I’ve long been a big fan of fisheye lenses, as I really love photographing aquatic life. (A little corny fish eye humor for you to start this review off on the wrong foot…) I’ve owned or tested seven different fisheye lenses, so I’m fairly familiar with the strengths and weaknesses various lenses bring to the table. I also have to admit that while I am an avid fisheye user, there is a lot of potential for overusing the lenses because they are so fun, and that not everyone will like the (what’s sometimes called) gimmicky look.
When used in moderation, a fisheye lens is a great lens to have, but it may not be the best lens to devote significant funds towards unless you will be using it regularly. Whether this Sigma fisheye lens is perfect for you as a less-expensive option or whether you should go for more of a budget fisheye lens is something to give consideration before buying.
Before going any further, if you’re using a crop sensor DSLR (and if you don’t know whether you are or not, chances are that you are shooting on a crop sensor camera), this is not the lens for you. Instead, opt for the Rokinon 8mm f/3.5 fisheye, which remains my favorite crop sensor fisheye lens. My Rokinon 8mm f/3.5 review praises that lensfor its cheap price, great optical quality, and unique characteristics.
As is the case with all of my photography reviews, this is a “real world” review, meaning that it’s based on my use of the lens in the regular course of taking photos in the field, not arbitrary photos in a sterile lab. Some people love to photograph lab charts and look at straight out of camera shots at 100% to take a pixel-peeping look at things, but I’m not one of those people. As an actual photographer who actually takes photos, I see more value in how the lens actually performs in actual scenarios, and how edited photos from it actually look. As such, that’s how I review lenses. Actually! 😉
With that said, let’s take a look at what makes this Sigma fisheye special…
As for the Sigma 15mm f/2.8, it really is a great full frame fisheye lens. Where the Sigma shines as compared to the other fisheye lenses I’ve used is its sharpness at fairly wide apertures. It definitely is not tack sharp at f/2.8, but it is usable at f/2.8, which is far more than I can say for other fisheye lenses I’ve used. In most cases, I stop down to f/8 with other fisheye lenses before achieving solid sharpness. Here, I’ve been pleased with photos shot at f/4.
At f/8 and above, I’d say this lens is tack sharp corner to corner. I think it’s sharper than the Zenitar fisheye I’ve been using, although the difference in sharpness in the center of the frame between f/8 and f/11 (the sweet spot for both lenses) is fairly negligible. At the corners, the Sigma is definitely superior.
Another big difference between the Sigma 15mm f/2.8 fisheye and the other full frame fisheye lenses I’ve used is the relative lack of color fringing and chromatic aberration. Now, these issues can easily be corrected with modern post processing software, but not having the problems in the first place is nice. I also feel the Sigma fisheye renders colors better and produces photos with punchy contrast right out of the camera.
For many photographers, the Sigma’s trump card over the Zenitar or other budget fisheye lenses will probably be autofocus. The budget fisheye lenses are all manual focus; I’ve pointed out time and time again that this doesn’t really matter, but some photographers are so staunchly anti-manual focus that they won’t listen. Kids these days! When I was getting started in photography, we had to manual focus uphill both directions…in 3 feet of snow!
Seriously, though, the autofocus here is fast, quiet, and accurate. Personally, I wouldn’t let autofocus be a factor in my purchase of this lens versus one of the budget ones (better IQ is a much more compelling reason), but if you do care that much, the autofocus here is good.
The Sigma fisheye is also fairly well-built, with brushed metal construction and a built-in lens hood plus a funky lens two-part lens cap that will screw up your photos if you don’t properly remove it. It’s actually not as well-built as the Zenitar fisheye, which is basically a Soviet tank, but the Sigma is not just a plastic-y lens, either.
As with any fisheye, you can use software (like Adobe Camera Raw or Photoshop, among other things) to “de-fish” the images, giving the lens more versatility as a normal ultra wide angle lens. Using an actual ultra wide angle is the better option, but this will work in a pinch. It really comes in handy when you get carried away shooting with the fisheye (because it’s fun) but then get home and wonder why the heck you didn’t use a different lens for a given scenario. Not that this has ever happened to me hundreds of times. No, not at all. The photo above has been de-fished, as has one other shot in this post. Can you tell which one?
One other thing that seems to matter a lot to me (but not at all to just about everyone else) is the quality of the starbursts that fisheye lenses produce. I loved the Rokinon and Zenitar for their wide, fanning starbursts and sunbursts that just seemed to radiate out light rays. The Sigma fisheye has long starbursts similar to these, although its bursts don’t radiate quite as much. Fortunately, its starbursts are tight and have many points. This is a nice, clean look that adds something to lamps and other light sources at night, and also has that certain je ne sais quoi for shots of the sun during the daytime. And you know this must be an important something if it’s in French!
Most people who are in the market for the Sigma 15mm f/2.8 are probably going to be considering the Nikon 16mm f/2.8 or the Canon 8-15mm f/4 fisheye as their alternatives, as those also offer autofocus and superior optical results. Quite bluntly, I am no fan of the Nikon. It’s a very dated optical design that hasn’t received an update in decades. While this isn’t an issue in itself, as some optical technologies haven’t changed in a long time, I think it is with that particular lens. The Nikon, to me at least, is out-performed not only by this Sigma 15mm f/2.8 lens, but also by the less-expensive Zenitar. Ouch, Nikon.
I haven’t tested the Canon 8-15mm f/4 fisheye, but I do know that it’s a new lens that was only released a few years ago that can do both circular and standard, full frame fisheye shooting. I also know that it costs $1,500, which is between double and three times the price of the Sigma. So, not really a fair comparison. If money is no issue and you’re a Canon shooter, I’d strongly consider the Canon fisheye on its reputation alone.
If you are looking to get a fisheye lens to play around from time to time without breaking the bank, I would recommend the Zenitar fisheye instead of this lens. While the Sigma is unquestionably superior in almost every regard, the Zenitar 16mm f/2.8 fisheye can be had for around $225, and that’s tough to beat for those who don’t regularly shoot fisheye.
Overall, the Sigma 15mm f/2.8 fisheye is a great cross between high-quality optics and relative value that is well worth the price if you are a regular fisheye shooter, or you are not too concerned about cost. Its price is high relative to bargain fisheye lenses. The Sigma is definitely better than those budget lenses, and even surpasses first party lenses in terms of quality, too. Whether the Sigma is “worth it” is a different story, and something each photographer considering it will have to answer on a case by case basis in light of their style and how frequently they will use the lens. I think the Sigma brings enough to the table to justify its added cost for many serious photographers. When it comes to photographing the Disney Parks, I think fisheye lenses are perfect fun lenses with the distortion playing well with the whimsical look of the parks, allowing you to use the fisheye in creative ways. Still, the fisheye look definitely is not for everyone.
What do you think of the Sigma Fisheye? Do you think it’s worth the extra money over the Zenitar, or is the budget manual-focus fisheye sufficient for you? Share your thoughts about this lens and any questions you might have in the comments!