How to Use Fisheye Lenses in Underwater Photography

For many underwater photography scenarios, a fisheye lens is an acquired taste largely due to its unique distortion and unusual perspective. Over the years I have spoken to a number of land-based photographers, many of whom adamantly oppose the use of a fisheye lens simply due to this distortion and the way it curves straight lines.

Underwater, however, the game changes entirely, and the fisheye effect becomes acceptable and is even desired in many situations.

underwater photography fisheye lens
A curious green sea turtle perfectly demonstrates the effect of a fisheye lens. Notice the centre emphasis and curving around the perimeter.

Let’s take a look at the use of fisheye lenses underwater and why they are one piece of equipment you definitely want in your tool kit!

What is a fisheye lens?

Fisheye lenses offer an ultra-wide field of view typically achieving at least 180 degrees. Above water, photographers may use a fisheye lens when shooting landscapes, action sports, or shooting creatively. Underwater, these lenses are a favourite piece of equipment for many divers looking to capture exciting close-up portraits and interesting seascapes.

In addition to the extremely wide field of view, one of the key characteristics of fisheye lenses is their distortion. It emphasises subjects or objects in the centre of the frame and curves the objects around the perimeter.

The underwater world has very few straight lines and, as a result, this effect is not nearly as distracting as it can be above water. In fact, it often helps create a more interesting and impactful composition.

fisheye lens example underwater
A school of trevally congregate beneath a jetty on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

Choosing a fisheye lens

If you’re shooting with a full-frame camera, Nikon and Canon both offer an 8-15mm lens, both of which are excellent options.

If you’re shooting with a cropped sensor camera, then Tokina dominates the market with the ever-popular 10-17mm.

When it comes to choosing a fisheye lens, there are a few considerations you will want to check including their weight, sharpness, and overall quality. But, perhaps the most important consideration is their close-focusing ability.

mobula rays
A fever of mobula rays cruises past in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico.

A fisheye lens that is well-suited to underwater photography should be able to focus sharply on subjects that are basically touching your dome port when the camera is assembled inside its housing.

The aforementioned 8-15mm from Nikon and Canon and Tokina’s 10-17mm all possess impressive close-focusing capabilities, being able to achieve perfect focus from just 6 inches away.

What makes them so popular?

So why all the fuss? Well, one of the cardinal rules in underwater photography is to get as close as possible to your target to minimise the amount of water between the subject and your camera. This is how photographers achieve images rich in colour, contrast, and detail.

With their ultra-wide field of view and close-focusing abilities, fisheye lenses allow you to get closer to your subject than any other lens, which is a massive plus.

Photographers keen on capturing larger animals, far-stretching seascapes, or giant schools of fish also rely on fisheye lenses to ensure they can capture such scenes in their entirety.

nurse shark
This large grey nurse shark was captured just 10 centimetres from my dome. The fisheye lens was able to capture the shark in its entirety while still including the surrounding environment.

How to shoot with a fisheye lens

Working with a fisheye lens is much like any other piece of glass in your kit: they require a great deal of practice.

Many photographers are surprised when they discover just how close to subjects you need to be to fill the frame. While this can be frustrating in the beginning, once you become more familiar the results can be incredible!

1. Composition

Fisheye lenses can be used to create a variety of interesting compositions, from capturing super-wide scenes such as schooling fish or coral reefs, to close-up portraits displaying all the intricate details of your subject.

At first, it may take some time to learn the lens, but you will soon discover that due to the very wide field of view, minor changes to your shooting angle can result in drastically different images.

One of the most popular types of compositions is the close-focus wide-angle shot. The idea is to fill the frame as much as possible with a specific subject yet still incorporate an interesting background.

The best way to capture these types of images is to get as close as possible to your subject, ideally within just a couple of inches, and then angle your camera slightly upwards to include as much of the surrounding environment and light as possible.

Always keep your eye on the viewfinder and be deliberate when choosing what parts of the background to include – it can make all the difference in the world!

fisheye lenses
A silky shark swims up from the deep in clear blue water off the coast of San Jose, Mexico.

2. Lighting

The wide field of view of a fisheye lens is also beneficial when it comes to capturing light in your images. If shooting without strobes, be mindful of the position of the sun as it will be much easier to include the rays as opposed to longer lenses.

When trying to capture sun rays with a fisheye lens, it helps to use a fast shutter speed such as 1/250 (with strobes) or 1/800 (without strobes), while also angling your composition to include the rays. It also helps to be in the water just after sunrise or just before sunset, when the sun’s rays hit the surface of the water at an angle.

If shooting with strobes, a fisheye lens (or a very wide-angle lens) is the only way to go. This is because light doesn’t travel far underwater, so again you will need to be very close to your subject to achieve a nice exposure.

The position of your strobes will then depend on how close your subject is. The closer you are to your subject, the closer your strobes will need to be to each side of your dome port to successfully expose the centre of your image. As your subject moves further away, extend your strobes out wider to increase the spread of light.

It is best to keep strobe power low to minimise hot spots as well as to avoid agitating your subject. You will often be just inches away from the animal, so a brief flash of light is all that’s needed for a nice exposure.

Read more: An Introduction to Using Strobes in Underwater Photography

3. Distance to your subject

The distance at which you need to be to your subject when shooting with a fisheye lens is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because the images will often be amazing with extreme detail, vibrant colours, and exciting compositions. It’s a curse because getting this close can be very difficult and not always possible.

You want to be no more than one meter from your subjects. In an ideal scenario, you will be just centimetres away; the closer you can be, the better!

Read more: Underwater Photography Ethics and Code of Conduct

sea turtle with a fisheye lens
Fisheye lenses are amazing at capturing all of the intricate details on underwater subjects such as this green sea turtle.

Limitations of a fisheye

Despite the many advantages of shooting with a fisheye, they do come with some limitations. As already mentioned, it can be hard to get close to many different animals underwater. Therefore, you are likely to miss many photo opportunities on any given dive purely because it’s not possible to get as close as you need to be.

The best way to combat this is to simply improve your diving, move slowly, and get to know your subjects. Look to photograph subjects that are typically more relaxed or better yet, curious. Animals such as turtles, manta rays, and sea lions are great as they are usually happy to come very close and are not easily startled.

Another limitation of these lenses is the fisheye effect itself – it’s not for everyone. While this effect can be somewhat removed or de-emphasised in post-production, some shooters will prefer their straight lines to remain straight.

fisheye lens
A friendly manta ray stares into my dome port while diving Julian Rocks, Byron Bay Australia.

In conclusion

If you’re an avid ocean photographer, then an ultra-wide fisheye lens should be in your kit! The underwater world is enormous and consists of thousands of gigantic scenes that can only be captured with a super-wide field of view.

In addition to being able to photograph these large scenes and big animals, you will be able to get close to marine life and focus on all of their interesting details and textures.

Visit Josh's website

Josh is an underwater photographer based on the Gold Coast on the East Coast of Australia. With an emphasis on colour, details and impactful compositions, Josh uses his underwater imagery to spark discussion and inspire others to develop a deeper connection to our blue planet. He has authored and provided images for many online and printed publications both within Australia and overseas. Josh realised his love for combining written content with his photographs to tell the exciting stories behind his encounters.

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