Product Review: Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM Lens
OCTOBER 21, 2011
By Dan Havlik
Fisheye lenses are funny things. On the one hand, ultra-wide-angle photos shot with a fisheye can look downright otherworldly, occasionally spectacular, almost psychedelic, dude. On the other hand, shoot or show off too many warped images you captured with your fisheye and the look can get tiresome real fast. It’s what a photographer friend of mine once dubbed “Fisheye abuse.”
And therein lies the rub about buying a fisheye lens. Yes, using one adds what can be a real attention-grabbing look to your images. The catch is, you can only employ it occasionally or risk having the look lose its power. Not to mention, quality wide-angle fisheye lenses are not cheap.
Which brings us to the new Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens. No, this lens is certainly not cheap—it retails for $1,400—and yes, it’s a fisheye lens and basically only does fisheye type things. What makes this new Canon lens so intriguing though, is that it’s being billed as “the world’s widest fisheye zoom lens,” meaning it offers a range of potential fisheye looks and applications.
Whereas most fisheyes are just groupers or flounders, the versatile Canon 8-15mm has the potential to be a virtual flying fish, hopping from one look to another with a twist of the barrel. It’s described as four lenses in one and that’s sort of true. Hooked yet?
REELING IT IN
Canon’s 8-15mm f/4 fisheye lens took about a year from its initial announcement to finally be released this past August. What the hold-up was, I’m not sure, but it’s clear Canon has put a lot of work into this product.
Though it’s preferable to use the 8-15mm f/4 fisheye on a full-frame camera such as the Canon 5D Mark II that I tested it on, the lens’ zoom range means you can get the pronounced barrel distorting effects on Canon digital SLRs with APS-C size sensors (such as the 7D) or those with APS-H size sensors (such as the Canon 1D Mark IV).
When used on the full-frame 5D Mark II and cranked to the widest 8mm setting, you unleash the full circular fisheye effect. A circular fisheye captures the 180-degree hemisphere of a scene, and projects it into a circle in the frame with the corner areas blacked out. It’s best described as a wrapped panorama that looks like a marble or a little planet. The result is less commonly seen than the wide-angle, warped effect.
It’s a cool look and I got great circulars of marshy landscapes and birdlife in a series of images I shot this summer along the eastern shore of Maryland and Virginia. I also used the 8-15mm f/4 fisheye while photographing the US Open in New York. Shooting from the roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium, I captured nifty circulars of the surrounding Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, including the globe-like Unisphere, which seemed sort of fitting.
One thing about shooting circulars with this lens, however: The captured area is so wide, there’s a good chance you’ll get your own feet in the picture, which you can’t crop out in Photoshop without destroying the effect. If you want to keep them out of the shot, you have to lean forward slightly before you press the shutter. Also, make sure you take off the lens hood or you’ll get its distracting corners in your shot.
DIFFERENT CAMERAS, DIFFERENT LOOKS
If you’re shooting with a APS-C “cropped” (1.6x) sensor, such as a Canon 7D, you can’t achieve the circular effect. You can, however, get the ultra-wide fisheye look at 10mm. If you’ve got a Canon 1D series camera with an APS-H sensor (1.3x) then full-frame fisheye coverage is achieved at 12mm. At 15mm, you get full-frame fish on a full-frame Canon DSLR (5D Mark II) or a traditional EOS film camera (remember those?).
So calling this lens a “four-in-one” is sort of assuming you have several different cameras. I do know more and more pros who, along with their full-frame camera, will have a 7D or even a 60D in their bag, so it’s not uncommon.
The versatility of the Canon 8-15mm f/4 fisheye is a definite plus especially when you consider you can also employ the look when shooting video with your HD-DSLR. Again, you’re certainly not going to use the fisheye look all the time in your HD clips but it can add some head-turning drama. I’ve found it especially effective when capturing video of X-Games style sports, such as skateboarding, snowboarding or freestyle biking.
But this fisheye’s wide-zoom range can get you into trouble, depending on what type of camera you’re using. If you’re shooting with an APS-C sensor camera and go all the way to 8mm, you get some serious vignetting that will ruin your shot. To prevent this, the lens has a zoom limiter switch that will lock it so you can’t go below the 10mm position. The switch won’t lock at 12mm, however, so if you’re using an APS-H sensor Canon DSLR, you have to keep your eye on the zoom ring, which has an “H” at the 12mm position to remind you.
There are a lot of fisheye lenses on the market – and quite a few in-camera filters and software effects that will approximate the same look – but you’re not going to get the overall quality you can get from a Canon “L” series lens like this new fisheye.
Autofocus is virtually silent thanks to Canon’s Ultrasonic Motor technology. There’s also full-time Manual focusing. Minimum focus is down to approximately 6 inches, letting you get fully warped close-ups of plants, flowers and even, when used in conjunction with underwater housing, sea life. A fisheye photo of a real fish, now wouldn’t that be neat?
Though it has L-series lenses’ requisite weather-resistant gaskets to keep out dust and moisture, this fisheye’s not waterproof, so if it starts pouring or you get the sudden urge to dunk it in an aquarium, be forewarned. The lens combines an Aspherical lens element with UD glass in a 14-element design. Chromatic aberration (aka “purple fringing”) was nearly non-existent, which is impressive for such a wide-angle lens. The warping effects of this lens aside, it was pleasingly sharp in the non-distorted areas, which further enhanced the overall look.
One nice touch: If you want to add a gelatin filter, such as a neutral density filter, there’s a holder on the back of the lens
THE BOTTOM LINE
Though the new Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM Lens adds some significant versatility to its barrel distortion effect thanks to its impressively wide zoom range, the amount of time you will use this lens will be (and should be) limited. That’s no knock against this tasty piece of glass, which is one of the best fisheyes we’ve ever shot with. It’s just that the world only needs so many circular and warped, ultra-wide angle photos. Having said that, you definitely can’t go wrong by adding the superb Canon 8-15mm fisheye to your arsenal (if you have the money). We just suggest you use it sparingly. Man cannot live by fish alone.
Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM Lens
Pros: Very wide zoom range for a fisheye lens; distinct circular effect achievable on full frame cameras; tried-and-true overall build and lens quality from Canon’s L-series glass; handy zoom limiter feature prevents you from going too wide with an APS-C camera.
Cons: Though it’s more versatile than most fisheye lenses, you still risk overusing the ultra-wide-angle look; circular effect will sometimes get your feet in the shot; pricey.