In my time, I owned two fisheye lenses. From 1993 until 2004, I had a the Fisheye-Nikkor 16mm f/2.8 AI-S, which I seldom used and sold to a friend when I phased out film and switched to digital, since its image circle was for a 24x36mm image area. I carried it for a while for imaging at my newspaper, where it became known as “Richard’s weird lens.”
In the summer of 2008, I felt the fisheye still held a place in my imaging, so I bought the Tokina AT-X 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5, which was both about half the cost of Nikon’s 10.5mm, and was also a zoom. I didn’t know why zoom would be valuable in a fisheye, but it was there.
I always bring my Tokina fisheye to class on “lens night,” and my students get a big kick out of it. It is my impression that almost none of them later consider buying one. The fisheye lens is very specialized, and even when I make a point to use it, I still find that images made with it have a unique look, and, maybe more importantly, it is a fairly difficult lens to use well.
There have been a few occasions when the fisheye field of view, 180˚ from corner to corner of the frame, has been irreplaceable. I can think of three, all in the west, where I was in a place that didn’t allow me enough room to back up and get everything I wanted in the frame: Aztec Ruins National Monument’s great kiva, Arches National Park’s Surprise Arch, and Arches National Park’s Tower Arch.
If the strength of a wide angle lens is its ability to express near-far relationships, the strength of a fisheye is to explode them.
The fisheye can dress up boring images with its wild curves, bring the viewer into spaces a normal or wide angle can’t, and can create a sense of depth like no other lens. It also has the potential for overuse by boring or confusing viewers. It takes a lot of practice to be able to tell when that might happen. From inside the viewfinder, the view is so extreme and entertaining that it’s easy to think everything is looking great.
This lens is in my bag, and I need to take it out and use it more, if only to keep me out of any photographic ruts.
In New Mexico in March, I partnered it with the excellent AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6, and the combination seemed to cover all bases of travel photography.
In a vis-a-vis comparison between the Tokina and the Nikkor, the Nikkor probably has an edge in image quality due to some annoying color fringing with the Tokina, but that advantage is quickly negated by the Tokina’s price and versatility. It is possible to mitigate the color fringing to some degree using software.
My recommendation about a lens like this is unambiguous: you know who you are. If you want a fisheye, get one. A lens like this is entertaining to use, but is a formidable challenge to get genuinely compelling images. It takes a lot of practice, but in the right hands, it can deliver.