Nikon 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5 Fisheye Lens Review

bythom nikon 8-15mm

What is It?

Let's get this out of the way first: when lens makers refer to a lens as "fisheye", it can mean one of two things: (1) the lens produces a circular image that sees half of the sphere around you; or (2) the lens produces a rectangular image that has a 180° angle of view across the diagonal of the capture area.

The Nikon 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E ED lens being reviewed here is both. Not only is it both for FX, it has the bonus of being #2 for DX bodies. 

Historically, Nikon has made both types of fisheye lenses, though most recently we really have only had #2 available (e.g. the 10.5mm f/2.8G DX and the 16mm f/2.8D for full frame). That's a bit of a problem in this modern world, as neither is an AF-S lens, which means there are limits on which current cameras that they work on.

Another thing we should get out of the way up front: when you design a fisheye lens, the thing you don't correct for is the inherent linear distortion. When the lens says "fisheye", it will not render straight lines as straight (other than any line that happens to occur specifically at the center axes). While you can correct the diagonal fisheye results to rectilinear, you're probably better off looking for a rectilinear lens in the first place if that's what you're always doing.

One surprise to many is that most fisheye lenses are relatively small. The 8-15mm is no exception, despite it being a zoom. At 17.1 ounces (485g) it is far heavier than the 10.5mm and 16mm it partially replaces, but it will still feel somewhat light and small to most. Overall length is 3.3" (83mm) and the diameter is 3.1" (78mm), which is pretty small for an FX zoom lens.

bythom lenshoodcap

Curiously, Nikon choose to not build a fixed "hood" into the polycarbonate front barrel of the lens. Instead, the 8-15mm comes with a slim HB-80 bayonet lens hood. The HB-80 fortunately is the type of hood that has an interlock, meaning it won't tend to get accidentally shifted out of place once locked onto the lens. The lens "cap" then bayonets into the lens hood, which is an unusual but welcome arrangement.

Optically, the lens is fairly complex for its modest size: 15 elements in 13 groups, with two aspherical and three ED elements. Nano coating helps reduce bounce-back flare and ghosting. Fluorine coating helps the big front element repel dust and moisture.

The aperture diaphragm is 7 blades, and the minimum aperture is f/22 (at 8mm; f/29 at 15mm).

Close focus is actually quite close: at 15mm it's 6" (0.16m), which you should know is within an inch of the lens hood and front element! That produces a maximum magnification of 1:2.9, which is pretty impressive for this type of lens (the old 16mm f/2.8D was 1:10). The lens does have a focus distance display, but no DOF or IR markings. Focus is achieved in a quarter turn of the ring from minimum to infinity. 

There's no filter thread up front due to the outward bulging front element. You can cut 27x29mm gel filters to use in an opening at the rear of the lens. 

Zoom markings are given at 8mm, 10mm, DX, 12mm, 14mm, and 15mm. 

What's the DX mark? It's the point at which the lens is a 180° diagonal fisheye on DX bodies. The implication, of course, is that you can zoom in from that to get less angle coverage on DX. You can, up to about 110° diagonally (at 15mm). 

With FX bodies, 8mm is a circular fisheye (#1), and 15mm is a 180° diagonal fisheye (#2). Corner clipping of some sort occurs out to about 14mm on FX. When you zoom, the front element does move slightly (3/8", or 5mm). 

The lens is AF-S, which means it has the internal lens motor that is needed on all current Nikon DSLRs (and with the FTZ Adapter on the Z6/Z7 bodies). This is an M/A lens, meaning that manual focus override is automatic whenever you turn the focus ring. Focus is done internally.

Because this is an E-type lens, it works with basically the D3 and later cameras (D3100 and later, D5000 and later, D7000 and later, D3/D4/D5, Df, D300, D500, D7xx, D8xx, the Nikon 1's using the FT-1, the Z's using the FTZ). 

While not at Nikon's highest standards in this regard, the lens has the rubber weather seal gasket at the lens mount and a barrel design that isolates the internals with some additional weather protection bits. The front element, however, is completely exposed in many situations. Good thing it has that fluorine coating.

The lens is made in Thailand and sells for US$1250.

Source of the reviewed lens: purchased

Nikon's Web page for the lens

How's it Handle?

The hood/cap situation is something you'll have to get used to. Personally, I'm happy that Nikon has chosen the route of letting the lens ride bareback (no hood). I'm a big boy, I can live with the fact that this exposes that big, curved, front element to potential damage.

Some may have some issues with this, though. You have to take the lens hood off so that it doesn't clip when you're shooting FX at anything other than 180° diagonal view. So there's that. 

The other thing that might frustrate some is that the lens cap goes onto the hood only one way. I've taken to putting my usual possession label on the top of where that hood needs to be aligned so that I remember the orientation. 

There's no denying that this is all "fussy." You'll have the lens hood off some of the time, on some of the time, and whether you can quickly put the cap back on depends upon your knowing what is the top and whether the hood is already on the camera. Fussy. But a better choice, in my opinion than the alternative (which is no hood and the slide on cap that ends up always sliding off). 

How's it Perform?

Focus: For the most part, it's respectably fast. However, I did notice in some cases on the FTZ Adapter on the Z6 that I'd get a slide-and-back-to-focus at times, particularly with outer area focus sensors on low contrast subjects. Remember, the Z cameras really only see horizontal detail, so trying to focus on something without horizontal contrast can be tricky with this lens.

I should also note that there is some minimal, but clear focus breathing as you change focal length (or vice versa). It's not terrible and not of any real interest to still shooters, but video shooters beware. (Also, video shooters won't get the full circle due to the 16:9 crop.)

Sharpness: Even before I got to looking at test charts, just some casual snapping told me what I needed to know: this lens is a nice, solid performer. Nikon's MTF charts told us that the lens should be excellent-with-a-bit-of-corner-astigmatism at 8mm and full frame, and the same at 15mm out through the DX frame. 

Astigmatism would be difficult to avoid in a fisheye just due to the nature of what they do in terms of bending light. But any improvement from the older fisheye lenses would be absolutely welcome.

And improvement there is. The center is always excellent, even wide open. At shorter focus distances and 8mm the "corners" are what I'd call good wide open, and improve considerably by stopping down to f/8, to the point where I'd have to call them excellent.

You'll note that corners is in quotes in the preceding paragraph. Since the lens will produce a rounded image at 8mm, there are no corners! So at 8mm I'm talking about the extremity of the framing, up to the unavoidable fall-off ring at the edge of the circle.

At around the point where you get DX full frame fisheye (between 10 and 11mm), the lens does less well when focused in the close range. The center is still excellent, but the extremities are somewhat smeared. You absolutely have to stop down—and to f/11!—to pull them into what I'd call anything approaching good. Put another way, don't throw away your 10.5mm f/2.8 fisheye if all you want is 180° diagonal fisheye on DX bodies: that older lens does a bit better job at the extremes than this new zoom, all else equal.

At 15mm and closer distances, we see somewhat the same thing: the center is excellent, the corners are smeared, though not as bad as they were in the middle of the zoom range. Again, you'd have to stop down to f/11 to bring them into what I'd call good. However, those of you with the old 16mm f/2.8D can relax and sell your lens: the new zoom is better than what you have. Indeed, much, much better to the point where it isn't a contest. 

Note that the above talked mostly about close distances. By that, I'd mean from closest focus point to the types of focus distances you might use indoors. Outdoors at infinity and maximum aperture things are a little different: at all focal lengths the lens is excellent in the center and what I'd probably call good at the corners (at 10-11mm it's a marginal call, but at 8mm and 15mm it's clear).

What you find, though, is that out around the DX crop at 10-15mm the performance is clearly lacking compared to the central area (partly due to some minor field curvature in that region). I'd want to stop down two stops to bring as much of the frame as possible up to the highest standards the lens can produce. The near DX boundary will still be a little softer than the center and corners, though. 

As you might expect, astigmatism and coma is visible in this lens with point sources at the corners. They tend to form small triangles of light rather than dots. That's better performance than we've had in the past, but this isn't your dream astrophotography lens.

Chromatic aberration: Longitudinal chromatic aberration is barely present at maximum aperture. Latitudinal chromatic aberration is well handled right out to the far reaches of the lens. But producing a full circular fisheye image at 8mm, you'll see the usual edge coloration right at the boundary. At 15mm, I was impressed by how well this wide lens handled CA, though. Modest and easily correctible. But note that on tree-against-bright-sky fine detail you'll see a bit of purple, and you'll want to correct that.

Vignetting: This is a tricky one. All round fisheye images have huge amounts of vignetting that occurs as the lens transitions from full rendering of detail to going to a black circle. There's a narrow band in the ring where this occurs, and a lot of photographers will do a round crop to nip that band out of their image. At the 180° diagonal fisheye point, the lens is relatively free of vignetting. By that I mean that I let the camera/converter correct it and it's ignorable. The actual amount of such vignetting is certainly low for a wide angle lens, though you might see edge-to-edge differentials in clear sky if you leave it uncorrected.

More important: the lens can vignette due to the lens hood! On the FX frame the lens hood corners start to come into play as early as 14mm. By 12mm you can see the clear shape of the hood. So there's that to watch for. In the DX crop, the hood doesn't start to show up in the image frame until just below the 10mm marking.

Flare: There's no way to keep some stray light off the front element. I don't know of any fisheye that doesn't flare or ghost with strong light sources hitting it. The 8-15mm may be about the best of the bunch, though, for lights that are in frame. The worst situation occurs with a strong light source just outside the frame. Light sources within the frame are fairly well handled. 

Bokeh: Are you kidding me? Everything is in focus!

Final Words

The 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E isn't for everyone. Shooting 180° diagonal and wider is tough to get right compositionally. The old 16mm f/2.8D fisheye was made popular by mountain bike (and later skateboard, skiing, and surfing) photographers, who loved to get in tight to their subjects and get a more dynamic perspective but still catch everything. Used well, both type of fisheyes this lens is capable of producing can generate eye-catching imagery. Plus the zoom nature of this lens gives you a bit of flexibility in doing that.

You probably already know whether you fall into the "want a fisheye in the bag" category or not. If you do, with one exception this is the lens for you. It's more flexible than the diagonal-only fisheyes, it's better and more flexible than Tokina's 10-17mm fisheye, and it's not all that big and heavy, so can usually be easily added to your bag.

The one exception is 180° diagonal fisheye on the DX body. If that's all you're looking for, the 10.5mm f/2.8G is still probably the lens for you (assuming your camera has the motor to drive the focus on that lens).

Final note: underwater photographers may find this lens useful, particularly because you can take the hood off and put it in a reasonable size port/dome. 

Overall, this is an easy lens to recommend for those that need it, as it produces very good quality in the imagery, and it's more flexible than any other solution.

Recommended (2019)

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