A Fisheye Surprise

The Altura Photo 8mm f/3.0 Fisheye Lens sits in my home studio recently.
The Altura Photo 8mm f/3.0 Fisheye Lens sits in my home studio recently.

Two of the things I write on the dry erase board at the start of every Intro to Digital Photography class are…

  1. You can’t buy mastery. You have to earn it.
  2. What can you do to make your camera take better pictures? Wear it out.
The large front elements of the Altura 8mm fisheye and the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye are shown for comparison.
The large front elements of the Altura 8mm fisheye and the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye are shown for comparison.

I’ve got enough great cameras, lenses, lights, filters, computers and software to make images, both for myself and as a professional news photographer.

It might seem strange, then, that once in a while I buy photo gear out of curiosity. My most recent acquisition is the Altura Photo 8mm f/3.0 Fisheye Lens. I had rock-bottom expectations since I never heard of Altura, and it didn’t cost much.

The The Altura Photo 8mm f/3.0 fisheye lens and the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye sit in my home studio recently.
The The Altura Photo 8mm f/3.0 fisheye lens and the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye sit in my home studio recently.

The Altura was a big surprise.

This Altura 8mm fisheye sits on its lens cap with its hood removed.
This Altura 8mm fisheye sits on its lens cap with its hood removed.

Its build quality is unheard of in modern times. It is constructed of brass and steel. It is heavy. The focus throw is long, smooth and well-damped, reminiscent of lenses made in the 1960s rather than the 2020s. The glass is multi-coated. The aperture ring is smooth and has distinct clicks at whole aperture values.

One reason the Altura is probably so cheap is its totally manual configuration. It has no connection to the camera except being mounted on it. There are no electronics to tell the camera about aperture or focus settings, and there isn’t even an aperture linkage to hold the aperture open during focusing and composing; if you pick a small aperture, the image in the viewfinder is dark.

A good example of how wide a fisheye lens can be is this view of the inside of my Nissan Juke, which is a very small car.
A good example of how wide a fisheye lens can be is this view of the inside of my Nissan Juke, which is a very small car.

Interestingly, picking a large aperture doesn’t seem to be necessary. The lens is sharp at all of its apertures, and depth of field at 8mm is, by it very nature, very deep: everything in front of the lens is in focus.

The large front element of the Altura fisheye lens is quite striking, and could be easily damaged in everyday use. The lens is furnished with a large plastic lens cap.
The large front element of the Altura fisheye lens is quite striking, and could be easily damaged in everyday use. The lens is furnished with a large plastic lens cap.

And there’s a lot in front of this lens. I compared it directly to my 15-year-old Tokina fisheye, which sees 180º corner-to-corner, and found the Altura sees maybe 15º more than the Tokina using a camera with a 15mm x 24mm sensor. Additionally, if you remove the hood, the Altura projects a circular fisheye pattern on cameras with larger 24mm x 36mm sensors.

This is the 180º view of the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye.
This is the 180º view of the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye.
This is the 195º-ish view of the Altura 8mm fisheye.
This is the 195º-ish view of the Altura 8mm fisheye.

The challenge of using a specialized lens like this is putting it to real world use. In the past, my main use for fisheye lenses has been as extreme wide angle lenses, using Photoshop or Lightroom to “unbend” the circular look of the lens. It’s very effective, as you can see in the examples below…

This 2012 view of Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado near Page, Arizona, was made with my widest lens available, the Tokina 12-24mm. Compare it to the next image.
This 2012 view of Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado near Page, Arizona, was made with my widest lens available, the Tokina 12-24mm. Compare it to the next image.
Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado is shown in this April 2015 fisheye view, with the curved line straightened out using Adobe Photoshop.
Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado is shown in this April 2015 fisheye view, with the curved line straightened out using Adobe Photoshop.

I hope to throw this unusual lens into my daily news and sports coverage, and I hope it adds to my narrative in new and different ways.

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