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The Best Lenses for Night Photography: A Case for Rokinon Primes

Gear Talk

David Kingham is a landscape photographer who focuses (pun intended?) on the night sky. He set out to find the best astrophotography and night photography lenses for their price point. Discover why Rokinon lenses may transform how you shoot.


The Best Lenses for Night Photography

by David Kingham

Prime vs Zoom

What do you want in a lens for night photography? The most important factor is how much light a lens will let in so that we can shoot at lower ISOs– this means apertures of f/2.8 or greater (f/1.4 being preferred). Most zoom lenses only go to f/2.8 and, while they are perfectly okay for night photography, they are not the ultimate lenses to use.

Enter the prime lens! A prime lens is a fixed-focal-length lens that is designed to have much larger apertures. If you have looked into the major manufacturers’ primes (Nikon, Canon, Zeiss) you may be thinking I’m crazy right now because they are expensive (unless, of course, you rent them)! I went on a search for lenses with the ultimate quality-to-price ratio.

Untitled-1 3.47.35 PM

Rokinon is one of David Kingham’s favorite set of lenses for night photography.

Rokinon Lenses

In this search I’ve become a huge fan of Rokinon brand lenses. These are also branded under Samyang, ProOptic, and Bower. They are all the same lenses, just with different names. Rokinon seems to be the more common name in the US.

The following lenses are relatively cheap compared to the pro-series Nikon or Canon lenses:

Rokinon 14mm 2.8 (also available in Canon mount)
Rokinon 24mm 1.4 (also available in Canon mount)
Rokinon 35mm 1.4 (also available in Canon mount)
Rokinon 85mm 1.4

BorrowLenses.com has the following Canon cinema lenses available to rent, as well. Cinema lenses have the same optics but the aperture is measured in T stops rather than F stops. However, they perform the same way:

Rokinon 14mm T3.1
Rokinon 24mm T1.5
Rokinon 35mm T1.5
Rokinon 85mm T1.5

Another Great Night Lens: The Nikon 50mm 1.8G

I will also throw in the Nikon 50mm 1.8G, since Rokinon does not make a 50mm. Why not the f/1.4 version, you ask? The inclusion of an aspherical lens element, that’s why. This is the first 50mm released that has an aspherical element. This type of lens reduces coma dramatically, which is another factor to consider when picking a lens for night photography.

Coma

I know what some of you may be thinking: I want the highest quaility lenses out there and I only buy the manufacturers’ lenses because they’re the best! There’s a reason I recommend these other lenses. You may have heard of coma if you’re a pixel peeper but most people have never heard of it  and, for most photography, it’s not something to worry about. When it comes to night photography, though, coma is especially important. Below is an extreme example of what coma does to stars near the edge of the frame when shooting wide open. The image below was taken with the Nikon 50mm 1.8D, which does not have an aspherical element. The stars in this image are supposed to be points of light, not streaks!

coma

An extreme example of what coma does to stars near the edge of the frame when shooting wide open.

Surprisingly, the Nikon and Canon versions of the 24mm f/1.4 produce coma as well. Below is a comparison of the Canon 24 f/1.4 and the Rokinon 24 f/1.4. From what I’ve read, the Nikon is even worse than the Canon!

Rick Whitacre

A comparison of the Canon 24 f/1.4 and the Rokinon 24 f/1.4. Notice the more prominent “streaking” effect in the stars on the Canon image. ©Rick Whitacre

The great news about Rokinon? Almost no coma. The image below is a 100% crop from a corner taken with the Rokinon 14mm at f/2.8.

coma_rokinon

100% crop from a corner taken with the Rokinon 14mm at f/2.8.

coma_rokinon_24

Taken with the Rokinon 24mm at f/1.4. The slight blur is from being just out of focus. Don’t rely on infinity with this lens – it’s not accurate and you need to manually focus.

Conclusion

The quality of these Rokinon lenses continue to pleasantly surprise me.

If you’re on a budget or just getting started, I would recommend the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 for shooting meteor showers, time lapse, and wide views of the Milky Way. Next, I would get the Rokinon 35mm f/1.4 if you’re interested in doing panoramas or tighter shots of the Milky Way. If you want to stick to Canon or Nikon-brand lenses, I recommend renting over buying.

One thing to note; the Rokinon lenses are all manual focus, a big reason for their lower cost. The good news? You can’t auto focus in the dark anyway! The best way to focus at night is using live view, zooming in on a bright star and manually focusing.

Another lens I should throw in is the venerable Nikon 14-24 f/2.8, a phenomenal lens for Nikon or Canon (with an adapter). If you have the means, or just happen to have this lens already, you certainly don’t need the Rokinon 14mm. The Nikon has very little coma and is probably the greatest wide angle ever made. The Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 is also a great lens if you already have one. I wouldn’t pick it up specifically for night photography, though, because it does have a decent amount of coma and is only an f/2.8.

Crop-Sensored Cameras

I’ve been asked for recommendations for cropped sensor cameras. I only have second-hand experience with the following lenses, so you may want to do your own research. I have heard good things about the following:

  • Tokina 11-16 f/2.8 in NikonCanon, and Sony.
  • Nikon 35mm 1.8g – Since this has an aspherical element, it should perform well, but I have no experience with it.

To read more from David Kingham, check out his blog here.

If you have any great night photography to share, please include it in the comments below and let us know what you shot with!

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Alexandria Huff is a portrait photographer based in San Francisco. Her tutorials can be found here on the BorrowLenses Blog, 500px, Shutterfly, Snapknot, and SmugMug. She specializes in studio lighting. Follow her work on 500px.

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Comments

  • Cody Black says:

    the lens Tokina 12-24 F4 Pro Dx is great http://500px.com/photo/21991663
    the kit lens is alright http://500px.com/photo/16433421

  • I’ve always loved the Canon 24mm f/1.4, because I shoot in low light a lot and on a Canon 7D crop sensor, the DOF is still pretty big even wide open, so I keep renting it for jobs, because I simply can’t buy it yet. This seems like a good alternative, for me. $700 for the 24mm at b&h, but now I can’t decide: Samyang vs Rokinon vs Bower – they sell all 3! Got anything that would push an undecided buyer towards one of them? I did see that you mention they are all the same lens, but does that mean just the design is the same, or the parts are the same? Are they built in the same factories? I would really appreciate more info. Thanks!

  • They are exactly the same Tom, it’s just a marketing experiment by Samyang http://fstoppers.com/samyang-optics-unusual-three-brand-market-testing

  • My complete comparison of the Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 versus the Canon is here:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ricoshanchez/sets/72157629651746163/

    Thanks for the post, David! I love my Rokinon and don’t miss the coma from my Canon lens at all

  • pmrphoto says:

    I love my Rokinons and use the 35 f/1.4 and 85 all the time in my video work. I also have the 8mm which I sometimes use for video if I need a super-wide… Very nice stuff, & great build quality too…

  • Tom says:

    For those of us that are Sony DSLR users, the Maxxum 50mm F1.4 or 50mm F1.7 should be considered. The F1.4 sells for around $175.00 and the F1.7 for around $75.00 and they will communicate with the Sony Alpha body.

  • 2muchsnow says:

    I can give you some thoughts on the Nikon 35mm 1.8g. It does a great job, but the only thing it lacks is the ability to show you where/when you are manually focused at infinity, No guide on the lens, So for astrophotography/star trails, you have to test/check focus until you are dialed in.

  • Zane says:

    That Tokina 11-16mm 2.8 is a very popular aurora shhoting
    lens up here in Alaska. I use it on my Canon and really like it alot.

  • You suggest the 14mm 2.8 and then shoot straight to recommending the 35mm 1.4, may I ask why the 24mm 1.4 wasn’t in the mix? That seems like a good compromise between the width of the 14mm but with faster glass.

  • Thanks for the info 2muchsnow!

    nerdybails, that was a really tough choice, I couldn’t decide which to recommend. They both have their place and I think I probably use my 24mm more than the 35mm. Ultimately I decided to recommend the 35 based on the price for someone starting out and is generally better for panoramas. I think you should have both though :)

  • Frank Davis says:

    I’m proud to say I’m the owner of the Rokinon 14, 24, 35, and 85mm Prime Lenses. I had the 8mm but took it back due to the fact that I’d rather use a 15mm fisheye on a Full Frame for fisheye shots (so you can can take the entire image in). But that 24mm is phenomenal especially for DSLR filmmaking.

  • Scott Martin says:

    IMO, the best lenses for NPy are Canon and Nikon’s shift tilt lenses, and the Zeiss primes. I do wish Zeiss would make some shift lenses…

    • I’m excited for the Samyang 24mm tilt shift to come out, I’ve been wanting to use TS for night photography for awhile but the costs are too prohibitive. I agree that Zeiss lenses are phenomenal as well, but again too pricey for most.

  • [...] be hard pressed to find better lenses for night photographs any price. See David Kingham’s article about Rokinon lenses for a more in-depth review of their lenses for night time photography. Also a [...]

  • Robyn Harold says:

    I have a question, though, about the Rokinon lens. I bought it, and it has NEVER focused for me, no matter what I do. I have no idea how to get it to focus. Every time I think I have a good shot, it comes out blurred, and it drives me crazy, so I never use it. Any advice would be great, because I’d love to be able to actually be able to use it.

  • Fabio Machado says:

    Thanks for the advices David! You told about the Nikon’s 14-24 f/2.8 and 24-70 f/2.8, but do you have any recommendations for Sony A-mount users? Are the Zeiss the best solution?

  • I’m going to assume you know these are manual focus lenses?

    Often you can get a bad copy of these lenses due to less than stellar quality control. Do some controlled tests on a tripod, if you cannot get anything in focus then I would return the lens for a replacement.

  • Charlton says:

    I have the Canon T2i. I am going for the Tokina 11-16mm since it is what you recommended for the ASC types. However, what would be the result if I used a lens for a full frame on the T2i for Milky Way shots? I would like to keep my options open if I decide to upgrade to a full frame in the near future. I know it knocks the frame size down a bit but does it affect the clarity of the photo? Thanks.

  • Todd Lambert says:

    Best I’ve found and one that use routinely is the 17 TS-E. Sharper than any of the lenses mentioned by a good mile and being able to control perspective really really helps when trying to include a foreground element in your night photography.

    Nowadays, with the high ISO capability of newer bodies, using an F4 lens is not the problem that it once was. For that reason, I tend to use the 17 TS-E more and more and my fast 1.4 glass less and less.

    • Scott Martin says:

      Totally with you on that Todd.

    • Greg Rodgers says:

      Hi Todd, thanks for info about TS lens. I have only used one once for interior architectural shots and appreciated the ability to adjust for keystoning. but didn’t use it wide open as DOF wouldn’t have been sufficient. Seems that by tilting the lens with respect to the sensor, off-axis focus at wide apperture would suffer more – yes?

  • I’ve used the Tokina 11-16mm with my Canon 60D to good effect:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/wnourse/9485759577/

  • Forgive me for asking a dumb question…but don’t you still want a lens that puts everything in focus at night? I’ve shot a lot of night stuff, and shooting cityscapes seems better with at least f/8 to f/16 for everything to be crisp and in focus. Of course, this is cityscapes I’m shooting (NYC etc.) I’ve also done some night sky photography, and it seems like I just left the shutter open longer with an ISO of f/8 or more.
    I have some really fast glass and I would love to shoot more night shots, but I just thought such a narrow depth of field of a lens at f/1.4 or f/1.8 would throw things out of focus, even though they are great for low light.
    Just wondering,
    Brandon

    • Hey Brandon, for that particular type of night photography you are correct. My style is to shoot in very dark sky locations that have no light pollution to photograph the milky way, if I want stars that are not moving the shutter speed is limited to 20-30, therefore I need very high iso’s and big apertures, long exposures are not an option in this case.

    • Scott Martin says:

      FWIW, for long exposure ‘star trail’ work the aperture is considered the primary “star gathering” variable. Larger apertures will gather more stars while smaller captures gather few to none. So for example, f2 gathers a visually overwhelming amount of stars, while f22 won’t gather any at all. I find the sweet spot for my liking to be at f7. For this kind of shot we’re always at lot ISOs so we can extend the exposure and get clean results. Because the ISO is always low and the shutter doesn’t matter with the moving stars, the aperture is the primary variable that effect how many star show up in the final shot.

      For ‘star points’ and ‘galactic sky’ shot like David mentions, high ISOs and large apertures are required to gather as much light as possible within ~20 seconds before the stars start to trail. Lots of lenses cause the stars to bloom into seagull looking shapes when wide open around the edges so something like f3.5 is a safer bet. SO just like daytime photography the difference between an f3.5 lens and a f1.2 lens can be that the f1.2 lens is much cleaner at f3.5. Just because a lens is super fast doesn’t mean you always want to shoot wide open – you often don’t!

  • Amberly W. says:

    nothing for k-mount/pentax out there?, i’d love to get into astrophotography with my kr or k5..

  • […] In The Best Lenses for Night Photography, night sky specialist David Kingham recommended Rokinon lenses due to their lack of coma and low purchase/rental price. He has compared the Rokinon 35mm f/1.4 with the recently-released Sigma 35mm f/1.4, along with the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 and the Nikon 35mm f/1.4. See which one rises to the top! […]

  • […] The Best Lenses for Night Photography: A Case for Rokinon Primes […]

  • Greg Rodgers says:

    No mention of using a telescope-type mount with motors set to rotate the camera with the motion of the earth to eliminate tailing in starts and other celestial bodies. Seems that would allow for much longer exposures and reduce the need for high iso/wider appertures. Anyone into that?

  • […] also found this site. Blog @ BorrowLenses It says to look for lenses with aspheric element. According to the specs of my lens it has two […]

  • Thanks so much for the review. Do you know if there is a difference in sharpness (or any other performance variables) between the Nikon AE and Nikon non-AE Rokinon 14 2.8 versions?

  • […] – The Best Lenses for Night Photography: A Case for Rokinon Primes by David […]

  • […] more on why Rokinons might be a good, affordable choice for you, see our Best Lenses for Night Photography: A Case for Rokinon Primes.   […]

  • dave says:

    recently bought a canon ef 500… very expensive. I am used to using a zoom like the canon ef 300… when I use the 300, I zoom in on something and then tap the shutter to af it clearly and can choose any distance to af it… anyway, that’s what I’m used to… same thing with my fish eye, my wide angle, etc.
    with the 500, which is amazing, if I zoom in on the moon lets say to make it larger but all blurry and then tap the shutter to af, it af’s great but shrinks it right back to small to focus it… it does this on any distant object I’m shooting… it that the way it is supposed to work or am I doing something wrong? With the 300 the length of the lens goes in and out and changes whats within the frame, with the 500 the frame never changes it just af’s on whatever you point it at only with no zooming in or out…. it does it perfectly but I think maybe I have a setting wrong or don’t know how to work the zoom properly… I’ve read everything on line I can find but can’t find anything super relevant to my question….

    • Have you already tried the AF Stop Button to freeze the AF where you want it before it gets to the point of focusing on the moon?

      • Dave says:

        Yes, when I zoom in on the moon or anything like that and make it bigger it gets super super blurry so on a reg lens I would take the fine tuner focus and focus it on in on the subject or af it but I can’t seem to do it on the big 500…. maybe I didn’t do the stop button correctly though… I could try and af focus on it and get the clarity right and then hold the af stop button and turn the zoom back out to enlarge the moon in the finder and see if that works…

  • Pete says:

    Does the Rokinon 14mm Cine lens mount directly on a Sony A7?

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