I'm often asked what the best lenses are for night photography, my recommendations may be a pleasant surprise to your wallet!
What do you want in a lens for night photography? The most important factor is how much light a lens will let in so we can shoot at lower ISO's, this means apertures of 2.8 or greater (1.4 being preferred). Most zoom lenses only go to 2.8, while this perfectly okay for night photography, it's not the ultimate lens to use. Most zoom lenses in the 2.8 category cost anywhere from $1500 to $2500 a piece.
Enter the prime lens, a prime is a fixed focal length that is designed to have much larger apertures. If you have looked into the major manufacturer's primes (Nikon, Canon, Zeiss) you may be thinking I'm crazy right now because they are expensive! Anywhere from $1000-$2000 each. I wasn't about to pay these prices, so I went on a search for lenses with the ultimate quality to price ratio.
In this search I've become a huge fan of Rokinon lenses, these are also branded under Samyang, ProOptic, Bower. They are all the same lenses, just with different names. Rokinon seems to be more common in the US and are usually cheaper.
These following lenses are relatively cheap compared to the pro series Nikon or Canon lenses
BorrowLenses has the following Canon cinema lenses available to rent. Cinema lenses have the same optics but the aperture is measured in T stops rather than F stops, but they perform the same.
I will also throw in the Nikon 50mm 1.8G, since Rokinon does not make a 50mm. Why not the 1.4 version you ask? Aspherical lens element, that's why. This was the first 50mm released that has an aspherical element, so what you say? This type of lens reduces coma dramatically, the other factor to consider when picking a lens for night photography, which I'll explain next.
I know what you gear heads are thinking; I want the highest quality lenses out there, I only buy the manufacturers lenses because they're the best! Hold on there buddy, there's a reason I recommend these lenses. You may have heard of Coma if you're a real pixel peeper, but most people have never heard of it, and for most photography it's not something to worry about. When it comes to night photography though, coma is especially important. Below is an extreme example of what coma does to stars near the edge of the frame when shot wide open. This was taken with the Nikon 50mm 1.8D which does not have an aspherical element. Those are supposed to be points of light, not streaks!
Surprisingly the Nikon and Canon versions of the 24mm 1.4 have terrible coma as well. Here's a comparison of the Canon 24 1.4 and the Rokinon 24 1.4, from what I've read the Nikon is even worse than the Canon. These lenses are around $2000! You can buy the entire lineup I listed above for the price of this one lens!
The great news about Rokinon; almost no coma. The Image below is a 100% crop from a corner taken with the Rokinon 14mm at f2.8
And the Rokinon 24mm at f1.4. The slight blur is from being just out of focus, don't rely on infinity with this lens, it's not accurate and you need to manually focus.
The quality of these lenses continues to pleasantly surprise me.
If you're on a budget or just getting started, I would recommend the Rokinon 14mm 2.8 for shooting meteor showers, timelapse and wide views of the milky way. Next, I would get the Rokinon 35mm 1.4 if you're interested in doingpanoramas or tighter shots of the milky way.
One thing to note; the Rokinon lenses are all manual focus, a big reason for their lower cost. The good news? You can't auto focus in the dark anyway! The best way to focus at night is using live view, zooming in on a bright star and manually focusing.
Another lens I should throw in is the venerable Nikon 14-24 2.8, a phenomenal lens for Nikon or Canon (with an adapter). If you have the means, or just happen to have this lens already you certainly don't need the Rokinon 14mm. The Nikon has very little coma and is probably the greatest wide angle ever made. The Nikon 24-70 2.8 is also a great lens if you already have one, I wouldn't pick it up specifically for night photography though as it does have a decent amount of coma and is only a 2.8.
I've been asked for recommendations for cropped sensor cameras. I only have second had experience with these lenses, so you may want to do your own research. First up is the
Nikon 35mm 1.8g - Since this has an aspherical element it should perform well, but I have no experience with it.