My Lenses for Astrophotography
Depending on the scene you wish to capture, there are a few different lenses that can be used for photographing the night sky. If you are looking to get started shooting wide-field astrophotography, similar to the image below, choose a wide angle lens (between 8mm and 24mm) with an aperture of at least f/2.8. Below I go through my list of lenses that I use specifically for astrophotography and provide some sample images, to give you an idea of what to expect.
The Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 is a lens I commonly recommend to workshop participants who are looking for something reasonably priced that will allow them to capture the night sky. There are few lenses of this caliber that are in this price range.
So what's the catch? The lens is manual focus only (but that's just fine for night scenes!) and has a manual aperture ring on the lens (again: no biggie.) This means the focus and aperture settings are controlled on the exterior of the lens. Another potential drawback is that there are no front filter threads, meaning without a specialized adapter there is not a way to use filters in front of the lens for general landscape; such as polarizing filters, graduated neutral density filters and the like. I personally only use it for astrophotography because I typically use filters with my day time work.
The bottom line is that this lens is quite sharp, reasonably priced, and sports a f/2.8 aperture that is necessary for astro work.
The Canon 16-35mm lens is hands-down my most used lens in my kit. I use it with everything from astrophotography, general landscape, weddings, portraits, to - you name it. This lens is sharp and fast, and the versatile zoom range is perfect for photographing the night sky.
But it is not without it's drawbacks for astrophotography. The lens exhibits coma which is a defect that causes distortion particularly noticeable in the stars in the corners of the frame. Also, with some darker scenes there can be unwanted vignetting. When zoomed in to 35mm, the f/2.8 aperture is not enough to compensate for the faster shutter speed (15 seconds) required by the longer focal length to prevent unwanted star trails. And that is where the 35mm Sigma shines with its f/1.4 aperture (read below for more info.)
The bottom line here is that this lens is a more versatile option than the Rokinon 14mm for photographers who need auto focus, ability to use filters, and desire a lens that can handle many different types of shooting situations that require a wide angle lens.
I picked up the Sigma 20mm Art recently and couldn't wait to give it a whirl, setting my alarm for 4 AM to catch the first glimpses of the Milky Way of the year. The chief reason for making this purchase was that I desired a wider field of view when an aperture of f/1.4 was required for the scene. In dark places, such as Death Valley, or even around the Central Coast off the beaten path, you simply need to gather more light than a f/2.8 aperture will allow without bumping your ISO dangerously high. Also, light painting or use of flash is not always permitted or practical. My 14 f/2.8 or 16-35 simply wasn't cutting it for those situations, and this lens solves that problem. However, with Sigma announcing the 14mm f/1.8 lens, I may be eliminating the 20mm Art from my kit - but we shall see!
The one hang up I have with this lens is something that every astrophotographer can sympathize with - coma, or comatic aberration. Essentially, the stars in the corners of the frame suffer from distortion that causes them to look like little flying saucers. I personally do not think this is the end of the world, but do hope the upcoming Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art will tackle this problem. When making large prints, you'll be able to see these types of imperfections more so than with web use - so it is worth noting.
I haven't shot enough with it to develop any sort of a "feeling" about it, other than it gets the job done. I'll update this post as I use this lens in more shooting situations. Here's what I've capture so far with it:
The Sigma 35mm Art is a gorgeous hunk of very, very sharp glass that should have Canon shaking in its boots. I'm saving my pennies and would love to replace my Canon 50 with the Sigma Art, and long for the day they release an 85mm Art. Yes, it's that good. During weddings, it's never detached from my second camera body.
That being said, it is somewhat of a restrictive lens for wide-field astrophotography when it comes to composition. It's a great lens for Milky Way panoramas, but for wider, single frame compositions, it is rather tight. And at 35mm and an aperture of f/1.4, you have a much shallower depth of field than with a 14mm at f/2.8, requiring foreground elements to be placed far enough away that both the subject and stars are in acceptable focus. Stopping down to a narrower aperture is mostly counter-intuitive for astrophotography, as the goal is to let in as much light as possible. That is the challenge with this lens. However, this technical challenge requires a more purposeful and planned composition, which can potentially have more stunning results than a wider scene.
Besides the Milky Way filling the frame more fully, this focal length also increases the apparent size of meteors, making for a more striking scene.
This Sigma lens is my go-to for lifestyle portrait sessions. A lot of photographers have a "nifty 50," 50mm f/1.8 or f/1.4 in their camera bag. For me, it was my first "real lens" beyond my kit lens. Your maximum shutter speed on a full frame camera is 10 seconds with this lens, so you might need to bump the ISO, rely on light painting, or light from the moon to help illuminate your foreground when using this lens. This isn't a lens I use often for astrophotography, but you certainly get a close look at the Milky Way, which is an impressive sight.
The 70-200mm lens (I have the IS, version 1) is probably the last lens that most folks consider for use with astrophotography. I am giving it an honorable mention here because, although I don't regularly use this lens for my astrophotography, it's capable of capturing unique images and is worth talking about and sharing some samples.
The fact of the matter is, it can be quite useful, especially for photographing the full moon. But aside from that purpose, it gives you a really up close and personal view of the Milky Way, and is very useful for isolating subjects, as in the tree photo below. The last photograph of these three is a composite/star stack image of Comet Lovejoy captured with this lens. Next time you're out shooting, take out your telephoto lens, follow the 500 rule for shutter speed, and experiment.
I hope this was eye-opening for you, as it was for me upon using some of these lenses for this purpose. Although I will always favor the wider angle lenses for general purpose, wide-field astrophotography, it is great to know there are other lenses in our camera bags that we can use to add variety to our night sky portfolio.
What lenses do you use for photographing the night sky?
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