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Wide Angle vs Fisheye Lens Guide

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If you are looking to buy a fisheye or a wide-angle lens and wonder what distinguishes these two types of lenses and what they are better for in photographic use, you’ve came to the right place. This post aims to clear up the confusion which often results from the ‘wide angle vs fisheye lens’ comparison and provide you with some useful tips. First, let’s have a look at what similarities and differences exist between the two.

wide angle vs fisheye lens image

Wide Angle VS Fisheye Lens: What are the Similarities?

Due to their short focal length and wide angular field, both wide-angle lenses and fisheye lenses are capable to capture broad areas of view. As regards wide-angle lenses, any lens not exceeding 55 mm gets the ‘wide angle’ label, and any such gear shorter that 15 mm is classified as ‘ultra wide angle’. This applies to APS-C cameras. As for 35 mm film or full-frame cameras, the ‘wide angle’ term applies for any lens not exceeding 24 mm. Commonly a wide angle lens is around 24 mm to 35 mm.

The focal length of fisheye lenses, as mentioned in our in-depth article on fisheye lens culture and usage, normally ranges between 8 mm and 15 mm. The 8 mm focal length size is typical of circular fisheye lenses, while the 15 mm one is characteristic of full-frame lenses. Due to their short focal length, fisheyes are considered ultra-wide angle lenses.  If you take a look at the picture below, you can tell how much of a scene can be captured with a 15 mm fisheye lens as compared to a 24 mm wide angle lens.

wide angle vs fisheye lens scheme

As a rule, the shorter the focal length, the wider the angular view, the larger the area captured, and the lower the magnification.

Now the question is how wide is wide?

To get a better picture of how wide an image can get when using such lenses, in the picture below you can see a comparison between the Nikkor 10.5 mm and 17 – 55 mm wide-angle lenses. The photographer has used Photoshop to resize and layer the images, and has also defished the fisheye image. As a short note for those new to the fisheye lens usage, defishing means transforming the fisheye image from curvilinear to rectilinear.  

wide angle images compared to defished image

No matter if you are a professional photographer or a hobbyist, you can use both types of lenses for the incredible depth of field allowed by shooting at small apertures too. So, both wide angle lenses and fisheyes can capture broad view areas and provide an impressive depth of field to the pics you take, which translates into sharper images.

Wide Angle VS Fisheye: What Are the Differences?

Although these two types of lenses pose a few similarities, they differ greatly in terms of perspective and levels of distortion.

As regards the potential area captured, a 12 mm wide-angle lens, for instance, can capture a field of view of 124 degrees. Now, if a fisheye lens is defined as an ultra-wide angle lens due to its large angular field and short focal length, a wide angle lens is never a fisheye as it cannot project a 180 degrees field of view. To clarify things, it is impossible for a wide angle lens to achieve a curvilinear perspective and an angular field exceeding 180 degrees.

As a second rule when it comes to lens usage, the wider the lens’ angle of view, the greater the lens’ aberration. The aberration that makes straight lines transform into curved lines in 2D projection is called barrel distortion. Let’s take a look at the two types of perspectives that make a difference when it comes to the ‘wide angle vs fisheye lens’ distortion levels.

Curvilinear Perspective VS Rectilinear Perspective

curvilinear vs rectilinear perspective in photography

In photographic use, there are two types of lenses you’ll find: the ones that can capture the straight lines in the subject as straight lines in the picture, called rectilinear lens, and the ones that can project hemispherical views, known as fisheyes. If rectilinear perspectives are typical of what and how the human eye sees, the images captured with fisheyes are intended to literally project what a fisheye would see.

Technically speaking, the difference between rectilinear and curvilinear lens in photographic imagery is that the first are capable of rendering images with no curvature or little distortion, while the second present a great barrel distortion (the circular look). Apart from specialized lenses, which include fisheyes, all photographic lenses are rectilinear. This means that most of the images we see are taken with such lenses.  If you are looking to learn more about fisheye projections, be sure to check out fisheye lens guide (linked provided above).

Wide Angle VS Fisheye Lens Use

When it comes to choosing one of the two types of lenses, one can be greater in some aspects than the other, all depending on what context you are planning to use them. For instance, a fisheye is always a better choice for shooting underwater, but as a ‘special effects’ lens you don’t want to use it for all kinds of photographs.

Typically, a wide-angle lens is the first option for landscape photographers, while a fisheye lens is rather preferred by urban photographers. Wide angle lenses are commonly chosen for close-up pictures as well, which due to their distorted perspective can achieve spectacular effects. Fisheye images, however, are more striking. Full-frame fisheye pictures, though, can look quite conventional due to their rectangular appearance, as opposed to circular fisheye images. So, there are plenty of options to choose from and experiment with.

Finally, we’ve made up a list with recommendations for different photographic uses corresponding to each type of lens.

Fisheye Lenses Are Best for:

  • Underwater photography – shooting fish.
  • Spectacular, funky close-up shots.
  • Large macro subjects.
  • Shooting sport events.
  • Photographing skyscrapers.
  • Fun interior shooting.
  • Skateboarding shots.

Wide-angle Lenses Are Best for:

  • Landscape photography.
  • Environmental portraiture.
  • Real estate photography.
  • Shooting subjects with straight lines which you don’t want to appear curvy.
  • Interesting close-up portraits.

Both fisheye lens and wide angle lens have their advantages and disadvantages. What we advise is experiment shooting using both of them if possible. To recap, here’s a short list with general highlights.

 Wide Angle vs Fisheye Lens: General Highlights
Wide Angle Lens Fisheye Lens
Area Captured: large Area Captured: extremely large
Angle of View: wide Angle of View: ultra wide
Focal Length: short (24 mm – 35 mm) Focal Length: short (8 mm – 15 mm)
Perspective: Rectilinear Perspective: Curvilinear
Barrel Distortion: little Barrel Distortion: great

Image Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4.



Don Phillips

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