How To: Fisheye Photography Done Right

*Reshape your photography with a circular fisheye lens.*

When you want to capture the whole horizon from end to end, and you don't mind-better yet, you love-distortion, grab a fisheye lens.

Developed for weather cameras (among the first was the 1924 "Sky Lens," designed to capture entire cloud formations), fisheyes are named for their extremely-close focusing, convex-shaped glass elements. Art photographers and other fans have long since jumped into the fun. If you've never tried one, it's worth borrowing or renting a fisheye lens at least once.

Fisheyes come in two varieties. Full-framers cast an image circle larger than the film or sensor frame, yielding conventionally shaped rectangular images. Circular fisheyes, on the other hand, capture the entire image circle, usually a 180-degree, hemispherical slice of everything in front of the camera-even the photographer's feet.

Of the two, circular fisheyes produce the more unusual and visually provocative pictures. The effect is akin to looking into a bull's-eye mirror: Objects closer to the center appear nearly normal, but, as your eye roams outward, reflected objects grow distorted and compressed. The round photos here were all shot with a Sigma 4.5mm EX DC Circular Fisheye on a hand-held Nikon D2X.

If in the past you've been less than impressed with circular fisheye images, the reason may have been your viewing distance. These photos deliver their full, eye-whomping impact only when seen very close. Look at them almost nose-to-print, and you will see why circular fisheye lenses have been with us for most of photographic history.

To make the most of a fisheye:

  • Compose with your main subject at or near the center of the image and often very near the lens.

  • Place the horizon in the middle or just above or below the center line to keep it more or less straight.

  • Compose to frame your central subject within the curves of any objects along the edge of the image.

  • Get down low. This and other unusual vantage points conform to and elevate the fisheye look.

  • Focus close. The best fisheyes let you get an inch or two from the subject. Nearby objects loom large while those in the background shrink, creating an almost three-dimensional sense of depth.

  • Try slower shutter speeds. The 180-degree field of view is relatively forgiving of slight camera movement.

  • Use software. You can easily level a horizon line by selecting the image circle and turning it with, say, Adobe Photoshop's Free Transform tool. Or, if the outer circumference of your image is soft or too distorted, you can make a circular crop into the image with the Elliptical Marquee. Even better? With stitching software, you can easily combine several 180-degree images into a 360-degree, full-scene panorama.