Two of the things I write on the dry erase board at the start of every Intro to Digital Photography class are:
• You can’t buy mastery. You have to earn it.
• What can you do to make your camera take better pictures? Wear it out.
I’ve got enough great cameras, lenses, lights, filters, computers and software to make images, both for myself and as a professional news photographer.
It might seem strange, then, that once in a while I buy photo gear out of curiosity. My most recent acquisition is the Altura Photo 8mm f/3.0 Fisheye Lens. I had rock-bottom expectations since I never heard of Altura, and it didn’t cost much.
The Altura was a big surprise.
Its build quality is unheard of in modern times. It is constructed of brass and steel. It is heavy. The focus throw is long, smooth and well-damped, reminiscent of lenses made in the 1960s rather than the 2020s. The glass is multi-coated. The aperture ring is smooth and has distinct clicks at whole aperture values.
One reason the Altura is probably so cheap is its totally manual configuration. It has no connection to the camera except being mounted on it. There are no electronics to tell the camera about aperture or focus settings, and there isn’t even an aperture linkage to hold the aperture open during focusing and composing; if you pick a small aperture, the image in the viewfinder is dark.
Interestingly, picking a large aperture doesn’t seem to be necessary. The lens is sharp at all of its apertures, and depth of field at 8mm is, by it very nature, very deep: everything in front of the lens is in focus.
And there’s a lot in front of this lens. I compared it directly to my 15-year-old Tokina fisheye, which sees 180 degree corner-to-corner, and found the Altura sees maybe 15 degree more than the Tokina using a camera with a 15mm x 24mm sensor. Additionally, if you remove the hood, the Altura projects a circular fisheye pattern on cameras with larger 24mm x 36mm sensors.
The challenge of using a specialized lens like this is putting it to real world use. In the past, my main use for fisheye lenses has been as extreme wide angle lenses, using Photoshop or Lightroom to “unbend” the circular look of the lens.
I hope to throw this unusual lens into my daily news and sports coverage, and I hope it adds to my narrative in new and different ways.