The Nikon 16mm fisheye lens packs a lot of dramatic punch into a tiny, lightweight package. Here's my hands-on review.
A fisheye lens can cram a lot of visual information into a single frame and, in the right situations it can do things that other ultra-wide-angle lenses can’t.
There are two types of fish-eye lens. A circular fisheye creates a circular image with a lot of blank space around it and is typically highly distorted (here are some examples). It’s a distinctive look, but it’s really a niche lens that’s only useful in a fairly limited range of situations.
A full-frame fisheye lens is much more useful for general photography. Their image fills the entire frame, and you don’t get the black corners or borders that you do with a circular fisheye lens.
A full-frame fisheye will still have strong barrel distortion, but it’s essentially an ultra-wide-angle lens. They cram an awful lot of view into a single frame, and they have a very wide depth-of-field. They’re therefore ideal for tight spaces, and while it’s not much good for traditional architectural photography because of all the bendy lines it creates, it is a very handy lens to have on hand if you’re shooting indoor spaces and are after a dramatic look.
Their field of view is generally rated as a maximum range across the longest dimension of the frame, which is diagonally. So if a fisheye lens is rated for 180 degrees, it means that it captures 180 degrees diagonally across the frame, not from one side to the other.
Nikon has two fisheye lenses in its current range: a 16mm designed for full-frame (FX) cameras and a 10.5mm designed for (DX) cameras. This is my hands-on review of the 16mm.
Nikon 16mm f/2.8D has a field of view of 180° diagonally on a full-frame camera, with the image filling the entire frame without any black corners. It has autofocus that works with Nikon’s current FX cameras (see below). And it’s a prime lens, meaning there’s no zoom.
It has a small metal lens hood built in that doesn’t do much to block light but does help protect the front element, an aperture ring, and a focus ring. Its largest aperture is f/2.8, and its smallest is f/22. It’s closest focus in a little under 10 inches and it has close-range correction (CRC). The lens is coated to minimize flaring and ghosting.
So far as DSLR lenses go, this is a tiny lens. It weighs just over 10oz and is only 2.5 in long. Here it is side-by-side with some other Nikon lenses. From left to right: Nikon 50mm F/1.4G, Nikon 16mm f/2.8D, and Nikon 35mm f/1.4G.
The lens comes with a lens cover a rear lens cap, and four filters.
The lens has been in production for a long while now–since 1993–and works as well on the current generation of digital SLRS like the Nikon D750, Nikon D810, and Nikon D4 as it did on film cameras.
The autofocus is quick and true. Most of the lens stays still, with the focus ring moving and the very front of the lens moving in and out slightly.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how sharp this lens is across the whole frame. It’s not going to rival something like a sharp 50mm in sharpness tests, but it captures a lot of detail and stays sharp even at the edges. As per usual, the sharpest apertures tend to be a few stops above wide open. And because it has a very wide depth-of-field, it’s fairly rare to run into out-of-focus images.
And perhaps my favorite aspect of the lens is its performance in low-light situations. The large f/2.8 aperture combines well with the very wide focal length, meaning that it can be hand-held in surprisingly low lighting and still get sharp photos. That makes it especially useful in dimly lit interiors where hand-holding a longer lens would be a challenge.
Here’s a handful of sample shots I’ve taken with the 16mm during my travels. I have many more in a separate post here.
In high-contrast scenes you can get both green and purpling fringe on the edges and corners at all apertures. But for a lens this wide the chromatic aberration is surprisingly light and is easily fixed in Lightroom.
Here’s an example from a scene pretty much guaranteed to coax out chromatic aberration with just about any lens. This is the original shot, taken at f/8 on a Nikon D800.
This is a blown-up portion from the top right corner. You can see both purple fringe and green fringe. It was easily removed in Lightroom with the automatic settings. But you’ll also notice that the branches are surprisingly sharp even right at the edge of the frame.
Ghosting and flare is basically non-existent. Even having the sun in the frame works just fine (which is lucky for outdoor shots).
Because the front element of the lens is so curved, there’s no way to attach screw-in filters to the front of the lens. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use filters at all. There’s a built-in filter system on the opposite end of the barrel, on the rear bayonet.
The lens comes with four filters, most of which are more useful for film shooting than digital:
One filter must be in place at all times. In general shooting the L37 is the best choice to leave on.
Nikon’s 16mm fisheye is designed for full-frame sensors (FX). While there’s nothing stopping you from putting it on a camera will a DX sensor, there’s not really a lot of point. The smaller sensor will make the lens an equivalent of a 24mm lens with a much narrower field of view (107° vs 180°), and you’ll still have the strong barrel distortion. If you’re looking for a fisheye for a Nikon DX camera, you’re better off with the Nikon 10.5mm f/2.8G Fisheye.
If you’re just looking for a very wide-angle for a DX camera, something like the Sigma 10-20mm f/3.5 might be a better fit.
The Nikon 16mmm is especially good for creating spherical panoramas with a dedicated panorama head like the Manfrotto 303SPH or Nodal Ninja Ultimate Mini Package. You can capture 360° with only 6 shots with the camera held vertically, then another two for the zenith and nadir. Most of the popular stitching software does a very good job of stitching the images made with this lens. There’s good reason it’s one of the most popular options for creating virtual tours and for the Google Trusted Photographers program.
But because of the heavy barrel distortion, it’s very difficult to create spherical panoramas from images shot with this lens hand-held. Even the most aggressive shift compensation in panorama software is likely to give you disappointing results.
The Nikon 16mm fisheye and the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G wide-angle zoom lens are not really in the same category and are certainly not in the same price range. But there is some overlap in their focal lengths.
And, more importantly, I’ve found that in practice there’s some overlap in the scenarios I might use them that involves a choice about taking one or the other. The 14-24mm takes fantastic photos, but it’s a big, heavy lens. So if I put it in my bag for the day’s shooting, I want to be confident I’m going to be using it. The 16mm is much, much smaller and lighter and there are times I can use it in place of the 14-24mm.
That said, it’s certainly not a direct replacement. The same focal length can look quite different on different lenses. The fisheye does have a distinctive look that sets it apart from a more traditional wide-angle lens. The Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G, for example, is constructed with aspherical lens elements that go a long way toward correcting for lens distortions. So that even though it has a minimal focal length that’s smaller (14mm), it’s maximum diagonal field of view is significantly narrower (114° vs 180°). That’s especially noticeable in the way that an aspherical lens flattens out the corners of the frames rather than curling them like a fisheye lens does.
Here’s an example. This first shot, taken in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, was shot with the Nikon 16mm fisheye. As you can see, the columns at either side are noticeably curled, and the bottom horizon isn’t at all flat, so that people standing around me show up in the frame (which is something of a hazard if you’re using it for travel photography).
This second shot was taken on the same camera from the same spot at 16mm on a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. The result has a narrower field of view, but you can also see the lens design’s correction at work to minimize the lens distortion. It looks much more natural but also doesn’t capture as much of the scene.
The fisheye look isn’t great for everything, and it’s certainly something that can overused. Having used other fisheyes in the past–including Nikon’s own 10.5mm and Sigma’s 15mm–I’ve been surprised how versatile Nikon’s 16mm version is.
It’s fast enough to work well in low-light interiors. And it’s a lot smaller and lighter than something like the Nikon 14-24mm–so much so that it can make a real difference in putting together a lightweight travel kit. It’s small enough just to throw in the bag without having to displace something else. Overall, it’s a very appealing package, and I’ve been very pleasantly surprised at how useful I’ve found it.
Maximum Aperture: f/2.8
Minimum Aperture: f/22
Maximum Angle of View (FX-format): 180°
Maximum Angle of View (DX-format): 107°
Lens Elements: 8
Lens Groups: 5
Diaphragm Blades: 7
Minimum Focus Distance: 0.85 ft. (0.25m)
Approx. Dimensions (Diameter x Length): 2.5 in. (63 mm) x 2.2 in. (57 mm)
Approx. Weight: 10.12 oz. (290 g)
Made in Japan
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