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Lensbaby Bats Its Fisheye Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

20 May 2014

When Lensbaby announced its $299.95 Circular Fisheye lens, we raised our eyebrows. That's less than half the price of the equivalent Nikon APS-C fisheye and Canon only offered an even more expensive full-frame fisheye until recently.

This isn't Lensbaby's first fisheye, though. The company makes a Fisheye Optic module for its Optic Swap system. We took a series of similar shots with that optic and include a comparison in this review.

The Lensbaby Fisheye lens is available in Canon and Nikon mounts. The company sent us a review unit in the Nikon mount and we've been shooting with it for several weeks now.

Shooting with a fisheye is an unnerving experience. But, like riding on a roller coaster, it doesn't take long to get into it.

To get acquainted with the Fisheye lens, let's look over its specs first.

Contents. The capped lens in its pouch with the folded instruction sheet.

SPECIFICATIONS | Back to Contents

The specs on this $300 lens are impressive:

  • Full circle on an APS-C sensor
  • 5.8mm focal length
  • 185-degree angle of view
  • f3.5 to f22 apertures
  • Focus manually from 1/4 inch to infinity
  • Hyperfocal distance scale
  • Focus distance scale
  • Polished internal lens barrel
  • 2.75 inches tall, 3.0 inches wide and 10.5 oz.

There are a few more things you should know about the characteristics of this lens.

Unlike a kit lens, there is no electronic communication between the lens and the camera body. So the Exif header of your JPEGs won't contain correct aperture information or focus information like distance.

And "full-circle" needs a little qualification. You do indeed get a full circle image on the Nikon version (which is a 1.5x crop factor sensor; the Canon is a 1.6x crop) but there's also a reflective ring that is cropped on the short side. So you can tell the difference between a landscape and portrait orientation.

Orientation. Note how the reflection ring is cropped differently depending on the camera's orientation.

IN THE BOX | Back to Contents

The square retail box includes:

  • The Circular Fisheye lens
  • A pop-off front lens cap
  • A bayonet-style rear lens cap
  • An instruction sheet
  • A cloth lens pouch

The lens itself is robustly made with a smooth focus ring that holds position and detents on the aperture ring (which have a little play but not objectionably so). The plastic mount fit snugly to our camera body. On a lens that will see infrequent use, a plastic mount is not an issue.

The front rim of the lens flares out a bit, which helps grab the edge of the plastic lens cap. But it also makes it a little difficult to remove.

We suggest wigglying the lens cap back and forth to gradually release the cap from the lens so you don't risk scraping it across all that protruding glass when it does work free.

USING THE LENS | Back to Contents

Lensbaby gives four setup tips worth observing considering this is a manual focus lens with manual aperture control:

  1. Adjust the camera's diopter to your eyesight
  2. Set the Mode dial to Manual or Aperture Priority
  3. Pick an aperture
  4. Rotate the lens ring to focus

We'd add a couple more suggestions:

  1. Set your Metering Mode to center-weighted
  2. Use the hyperfocal distance scale

Built-in meters vary in their sophistication. Our Nikon D300 did fine using its 3D matrix metering but center-weighted metering makes the most sense because significant areas of the frame are always going to be dark and you don't want to include them in the calculation. You really just want to base exposure on the center of the frame.

Focus is another issue. We found it very difficult to see when we were in focus using the optical viewfinder or the LCD in Live View. This is a very wide angle lens, after all, so detail is very small. We were more than happy Lensbaby inscribed a hyperfocal distance scale on the lens and we relied on it a lot for middle distance shots.

Hyperfocus Scale. It's telling us that at f16 we can focus as close as nine inches and at f4 just within three feet.

To use the hyperfocus scale, you simply:

  1. Pick the aperture you want to use
  2. Set focus to infinity
  3. Find the aperture number you're using on the hyperfocal distance scale
  4. Look at the focus distance scale adjacent to the aperture number to find the hyperfocal distance
  5. Set focus to that mark

Everything from that distance to infinity will be in focus. You would typically not focus that closely by eye because the aperture would not be stopped down to show you how closely you can focus.

For close-up work (like the figure of the clay monk) we eyeballed the short distances and set the focus scale to our best guess.

Whatever mistakes we made, the Lensbaby Fisheye was very forgiving. We didn't throw out any images because of focus issues.

SEEING CIRCLES | Back to Contents

The point of using an interchangeable lens camera is to see the world differently when you swap lenses. And that's particularly true of using a fisheye.

Cropped Fisheyes. A sequence of eight cropped and retouched images. Mouse over or tap image to see caption. Right click to open an image.

Everything bends around you in a circle and it can be very difficult to imagine what the scene will look like to the lens.

That's the fun of it, too, though.

Aiming down was usually a problem because with a 185-degree angle of view, your feet are suddenly in the frame. It's also nearly impossible to exclude anything on the sides. You aren't composing the image in quite the same way you would with any other kind of lens.

We started to think of the lens as a sort of snow globe machine. We preferred close-ups where something recognizable appeared in the center of the image. Landscapes tended to be unrecognizable. But you could get some very small things in the center of the frame because you can focus as close as a quarter inch from the front of the lens.

And when we considered the best way to display our images in this review, we remembered the snow globe metaphor. Rather than display a gallery of 1:1.5 aspect ratio thumbnails or a Lytebox slide show like our Friday Slide Shows, we thought a sliding slide show of the globes at 500 pixels square would let you see them in all their glory.

Special Effects. The bottom left of the staircase photo shows the lens flare and rainbow reflection opposite the sun in the top right.


At its introduction, Lensbaby Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer Craig Strong said, "Of course, it wouldn't be a Lensbaby lens without something fun, different and wacky. That's why Circular Fisheye lets you focus on objects nearly touching the lens, while getting a 185-degree view of your surroundings. Plus, the flare this lens can produce adds a creative element to the border around the sharp circular image."

We weren't sure we'd like the flare and reflections the polished internal lens barrel can produce. But when we saw the effects, we actually did like them. For the most part, they simply ring the image like a mat might, although you do get some special effects with the sun in the image. And it can be hard to keep the sun out of the shot.

We did get some nice but modest lens flare, too, particularly when the sun was in the shot. Which gave a nice rainbow reflection on the opposite side of the image from the sun.

We didn't think the fun detracted from the image quality, actually. Mostly we were amazed at how sharp the close-ups were.

And if you prefer not to see the reflection ring, it's easy enough to eliminate the mat-like ring in your image editing software.

FISHEYE OPTIC | Back to Contents

Lensbaby's other fisheye is the Fisheye Optic compatible with its Optic Swap system, including the Composer Pro, Composer and Scout, as well as the Muse and Control Freak.

In comparison to the Circular Fisheye, it has a 12mm focal length with a 160-degree field of view that can focus as close as a half inch from the front of the lens. It's a six element multi-coated optical design with an f4 aperture and a set of aperture disks ranging from f5.6 to f22.

On an APS-C sensor enough of the circle is cropped that the image just about fills the frame, as this sample shot shows:

Lensbaby Fisheye Optic. The 12mm focal length fills the frame on an APS-C sensor.

Compare that composition to the first image in the sliding slide show above. No snow globe effect but a similar close-up.

EDITS | Back to Contents

We grew to prefer our snow globe circular square crop but you can also unbend the captures into almost panoramic images.

We "unbent" our shot (seen above) of the yellow Prius cab in a roundabout:

Unbent Cab. We straightened this one out in Photoshop and DxO Optics Pro.

There are many ways to unbend a fisheye. In the example above, we started with Photoshop's Adapter Wide Angel filter, added the Lens Correction filter and finished with DxO Optics Pro (ViewPoint would do it too) to straighten our verticals.

The images in the sliding show above, by the way, were all shot as Raw-only then converted to DNG and processed in Lightroom. In general, they all needed a good deal more Exposure and some Clarity, otherwise we just tweaked the Highlight and Shadow slider a bit. And we did crop out the empty areas of the frame.

One thing we did not do was rotate the images, which would have resulted in a tighter crop. Were we using the images in a project, we would have rotated them.

If you look closely at the empty areas (the corners) of the frame that we left in, you'll see some rather artistic noise. There's none of that in the image, however.

SPONSORED LINKS | Back to Contents

The lens is available from Adorama for Canon or Nikon and from B&H for Canon or Nikon. Purchasing through those links supports reviews like this.

CONCLUSION | Back to Contents

Although it's a specialty lens that won't get frequent use, a fisheye provides a perspective no other optic can. If you have an old body sitting on the shelf, get it back in the harness with this lens and you can easily add a fisheye shot to your event coverage now and then.

The Lensbaby Circular Fisheye is an affordable and well-made fisheye that we have no hesitation endorsing. Add the signature of flare and reflection and we can even be enthusiastic about it. It's a specialty lens with a smile.

And there really isn't an easier way to capture the world in a snow globe.

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