London in a Fishbowl

A Looking Glass, Unfamiliar Take on the Everyday

13 min read by
Living backwards!” Alice repeated in great astonishment. “I never heard of such a thing!” “—but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.

Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass.”

Last summer, I asked myself whether fisheye distortion could be used to create a mirror-like image of an area of London I see frequently, making it seem both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. If it could create photographs that convey a sense of perhaps being in two minds, or experiencing enthusiasm that overlaps with exhaustion.

The frequency of one’s visits creates familiarity with the architecture, with the human activity, but being in the area for several hours at a time often gives me the opposite feeling. Would a fisheye lens be an adequate instrument to produce images that look like those reflections on convex mirrors, so that I could show the strangeness in the otherwise familiar?

Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column — the theatricality of the monumental. Evening sun.

Tourists flock to Central London. Many Londoners experience the daily commute to this part of the city, as so many offices and shops are located there. London’s theatrical centre, often referred to as the West End, is located there, too. And Chinatown as well. The National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery are both landmarks, the first one facing Trafalgar Square and the other, just around the corner. Piccadilly Circus is only a short walk from Leicester Square. There are many restaurants, bars, pubs, coffee shops and clubs. For many, Central London is almost a given for a night out. Marches, protests, and demonstrations use the area for maximum visibility. Westminster, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben are about 10 minutes’ walk from Trafalgar Square.

I sought the artificiality of the fisheye to create a distorted mirror image, and to stress the sense of distance, to give to the photographs the perspective of the onlooker, perhaps similar to seeing the world with one of those through-the-door peephole viewers. In doing this, I tried to avoid the “fisheye effect” just for the sake of the effect (i.e. as when applying those digital filters you find in cameras, phones and social media platforms, in hopes of lifting a trite photo out of banality and boredom).

While photographing, I looked to include some landmarks and symbols that could say “London” to anybody, even if they have never been here, e.g. Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column.

Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column. Evening sun.

The fisheye lens imposes an edit, and the result is completely different from what our eyes show us. When using focal lengths that are more or less similar to human vision, there could be a sense of communion between the photographer and what is being photographed. The optics of the fisheye, conversely, disrupt any such attempt at communion. Some fisheye lenses cover the entire frame. Others, like the lens I used for the photographs in this article, create a circular image.

In fisheye photographs, the presence of the optical instrument and its mechanics are an obvious part of the image. The viewer probably sees first the distorted aspects of the fisheye image, and later, the content of the photograph. A fisheye lens can show the world as “through the looking glass”, at once recognisable and yet strange, and sometimes, almost as if we were “looking backwards,” as if it was all a reflection on a distorting mirror or as if everything had been placed in a fishbowl.

The first impression given by a fisheye photograph could be that of an orb of sorts, as if the photograph reproduced the whole world in a miniature copy. I considered the idea of depicting the world as if it had been placed inside a fishbowl, or a snow ball, or as if it was seen through the thick glass on the porthole on the side of a ship.

A constant flow of people. Trafalgar Square, evening sun.

The spherical distortion of the fisheye, together with the circular image produced by this 8 mm Zenitar, creates a seemingly all-encompassing circle that reminds us of the shape of our planet.

Other images may look like the viewer is being asked for permission, whether to grant entry, as if separated from the scene by an imaginary door.

The exaggeration of perspective provided by the fisheye lens in the photographs of Trafalgar Square, for example, puts in evidence the theatrical aspect of things monumental. The intent of the space is to fill the viewer with awe.

The National Gallery’s “greatest hits” — an installation on the area in front of the National Gallery to entice visitors back, after the lockdowns. Early afternoon sun.

The exaggerated perspective automatically created by a fisheye lens brings to the fore questions about the human dimension and the constructed environment — do we feel “small” in those spaces? For example, in a photograph taken at the back of the St. Martin-in-the-Fields church, there is a line of people at one of the charitable food stations. The phenomenon of exaggerated perspective makes the viewer feel like a bystander. This effect appears also in the photographs of people interacting with an outdoor installation of masterpiece reproductions of the National Gallery’s “greatest hits.” (The idea of the installation was to encourage people to come back to the gallery after the closures of successive lockdowns. )

Members of the public interacting with the National Gallery installation on the square. Early afternoon sun.

A fisheye image disrupts the ordinary because our eyes do not naturally see things that way and the exaggeration in the image invites the viewer to consider relationships created by the relative positioning of what is depicted in the frame. For example, the interplay between foreground and background we can see in the images showing the temporary street artwork of the “Lion Trail” that took place in London during August and September 2021. (Twenty-seven central London spots were used to place life-size lion statues that had been painted by artists and celebrities. These statues were also displayed in other cities in England.)

The Lion Trail, one of the lion statues of the temporary exhibition. In the background, a line of people at one of the charitable food stations, St. Martin-in-the -Fields church.
Mr. Bean statue, Leicester Square. Cloudy morning light.

The photographs were taken in August and September 2021, almost a year before this article was written. I hope I have succeeded in the task I set myself — to show in images the feeling I sometimes experience when I am surrounded by the hustle and bustle in the very centre of this large and multi-faceted city. It is a feeling almost like that of seeing the world in a mirror image, of being in two minds, ambivalent about things that seem familiar and strange or surprising at the same time.

The equipment.

One camera, one lens — so that the equipment was easy to carry on foot. The lens was a Zenitar 8 mm f./3.5 fisheye lens (F-mount version), mounted on a Nikon F3 camera.

The camera.

The high-eyepoint type viewfinder on the F3 camera I used is large and bright, and extremely easy to see in full thanks to the eye relief it provides — I clarify that my nose is not tiny and I often wear eyeglasses. The screen I installed in the camera is what the manufacturer terms “K-type”, intended for “general photography”, and it offers a Matte/Fresnel field with a central split-image rangefinder, horizontally aligned, surrounded by a microprism collar.

For these photographs, I used the viewfinder mostly for composition, although the focusing aids on the K-type screen work well to focus the 8 mm Zenitar. I pre-focused most of the time, making zone focus decisions based on the depth of field markings for the aperture I had selected. The camera was set to aperture priority mode.

Mary Poppins statue, Leicester Square, cloudy morning light.

The film.

The photographs were taken on Kodak Color Plus 200 exposed at box speed. Although metering on the F3 uses an 80/20 heavily center-weighted sensitivity pattern (80% of the meter sensitivity is concentrated on an area marked by a circle around the focusing aids), I applied a -1EV of exposure compensation to take account of the large dark areas surrounding the image circle. In post-processing, I cut the images to 1:1 format.

The film was developed by a commercial lab and the negatives were scanned commercially on a Fujifilm Frontier scanner. I then finalised the high-resolution TIFF files from the scanner in LightRoom software.

The statue of William Shakespeare is the centrepiece of Leicester Square Gardens, cloudy morning light.

A few notes on the lens.

The lens is manufactured by KMZ. It has a very good finish, and there is a lot of metal in its construction. It has 8 elements (divided into 6 groups), and it is multi-coated. It is a traditional manual lens with hard stops on the focus ring. Both the focus and aperture rings are very smooth. Like most fisheye lenses, the focus throw on the Zenitar lens is very short. Also in common with other circular fisheye lenses, the Zenitar lens produces a distinct blue fringe on the edges of the circle. It can focus as close as 15 cm.

It weighs almost 700 grams, and it feels well balanced, solid and comfortable on the F3 body.

In the F-mount “universe” of lenses and cameras, this Zenitar meets the AI (auto-indexing) standard, therefore, it offers automatic indexing of aperture so it can be used for metered manual exposure (no need to stop-down). If mounted to a body that offers automation, in addition to the metered manual, it can be used in aperture priority, but not in shutter priority or program modes — if available on the body. In most entry-level F-mount cameras with automation (film or digital) this lens (or any AI manual focus lens for that matter) may not engage the meter or the electronic focus confirmation function.

Piccadilly Circus, another one of the lion statues in the temporary exhibition The Lion Trail. After the rain.

The front element is large and bulbous, and the lens does not accept threaded filters or a hood. The front lens cap that comes with the lens is made of metal, and therefore I advise caution when using it. It can fall off easily, and as it is not flexible plastic, it could scratch or hit and damage the front element it is intended to protect. I use an elastic band to keep it in place for transportation in a camera bag. The back cap is of course a standard F-mount lens back cap, so it fits securely and does not fall off.

This Zenitar fisheye lens can be used on digital equipment: natively, if they are F-mount, or easily adapted to EF-mount cameras for manual focus (and stopped-down metering), and certainly, it can be adapted to almost any mirrorless body for manual focus operation. The circular image (180-degree angle of view) will only be produced on bodies with a format equivalent to 24 x 36 mm in 35 mm photography, or larger. If adapted to smaller formats, the crop may fill the whole of the frame, and the angle of view will change.

The lens can also be adapted to some film bodies that are not F-mount, for example, to an FD-mount camera for stopped down-metering or to an EF-mount film camera (as indicated in the paragraph above as regards EF-mount digital bodies). It could also be adapted to the Olympus Pen system of interchangeable lens half-frame film cameras. The longer flange distance of F-mount lenses allows for infinity focus when adapted to any of those three SLR mounts.

The Agatha Christie Memorial, located at the intersection of Cranbourn Street and Great Newport Street, near Leicester Square tube station, Covent Garden area.

About me.

I always seem to be aware of pictures. I carry a camera at all times, so I don’t get frustrated if there is something I want to photograph. My inspiration for almost everything comes from what I see happening in the street.

I started photographing in childhood. In retrospect, I realise that my thoughts after graduation from university in Edinburgh (that was the mid-1990s) were heavily focused on moving myself up the ranks of camera ownership. I purchased a new Nikon F90X (known as N90S in the North American market) and a 35-70 zoom lens to replace my previous non-autofocusing, mechanical camera and its set of lenses.

When I bought it, the F90X was second from the top in the manufacturer’s hierarchy, so the expense involved was serious for me, despite the trade-in. The camera turned out to be a reliable companion for many years. I took it with me when I went to St. Petersburg in 1996, where I quickly became aware of the existence of Zenitar and Kiev lenses in F-mount.

I was visiting lecturer at the university, where I taught law courses in English to an audience of very bright students. My initial idea was to teach for 6 months, but I was then asked to teach for a full academic year. So, I stayed. I later moved to Moscow. In the end, I lived about 5 years in the country.

While working in Moscow, I would spend almost every weekend in St. Petersburg. My routine most Fridays was to travel by overnight sleeper train and then back on Sunday. I would keep the F90X next to me while sleeping in my berth on the train! I returned to the UK at the end of 2001.

In January 2016, I decided to become a freelancer, and to earn a living from photography, videography as well as teaching and tutoring in those areas. I use digital equipment and also analogue, but the latter is mostly for my personal projects, although, upon request, for client work as well.

My approach to equipment aims for what I call a multiplicative, “system” understanding, so that the old and the new, data or analogue, and not necessarily from the same manufacturer, can all be used in a number of successful combinations that lead to more than the sum total of the parts in use.


The quotation at the top is from Lewis Carroll, and it is taken from the book Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, which he wrote in 1871. It can be found at p. 194 on the book that includes both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, (with an Introduction, Notes, and For Further Reading, by Tan Lin), published by Signet Classics: Barnes & Noble Classics, New York, 2004.

For information on the Nikon F3 camera and its specification, see