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Product Review: Pro-Optic 8mm f/3.5 Fish-Eye CS lens
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Product Review: Pro-Optic 8mm f/3.5 Fish-Eye CS lens

Does this sub-$300 ultrawide lens deliver image quality that will please demanding digital photographers?

Lots of photographers would like to own a really wide angle, fish-eye lens, but there has always been one major roadblock standing in the way: the price tag. These optical devices are complicated to design and build, and that complexity is ultimately reflected in the cost.


Key features:
•    Maximum Aperture: f/3.5
•    Minimum Aperture: f/22
•    Angle of View: 180 degrees
•    Minimum Focusing Distance: 12 inches
•    Manual focus
•    Half-stop click indents on aperture ring
•    Built-in lens hood
•    Lens Hood
•    Size: 3-3/4 x 3 inches
•    Weight: 15 ounces
•    Low Price
•    Available mounts: Canon EOS , Nikon, Pentax, Sony/Minolta


What’s missing?
•    Depth-of-field scale


Best suited for:
•    Architecture
•    Special effects and Infrared
•    Landscapes
•    Travel photography


Price:  $289.95


By adopting design criteria that kept the cost under control, Pro-Optic found a way to offer its 8mm f/3.5 Fish-Eye CS lens at $289.95. For starters, the lens was specifically designed for digital SLRs having APS-sized (20.7×13.8 to 28.7×19.1 mm), not full-frame (24x36mm) sensors. Since some cameras with these sensors have 1.5 or 1.6X multiplications factors, the lens will produce a slightly different effect depending on camera brand.

Next, it has a maximum aperture of f/3.5 instead of the f/2.8 found in more expensive camera-brand fish-eye lenses. In real word usage, this didn’t pose much of a problem and a one-stop difference can easily be made up for in low-light situations by bumping the ISO setting from 400 to 800. This technique works especially well with newer digital SLRs, such as the Canon EOS 50D I tested the lens with, where noise at higher ISO settings is not really an issue for the available light photographer. Lastly, the lens is manual focus. (More on that later)

Normal lens view: What is it? To compare field of view, this image made at a pedestrian mall using a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 “normal” lens. A Canon EOS 50D camera was tripod-mounted and the Av mode automatic exposure was 1/125 sec at f/16 and ISO 200. ©2009 Joe Farace

 

 

Wiiiide! I removed the 50mm lens and replaced it with the 8mm f/3.5 Pro-Optic Fish-Eye CS lens and made another exposure in Av mode. I didn’t move the tripod, but you see what a huge difference it makes when you are using a truly wide-angle lens. ©2009 Joe Farace


Construction

Despite what could easily be seen as a breakthrough price, the 8mm f/3.5 Pro-Optic Fish-Eye CS lens is well-constructed and features a built-in lens hood that. along with multi-coating, conspires to minimize if not eliminate least flare. With any lens with a 180-degree field-of-view, keeping the sun out of the composition can be a challenge but if and when it happens the amount of flare is well controlled and does not significantly reduce image contrast or sharpness.

The front of the lens is topped off with a sturdy locking lens cap that protects the large front element from damage. That bulbous front element makes using any kind of protective (or corrective) filter impossible—and just in case you wondered, there’s no provision for rear-mounted filters either. Any color balance tweaking must be accomplished in the digital darkroom.

 

Unavoidable flare: Since it’s sometime impossible to keep the sun out of the frame when shooting with an 8mm lens, here’s a worst-case scenario with the sun in the frame. Exposure was 1/125 sec at f/16 and ISO 200 in Manual mode. ©2009 Joe Farace

Working around it: I walked all around this statue of Chief Little Raven trying to find an angle that would keep my shadow out of the shot. I finally raised the camera above my head and shot away. The sun was just out of the upper right hand corner of the frame and if you look closely you sell some light areas caused by flare which could be removed with some judicious burning and dodging but I left it in so you could see a worst-case scenario for flare where the sun was not in the frame. ©2009 Joe Farace
 


The optical construction of the 8mm f/3.5 Pro-Optic Fish-Eye CS lens features ten elements in seven groups that have been optimized to produce clear, crisp photographs, which is critical with a lens capable of extremely deep focus. The lens has click stop detents at half-stop increments. There’s no depth-of-field scale for determining hyperfocal focusing so you’ll have to guess if you want to use this classic technique.

Many times I just set the lens at f/22, the focus at five feet and shot without focusing, and sometimes I just focused. Even newbies who have never focused a lens before will find that it’s not that difficult. The focusing effort for the 8mm f/3.5 Pro-Optic might be a slightly higher than for manual focus Leitz and Zeiss lenses I’ve use,d but you’re not paying those kind of prices, either.

You can put the camera in Aperture Preferred (Av) mode and your camera’s automatic exposure will work just as it should. Keep in mind, though, that even minor camera angle changes can have a big effect on exposure. Mostly I could just point the camera at the subject and exposure would be perfect, but other times I would have to make heavy use of the camera’s exposure compensation feature to get a correctly exposed image. Keep in mind that this is not a problem with the lens but an inherent characteristic of any fish-eye lens. I’m only mentioning this in case shooters not used to working with this kind of lens buy one and think “that guy doesn’t know what’ he’s talking about.”

Wild architecture: I just pointed the camera at the architecturally interesting Platte Valley Medical Center and the exposure of 1/125 sec at f/16 at ISO 200 was perfect. If I moved slightly to my right or left I might have had to apply a minus two-stop exposure compensation and mostly it was minus stops I was dialing in but occasionally it was plus. You won’t know until you look at the image on the preview screen and check out the histogram. ©2009 Joe Farace

This is not a preset lens, so there’s no preset ring to open and close the aperture. That means that you should focus at a wide aperture (or even wide open) and after focusing, manually change the aperture to where you want it for the shot. If all this sounds like a lot of work, it can be. But the images this well-crafted lens captures are spectacularly sharp. If you want to save money you’ll have to work a little harder than you’re used to in this autofocus world. You’ll also have to change the way you think about composition.

The 8mm f/3.5 Pro-Optic is designed for digital SLRs with APS-sized sensors and when used with cameras like the EOS 50D I tested it with, the field of view is equivalent to a 12.8mm lens. That’s still an extremely wide-angle lens. It takes in lots of real estate, so you’re going to have to get in close and be prepared for what happens if there are any vertical lines at the edge of the frame. They are going to curve like crazy because this is not a rectilinear fish-eye that attempts to straighten out these kinds of lines.

If you want to keep your horizon lines straight, you should place the camera on a tripod and slip a leveling device, such as Adorama’s Double Bubble Spirit Level (TPBLD,) onto the camera’s hot shoe. If you use it to keep the camera level in all directions you will minimize the curvature effects common to lenses with a 180-degree field-of-view.

 

An infrared twist: It’s not just objects on the left and right edges of the frame that can go kerflooey when shooting with an 8mm fish-eye lens; even the ground will take on a pronounced curve if the camera is not held level. This digital infrared image was made with a Rebel Xti that had been converted to IR-only use and the exposure was 1/30 sec at f/16 and ISO 100. For digital infrared explorers, this lens will open up new worlds. ©2009 Joe Farace

Previously, the only way to get affordable wide angle look was to attach an adapter to one of your existing lenses, but because of the optical superiority of the 8mm f/3.5 Pro-Optic Fish-Eye CS lens there is no color fringing at the edges, as is common with inexpensive fish-eye adapter. Similarly any vignetting is subtle if any and edge sharpness is well maintained for a lens of this price range.

With a close focusing distance of just 12 inches and deep depth-of-field, you’ll be able to produce truly unusual and photographs for travel, architecture, landscapes, or just have fun. If you’re looking for a fish-eye lens for your Canon EOS, Nikon, Pentax, or Sony/Minolta SLR camera that has a lens multiplication factor of 1.5 or 1.6x you won’t find a better deal anywhere.


Joe Farace is the co-author, along with Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Barry Staver, of a new book called “Better Available Light Digital Photography” published by Focal Press is available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com.



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