What lens is good for night photography? It turns out there’s quite a few. And not all of them are crazy expensive.
Please not that I am not discussing astrophotography, deep-space photography of celestial objects, or photos involving an equatorial mount or tracker. Those would have different considerations. I will give examples based on a full frame sensor. Focal lengths for APS-C sensors would be correspondingly smaller. However, the general approach would be the same.
The speed of a lens refers to how large its maximum diameter is. A lens with a larger maximum aperture is called a “fast lens” because it can achieve the same exposure with a faster shutter speed. Generally speaking, most night photographers also prefer a lens with a larger aperture such as f/2.8, f/2.4 or even wider. This lets in more light. This lets in more light. This is especially crucial if you are interested in photographing stars, which are quite faint.
However, for night photography during a full moon, such as when one is photographing abandoned areas over the course of several minutes or more, a wide aperture lens is not necessary. Many people photograph at f/8 ISO 200 during this time. In one of my examples, I use a long zoom lens of 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 at f/8 for a night photo. And in other examples, I also f/8 for night photos.
Ultra wide angle lens
The most common choice is an ultra wide angle lens. This allows you to include much of the night sky. Also, if you wish to photograph the stars as pinpoints, such as the case with the Milky Way, an ultra wide angle lens allows you to use longer exposure lengths without overt trailing of the stars.
Above: this image was created with a Pentax 15-30 f/2.8 ultra wide angle lens at 15mm. This is the launch area of an abandoned missile base overlooking Los Angeles. This was a three minute exposure at f/8 ISO 200. Although this is considered a “fast” lens at f/2.8, I wanted to show that night photos can be created at much smaller apertures such as f/8. This has the added bonus of having a broader depth of field, keeping more of the scene sharp and in focus. During full moon photography, you can use the auto-focus feature quite often. You may also use a bright flashlight to illuminate a foreground object and use auto-focus.
Above: this Milky Way photo in the Mojave Desert was photographed with an Irix 15mm f/2.4 prime ultra wide angle manual focus lens. This lens has an added feature of having a detent at infinity, allowing the photographer to instantly lock the focus to infinity, which are of course ideal for photographing stars. For the night sky part of the photo, I used an exposure of 20 seconds at f/2.5 at ISO 4000 (although I did stack this numerous times to lessen the amount of noise, but those were the settings for the night sky). If photographing Milky Ways is your thing but you don’t have the budget for one of the other more expensive zoom lens, this is a great choice. Rokinon and Laowa also make ultra wide angle lenses that are worthy of consideration and are not crazy expensive. The Blackstone sells for under $700, while the Firefly is typically under $450. Also, it’s considerably lighter than its ultra wide zoom lens counterparts and does not have a bulbous front element, which means that it accepts screw-on filters.
Above: this photo in Joshua Tree National Park was taken with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 ultra wide lens. This is also quite a sharp lens, and like the aforementioned 15-30mm f/2.8 lens, has auto-focus. The settings for this photo were five photos stacked for a total of 15 minutes. Each of the five photos was a three-minute exposure at f/8 ISO 400.
A fisheye can be a great choice. Many fisheye lens have a 180-degree view and therefore, if pointed straight up, can photograph the entire night sky. Or they can create very distorted, creative images.
Above: this image was created with a Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 fisheye lens. Instant weirdness. A fisheye can help an image stand out from a crowd by offering a different perspective. Also, a lens like this Rokinon is relatively inexpensive compared to the other lenses I am discussing here. This sells for approximately $400.
Longer focal lengths
It’s perfectly okay to use longer focal lengths as well. The stars will trail much faster because you are zoomed in on them and everything else more, but this is perfectly normal. Longer lens can be great for “compressing” the scene, making the background elements look larger and creating drama. And if some of these background elements are stars, fantastic.
Above: this is a night photo using a longer focal length. This is a Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens. I wanted to “compress” the background cliff so it would seem even larger. This is a 20 minute exposure in total, “stacking” five photos together. Each individual stacked photo was a four-minute exposure at f/8 ISO 800. Like some of the other examples, I was able to use the auto-focus feature of this lens by illuminating the house with a flashlight first.
Like anything else, you would choose a lens for its overall usefulness as well as your personal aesthetics. Not everyone, for instance, might want to photograph with a fisheye or a long lens. Or perhaps not everyone might want to have really wide angles all the time. How do you want to present the world?
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Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos. My latest book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time” is available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review.
Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020
Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols