What Are The Best Lenses For Night Photography?
Several years ago, we posted an article titled "Recommended Lenses For Night Photography" that a lot of people found helpful. Since then, a lot has changed that affects the lenses my training partner Darren White and I most like to recommend as the best choices so I decided that this original article deserved an update with the latest information and recommendations.
As a night photography workshop instructor, I'm committed to getting great nightscape images. And while we believe that the best images come from a combination of great composition, great technique, and having an eye for great image, having good gear certainly helps to make a difference. we think the gear is secondary to these first three items but it does help. We get a lot of questions from our students about what gear works best and so we like to have some good answers for them. On the approach to our workshops, we often get asked if we were to recommend one single lens, which one we would recommend to help students get the best shots possible.
On this question, I'm quick to say that the older cameras and lenses are great for learning. They help students see the difference the techniques make which really helps them to learn. That said, having a great lens (and body) go a long way in getting great shots during the training allowing students to go home with great quality images to print. This is where an article like this can give our students (and others who are just interested in getting the best nightscape images possible) some advice on what to do. The question "What should I get?" can be answered with a quick answer, but we think it's far more helpful to give some background and to explain why we recommend certain lenses.
By the way, I don't work for any camera body or lens manufacturer or retailer and I'm not influenced by them in any way. We draw from the experience of others we know (and trust) but my suggestions primarily come from my own experiences and personal preferences in using various lenses out in the field under starry night skies. Some of this article may sound like we're biased toward Sigma Corporation but that's simply because they work so well. Just to be clear, as of today, I have no relationship with or bias toward Sigma or any other lens manufacturer and when a lens doesn't do well, I won't hold back in saying so.
What Did We Recommend In 2013?
My original article recommended Rokinon lenses (aka Samyang, Bower, and Pro Optic) in most cases. As an alternative to Canon & Nikon, we found them to produce similar image quality with a slight edge going to Rokinon. And while they're not auto-focus lenses, when used for nightscape images, that's not a problem because we tend to use manual focus at night. That said, they are significantly less expensive than their Canon & Nikon counterparts. And while some people knock them for their lighter weight use of plastic rather than metals, we will say they've been plenty tough enough for the challenge. In-fact, I've seen a Rokinon hood absorb the impact of a fall, preventing damage to a Nikon D800!
Our recommendations weren't all Rokinon… in some cases (like for a 50mm prime lens) we recommended a Canon/Nikon lens because those options were high in quality and reasonable in price (for the most part). It also helped in the case of the 50mm that Canon/Nikon had options available in either f/1.4 or f/1.8 apertures (with the f/1.8 being an especially good value).
As a top pick, we often recommended the Rokinon 14mm f2.8 (with the auto-aperture chip) followed by the Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lenses. The two perform well on their own (when you get a good copy) and these two focal lengths serve as great compliments to each other.
What Changed Since The Last Article?
Not only have companies released a lot of new lenses, but lens manufacturers we didn’t even mention before are now well worth considering. Among the most significant new additions is Sigma Corporation's release of their Art series of lenses. This new line of lenses is very high in quality which means they can compete well with anyone from Rokinon to Canon & Nikon. And at the risk of sounding like a Sigma commercial, we think their lenses are fantastic for night photography.
At the same time, we've noticed a significant amount of variation in quality in the lenses sold by Rokinon (aka Samyang, Bower, and Pro Optic). As an example, one of the top lenses we used to recommend was the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8. It's low price and wide angle perspective made it an attractive choice. We've seen however, a lot of variation in lenses that people get. First off, the focus ring sometimes has a hard-stop right at infinity and sometimes not. And when it's not, manual focusing is difficult because it doesn't do a good job of showing the stars as pin-points when they're precisely focused. Finally, we've seen quite a few of these lenses that simply did not capture a sharp image. Several years ago, this lens gave us a lot of bang for the buck but considering that our primary goal is to get a really sharp, high quality image, Darren and I both believe we now have better options available. Sure, price is important, but when the quality of the Rokinon lenses vary so widely and they're overall not as good as the Sigma lenses, we've found that paying more for a Sigma (still a reasonable cost, by the way) feels well worth the difference.
What Makes A Great Lens?
Here are the factors we use to determine a lens we recommend from one we don't.
- High Quality
- How easy is it to manually focus (in the dark)?
- How sharp are the details?
- Does the lens do a good job of minimizing unwanted artifacts like chromatic aberration and coma at the widest aperture setting or stopped down slightly?
- Can the lens capture a lot of details in a short amount of time with a wide aperture (i.e. f/1.4)?
- Does the manufacturer consistently produce high quality lenses (without a lot of variation)?
- Feature Support
- Does the lens support auto aperture?
- Does the lens give the camera body the ability to save settings and lens details in the image meta data?
- Does the lens support the use of filters (on all but the widest of lenses)?
- Does the lens fit on a variety of camera mounts? This isn't as important to us in our own shooting but it is important when it comes to recommending a lens to others - who may use a variety of camera bodies and manufacturers.
- Purchasing Experience
- Is the price reasonable?
- Can we buy it from a U.S. retailer (i.e. B&H or Amazon)?
- Can we rent it from Lens Rentals or other similar vendor?
We mention this last point (of renting) because we often recommended to try a lens first - before investing in one. In this case, having a lens available from a good rental facility (like www.LensRentals.com) makes this an easy option. As an alternative, we also like taking advantage of B&H's 30 day satisfaction guarantee which gives me a chance to go out and shoot and then to look closely at the results to make sure a lens is good enough to justify keeping it before my 30 day trial period runs out.
It's also important to identify what kinds of subjects you plan to shoot - just as we would do in daytime shooting. If you're planning on shooting star trails and long exposures, a good quality lens is still needed but the wider apertures (i.e. f/1.8 or f/1.4) are not. On the other hand, if shooting with shorter exposure times so you can capture the stars as points of light is important, then we generally recommend the brighter prime lenses with the wider apertures.
Please also keep in-mind that shooting an f/1.4 lens wide open will often lead to a lot of chromatic aberration and coma in the corners so we recommend stopping down the aperture. This can vary from one lens to another but we generally recommend shooting an f/1.4 lens at f/2.0 to reduce the visibility of these artifacts and to also take advantage of the lens' additional light gathering capability.
What Lenses Were Tested? (And What Lenses Were Not Tested?)
We've tested a whole bunch of Nikon lenses, a few from Tamron and pretty much everything from Rokinon (aka Samyang, Bower, and Pro Optic). We've also used and/or worked closely with people who've tested a lot of lenses from Canon. Then over the past 2 years, we've worked a lot with lenses from Sigma.
We did not test lenses made for only one camera brand. As an example, I've heard some good things about lenses from Zeiss that fit only on Sony camera bodies but since no one with a brand camera other than Sony can use them, we didn't take them seriously. That said, there may be some good options here (even if they are on the expensive side). We just wanted to make sure we use and recommend lenses that our night photography students can realistically use with their current camera bodies.
What Lenses Does Mike Have In His Camera Bag?
Here are the lenses Mike has in his camera bag as of today (for use with a Sony A7RII and Metabones adapter). As you can see, Mike is happy to use prime lenses for night photography because they do a great job of capturing details in the dark of the night thanks to their wide apertures.
- Sigma 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye Lens
- Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art Lens
- Sigma 24mm f/1.4 Art Lens
- Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art Lens
- Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art Lens
- Canon 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 Lens
What Do We Recommend Most?
We can sum up my experience by saying we just love the Sigma Art line of lenses. And among the lenses in that line, we like the 20mm f/1.4 the best. It's easy to focus, it produces super-sharp images, the price is reasonable (especially when compared with Canon & Nikon), and the lens quality is consistently very good. The rest of Sigma's Art line is also very good but there seems to be a bit of a sweet spot with their 20mm f/1.4. As a result, this lens has taken the spot as our top recommendation over the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8.
To compare the two, the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 is brighter, sharper, easier to use, and because the quality of manufacturing (and quality control measures) appears to be higher, we haven't seen the variation in quality we saw with the Rokinon. That said it is more expensive and it's heavier but in our opinion, these trade-offs are well worth it. One other difference that some may find significant is the fact that the Sigma lenses are capable of auto-focus where the Rokinons are all manual focus lenses. So from that perspective, their higher cost buys you some additional capability that the Rokinons do not have.
I find the 24mm f/1.4, 35mm f/1.4, and 50mm f/1.4 are also excellent for night photography purposes and Sigma recently released the 85mm f/1.4 Art Lens as well - although I don't plan to purchase that one (for now). All of these lenses (with the exception of the 85mm which we haven't used yet) have the same strengths as the 20mm which makes them great for nightscape images. You might also consider Sigma's 24-35mm f/2.0 Art zoom lens as it provides excellent quality in a zoom lens with a wide aperture that's great for nightscape shooting.
Best Lenses For Canon
Best Lenses For Nikon
Best Lenses for Sony
Some More Great Choices
Certainly, the Sigma Art lenses mentioned above are not the only good lenses out there for night photography. Here are some more options worth mentioning & considering.
- 11-16mm f/2.8 (great for cameras with crop sensors)
You may notice that the lenses we're recommending include links to see more information and potentially purchase them from B&H Photo Video - one of our favorite photo gear retailers. These links include an affiliate id which allow us to earn a little commission on the sales of these items and helps us to continue funding free articles like this. Of course you can ignore these links if you choose, but your support through your understanding and your patronage is very much appreciated.