The Zenitar 16mm Full-Frame Fisheye has long been an inexpensive alternative to the manufacturer's high-priced, premier glass (See here for an understanding of what a full-frame fisheye is). But just how good of an alternative is it? You have most likely already seen and read a lot about this lens due to its relatively low price and accessibility. The price has attracted a large number of users. Because so many are using this lens, information on the web regarding the Ukrainian-made fisheye is in abundance. Ken Rockwell has a thorough write-up, comparing the Zenitar 16mm with the Nikon 10.5mm DX Fisheye. I'll try to keep the redundant info to a minimum and leave you with just my personal opinion of the lens should you be debating picking one up. To sum up my personal impression: I am very pleased with this lens.
For me, this is where the rubber meets the road: I have yet to be in a situation where a scene requires both the use of a fisheye lens and extremely high, optical performance. "Hey we'd love this done with a fisheye lens, but we can't have any edge softness or CA. We want perfect, technical accuracy." Now, I am sure there are applications and times when this occurs; In science perhaps. Or maybe you are just that OCD. I am just saying for MOST people and general applications, this is rare. And optical perfection rarely comes cheap. Fisheye lenses are typically used in fun, free-form, and expressionistic settings. They provide a way of seeing that we as humans are unaccustomed to. They exaggerate things and vastly dramatize scenes. They often imply playfulness. Because of the inherent distortion of an image as seen through a fisheye, these lenses are rarely scrutinized by the everyday user to the same degree that rectilinear lenses are. Edge softness and color-fringing produced by the Zenitar 16mm is definitely present. I just find that I am never too concerned since the end result will already be so far removed from the actual scene.
I picked my Zenitar 16mm up from KEH.com used but in excellent condition. Unfortunately, I didn't get the extra rear-mount filters or the sweet Cyrillic covered box that come with the lens when it is purchased brand new. The Zenitar is made in the Ukraine. According to Wikipedia, the 16mm along with other Zenitar primes are "currently produced by JSC S. A. Zverev Krasnogorskiy Mekhanicheskiy Zavod (KMZ)." While I do not have experience with any of the Zenitar siblings, I have purchased Lomo cameras, specifically the Lubitel 166B medium format TLR. These cameras are also sometimes manufactured in the Ukraine or in Russia. Ironically, one constant I have found in the production of Russian/Ukrainian cameras is: the quality of these products is highly inconsistent.
Having read many reviews of Russian/Ukrainian hardware, a lot of variation exists between samples. Given the tumultuous history of that region this shouldn't be surprising. I remember taking some of these Lubitel cameras apart and noticing parts which looked like they had been hand-filed (probably were) rather than precisely machined. The edges and ends of components looked chewed-up instead of clean and neat. Coatings looked uneven. The overall composition appeared haphazardly cobbled together in a hasty manor perhaps even with the wrong set of tools. Without having been to the factories first-hand, I cannot say what production lines actually look like, but I wouldn't be surprised if the tools consisted of hand files and tin snips.
With the Zenitar 16mm Fisheye, I initially noticed the uneven paint coatings on the barrel of the lens. Different surfaces actually have dissimilar finishes. Imperfections in these coatings abound. Likewise, I have seen and read of inconsistencies in the actual optical coatings of these lenses. None of the exterior imperfections have any effect on the optical performance of this lens but do tell us something about the attention to detail in the ultimate manufacturing of these lenses.
A couple other physical attributes to note: The aperture ring of the lens I received seems to click HARD into place. Relative to all other lenses, this aperture ring moves much less fluidly. The fact that this lens is made in several mounts could be part of the issue. Perhaps the Nikon adaptation of this lens is not very well designed. The mount certainly looks pretty rough. I notice a tougher time mounting and un-mounting this lens with my D700 since it occasionally gets stuck on the camera. The rubber focusing ring feels good to me. It only takes about a quarter of a turn to go from the closest focus to infinity. Regardless of the smaller annoyances, overall this lens is a solid, compact little optic.
Focal length: 16mm
Filter thread: Rear-mount 26.5 x 0.5 mm
Min. Aperture: f/2.8
Max. Aperture: f/22
Angular field of view (diagonal): 180°
Min. focusing distance: 11.8" (0.3 m)
Dimensions: 2.5 x 1.9" (63 x 49 mm)
Weight: 10.9 oz (0.31 kg)
Obviously appearances have little to no effect on the optical performance of a lens (save for some type of extreme circumstance). The Zenitar 16mm has a great reputation for being an outstanding performer at a price point of between $100-200 USD. I find no reason to disagree with this assessment. I have actually seen them go for less than $100. Considering this is perhaps the cheapest of the third-party alternatives to the manufacturer brand lenses, it's a great value!
Rather than post examples at every aperture and light fall-off etc, I feel there is a lot of that info already available. My experience with this lens has revealed no contradictions. As Ken Rockwell shows in his samples, it actually controls CA a little better than the more expensive Nikon. I use this lens on my D700 and it looks excellent! It is definitely soft wide open but that is to be expected I suppose. Shooting near f/5.6 delivers great results though. I have included a few examples of my first few days goofing around with this lens.
1/40 @ f/4 ISO 1600
Things To Consider
The main thing I would be sure to consider before buying this lens is, "How will this look on my camera?" I am using this lens on a full-frame D700, and I get every bit of the intended field of view. When used on a smaller sensor camera, you may find you've defeated the purpose of buying a full-frame fisheye. (If you are still lost, see here for an explanation of sensor sizes and why you care!)
Two types of true fisheye lenses exist: Full-Frame Fisheyes, and Circular Fisheyes. A full-frame does just as it would indicated, it fills the frame giving you 180º field of view from corner to corner. A circular fisheye will give you 180º from edge-to-edge inside of a circular shaped image. Essentially, a full-frame fisheye is the same as a circular, just designed so that the field of view sits just within the circular projection. The circular fisheye "steps back" in a way, and shows you more of that circular projection. This will make more sense when you see the image below.
Here is a pretty simple quick comparison of how much you lose with a crop sensor camera.
Both of these images were made with a full-frame camera. So the image appears precisely how the lens was designed to look. The turquoise line illustrates what you will see if you are using a cropped sensor camera. Notice how the circular fisheye begins to look more like a full-frame fisheye on the cropped sensor? See how the Zenitar 16mm looks more like a distorted wide angle than an intentional fisheye on the cropped sensor?
So be aware of the size of the sensor in your camera which should be clearly denoted on the manufacturer's website. Nikon's cropped sensors are 1.5x. This means you can multiply the focal length of the lens you intend to use by 1.5. That product represents a new focal length AND a new approximate field of view. (ex. You want to you a 50mm lens. 50 x 1.5 = 75. By mounting a 50mm lens on a Nikon cropped sensor body, you will have a field of view similar to a 75mm lens. Essentially the lens won't be as wide.)
Fish-eye lenses are a pungent flavor. The drama of the field of view and curved distortion make them unique. However, the effect can get old, very quickly. Consequently, they are best used sparingly. For the exploratory photographer, something like the inexpensive Zenitar gives an excellent tool to experience the fish-eye without investing too much money. For less than $200, why not get this lens? It can never hurt to have an extra lens/effect in the kit. In fact, I think most people should buy this lens. If not just to try a fisheye. This is the lens to do it. The Zenitar 16mm can produce very clear, crisp results (Now it is up to the photographer to attempt to compose with this beast!).
There have been quite a few reviews of this lens so information as well as the lens itself are in abundance. I particularly like Ken Rockwell's comparison to the Nikon 10.5mm which really puts this lens into perspective (little pun).
Ken Rockwell's write-up - 10.5mm comparison
NK Guy's review on photonotes.org -
This guy must have received a poor copy because his first review and samples of this lens were aweful (not his writing, his impression). It actually required some modification. When he did eventually dial-in the lens, he was able to effectively focus and use the lens and claims to be impressed with the results. The copy I received does not appear to have any focusing issues.
Another instance of a bad sample
Some astrophotography with the Zenitar