Darren Jew, a master of underwater photography, reviews the new EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM Lens

Wednesday 9th November 2011

Like most Pros, I’ve been eagerly waiting to get my hands and eyes on the new Canon EF 8-15mm fisheye zoom. This is the first fisheye zoom lens available for pro photography to offer both circular and full frame options.

Most underwater photographers have a fisheye lens of some kind in their kit, and generally that’s been what’s known as a “full frame fisheye” at 15mm focal length, but being able to zoom back to a complete circular fisheye image is something totally new and exciting. That the new 8-15mm fisheye is a high performance L-Series lens is also very important. I know it’s going to perform well behind the dome and the build quality will withstand the rigours of working at sea. I had the opportunity to test this beauty on a recent whale swim tour to Tonga.

I think this will be a really exciting and popular lens for photography of sports like skateboarding and mountain-biking, as the extreme wide view means you can get very intimate camera positions and still maintain a scenic view. It’s this close relationship between camera and subject that suits my purposes under the water.

Wide angle lenses are essential for underwater photography because as you can imagine, to get the clearest, sharpest, most colourful images you need to be as close to your subject as possible, so you have the least amount of water between you and what you are shooting. So I’m used to working with wide lenses, but even with my 16-35mm f2.8L or the 14mm f2.8L which is the widest rectilinear lens available, getting sharp corners under water is really difficult. That comes down to the way light travels through the water/glass/air interface of the port then into the lens – something as terrestrial photographers, we don’t have to deal with. Fisheye lenses, with their curved field, perform far better behind a curved dome port underwater than rectilinear wide-angle lenses producing sharper results in the corner of the frame. So the 8-15 is great, firstly as it’s a curved field lens and secondly it allows me to get very close to my subjects and still maintain a wide angle of coverage. I can be a metre a way from a whale the size of a bus, and still capture it from nose to fluke.

The 8-15mm accurately focuses very quickly and that’s a noticeable difference compared to other fisheyes I’ve tried. Things happen pretty quickly with the whales. Sometimes I only have a few seconds to shoot – and that’s a few seconds from being on the back of the boat, through all the bubbles of the surface chop, to having a whale or two or three in front of me. A swim with a whale can be anything from ten seconds to a few minutes but even on a longer encounter usually there’s only a few seconds when everything comes together perfectly for a picture. So a responsive lens that can focus quickly in low contrast situations is a must.

As an L series lens, it’s particularly good with local contrast. Underwater I’m often battling with low contrast subjects and so a high contrast lens helps my subjects stand out.

The 8-15mm also allows me to get the camera into positions I could never have before – very tight and close to the action for that interesting perspective. And of course there’s the creative option of the circular fisheye effect, which I think these days we’re all looking for something unique!

Often I’m dealing with only a few elements to compose with – just a lot of blue water, the light, the surface reflections and subject. The curved field of the lens renders the surface as a beautiful arc which I feel can help vary my compositions.

Swallow's Cave in Tonga is a must-see for all our guided whale swim tours and it’s a favourite of mine. I've been into that cave many times. The shafts of light, the bait fish schools and the reflections make it a beautiful place to be. But the low light conditions and the fact that there is subject matter all around, everywhere you look, make it a very hard place to shoot. Taking the 8-15mm into that space opened up so many new creative possibilities for me – no more frustration with limited angles of view and I was able to pull together so many elements into my compositions that I feel I've finally captured the place in a way that reflects the reality of being there.

It’s important to mention that on this trip to Tonga, I didn’t shoot full circular fisheye at 8mm. Getting the correct spacing between the dome port and any lens is critical, and millimetres matter. Unfortunately I only had access to my existing housing kit which meant I didn’t have the exact port extenders needed to place the dome properly at 8mm. But at the full-frame end, 14-15mm on the 5D Mark II, this lens performed beautifully and offered me a brand-new way of seeing the underwater world. I’ve since done more testing and have all that is needed to make the most of the lens across all focal lengths. I can’t wait to get amongst the teeming life of a coral reef.

Darren Jew AIPP M. Photog

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