There's no challenge quite like shooting the stars, and that's why you need the best lenses for astrophotography! Without much light to play with, photographing the night sky is a tricky matter even when you're working on a beautifully clear evening, as it's not just wide and expansive but also constantly moving. Don't expect to get great results if you just point and shoot with a kit lens!
So what makes for a good lens for shooting the Milky Way? Ideally you want a wide-angle zoom or prime; it's best to work in a focal range of around 14-20mm in 35mm equivalent terms (so about 10-14mm on APS-C or 7-10mm on Micro Four Thirds). But this is only half the story: you also need a wide aperture for light-gathering purposes, as using too high an ISO setting will crank the grain up too high and render the stars illegible. There's a lot more to say here, but if you want more tips, check out our Astrophotography tips and how-to guides.
We've split our guide into sections to make it easier to navigate. In the first section we have lenses that are broadly compatible across a range of mounts, including not only the Canon and Nikon heavyweights but also Pentax, Fujifilm, Micro Four Thirds and more. Next we have a section for lenses that are specifically designed to fit Canon and Nikon DSLRs, as many manufacturers make some popular lenses just for these two mounts. After that we have some mount-specific lenses for Canon, Nikon and Sony. Use the navigation bar above to jump to a specific section.
Now let's get to the lenses!
This manual-focus Samyang has an astro-friendly ‘effective’ focal length on crop-sensor cameras, ranging from 15-16mm on APS-C format bodies to 20mm on Micro Four Thirds. It’s available in many mount options, but only the Nikon fit has built-in electronics. This enables the aperture to be set from the camera. Compared with most prime lenses for crop-sensor cameras, this one is unusual in combining a wide viewing angle with a fairly fast f/2.8 aperture.
Manual focusing is precise and assured. Build quality feels solid, but there are no weather-seals. Performance is good in terms of coma, spherical aberration and vignetting, helping stars to retain their natural shape across the image frame, even when shooting wide-open at f/2.8. Sharpness isn’t fabulous, however, but it doesn’t drop off much towards the edges of frame. Colour fringing can be more noticeable than usual towards the image corners, and there's a fairly typical amount of barrel distortion for this type of wide-angle prime.
This lens works well for Micro Four Thirds and APS-C format astrophotography, where the lack of autofocus isn’t really a drawback. It’s great value at the price.
This recently launched full-frame compatible prime lens for Canon and Nikon DSLRs, as well as Sony E-mount cameras is a full f/stop faster than most other lenses on this list, and it includes super-speedy ring-type ultrasonic autofocus. The wide aperture comes at a price, however: the large-diameter elements required are not only more expensive to make, they also result in a comparatively big and heavy build.
At least this lens is also big on performance. Image quality is fabulous, as sharpness is exceptional for such a fast-aperture lens with an ultra-wide viewing angle. Equally impressive are contrast, colour rendition, and the absence of spherical and lateral chromatic aberrations. There is very noticeable coma and astigmatism towards the corners of the image frame, but go down one stop and these virtually disappear, making overall image quality for astrophotography altogether excellent.
Designed in Switzerland and built in Korea, the full-frame compatible Irix 15mm is available in Firefly and Blackstone options. They’re optically identical, but the Blackstone has a magnesium alloy rather than plastic casing, four weather-seals instead of three, and fluorescent engraved markings for easy reading. As a manual-focus lens, the focus ring has a smooth, precise operation. A secondary ring enables you to lock the focus ring at any position. Another nice touch is that you can fine-tune the focus ring so that the distance scale is calibrated to your camera body.
Image quality is excellent, with minimal aberrations. Sharpness is excellent across most of the frame, even at the widest aperture. Vignetting isn’t too bad at f/2.4, but coma and astigmatism are pronounced, giving an irregular shape to stars. Both factors are improved by narrowing the aperture by an f/stop though.
This is a great wide-angle prime for general shooting, and comes at a very attractive price. Coma and astigmatism at the widest aperture are the only spoilers for astrophotography.
Canon and Nikon
Available in Canon EF and Nikon F mounts, this Sigma lens is up against own-brand legends like the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM III and the Nikkor AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G ED. It beats both of them for image quality and price. Build quality and handling are excellent, with a full set of weather-seals and a fluorine coating on the front element. The lens is also compatible with Sigma’s optional USB Dock for customisation and firmware updates.
Even at the shortest focal length with the widest aperture, sharpness is excellent across the entire frame, and the lens does very well to retain excellent corner sharpness at wide apertures. Vignetting is remarkably minimal and though barrel distortion is prominent at close range, it's negligible for astrophotography. Lateral and spherical aberrations are also very well controlled.
For full-frame Canon and Nikon DSLRs, this is simply the best ultra-wide, fast-aperture zoom lens on the market, and not just for astrophotography.
From Korean manufacturer Samyang’s XP stable of premium manual-focus prime lenses for Canon and Nikon full-frame cameras, this 14mm f/2.4 is the most ideal for astrophotography. The lens is sold as the Rokinon SP 14mm f/2.4 in North America. The high-quality glass is neatly wrapped in a really solid casing. The rubberized manual focus ring gives a very assured grip and has a long rotational travel with a fluid feel. There’s no weather-seal ring on the mounting plate to guard against the ingress of dust and moisture. To be fair, though, if you’re photographing the Milky Way, you’ll need clear, dry and dust-free conditions.
Image quality for astrophotography at the widest aperture is markedly better than from the Irix's rival 15mm f/2.4 Blackstone lens or a Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art. Sharpness is both very good and extremely consistent across the image frame. Chromatic aberrations are negligible, while coma and astigmatism are very minimal. Barrel distortion can be visible at close focus distances, but that's not an issue for astrophotography.
Maintaining excellent image quality a lens' widest aperture for astrophotography is a real challenge in an ultra-wide-angle optic, but this Samyang does exactly that - an admirable achievement.
Unusually for a wide-angle zoom lens designed for Canon or Nikon DSLRs, this Tamron includes an optical stabiliser, with 4.5-stop effectiveness. That’s useful at dusk or indoors, but of zero benefit for long exposures in astrophotography, where it’s best switched off. Though there’s little change in the optical line-up, this updated G2 lens revision gains an additional anti-glare coating and a more durable fluorine coating on the front element. Unlike some similar zoom lenses, this Tamron has a large zoom ring at the front and a relatively small focus ring at the rear.
The lens delivers impressively little barrel distortion and vignetting at its shortest focal length. At 15mm from f/2.8 to f/4, sharpness is lacklustre outside the central region, but otherwise excellent. There's also a little more coma and astigmatism towards the corners of frame, while barrel distortion is average at close range and minimal for astro shooting.
Overall this Tamron G2 lens is a solid performer and an improvement over the original. Its image stabilisation system works well for general use, though it isn’t of any benefit for astrophotography.
Ultra-wide zoom lenses with fast aperture ratings for APS-C format Canon and Nikon cameras are few and far between. The main competitor to this lens is Tokina’s own AT-X 14-20mm f/2 AF Pro DX, which is a little pricier and has an even faster aperture rating. However, its maximum viewing angle is a little restrictive compared with this 11-20mm lens. The autofocus system feels basic, powered by a rather noisy electric motor. Build quality feels very solid and robust though, and the zoom and focus rings operate smoothly.
The Tokina’s corner sharpness drops off substantially at the short end of the zoom range when using the widest aperture. Vignetting and spherical aberration are well controlled, and there’s little coma and astigmatism. Barrel distortion is unusually well-controlled at the short end of the zoom range, and negligible at the long end.
If you're after a zoom lens for APS-C format astrophotography on a Canon or Nikon DSLR, this is the best overall choice – but Tokina’s 14-20mm f/2 also works well.
With its ultra-wide zoom range and fast, constant-aperture design, this Nikon FX-format lens was a world-first when it was launched back in 2008. It’s become something of a legend in its own lifetime, but struggles to retain its crown against new Sigma 14-24mm and Tamron 15-30mm pretenders to the throne. The Nikon matches the Sigma zoom lens for maximum viewing angle and is slightly wider than the Tamron.
Optical highlights include two ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements and Nano Crystal Coat. A rubber weather-seal is featured on the mounting plate but the lens lacks a comprehensive set of weather-seals or a keep-clean fluorine coating on the front element, as featured on the Sigma and Tamron lenses.
Centre-sharpness is excellent but corner-sharpness at the shortest focal length and widest aperture lags behind that of the Sigma zoom, more on a par with the Tamron. Vignetting and barrel distortion are rather worse than in both other lenses. Coma and astigmatism are controlled very well, again similar to the Tamron lens but not quite equaling the performance of the Sigma.
If you own a full-frame Canon DSLR, this is Canon’s most ideal zoom lens for astrophotography. It may not be as wide-angle as the company's EF 11-24mm f/4L USM, but it's an all-important f-stop faster. The maximum viewing angle is admittedly slightly less than the 14mm and 15mm full-frame on this list, equating to 108 degrees compared with 114 or 110 degrees.
This lens gains a large and complex double-surface GMO (Glass Moulded) aspherical element at the front, adding to two UD (Ultra-low Dispersion) elements and a ground aspherical element at the rear. Upgraded, high-tech coatings include both SWC (SubWavelength Coating) and ASC (Air Sphere Coating) for greater resistance to ghosting and flare. Weather-resistant attributes are extended to include moisture- and grease-repellent fluorine coatings on the front and rear elements. The lens is quite long at 128mm, considering that it doesn’t have a built-in fixed hood. Unlike with some rival lenses, the separate bayonet-fit hood enables the easy attachment of filters, via an 82mm thread. Build quality is up to Canon’s usual robust L-series standards.
When it comes to performance, sharpness and contrast are impressive across the zoom range. The Mk III has much-improved corner sharpness compared with the previous edition, but still lags behind the competing Sigma 14-24mm zoom. There’s very little spherical aberration at f/2.8, but coma and astigmatism can be quite visible near the extreme corners of the frame.
Designed for full-frame Sony E-mount cameras, the Firin 20mm is available in two versions, either with or without autofocus. This 'AF' autofocus version looks clean, simple and in-keeping with Sony mirrorless cameras. Autofocus is reasonably quick and generally very accurate. It’s definitely worth having for general shooting. When focusing manually, the large focus ring operates with smooth precision. Compared with the other lenses on this list, the Firin has a reduced viewing angle of 92 degrees, but its f/2 aperture rating is faster than average.
Shooting wide-open, coma and astigmatism are apparent towards the corners of frame, but narrowing the aperture by an f/stop cures the problem. However there's no cure for the disappointing corner sharpness, which is especially poor until you stop down to f/4. There’s remarkably little colour fringing, even at the extreme corners of the frame, and distortion is practically non-existent.
Overall the Firin is a fine lens, although its viewing angle can feel a little restrictive for astrophotography.
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