Exploring Fisheye Lenses: Types, Examples & Things to Know

Discover the distinctive look of fisheye lenses & how you can use them to create unique perspectives in your photos. Explore types, tips & top picks for different mounts.

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A fisheye lens is a specialized kind of lens that provides an ultra-wide view. And it has a distinctive, distorted look to it, with a bulging appearance and curved lines.

It’s a niche look that doesn’t work for everything. It’s an unflattering look for most portrait photography, and it’s not a good fit for something that requires a “normal” perspective. But it can also add a sense of drama, a unique perspective, and an immersive feel to landscapes, interiors, and action shots. And it packs a lot of visual information into the frame. And it’s a type of lens I find a lot of fun to shoot with.

The name comes from its shape–they typically have a curved, bulging front element that looks like, well, a fish’s eye. But there’s also another thing in common: they can work very well underwater.

The fisheye lens look has become more common these days as we’ve become more used to footage from action cameras. The fisheye look is the standard field of view on GoPro cameras, for example. I have included a couple of travel photos taken with a GoPro below.

But a fisheye lens looks different to a standard rectilinear wide-angle lens, even when they cover the same field of view. That heavy distortion is a defining feature.

Good Uses for Fisheye Lenses

The distinctive distortion of a fisheye lens can be a strength or weakness, depending on what you’re aiming for. But it’s rarely neutral.

Fisheye Lenses Are Good For . . .

  • Dramatic architectural interiors. They can pack an enormous amount of visual detail in the frame. I really like using them in highly decorative interiors such as churches, mosques, or wats.
  • Immersive action shots. The natural drama of the fisheye perspective can work well in situations where you want the viewer to feel part of the action. But for that, it’s a requirement that you’re able to get the camera in very close to the subject.
  • Wide-angle landscapes. If you’re surrounded by a scene, fisheye lenses can really bring the viewer to that spot with you.
  • When space is very tight. They excel in very tight shooting spaces.
  • Underwater photography. They work well with the different magnification underwater as well as for over-under split-level photos (part of the frame below water and part above).
  • Unconventional fashion shoots. If you want to amp up the drama and display something a bit differently, there are all sorts of creative possibilities. Think swirling dresses, for instance.
  • Unconventional portraits. Fisheye lenses aren’t good for a “normal” portrait shot, but you can have fun with something more out of the box. I really like using a fisheye for taking photos of my kids.
  • Spherical panoramas. They are extremely helpful for shooting spherical panoramas in fewer frames and less risk of alignment problems or subject movement.

Fisheye Lenses Aren’t Good For . . .

  • Traditional portraits. If you’re after a traditional or flattering look, fisheye lenses aren’t a great choice. They throw proportions wildly off, which becomes extremely noticeable in photos of people.
  • Traditional architecture shots. Fisheye lenses can be used with great and fun effect for dramatic interiors where you’re emphasizing drama or volume of detail and it doesn’t matter that none of the lines are straight. But if you’re going for traditional architecture shots such as for realtor listings or submitting to Architecture Digest, fisheye lenses aren’t a good choice.
  • Far-away subjects. The extremely wide perspective will make things far away look tiny in the frame. If you can get very close to your subject, though, you can make use of that exaggerated emphasis on things close to make them look enormous compared to subjects further from the frame.
  • Bokeh or blurring the background. In most cases, it’s pretty much impossible to get any meaningful bokeh with a fisheye lens. The other side of the token, though, is that the focus is extremely forgiving.
  • Using lens filters. Most fisheye lenses don’t play nicely with lens filters, in part because of the bulbous front glass element and in part because of the extremely high risk of lens vignetting from the ultra-wide-angle perspective. On some, they might take a rear filter, but those are quite limited and limiting in what they can do.

Examples of Photos Taken with a Fisheye Lens

To give a visual sense of the look that fisheye lenses product, here are some photos I’ve taken with various fisheye lenses.

Gran Hotel Cuidad de Mexico Atrium
Taken with a Nikon 16mm fisheye. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Planes on Display at Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
Taken with a Nikon 10.5mm fisheye. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Interior of the Blue Mosque Prayer Hall in Istanbul
Taken with a Nikon 16mm fisheye. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Cherry Blossoms as of March 19, 2013
Nikon 16mm fisheye. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Niagara Falls Viewing Telescope
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Biomuseo Theater
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Zodiac Cruising in Antarctic
This was very tight quarters on a speeding zodiac in Antarctica, but the super wide perspective let me pack a lot of visual information into the frame. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Main Hall of the Science Museum in London
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
OoHminThoneSel Pagoda in Sagaing, Myanmar (Burma)
This one looks like a (sort of) straight corridor, but it’s actually a large constant curve in a crescent shape. It’s at a pagoda in Myanmar / Burma. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Torre Latinoamericana View North over Mexico City
A view out over the top of Mexico City taken from the top of one of the few skyscrapers in the historical downtown area. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Bagaya Monastery (Bagaya Kyaung)  in Amarapura, Myanmar (Burma)
Some of the better fisheye lenses are still relatively fast, making this good in low-light conditions such as inside this teak wat in Myanmar. In this case, it was the Nikon 16mm f/2.8 full-frame fisheye lens.Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Shwezigon Pagoda at Nyaung-U, Myanmar, Burma
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Photo taken with a GoPro HERO5 Black
This was taken with a GoPro camera with its standard fisheye field of view. GoPros aren’t an obvious choice for traditional photography largely because of their fixed fisheye lens, but it can still be a fun option for travel photography such as in this shot I took in the High Arctic. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Jefferson Memorial Statue Black and White Washington DC
Fisheye lenses are a lot of fun to play with both symmetry and circles. In this case, it’s the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Photo taken with a GoPro HERO7 Black
Another shot I took with a GoPro with its standard fisheye field of view. The naturally very deep depth of field can be useful for combining close and far subjects (but is no good if you’re aiming for blurring the background). Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Washington National Cathedral Chapel of the Resurrection
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Nikon AF-S FISHEYE NIKKOR 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E ED lens sample image
A circular fisheye view taken with a Nikon 8-15mm fisheye. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
The Great Court of the British Museum
In the British Museum in London. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Fisheye action photo.
Taken with a GoPro. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Photo taken with a GoPro HERO5 Black
Another shot taken with a GoPro. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Photo taken with a GoPro HERO7 Black
And another taken with a GoPro’s fisheye lens. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com

Types of Fisheye Lenses

When it comes to camera lenses, there are two main types of fisheye lenses: spherical fisheye and full-frame fisheye. They create quite different results.

If you’re after something that’s essentially an ultra-wide-angle perspective, you’re most likely after a full-frame fisheye lens. This will use the entire rectangular space of the frame.

Here’s are a couple of examples:

Nikon AF-S FISHEYE NIKKOR 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E ED lens sample image
Nikon AF-S FISHEYE NIKKOR 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E ED lens sample image

A spherical fisheye, by contrast, will only use a round section in the middle of the frame and be surrounded by black, unexposed areas.

Here are some examples of spherical fisheye taken from the same vantage points and lens (Nikon 8-15mm fisheye) as above:

Nikon AF-S FISHEYE NIKKOR 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E ED lens sample image
Nikon AF-S FISHEYE NIKKOR 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E ED lens sample image

Where things can get a bit complicated is when it comes to the camera’s sensor size. For instance, using a full-frame spherical fisheye lens on a cropped APS-C sensor camera can fill the frame. So it’s important to match the lens to the camera to get the result you’re going for.

Things Worth Knowing About Fisheye Lenses

  • Fisheye lenses are known for curving straight lines, but there are situations where you can get straight lines out of it. It’s when the line runs through the middle of the frame. The further you get from the middle of the frame, the stronger the distortion is. So if you want to keep a horizon straight in a landscape shot, for example, you’ll want to keep it directly in the middle of the frame. The further you move it away from the center of the frame, the more curved the horizon will become.
  • One of the advantages of that ultra-wide perspective of fisheye lenses is that they have an exceptionally deep depth of field. That means that focus is extremely forgiving, and it’s relatively hard to get the shot out of focus. That’s one reason they’re a great choice for action cameras (but not the only reason). It also means that a manual-focus fisheye lens is still an attractive option.
  • You’ll often see fisheye lens specs that refer to field of view such as 180° or even more. But lens fields of view aren’t measured horizontally across the frame, as you might expect, but rather diagonally from corner to corner.
  • The types of fisheye lenses you can buy for DSLRs or mirrorless cameras often have a focal length somewhere around 8mm to 16mm. But just because a lens has a small focal length like that doesn’t mean it’s a fisheye. For example, it’s quite possible to have a 14mm aspherical lens that isn’t a fisheye lens. If you want a wide field of view without the distortion, you want a rectilinear lens rather than a fisheye lens.
  • Most fisheye lenses have a bulging front glass element. Combined with their ultra wide-angle view, it means they’re usually not compatible with regular screw-on filters. It might be possible to use an exterior filter holder on some, but the wide-angle view is going to complicate matters.
  • Fisheye lenses can work very well for shooting spherical panoramas because of their incredible wide coverage, but they work best when using a specialized panorama head that keeps a consistent nodal point.
  • Because of that curved front element, it can be easy to scratch the front glass. So extra care is called for when putting the lens down.
  • Because of the exaggerated perspective, even the smallest change in vantage point can have a huge impact on the shot. So it’s worth having some fun with experimenting.

Fisheye Lenses Worth a Look

If you’re looking to try out a fisheye lens on your DSLR or mirrorless camera, here are some worth a look.

Again, it’s important to match the lens type with the camera and its sensor size. But it’s also worth knowing that this is a niche lens, and not every manufacturer makes one, and when manufacturers are fleshing out their lens range, fisheyes are rarely a top priority. That’s why there are fewer fisheye lenses in the newer mirrorless mount ranges (eg. Z and RF) so far.

It’s worth noting that optical quality can vary greatly between these lenses–it’s not an easy type of lens to make sharp, and some of the very cheap models work well as a creative gimmick but are lacking in optical quality.

And some of these are automatic focus, but cheaper models tend to be manual focus.

Nikon F Mount Fisheye Lenses (DSLR / SLR)

I have a separate post with more information about Nikon fisheye lenses.

Nikon AF-S Fisheye NIKKOR 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E ED Lens
  • F-Mount Lens / FX Format
  • Works of FX full-frame and DX cropped sensor bodies but has different frame coverage for each
  • 180° Angle of View
  • Aperture Range: f/3.5 to f/29
  • Silent Wave Motor AF System

Nikon Z Mount Fisheye Lenses (Mirrorless)

for Nikon Z-Mount Lens,7.5mm f / 2.8 180º Wide Angle Lens MC Multi Layer...
  • 7.5MM F2.8 fisheye mirrorless camera lens, lens structure of 8 groups and 9PCS.
  • Upgraded product, optimizes the light way for clearer imaging.

Canon EF Mount Fisheye Lenses (DSLR / SLR)

Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM Ultra-Wide Zoom Lens for Canon EOS SLR...
  • Advanced Optics For Professional Imaging
  • Quiet And Fast Autofocus And Low Light Performance ,

Canon RF Mount Fisheye Lenses (Mirrorless)

Micro Four Thirds Fisheye Lenses (Mirrorless)

For Sony E-Mount Fisheye Lenses (Mirrorless)

Sony E-Mount Fisheye Conversion Lenses

These attach on the front of other specific lenses to convert them to fisheye.

Jargon Busting

Photography comes loaded with technical jargon. Here are some plain-English explanations for some of the terms I’ve used in this post.

  1. Fisheye lens – a specialized lens that provides an ultra-wide view with a distinctive, distorted look, characterized by a bulging appearance and curved lines. It’s ideal for dramatic architectural interiors, immersive action shots, wide-angle landscapes, and tight shooting spaces.
  2. Spherical fisheye lens – a type of fisheye lens that creates a circular image, filling the entire frame with a 180-degree field of view.
  3. Full-frame fisheye lens – a type of fisheye lens that uses the entire rectangular space of the frame, creating an ultra-wide-angle perspective.
  4. Depth of field – the range of distance in a photo that appears acceptably sharp. Fisheye lenses have an exceptionally deep depth of field, which means they have a forgiving focus and are relatively hard to get out of focus.
  5. Rectilinear lens – a lens that creates straight lines and minimal distortion. It’s ideal for wide-angle shots without the exaggerated perspective of a fisheye lens.
  6. Vantage point – the position from which a photo is taken. Because of the exaggerated perspective of fisheye lenses, even the smallest change in vantage point can have a huge impact on the shot.
  7. Panorama head – a specialized tool that keeps the nodal point consistent while shooting spherical panoramas with a fisheye lens.
  8. Nodal point – the point in a lens where light rays converge and pass through without causing any shift or parallax error in a panoramic image.
  9. Bokeh – the aesthetic quality of the blur in the out-of-focus areas of an image. It’s almost impossible to achieve bokeh with a fisheye lens.
  10. Alignment problems – a common issue when shooting spherical panoramas due to the distortion and curvature of fisheye lenses. Unless you’re using a specialized 360-degree camera, spherical panoramas are shot with a series of overlapping images. Software then stitches the image together, merging them at the overlaps. If there are alignment problems, this creates difficulty for the software and may result in strange artefacts or glitches in the image. A panorama head can help to minimize these problems.
  11. Front element – camera lenses are made up of several pieces of glass. The front element is the glass on the front of the lens (i.e., facing away from the camera).

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David Coleman / Photographer

David Coleman

I'm a professional freelance travel photographer based in Washington DC. Seven continents, up mountains, underwater, and a bunch of places in between. My images have appeared in numerous publications, and you can check out some of my travel photography here. More »

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