For travel photography, I think a lens with a wide field of view is crucial, letting you capture the rolling hills of Tuscany, the frenetic neon and glass canyons of Tokyo, and the tight stone rooms of Edinburgh castle.
But wide-angle or fisheye? This is a question I’ve been asking myself over the past few weeks. After getting all my gear stolen last year, I’ve been on something of a lens kick, trying out different options, and getting vastly different lenses than I had before.
But as someone who is predominately a travel photographer, I’ve been trying to find the right lens that has a number of seemingly incompatible features. I think I’ve found what’s right for me, but hopefully this guide will give you a better idea what’s right for you.
If you want an overall lens primer, check out my Best DSLR Lenses for Travel guide.
The short version is, at the same focal length (the “mm” number), a fisheye lens should offer roughly the same field of view as the same focal length from a traditional wide-angle lens. The difference is that a fisheye gives that pronounced outward bow from the center of the image, like you’re looking through a peephole in a door.
Depending on the wide-angle lens you get, it too might have some of this “barrel distortion,” but it will be far less pronounced.
While it would be easy to dismiss fisheye lenses as strictly a novelty, that’s not the whole story. Barrel distortion is one of the easiest aspects to fix in an image in Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom, letting you remove the fisheye “look” with a click or two. This essentially converts a fisheye photo to a standard wide photo. But we’ll get to that later.
For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to assume that none of you reading this has a high-end full-frame camera. I would hope that if you’ve spent that kind of money, you don’t need a beginners guide like this. So instead, I’m assuming you have a crop sensor camera, like pretty much all cameras under $1,500, including DSLRs like the Canon 80D and Nikon D7500, or any mirrorless or Micro Four Thirds cameras like the Fujifilm X-T20. If this is the case, fisheye lenses will be super wide, but rarely “circular.” In other words, they won’t create a circle of an image inside the regular rectangular frame. “Crop sensors” like the super common APS-C size almost always zoom in just enough to create a rectangular image, where the same lens on a full frame camera would create a circle.
One big exception to the above is Sony’s A7 line, which is full frame and relatively inexpensive. Double check any fisheye lens you’re considering to make sure it does what you want on your camera.
Aperture and Speed
What makes this a little more challenging is the widest wide-angle lenses, unless you want to spend a fortune on them, tend to be a little “slow.” In this context, that means they have a relatively high maximum aperture, so they don’t let in a lot of light. So you’ll need to use a slower shutter speed, higher ISO, or both to get a correctly exposed image. For landscapes this isn’t a big deal, but interiors can be a challenge without a tripod.
Fisheye lenses are often, though not always, prime lenses (i.e., no zoom). They also tend to have a better maximum aperture, letting you shoot easier in lower light.
While f2.8 and f4 might not seem that different, f2.8 lets in twice as much light. That can be a big difference when shooting interiors.
There are small wide-angle lenses, and there are small fisheye lenses. There aren’t many big fisheye lenses, while there are lots of HUGE wide-angle lenses. Prime fisheye lenses tend to be fairly compact, like any prime, which can be handy when you’re travelling and not wanting to carry a lot of kit.
The extra lens elements needed to make an ultra-wide-angle lens can also make those lenses fairly heavy. This is especially true of the higher-end, faster ultra-wide lenses.
There’s enough variation that it’s hard to say. Generally speaking, you can spend a lot more on a wide-angle lens than on a fisheye. But that’s likely because there are just more wide-angle lenses available. Fisheyes still tend to be more niche. Every lens company makes one maybe two, while making many wide-angle and wide-zooms. So there’s a greater variety of wide-angle lenses available and a correspondingly wider variety of prices.
Editing and Cropping
As I mentioned earlier, with a bit of post-processing, you can get a fisheye to look like a regular wide-angle lens. Essentially straightening out the bowed lines. With many fisheye lenses, there’s an automatic correction possible in Photoshop. So with one click, you’ve got a photo with straight lines.
This is an extra step, though. It also crops in slightly on your photo. In my testing, you loose about 15% of the image width and height. This, in effect, makes the lens slightly less “wide” than its focal length would imply. It’s not a lot, maybe just a millimeter or two, but if you’re going for the widest lens possible, it’s a tiny bit of a step back.
Just as an example, when I compared two Sigma lenses, a 15mm fisheye and an 8mm-16mm zoom, the fisheye was very slightly wider (12%) than the zoom set at 15mm. When I took out the barrel distortion in Lightroom they were basically identical in field of view. Each lens is a bit different, though, so don’t take these numbers as absolutes.
Does this digital manipulation cause you to lose resolution? Technically, probably, but none that I’ve noticed. And if you just post on social media, you’ll never notice.
I left this for last because it’s so subjective. Fisheye lenses, in their unedited form, create a unique “look” to the image. Used correctly, it can add a surreal aspect, or wildly emphasize your subject. It’s not for everyone, nor is it for every situation.
That said, since you can take the fisheye aspect out of the image afterwards, in a way a fisheye gets you two lenses in one. However, it’s a lot harder to frame the image correctly, as all you can see in the viewfinder is the bowed-out image. So it’s a bit more difficult to get right, where as a standard wide lens shows you pretty much exactly what you’re going to get.
So what did I pick? You’re not going to like the answer. I have both, but let me explain! For many of the photo projects I do, there are a lot of tight interiors, like the inside of a submarine, or a castle, that kind of thing. So I have the widest wide-angle for APC-C sensors, a Sigma 8mm-16mm. It’s really slow, though, with a maximum aperture of f4.5.
I also have a Sigma 15mm fisheye, with a maximum aperture of f2.8. So while it’s not as wide, it’s way faster. So really the only thing that wouldn’t be covered is a space I need something wider than the 15mm fisheye, but too dark for the 8mm wide. Seems like a rare occurrence to me.
What’s best for you? Well the fisheye is likely to be more portable and compact, and potentially give you the option to shoot in lower light. The wide-angle is more of a “set it and forget it” requiring no addition post processing, easier camera-to-social-media images, but probably will be a bit bigger and perhaps heavier. If you like the “look” of a fisheye lens though, and think it’d be cool for some photos, that’s a solid option, especially since you can de-fisheye pretty easily afterwards.
My best advice is find a local camera shop. Their prices will probably be the same as online, and you’ll be able to test the lenses yourself on your camera.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Geoffrey Morrison