How the fisheye lens became a staple of the music industry

Harry Styles’ new album artwork pays homage to some of the greats.

A new video from Vox dives into the fascinating history of the fisheye lens and how this ultra-wide piece of glass became synonymous with musicians.

Nikon fisheye lens
Nikon released its first fisheye lens aimed at consumers in 1962.Vox

Although this speciality lens was most recently used to shoot Harry Styles’ new album artwork, it has a long history in the music world. The lens first showed up in 1906 thanks to a physicist named Robert W. Wood who used a bucket full of water, a pinhole camera, mirrored glass and light to recreate the way in which he assumed that a fish might see the world. Initially, meteorologists and astrologers encouraged the development of what would become the fish-eye lens with the Mueller Whole Sky camera. It took until 1957 for Nikon to release the first lens with an 180° field of view that has gone on to influence so much music and skateboarding photography. If you adjust for inflation that lens would cost $27,000—clearly not something that the majority of photographers would be able to include in their kit.

An early image taken by Robert W. Wood using a fisheye lens
An early image taken by Robert W. Wood using a fisheye lens.Vox

Despite its high price, the lens grabbed the attention of magazine photographers. In 1957 it was used to capture an ultra wide view of a Senate hearing. Flash forward to 1962 when the first consumer grade fisheye lens became available and you start to see it used to document musicians. The iconic lens was used to capture The Beatles during the British Invasion, at Woodstock, and on iconic album covers throughout the ‘70s. In the ‘80s it became heavily used in punk rock, skateboarding and hip hop. In the ‘90s it became a signature look in a number of music videos for artists like Busta Rhymes, TLC, and Missy Elliot.

Jimi Hendrix Experience album cover
The lens became an important tool for creating this signature look of a number of album covers.Vox
Busta Rhymes fisheye lens music video
In the '90s it became synonymous with hip hop and was used in a number of music videos—Busta Rhymes was particularly fond of its aesthetic.Vox

Check out the video above to learn more about the fascinating influence of this speciality lens.