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Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM
When a full-frame fisheye isn’t good enough

Full-frame fisheye lenses have ruled the roost for as long as I can remember. Being able to own a full-frame fisheye lens is a remarkable experience, and I can remember grinning from ear to ear the first time I used one. Everything turns magical when seen through a fisheye lens, and the world is thrown into a barrel perspective. Of course, you learn quickly that having too many fisheye images in one slideshow can be nauseating to the audience as well. But when used with the appropriate subject and technique, an image shot with a fisheye lens has the unmistakable signature and power to astound like no other lenses can.

More than 90% of the fisheye lenses belong to the full-frame variety, with the more exotic circular fisheye lenses rarely offered or purchase. And the reason is simple – circular fisheye lenses have more limited applications, and thus they remain niche lenses compared to the more versatile full-frame fisheye lenses.

Circular fish eye lenses were originally designed for astrophotography, enabling astronomers to photograph the entire sky in one single shot with its 180-degrees coverage. Photographers very quickly learnt how to use this astounding coverage to create interesting images with it, but circular fish eye lenses remain exotic lenses which are expensive and difficult to master. If you can choose to purchase a full-frame or circular fisheye lens, it is very likely that you will choose the more versatile full-frame fisheye.

But what if you needn’t have to choose? What if you can have BOTH full-frame and circular fisheye effects – in ONE lens?

Two lens in one – circular fisheye and full-frame fisheye
That is what Canon has done – introduced the world’s first fisheye zoom lens offering both circular and full frame images. The Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM delivers an extremely wide-angle focal range from 8 to 15mm, with circular fisheye effects at the 8mm range, and full-frame fisheye effects at 15mm. The new lens replaces the venerable EF 15mm f/2.8 fisheye, which offered only full-frame fisheye effects.

Used with Canon’s full-frame DSLR bodies, photographers can choose between circular or full-frame fisheye images. With bodies using APS-C or APS-H sensors, the EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM delivers a full-frame fisheye view only. As such, you only truly reap the full benefits of this lens with a full-frame sensor EOS DSLR.
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Optical Construction
Even on paper, the Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM is a truly astonishing piece of optical engineering. It is difficult to design and correct for a circular fisheye lens alone, not to mention incorporating a zoom for full-frame fisheye at the other end! The lens features 14 lens elements in 11 different groups, including one aspherical and one Ultra-low Dispersion (UD) element to correct chromatic aberration. Each of the lens elements has been smothered with Canon’s Super Spectra Coating to cut reflections, and the inner surface of the front element also incorporates Canon’s latest SubWavelength Structure Coating (SWC).

Huge front element sticking out dangerously
The EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM is easily recognizable by the huge bulbous front element (much like the TS-E 17mm), which cannot be fitted with a front filter obviously. As such, both the front and rear lens elements feature a Fluorine Coating that actively repels water, dust and dirt to maintain optical quality. The lens is supplied with a lens cap, lens hood EW-77 (more on that in the next section) and a lens pouch.
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Build Quality and Handling
At 540 grams, the Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM is a substantial lens that balances well on a mid-range EOS body. The lens measures 78.5 x 83.0mm and falls into my hands nicely. Although it is well built, the chassis does not seem to be metal, but rather high-grade polycarbonate with a crinkled finish, like the EF 100mm f/2.8 L USM Macro lens which I reviewed earlier.

Locks in the usable focal range with a cropped sensor EOS
When used on a cropped sensor camera, a zoom-lock mechanism (marked as “Limit”) on the lens limits the zoom range to 10-15mm to avoid vignetting around the edges. The ‘C’ and ‘H’ markings next to the zoom ring indicate the zoom position (10mm widest) where vignette-free shooting is possible with either APS-C or APS-H sensors.

Only valid for cropped sensor EOS
When shooting with a full-frame sensor, you will need to remove the EW-77 lens hood for any focal length wider than 15mm, or you will end up seeing the lens hood around the edges. With the lens hood off, you have to be VERY careful about handling the lens (the bulbous front element is just begging to be scratched!)
Another point to note is that you can’t fit the lens cap on without the hood. A work-around is to remove the hood together with the lens cap in a bayonet fashion if you intend to shoot without the hood. And obviously, you can’t use any filter in front of the bug eye front element, but the Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM features a Rear Gel Holder (more like a couple of slots) that accepts up to 3 pre-cut gel filters.

Interestingly the Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM features a ring-type ultra-sonic motor (USM) for fast and silent operation. It is a nice touch, although not absolutely necessary. With a short focus throw and incredibly deep depth-of-field for such a wide-angle lens, focusing is bound to be fast and minimal. The quietness of the USM motor and full-time manual focus functionality are two plus points though.
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In the Field
The Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM is an interesting proposition on paper, offering both circular and full-frame fisheye effects in one lens. But does it actually deliver the kind of performance that one expects from the superlative L-lens series?

Incredible coverage even at 15mm full-frame fisheye
I used to shoot with the EF 15mm fisheye, and everything seems to look so extremely wide through the lens. It is a different story with the Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM though. When I was shooting with the circular fisheye, I zoomed back to full frame fisheye, and everything at 15mm suddenly look so… normal! It is difficult to describe the feeling, but the 8mm is so encompassing that suddenly a full frame fisheye started feeling like a 28mm.

And while we are on the topic of zoom function, there are only two usable focal lengths on the Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM on a full frame EOS – 8mm and 15mm. You’d either have the full circle image (8mm) or full frame image (15mm), since anything in between looks odd with the circle being cropped off at the top and bottom. With a cropped sensor (APS-C or APS-H), things are slightly better since you can still zoom between 10-15mm for full-frame fisheye effects.
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Fisheye effects work well when you find the right subject matter
The Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM is a difficult lens to use in terms of technique. You’d have to be very careful with your composition and exposure, and you’d probably have a fair amount of “blah” shots if you are new to fisheye lenses.

When shooting at circular fisheye setting (8mm), you would have to be very careful not to get your own feet into the shot. The lens sees 180 degrees view so your legs (or even elbows) may get into the image, so check the edges carefully. Along the circular edges, you can see obvious color fringing aberration that is especially obvious when there is bright highlight. Even with the advanced optical design of the Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM, it is impossible to eradicate the purple fringes around the circumference of the circular fisheye images.

The optical performance of the Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM is very good for a fisheye lens, especially at the 15mm end for full-frame fisheye images. There is excellent resolution for fine details, and tight control of contrast and flare suppression. Chromatic aberration is virtually non-existent, which is an impressive effort on the part of the optical engineers.
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Look up! Look for tight vertical structures… they work well with fisheye lenses.

I stuck the lens into a group of plants barely table height tall, and this is probably what a caterpillar might see in his own world!
The image quality at the 8mm circular fisheye setting is less stellar though. There is evidence of purplish chromatic aberration along the edges of highlights within the image, and image sharpness is a tad compromised. However, as far as a circular fisheye lens goes, it must be asserted that the Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM still delivers incredible performance.

As with all lenses, stopping down does improve its performance. My experience with the lens indicates that the optimum image quality can be derived at f/11, after which fine details start to suffer from diffraction effects.
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You can only take this shot with a full-frame fisheye other lens. What is this?

It is the drum of my washing machine! I stuck the lens into the machine and used the circular fisheye setting to cover
180 degrees of the inside of the machine. Imagine the other cool stuff you can do!
Why do so many photographers get disillusioned with their fisheye lenses? The reason is simple: with a fisheye lens, elements in the shot get pulled far apart with such an extreme wide-angle, so it is tough to achieve a cohesive composition. Fisheye lenses work extremely well in some cases, but in many cases it just doesn’t work at all. With experience, you will start understanding which scenes work well with fisheye lenses and which ones do not.
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A nice image captured at full-frame fisheye. The fisheye nature is concealed in this image with all that natural curves in the scene.
Keep the camera leveled and it becomes more difficult to spot the tell-tale fisheye signs.

Go extreme with a circular fisheye… when it works, it works very well!
The exposure is extremely tricky with fisheye lenses, and all the more so with a circular fisheye. The coverage is so extreme that it takes in a lot of the sky or bright sources of light, so it is very likely that you end up underexposing your images. Review your images periodically to check the exposure, and you may want to use manual mode in certain cases to override the tendency to underexpose.
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Look for compositions that benefits from the fisheye effect.

Not better, just a different feel from a full frame fisheye
Another key issue is that a fisheye lens include in so many elements, it is difficult to ensure that all of them fall within the exposure latitude of the sensor. For example, the sky is usually 2-stops (or more) brighter than other elements in the photo, which means you either hold details in the sky or in the other parts of the photos. In the end, it’s usually a compromise of the highlights or shadows. You can use merge multiple exposure or use HDR (high dynamic range) techniques in post-processing to overcome this. But in most cases where the difference in exposure is not too extreme, you may be able to recover sufficient details in the shadow by pulling out the data when processing your RAW images.
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Some architecture works well with circular fisheye; pay attention to the forms

After a while, you will start spotting scenes which work well with fisheye lenses.
It may be tough in the beginning, but hang in there… the rewards are worth it!
Since I’m shooting with a full frame sensor EOS, I can achieve circular fisheye images at 8mm. But that means that I am shooting without a lens hood, exposing the front element to the world (to scratch). In practice, I should leave the lens hood on when shooting at 15mm, but the hassle of taking it on and off as I zoom means that photographers will usually just leave the hood off. Be very careful when shooting without a hood! The lens hood and lens cap comes off separately, but you can remove both by twisting the combination off the lens in a bayonet fashion.
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Looks like the mechanical arm of a space shuttle above planet Earth!

Not quite the same with a full-frame fisheye eh?
I started the review with the distinct feeling that I will be shooting more full-frame fisheye shots, but ended up with quite a lot of circular fisheye shots instead! I thought that the occasions for using a circular fisheye lens are very limited, but that turned out to be a misconception. It is more difficult to plan for a circular fisheye shot, but it is merely an additional step to retrain your eye. In many cases, the full frame is sufficient to capture the elements. In some cases though, having the circular fisheye option makes all the difference in the world.
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The flaring is tightly controlled, which is amazing for such a lens construction

The Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM is not a lens for everyone, given its relatively high price tag and exotic focal lengths. However, it does feature superlative optics for a fisheye lens, so you do get very good results even at the extreme angles, which is quite a feat of optical engineering. The lens may seem bulkier and heavier than its predecessor (EF 15mm f/2.8), but given that it incorporates both a circular and full frame fisheye, it is actually two lenses in one and quite worth the premium in weight and size.

The Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM is a perfect fit for full frame EOS

It is a difficult lens to master, and the opportunities for fisheye effects are not all that common. However, as I have illustrated with the comparisons, you can achieve impressive results when the conditions are right, and no other lenses in your arsenal can deliver the same kind of impact. Used judiciously, the Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM can be an important addition to distinguish your images from the rest of the pack.
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