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Dive Photo Guide

Underwater Photography with a Circular Fisheye Lens


By Brook Peterson

Shooting with a circular fisheye lens is a fun way to challenge your skills and add a little pizzazz to your portfolio. When used at its widest focal length, these lenses deliver a 180-degree view in every direction framed in a circle surrounded by a stark black border. It’s like capturing the ocean world in a little bubble. Underwater photography with this lens is always a crowd pleaser.



What Is a Circular Fisheye Lens?


A circular fisheye lens is an ultra-wide lens that can produce a 180-degree field of view, which is projected as a circle within the frame. Choosing the right lens to achieve this effect varies with camera manufacturer and type of camera. Here’s a basic guide for selecting a circular fisheye.


  • Nikon Full Frame DSLRs: Sigma 8mm F3.5 EX DG Circular Fisheye
  • Nikon Cropped Sensor DSLRs: Sigma 4.5mm F2.8 Circular Fisheye
  • Canon Full Frame DSLRs: EF 8–15mm f/4L Fisheye USM
  • Canon Cropped Sensor DSLRs: Sigma 4.5mm F2.8 Circular Fisheye
  • Full Frame Mirrorless Cameras: EF 8–15mm f/4L Fisheye USM with Metabones Converter
  • Cropped Sensor Mirrorless Cameras: Lensbaby Circular Fisheye 5.8mm f/3.5 Lens
  • Micro Four-Thirds Cameras: Lensbaby Circular Fisheye 5.8mm f/3.5 Lens for Micro 4/3


Canon’s 8–15mm Fisheye f/4L lens remains a popular choice for circular fisheye imagery with Canon DSLRs.


Creating images with a circular fisheye lens is very similar to using any wide-angle lens, but you will need to make a few preparations ahead of time. Because the lens has 180-degree view in every direction, you must remove the hood from your dome port so that it does not interfere with your image. Check with the manufacturer of your dome port to make sure the hood is removable.


Be aware of elements that can interfere with the composition of your image such as a fish or diver swimming by. If you can see them in your peripheral vision while looking through the viewfinder on your camera, they will probably show up in the frame. 



Underwater Photography with a Circular Fisheye Lens


The unique look created by circular fisheye lenses is a great way to add diversity to your portfolio and draw in a viewer. However, the ultra-wide angle of view and super close focusing distance can make creating these images a challenge. Here are the fundamentals of using a circular fisheye lens for underwater photography:


The primary subject has lines leading your eye toward it and it is placed on the bottom third of the image, although these elements are slightly distorted.



Choosing a Subject for a Circular Fisheye


Most subjects will work well with a circular fisheye lens, but be aware that animals, even large animals, will look much smaller in the frame because of the extreme wide angle of the lens. Make sure your subject is very close. Large schools of fish, wrecks, structure with lots of leading lines, and seascapes with anemone’s or protruding corals make good subjects. Sandy landscapes and small subjects are less interesting with a circular fisheye lens.



Composition with a Circular Fisheye


With a circular fisheye lens, there is no room for error when composing an image. You cannot crop the image after the fact, so it is imperative that the composition is flawless. Be aware of good elements of composition such as the rule of thirds, “S” curves, leading lines and diagonal lines, but also be prepared for these rules to be slightly distorted or accentuated with these lenses.


To take advantage of the circular fisheye’s full potential, experiment with the placement of your subject in the frame. Remember your traditional compositional rules and keep your strobes well behind the camera’s housing. The circular fisheye lens is both challenging and fun and with a little practice your results will undoubtedly be gratifying.


Strobes are well behind the dome port and turned slightly outwards to light the entire scene without lighting up particulate in the water and creating backscatter.



Lighting with a Circular Fisheye


One of the challenges of wide-angle photography is avoiding and preventing backscatter. This is caused by particulate in the water which reflects light from your strobes directly back into the lens. This is especially challenging with the circular fisheye lens because of the extremely wide angle of view. Keep the strobes pulled back well behind the dome port and turn them slightly outward if you wish to light the entire scene. The outward angle of the strobe’s beam will reflect light from the particulate in the water away from your camera’s lens.


If you are trying close-focus wide-angle with the fisheye lens, then turn the strobes inward toward the camera’s housing so that they only light the close subject and not the water (and particulate) around the outside edges. Keep in mind that the 180-degree view is in all directions, which means diagonally as well as horizontally. You might want a strobe pointed slightly down and one slightly up to light an entire scene, and you will want to keep your fins and any other appendages well back behind your housing.  


The camera lens is aimed straight up along with the strobes which are approximately 24 inches apart and well behind the dome port. One strobe is above the camera’s housing, while the other is slightly below it, lighting the entire scene.



Image Distortion


Both a feature and one of the challenges of using the circular fisheye lens is how it distorts the image. Fish or divers who are too close to the edge of the frame will be elongated. Any subject that is very close to the dome port and in the center will appear to bulge. 


If you want to preserve the natural shape of your subject, position it so that it is in the center and at least eight to 12 inches away from the dome port. You can combine the effects of the lens’ distortion capabilities with a more rectilinear effect by centering your primary subject, and placing your secondary subject toward the outside of the frame.


The fish and seagrass in this image retain their original shape while the beams of the sun are bent around the edges of the image, creating a nice frame.



Final Thoughts


You may not want a whole portfolio of circular fisheye lens images, but there are subjects and environments that seem to call for this unique, ultra-wide frame. Scenes and subjects with natural curves work well, but it’s definitely one of those types of photography where experimentation is more valuable than following a strict set of rules.


This sea star is very close to the camera’s lens, accentuating its shape by creating a slight bulge toward the center of the image.



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