For years I have been exclusively a Canon lens guy. I had a couple of non-Canon lenses very early on, before I moved up to a Full-Frame body (5D Mark III, and now a 5D Mark IV.) For the past couple of years I have done a vast array of gear reviews, but the one area that I have never really delved into is with camera bodies and lenses. I focused on filters, tripods, software, websites, gadgets... all of the 'other' stuff in the camera bag. Then, a couple of months ago, I received an email from Ally over at Lensbaby. She wanted to know if I would be interested in expanding my reviews to include some Lensbaby lenses. I was absolutely thrilled with the opportunity! I have heard so many other writers/podcasters talking about Lensbaby over the past few years, and it's a really neat opportunity to see what the buzz has been all about!
I came to the Circular Fisheye with a fair amount of experience using a standard Canon fisheye lens. The first thing that I noticed in getting used to the Lensbaby is that it's a manual lens. It has been such a long time since I shot a manual lens, and I have to confess: I love it! I am one of those "older guys" who learned everything on manual film cameras. My first few years of shooting were with an Argus C3 "Brick" camera, and then the following 10 years or so were on a Canon AE-1. I can't quite describe the sheer joy I found in returning to manual aperture and focus adjustment!
So first, let's talk about focusing manually. At first, one might think that getting used to manual focus might be a bit of a pain after being so spoiled by the advanced AF in Canon L glass, and on a 5D Mark IV. Specifically speaking of this lens, I found that absolutely not to be the case. For the most part, because the image is going to be so highly distorted and "special effects" oriented, it's not quite like trying to get a subject's eye perfectly in focus for a portrait. I was expecting there to be a fairly long adjustment period in getting back to using manual focus, but the transition was almost instant. I have long used manual focus for my wide-angle landscape photography. My workflow for that is to use live mode, and then to zoom way in, and focus by hand anyway, even with the Canon 16-35. I used this lens exactly the same way. In live view, hit the magnifying glass until you are zoomed in to maximum magnification, and focus as sharply as you can by hand. Not one time did I produce an image that I felt was inhibited by any focusing issues, at all. Another point to notice is that the lens is so extremely wide, that focusing isn't particularly fussy anyway.
The most thrilling part of shooting with the Lensbaby Circular Fisheye was the artistic images that I was creating, right from the very beginning. With more standard lenses, it's basically a constant goal to be creative. Seeking out unusual perspective, or especially innovative/creative composition is in many ways a very deliberate action. With the Lensbaby Circular Fisheye, virtually every image produced has a very creative, unusual quality. Where the distortion on the outer corners of a wide angle lens is something that I would generally try to correct in post-production, with these images, the distortion is a big part of the whole point. That isn't to say that there is only one result that you are going to get with this lens. Because of the 185 degree field of view, there is a very noticeable 'bending' of the world when viewed through this lens. One thing that I particularly enjoy doing is to alter the angle of my camera/lens, to play with the segment of the subject that is going to be most straight, vs. the portion that is going to have the greatest curve.
For example, in the photo above, I got down low, and angled the lens so that the top of the wooden fence remained as close to straight as possible. The world is essentially 'bending' around that central straight line. Had I positioned the lens differently, that board would have been completely curved looking, and a different segment of the image would be close to straight.
In this next image, I got low to the ground, and used the straighter portion of the image to convey the horizon line, but then the house and the large tree to the left both took on a greatly curved look. The unique function of the Circular Fisheye really guides the creative process, and gives you a tool in your arsenal that is truly unmatched by any other lens in your bag. It is incredibly fun to shoot!
The inside barrel of the lens is polished, so it gives you some incredibly cool reflections/prism effects. I found that playing with this is one of my very favorite unusual aspects of this lens! In this shot, I was photographing an aging barrel at a local coffee roaster that happens to produce their own line of rum. This rum aging barrel was in a large rack, and there was a string of lights around the top of the rack. The barrel is obviously round - but the lights were in a straight line. I had a blast using the curving of the lens to bend the light to match the arc of the barrel. Not surprisingly, the owner of the coffee shop/distillery "liked" the image almost instantly when I shared it out via Instagram. It gives you as the photographer a ton of ability to warp and play with perspective.
Another image where the polished inner barrel played a role was the image below, also taken in the La Colombe headquarters. You will notice that the "La Colombe" lights are actually reflecting off the inner barrel of the lens, and throwing a very cool and creative flare onto the final image. You can also see the prism effect at the top of this one, as well.
In areas of the images where I decided that I specifically did not want a reflection, prism, or some other effect around the outer edge, I found a very easy solution is to simply use the vignette control in lightroom, and darken them all down completely.
185 degree field of view
One of the obvious things about this lens is that it has a HUGE field of view. This image, taken at the Steinway Factory in Astoria, NY, originally included a snippet of my shirt, and shoes. I will let the fact that my stomach protruded enough to get into the image speak for itself, but I could see the shoes being a recurring issue for even the tiniest of shooters. This lens covers beyond the 180 degree field of view, so being aware of those far edges is very important. I simply went into Photoshop and used the clone tool to replace my shirt, which was bright and distracting (pure white.) I didn't really find the shoes terribly distracting, so I left them in for illustration.
Who should buy this lens?
Although this is more of a "how the lens opened up my creativity" type article, I feel compelled to at least offer a tiny bit of opinion as far as who would benefit from having a lens like this in their arsenal. In my opinion, this is an incredible tool for photographers who are seeking to bring some unique creativity to their image making. It would be absolutely perfect for a wedding photographer who wants to add some really uncommon images to their galleries. It's also ideal for the landscape photographer who finds that they have spent the past "x" number of years basically pursuing the same type of look. This is the type of lens that reinvigorates a photographer, and gets you really excited to see what innovative and unusual image can be made. At only $299.00, it's also a heck of a lot less expensive than adding another Canon L lens or Nikon lens to your kit. You really can't beat the 'bang for the buck' with this lens.
Having shot the Circular Fisheye, I am now chomping at the bit to experience the other offerings of Lensbaby! At the time of this writing I have two weddings and a commercial shoot coming up in the next week or so. I have my fingers crossed that one of their portrait lenses might be here for me to explore at all of these events! I'm hopeful for myself as the photographer, but also for my clients, and that's a really good sign!
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