A Fisheye View

Samyang 8mm f2.8 fisheye

Fisheyes are an interesting and exotic breed of lens. They offer a super-wide, uncorrected view of the world, often covering a field of view as great as 180º. Whether used to exploit their characteristic distortion or as a software corrected wide prime, a fisheye is a great photographic tool.

Samyang 8mm f2.8 UMC fisheye

The Samyang* 8mm fisheye is specially designed for use on mirrorless cameras and comes with a variety of mounts to suit different systems including the Fuji X and Sony E mounts. The main benefits of the lens being designed for mirrorless cameras are its small size and light weight. Given you’ll probably not want this lens on your camera constantly, making it pocketable gives you a good excuse to carry it around for when that right moment arises. Presently the Samyang is the only native-mount fisheye for the Fuji X system.

* Samyang lenses are also sold under several other brand names including “Rokinon” and “Bower”.

The lens is made of high quality plastics and metal. As is typical of Samyang lenses, the fit and finish are excellent. The mount is all metal and a thick plastic integrated hood provides some protection to the front element. The lens uses a clip-on style plastic cap that once mounted stays firmly in place. Typical for a fisheye, the bulbous front-element makes using filters impossible. You could possibly affix a small filter inside the mount at the rear of the lens if you were desperate and could find one less than about 35mm wide.

Like all Samyang lenses to-date the 8mm is manual focus and has no electrical contacts to talk with your camera. As such it won’t record aperture information in your photo’s EXIF data. You can however specify the focal length in the settings on your Fuji so that will be recorded. You’ll also need to enable the ‘shoot without lens’ option as the lack of electrical connection will make your camera think there’s nothing in front of the sensor.

You might be wondering if manual focusing with the lens will be a problem, especially if you’re primarily used to shooting with auto-focus lenses. The good news is you’ll rarely ever need to worry about focus – because of its extreme wide nature you’ll have a massive depth of field to work with. As long as you set your focal distance to around 2m you’ll have everything from your feet to the far horizon nice and sharp. If ever in doubt the magnified view in MF mode on your camera combined with focus peaking should make getting tack sharp shots every time simple.

This little lens is extremely sharp, especially when stopped down to between f5.6 and f8, you’ll be hard pressed to find any softness even in the extreme corners. Wider open and the centre remains fantastic but the corners naturally get softer. My copy of this lens is slightly softer in the bottom right corner than elsewhere in the frame.

Samyang-samplesHere are some 100% crops taken at f8. Processed with Lightroom 5.2 using default settings. No distortion correction applied.

Chromatic aberration (red and blue fringing) is well controlled and is easily corrected in software when visible.

Applications

Fisheyes tend to be thought of as novelty or special effect lenses. While they certainly can be used in such a way, software correction makes them usable as super-wide primes, within certain limitations. Even without correction careful framing and composition of your subject can hide much of the distortion.

Landscapes

For typical landscape shots with a fisheye the main rule for creating a fairly undistorted view is to align the horizon with the middle of the frame, that will keep it flat. Depending on your subject you may be able to get away with tilting up or down a little. You could even use the effect to exaggerate the height and shape of a hill or valley.

DSCF8920This square crop of a portrait photo has had no distortion correction applied and the subject matter makes the distortion all but invisible.

Another rule is to try and avoid vertical objects on the periphery of your shot as they’ll appear to bend somewhat comically. Buildings, trees, lampposts, fences and so on. Where possible get them in the centre of the frame where they will have barely visible distortion. Where it’s simply not possible to avoid vertical subjects towards the edges of the frame either for practical or artistic reasons help is at hand. A piece of software called Fisheye-Hemi by Image Trends does an amazing job of fixing vertical distortion while leaving horizontal distortion largely untouched. Most software that corrects fisheye distortion tends to lose large portions of the edges in an attempt to recreate a standard rectilinear projection as you’d see from a corrected wide-angle lens. Fisheye-Hemi solves this problem by applying more limited corrections which don’t skew the edges of the frame.

Interiors

Fisheyes are a great way to show off interior spaces large and small. With such a wide field of view you can get three walls, the floor and ceiling of a room all in one shot. Distortion correction in software may be necessary depending on your subject and desired look, but even uncorrected a fisheye shot can provide a fascinating seldom-seen view. If you can find somewhere with lots of curves to exploit, the fisheye will work wonders.

DSCF9037Again no correction applied to this image, the fisheye emphasises arches and uneven walls.

Dramatic effect

As already mentioned you can use a fisheye to exaggerate naturally occurring curves, be that in man-made things or the landscape itself. In the shot of York station below, the distortion adds to the sense of space and scale. You can also use the lens’ characteristic of making the subject in the centre appear small compared to its surroundings to great artistic effect as well. If there were a person standing on the platform edge in this shot they would appear tiny surrounded by the vast station building for example. Sadly no one obliged at the time! When placing people in a fisheye shot it’s best to keep them near the center to avoid unflattering distortions.

DSCF9402-EditFisheye-Hemi has been applied here to straighten the verticals while retaining the pleasing curves of the platform and roof.

Problems and Considerations

The problem with such a wide-angle lens is its often hard not to be in your own shot, whether you want to be or not. Tilt down too much and you’ll likely have your feet in the photo. Hold the lens too near the end and you may find a stray finger arching in. Even when you hold your camera perfectly you may find your shadow hard to avoid with the sun behind you. Be prepared to experiment to get the best composition and resigned to occasionally having to correct unavoidable intrusions into the frame by your body or shadow in post.

The Samyang is also a little prone to flare, if you’ve got the sun in your shot be very careful about the angle you choose as the lens can produce quite a pronounced ugly flare that will be quite a bit of work to remove in Photoshop.

Samyang 8mm flare example

The Right Stuff

There’s no denying that Fuji’s retro styled cameras are things of beauty as well as incredibly powerful photographic tools. With that in mind, when it comes to customising them to personalise and improve their ergonomics, it behooves us to complement rather than degrade that classic look.

The X100 Spoiled Me

I got my X100 secondhand on eBay, at the time for a very respectable sum of £659. It came with every accessory you could want – the leather case, the lens hood, soft release and even a Thumbs Up grip. After totting up the value of these accessories I was initially sorely tempted to put them up on eBay and just keep the X100 itself, but I quickly realised they really complemented the camera, not just visually but practically. The case protects the camera from knocks and scuffs and keeps off light rain. The Thumbs Up grip significantly improves the handling, making one handed operation much better. The lens hood is of course essential, especially with the X100’s lens being a little prone to flare. Although mainly it provides some protection to the front element and provides a useful 49mm filter ring. The only accessory I didn’t find myself using was the soft release, which has stayed in a drawer until recently finding a home on my X-E1.

As I got my X-E1 new I didn’t have the luxury of having several hundred pounds worth of accessories thrown in. Initially I tried my X100’s Thumbs Up on it as the top plate has basically identical dimensions. It fitted reasonably although needed to protrude a little further to mount properly. I quickly decided it was unnecessary. The bare X-E1 has better ergonomics than the X100 right from the outset and its larger lenses deter one handed use in my experience.

Half Case

When it came to getting a case I looked at some of the 3rd party half cases but decided to stick to Fuji in the end. The X100 leather case is lovely and very nicely made. Its main short comings are lack of a tripod mount and no access to the memory card and battery slot. The X-E1 half case fixes the most serious issue by making the memory card and battery slot accessible through a little flap. The X-E1 case also significantly improves the finger grip on the right side of the lens, giving you a better hold on the camera.

Where the X-E1 case falls down, is the supplied strap. To put it bluntly, it’s a piece of crap. The leather backed part is far shorter than the X100 version, the backing is cheap, plasticy and rough edged. I decided I needed to find a 3rd party strap to replace it almost immediately.

Neck Strap

I learned about Gordy’s Camera Straps from the excellent Fuji X Files blog. They custom build leather camera straps, letting you pick the exact length, colour, neck pad and lug covers. I was impressed with how reasonable the price was and decided to order myself one. I’m glad I did because it’s an excellent strap. Thick leather, very nicely finished. As with all leather goods it takes a little while to break-in, but after only a few photo walks it’s already becoming nice and supple.

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Soft Release

As I previously mentioned, I didn’t find the soft release necessary on my X100. The shutter button is big and comfortable enough to use unadorned. However the shutter button on the X-E1 seems slightly smaller and something about it doesn’t feel quite as sure beneath my finger. The soft release nicely corrects that and provides a big concave surface to rest my fingertip against. The shutter button is such a critical part of a camera getting the right feel is important.

Other bits and pieces

As a former Nikon shooter I’m used to having scuffed bits of plastic screen protectors on my cameras. With the X100 I didn’t bother, the full case keeps the screen well protected and I’ve yet to put the slightest mark on it. With the X-E1 I’ve not been quite so lucky and managed to put a slight scratch on the screen after just a couple of months. I’ve since bought a Swido Diamond Clear hard screen protector that is doing an admirable job of protecting it from further damage.

The other must have accessory for your Fuji camera is a bit less glamorous but critically important – spare batteries! The Fuji’s like to chomp through batteries at a speed that will shock DSLR owners who are used to weeks if not months between charges. I’ve got several generic spares for my X100 and a single spare for my X-E1. You can buy official batteries if you like, but I’ve not had any problem with generic ones.

Project: Alexandra Shed

Shed is rather a diminutive term, but Alexandra Shed was the last remnant of Hawksclough Mill. A large cotton (or woollen) mill on the edge of Mytholmroyd on the bank of the Rochdale Canal in West Yorkshire, that had stood there since the mid-1800s. When I saw it was starting to get demolished I realised I had a unique opportunity to preserve a little bit of West Yorkshire’s industrial heritage through my photography. All shots taken from public rights of way.

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X-E1, 18mm f5.6 1/550 sec

The mill from the canal side, showing the oldest part of the remaining mill building. The part demolished chimney just pokes up above the roof at the rear. The old mill chimney had been taken down while the building was still in use, presumably for safety reasons.

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X100, 23mm f4 1/80 sec

From the road side you could look in on the part of the building that saw the most recent use with what appears to be a little old stock left behind from the former blenders and slitherers.

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X100, 23mm f5.6 1/90 sec

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X-E1, 60mm f5.6 1/40 sec

The view further back in the building is revealed as the demolition crew work back from the road side. That rear wall is part of the original 1800s mill building. Note the old windows and doors had been blocked off.

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X100, 23mm f5.6 1/40 sec

From the canal side at the base of the chimney where part of the rear wall had collapsed. Note the old pulley wheel on the collapsed wooden framework.

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X-E1, 60mm f5.6 1/240 sec

I’d hoped they might repurpose the old mill building once the more recent part had been stripped away, but sadly it too came down brick by brick.

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X-E1, 8mm f8 1/150 sec

The building had been derelict for quite some time and part of the back wall had collapsed, allowing nature to start to reclaim the land.

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X-E1, 60mm f5.6 1/125 sec

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X100, 23mm f5.6 1/90 sec

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X-E1, 60mm f5.6 1/125 sec

With the middle of the building ripped away the well worn staircase is in plain view. Note the fold down side boards that presumably made it possible to raise or lower carts without needing a lift. You can see a mangled cart in one of the early shots above.

Today nothing of the old building remains apart from a 1 story high wall composed of the old mill’s rear wall. Where it had collapsed its been repaired with reclaimed stone. The old windows and doors all bricked in. Now Alexandra Shed is just a memory for those who once worked there and who passed it in their daily travels. If you know anything more about this old mill I’d love to hear from you, get in touch.

Old Lenses, New Tricks

When I got my X-E1 I decided to get a mount adapter so I could try out some old film lenses to open up some more creative possibilities. After a bit of research it seemed like m42 screw mount lenses would be ideal. They’re cheap and plentiful as the mount was popular across a wide range of cameras for several decades. I mentioned to my Dad I was interested in getting some m42 lenses and it turned out he had some near mint condition Pentax Takumar’s from his college days. So I took possession of a 50mm f1.4 SMC Takumar and 135mm f3.5 Super Takumar. These old lenses were made at just the right sort of time to have damn good optics and have basic lens coatings which help minimise flare and improve contrast.

DSCF0581Summer, 135mm, 1/500 sec

Both lenses have nice bokeh, the 50mm in particular. The 135mm can show some quite pronounced bokeh fringing wide open so is best used stopped down slightly, at least if being used for a colour shot. It’s impressive how sharp they both are considering their age and the demands placed on them by a 16 megapixel APS-C sensor.

DSCF0859Canalside Garden, 50mm, 1/100 sec

I find focusing the lenses fairly straight forward using the magnified view to check for critical focus.  The X-E1’s 2.0 firmware which added focus peaking definitely makes things easier still. Shooting moving subjects is undoubtedly a challenge so you need to carefully consider your composition and pre-focus as much as possible. The 135mm’s focus ring requires a considerable amount of turning to go through its range which has the advantage of making focus very accurate, but the downside that it can be frustratingly slow if you’re in a hurry.

DSCF5514Impervious to Water, 135mm, 1/320 sec

There are lots of great m42 lenses out there that are easy to adapt to use on mirrorless cameras (and less easily on Canon and Nikon DSLRs). If you stick to names like Pentax and Zeiss you won’t go far wrong. Of course there are plenty of super cheap lenses from obscure branded Russian, Japanese and German companies and some may be fantastic, but it will be a lot more hit and miss. The older a lens is the more likely it will have performance issues on today’s cameras, so if you want a lens not just to use as a toy or special effect purchase, go for a later model with coated glass. Also beware of dust and fungus – never buy old lenses from sellers who don’t show you the innards or at least guarantee the glass is clear. A few dust spots won’t hurt and are inevitable, but fungus and other nasties will degrade the optical quality. Also make sure aperture rings are functional as they can seize up after decades of inactivity. On auto m42 lenses you may need to adjust the auto/manual switch before the aperture will close so beware of that.

Armley Mills

Spinning Mule, 23mm, f4, 1/20 sec

 This past weekend I had the opportunity to explore Armley Mills, an industrial heritage museum on the outskirts of Leeds in West Yorkshire, England. With a plethora of old machinery preserved inside including the amazing spinning mule, pictured above, the mill is a treasure trove. It was fairly dark inside and with bright sunlight streaming in through the windows, exposure was a little challenging, that said the overall light was wonderful. The muted colours inside and strong contrast lent itself beautifully to black and white. All pictures were captured with my X100.

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Bobbins, 23mm, f2, 1/125 sec

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Working the Mule, 23mm, f2.8, 1/125 sec

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Empress Works Pully, 23mm, f2.8, 1/60 sec