How do Fisheye Lenses work?

The name ‘Fisheye lens’ comes from the wide angle of view these lens produce and is similar to the perspective from a fish’s eye. Fisheye lenses were originally developed for use in astronomy due to their ability to record the whole of the sky but are now used for many purposes. A fisheye lens can enable the photographer to bring greater artistic expression, drama, or even humour to images and the ability to focus close to a subject and achieve a very large depth of field.

Fisheye lenses have become popular with a wide range of photographers due to their unique, distorted images. Lenses are normally designed to correct barrel and pincushion distortion, however, with a fisheye lens these lens corrections are not applied and the distortion is visible. 

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There are two main types of fisheye lenses; Circular and Full-frame Fisheye and they produce very different results.

Circular Fisheye
Circular fisheye lenses generally capture a 180-degree angle of view or larger which is projected as a circle within the image frame. The image is highly distorted and this will be more prominent depending on how close objects are to the lens and where in the frame they are located.

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Grey line = Image circle, Red line = Image frame

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Full-frame Fisheye
Full-frame fisheye lenses produce an enlarged image circle that covers the entire image frame. Because of this, the picture angle produced by these lenses only measures 180 degrees when measured from corner to corner. This type of fisheye is the most commonly used by photographers.

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Grey line = Image circle, Red line = Image frame

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It is possible to get a single zoom lens that combines both fisheye formats into one lens, such as the AF-S Fisheye Nikkor 8–15mm f/3.5–4.5E ED lens. A further consideration with fisheye lenses is whether the lens will be used on an FX or DX DSLR camera, as the different sensor sizes in these formats will affect the angle of view produced by the lens.

Currently available Nikon Fisheye lenses

LensType of Fisheye lens
1. AF Fisheye-Nikkor 16mm f/2.8DFull frame
2. AF DX Fisheye-Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8G EDFull frame (DX)
3. AF-S Fisheye NIKKOR 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E EDFull frame and Circular

How does sensor size affect the fisheye effect?
Due to the difference in sensor size between DX and FX Digital SLR cameras, a lens will produce a  different angle of view on each format camera.

The example images below were taken with the AF-S Fisheye Nikkor 8–15mm f/3.5–4.5E ED (no lens hood to avoid vignetting).
FX sensor 
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8mm focal length: Circular fisheye is achieved15mm focal length: Full frame fisheye

DX Sensor
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8mm focal length: The fisheye is not completely circular15mm focal length: There is less fisheye effect than when using an FX sensor camera

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