LYING WITH A STRAIGHT(ER) FACE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE NAME OF THIS BLOG, THE NORMAL EYE, IS A REFERENCE to the old nickname for fixed-focus “prime” lenses, non-zoomable glass like 35 and 50mm, that were once dubbed “normal” since they delivered the sense of space and proportion most closely resembling that of human vision. I’ll leave other combatants to decide whether this renders prime lenses “truer” in any way (those of you who think you know what “truth” is, advance to the fine arts class), but one things seems clear (that is, not cloudy): wide angle lenses, say 24mm or wider, tell a somewhat different truth, and thus create a distinct photographic effect.
Ultra-wides can generate the sensation that both proportion and distances (mostly front-to-back) have been stretched or distorted. They are thus great for shots where you want to “get everything in”, be it vast landscapes or city streets crowded with tall buildings packed into close quarters. They don’t really photograph things as they are, but do serve as great lenses for the deliberate effect of drama. I don’t use super-wides for too many situations, but, when I do, I make up for lost time by going overboard…again, largely as an interpretative effect.
Nothing shoots wider than the fabulous fisheye lens, introduced in the 1920’s as a meteorological research tool, and shooting as wide as 8mm with a viewing arc of anywhere from 100 to 180 degrees. Starting in the 1960’s, the fisheye’s unique optics crept into wider commercial use as a kind of funhouse look, the circular image in which all extremes of the rounded frame bend inward, creating the feel of a separate world isolated inside a soap bubble. Some of our most iconic cultural images used this look to suggest a sense of disorientation or dreamlike unreality, with classic album covers like the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man, the Beatles Rubber Soul and Jimi Hendrix’ Are You Experienced? using fishes to simulate the psychedelic experience. Far out, man.
However, used sparingly as simply a more extreme wideangle, the fisheye can create a drama that conforms more to a rectangular composition, especially when the inner core of the image is cropped into a kind of “mailbox” aspect, resulting in an image that is normal-ish but still clearly not “real”. Tilting the lens, along with careful framing, can keep the more extreme artifacts to a minimum, adding just enough exaggeration to generate impact without the overkill of the soap bubble. As with any other effects lens, it’s all a matter of control, of attenuation. A little of the effect goes a long way. I call it lying with a straighter face.
Fisheyes are a specialized tool, and, for most of photography, the optical quality in all but the most expensive ones have kept most of us from tinkering with the look to any significant degree. However, cheaper and optically acceptable substitutes have entered the market in the digital era, along with fisheye-“look” phone apps, allowing the common shooter to at least dip a toe into the pool. Whether that toe will look more like a digit or a fleshy fish hook is, as it always was, a matter of choice.