Lens choices for night photography

What lens is good for night photography? It turns out there are quite a few. And not all of them are crazy expensive.

Please note 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 crop sensors would be correspondingly smaller. However, the general approach would be the same.

Wide aperture

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 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 and ISO 200 during this time.

Ultra wide-angle lens

This image was created with a Pentax 15-30mm f/2.8 ultra wide-angle lens at 15mm, at the launch area of an abandoned missile base overlooking Los Angeles. 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 autofocus feature quite often, or a bright flashlight to illuminate a foreground object and use autofocus. Settings: f/8, ISO 200, 3 minutes.

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 in the case with the Milky Way — an ultra-wide-angle lens allows you to use longer exposure lengths without overt trailing of the stars.

night photography Mojave Desert
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 has the added feature of having a detent at infinity, allowing the photographer to instantly lock the focus to infinity, which is ideal for photographing stars. Settings: f/2.5, ISO 4000, 20 seconds. Stacked to lessen the amount of noise.

If photographing Milky Ways is your thing but you don’t have the budget for one of the other more expensive zoom lenses, this is a great choice. The Blackstone (B&H | Amazon) and Firefly (B&H | Amazon) lenses by Irix are both very affordable.

They’re also considerably lighter than their ultra-wide zoom lens counterparts and do not have a bulbous front element, which means that it accepts screw-on filters. Rokinon and Laowa also make ultra wide-angle lenses that are worthy of consideration and are not crazy expensive.

night photography Joshua Tree National Park
This photo in Joshua Tree National Park was taken with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 ultra-wide lens at 14mm. This is also quite a sharp lens, and like the aforementioned 15-30mm f/2.8 lens, has autofocus. The downside of this lens? It’s heavy and has a bulbous front element Settings: f/8, ISO 400, 3 minutes. Five photos stacked for a total of 15 minutes.

Fisheye lens for night photography

A fisheye can be a great choice. Many fisheye lenses 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.

night photography satellite dishes and milkyway
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 is relatively inexpensive compared to the other lenses I am discussing here.

Longer focal lengths

It’s perfectly OK 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 lenses 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.

night photography cabin light and rocky mountain
This is a night photo using a longer focal length using a Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens. I wanted to “compress” the background cliff so it would seem even larger. Like some of the other examples, I was able to use the autofocus feature of this lens by illuminating the house with a flashlight first. Settings: f/8, ISO 800, 4 minutes. Each photo was stacked for a total exposure of 20 minutes.

Choices, choices

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?