A Lens for the Fun of It

By , June 12, 2014 7:14 pm
Aztec Ruins National Monument's restored great kiva, shot with my Tokina AT-X 10-17mm  f/3.5-4.5 Fisheye lens.

Aztec Ruins National Monument’s restored great kiva, shot with my Tokina AT-X 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 Fisheye lens.

I sold my first fisheye, a 16mm for 35mm film, to David Wheelock, who was kind enough to send me this photograph of it.

I sold my first fisheye, a 16mm for 35mm film, to David Wheelock, who was kind enough to send me this photograph of it.

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.

Which Begs the Question...
Why would you create a fisheye zoom? I would speculate that almost all lenses designed in the last 15 years were created using CAD/CAM, Computer-Aided Design/Computer-Aided Manufacturing. It would make sense that programs controlling CAD/CAM are optimized for the creation of the most popular lenses, which are zooms, and that engineers would be inclined to use existing CAD/CAM methods and software to avoid “reinventing the wheel.”
Michael uses my 10-17mm on his Nikon D7000 on a trip to Great Salt Plains in 2011.

Michael uses my 10-17mm on his Nikon D7000 on a trip to Great Salt Plains in 2011.

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.

Robert Stinson, right, and I pose with our fisheye lenses, my Tokina 10-17mm, and his Nikkor 10.5mm.

Robert Stinson, right, and I pose with our fisheye lenses, my Tokina 10-17mm, and his Nikkor 10.5mm.

I made this image of Surprise Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, in March 2004, using a Nikon FM2 and the 16mm Fisheye Nikkor I later sold to David Wheelock.

I made this image of Surprise Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, in March 2004, using a Nikon FM2 and the 16mm Fisheye Nikkor I later sold to David Wheelock.

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.

In terms of build quality and handling, the Tokina AT-X 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 is without peer. Zooming is smooth and obedient, it is quick to focus, and it feels very solid in-hand.

In terms of build quality and handling, the Tokina AT-X 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 is without peer. Zooming is smooth and obedient, it is quick to focus, and it feels very solid in-hand.

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.

This view, made with the 10-17mm, looks almost straight up, and shows Tower Arch to the left, and the tower from which it got its name on the right. I was standing against a sheer wall behind me, so there was no room to back up.

This view, made with the 10-17mm, looks almost straight up, and shows Tower Arch to the left, and the tower from which it got its name on the right. I was standing against a sheer wall behind me, so there was no room to back up.

Scott uses my Tokina fisheye to photograph one of his GoPro cameras. Scott loves the fisheye look.

Scott uses my Tokina fisheye to photograph one of his GoPro cameras. Scott loves the fisheye look.

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.

A couple of years ago, Scott borrowed Robert‘s 10.5mm and liked it so much that it took Robert a year to get it back from him.

This is a comparison view shot from my front porch. The top image is a regular 12mm lens; the bottom image is the 10-17mm fisheye set to about 15mm. Since the horizon passes through the center of the image, no distortion correction was required for the fisheye view.

This is a comparison view shot from my front porch. The top image is a regular 12mm lens; the bottom image is the 10-17mm fisheye set to about 15mm. Since the horizon passes through the center of the image, no distortion correction was required for the fisheye view.

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.

I made this image in 2012 at Waterholes Canyon near Page, Arizona, and I find the lines and curves very satisfying.

I made this image in 2012 at Waterholes Canyon near Page, Arizona, and I find the lines and curves very satisfying.

One Response to “A Lens for the Fun of It”

  1. Xavier says:

    That IS a great kiva shot.

    Hmm, I look about 20 pounds heavier, that’s gotta be the lens.

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