New horizons: meet Canon’s virtual reality lens and the team of engineers behind its development

Creating high-quality and immersive three-dimensional 180° VR content is easier than ever with the Canon RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye lens.
A Canon EOS R5 camera with a Canon RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye lens positioned on a mossy surface next to fallen autumn leaves.

The L-series Canon RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye lens is part of a pioneering new virtual reality system that aims to simplify the whole stereoscopic 180° VR content creation process. "Canon's EOS VR SYSTEM will enable more people to create more content in less time and with less effort, while delivering professional levels of quality in a simplified and robust workflow," explains Mark Fensome, Product Specialist at Canon Europe.

Fancy a hyper-real walk through the ice caves of Iceland? Want to watch a concert and feel as though you are really there? Virtual reality can provide that immersive three-dimensional experience. Yet for content creators, professional stereoscopic 180° VR can be an intimidating industry to enter, filled with complex camera rigs and painful post-production processes. That was, until now.

"I'm really excited about how simple Canon has made it to capture 180° VR content, opening up the doors for so many individuals and companies to create more," says Mark Fensome, Product Specialist at Canon Europe. "The Canon RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye lens simplifies everything from capture to post-production. It takes the fear and complexity out of VR content, which means more people are going to be able to create it."

A CAD drawing showing beams of light being projected through the two lenses of the Canon RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye and onto the single full-frame sensor behind.

The Canon RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye lens is two fisheye lenses in one. The centres of the two front lens elements are fixed approximately 60mm apart – the average distance between the centre of a human's pupils – to provide a natural stereoscopic viewing experience. “By bending the optical path with two right-angle prisms, it is possible to produce an image on one sensor,” reveals the Canon Inc. lens design team.

The back of a Canon EOS R5 camera showing the dual fisheye view generated by the Canon RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye lens.

"Canon's RF mount system enables this amazing compact dual fisheye lens to be created using an innovative 'folding' optics design, whilst maintaining high image quality, which is something that wasn't possible before," explains Mark.

With the three-dimensional stereoscopic action focused to a 180° field of view where viewers can look up, down, left and right through a compatible headset or viewing device, the Canon RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye lens creates an incredibly immersive experience, especially when compared to monoscopic two-dimensional alternatives. The field of view is also perfect for a wide range of applications, including education, documentary, travel, retail and entertainment.

So how does this lens work? As its name suggests, the Canon RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye projects stereoscopic left and right eye images onto a single image sensor. Attached in the same way as any regular lens to a compatible RF mount camera, the lens makes use of the camera's 8K video capture capability to create a single high-quality, high resolution stereoscopic 180° VR image file, which is easy to capture and process using Canon's EOS VR Utility1 software. The Canon EOS R5 is the ideal partner for the Canon RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye, thanks to Canon's latest firmware update, which adds VR functionality and compatibility.

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The innovative technology has numerous advantages over existing alternatives across the entire 180° VR image-making process, from ease of use to image quality and workflow. We spoke to Mark Fensome and the team of engineers at Canon Inc. who masterminded the development of the EOS VR SYSTEM to find out more.

Headshots of men sitting at a table each holding the Canon RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye lens.

The team of engineers behind this innovative lens and EOS VR SYSTEM ranged from the mechanical, system and lens design departments at Canon Inc. and included (pictured left to right) Kentaro Mori (Engineer: Lens Design), Hiroki Ito (Lead Engineer: Mechanical & System Design), Shuichi Terada (Senior Project Manager: Integrated Development), Takayoshi Yokoyama (Lead Engineer: Lens Design) and Takumi Uehara (Manager: Mechanical & System Design).

Leading innovation in VR imaging

Before diving into the technology behind the EOS VR SYSTEM, we asked the team of engineers to share the motive behind, challenges faced and the future direction of VR for Canon.

Canon Europe: What excited you the most about designing the Canon RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye lens?

Canon Inc. : “Until now, the only way to create an 180° VR image has generally been to use a dedicated VR camera or to build a dedicated rig with multiple cameras. However, these shooting methods could not take advantage of the Canon EOS R System’s creative possibilities and use of interchangeable lenses. So, it was the development process itself, to design an interchangeable lens with an RF mount and the possibilities that brings, that excited us most.

“If you use a dedicated VR camera, then the creative options for that camera are limited to VR shooting alone, but the building of a dedicated rig, using multiple cameras, is not an easy solution either, limiting it to some professional users.

“As a result, we brought together the knowledge of engineers who have been involved in Canon’s optical products for many years and who strongly believe in the value of a 180° VR interchangeable RF mount lens, to work together to solve the large number of technical challenges and to realise the benefits of the Canon RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye lens.”

Canon Europe: What were the biggest challenges you faced when creating such a ground-breaking lens, and how did you overcome them?

Canon Inc. : “Overall, it was to develop a fisheye lens that achieves an optical performance that meets the requirements of an L-series lens, while ensuring a baseline length of just 60mm. The challenge was solved using various components such as a prism bending optical system that ensures the 60mm interpupillary distance required for 3D 180° VR shooting, an electric iris diaphragm "EMD", an optical adjustment mechanism that makes use of a large-diameter RF mount and a dust-proof and drip-proof structure. These are combined like a puzzle within the size constraints of RF lenses but resulted in the development of a high-performance L-series lens that our professional Canon users have become accustomed to.

“The next challenge, was the evaluation method of the stereo lens to ensure a correct stereoscopic image, made more challenging by the fact that the (interchangeable) lens and camera combination could cause errors between different cameras. By developing a new algorithm that analyses the captured images and reduces errors, then incorporating it into Canon’s EOS VR Utility software and the EOS VR Plugin for Adobe Premiere Pro1, we were able to reliably create accurate VR imagery, even when using an interchangeable lenses on different cameras.”

A diagram showing the lens arrangement, along with the 60mm baseline distance between the lenses.

“The major difference between the lens structure of the Canon RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye and a single fisheye is the dual nature of the lens design, with its ingenious use of right-angle prims to enable a baseline length of 60mm for a natural parallax. By adopting a lens configuration that is optimal for short back focus and by effectively arranging two UD lenses in the final lens group, high image quality is achieved on the entire screen while also achieving an angle of view of 190°,” the team explained.

Canon Europe: Why has Canon decided to release this lens now? Was design not a possibility in the past, or is the market trending in this direction?

Canon Inc. : “Technically speaking, under EF design rules this lens would not be practical because of the different design parameters having an impact on all aspects of the optics and size. The technical characteristics of the RF mount, having a shorter back focus distance in particular, made it possible to reduce the size of this lens, something that could not be achieved with the EF mount.

“Additionally, the features of the EOS R5 such as a single Full Frame 8K sensor that can record video as well as stills, means that a high quality and practical solution is now possible between the camera and the lens.

“This comes at a time when the market for VR is increasing, with higher quality head mounted displays becoming more accessible, but there are still certain barriers in terms of capture and workflow that means that content is hard to generate in more ‘traditional’ multi-camera/sensor solutions. Canon’s EOS VR SYSTEM aims to revolutionize this with a simpler and more efficient workflow that utilizes the benefit of a single sensor, single file system so that more VR content can more easily be made.

“Development of lenses such as the Canon RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye has been exciting as we need to respond to the ever-changing technical demands within the imaging industry, including diversification of sensors, development of image processing and changes in image viewing methods. The spread of head mounted displays has expanded the possibility of imaging, and if there continue to be further developments within the industry, we would like to consider an optical system that supports them too.

“As a Canon optical designer's mission, we are not just sticking to the EOS R System as a development consciousness, but we would like to develop optics that can provide new value in response to the wider demands of society.”

A man filming a martial arts practitioner with a Canon EOS R5 and a Canon RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye lens fixed to a boom arm mounted on a tripod.

Canon Inc.’s engineers recommend mounting the lens to a tripod on an extending boom arm in front of the tripod legs and positioning it at head height, as director Mary Matheson and DoP Richard Stegmann did on a shoot with Muay Thai champion Grandmaster Sken. To gain the best depth perception effect, subjects should be placed between 0.5m and 2m from the lens – the further away, the lesser the effect.

A man filming two martial arts practitioners in a ring with a Canon EOS R5 and a Canon RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye lens. A woman behind him is viewing the footage on a laptop.

“The EOS VR SYSTEM is designed to re-create the feeling of depth perception, but it is also about providing a wide, immersive field of view over and above what can be achieved with conventional images and video,” says the engineering team. It is also possible to control and view the camera recording remotely via Canon's EOS Utility or Camera Connect apps, including the dual fisheye or equirectangular live previews.

Ease of use: the versatile 180° VR option

Photographers who use a compatible camera such as the Canon EOS R52 can simply add the compact lens to their kitbag and swap it in and out like any other lens, switching from shooting portraits to VR in an instant without the need for a dedicated VR camera. This also means they can offer clients 180° VR content within the same shoot as their standard images.

Canon's more versatile option is also much simpler, enabled by the RF mount system. "Setup is as simple as attaching the RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye lens to the camera and selecting your shooting parameters, with no specialist rigs, synchronisation of settings/image parameter or alignment needed," says Mark. Eliminating those otherwise time-consuming daily realities frees up VR creators to do what they want to do – create.

The effective angle of view of the dual fisheye lens is approximately 190°, meaning the camera operator can stand behind the camera and view the scene yet remain out of shot while recording. The same is also true for any on-set kit behind the camera, such as lighting. Composing, lighting and creating the shot is inherently easier and much more flexible than it is for 360° VR where everything in sight is in shot.

And while there is still a case for 360° VR, it is easier to keep the viewer locked into the action with 180° VR – where it is still possible to look up down, left and right via a compatible headset or viewing device – than it is for 360° VR, where turning around can mean missing the action happening in the other direction.

Image quality: L-series quality in an entirely new lens concept

Like all Canon RF mount L-series lenses, the RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye lens boasts sharp detail with excellent edge-to-edge quality. This is all the more challenging in a fisheye lens where the circular image is converted to an equirectangular projection.

"It is critical to ensure a very high edge-to-edge performance to enable a high-quality conversion to an equirectangular projection, since there is a higher magnification of the image when viewed on a head-mounted display, when compared to conventional monitors,” explain Canon Inc.'s product engineers.

"By adopting a lens configuration that is optimal for short back focus and by effectively arranging two UD lenses in the final lens group, high image quality is achieved on the entire screen while achieving an angle of view of 190°.

“Additionally, lens coatings have been optimised to reduce ghosting across the image, by using SWC coatings on the R2 surface of the first lens, which has a higher antireflection effect than the conventional thin-film deposition film coating.”

High defined image quality is not all down to the lens and RF mount, though, as the potential for high quality VR also comes down to 8K video capability. VR creators can naturally rely on native Canon gamma profiles, Canon Log and Canon Log 3 for increased dynamic range performance and heightened flexibility in post, all compatible with full-frame RF-mount cameras such as the Canon EOS R52. Furthermore, the dual fisheye lens utilises the high resolution of the 45MP CMOS sensor within the EOS R5 for a highly detailed and realistic final image. The left and right eye lenses each project a circular fisheye image, side-by-side onto the EOS R5's 8K sensor. The light rays entering each lens are converged onto the single full-frame image sensor using two right-angle prisms, "a clever and compact 'folding' configuration enabled by the RF mount system's large mount aperture and short back focusing," explains Mark.

A man on a bicycle on a snowy mountain with a helmet on his head and a VR headset on his face

Immersive 3D VR with the amazing dual fisheye lens

How Martin Bissig takes the viewer right into the action in 180° VR captured with the EOS R5 and Canon's revolutionary dual fisheye lens.
A computer screen showing the two circular images taken by the Canon RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye side by side.

Here we can see the two circular fisheye images in EOS VR Utility, Canon's VR control and conversion software. A checkbox allows you to toggle between this view and the equirectangular projection.

A man looking at a computer screen showing the two images from the lens within an editing program.

Alternatively, files can be imported automatically via Canon's EOS VR Plugin for Adobe Premiere Pro, where there is greater control over the grade and edit, plus the ability to add music and audio.

Workflow: Canon EOS VR SYSTEM

With the left and right eye images now simultaneously recorded onto the same image file, there are many benefits to the VR production workflow. The two images are aligned perfectly and at an identical time from the start, so there's no need for labour-intensive image alignment or to time-synchronise the recordings as you would have to with multi-sensor alternatives.

"Editors of stereoscopic VR will love the efficient one-step conversion of the original camera files to an equirectangular projection – there's no more pairing, syncing or stitching of files, saving huge amounts of time and effort in post-production," says Mark.

There's no risk of human error either, such as exposure settings not being matched on all cameras in a multi-cam setup. Working with multiple cameras introduces other complications, too. "In a system that captures the left and right images with different sensors, there will be colour and brightness differences between the left and right images due to individual differences in sensor characteristics, which will require correction in post-production," explain Canon Inc.'s product engineers. "By using a single sensor, it is not necessary to consider individual differences between sensors."

Essentially, the EOS VR SYSTEM – a compatible camera, the Canon RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye lens, EOS VR Utility and the EOS VR Plugin for Adobe Premiere Pro – simplifies the entire 180° VR image creation process.

Looking ahead: will the Canon RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye lens shake up the VR industry?

“In 2018, we communicated that the introduction of the RF mount would allow us to create new types of lenses – higher quality, smaller size, higher functionality, and the RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye lens is an example of this.

"The lens is good value when you consider the system and what it can do and who it's really aimed at – professional VR creators – whether creating educational, corporate or even live event footage," says Mark. "I hope it makes their lives a lot easier, so they can be excited about creating content rather than worrying about how to create it."

Bringing together such a high-quality 180° VR three-dimensional image into a competitively priced and easy-to-use package opens up a seemingly technically daunting industry to a much wider audience of content creators. We've seen the drone market open up to more and more creators, so could this new lens have the same impact on the growing VR industry?

Hear more experiences from behind the lens in this episode of Canon's Shutter Stories podcast:

1EOS VR Utility and the EOS VR Plug-in for Adobe Premiere Pro are required to perform the equirectangular switch of recorded 180° VR images from a compatible Canon camera. A paid-for subscription service may be required to convert video files longer than two minutes in length.

2Firmware update required in order for the Canon EOS R5 to support the Canon RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye lens.

*Adobe and Premiere are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe in the United States and/or other countries.

Tim Coleman

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