There are few photographic subjects that are as awe-inspiring and thought provoking as the universe. The sheer size and infinite nature of the cosmos is something that makes even most self-assured and narcissistic members of society feel infinitesimally small. Nothing is large and important on the grand galactic scale of space.
Ever since telephoto lenses were invented, amateur and professional photographers have been pointing their cameras towards the night sky. The results can be quite spectacular, and the possibilities are quite literally infinite.
Some people like to stay reasonably earthbound in their shots and try and capture the night sky set across an earthly landscape. Other people like to dedicate their shot to capturing the swirling purple gasses of our milky way galaxy.
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Regardless of your chosen astronomical subject, there is quite literally no place like space for photography.
Many people mistakenly believe that you need a super specialized camera, and an incredibly large (and expensive) lens to take these kinds of shots. But that is simply not the case. With a DSLR and a lens that has the right qualities – you too can take stellar shots almost too good to believe.
Here we are going to take a look at the five best lenses for astrophotography on the market, and show you why we think they are more than worthy of your consideration
The Absolute Best Lens For Astrophotography – Fujinon XF16mmF1.4 R WR
As you will learn later in the buyers guide section of this article, there is one feature above all else that a good astrophotography lens needs to have…
It needs to capture massive amounts of light.
All of the night sky (except maybe for the moon) is incredibly dark compared to the vast majority of terrestrial subjects. Stars and stellar gas clouds that make up our milky way are trickles of light that need to be absorbed as efficiently as possible. Ensuring your lens can capture enough light to take a great shot is the number one priority.
As you will learn later in the guide, manufacturers don’t really produce statistics on “total light consumption” for their lenses. So some clever people have decided to make an equation to compare different lenses against one another (you will find it at the end of the article).
For the time being, all you need to know about this “Lens Light Rating” (that has no official name) is that the bigger the number, the more light the lens can absorb. Anything over 1000 is decent.
It’s no coincidence the product we are rating the best lens for astrophotography is also one of the best at gobbling up every last photon of light. It has the highest lens light rating on this list coming in at a score of 3826.
We know that this score probably doesn’t mean much to you right now – but trust us. This is an excellent light absorption rating.
The amazing light capture capabilities of this lens are enough of a “special feature” on their own. But this Fujinon still has one or two tricks up its sleeve. We love the fact that this is a weatherproofed lens. This is a feature that should not be overlooked when looking at astrophotography lenses. Much of your time is going to be spent waiting around while you are taking shots. Some shots require you to leave the camera overnight. Being able to rest assured that your lens is weatherproof will prevent sleepless nights.
Wideangle lenses are almost essential for shots that are not using a high power zoom. Many photographers want to take large sweeping dramatic pictures that capture as much of the sky (and occasionally the horizon) as possible. A good wide lens will enable you to make an already dramatic subject even more interesting.
Flaws But Not Deal Breakers
The main issue with this lens is that it only works with cameras that are compatible with the Fujifilm x mount system. Despite this limiting the amount of cameras that can use the lens, it still gets the top spot for us. (Adapter kits can easily be purchased for other cameras).
Also, we are not too keen on the fact that this is a manual focus lens. This is not really a deal breaker because the autofocus on most lenses is not really good enough to be used for taking shots of the night sky anyway. (The stars are usually too small and too distant for them to be able to target). But it would have been nice to have the option.
Is This A Good Lens For Video?
Yes, absolutely. Despite being a totally different format, most lenses that are good for photography are also going to be good for video. Videos of the night sky can be incredibly dramatic when played back as a hyper lapse – so get your creative juices flowing!
The Second Best Camera Lens for Astrophotography – Rokinon 24mm F/1.4
The runner up in our best camera lens for astrophotography list is an incredible product from Rokinon. They may not be the most prestigious brand in the world, but with their 24mm f/1.4 wide angle lens they have made something quite special. It is an incredible lens for taking shots of the night sky, jam packed with seemingly purpose built specifications.
The lens light rating of this lens is off the charts. It’s not as high as the Fujinon that took the top spot – but it’s not far off.
It has an amazing 2869 lens light rating, which puts it far beyond what most of the other lenses on the market can claim. This is a product that will allow you take better pictures of the cosmos than you ever thought possible.
Like most of the lenses on this list, this is a wide angle lens. In fact, saying this is “wide angle” is a little bit of an understatement. It is super wide, you will be capturing more than you ever imagined (or sometimes wanted) with this lens.
It’s so wide that it can make the raw images look a little bit busy and can make composition a little difficult at times.
But you are almost certainly going to be processing these images on your computer anyway – which means cropping them to perfection is going to be a trivial task.
Because Rokinon doesn’t make their own cameras, they are not tied down to making a proprietary mounting system. Being the thoughtful manufacturer they are, this lens is available to fit all kinds of cameras – including Nikon, Canon, and Sony.
Flaws But Not Deal Breakers
Again this is another lens that does not have auto focus. But as we already mentioned, 90% of lenses that have auto focus will not be able to focus on the night sky anyway. So it’s not a big issue.
Can I Attach Filters To This Lens?
Absolutely. As you may already know filters get a good amount of use when taking shots of the night sky. You will be able to attach any 77mm filter onto the Rokinon to make an amazing subject, even better.
The Best DSLR Lens For Astrophotography – Sigma 18-35mm F1.8
There is a wide range of DSLR lenses for astrophotography. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are great, and others are not. There is that much choice that It can be quite difficult to cut through all the noise to find the real gems. Luckily for you, we have found an excellent product that we are proud to call the best DSLR lens for astrophotography.
If you own a DSLR you have probably heard of Sigma. They are renowned for making some of the world’s best lenses at very reasonable (but not cheap) price points. The sigma 18-35mm F1.8 is a brilliant lens that has a range of features that makes it very well suited for astrophotography – despite not being intentionally designed for it.
This is a brilliant lens that will be able to capture the faintest points of light in the sky. Its 2146 lens light rating is superb and makes this a top pick worthy of anyone’s consideration.
You should know that the Sigma is not going to pick up as much light as the first 2 entries on this list – they are truly remarkable products. But that doesn’t mean this lens should be overlooked – it’s still hands down one of the best lenses in terms of light absorption that money can buy.
This is the first lens on our list that has auto focus (despite us telling you how important it is in the buyers guide at the end!). We don’t consider autofocus to be a plus point for an astrophotography lens unless it can actually focus on the stars. 90% of lenses are simply incapable of doing so (as it is admittedly quite a hard thing to do). Luckily for Sigma, they are autofocus experts, and this is a lens capable of autofocusing perfectly on the dark night sky.
Flaws But Not Deal Breakers
The only problem with have with the Sigma is that it is not weatherproofed. While this is not a deal breaker it is slightly annoying if you want to take those long, overnight, hyper lapse exposure shots of the sky. They are some of the most beautiful shots you can take of the cosmos, and if you want to do it with this lens – you better be sure it’s not going to rain.
What Mounting Systems Can This Lens Be Used With?
Sigma is one of those brands that really cover all of their bases when it comes to compatibility. All of the big name mounting systems can be used with the Sigma including Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and Sony.
The Best Nikon Astrophotography Lens – Nikon 50mm f/1.4G/D
Nikon is arguably the best camera equipment manufacturer in the world. Their lenses and cameras regularly receive critical acclaim, and it’s very rare that they produce a bad product. The 50mm f/1.4 lens is in our opinion the best Nikon astrophotography lens and is more than worthy of your consideration.
As we go lower down this list, the amount of light that each lens can capture diminishes. The Nikon has a reasonable lens light rating of 1497, which is more than acceptable for most astrophotography shooting. You will be able to capture stunning nebulas of the milky way and countless stars with crystal clear precision using this product.
This lens itself doesn’t have autofocus. But when it is used with compatible Nikon cameras the two products combine to almost magically create autofocus. The benefit of having the camera powering the autofocus is almost immediately obvious. It is super quick, and super sharp when locking on to the night sky. There is no focus hunting whatsoever (unlike many lower quality autofocus systems). It is more than up to the job of quickly refocusing when you reframe a shot to capture the movement of the night sky.
Flaws But Not Deal Breakers
The main flaw we have with this lens is with regards to its lens light rating. It’s rated as being able to capture less than half the light the Fujifilm lens we rated at the top spot. It is noticeably worse at capturing the tiny little details that our top pick would capture clearly and easily. However, this being said, it’s still excellent at shooting the night sky. A low light rating of 1497 is still miles better than most lenses on the market – even if it is half that of the Fujifilm.
Does This Lens Zoom?
No this is not a zoom lens, it is a prime lens. This means you have to get a little bit more creative with your shots. It can take a little bit of getting used to at first. But zooming with your feet will make your composition skills much better over time. A great choice for new photographers!
The Best Canon Lens For Astrophotography – Canon EF 50mm f/1.2
It would not be right to mention the best Nikon lens without mentioning the best Canon lens for astrophotography. Canon and Nikon are the two heavyweights of the photography world. They go head to head and toe to toe with almost every product. And just like Nikon, Canon have a world class lens that is suitable for astrophotography too.
The Canon is a little bit better in terms of light capture compared to the Nikon it has a rating of 2038 compared the Nikons 1497. This 500 point difference is certainly noticeable in the pictures if you put them side by side, the Canon clearly outperforms.
However in reality, unless you are comparing them intentionally – there is not a huge amount of difference. Both the Nikon and the Canon are excellent at capturing huge amounts of starlight and turning it into stunning images.
Like a couple of other lenses on this list, the Canon is weather proof. This is ideal if you want to leave it outside overnight when taking hyper lapses and you don’t want to worry about ruining your gear.
Flaws But Not Deal Breakers
The autofocus on the Canon has been said to be a little bit troublesome when shooting the night sky. It cannot quite target the stars to focus on them properly. There is a lot of focus hunting, and the autofocus feature is unusable for astrophotography. However, as we have already mentioned, this is not a problem unique the to Canon. You will just need to manually focus instead.
Does This Lens Come With A Lens Hood?
No, it does not. Canon is a little bit hit and miss with their lens hoods. Sometimes they include them and other times they do not. Unfortunately, this is one of the unlucky lenses that for one reason or another did not get graced by the lens hood gods. (But lens hoods are available for purchase separately).
As you may have already deduced from our article there are several specific features that make a lens suitable for astrophotography.
In this buyers guide section we are going to dig a little deeper into what kind of features a good astrophotography lens needs to have. Some of these features are essential, and others are added bonuses.
When it comes to astrophotography light collection is your first, second, and third priority. Everything else comes secondary to the light collecting capabilities of a lens. When taking shots of the night sky you are going to be leaving your camera in place for many minutes (or hours) at a time. It is going to absorb and soak up every single last photon of ancient light sent from distant stars it possibly can.
To put it simply if your lens and camera can capture more light, they can take shots of fainter more distant objects.
Now, this presents a unique challenge for photographers who are getting into astrophotography for the first time. Light collection capabilities are not a standard metric that many lenses are rated for (although some are). Much of the time you are going to have to work it out for yourself.
There is no hard and fast rule for determining this. Different authorities suggest different equations to calculate how good a lens is. Which of the main methods you use doesn’t really matter, they are all similarly effective.
What does matter, however, is that you pick one method of analysis and stick to it. The equations that are used are only able to provide comparative data between lenses that have been analyzed by the same equation.
With that in mind. Here is the formula we recommend you use to calculate the light gathering capabilities of your lens.
Light Gathering Power = (the lenses aperture area) × (the lenses angular area) × (suggested shutter speed)
When you fill in the blanks of that equation you are going to get a score. The higher the number, the more light the lens can capture (and the better it is for astrophotography).
Ideally, you want a score above 1000 as a minimum. Anything lower than this will miss detail that significantly degrades the quality of a shot.
Magnification is the first thing many newcomers to astrophotography think is the most important feature of a lens. And while they are not wrong about it being important, it’s not as essential as you might think.
Astrophotography is not all about taking shots of distant planets and moons. The vast majority of night sky shots are actually taken with some of the earth in view to give dramatic context to a shot.
Before you start going and looking for the most impressive magnification specifications you can find, take a deep breath and think for a second. Ask yourself what kind of shots do you really want to take?
Are you going to be constantly trying to take shots of the planets and the moon? Or are you more likely to want to use the night sky as a stunning backdrop to an earthly landscape?
If you intend to have the earth in your photos, then you are not going to need a super powerful zoom on your lens…
However, if you do want to take those interstellar shots, then you should look for a lens that has the maximum amount of zoom possible. The sky is literally the limit here. You should get the highest magnification possible. It is only going to be secondary in importance to the light gathering capabilities.
If you need the zoom and have a choice between two lenses, you should always choose the one that has the better light gathering capabilities (if there is a significant difference).
Simply put, zoom is almost always secondary compared to light gathering performance.
There are hyper-professional lenses out there that allow you to have excellent zoom while capturing huge amounts of crisp light – but they are super expensive. To be perfectly honest, if you needed them, you would probably not be reading this guide.
Autofocus is reasonably important for astrophotography. Every lens these days has some form of autofocus, but as you probably already know – autofocus systems are not all created equally. Some of the lower quality lenses will have autofocus that performs perfectly well when taking shots on earth – but fail in the night sky.
This is because the stars that are the subject of most of your astrophotography are tiny little points of light in the sky. They are incredibly difficult for software to detect, and as such you need a lens that is up to the job.
Now, to be honest you can manually focus the lens if the autofocus is not up to the job, (so excellent autofocus is not a deal breaker for us). But it does open up a huge amount of creative possibility. Having to manually refocus your lens every time you move your camera certainly reduces the amount you are going to want to move and reframe a shot.
So look out for lenses that have great, precision autofocus capabilities – but don’t pass up on an otherwise great lens if the autofocus is not up to scratch.
So there you have it, some of the best lenses for astrophotography on the planet. In our opinion, there are few photographic subjects that can compete with the awe-inspiring awesomeness of the cosmos.
If you are new to astrophotography be warned, this is going to change the way you think about taking photos.
Because with a little patience and a good clear sky away from light pollution.
You will literally be able to take shots that are out of this world.
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