Here's an extraordinary photography project worth keeping an eye on. The Lensrentals team has been working on building the widest angle fisheye lens in existence, a C-4 Optics 4.9mm, f/3.5 hyper-fisheye monster with a 270-degree field of view – that's right, it can see behind itself.
C-4 Optics is a passion project started by Lensrentals' Roger Cicala, in conjunction with colleagues Brian Caldwell and Aaron Closz – a separate company allowing these hardcore optics nerds to push forward and geek out on some concept lenses that go way beyond what's currently available commercially, out towards the theoretical limits of extreme optics with little concern for expense or practicality.
One design, for example, is a 66.6mm f/0.666 cannon for Micro 4/3rds bodies that the team has playfully named "the Mark of the Beast." Another, called the Night Stalker, gives you 150mm at f/1.0 on a full frame mirrorless body. The team laid out its plans back in a 2015 blog post.
But of all of them, this is the one we're hanging out to see the test shots from. The widest fisheye ever made, the Flying Saucer (as it was known at its inception) bends light so damn far it can see behind itself.
Built for full-frame mirrorless cameras like the Sony A9, the 5-kg (11-lb) Flying Saucer uses a massive 8.2-inch-diameter (20.8 cm) front element worth US$5,000, and pulls in so much light that you can sit it facing upwards and photograph all four corners of a room, with plenty of the floor in the frame too.
What'll it be used for? Who knows! Distortion is going to be pretty wild, and the final effect might end up feeling close to what a flat projection of a 360-degree image looks like. Use cases will certainly be limited, but then limitations can be excellent incubators for creativity. This thing could capture the entirety of the night sky, for example, and with such a wide angle, you could use longer exposures than usual without the stars starting to smudge and create trails. And it'll do some super cool things for architectural shots and interiors.
Cicala is hoping to get some sample shots out in the next couple of weeks, and we'll be fascinated to see what they look like! In the meantime, you can take a look at what the previous world's widest fisheye was capable of - a Nikkor 6mm f/2.8 whopper produced in the late 1970s that became somewhat of a cult lens due to its extreme optics and 220-degree field of view.
Cicala has documented the delicate and complex assembly of the flying saucer lens on the Lensrentals blog – which gives me fevered flashbacks to the time I tried to repair a Canon 24-105 mm zoom. Modern lens construction is a matter of such extreme complexity and precision that it's truly fearsome even for somebody who's relatively comfortable with spanners. And even though the Flying Saucer has no image stabilizers, focusing motors or other such things, watching it come together in pieces will give you an appreciation for the art and science that goes into such designs.
Check it out in fast forward in the video below.
As for what C-4 is planning to do with the lens, there are definitely plans to put this thing on sale. But it'll cost a pretty penny, and likely never make it through to the rental fleet, so you can expect it to be quite the collector's item.
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