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.
Rokinon Lenses for Night Sky Photography
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.
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:
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 Considerations in Night Sky Photography
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!
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!
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.
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-Sensor Cameras for Night Sky Photography
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 Nikon, Canon, and Sony.
- Nikon 35mm 1.8g – Since this has an aspherical element, it should perform well, but I have no experience with it.
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