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Nikon 10.5mm Zenitar 16mm Fisheye Lens Comparison Interchangeable Lens Review

Can you buy a usable full-frame fisheye lens for less money than a marque?

|  DX Fisheye 10.5mm f/2.8G in Interchangeable Lenses
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by John Gravett of Lakeland Photographic Holidays.

 Zenitar 16mm fisheye v Nikon 10.5mm fisheye lens
Zenitar 16mm fisheye v Nikon 10.5mm fisheye lens

From the age of about 15, I have always hankered after a fisheye lens (and that's been a long time!) Not the silly, unusable circular fisheyes that give a full 180 degree coverage, as I'd tire of the pictures within about a day, but the full-frame fisheyes which give weird exaggerated perspective and curved lines, but used carefully can produce striking graphic images. A look at some photos taken with fisheyes on the internet whetted my appetite still further. The drawback was always the price – how could I justify upwards of £500 for a lens that just might be a white elephant, that in my hands may give weird, slightly hackneyed results, or worse, might just sit, unused in my cupboard after the first week.

Over recent months, I'd been looking at some Flickr pages of photos taken on the cheap Russian Zenitar fisheye lens, and was impressed, but judging a lens by looking at an internet image isn't the best thing. On top of that, I'd read articles saying that some Zenitar's wouldn't focus to infinity, the lens-hoods were fitted at an angle and gave cut-off in the corners, or whose barrels were full of swarf, and listing the disassembly instructions needed to make the lens function acceptably. The benefits of the lens were simple, a full-frame fisheye – albeit manual focus, for £120.

My heart ruling my head, I decided that at that price, it was worth a punt, so ordered it direct from Zenitar in Romania, paid my £140 (including postage) and waited. It arrived within 2-weeks as promised.

Packaging didn't scream quality, but inside the matt 1970s style cardboard box, was a compact nylon storage bag, and a remarkably compact full-frame fisheye. Other packaged accessories included three rear-mount filters (orange, green and yellow) in a small case, and an instruction book – entirely in Russian (I think!).

Looking at the lens, I was pleasantly surprised to find it solidly build, well constructed, free of swarf, with a straight lenshood and ability to focus to infinity. So far so good. Focus travel from infinity to 0.3m takes about ¼ turn of the lens, a useful depth of field scale shows that at f/8 and focussed at 1.2m, depth-of-field extends to infinity (who needs autofocus!). The front lens cap is scalloped to fit into the profile of the shaped lenshood, this is one of the weakest points of the lens as it is easily dislodged – even sitting in a camera bag.

The Nikon lens I'm comparing it with is the 10.5mm DX design, offering full autofocus. It is beautifully built, compact (although slightly larger than the Zenitar) and sports a useful lens cap that slides over the front of the lens, offering greater protection. Being a DX lens, it doesn't cover the full sensor of my D700, rather the crop-sensor of my D200 / D300

Nikon 10.5mm Zenitar 16mm Fisheye Lens Comparison: Overview
Despite both these lenses boasting 180 degree field-of-view, the Nikon is certainly the wider of the two, with the Zenitar closer to 170 degrees – but we're only referring to the diagonal, both lenses are wide and you can get ridiculously close to your subject and still get it all in.

The main difficulty I had using these lenses was avoiding tripod legs in photographs, particularly in the vertical format, but you very soon get used to checking the edged for bits creeping in the sides.

The Nikon's autofocus is quick and snappy – no surprises, being a G-type lens, there is no aperture ring, with apertures being adjusted using the front control dial on the camera – just below the shutter release. I've never had problems with G-lenses, but they do come in for some criticism as they can't be used on the older film bodies (not really an issue with a DX-lens).

The Zenitar really is a step into the past, the manual focus isn't really an issue with a fisheye with enormous depth-of-field, but certainly seems accurate enough. Not having the electronic contacts at the rear of the lens means in order to work with the metering, the lens details (focal length and maximum aperture) need to be entered on the camera menus as “Non-CPU lens data” Once done, turning the rather rough and clunky aperture ring gives a full aperture read-out through the viewfinder. It certainly feels a lot less polished than the Nikon, but how do they both fare in the field?

Nikon 10.5mm Zenitar 16mm Fisheye Lens Comparison: Use
Despite my misgivings, both lenses are remarkably similar in use in the field. Astonishingly, both handle flare fairly well, which is a blessing, as trying to keep sun off the front element is almost impossible. Let's be honest – lens hoods on these lenses only serve to allow you to lay the lens face down on a flat surface without damage, in terms of light protection, they are useless.

As neither lens can take any filters, my initial worries about the Zenitar lens cap were well founded, it has a tendency to get knocked off, fall off on it's own, and I'm sure will get broken or lost all too quickly – I am looking for a Nikon-type cap that will fit. The Nikon cap stayed on fine all the time.

In a landscape situation, a lack of ability to use grad filters creates exposure issues in many situations, and I found bracketing exposures to blend using HDR software the best option in many situations.

Nikon 10.5mm Zenitar 16mm Fisheye Lens Comparison: Sharpness
I took a few series' of pictures with both lenses at all apertures from f/2.8 through to f/22 to check overall sharpness. The conclusions are summarised in the table below:

Aperture: Nikon 10.5mm DX fisheye Zenitar 16mm FX fisheye
f/ Centre Edge Centre Edge
2.8 Very Good Good Poor - Fair Dreadful
4 Excellent Good V Good/Excellent Poor
5.6 Excellent Good Excellent Fair
8 Excellent Very Good Excellent Good
11 Excellent Very Good Excellent Very Good
16 Very Good Very Good Very Good Very Good
22 Fair Good Fair Good
Results based on D700 / D300 with unsharpened RAW files.

Aperture: Nikon 10.5mm DX fisheye Zenitar 16mm FX fisheye
f/ Centre Edge Centre Edge

Although both lenses carry a maximum aperture of f/2.8, only one is usable at that aperture, The Zenitar displays halos slightly off the centre axis, which become horrendous at the corners, the centre improves enormously by stopping down just one stop and the edges follow on – at f/11 / f/16 there really is little to choose on sharpness. The Nikon starts well at f/2.8 and improves through to f/8 / f/11 before falling off a little at smaller apertures. A touch of sharpening in PhotoShop made the Nikon perfectly usable at all apertures, The Zenitar from f/5.6, or f/4 if the corners were not too important.

Contrast in the Zenitar is great up to f/11, but falls of after f/16. The Nikon fairing no better. What amazed me most was chromatic aberration, the Zenitar suffered a touch of CA, which I was able to correct with a +3 Red / Cyan adjustment in PhotoShop. The Nikon, on the other hand, suffered stronger CA at f/8 – f/16, needing + 4 to 5 adjustment., but at wider apertures only needed +2.

Nikon 10.5mm Zenitar 16mm Fisheye Lens Comparison: Verdict
So in conclusion, both these lenses have faults, both suffer from aberrations, and neither are truly crisp at all apertures; but if that affects your decision on owning a fisheye lens, you've got it all wrong as most of the problems can now be easily solved using post-processing software.

Example images taken on the Zenitar 16mm fisheye lens: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
Zenitar 16mm fisheye lens Fiat 500
Zenitar 16mm fisheye lens Badness Zenitar 16mm fisheye lens Kennedy Space Centre  Zenitar 16mm fisheye lens Ruined Bothy Tilberthwaite

Over the past few weeks I've taught myself to see in a whole new way, I've started to produce exciting graphic pictures with these lenses in a way hitherto I would never have done. I see building interiors as interesting swooping curves, rather than architectural studies, I've positioned horizons centrally in the frame, to give a less distorted look and to create extreme perspectives. I now realise that fisheye lenses are not about how sharp the corners are, they're about the subject and the way it has been interpreted. I love them both, the Nikon is the ideal choice if you are on a DX sensor, but at £500, it's a lot of money.

Example images taken on the Nikon 10.5mm fisheye lens: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
Nikon 10.5mm fisheye Peterborough Land Rover show 1 Nikon 10.5mm fisheye Peterborough Land Rover show 2
Nikon 10.5mm fisheye Catherdral Quarry Nikon 10.5mm fisheye

The Zenitar, on the other hand, despite it's shortcomings, provided you think of it as a f/5.6 rather than an f/2.8 lens, at a mere £120 (+postage) (The Nikon 16mm FX weighs in at £600) represents such ridiculously good value for money, and covers a full FX sensor is the winner for me. This lens will help you see in a completely new way. It will certainly keep it's slot in my camera bag for a very long time.

  Nikon 10.5mm DX fisheye Zenitar 16mm FX fisheye

Nikon 10.5mm Zenitar 16mm Fisheye Lens Comparison: Specification
  Nikon 10.5mm f/2.8 G Zenitar 16mm f/2.8
Price £519.99 $198.00
Format DX Full-frame
Construction 10 elements in 7 groups 10 elements in 7 groups
Angle-of-view 180˚ 180˚
35mm equivalent focal length (on APS-C body) 16mm 24mm
Internal focusing No No
Image stabilisation No No
Minimum focus 0.14m 0.30m
Maximum aperture f/2.8 f/2.8
Minimum aperture f/22 f/22
Weight 300g 310g
Size 63 x 62.5mm 65 x 50mm
In the box Lens case CL-0715, lens cap LF-1 Front and rear lens caps, lens case and strap, filter case

The Nikon 10.5mm f/2.8 G IF-ED AF DX fisheye lens costs £519.99 and is available from Warehouse Express here:

Nikon 10.5mm f/2.8 G IF-ED AF DX fisheye lens

The Zenitar 16mm f/2.8 fisheye lens costs $198.00 and is available here:

Zenitar 16mm f/2.8 fisheye lens

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4 Oct 2010 12:25PM
Good balanced write up.
NikLG 15 1.7k England
7 Oct 2010 1:46PM
Any danger of reviewing the Samyang 8mm fish-eye ?

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