Best Lenses for night photography

The Best Lenses for Night Photography

When you're just beginning to explore the world of night photography, it can be difficult to choose the best lens for the job.

There's a huge and confusing range of choices available, and all of them are expensive.

Are prime lenses better than zoom lenses? What's the best wide angle lens for night photography? What can I do to improve the quality of my night photographs?

Nobody wants to wind up with an expensive lens that doesn't produce quality images, so let's take a look at the characteristics of some of the best night photography lenses and help you choose a lens that will unleash your creativity.

Essential Lens Features for Night Photography

Prime Lenses vs. Zoom Lenses

One of the biggest arguments between photographers is whether prime lenses or zoom lenses are better.

There are good points to each side. Zoom lenses have a variable focal length which allows you greater flexibility when you're composing your shot, but the trade-off is that they are less optimised across their focal range.

This can cause a loss of sharpness at the extreme ends of the range, which leads many photographers to swear that prime lenses are the better choice.

Prime lenses have a fixed focal length which can limit your shot compositions a bit, but this is more than made up for by the quality of the images they produce.

Because the lenses don't have to use multiple lens elements in a moving series, they can be optimised far more effectively than zoom lenses, and generally produce higher-quality images.

Wide Apertures

Now that you understand how focal length options can affect your image quality, we should talk about how the aperture range of a lens can also affect the quality of your photographs in a similar way.

Wider or 'faster' apertures such as f/2 and f/1.4 let in a great deal of light, which makes them a great fit for the low-light conditions usually found in night photography.

Unfortunately, shooting at either the widest or the narrowest apertures of your lens can cause a range of problems from loss of sharpness to chromatic aberrations.

That means choosing a lens with very wide maximum aperture will allow you to stop the aperture down from its widest setting to avoid optical quality issues while still giving you the benefits of the extra light from shooting wide open.

Manual Focus

Almost all DSLR lenses have a manual focus option, although some are actually unable to play nice with the latest autofocus systems.

When choosing a new lens, it's important to consider the quality of the manual focusing ring.

It can be extremely difficult to get proper focus on a focus ring that slips and slides - not to mention extremely frustrating!

During most night photography shoots you'll be relying on manual focus, so it's much more important to have a solid manual focus system than having fast and silent autofocus.

Weather Sealing

Weather sealing is also an important thing to consider when choosing a night photography lens.

The air cools quickly after the sun has set, which can cause a bunch of different weather conditions, but the biggest danger for a lens is changing humidity levels.

With a poorly-sealed lens, this can create condensation inside the lens as the different types of air meet, and this will quickly ruin any photoshoot whether it's at night or not!

If you're interested in shooting your landscapes with complex and dangerous weather systems in the background, weather sealing is an absolutely must for your lens.

Even if you're a more casual photographer it's still better than the alternative, and most semi-pro and pro-level lenses offer some degree of weather sealing.

Just make sure you don't get caught in the rain unless you have professional weather sealing on both your lens and your camera!

Optical Aberration Control

Probably the most frustrating issue that you find with lower-quality lenses is called chromatic aberration.

Chromatic aberration (also known as CA) usually shows up as magenta or green smudges on either side of high-contrast objects in your photographs.

Higher-quality lenses are made of specialized types of glass and treated with chemical coatings on each of the lens elements to minimize the effect, but there are a couple of extra tricks to help you avoid it.

Pro Tip: Prevent Chromatic Aberration in-Camera

Chromatic aberration can ruin your photographs, but there are several different ways you can minimize the effect without having to rely on post-processing:

● The simplest method is simply to narrow your aperture by one or two stops, which minimizes the effects on almost all lenses.

● If you're using a zoom lens, avoid shooting at the extreme ends of the focal range. This varies a bit from lens to lens, but typically shooting at the middle of the focal range minimizes chromatic aberration.

● If possible, avoid shooting extremely high-contrast scenes. This isn't usually an issue in night photography, but be sure to keep it in mind when composing your shot.

It's a bit confusingly named, but there is also another type of optical problem called comatic aberration, which is found in magnifying lenses where the magnification range isn't exactly the same across the whole width of the lens.

This is especially noticeable in night photography, as any distant pinpoint light sources such as stars will appear to have a tail or 'coma', sort of the way a comet trail looks in the sky.

The only way to prevent comatic aberration in-camera is to narrow your aperture setting, but even shooting at f/5 on a good f/1.4 lens, you may still notice some coma effect at the edges of the frame.

The other major optical problem you need to understand is vignetting, where the brightness of the image fades slightly into the corners of the frame.

This usually shows up in cheaper lenses when they are used at their widest apertures, and can be fixed by stopping the aperture down slightly or by applying a corrective filter in Photoshop or Lightroom.

Cost

As much as we all love to spend money on lenses, we can't let our eyes get bigger than our wallets.

Special construction of precision lens elements, extra chemical coatings to improve optics and other aspects like weather sealing and construction material are all worthwhile features, but they all add up in the final purchase price.

Like the rest of life, when you're buying lenses, you get what you pay for.

This means that unless you have an unlimited budget, each time you choose a lens you have to balance the quality you need against the highest price you can afford.

In some cases, you can get great quality lenses in the mid-range price bracket, and very rarely a mid-range lens will give you similar quality to professional-level lenses, but usually the best-quality lenses are also the most expensive ones.

Creative Choices in Your Night Photography Gear

Choosing the best lens for your particular situation depends on lot on your creative vision.

For some night landscapes, shooting with an extremely wide angle lens will create a much more appealing image than working with a zoom lens.

In other situations, you'll benefit from the compositional flexibility offered by a zoom lens - it all depends on what you want from your final image, and the type of scene you're going out to shoot.

Top Lenses for Night Photography

Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 ED AS UMC
Photography Ambition

My favorite thing about this lens is the incredibly wide maximum aperture.

Shooting at f/1.4 lets in a great deal of light, and the lens elements are carefully constructed to minimize comatic aberration even when shooting wide open, which makes it a perfect choice for photographing starscapes.

These great benefits also come at a very affordable price, putting the lens at a great balance between quality optics and price point.

Unfortunately, the lens is noticeably affected by vignetting especially at wider apertures, but this problem can be solved by stopping the aperture down from its maximum setting.

Any remaining vignetting issues can be corrected in Photoshop, although this is slightly more difficult to do with night photographs as there is usually less image data to work with. I am personally not bothered at all by this at all as I normally would add some vignette in editing.

One more important thing to note about this lens is that it doesn't include any kind of autofocus or autoexposure system, so everything must be set manually.

This is not a problem for night photography, landscapes and other tripod-based shots where your subjects are static.

If you're looking for a general usage lens that works in multiple situations, you're better off with a lens that allows you to choose whether or not to use automatic systems.

Tokina 11-16 f/2.8 AT-X PRO DX II
Photography Ambition

This lens has an impressively wide field of view, which makes it ideal for landscape photographers looking to maximize their depth of field.

Its maximum aperture is also impressive for a zoom lens, as it can maintain f/2.8 through its entire focal length.

It's built on the DX form factor designed for APS-C sensors, so if you're shooting with a professional full-frame DSLR its focal length range is closer to 17-25mm and you'll have to crop the edges of the image to remove unexposed sensor area.

The Tokina 11-16 doesn't do nearly as good a job of minimizing comatic aberration compared to the Rokinon we discussed first, but it's still a solid lens for night landscapes as long as you're not too picky about including stars.

Many photographers swear by it for low-light shooting conditions, and the image sharpness is quite impressive throughout its aperture range although it loses a bit of sharpness at the edges when wide open at f/2.8.

Where this lens really shines is its price point. At under $500 from most retailers, it's a bargain price for a solidly-performing and well-built night photography lens.

AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED
Photography Ambition

This is an incredibly impressive lens designed for full-frame DSLRs, although it can also be used on APS-C sensors with a converted focal length of 21-36mm. The quality of the optics are by far the best of the four lenses we've looked at in this post.

It offers impressive sharpness all the way to the corners of the frame at every focal length and aperture setting.

There's some slight chromatic aberration visible in the corners, but it's slight enough that it can be easily corrected in Photoshop/Lightroom.

It's a fairly bulky piece of equipment to carry around at over 1kg, but the build quality is very solid and the manual focusing ring is precise and operates quite smoothly.

One of the strangest aspects of the lens is the extremely large front glass element, which prevents using any front-threaded filters, but a camera-mounted system should work without issue.

The biggest cons with this lens is the price level which is on the high end, with most retailers selling it for at least $1800 or more.

That puts it well out of range of most photographers so, despite being the best-performing lens of the bunch, it can be not the first choice overall unless the budget is not an issue for you - in which case, go for it!

Check out the detailed review here

Making Your Final Selection

Choosing the right lens for your shoot depends on a lot of different factors. The most important thing to remember is that you should use the best quality optics you can afford.

Nothing will impact the quality of your images more than the quality of the lens that you use, so review your choices carefully before making your final selection.

Our favorite lens of the wide angles we discussed in this article is the Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 for its blend of quality and price. 

For those of you shooting on a tighter budget, the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 is also an excellent choice.

The Nikkor 14-24mm offers the most incredible optics, but it definitely makes you pay for it!

The best lenses for night photography

Check out more Lenses Reviews here 

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About the Author Luca

Hi, I am Luca, founder and editor in chief at photographyambition.com. I am crazy about photography and I always have a camera with me. When I am not busy with my day job, enjoying my family or taking photos, I am on Photography Ambition to share what I have learnt so far.

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