Fishy Business (with the Samyang 8mm f/2.8 for Fuji-X)
Fisheyes are a controversial breed of lenses; some love them, others hate them. Main criticism about their use is that they end up producing a trite looking result. Critics find their output too recognizable to be original. They also regard them as an sensationalist item, hiding true photographic talent. At which point I have to wonder what's "original" with the standard 50mm lens. Or what about shooting everything at ultra shallow DoF and "true photographic talent". But I digress.
Fisheyes, are simply ultra-wide lenses where, by design, no distortions are corrected optically. In fact, we are commonly talking about "rectilinear" fisheyes, which are most common, although spherical fisheyes also exist. Rectilinear fisheyes actually "stretch" the image circle over the whole image frame.
There are currently several fisheye options for all camera systems, most of them being autofocus and there are even some zoom examples (but the vast majority is single focal length). Most camera manufacturers have their own brand fisheye; which doesn't hold true for Fuji at this point. Ergo, the only option when I wanted one of them for my Fujis was a third party offering. Enter the Samyang 8mm f/2.8 fisheye.
For those in the photographic community living under a rock the last few years, Samyang is a large Korean lens manufacturer. Their products are re-branded as Rokinon, Bower and Walimex in some markets, but are 100% the same.
What makes Samyang special and highly popular among different photographers, is that they make lenses for virtually all major mounts; DSLR: Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony, as well as all mirrorless mounts: Sony-E, m43, Fuji-X, Canon-M and Samsung. There are two reasons they can be that prolific: the first being they actually make the same lens for every system; all that changes is the back of the lens, i.e. flange back distance, while all optics and mechanical parts are identical. It is, in a way, like adapting a lens to a system with a shorter register, with the "adapter" already fitted on the lens.
The second reason is, they are all manual focusing lenses. Although this is rightly considered a disadvantage for several uses, manual focusing lenses are back in vogue due, in a large part, to the emerging mirrorless systems. Having a very limited lens line-up at first, adapting manual lenses became very popular. System camera videography becoming very popular, also helped a lot in making manual focusing an acceptable option. Actually, Samyang also makes "VDSLR" versions of all their lenses, which have stepless aperture rings, very accommodating for video.
All the latest versions of Samyang lenses share a number of qualities. They are quite well made, on par with the mid to high level lenses for DSLR and mirrorless systems. They are constructed of high quality engineered plastics, all metal mounts, etc. Optically they are also considered up there with the best of them, featuring very well thought optical designs and high performance coatings. Of course, there is variation throughout the line-up, with some being considerably more competitive than others. Finally, they are mostly very large aperture lenses: many of them are f/1.4 while wide-angles and telephotos are f/2 or f/2.8.
But the main common feature of all Samyang lenses is their pricetag. Given they are made as well as some high-end system lenses, and optically perform as good or better, costing half or less the price offers a very competitive advantage.
All this intro is not irrelevant to the case of the 8mm f/2.8 fisheye, because all the above are applicable to it too. The lens comes in a somewhat plain box, with front and back caps, a pouch and short manual included. It immediately impresses with its weight and firm construction, with both aperture and focusing barrels turning smoothly and precisely. Common to most fisheye lenses, the lens hood is permanently attached and the front cap externally fits on it.
Worthy of mention is that this is a APS-C specific lens, which means it doesn't cover the 35mm sensor (like some other of their lenses) but makes it much smaller, considering its fast aperture. In 35mm terms, the Samyang provides a 12mm FoV and covers a 180 degree frame.
As can be seen on the photos, the lens is about the same size as the 35mm f/1.4. It certainly feels heavier though. In general, it is very easy to handle on the X-E2 and obviously more so on the X-T1.
In use, the little Samyang is quite easy and intuitive to use on the X-E2. Focus can be set easily with a combination of the distance indicator on the focusing ring plus the camera's focusing aids, peaking and magnify. Needless to say that, as with almost any wide-angle lens, there is no need seeking pin-point focusing accuracy, even at open apertures. In this case, set the aperture to about f/5.6 and the distance to beyond 1m, and the whole multiverse is in focus. By the way, the aperture ring -which boasts a positive and firm operation- has half stop increments.
Not that it is necessary to stop it down to gain in sharpness though. It is already very sharp at the center at f/2.8 and very good at the edges. Stopped down to f/4 the edges get as sharp too; stopping to f/5.6 just gets rid of the last signs of mild vignetting at the corners and the whole frame is crystal clear. In my opinion, no real need to stop this down further than that, except if you'd like to get special effects such as star points from light sources.
I noticed minimal chromatic aberrations which testifies that the extra coatings Samyang used do their bit. There can be flare in very extreme situations, as can be seen in the photo below, where I actually used this as a special effect.
Coming back to the argument about fisheye image stylization, first of all, I don't consider them to produce "unnatural" images at all. If you want to understand what I mean, please try to shoot a portrait at close range, using a 24-35mm lens and tell me how "natural" it looks. Every single lens that falls outside the human eye's parameters (FoV and "aperture") is, by default, producing a result that is "not true". Not to speak of color, contrast and dynamic range. All photography is, in that sense, abstract. Fisheyes, as well as other special lenses, such as tilt-shifts, just happen to produce a more exaggerated version of reality.
In any case, the human brain is fully capable of restoring imagery, as it does when dreaming or simply recalling a memory. In that sense, shallow DoF is also justified, because it mimics the mind's own mode of operation, of "isolating" the main subject while almost everything else blurs into non-existence.
Worthy of mention is that one could also attempt to "de-fish" the final photos, through Photoshop or several specialized plug-ins. In that regard, you actually have a very wide angle rectilinear lens, although, in my experience, it's impossible to get rid of all distortions in every case.
So, let's agree to consider the fisheye as another creative tool, helping us provide a version of reality we think is interesting and artistic. Applications are limited only by the photographers creative imagination. There are certainly some very general guidelines though.
Fisheyes are famous for bending straight lines; so any scenario where you can create a combination of bended "lines" is game. It's a good idea to try different framing positions, because distortions vary wildly for each one; definitely work the shot. Industrial type assemblies and landscapes is such an example (as always, click on an image for a larger version):
I also find the fisheye spectacular in "reconstructing" urban landscapes, either scenery or details. As for all fisheyes, try not to get, say, your feet in the image. In some cases I couldn't escape having part of my shadow in the frame:
As already noted, the fisheye is a good option to spice up concert photography shootings:
Finally, I should mention that, since the fisheye is such a "playful" and unconventional option, over the top, "instagrammy" type image filters go well with the whole idea:
These are simply some examples I shot in the few weeks I have the lens in my possession. There are several others such as street photography, abstract and even portrait (with a twist).
Getting back to the Samyang, what I liked and some things I'd wish could be better or differently implemented.
I'm definitely excited with the build quality, especially for the price. It is also great to use, with a minor gripe about focusing ring stiffness (which is not needed that much in such a wide-angle lens). Image quality is absolutely brilliant; the lens has nothing to be jealous of the Fujinon lenses, which says a lot, among such an accomplished crowd.
My major complaint with the lens is that, it doesn't focus as close as I'd want. Minimum focusing distance is about 30cm, which impede it from capturing some extreme close-up fisheye shots. Take for example the new Olympus 8mm f/1.8 lens I had the pleasure of testing a few weeks ago. To be fair, the Olympus plays in another field, being autofocus, weather sealed, quite brighter and also about 3 times more expensive.
The thing is, creating blurred backgrounds is much more difficult with the Samyang, which detracts from the creative capabilities. Given the sensor equivalence, the Samyang would need to be f/2.4 to match the Olympus for DoF but, more importantly, the latter can focus almost touching the subject, providing more background blur. Of course, this capability has a lot to do with the smaller m43 sensor.
Apart from this nuisance the Samyang 8mm fisheye remains a great addition to the bag of any Fuji-X shooter that has even the slightest interest in fisheyes, or wants to experiment with something different. Not to mention it is the only valid option for the system at this point. How lucky of us that it is such a amazing lens also.