When it comes to Disney photography, few lenses offer as much as fisheye lenses. Great bang for buck, whimsical applications that work well in the theme park context, and surprising versatility for a wide range of scenes. This post covers some of my tips for using fisheye lenses, and is basically a sales pitch for joining my cult, the Disney Fellowship of the Fisheye.
Like any good salesman, I’ll start with why you should follow my wonderful, expert advice on this topic. Most of my proudest accomplishments are things others would consider woefully unimportant. I’m good enough at Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters (the Disneyland version, not the weak Magic Kingdom one) to compete in it at the Los Angeles Olympics, presuming the IOC has the good sense to make it an event. Likewise, I can “boast” that I’ve owned or tested every fisheye lens available for Nikon DSLRs, from an inexpensive manual Soviet lens to mainstream first-party stuff. Most of the articles written about fisheye lenses are not written by devout fisheye practitioners, and just hit on superficial pros and cons.
I will readily admit that I am a fisheye freak, and I long ago pledged my allegiance to the Disney Parks Fellowship of the Fisheye, which I swear is not a cult (but if you’d like to join, we will have to test your Thetan levels). I’ve gone full circle with the fisheye: from it being by far my most (over)used lens to cutting back because I felt I was using it in inopportune ways to giving in and embracing the gimmicky goodness.
Fisheyes remain a fairly divisive lens in the photography community, with many photographers finding them gimmicky. Much like HDR, many serious photography purists (read: “close-minded jackasses”) dismiss fisheye out of hand, and will look down their lenses at you for using them. If you’re reading this, presumably you’re interested in Disney photography, so I’m going to let you in on a little secret: many serious photographers already think you’re a joke.
Let them. I know that’s a bit of a buzzkill, and the reactions bothered me initially, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned as I’ve waded deeper into the world of natural landscapes, it’s that the level of creativity in the Disney photography community is leagues ahead of the landscape shooters. I’ve gotten judging looks from so many “serious” photographers in National Parks when I’ve told them I primarily photograph Disney Parks that I’ve simply stopped sharing that morsel of information. “Oh, you shot the sunrise from the Tunnel View parking lot at Yosemite elbow to elbow with 40 other photographers all using the same camera and lens? That’s super-original!”
Here’s what my experience has taught me is the benefit of fisheye lenses, and a bit of my personal journey of how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb lens…
10. Fake It
I’m leading off with this because it’s perhaps most important. When I got my first fisheye lens, I went way overboard, using it more than all of my other lenses combined. There were numerous situations where I photographed a scene in the parks that I thought was cool, but that I couldn’t properly capture with any other lens. The fisheye was a good fit because its distortion introduces an inherent amount of visual interest in a photo.
This is probably the basis for most criticism of fisheye lenses: that they are a crutch for poor composition as photographers rely too much on the distortion and not enough on strong composition. This is true enough, and I began to see this in many of my own early fisheye photos in retrospect. The overlooked flip side of this is that some three dimensional scenes are cool in person and worth capturing, but the space simply doesn’t translate in a flat photo. In these scenarios, what’s wrong with ‘faking it’ compositionally with a bit of distortion? Who says every photo has to be dissected? Can’t some shots simply be fun for the sake of fun? That’s my take at least, and while I don’t expect everyone to be enamored with or even like every fisheye shot I take, if it’s the lens that makes a scene look “coolest” in my eyes, it’s the lens I’m reaching for.
9. Enveloping Scenes
Much ado is made about putting the viewer of a photo into a scene. No lens can do this better than a fisheye, because no lens allows you as a photographer to envelope yourself in a scene as well as a fisheye lens in terms of where you place yourself when shooting.
While I’ve grown to appreciate longer lenses, telephoto compression, and layered foreground-middle-background composition, these types of photos still have a certain flatness to them as compared to a shot taken from “inside” a scene with a wide angle or fisheye. As a viewer, I usually find shots taken with a telephoto lens to have a voyeuristic vibe, whereas some of my favorite fisheye photos have an almost experiential feel to them.
8. Close-up Distortion
You’ve probably seen the fisheye photos taken inches from a dog’s nose. Well, you can do the same thing with a Mouse’s nose! This makes for really fun character portraits (my homeboy Yoshi is excellent at these), but can be applied to a variety of scenarios.
It may feel awkward at first to have your camera literally inches from a character’s face, but they are almost always pretty cool with it, and will often really ham it up for the camera!
7. Follow the Yellow Brick Road…
This might seem like a hyper-specialized use for, essentially, just this one shot, but it can be used all over the place. Anywhere that there is a textured ground (which is many places in the parks, especially Disneyland), you can get low and use the fisheye to really accentuate the pattern on the ground.
Think of this as a variation of leading lines, except instead of lines, you have the texture of the pavement being used to exaggerate and pull the viewer into the scene. I’ve likewise used this technique at Death Valley National Park (among other places) to make for unique dunes photos.
There are two commonly photographed locations in the Disney Parks that really demonstrate the power of the fisheye in embracing curves: Tomorrowland and Future World.
From swooping lines to geodesic spheres to the curves of the PeopleMover, these lands really lend themselves to fisheye photography. In fact, you might say that the future of photography is the fisheye lens.
5. Environmental Portraits
It’s time the rest of the world learned what some wedding photographers learned years ago: the fisheye can be a good lens for portraiture. It’s true on the dance floor, and it’s even more true in a theme park where the background is just as important to a photo as the person in that portrait.
Don’t get me wrong, I love an 85mm portrait @ f/1.4 with a buttery background and a person pretty much filling the frame, but there’s a time and a place for that. Namely, when your background is just some lame trees or a corn field. When you’re photographing someone piloting a hella-fly star jet and passing by a mountain in space, you better make darned sure you capture the whole scene!
Fisheye for the straight lines of architecture? Sacrilege! Everyone knows you need to use a wide angle lens for architecture to keep straight lines straight. Rectilinear, pincushion, random photography buzzword, blah blah blah. There are certainly some–many–scenarios in which you want to keep straight lines straight, and use a rectilinear wide angle lens for that. No doubt about it, which is why my Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens is the most used lens in my camera bag.
Unfortunately, many photographers go way overboard with this, and are a bit “rectilinear” in their thinking. There are certain types of architecture that lend themselves to curvilinear (yes, that’s a real term–I didn’t make it up) photography. In the Disney Parks, Spaceship Earth is a prime example, but so too is anything with a dome ceiling, like the lobby of Hotel MiraCosta. In the real world, these domed ceilings are found in many cathedrals, and fisheye in these scenarios is less common, but very interesting. (And not at all sacrilegious…)
I love some good sun flare and starbursts, and few lenses do as good of a job capturing this as fisheyes, specifically the excellent third-party manual focus ones I recommend (see #1).
This is another way that I think a fisheye lens puts the viewer in a scene. When you have lines of light radiating from the sun, it’s almost as if you can feel that warmth on your face as you gaze at the photo. No? Well…it’s still a cool look for photos, in my opinion.
2. LOOK UP!
I love lying on the ground (well, I don’t love lying on the ground itself…you know what I mean) and shooting straight up with a fisheye. It’s a totally different take on a scene than you’re used to seeing, and makes for dramatically “different” photos.
If you’re not keen on actually lying on the ground, try setting your camera on the ground, enabling the self timer, and running out of the scene. You’ll get some weird looks, but not as many as you would if you actually lie on the ground!
1. Cheap & Versatile
Nothing causes me to close an article about fisheye lenses faster than a caveat/complaint that “fisheye lenses are expensive and have limited use…” This literally couldn’t not be further from the truth. Aside from the “Nifty Fifty” 50mm f/1.8 lens, high quality fisheye lenses are among the cheapest lenses available. It’s just a matter of not assuming the overpriced Canon or Nikon versions are the best (they aren’t), and instead buying the obscure lenses. You will save hundreds of dollars this way, and ultimately end up with better lenses. This might sound too good to be true, but it’s absolutely not.
If you’re shooting with a crop sensor camera, you want to snag this Rokinon 8mm fisheye lens (read my review of it here) and if you’re shooting full frame, you want this Zenitar 16mm fisheye lens (read my review here), or this full frame Rokinon 12mm fisheye lens (read my review of it here) if you’re more serious. That Rokinon 8mm fisheye lens is–in my opinion–the best value in all of photography, and I loved it so much that I used it on full frame for a while after upgrading.
Now, as for versatility, I get that a lot of people will shoot with fisheye sparingly so as to not overdo it, and that’s probably a wise approach unless you’re crazy like me. However, it’s pretty easy to de-fish a photo, either manually or with software. This effectively turns a fisheye into a poor man’s wide angle lens, too. I wouldn’t recommend this as a permanent solution, but it does make the lens versatile.
In the end, whether a fisheye lens is a good option for you is entirely a matter of personal preference, and this post is only meant to share some of the upsides to this much-maligned lens. Just as you shouldn’t let “serious” photographers who consider it a gimmicky lens stop you from having fun with a fisheye, if you don’t like the look of fisheye photos, you shouldn’t let me guilt, shame, or whatever you into feeling like you should “appreciate” lenses. Some people won’t like the aesthetic of the fisheye lens, and that’s totally fine. Some people will love it…and that’s even finer! 😉
Oh, and if anyone has mad sewing skills, I’m totally looking for someone to make our group Disney Fellowship of the Fisheye jean jackets with patches and stuff so we can form a Disneyland gang, and roam around leaving a wake of mischief and shenanigans behind us.
If you want to purchase any photography equipment (or anything, for that matter) from Amazon, please use the links in this post (like this one). You can also find equipment at B&H Photography by clicking here. Using the links here help support this blog at no cost to you, and helps us continue to provide you with our standard, mediocre content.
If you’re looking for other photography equipment recommendations or photography tips in general check out a few of my top photography blog posts. The best place to start is my Ultimate Disney Parks Photography Guide. Some additional posts you might enjoy:
Best Books for Improving Your Photography
5 Indispensable Tips for Better Vacation Photos
Infrared Photography Guide & Tips
Choosing the Best Camera Bag for Travel
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Would you like to be initiated into the Disney Fellowship of the Fisheye? Do you love or hate fisheye lenses? Any other recommended uses for fisheyes that are not listed here? Other questions? Any recommendations? Share any thoughts or questions you have in the comments!