It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.
Henry David Thoreau
1 – Introduction
Last year I wrote an essay about the Canon EF 8-15, f/4 USM fisheye. You can read it on this site at this link: https://lula.wpengine.com/canon-8-15-fisheye-lens/ This previous essay was a first look at the possibilities offered by this lens.
I have now worked with this lens for more than a year. Over this span of time I have had many opportunities to explore the compositional possibilities that it offers. This second essay is a look at what these possibilities are.
As with many things in photography and in art, discovering the possibilities offered by a tool is essentially a matter of using this tool intensely. By using this lens on every shoot since I purchased it I was able to start creating images that make better use of the possibilities that it offers.
2 – Two types of compositions
Using a fisheye lens to photograph landscapes offers unique possibilities. These possibilities, which are obviously rooted in the unique perspective distortions created by the lens, can be divided in two main categories:
– Composing circular compositions using the lens at the 8 mm setting on a full frame 35mm camera.
– Composing non-circular compositions using the lens at the 12 to 15 mm setting on a full frame 35mm camera.
While I am creating images from both categories with this lens, I primarily discuss images from the first category here because this essay focuses on creating circular fisheye images. I do however feature images from the second category in sections 6 and 7 where I discuss lens quality, specifically the fact that this lens keeps vertical objects vertical when used at the 12 to 15 mm zoom setting.
3 – Circular composition remarks
In both categories, traditional and nontraditional composition concepts can be used with circular images, including the Golden Ratio and the eight Gestalt concepts. I purposefully limit myself to mentioning this in passing here because the focus of my current research is on artistic composition and because I will cover the Golden Ratio and the eight Gestalt concepts in my next series of essays.
Lines can be used of course. However, with circular images the most effective type of line is going to be curved lines because the lens naturally curves elements thereby providing a venue for a successful use of curves in the composition.
Straight lines can be used if you place vertical or horizontal elements in the middle of the frame so they are not distorted. Using straight lines in addition to curved lines creates a more striking visual contrast with circular images than with rectangular images.
In order for a fisheye image to sustain the viewer’s interest, the image cannot rely only on the fisheye effect alone. The composition has to be interesting and it has to bring the viewer in by generating curiosity, just like with rectangular photographs. There is no difference between circular and rectangular images in that respect. Images can be interesting or not, whether they are created with a fisheye or with some other lens.
4 – Composing Circular Compositions
Creating circular compositions is only possible with a true fisheye lens, meaning a fisheye that shows the entire image circle and therefore creates a circular image.
Certainly any photograph taken with this lens at the 8 mm setting will give you a circular photograph. And just as certainly a circular photograph will be surprising to people that are not familiar with this lens. However this does not mean that the photograph is interesting beyond its weirdness or uncommon aspect ratio. It also does not mean that the image is successful from a compositional perspective.
To help you create images whose interest goes beyond being circular, here are some remarks about things that I have found to be helpful when photographing with this lens:
– The key to composing successful circular compositions lies in positioning elements so that they circle around the frame rather than follow straight lines as in rectangular or square images.
– Avoiding cliché photographs and making the most of the possibilities offered by the lens is easier if I used the lens extensively and if I set a specific focus for my work.
– I also found out that it is difficult to avoid photographing your feet if you shoot at eye level or if you point the lens down. However, on occasion I have found that purposefully including my feet adds interest to the image, creates a unique look and helps tell a story.
– I like to think of elements that are behind me as being in fact on top of the frame. If I tilt the lens up far enough they will show at the top of the image. How far I have to lean back will depend on the height of the object and their distance between me and them, but eventually just about anything located behind me can be included in the circular frame.
– I avoid empty skies as much as possible unless the empty sky is used metaphorically to express a specific concept such as ‘space’ or ‘immensity’ for example. This is easy with a rectangular image because all you have to do is tilt the lens down or crop the sky in post processing. However cropping is not possible with a fisheye lens, therefore not including an empty sky has to be done at the time of image capture. To do so you have two options. The first option is to tilt the lens down which most likely means including your feet. If you choose this option you first need to decide if this is ok or not.
The second option is to fill the sky with something. If you choose this option you have to find an element that will fill the sky while adding interest to the image. This can be a tree, a canyon wall, or any other element found in the location that you are photographing. Depending on the size of the object you are using, you may have to get very close to it. Doing so will of course greatly distort the element. This is where it gets fun. Personally I found that I love the distortions created by the lens when I get very close to an object. I also found that it takes time to find the exact positioning because small movements right to left or up and down change the distortions significantly, and thus modify the composition.
– Shooting hand held instead of using a tripod makes the process described above faster, fun, intuitive and creative. On the other hand using a tripod makes the process slower and more painstaking. I personally prefer to shoot handheld when using this lens.
– Finally, I found that an effective way of generating sustained interest in the image is to have things happen all over the frame and not just in one specific location.
Regarding locations, I found out that the following situations are propitious to good fisheye photography:
– The first is being in a narrow canyon, such as a slot canyon ideally, because there are things all around you and you can play with elements as much as you want without fearing to leave an area empty.
– The second one is to be in front of a tall structure because, again, you can make it fill the frame and avoid the dreaded empty sky.
– The third situation is being in a location where you are surrounded from all sides by interesting formations, such as in the photographs of hoodoos in this essay, because it makes it possible to create ‘little planet’ look alike images in camera, without having to apply a filter in Photoshop or do anything to them beside click the shutter.
5 – Using the full circular frame
At first I was placing elements only at the bottom of the frame. This was a self-imposed limitation essentially coming from the misled desire to keep the horizon flat.
Fact is there is no rule that says the horizon should be level or in the middle of the frame. It can be anywhere I please, including at the top of a circular frame, following the circular border of the image. Of course, this means distorting pretty much everything in the image, but then if you use a fisheye lens there is an assumption that you don’t mind distorting things.
It was only after using this lens for several months that I learned to use the full circular image frame, which in this case means placing elements all around the circular image. Of course the horizon was no longer flat, in fact in many instances it ended up being at the very bottom of the image, nearly parallel to the curved image circle. However, by then it no longer mattered to me because doing so meant embracing the full capabilities of this approach to composition and following the aesthetic that the lens led me to.
Notice how the shape of the rock face on the right curves so as to follow the image circle.
6 – Composing Non-Circular Compositions
Because it is an 8-15 mm zoom, this lens can be used at a non-circular setting giving rectangular images while retaining the dynamism of the fisheye effect.
Below is a small collection of images created during a shoot in Saguaro National park this past spring. One of these appeared in a previous essay on this site, however the ones below have not been published before.
7 – Keeping verticals vertical
I was surprised to discover that this lens, which obviously distorts elements, was able to keep vertical elements vertical. I found that out because during the Saguaro National Park shoot I was using the Sigma 12-24 and the Canon 8-15 side by side. When I compared the images created with both lenses, I noticed that the Sigma was tilting the elements at the top of the frame, in this instance the saguaros, while the Canon was keeping them perfectly straight.
Both lenses were used at the same 15 mm zoom setting: 15 mm
The Canon 8-15 keeps elements straight when taking both vertical and horizontal photographs. This is probably obvious from an engineering perspective, however, being an artist I thought it was worth mentioning.
8 – Triptychs and framing
How do you frame circular photographs? The simplest way is to mat them in a square mat in which you cut a circular opening. This is easy if you have a computerized mat cutter, which I do. I understand that this tool is not as common as a frying pan so if you don’t have one (most photographers don’t) you can either invest in a manual circular mat cutter or have a frame shop cut a circular mat for you. Which of these two options you use will depend on how many mats you need to cut. If you just need a couple of them, go to a frame shop. If you plan to do this regularly, and say cut hundreds of circular mats a year, then investing in a manual circular cutter makes sense. If you plan to cut thousands, I would look into getting a computerized mat cutter. If you do, keep in mind that it will also cut regular mats .
Another way of framing a circular image is to present them as groupings of two, three, four or more images. I find groupings of three to be most effective, both in terms of aesthetics (human beings like grouping of three) and in terms of size and practicality. A triptych (a grouping of three elements) does not get overly wide or tall and therefore will fit nicely in most locations. Furthermore, the size of the individual prints can be adjusted so as to make the piece the desired size.
9 – Selling circular images
You may wonder if circular photographs sell, so let’s take this conversation about circular photographs created with a fish eye lens as an opportunity for a brief marketing update regarding the sale of fine art photography prints in 2015. If you are selling your work this is certainly important because it directly affects your income. If you are not it may still be interesting because it provides a snapshot on current market conditions.
The buying audience is less and less concerned with whether or not a photograph was ‘manipulated’ or whether it is ‘as is’. This is due to several factors. First, the ever-increasing acceptance of digital photography as a legitimate medium. Second, the fact that this medium is separate from ‘pure photography’. Third, the fact that fine art photography is an art form practiced by artists whose goal is to express their artistic vision rather than document the world.
Certainly there will always be a division between buyers and collectors looking for artistic photography, as a form of expression, regardless of how it is created, and collectors looking specifically for traditional fine art photography as it was practiced prior to the appearance of digital photography. In fact, the degree of separation between these two groups is increasing.
This is of no concern for those selling their work because the buying audience interested in digital photograph, i.e. ‘manipulated photographs’ is, on the other hand, increasing. What we have is two distinct groups, each interested in a different type of fine art photography. Interestingly, the gray area between these two groups is small, indicating that the battle lines, if I may call them that, are clearly drawn.
And in regards to selling circular photographs the answer is yes, they do sell and there is a demand for them. This demand stems from the fact that art collectors are always looking for something unique, both from the perspective of the piece and from the perspective of the artist’s vision. People don’t buy art because they want the same thing on their walls as their neighbors. They buy art because they want something unique, different and original.
However, above all else, people buy art, and fine art photography, for emotional reasons. This is the number one rule of marketing when selling fine art photography. They don’t buy photographs because they are priced ‘affordably,’ are 8” x 10” or 24” x 36”, or circular, or square, or whatever. While all these factors are part of their final decision, the primary deciding factor is their emotional response to the image. As long as you have that your work will sell.
Of course, you have to know how to market it but that is an entirely different subject altogether, one that I corner in my Marketing Mastery DVD tutorials on my site.
10 – More fisheye photographs
Additional photographs that I created with this lens are available in this online gallery on my site:
1 – More about Artistic composition
As mentioned in section 3 this essay, Artistic Composition is the focus of my current research. One of the outcomes of this research is the publication of the Artistic Composition Mastery Workshop on DVD/USB card. This is the 8th tutorial in the Mastery Workshops series. Detailed information about it is available HERE:
A limited time special offer is available at this link together with a detailed description of the contents, sample materials, and an intriguing free gift which is guaranteed to surprise you and the free 21 pages eBook table of contents at the link above.
12 – About Alain Briot
I create fine art photographs, teach workshops and offer DVD tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing and marketing. I am the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style, Marketing Fine Art Photography and How Photographs are Sold. All 4 books are available in eBook format on my website.
You can find more information about my work, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to my Free Monthly Newsletter on my website.. You will receive 40 free eBooks immediately after subscribing.
I welcome your comments on this essay as well as on my other essays. You can contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.