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Recommended Digital Cameras and Lenses for Nightscape and Astro Photography

by Roger N. Clark

Night sky and astro photography poses a special challenge because it is an extremely low light environment. To capture enough light, you need large aperture area (meaning fast lenses). The best digital cameras for long exposure night sky and astro photography have low dark current and low pattern noise.


The Night Photography Series:


Contents

Introduction
Best Lenses for Night Sky and Astro Photography
Short Focal Length Lenses for Wider Angle Night Sky Photography
Medium Focal Length Lenses for Night Sky and Astro Photography
Long Focal Length Lenses for Deep-Sky Astro Photography
Best Digital Cameras for Night Sky and Astro Photography
Tracking Devices
Conclusions
References and Further Reading


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They may not be used except by written permission from Roger N. Clark.
All rights reserved.

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Introduction

Today's stock digital cameras have incredible sensitivity and when paired with new larger aperture lenses, amazing photos of the night sky are possible. Follow my guide for lenses below and you can make images like those here, and even better.

My guide is limited to stock digital cameras and lenses, with a purpose of dual use regular and astrophotography, and portability. I'll give a range of options regarding cost. I specifically will not discuss dedicated cooled astro CCD cameras (which are extremely expensive), nor huge telescopes and mounts which can similarly be very expensive, costing thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. Today's digital cameras and sharp large aperture lenses can produce night sky images only dreamed about in the later part of the 20th century and even then only with gear costing tens to hundreds of times more than what we can do today.

There are 4 components needed to produce beautiful astrophotos. I assume you have read the first parts of this series, specifically, Parts 1a and Part 1c. That should give you a basis for choosing lenses and cameras. Also see parts 4a (Astrophotography and Focal Length) and 4b (Astrophotography and Exposure). The 4 components are as follows. 1) The lens. The lens gathers the light. 2) The camera. The camera collects the light delivered by the lens, and a low noise camera is key. 3) Tracking device. Tracking allows you to keep the stars fixed within the frame as the Earth rotates. Tracking enables one to collect more light. 4) Post processing skills. Post processing skill is needed to coax out tiny faint signals from the night sky in the presence of ever-growing light pollution. Post processing is discussed later in this series.


Figure 1. These images are illustrative of night sky and deep sky astro photos that are possible with stock modern digital cameras and lenses. These images are natural color images made with lenses having focal lengths from 35 mm to 420 mm. The Milky Way nightscape was made with a Canon 6D + Sigma Art 35 mm f/1.4 lens. All the other deep sky images were made with a stock Canon 7D Mark 2 digital camera, and Canon 300 mm f/2.8 lens. At center, above the mountains is the core of the Milky Way galaxy. At right is the full fram image of the nebula in the sword of Orion, M42, made with the 300 mm and the Canon 7D2. Top center is the Whirlpool galaxy, M51, made with a 300 mm f/2.8 + 1.4x teleconverter (420 mm) and 7D2. At upper right is the Great Andromeda galaxy, M31, made with the 300 mm and 7D2.

Best Lenses for Night Sky and Astro Photography

Available lenses have certainly changed in the last few years. Sigma has launched its ART series with excellent build quality and superb optical quality. I own several Sigma lenses, including the Sigma Art 24 and 35 mm f/1.4 lenses, which are my top working lenses for night and meteor photography. I do not recommend shorter focal length f/2.8 lenses because the aperture areas are too small. See Part 1c regarding short focal length lenses and their light gathering ability.

For photographers on a tighter budget, consider the manual focus only Samyang/Rokinon (same lens different brand label). Note these lenses have performance close to but not quite as good as the Sigma Art series with impressive stars for the price. Internet reports say there are poor copies out there. I do not know how common this is, but test your lens right after receiving it and return it for a different copy if it does not meet your expected quality (check return policies before purchasing). NOTE: the Sigma Art lenses have better build quality and with autofocus are also great lenses for other applications, for example low light indoor action (including people and pets). I prefer lenses I can use for many purposes, as it usually saves money in the long run.

Lens aberrations: on the internet, one commonly sees wide angle lenses cited as having coma. Coma shows as little comet-like star images with the head of the "comet" pointing toward the center of the frame. The aberrations in wide angle lenses is not coma, but dominated by spherical aberration and astigmatism. Such aberrations typically show as "bat wings" coming off stars. Coma is a common aberration of reflective telescope optics which use parabolic shapes for the mirror curvature.

From the list of lenses below, confirm compatibility with your camera before ordering.

Short Focal Length Lenses for Wider Angle Night Sky Photography

Lenses for Canon cameras:

For Canon users, my top choice for a night sky landscape (nightscape) cameras are Canon EOS 6D Mark II DSLR Camera or Canon 6D 20-megapixel digital camera, with a Sigma 35 mm f/1.4 DG HSM lens or Sigma 24mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Canon EF DSLR Cameras

If I were planning to use multiple cameras for nightscape and/or meteor photography, I would set up an array of Canon EOS 6D Mark II DSLR Camera or Canon 6D 20-megapixel digital cameras with Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lenses.

Sigma 24mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Canon EF DSLR Cameras. On a full frame camera, I would crop the images. I use this lens on a 1.3x crop camera (a 1D Mark IV) and that gives a field of view close to a 35 mm lens.

Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Canon DSLR Cameras.
This is my preferred lens for nightscape and meteor photography.
Example gallery image: The Milky Way Rises Over Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park.

Many more examples in the Nightscapes Gallery.

Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM Lens This lens is very slightly sharper than the Sigma Art 35 f/1.4, but about double the price.

Zeiss Otus 28mm f/1.4 ZE Lens for Canon EF The top performing lens in this focal length, but very expensive. The light fall-off is also significant.

Sigma 20mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Canon EF DSLR Cameras. This lens also has a lot of aberrations toward the corners wide open. While it works on a full frame camera, I would use it on crop-sensor cameras.

Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus Distagon T* Lens for Canon EF Mount Best in class lens in the 50-60 mm range, though still not perfect. It shows how difficult it is to make lenses in this focal length. Very expensive.

NOTE: the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM Lens has a lot of aberrations when used wide open. I recommend the Sigma 24 f/1.4 over this lens. The Sigma 24 f/1.4 produces better stars at f/1.4 than does Canon 24mm f/1.4L II at f/2. But if you already have this lens, by all means use it. You may need to crop the images some. It should be better on a crop sensor camera. But if you are in the market for a new 24 f/1.4, I recommend the Sigma over the canon lens.

Budget lenses for Canon: the manual focus only Samyang/Rokinon:

Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 ED AS UMC Wide-Angle Lens for Canon
Samyang 24mm f/1.4 ED AS UMC Wide-Angle Lens for Canon

Rokinon 35mm f/1.4 AS UMC Lens for Canon EF
Samyang 35mm f/1.4 AS UMC Lens for Canon EF

Lenses for Nikon cameras:

Sigma 24mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Nikon F

Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Nikon DSLR Cameras

Zeiss Otus 28mm f/1.4 ZF.2 Lens for Nikon F The top performing lens in this focal length, but very expensive. The light fall-off is also significant.

Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus Distagon T* Lens for Nikon F Mount Best in class lens in the 50-60 mm range, though still not perfect. It shows how difficult it is to make lenses in this focal length. Very expensive.

Sigma 20mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Nikon F This lens also has a lot of aberrations toward the corners wide open. While it works on a full frame camera, I would use it on crop-sensor cameras.

Budget lenses for Nikon: the manual focus only Samyang/Rokinon:

Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 ED AS UMC Wide-Angle Lens for Nikon
Samyang 24mm f/1.4 ED AS UMC Wide-Angle Lens for Nikon

Rokinon 35mm f/1.4 AS UMC Lens for Nikon F (AE Chip)
Samyang 35mm f/1.4 AS UMC Lens for Nikon F (AE Chip)

Lenses for Sony cameras:

Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Canon EF and MC-11 Mount Converter/Lens Adapter for Sony E Kit

Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Sigma SA and MC-11 Mount Converter/Lens Adapter for Sony E Kit

Budget lenses for Sony: the manual focus only Samyang/Rokinon:

Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 ED AS IF UMC Lens for Sony E Mount
Samyang 24mm f/1.4 ED AS UMC Wide-Angle Lens for Sony Alpha

Rokinon 35mm f/1.4 AS UMC Lens for Sony E Mount

Lenses for Pentax cameras:

Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Pentax DSLR Cameras

Budget lenses for Pentax: the manual focus only Samyang/Rokinon:

Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 ED AS UMC Wide-Angle Lens for Pentax
Samyang 24mm f/1.4 ED AS UMC Wide-Angle Lens for Pentax

Samyang 35mm f/1.4 AS UMC Lens for Pentax K

Medium Focal Length Lenses for Night Sky and Astro Photography

Lenses for Canon cameras:

Canon 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for EF mount Fast great performer with pretty good star images to the corners of full frame.

Canon EF 100mm f/2 USM Lens Example gallery image: Colorful Nebulae in the Scorpio Region Rho Ophiuchus Region

The Canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS II USM Lens is impressively sharp, very fast autofocus, and fast f-ratio for low light work. It is excellent for astrophotos wide open with excellent star images. The lens takes teleconverters well and is slightly sharper than the 200 mm f/2.8 prime, below. This is an excellent all-around lens for action, low light action and astrophotography. My only regret is that I did not buy it sooner. EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens

Canon EF 200mm f/2.8L II USM Lens Example gallery image: The Sword and Belt of Orion

Lenses for Nikon cameras:

85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Nikon F Fast great performer with pretty good star images to the corners of full frame.

AF NIKKOR 180mm f/2.8D IF-ED Lens Good stars wide open.

AF-S NIKKOR 200mm f/2G ED VR II Lens Impressive performance wide open, even on full frame for f/2.

Evaluation of more lenses is underway.

Lenses for Sony cameras:

85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Sigma SA Fast great performer with pretty good star images to the corners of full frame.

Evaluation of more lenses is underway.

Lenses for Pentax cameras:

Evaluation underway.

Long Focal Length Lenses for Deep-Sky Astro Photography

Lenses in this range are too large for the iOptron Skytracker. Tracking telephoto lenses in this range requires the Astrotrac (or a big heavy telescope mount if you have one). Aiming the larger lenses like 300 mm f/2.8 is also difficult with a ball head. Once you position the field of view, tighten the ball head and let go, the whole thing will sag and shift the field of view. The solution (more expense) is to use a gimbal head. See below for heads. A gimbal head allows one to position the camera and let go without tightening the axes and the field does not shift. See Figure 3, below.

Lenses for Canon cameras:

The Canon 300 mm f/2.8 L IS version II is amazing on wildlife action, birds in flight, and astrophotography lens. It has faster autofocus than the larger telephotos and with the 7D Mark II, the reach is better than could be done with 1D series pro cameras and 500+ mm lenses of just a few years ago, and with better autofocus capability. This lens is my preferred lens for wildlife action, birds in flight, and deep sky astrophotography. The 300 f/2.8 plus 2x teleconverter and the 7D Mark II gives an angular pixel size of just 1.4 arc-seconds (the size of a 1 mm spot at 206 meters distance; that is 1/25 of an inch at distance of over 2 football fields).
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens at B&H Photo
There are many example images made with this lens in my Astrophoto Gallery.

For more reach add a teleconverter:

Canon Extender EF 1.4X III at B&H Photo

Canon Extender EF 2X III at B&H Photo

Budget telephoto. When I want a telephoto and still travel light, I use a 300 f/4 L IS lens. The 300 f/4 L IS telephoto is an excellent starter lens for beginning as well as advanced wildlife photography, and pretty good for astrophotogyaphy. Combined with the 7D Mark II gives one a powerful combination enabling pro level wildlife, and action images to be made in many situations. Astrophotography imaging will require more than 2x longer exposures than what you see in my galleries in images made with the 300 f/2.8 lens. Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM Lens at B&H Photo

I also have a Canon 500 mm f/4 L IS, and recommend the version II. The 500 mm with a 2x TC and the 7D Mark II would give an angular pixel size of an amazing 0.84 arc-seconds per pixel. However, at angular pixel sizes nearing 1 arc-second, the atmosphere is rarely stable enough to take advantage of such extreme magnifications, whether wildlife action at a distance, or astrophotography. For this reason I prefer the faster and lighter 300 f/2.8 (faster f/ratio and faster autofocus) most of the time. If you want a 500 f/4 telephoto, order it here:
Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM Lens at B&H Photo To track this lens accurately with an Astrotrac, a gimbal head is important.

Lenses for Nikon cameras:

Evaluation underway.

Lenses for Sony cameras:

Evaluation underway.

Lenses for Pentax cameras:

Evaluation underway.



Figure 2. A Spiral Meteor Spears the Heart, NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day for September 15, 2016. This image was made with a Canon 7D Mark II digital camera and 300 mm f/2.8 telephoto lens. The Heart nebula is extremely faint and this 19-minute total exposure time illustrates what an amazing camera the 7D Mark II camera is when paired with the 300 f/2.8 lens.

Best Digital Cameras for Night Sky and Astro Photography

Key in choosing a digital camera for the very very low light levels in night sky and astrophotography is very difficult because few review sites measure two key parameters: dark current and pattern noise calibrated in electrons. Only when these factors are known in electrons can different cameras be fairly compared. Thus, my list of recommended cameras is limited to where I have seen or personally measured data in this regard.

Currently, the top low light camera where we have measurements of dark current calibrated in electrons and as a function of temperature is the Canon 7D Mark II. There may well be better camera out there, but show me the data. The 7D Mark II was used to make the image in Figure 2, as well as the Orion nebula image, the spiral galaxy M51 image and the spiral galaxy M31 image in Figure 1. All these images were made with the 300 f/2.8 lens.

Canon cameras:

The Canon 6D and 6D Mark II cameras are both excellent for wide angle landscapes, superb at low light and night photography, and the center autofocus point provides excellent response in tracking action. These cameras are my choice for wide field nightscapes and wide field meteor photography. The newer 6D Mark II has superb autofocus so is a multi-use night, action and general photography camera. The smaller pixels of the 6DII is the same as the pro-level Canon 1D Mark IV, and in my experience has similar AF speed and accuracy, but is full frame. The 6DII and 7DII are thewinning paor of cameras that I currently use for my photography, including wildlife on African safarisombined with the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens provide amazing dual use from wildlife action to deep sky astrophotography.

Canon EOS 6D Mark II DSLR Camera

Canon EOS 6D DSLR Camera at B&H Photo

The Canon 7D Mark II is the pro level action camera that is also a great astrophotography and low light camera. It tracks action similar to Canon pro level 1D series cameras. The 7D Mark II is my choice for long exposure photography running into minutes. It currently has the lowest dark current for any camera for data I have seen.
Canon EOS 7D Mark II DSLR Camera at B&H Photo

Lower budget and solid performer is Canon EOS 80D DSLR Camera which still has very good low light performance.

If these models are too expensive for your budget, I suggest looking for used recent model DSLRs from the last 8 years or so (e.g. Canon 7D mark 1). Avoid older models for astrophotography because of higher dark current and higher pattern noise.

Nikon cameras:

Nikon D750 DSLR Camera (Body Only) Lower priced full-frame model great for wide field astrophotography/nightscapes:

Nikon D800 (search for used bodies) is still an amazing performer.

D810 DSLR Camera (Body Only) One of Nikon's top performing cameras. Excellent overall camera.

D850 DSLR Camera (Body Only) One of Nikon's top current cameras. Excellent overall camera.

Sony cameras:

At present I am not recommending any Sony cameras for long exposure night sky imaging. Sony has lossy compression on some cameras and a noise reduction on long exposures that eats stars (google "sony star eater camera" for examples). I will change once Sony does away with this problem.

Pentax cameras:

Currently, I have seen insufficient technical data, including dark current in order to make a recommendation on specific Pentax cameras.


Tracking Devices

Tripods, Tripod Heads, and Tracking Mounts


Figure 3. AstroTrac TT320X-AG mounted on a carbon fiber tripod. Included is the astrotrac wedge for easier polar alignment, and a Wimberley gimbal mount for easier positioning of the field of view with big heavy lenses. The small wedge on top of the astrotrac, holding the Wimberley head is a custom wedge made by a local machine shop. That custom wedge is not necessary, but reduces stress.

For wide field nightscape and astrophotography I use two tracking mounts to track the stars: and iOptron SkyTracker, and an Astrotrac.

iOptron SkyTracker Camera Mount with Polar Scope (Black) at B&H Photo iOptron Skytracker at Amazon.

AstroTrac TT320X-AG Tracking Mount at Amazon.

Budget Tracker For a budget tracker, build a barn door mount. See Part 5.

Tripods and Heads

Gitzo Carbon Fiber (CF) Tripods. My Gitzo CF tripods have served me for for well over a decade with no issues. I use my gear in extreme environments, from rain, wind, snow, salt water, deserts, to the dusty Serengeti. Here are the current equivalent Gitzo CF tripods to my now out-of-production G1228 and G1325 tripods. If you can find good quality used G1228 and G1325 tripods, they should serve you well for many years. For similar performing new tripods, see these models:

For landscape photography and light telephoto work, e.g. with a 300 mm f/2.8 and Wimberley sidekick, as will as wide field astrophotography with the iOptron, the Gitzo GT1542T and GT1544T are excellent (a little lighter than the older G1228): GT1542T Series 1 Traveler 6x Carbon Fiber 4-Section Tripod w/ G-Lock and GT1544T Series 1 Traveler 6x Carbon Fiber 4-Section Tripod

The Gitzo 2542 and 2543L have a little more capability but weigh a little more than the G1228. It is an excellent all-around tripod in between the older G1228 and G1325. Be sure they will fit in your suitcase if you intend to travel with these tripods. GT2542 Mountaineer Series 2 Carbon Fiber Tripod and GT2543L Mountaineer Series 2 Carbon Fiber Tripod (Long)

Tripod heads: Arca Swiss MonoBall for the small tripod, the new model: Monoball Z1 sp (Single Pan) Ballhead with 3/8" Screw - Supports 130 lb (59 kg)

The ball head needs a clamp. I use Wimberley clamps (Arca-Swiss compatible): C-12 Quick Release Clamp (2.5", 6.4 cm Long)

Wimberley gimbal mount on the Gitzo for long telephoto work, and on the Astrotrac for astrophotography. Note, I mostly hand hold the 300 f/2.8 when doing wildlife action and birds in flight. In a safari vehicle, I hand hold or use a beanbag.
Wimberley WH-200 Gimbal Tripod Head II with Quick Release Base

NOT RECOMMENDED: At this time I strongly do not recommend the 4th generation products. It looks like they have a great light weight gimbal head, so I bought one. Out of the box I tested the clamps and one axis froze. I have tried contacting the company multiple times for a YEAR AND A HALF. I even wrote a review on their website thinking they would see it in their approval process and contact me. I have never gotten a single response from them. If a company can't stand by their products, do not buy from them. I have never ever made such a recommendation, and waited 1.5 years for a response before making a public comment. I now have what looks like a $500 boat anchor. I just need a boat.

Conclusions

Night sky and astro photography are challenging but rewarding types photography. For best results, consider large aperture fast lenses of moderate to wide angle focal lengths. Choose cameras with low pattern noise and very low dark current. Use tracking devices to compensate for the Earth's rotation and collect as much light as feasible.


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References and Further Reading

Clarkvision.com Astrophoto Gallery.

Clarkvision.com Nightscapes Gallery.


The Night Photography Series:


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http://www.clarkvision.com/articles/astrophotography-recommended-gear/

First Published October 6, 2016
Last updated January 5, 2018