We consider fisheye lenses by Canon, Tokina and Sony that can be attached to Sony E-mount cropped-sensor cameras
Sony’s mirrorless cameras have proven to be hugely popular with underwater shooters, giving DSLRs a run for their money. However, while the lenses that work well in underwater imaging for the Nikon and Canon mounts are well known, most of what has been written about lenses for Sony E-mount cameras relates to how well they perform topside.
In this two-part article, we comprehensively examine and compare the underwater performance of some of the most popular lenses for Sony E-mount cropped-sensor cameras, taking into account the unique optical, compositional and logistical challenges awaiting us photographers beneath the surface. Our aim wasn’t just to find out what these lenses are really worth to underwater shooters, but also what techniques can be used to fully utilize their potential. In selecting lenses to test, we chose those considered most popular for E-mount cameras (dry or wet), and we also included lenses of various focal lengths and price points. As we focused on cropped-sensor cameras, some of the conclusions we’ve drawn may vary for full-frame cameras.
Here, in Part 2, we evaluate three fisheye lenses, the Canon EF 8–15mm f/4 Fisheye and Tokina 10–17mm f/3.5–4.5 Fisheye (for Canon)—both used with the Metabones EF-E Mount T Adapter—and the Sony E 16mm f/2.8 with the Sony Fisheye Converter. Our testing was carried out using the Sony a6500 camera in the Fantasea FA6500 housing with the FML port system, together with Sea&Sea YS-250 and Ikelite DS-160 dual strobe systems. For the sake of eliminating the effects of any interfering variables when comparing how these lenses perform, each dive was carried out using several camera systems, allowing us to capture comparison images with all three lenses at the same spot and at the same time. Our test was designed to compare fisheye lenses, so rectilinear wide-angle lenses such as the Sony E 10–18mm f/4 were not considered.
In Part 1, we looked at three macro lenses, the Sony E 30mm f/3.5, the Sony FE 50mm f/2.8, and the Sony FE 90mm f/2.8.
The review systems: Sony a6500 cameras in Fantasea’s FA6500 housings
Tested Fisheye Lenses at a Glance
|Sony 16mm +
|Tokina 10–17mm +
|Canon 8–15mm +
|Angle of View
(on full frame)
|Minimum Focus Distance
|2.6 x 2.5"
(66 x 63.5mm)
|2.75 x 2.75"
(69.9 x 69.9mm)
|3.09 x 3.27"
(78.5 x 83.1mm)
($250 + $150)
($550 + $400)
($1250 + $400)
*The Sony Fisheye Converter attached to the Sony 16mm lens gives an effective focal length of 10mm
Three fisheyes under test (L–R): Sony E 16mm f/2.8 with Sony Fisheye Converter, Tokina 10–17mm f/3.5–4.5 with Metabones Adapter, and Canon EF 8–15mm f/4 with Metabones Adapter
1. Canon EF 8–15mm f/4 Fisheye Lens
The Canon 8–15mm Fisheye offers impressive optical quality and a useful zoom range (10mm, f/14, 1/250s, ISO 160)
- Super sharp – There’s no doubt that one of the most impressive attributes of this lens is its sharpness. Images are super sharp corner to corner at any aperture, revealing fine details across the frame. This is especially noticeable when shooting close-focus wide-angle images, where you get the benefit of an inspiring perspective combined with sharpness that any quality macro lens would be proud of.
A frogfish portrait demonstrates impressive detail. Click for 50% crop (15mm, f/11, 1/160s, ISO 100)
- Great focal range – At 10mm, images of wrecks, large schools of fish and reefscapes are easily captured without having to back off, thus ensuring less water between you and the subject. At 15mm, it is perfect for capturing portraits of large animals such as sharks, whales and manta rays from a relatively short distance.
- Impressive circular fisheye effect – When using the lens with full-frame cameras, the appealing circular fisheye effect results in perfectly round fishbowl-like images with a dramatic black frame. However, using the lens with cropped sensors, the circular fisheye effect can also be a disadvantage; see “Cons” below.
- Useful Focal Length Limiter – When using the lens with APS-C cameras, the focal length of the lens can be limited using a dedicated button located on the lens. When activated, the Focal Length Limiter confines the lens to the 10–15mm range, thereby ensuring that the partial circular fisheye effect, which appears at 8–9mm with APS-C sensor cameras, is avoided. Resultant images are free from vignetting and black corners.
The black frame produced at 8–9mm with APS-C sensors can be either used as an artistic element or eliminated using the Focal Length Limiter button on the lens (8mm, f/16, 1/200s, ISO 800)
- Fast Autofocus – Autofocus works quickly and accurately. Even when going from super close subjects to fairly distant ones, the autofocus responds immediately. Focus hunting is also very rare with this lens, even in lower-light conditions where other lenses have difficulties.
Fast and responsive autofocus enables focusing on fast-swimming subjects easily and accurately (15mm, f/14, 1/250s, ISO 6400)
- Less flare and ghosting – Testing the lens against the sun and with strobes produced impressively flare-less images. When capturing a sun ball at the very center of the frame, we did manage to produce very minor flare and ghosting, but in most other (more probable and more appealing) compositions, flaring was either insignificant or absent.
A whale shark silhouette captured against the sun with inspiring sunrays and only a little flaring that can easily be cleaned up in post-processing (10mm, f/22, 1/320s, ISO 400)
- Short minimum focus distance – A relatively short minimum focus distance allows capturing beautiful close-focus wide-angle shots. We managed to focus on subjects that were located at almost zero distance from the dome. The combination of the short minimum focus distance and exceptional sharpness makes it very easy to produce perfectly detailed close-ups with inspiring wide backgrounds.
A close-focus wide-angle shot of a pufferfish nearly kissed by the dome (10mm, f/7.1, 1/200s, ISO 100)
- Price – At $1,250 plus another $400 for the adaptor (as well as the expense of a good dome port), this is one of the most expensive choices of fisheye lens.
- Size and weight – This lens is significantly larger and heavier than the other fisheye lenses tested here—making your rig heavier to carry to the water and adding significantly to your travel weight.
- Black corners with APS-C cameras – Using this lens with APS-C cameras usually means you’ll only be using a 10–15mm range, as capturing images at 8–9mm results in an unappealing partial circular fisheye effect. Fortunately, the Focus Length Limiter feature allows you to easily avoid the range that produces black corners, avoiding the need to crop later.
While the perfectly round black frame produced with this lens using full-frame sensors is a flattering one, the partial fisheye effect produced with APS-C sensors is, in most cases, rather distracting (8mm, f/16, 1/200s, ISO 800)
- Slow aperture – The maximum aperture of f/4 over the entire focal length range means the Canon 8–15mm cannot be considered a bright lens. In most conditions, and considering the wide compositions this lens was designed for, f/4 usually does the job. However, when shooting in low-light conditions, such as in deep water or inside wrecks and caves, one or two additional stops wouldn’t be unappreciated.
The Canon EF 8–15mm f/4 Fisheye is an amazing lens that delivers. We absolutely adored spending time underwater with this lens. It’s super sharp, ultra wide, and offers a focal range that is ideal for almost all underwater wide-angle compositions. You’re likely to end up with appealing results even after your first dive with this lens, but once you’ve mastered a few techniques, such as working with its slow aperture and making the most out of its fisheye distortion, you’ll discover that it’s capable of producing high-quality, inspiring images. Admittedly, it’s expensive, big and heavy, but it repays every dollar invested in it by producing stunning results.
The distortion is all part of the charm of a fisheye! (10mm, f/5.6, 1/320s, ISO 100)
2. Tokina 10–17mm f/3.5–4.5 Fisheye Lens
The Tokina 10–17mm is an affordably priced lens that can achieve professional results (10mm, f/7.1, 1/200s, ISO 250)
- Great focal range – The 10–17mm focal range is definitely one of the reasons this lens is so popular among underwater photographers. It’s perfect for a wide variety of underwater compositions and subjects, ranging from wrecks and reefscapes to large fish and diver portraits. At 10mm, the lens produces a significant fisheye effect and offers an incredible angle of coverage. At 17mm, fisheye distortion is moderated and the field of view still allows shooting close enough to the subject for strobe lighting to be effective.
- Wide angle of coverage – The angle of coverage at 10mm is absolutely stunning and allows capturing large subjects without having to back off from the subject. When shooting close-ups, you will be amazed by the wide area captured in the background.
A scorpionfish portrait captured at a relatively short distance while keeping the sun, pillars and even two lionfish on the bottom in the frame. Now, this is wide angle! (10mm, f/11, 1/250s, ISO 200)
- Short minimum focus distance – Underwater, this lens is capable of focusing on subjects that are very close to the dome. The short minimum focus distance combined with an exceptionally wide angle of coverage allow for great close-focus wide-angle shots to be captured.
A close-up of a feeding moray eel: A short minimum focus distance is an important advantage for a wide-angle lens, as it opens up a whole new world of compositions (11mm, f/6.3, 1/125s, ISO 160)
- Quite affordable – Comparing to other similar lenses, and even after taking into account the cost of the Metabones adaptor, the Tokina 10–17mm is quite an affordable choice and good value for money.
- Compact and lightweight – By the standards of the average lens designed for DSLRs, this lens is relatively compact and rather lightweight, making it a great travel companion.
- Sharp at the center – Subjects captured at the center of the frame are sharp and detailed, especially when shot at a wider focal length and using large aperture values.
At 10mm, and with proper light, the center of the frame exhibits fine details. Click for 100% crop (10mm, f/9, 1/250s, ISO 200)
- Fisheye effect moderated underwater – Trying out this lens topside, you’ll notice that the fisheye effect is extremely strong, especially at 10–12mm. However, due to the optical characteristics of water, the distortion is fixed to a degree when using this lens underwater. The fisheye effect is still evident but softens enough to deliver better proportions, especially if keeping important elements out of the corners.
This close-up of a nurse shark demonstrates a subtle and flattering fisheye effect at 16mm (16mm, f/14, 1/200s, ISO 360)
- Fast autofocus – As long as the adaptor used to mount the lens on the camera is properly configured and the subject is contrasted enough against its background, autofocus is quick and accurate.
- Less flare and ghosting – This lens performs well when tested shooting against the sun. As long as you keep the sun ball out of the frame and your strobes from reflecting on the dome, you’ll keep flares to a minimum.
A dolphin pointing at a perfect sun ball in a frame that demonstrates almost no flare at all (10mm, f/6.3, 1/160s, ISO 250)
Shift the aperture to add some inspiring sunrays to your image (17mm, f/18, 1/250s, ISO 200)
- Disproportional distortion – At 10–12mm, the distortion produced significantly varies across the frame. Elements captured towards the edges tend to deform most, losing their true proportions. If you cleverly plan your composition and carefully select the elements positioned towards the edges of the frame, this can be used as a creative effect. Otherwise, make sure you’ve polished your post-processing skills.
The disproportional distortion is acceptable as long as you keep important elements away from the edges of the frame (10mm, f/9, 1/250s, ISO 200)
- Autofocus issues – While autofocus is quick and accurate most of the time, if the autofocus starts to hunt—for instance, when the subject is poorly lit or lacks contrast against its background—it takes a while for the lens to recover and properly focus again. Fortunately, this happens quite seldom and can usually be avoided by using a powerful focus light.
- Slightly green – Images produced with this lens have a slightly greenish tinge, which might not be considered much of a shortcoming in land photography, but becomes more challenging when photographing underwater, especially when attempting to achieve an impressive blue water background and to document the true vivid colors of marine life. This should be taken into consideration and properly compensated for.
The same scene captured with the Tokina 10–17mm (left) and with the Canon 8–15mm (right): The image produced using the Tokina is noticeably greener. Images were captured sequentially, using similar camera settings and under the same conditions (10mm, f/5, 1/160s, ISO 200)
- Soft edges – While the center of the frame offers reasonable sharpness, the edges and corners of the image might appear softer and lacking detail. If your main subject is perfectly centered, you’re all good. However, if you try to achieve a more creative composition or even follow the rule of thirds, you might find that certain elements of your subject aren’t as sharp as you’d want them to be.
- Longer focal lengths – While the 15–17mm range softens the fisheye effect and serves well for a wide range of compositions, images produced using this focal length are somewhat less sharp across the whole frame.
The same reef captured at 10mm (left) and then, using the same exposure settings, at 17mm (right). Click for 100% crop and you will notice that some details are lost at 17mm (f/4.5, 1/160s, ISO 250)
The Tokina 10–17mm f/3.5–4.5 Fisheye is a usable lens that’s good value for money. Its strengths are its impressive angle of coverage, a focal length range and focus distance that allow for a variety of creative wide-angle compositions, and great handling of powerful light sources. Add to that its relatively compact size, light weight and affordable price, and you’ve got yourself a capable lens that is also comfortable to travel with—and without mortgaging your home. In terms of distortion, color and sharpness, however, there are some compromises to make and challenges to overcome when using this lens.
The slightly greenish tinge produced with this lens can be quite easily corrected by mastering a few simple techniques (10mm, f/5.6, 1/250s, ISO 160)
3. Sony E 16mm f/2.8 Lens plus Sony Fisheye Converter
The Sony 16mm plus Sony Fisheye Converter is an affordable fisheye setup with a super wide angle of coverage (f/3.5, 1/50s, ISO 125)
- Very affordable – At $400, and without having to add any adaptors to mount the lens on the camera, this is one of the most affordable choices for an underwater fisheye setup.
- Compact and lightweight – Both the lens and converter are compact and very lightweight. Due to their small dimensions, the port accessories used to accommodate them are smaller and lighter as well, not to mention considerably cheaper. Thanks to that, packing, traveling, storing and diving with this system is a joy.
- Impressive angle of coverage – When used without any converters, the Sony 16mm provides an 83-degree angle of view. Installing the Fisheye Converter on this lens makes a huge difference, increasing the angle of view to 180 degrees—and effectively creating a lens with a 10mm focal length. Once underwater, this angle of view becomes a bit narrower, but it still allows for impressive compositions when shooting wrecks, reefscapes and large school of fish.
The Fisheye Converter demonstrates its impressive effect with these schooling fish (f/13, 1/250s, ISO 250)
- Bright – At f/2.8, the Sony E 16mm is the brightest among the lenses reviewed here. This is a great advantage when shooting in deep water, inside caves and wherever there isn’t much ambient light. It also allows for using higher shutter speeds while still maintaining a properly exposed image, which is ideal when photographing fast-swimming fish. Fortunately, mounting the Fisheye Converter on the lens doesn’t incur any loss of light, so the f/2.8 maximum aperature remains even with the converter mounted.
- Flare-resistant – While most fisheye converters tend to suffer from a significant amount of flare when shooting against powerful light sources, this lens and converter combination seems to produce images that are relatively flare-free. Shooting early morning or late afternoon, you can even shoot against the sun and achieve fine, clean results.
As long as the sun is low, images produced are free of flare (f/22, 1/80s, ISO 200)
- Sharp at the center – The center of the frame is relatively sharp, not razor sharp, but certainly enough to show off the fine details of properly focused subjects, as long as no significant cropping is carried out.
Subjects captured at the center of the frame have adequate sharpness. Click for 50% crop (f/14, 1/125s, ISO 320)
- Soft corners – One of the most significant drawbacks of this lens and converter combination is that elements at the edges and corners of the frame are somewhat soft, even when completely in focus. This is especially noticeable in compositions in which the main subject is off-center or large enough to fill the frame. At first glance, it almost seems as if the image was shot using a wide aperture with a centered focus point, leaving the rest of the frame out of focus. Closer inspection reveals that anything close to the edges is simply blurred rather than out of focus. When focusing on the center of the frame using a wide aperture, thus reducing depth of field, the corners of the image seem almost washed out. Fortunately, this can be solved by using smaller apertures.
Soft corners are noticeable, even when using small apertures. Click for 100% crop (16mm, f/8, 1/125s, ISO 320)
- Fixed focal length – Since this isn’t a zoom lens, it provides less flexibility with respect to the variety of compositions it’s capable of shooting. You will have to swim back and forth to recompose a subject in the frame.
- Loss of contrast – As long as the sun and strobes are positioned at your back, images are produced with good contrast. However, when a powerful source of light is captured, such as when shooting against the sun or positioning the strobes aside the lens, the image produced lacks contrast and colors appear somewhat dull.
- Distortion – The fisheye distortion is significant and disproportional across the frame. This is especially noticeable when shooting wrecks, structures or any other subjects with straight lines, which turn out exceptionally curved and distorted. Unless you’re a big fan of fisheye, you might find the degree of this effect a bit distracting in many compositions.
Distortion is demonstrated with the straight edges of a staircase (f/11, 1/160s, ISO 400)
- Color fringing – In images featuring a subject significantly contrasted against its background (for instance, a yellow fish on a background of blue water), some unflattering colored fringes appear around the subject. These fringes can only be clearly identified when significantly zooming in, but even if evaluating the image without zooming in, edges seem crisp and unrefined.
- Large focus distance – This lens is less suitable for close-focus wide-angle compositions, as it isn’t capable of focusing on subjects positioned within a short distance from the lens.
Although less suitable for close focus photography, over-under images are produced easily (f/9, 1/250s, ISO 200)
The Sony E 16mm f/2.8 plus Fisheye Converter is an affordable and compact fisheye setup. Its compact dimensions and light weight serve as an important advantage for travelers and for those seeking to dive with a streamlined underwater system. It provides an impressive angle of coverage, especially for such an affordable lens, and also performs well in low-light conditions thanks to the relatively fast aperture of the lens. However, images captured with this lens feature significant distortion and are noticeably less sharp, especially around the edges and corners of the frame. Also, the lens doesn’t excel at handling color, as loss of contrast and color fringing can often be identified when closely examining images.
4. Final Thoughts
Leaving budget considerations aside, there’s no doubt that the Canon 8–15mm performs best among these three lenses. It produces super sharp images, focuses at very short distances, features an appealing fisheye effect, and offers a focal length range that will serve you well for almost all wide-angle compositions. Comparing similar images captured by these three lenses, those captured with the Canon 8–15mm almost always end up being the most impressive—with a very few exceptions.
In real life, of course, budget considerations usually aren’t left aside. But even if your budget won’t stretch to the Canon 8–15mm, you’re still in good hands with the Tokina 10–17mm. This is an excellent option for anyone looking for a more affordable fisheye lens that is still capable of producing high-quality results. With a beautiful wide angle of coverage, a short minimum focus distance, and decent sharpness, it is a great companion for any wide-angle dive. If going for this lens, we do recommend getting acquainted with the white balance menu on your camera to compensate for the slight tinge of green produced by this lens.
Last but not least, we come to the Sony 16mm with the Fisheye Converter. This combination is perfect for any photographer looking for a fisheye lens featuring an extraordinary angle of coverage at an affordable price. If used within its limits, it’s capable of producing some fine results, and its compact size and light weight are welcome advantages both underwater and when traveling. Be prepared, though, to moderate your expectations accordingly, as this lens doesn’t excel in terms of sharpness, color and distortion, even if some of these can be at least partly mitigated during post-processing.
About the Authors: Boaz Samorai began pursuing his ocean-related career at the young age of 15 in Eilat, Israel. Twenty-five years later, he’s a PADI Course Director and Technical Diver, chief equipment test diver for Fantasea Line, dive tour leader for WildDive and Big Animals, and a conductor of underwater photography courses and specialties. Leading dive expeditions so frequently, Boaz has had the opportunity to capture images in the waters of several revered destinations around the world.
Sharon Rainis Shoval started as an amateur underwater photographer at the age of 20, and it didn’t take long before her admiration of “the sea, the lens and the magical combination of the two” took over her career. Sharon has been working with Fantasea Line as a test diver, content manager and product developer for over 12 years. She’s also the assistant producer of David Pilosof’s international underwater photo events and competitions, where she first realized her greatest passion for underwater fashion photography.
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