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by Andy McInroy
Photograph Of The Month - April 2009

Grianán of Aileach
IR415, Grianán of Aileach, County Donegal

Fisheye Landscapes

The fisheye lens can make an interesting addition to your photographic kitbag. I have discovered that the wide views are perfect for capturing the dark and enclosed chambers of County Antrim's sea caves. However, I have also been experimenting above ground too. I was keen to dispell the landscape myth that fisheye lenses are merely novelty items.

The fisheye lens is an extremely wide angle lens which has a high degree of optical distortion. The view through a fisheye lens can look rather like the view a goldfish might enjoy while looking out from its bowl. The lens transforms straight lines from the real world into curves. Close objects also appear more dominant in the frame than distant objects, an effect which can be used to accentuate the foreground.

Using a fisheye lens for conventional landscape photography can be tricky. Firstly, the curved distortion of the horizon can look peculiar and the novelty of this effect quickly wears off. The fisheye lens is perhaps best used in situations where the horizon can be placed through the centre of the frame, thus appearing natural and undistorted. To do this however, the sky and the land need to be balanced in the composition. The second problem with using the fisheye lens is the difficulty in exposure. These lenses capture so much of the landscape and sky that there can be a huge range in brightness across the photograph. Using a neutral density graduate filter is not a solution because the curved front elements of these lenses give rise to reflections off the filter. I get round this problem by dispensing with the filters altogether and reverting to digital blending from multiple exposures. This is a technique that I have also used in my cave photography.
Giant's Causeway
Effect of fisheye distortion
on a non-central horizon

Learmount forest
Effect of fisheye distortion
on non-central verticals

Cathedral Cave
See more from the sea cave project.

Downhill Strand
Another example of
a centrally placed horizon

The lens I used to create these images is a Pentax 10-17mm fullframe fisheye. At its widest 10mm, it can capture a 180 degree view across the frame. It is worth bearing in mind that a 10mm fisheye is much wider than a standard 10mm rectilinear lens (e.g 10-20mm from Sigma) which would more commonly be used for landscape photography and has an angle of view of just 110 degrees.

Back in March I took my fisheye lens up to the ancient hillfort of Grianán of Aileach in County Donegal. I had always struggled to take a photograph from within the walls of the fort due to sheer size of the enclosure. Another difficulty is that the land around the fort is at a much lower level. By using the fisheye lens and by getting my tripod up to a good height, I was able to capture the sweeping walls and also some of the land sweeping down into the heart of Donegal. It was a bitterly cold day and there wasn't much promise of a break in the clouds. However, I waited patiently for an hour and for the briefest of minutes a single shaft of light broke through exactly where I needed it. Luck comes to those who wait. I quickly fired off the three exposures I needed to make my digital blend.

At home, I merged the three exposures together using a computer program called 'Photomatix'. I tried to make the digital processing as subtle as possible by keeping the blending effect low and by showing restraint with the saturation slider. Looking at this photograph, I feel that it is the best I have managed from within the walls of the fort itself. Perhaps one weakness is that the curve of the wall leads the viewers eye out of the frame whereas I really want the viewers attention to end on the sunbeam. This composition therefore has a 'T' shaped arrangement which perhaps forces our eyes in two different directions at the junction of the 'T'.

The fisheye lens has been great fun to experiment with and has allowed me to compress this huge view into this small frame. I believe that there is much more potential to these lenses in landscape photography. Once the distortion is disguised and the exposure problems are addressed it becomes quite hard to detect that a fisheye lens has been used at all. I couldn't leave my visitors feeling like goldfish after all.

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Technical Details (Main Image)
Date/Time: 4.20pm, 6th March, 2009
Processing: HDR blend of 3 exposures
Aperture: F19
Exposure times: 1/60th, 1,20th, 1/6th seconds
Focal Length: 10mm
Lens: Pentax 10-17mm DA Fisheye
Camera: Pentax K10D
Support: Tripod and cable release
Filtration: None

Text and photos © Andy McInroy