Ultra-wide-angle prime lenses are enormously versatile. They’re great for everything from shoehorning architectural interiors into the frame when your back’s against the wall, to shooting cityscapes and sweeping landscape vistas. Venture out on a star-studded night, meanwhile, and you can take in the majestic panoply of the heavens above. On a full-frame camera, a focal length of around 14-20mm is ideal.
You’ll need a lens with real pulling power when it comes sucking in light, so it pays to go for a fast aperture of around f/1.8 to f/2. This avoids sending your camera’s ISO setting into the stratosphere, as you keep exposures short enough to stop stars and other celestial bodies in their tracks, so they don’t appear to be trailing across the sky.
It’s not just the speed of the lens that’s important: for effective astrophotography you’ll want good sharpness across the whole image frame. Unwanted aberrations that occur when using a fast lens at its widest aperture can be a spoiler. These include vignetting, ‘coma’, which gives pinpoints of light a comet-like tail, and ‘astigmatism’, which creates lines from dots of light. Some lenses are prone to a combination of coma and astigmatism, often referred to as ‘batwing coma’. Another potential problem is spherical aberration, which can cause points of light to take on a halo effect.
All of these can be reduced by narrowing the aperture by an f/stop from its widest setting, although then you’re not taking advantage of the lens’s speed. With that in mind, we’ve rounded up four of the best prime lenses for astrophotography, to suit a wide range of full-frame cameras. Mount options include Canon EF, Canon RF, Leica L (used by the latest Panasonic and Sigma mirrorless cameras), Nikon F, Nikon Z, Sigma SA and Sony FE. Let’s see which offers the most stellar performance.
GROUP TEST WIDE-ANGLE PRIMES
Laowa 15mm f/2 Zero-D
Wide and fast, the diminutive Laowa delivers a generous viewing angle for stargazing, with ‘zero-distortion’ credentials
DOF MARKERS Although it’s not a particular benefit for astrophotography, there are depth of field markers for apertures of f/5.6, f/11 and f/22, which is helpful for zone focusing.
FOCUS RING The tactile, mechanically coupled focus ring has a smooth and fluid feel, enabling high-precision adjustments.
APERTURE RING The aperture ring has click steps for full f/stops, rather than the more usual third or half stops, but there’s also a declick switch, which is useful for shooting video.
Compact and lightweight for an ultra-wide-angle lens, the little Laowa is nevertheless sturdily built, and matches the others on test in being full-frame compatible. It’s available in a wide range of mirrorless mount options including Canon RF, Leica L, Nikon Z and Sony FE – the variety in production is made easier by the Laowa being a fully manual lens with no electronics.
As with any fully manual lens (fixed-aperture lenses aside), you need to adjust the aperture via an onboard control ring instead of from the camera, as well as focusing manually, and no lens-related EXIF data is stored in image files; hands-on adjustments are no particular problem for astrophotography, where you’ll typically shoot wide-open and focus manually anyway. Focusing is made easy by the smoothly operating control ring, which comes complete with a distance scale and depth of field marking. A plus point for video capture is that the lens features a ‘declick’ switch for stepless aperture control.
The viewing angle of 110 degrees is second only to the Sigma lens in this group. And despite its short focal length, the Laowa features a bayonet-fit, petal-shaped lens hood that enables the inclusion of a modestly sized 72mm filter attachment thread. By contrast, the Sigma 14mm has a fixed, integral hood and therefore no filter thread. The optical path is based on 12 elements, which include two aspherical elements and three ED (Extralow Dispersion) elements.
SWITCH TO MANUAL
As a manual lens, the Laowa has the usual trappings that work in your favour when taking a shot in the dark.
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