On Trial AF-S Fisheye Nikkor 8-15mm f3.5-4.5E ED
AF-S FISHEYE NIKKOR 8-15MM F3.5-4.5E ED With the one lens Nikon’s first fish-eye zoom provides both circular and rectangular 180-degree angles- of-view, which means it has potential for both pleasure and business.
The circular fish-eye lens is a pretty specialised piece of equipment, but what if you could have a rectangular fish-eye as well? Nikon’s remarkable fish-eye zoom gives you both in the one lens, providing plenty of scope for both fun and profit.
CIRCULAR FISH-EYE LENSES can be great fun, but they can be overused and their application is mostly purely creative. This means a circular fish-eye is really a ‘luxury’ addition to a lens kit – it’s unlikely to be used all that often. Thinking practically, this is money that could be probably better spent elsewhere. But how about if a circular fish-eye came packaged up with a full-frame fish-eye in the same lens?
OK, the rectangular fish-eye’s applications are still reasonably specialised – as the angle-of-view is still around 180 degrees on the diagonal – but the general usefulness of such a dual-capability lens would definitely be increased. This is exactly the thinking behind the AF-S Fisheye Nikkor 8-15mm f3.5-4.5E ED, which zooms from circular fish-eye to rectangular fish-eye when used on one of Nikon’s full-35mm (a.k.a. ‘FX’) D-SLR bodies.
It’s Nikon’s first fish-eye zoom – Canon has had an L series 8-15mm model since 2010 – and a pretty interesting lens for anybody keen to explore ultra-wide angles-of-view. At close to $2000 it clearly still represents a fairly substantial investment, but it also provides more creative options than a circular fish-eye alone.
On an ‘FX’ format body, the Nikon fish-eye zoom delivers a 180-degree view in every direction at 8mm with a circular image. Zoom to 15mm and you get a full-frame image with a 175-degrees diagonal angle-of-view. On a ‘DX’ format body with an ‘APS-C’ size sensor, the effective focal length becomes 12-22.5 mm. At 12mm, the image is partially circular in that it’s cropped at the top and bottom of the frame, but the lateral edges are curved and the extreme sides of the frame are black. At 16.5 mm effective – i.e. 11mm on the lens’s zooming collar which is actually marked as a dash – the image is now full-frame with a 180-degrees diagonal angle-of-view which reduces to 110 degrees diagonal at 22.5mm. You obviously get maximum ultra-wide bang for your buck with an ‘FX’ format D-SLR body, but it’s still a very extreme wide-angle lens on the smaller format cameras albeit without the sheer visual impact of the full circular image.
In the Hand
The 8-15mm fish-eye zoom is a comparatively compact lens which looks a lot bulkier when the supplied hood and slip-on cap are fitted. Take these off and the remaining lens is quite small. However, despite the hood’s much wider diameter, it’s of very limited use when shooting with an ‘FX’ format D-SLR as it’s in the frame to some degree all the way to around 14.5mm (which is when the last vestiges of a shadow disappear from the corners). In practical terms then, it’s there merely to provide something to fit the lens cap on to… but at least it’s possible to fit a lens cap, which generally isn’t the case with fish-eyes. Given that uncapped, the curved, exposed surface of the front element looks disturbingly vulnerable, fitting the cap whenever the lens isn’t being used is a very good habit to learn.
Helpfully, this surface has a fluorine coating to help repel moisture and grease, as does the exposed surface of the rear element. The main advantage of this coating, in practical terms, is that it makes these surfaces easier to clean.
At the rear of the lens is a substantial rubber gasket around the lens mount to help keep out dust and water, while the magnesium alloy barrel tubes also carry weather seals at their various junctions. It’s never quite clear just how much protection is provided by weather-sealing in a lens, but suffice to say it’s enough here to allow for shooting in light rain, sea spray or snowy conditions.
Nikon’s fish-eye zoom has a zooming collar and a focusing collar, but no manual aperture ring. Furthermore, as per all the latest Nikkors, it now has an electromagnetically controlled diaphragm which allows for more consistent exposure control during continuous shooting, as well as smoother aperture adjustment when shooting video. All this means that the 8-15mm isn’t compatible with any Nikon 35mm SLR body and no digital bodies earlier than around mid-2007 (which consequently excludes, for example, the D90).
The zooming collar spans its range with a brief twist of around 45 degrees, while the focusing collar has what Nikon calls an “Auto-Manual Mode” which essentially means that, although it’s an electronic fly-by-wire control, it still has the feel of a mechanical adjuster.
Roll Out The Barrel
On the inside, the 8-15mm zoom’s optical construction comprises 15 elements (in 13 groups) with three made from extra-low dispersion glass to counter chromatic aberrations, and two with aspherical surfaces. In this application, the aspherics are primarily designed to correct for coma,as well as contributing to a more compact optical design.
Barrel-type distortion is impossible to avoid with an angle-of-view of 180 degrees and, in fact, Nikon allows you to exploit the perspective distortion by giving its fish-eye zoom a minimum focusing distance of just 16 centimetres (which results in a maximum magnification of 0.34x). Given the quoted minimum focusing distance is actually from the focal plane and not the front of the lens, you can actually go very close up indeed.
Close-up, the barrel distortion is further exaggerated – especially with the full-frame image – and you can really play around with spatial effects and camera angles. Obviously, the inherent depth-of-field is immense at these very short focal lengths, so you can actually go closer when shooting at the smaller apertures and still have everything sharp. Shoot at apertures of between f11 and f16 and you really don’t have to bother with focusing – there’s just so much depth-of-field.
Nikon employs various multi-coating technologies to deal with internal reflections and, in particularly, flare and ghosting… which can be problematic as, with the 180-degrees angle-of-view, it’s sometimes impossible to avoid having the sun in the frame (and the hood is of limited use).
Obviously there’s no way to fit filters to the front of Nikon’s fish-eye zoom, but a holder is provided at the rear of the lens for slotting in filters cut from gelatin sheets. This allows for fitting ND filters should you also want experiment with very long exposures and extreme angles-of-view.
Despite the strong distortion, other aspects of optical performance are just as important with this lens as any wide-angle. Being a brand new design, the AF-S Fisheye Nikkor 8-15mm benefits from current lens technologies such as the ED glass elements and the advanced multi-coating formulations.
Even with the circular fish-eye image overall sharpness is important even if you don’t have to worry about the corners. Here, the Nikon lens is beautifully crisp across the image circle with punchy contrast and great colour reproduction. Ghosting is non-existent even with the sun in the frame, while the flare in this situation is slight and, in fact at the smaller apertures which give a star-burst effect, can be quite appealing visually. There are no issues with chromatic aberrations. Where the aperture setting used will have a noticeable effect is in the transition from the image circle to the black surrounds which will be much softer at f3.5 than it is at f22
Overall sharpness is still very good with the full-frame fish-eye image at 15mm, but inevitably there’s some
softening at the corners when shooting wide-open. It’s easily eliminated by closing down one or two stops, as is any vignetting. Incidentally, hold the camera so that the image plane is exactly in parallel with the focal plane, and any straight lines right in the centre of the frame – such as the horizon – will actually be reproduced perfectly straight. And with subjects where there are no straight lines, you can end up with an ultra-wide image that appears to be almost free of distortion. Flare, ghosting and chromatic aberrations are all well suppressed in the full-frame fish-eye image.
Because you can get so close to a subject but it will still look to be a long way away in the viewfinder, there’s an unusual operating warning to be made here… look away from the finder once in a while because you may well be in danger of actually nudging that precious curved front element’s surface into the subject!
There are a few other things to watch out for when using this lens, including avoiding bits of yourself sneaking into the shot… which is easy to do with a 180-degrees angle-of-view. Even more of an issue on a sunny day is your shadow – it’s almost impossible to avoid when shooting with the sun behind you, so you’ll either have to just live with it (and clone it out later in Photoshop) or get inventive with ‘hiding’ it in something else in the foreground.
The more you use the AF-S Fisheye Nikkor 8-15mm zoom, the more it becomes apparent that, firstly, it isn’t a one-trick pony, and that, consequently, it’s a whole lot more versatile than you might have expected at first.
Of course, you can play around with the circular fish-eye, but it actually only works really effectively with certain subjects which can complement the shape. It’s a case of suck it and see, but don’t be surprised if this turns out to be more of a challenge than expected. When it works, it works brilliantly. When it doesn’t, the results simply look contrived.
Far more interesting is working with the full-frame fish-eye, which provides a lot of scope for experimentation… from fully exploiting the strong distortion through to trying to minimise it. Is there two grand’s worth of photo fun here? We think so, but more for owners of Nikon’s ‘FX’ D-SLRs than the ‘DX’ format cameras.
The creative potential is backed by the excellent optical quality, but the best thing about Nikon’s 8-15mm fish-eye zoom is that its compels you to get out and explore its many possibilities.
Circular or fullframe fish-eye? Some subjects really lend themselves to the former while others are better handled with the rectangular framing. In practice, Nikon’s 8-15mm fish-eye zoom proves to be more versatile than you might expect especially when...