As students get ready for night photography workshops, they often ask the question, "If I could buy just one lens, are there any that would really help with my night photography?". On this, I smile because there definitely is. And the best part is the route I recommend doesn't break the bank.
In general, a wide-angle, bright lens with a minimum aperture of 2.8 would be ideal. Good night photographs come from lots of other lenses, but in general, the low light sensitivity of an f/2.8 lens makes capturing the starry night sky a lot easier.
Improving Low-Light Capability With A Better Lens
Just like a new camera body can gain a few stops of low light sensitivity, it's well worth taking a look at how lenses can do the same. As an example, changing from an f/4 lens (a lens with a minimum aperture of f/4) to an f/2.8 lens is equivalent to doubling the amount of light you have to work with - which is a big deal. And a lens with an even wider aperture like f/1.4 can give you even more low light sensitivity.
So while upgrading a camera body can be expensive and depends on the release and availability of the latest equipment from manufacturers, gaining more low-light sensitivity by upgrading a lens can be a good alternative. Consider the fact that there are a lot of high quality f/2.8 lenses available right now that could provide a cost-effective way to improve your low-light sensitivity.
Transition From Zooms To Primes
One of the common ways to improve low light sensitivity is to make the transition from zoom lenses to prime lenses. Sure, the zooms are more versatile and convenient, but they don't quite have the low light performance that the high performance primes have. In general, zoom lenses are available with a minimum aperture of f/2.8 while prime lenses are available with a minimum aperture of f/1.4 and less. And while this may not seem like a big difference, it equates to 2 stops or 4 times the light sensitivity - so again, this is a big deal. This is why I traded in my 24-70mm zoom lens for a 24mm, a 35mm, and a 50mm prime lens.
Quality Issues To Be Aware Of
Keep in-mind, that the lenses with super-bright apertures tend to show some poor quality issues when shot wide open. Specifically, you'll likely see something called Coma which appears as the stretching of the stars and Chromatic Aberation which appears as a slight misalignment of colors. Both can appear more in the corners of your images when you shoot a super-bright lens with wide open apertures. So when I shoot with an f/1.4 lens, I often shoot at one or even two stops smaller to minimize the problem (i.e. shoot an f/1.4 lens at f/2.0 or f/2.8).
Brand Name Loyalty vs. Third Party Alternatives
Many people believe that the only way to get good quality photographs is to buy name brand lenses directly from either Nikon or Canon. And while I was in that camp for quite a while, over the past few years, several third party manufacturers have entered the market with some darned good lenses - well worth considering in landscape circles. In my mind, brands like Tokina, Sigma, and others have really made a name for themselves. And that's a good thing because when you consider that a transition to from zooms to primes potentially means a lot of expensive lenses. My favorite lens at the time I was testing (a 24mm f/1.4 Nikon Lens) sold for $2,300 - and that was a refurbished price! Wow!
In my night photography experience, there's one brand that really stands out. You'll find them under one (or more) of the following brand names: Rokinon, Bower, Samyang, or ProOptic depending on where you're looking to buy from. Aside from the name, you'll find a high quality alternative that actually beat the name brands in performance by a slight margin. And if that weren't enough, the price is significantly lower - at times, a third of the brand name lenses. Sure they're manual focus lenses, but I don't typically use auto-focus at night anyway so I'd rather not pay for it - especially if it's going to cost a lot.
In looking at the manual focus lenses from Rokinon, understand that you will see some varying opinions on them. Ken Rockwell for example listed the 14mm f/2.8 Rokinon lens (one of my top recommendations for night photography) as "optically the worst 14mm FX lens sold today". Obviously, our perspectives on this lens are very different - both in how we use it and in the quality of the results we expect to see.
Lens Comparison - Nikon vs. Rokinon (24mm f/1.4)
As an owner of the Nikon 24mm f/1.4 lens (currently valued at $1,999 at B&H), I was more than curious to see how the Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens (currently valued at $549 in the Bower brand at B&H) would compare. I'd heard that it would do just as well as the Nikon in my starry night photography (if not better), but I've been known to want to see results for myself - so that's what I did.
And in those results, I was looking for Coma and Chromatic Aberration (mentioned earlier). I had heard that these effects would appear in both lenses when I pushed them to wide-open apertures but I was interested to see how they'd both handle the challenges of ultra-low-light conditions. I'd heard from other night photographers that the Rokinon was able to slightly outperform the Nikon equivalent and that I needed to see for myself.
So even though I already owned the Nikon 24mm f/1.4 lens, I went ahead and bought a Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens. I figured if I tested the two together by shooting the two lenses in the same conditions with the same settings, I could really evaluate them with my own eyes. So that's what I did and I was honestly surprised at the results.
I expected the two to be in the same league as far as quality was concerned but I expected the Nikon to still be in the lead. I did not expect to see the Rokinon actually beat the Nikon lens. To see the difference, I looked at the stars in one of the corners enlarged to 100%.
Unfortunately, I'm not able to show a side-by-side comparison since my images all show the same meta-data for the two lenses - whether shot with a Nikon 24mm f/1.4 or Rokinon 24mm f/1.4. So although I know the results of the testing, I can't be 100% sure which image was captured with which lens. That said, I did repeat my tests in different night settings over a period of several months to confirm my findings.
In about half of the cases, I could see a slight difference where I had to give a slight edge in quality to the Rokinon lens where in the other half, they looked just about the same. Several tests gave me the confidence to say that in terms of image quality, that the Rokinon lens matched the quality of the Nikon lens and even beat Nikon by a slight margin in some cases. When I say beat it, I mean that at the same settings in the same location, I saw slightly less noticeable Coma and Chromatic Aberration on the Rokinon than on the Nikon lens. I'll admit that I had a hard time believing this - which is why I kept testing it in various environments. Sure enough, the Rokinon maintained that same level of quality in every case - and in some cases (as mentioned earlier) slightly beat the Nikon lens.
What Is That Auto-Focus Confirm Chip?
At the time of this article, the 14mm f/2.8 lens and the 35mm f/1.4 lens come available in a choice of two styles - with one of the styles including some potentially confusing terminology. If you're looking at one of these lenses for Nikon, read on... otherwise, skip to the next section.
A lot of people start to read the description and when they see mention of the Auto-Focus Confirm Chip, they assume that means the lens includes Auto-Focus and stop reading. This is NOT the case. Rokinon offers a choice (in these two lenses) and it's important to understand what this choice means. The chip is automatically included in their two other lenses included in this recommendation.
First off, all of the lenses I'm recommending from Rokinon are manual focus lenses. The chip will allow you to gain some level of confirmation when your subject is in-focus - which is typically more useful in the daytime hours. This chip will NOT allow the lenses to behave in a mode that in any way resembles Auto-Focus.
Even still, I really like this chip... why, you ask? Because it allows my camera to function in auto-aperture mode - which to me, is a big deal. This is a feature we all typically use and don't think about it because most if not all of our lenses make use of it. Auto-aperture means that you can control your aperture settings from your camera body without having to manually turn the aperture ring on the lens. This is a good thing and it's different from the exposure mode you use - P for Program, A for Aperture Priority, S for Shutter Priority, or M for Manual. The exposure mode is not only different, but it depends on being able to set the aperture from the body so again, it's a good thing to have auto-aperture capability.
I'll admit that this is a judgment call that doesn't affect image quality in any way. For me though, I find the extra $30 or so to be worth the consistency and ease of use out in-the-field.
What About Quality Control?
My understanding is that the name brands (Nikon & Canon) do a very good job with quality control by spending somewhere around 40% of their expenses on quality control where the rest of the companies spend more like 10%. They're all capable of producing a bad lens but Nikon & Canon are a lot more likely to catch it before it goes out the door.
This gives us as photographers some opportunities and some risks that are good to understand. I think we have a good opportunity to purchase some high quality lenses at a reasonable price - more so than we've had available to us in the past. I also think we have a moderate risk of getting a bad lens - with any company but more so when purchasing a lens other than a Nikon or Canon.
Either way, I suggest opening the box, inspecting the lens, testing, and reviewing the results soon after receiving it. Make sure to put yourself in a position where you'll be able to tell if the lens is good and sharp or not. Look in the corners of your starry images at 100% for sharp details and degree of Coma and Chromatic Aberration. If your image is acceptable, you're good to go, if not, pursue an exchange and do so right away to avoid any problems. Retailers are often more willing to accept returns and exchanges when they're requested within a reasonable time frame.
Savings Over Name Brands
So now that we've looked at image quality, let's take a look at the difference in costs. At the time this article was written, I found the Nikon 24mm f/1.4mm lens on B&H for $1999.95 and the similar Bower 24mm f/1.4mm lens for $549.00. This unbelievable price difference is the reason I was willing to own both for a period of time so I could test them for myself. I simply couldn't believe something that sold for so much less could perform so well - in this case for a savings of 72% or $1,450.95.
With the need to have more lenses because of the transition from zooms to primes, this reduced cost of each lens significantly helped in making that transition. In-fact, I doubt I could have justified the cost to transition to primes if the lenses were priced in this $2,000 price range. Your savings may vary but you can expect significant savings when comparing a Rokinon lens to a similar one made by Nikon or Canon. Of course, we understand that we're getting less for what we're buying - no name brand behind the lens and no auto-focus.
When shopping, keep in-mind that prices among the Rokinon brands can vary. So my suggestion is to search for the model of lens you want without specifying the lens brand as this will show results for any of the Rokinon brands (including Bower, Samyang, and ProOptic). I used this same approach in providing the search links below
Lens Recommendations - Wide Angle
These are all manal-focus lenses with dedicated mounts for DSLR camera bodies from manufacturers including Nikon, Canon, Sony, and more.
- Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 - My favorite lens to recommend to students. It's not quite as wide as a fisheye and doesn't have that level of distortion, but it's wide enough to take in a lot of the sky for the wider milky way images. And with the focus ring having a hard stop at infinity, focusing in the dark can be a little easier with this lens.
- Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 - My favorite lens to have in my gear bag. My "go to lens" for the longest time, I find this focal length to work very well for many of my favorite compositions. The bright f/1.4 aperture helps to capture the maximum amount of color data and sharp details possible.
- Rokinon 35mm f/1.4 - Another great lens that is nice to have. I don't use it as often, but it provides that extra measure of flexibility that helps when giving up the zooms. The bright f/1.4 aperture helps to capture the maximum amount of color data and sharp details possible.
Lens Recommendations - Add A 50mm
- Name Brand 50mm f/1.8 - A bright, high quality lens with a mid-range focal length. As both Nikon and Canon offer even brighter, more advanced 50mm lenses, they keep this one priced very reasonable. And since the quality on these lenses is exceptional, they make the cut for my recommendation as a great 50mm to add to the night photography lenses in your gear bag. Besides that, it's an auto-focus lens so it works well in a variety of conditions.
Recommended Night Photography Lenses By Camera Brand
Since pricing can fluctuate, I provided multiple recommendations for each model so you could pick the Rokinon brand that offers the best price - when you're ready.
Let Mike or Darren know if you have any comments or questions about night photography lens recommendations. They're happy to help.