-15mm fisheye sample image (EOS 5D)
Click image to access original version at Flickr

 

This photo of a rowing boat outside Queenstown's Wai restaurant looked like the ideal subject for a circular fisheye photo, but it proved resistant to a perfectly symmetrical composition. Even with the architectural grid focusing screen fitted to the EOS 5D I couldn't quite get everything straight. I thought handholding the EF 8-15mm Fisheye would be the way forward, but for precision symmetry, you'll really want a tripod and some patience. While repositioning myself, I also found my arms and feet creeping into the periphery of the image. This is the risk of a lens with 180 degree coverage and something you have to keep an eye out for. To avoid it you'll need to adopt even more contorted poses at times.

Handheld video: Canon EF 8-15mm mounted on EOS T3i / 600D at 10mm
Download the original file (Registered members of Vimeo only)

 

As the Steamship Earnslaw approached, I switched the lens to an EOS 600D / T3i cropped-frame body and zoomed-it as wide as it would go before vignetting creeped-into the frame. The lens actually has a guide mark and zoom limiter switch to prevent you from recording any vignetting on an APS-C body, but since 16:9 video is effectively cropped a little further than 3:2 photos, you can actually zoom a bit wider while still avoiding dark corners from appearing on the frame.

Three things I noticed while filming this video: first, the lens is extremely wide and could capture the entire boat even when it was almost touching the dock; second, the lens doesn't have Image Stabilisation and while that's not an issue for photos at these extremely short focal lengths, you can still see wobbling on video if you're not steady; and third, as many car wing mirrors warn, objects are closer than they appear. As the lifeboat grew ever-larger on the screen I glanced up to find it almost clobbering me.

One of the more interesting aspects of the lens is how it's not really a zoom at all, at least in the traditional sense. On a full-frame body, there's a tiny widening of the coverage between 15 and 14mm, but once you're at 14mm, you're already recording 180 degrees on the diagonal, and the lens never actually gets any wider. Reducing the focal length simply reveals more of the imaging circle and the blackness beyond, gradually revealing 180 degrees on the horizontal axis and finally on the vertical for a complete circular hemisphere.

Canon EF 8-15mm Fisheye coverage on 'full-frame / 35mm' body
8-15mm at 15mm
  8-15mm at 8mm

To illustrate this I headed over to Queenstown's Dux de Lux bar and took two photos from the same spot with a full-frame body: one at 15mm and the other at 8mm, both pictured above. The 8mm version looks much wider at first glance, but check out the diagonal coverage on the 15mm version and you'll see it's capturing virtually the same field of view as the diagonal on the circular image. If the first sample had been taken at 14mm, the diagonal coverage would have been identical. You can see another example of this in the Sample Images Gallery page of snowboards in R&R Sport.

Circular Fisheye on EOS 5D: Aperture Priority, 1/8, f5.6, 800 ISO, 8-15mm at 8mm
Canon EF 8-15mm fisheye sample image (EOS 5D)
Click image to access original version at Flickr

 

While in the bar I thought I'd check out the macro capabilities on the beer taps. I wanted the Alpine Ale badge to be in the middle of the frame, so approached as close as I could without the badge to the right getting in the way. I shot this at both f4 and f5.6, but preferred the latter, which is shown above. While this lens does offer an enormous depth of field, you can still have slightly blurred backgrounds if you open the aperture and get really close to your subject, as seen here. But if you back off more than a couple of feet, pretty much everything will be sharp even at large apertures.

After returning home and analysing my first day's results, I realised I'd gone almost exclusively for the novelty shots to illustrate the extreme nature of the lens. It's hard not to on your first day with this lens, but while they were fun to take and look at, there was nothing which truly leapt out and grabbed me as a keeper. Most were too distorted or extreme-looking in the wrong way. Fun yes, but usable for anything other than an illustration? Perhaps not. I did however have high hopes for day two as I'd be attending an event a lens like this was designed for.

 

Extreme lens for extreme sports

Ultra-wide and fisheye lenses are ideal for capturing extreme action sports like Skiing, Snowboarding, Skateboarding and Mountain Biking. They allow you to get really close to the action, their inherently large coverage and depth-of-field is forgiving on both composition and focusing, while their distorted geometry can actually enhance the image. They can also be used to render even a nearby athlete into a small figure, dwarfed by the landscape around them.

Living in Queenstown, New Zealand, there's no shortage of extreme sports to photograph but I was particularly pleased the lens arrived while there was still some snow on the mountains and winter events taking place. I opted to shoot the Slope Style final at the 2011 North Face Free Ski Open at Snow Park, just 45 minutes from Queenstown. I headed over there with fellow photographers Stefan Haworth and Scott Kennedy, who also had a chance to try out the lens, and who's views you'll find elsewhere in this review. To do the event justice I borrowed a Canon EOS 1D Mark IV pro sports DSLR from my friend Blair Pattinson.

The EF 8-15mm Fisheye is big news for owners of the EOS 1D Mark IV, not to mention previous versions, which all employ an APS-H sensor with a 1.3x crop. Previously there was no option for these cameras to deliver a 180 degree diagonal fisheye image; they either had to crop the field of view from a fisheye designed for a full-frame body, or work around either the physical or optical incompatibility of a lens designed for the smaller APS-C format. Neither solution was ideal, which is a shame since the 1D series is the most appropriate camera for shooting extreme sports thanks to its speed and toughness. APS-H bodies are crying out for a weather-sealed fisheye lens, and now they have one which again has the added benefit of delivering a 180 degree diagonal fisheye image to Canon's other two sensor formats.

At first I was fairly cautious, shooting at a distance from the sidelines, but before long I repositioned myself directly under a jump, with my back pressed up against the wall and skiers sailing overhead. This is where the EF 8-15mm Fisheye really performed.

The wonderful thing about having 180 degree coverage is there's little chance of missing the action. By angling the lens at about 45 degrees, I was able to capture everything from the lip of the jump to the landing area far beyond. There was nowhere the skier could go that would have them skipping the frame. The huge depth-of-field also meant focusing was a non-issue, so I simply locked it at a few meters distant. Even better, the completely blue sky meant the exposures during the event remained consistent, so I locked that down too in Manual. Basically all I had to do was wait until I heard a skier hit the jump then keep my finger held on the shutter release button until they landed.

Full-frame Fisheye on EOS 1D Mark IV: Manual, 1/1600, f7.1, 200 ISO, 8-15mm at 12mm
Canon EF 8-15mm fisheye sample image (EOS 1D Mark IV)
Click image to access higher resolution version at Flickr

 

The photo above was one of my first, taken with the lens set to 12mm: the focal length which delivers a 180 degree diagonal on an APS-H sensor and avoids any vignetting. There's a lot of distortion which has made the straight jump look almost like a curved halfpipe, but the snowy landscape is very forgiving with geometric stretching. I'm no sports photographer but was really pleased with this result.

Partical Circular Fisheye on EOS 1D Mark IV: Manual, 1/1600, f7.1, 200 ISO, 8-15mm at 8mm
Canon EF 8-15mm fisheye sample image (EOS 1D Mark IV)
Click image to access higher resolution version at Flickr

 

Later I tried zooming all the way out to 8mm from the same position. As explained in the main review, this gradually reveals more of the imaging circle and the blackness beyond, but the 1.3x crop of the APS-H sensor means you'll slice off the sides. Normally this would be an undesirable result, but there's something I quite like about this shot which I'm not sure would be enhanced by it being enclosed within a full circle. There's a look of a snow globe here with the snow spraying from the lip of the jump which I'm really pleased with.

But again this was one of the easiest shots I've ever taken. The vast coverage and depth of field of this lens coupled with the machine-gun speed of the 1D Mark IV made it almost impossible to go wrong. It was a really fun combination to use.

What's not obvious in these photos though is the proximity of the skiers and the top of the jump which was literally only a few feet above my head. It was a highly visceral experience which saw me sprayed with snow after every jump. On more than one occasion both the 1D Mark IV and EF 8-15mm appeared more white than black with snow. I wasn't worried about the body as the 1D Mark IV has a terrific reputation for toughness, but I did wonder how the lens would cope, especially with its highly curved and vulnerable front element.

The answer was very well indeed. The snow quickly melted into water droplets which literally ran-off the glass thanks to its new Fluorine coating. Anything remaining was easily wiped-off, leaving the lens looking brand new. My first impression of the lens was concern over this front element, but the more I used the lens, the tougher it felt. This really was a real trial by fire - or at least snow and ice - and the EF 8-15mm Fisheye came through with flying colours.

 

But can it ever look natural?

Having shot some deliberately extreme images with the lens I decided I should now see if it could deliver more natural-looking results. The biggest issue is of course the distorted geometry, which renders any straight lines into banana-like curves, especially towards the periphery of the image. There's little you can do to hide this with buildings, while horizon lines, whether natural or man-made, can look terrible when positioned anywhere other than the centre of the image.

For a half-natural result then, you need to be very careful with your choice and position of subject. Place familiar or recognisable subjects in the very middle for the least distortion and ensure the horizon crosses the absolute centre to avoid bending. As for the edges of the frame, many organic objects can mask the distortion pretty convincingly, such as carefully-positioned tree branches, rocks or mounds of snow. If the viewer doesn't know how these should look in reality, they won't know if they've become a little stretched.

Full-frame Fisheye on EOS 600D / T3i: Aperture Priority, 1/250, f8, 100 ISO, 8-15mm at 10mm
Canon EF 8-15mm fisheye sample image (EOS 600D / T3i)
Click image to access original version at Flickr

 

Probably my most successful example of putting this into practice is above, taken from the beach in Queenstown. It's a familiar view to regulars at Cameralabs as I use it in many of my review galleries, so check a few of them out if you'd like to see how it looks with a 'normal' wide angle lens. Here I was very close to the tree in the foreground, but the already bendy branches were very forgiving with the lens distortion. The worst thing was the horizon which needed to be dead-centre to avoid severe bending. This in turn meant the base of the tree was higher in the frame than I really wanted, but the result is still fairly natural-looking. The photo is also an example of the lens mounted on a cropped-frame APS-C camera, in this case an EOS 600D / Rebel T3i. The lens was zoomed-out to 10mm, where it delivers a 180 degree diagonal on this format, while avoiding vignetting in the corners.

 

Big sky and solar flare

When shooting with a fisheye lens it's hard to avoid the Sun in your images, so why not embrace it instead? By closing the aperture down to between f11 and f22, most wide angle lenses can render the Sun into an attractive star-burst.

Full-frame Fisheye on EOS 600D / T3i: Aperture Priority, 1/100, f22, 100 ISO, 8-15mm at 10mm
Canon EF 8-15mm fisheye sample image (EOS 600D / T3i)
Click image to access original version at Flickr

 

The photo above was taken with an EOS 600D / T3i and the lens again set to 10mm for the maximum 180 degree diagonal while avoiding vignetting. I'm directly facing the Sun and managed to grab it just before it hid behind the clouds - the star-burst effect doesn't work well unless it's completely clear. The downside to using small apertures is some softening of fine detail due to diffraction, but it's a nice effect to have at times when the Sun is co-operating. As with the earlier example, I had to position the horizon close to the center line to avoid unnatural-looking distortion.

Circular Fisheye on EOS 5D: Aperture Priority, 1/50, f22, 100 ISO, 8-15mm at 8mm
Canon EF 8-15mm fisheye sample image (EOS 5D)
Click image to access original version at Flickr

 

For the sake of completeness, here's a similar shot taken moments later from virtually the same spot with the lens mounted on a full-frame EOS 5D and zoomed-out to 8mm for the full circular fisheye image. As you can see, the coverage across the diagonal is virtually the same as the first version, except now the 180 degree coverage is the same in every direction - and of course it's within a circle. The question is, which do you prefer?

My final image illustrates what fisheye lenses were originally designed for: capturing the entire sky in a single shot for meteorology applications. To do this on the 8-15mm, you'll need to mount it on a full-frame body, zoom-out to 8mm, and simply point it straight upwards, carefully adjusting the angle if handheld so not to crop any areas. The result is a full hemisphere capture.

Circular Fisheye on EOS 5D: Aperture Priority, 1/500, f8, 100 ISO, 8-15mm at 8mm
Canon EF 8-15mm fisheye sample image (EOS 5D)
Click image to access original version at Flickr

 

Here's one I took moments after the last couple. The Sun had since hidden itself behind a cloudbank, but this in turn meant it would no longer be the focus of the composition. Instead it's all about the clouds, with Queenstown's surrounding mountains making an interesting circumference.

While framing the shot, I noticed two of the big clouds looked a bit like eyes on a face, so I rotated the camera to reposition them, with a larger distorted cloud towards the bottom curving into a smile. I'm pleased with this shot, and certainly if you're into clouds, it's a great lens to have in your arsenal.

Sadly weather conditions conspired against me grabbing a full-sky sunset / sunrise during my test period with the lens, while the presence of the Moon spoilt any astro-photography opportunities. I do plan on getting the lens back in again for additional tests in the near future though, so will try and grab these images to complete my set here.

 

Overall thoughts

I'll leave my formal opinion for the verdict page, but just briefly here wanted to conclude by saying the EF 8-15mm Fisheye proved to be less of a novelty over time than I expected. Sure it's still best-suited to specialist and extreme photography, but if you're into action sports, skies and clouds or simply huge subjects, it can prove surprisingly versatile.

Equally I was surprised to find it tougher than it looks, which in some part makes up for that loose lens cap. I can't say how impervious it is to scratches, but it dealt with snow, water droplets and dust just fine.

Ultimately it was a lot more flexible than I expected, and always lots of fun. I felt like a kid or a mad scientist most of the time with the lens, which does wonders for your mood and compositions. In short I liked it a lot, and while the extreme distortion would rule it out for much of my wide-angle subjects like recognisable landscapes and architecture, I could really see myself using this lens on a fairly regular basis.

Now find out what two other photographers thought about the lens in Stefan Haworth's Field Report and Scott Kennedy's Field Report!


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