Wide-Angle Astrophotography Lens Shootout for Sony Mirrorless Cameras

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Astrophotography is a nearly inevitable trajectory for any serious landscape photographer. It’s not surprising, really: spend enough evenings perched on a hillside documenting sunsets and you eventually get curious about what comes next. The world doesn’t disappear when the sky goes dark, and neither does the potential for striking photos. While, of course, the most basic equipment necessities are obvious (a stable tripod, for instance), choosing the correct lens remains perhaps the most overwhelming purchasing decision.

While every photographer has their own preference, I love medium-wide lenses between 16-35mm with a fast aperture of f/2.0 or better. As a Sony shooter, I’ve struggled a bit to fill this space in my quiver—the FE mount is a relative newcomer to the photography scene—and lens manufacturers are just now beginning to fully round out their arsenal of niche lenses. Thankfully, 2019 was a spectacular year for this, with several dazzling new options, and 2020 is looking up.

From left to right: Sony FE 24mm f/1.4 GM, Nokton 21mm f/1.4 Aspherical, FiRIN 20mm f/2 FE MF and FE 20mm f/1.8 G lenses

The still-recent Sony FE 24mm f/1.4 GM is an obvious frontrunner but, truth be told, I’ve found myself wondering if 24mm is wide enough for how I like to compose my astro shots. Legendary lens manufacturer Voigtländer recently announced a Nokton 21mm f/1.4 Aspherical, and the Swedish icon Tokina has a new offering with the FiRIN 20mm f/2 FE MF—both seemingly formidable alternatives to the native option. Also, it wasn’t available when I shot this comparison, unfortunately, but the new FE 20mm f/1.8 G is looking to be another solid contender that I am looking forward to testing.

With the help of my friends at B&H, I was able to spend a beautiful night under the stars, in Mount Rainier National Park, to find out if the new astro-oriented primes are really up to snuff. Since there are already enough write-ups on these lenses, offering top-tier critiques with studio lighting, hardcore pixel peeping, and technical readouts of micro-contrast to keep even the most voracious researcher occupied for weeks, I decided to focus more on the intangible aspect of photography. Are these lenses ​enjoyable​ to use? Do they weigh down my backpack like a brick of lead (I’m lookin’ at you, Sigma), focus easily, and deliver consistent, beautiful results? In short, if I were a passionate photographer with a limited budget, and I am, which one would I buy?

From left to right, images shot with the Tokina, Voigtländer, and Sony lenses. Identical Lightroom settings were used and no lens compensation has been applied.

To avoid introducing any potential variables, I shot all the comparison photos on the same camera—an a7R III. While I do also own an a7 III, I wanted to be able to exploit the 42MP resolution to get a real feel for the sharpness and quality of these lenses. I attempted to expose all photos the same (according to the histogram) and only minimal editing was applied.

Voigtländer Nokton 21mm f/1.4 Aspherical

Just saying the name Voigtländer conjures a mental image of luxury, and top-tier German engineering reminiscent of a Mercedes sedan, with artful design and meticulous construction. Unfortunately, all that beautiful engineering brought us a lens that’s just about as heavy as a Mercedes sedan. It’s conveniently compact on the outside but feels as though it’s constructed from solid gold. This would be easy to overlook if the performance were solid gold, but unfortunately, it left a bit to be desired. Heavy vignetting, difficulty focusing, and significant coma near the corners left me feeling like this lens really didn’t live up to my expectations.

Voigtländer has a sterling reputation in the photography world, so I was very excited to try this lens, but I found myself surprised by the disconnect between the performance and the substantial price tag. This is a good lens, but not an ​exceptional​ lens, but at a price that should hold its own against anything on the market.

Taken with the Voigtländer 21mm f/1.4 at f/1.4, ISO 2500, and 10 seconds. On the left is the original image and on the right is an image with Lightroom’s lens-correction profile applied.

You can see from the images above that while the center is extremely sharp with great light transmission, the vignette on the edges is quite extreme. With Lightroom lens correction applied, the image looks balanced and even, but the darker corners exhibit an extraordinary amount of color noise from the exposure compensation (specifically the naturally darker corners near the bottom). While I ​love​ a nice vignette for daytime photos, this lens is supposed to be a low-light specialist, and an extreme vignette like this is basically a deal breaker.

However, this lens is an absolute joy to use. The focus ring features the perfect amount of resistance with a beautifully smooth glide, and the raised ridges make for fantastic grip-ability. The aperture ring features very satisfying clicks, with increments of 1/3 stop, allowing precision exposure adjustments when needed.

Normally, I’m not a major fan of full manual lenses, since my job often requires me to shoot on the fly for outdoor adventure-style work. Autofocus and digital aperture adjusted through thumb wheels are my best friends for that kind of work, so I was a bit reticent going into this review. However, since astrophotography is inherently sedentary and slow-paced, the manual adjustments didn’t slow me down and, if anything, were really a benefit. I didn’t need to enter my camera menu to change from autofocus to manual (or even flip a switch like on Sony’s G Master lenses). However, there were a few times in the dark when I grabbed the wrong ring while attempting to adjust the focus and found myself accidentally changing the aperture. This can be chalked up to my unfamiliarity with new equipment and shouldn’t count negatively against the lens.

As for coma, this lens was the worst performer of the trio, and by a fairly large margin. The coma was so significant that I had trouble focusing, even in the center of the frame. I can’t rule out that perhaps I simply was not able to lock-in my focus but, after ​dozens of attempts, I have to reach a verdict. Either the coma is so significant that focusing is nigh impossible, or focusing with this lens is insurmountably difficult. Either way, the result is the same: a very frustrating night under the stars with far fewer “keepers” than I would have liked.

These are 100% crops from the Voigtländer. On the left is a center crop and on the right is a corner crop.

Looking at the 100% crop at the edges of the frame, we can see significant coma, making each star look like a tiny rendition of the planet Saturn. Artistic, yes, but very imperfect from a technical standpoint.

Going into this test, I admit that the Voigtländer would have been my frontrunner for personal preference. If you had asked me to purchase one of these lenses sight unseen, this would have been my choice; Voigtländer has a sterling reputation, and the focal length and maximum aperture are very appealing—on paper. However, after some hands-on use and side-by-side comparisons, I cannot honestly say I would recommend this lens for astrophotography at this price.

Tokina FiRIN 20mm f/2 FE MF

My first impression of the FiRIN 20mm f/2 FE MF Lens was mixed. It looks and feels like an ancient analog film lens but, upon closer inspection, it’s beautifully made with some very obvious upgrades from the old lenses of yore. Fully manual, and very heavy, but remarkably solid feeling. I can’t imagine I would love hiking with it, but the image quality is good enough that I wouldn’t regret lugging it up the mountain, either. Aesthetically, the rectangular lens hood is beautiful, but I found it annoying for storage and transportation, since it doesn’t fit properly in a camera bag full of ​round​ lenses. However, that’s a very small complaint in the grand scheme of lens performance.

Taken with the Tokina FiRIN 20mm f/2 at f/2, ISO 2500, and 10 seconds. On the left is the original image and on the right is an image with Lightroom’s lens correction applied.

I found this lens to be extremely enjoyable to use, although the lower light transmission of f/2.0 (versus f/1.4 of the two competing lenses) was quite obvious. Longer shutter speeds and/or higher ISO adversely affect image quality, of course, but not so significantly as to be a deal breaker. The focus and aperture rings on this lens are flush with the barrel, which makes them difficult to tell apart in the dark, and I found myself frequently turning the wrong ring and adjusting aperture when trying to fine-tune my focus, and vice versa.

As with the Voigtländer above, this lens features impressive sharpness in the middle, with a fairly significant vignette. With lens corrections applied, we still get a substantial amount of color noise in the darker corners, but the vignette seems to disappear almost entirely (unlike on the Voigtländer, where the vignette was so heavy as to be permanent). I also noticed that the vignette on this lens is more “feathered,” which makes it appear less significant. While the Voigtländer vignette features a sudden drop-off into blackness around the corners, this lens transitions smoothly into darker corners, which I find to be much more aesthetically pleasing, at least, while not technically perfect. The corrected photo is very usable (despite the significant noise in the lower-right corner), and gives us a fantastic starting point for artistic interpretations of the night sky. If you’re looking to approach this from a more documentarian standpoint, then you’ll likely need to stack and bracket multiple frames to create even exposure across the sky, but this seems to be true of almost all astro-oriented lens options.

These are 100% crops from the Tokina. On the left is a center crop and on the right is a corner crop.

Coma was low and manageable in the middle, but grows increasingly obvious as we move toward the edge of the frame. Additionally, while sharpness in the center is fantastic, there is some significant chromatic aberration, rendering many of the stars with a bright magenta halo. This is easily fixed with the de-fringe option in Lightroom, but I’m a strong believer that a lens with this price tag shouldn’t require a ton of manual effort just to compensate for its shortcomings.

Sony FE 24mm f/1.4 GM

As the only native lens in the lineup, the Sony FE 24mm f/1.4 GM sets an extremely high bar. It’s very rare to find a lens with such a wide aperture that’s this sharp corner-to-corner, with hardly any perceptible coma or vignette. While I love a bit of vignette on a landscape photo, it’s nice to be able to implement it as an artistic decision rather than a mandatory “feature” of one’s equipment. With the aperture wide open there is a somewhat significant vignette from this lens, but it’s soft and smooth in the transition, creating a pleasant darkening of the corners akin to the Tokina above, rather than the aggressive black circle of the Voigtländer.

Taken with the Sony FE 24mm f/1.4 at f/1.4, ISO 1600, and 10 seconds. On the left is the original image and on the right is an image with Lightroom’s lens correction applied.

The Sony lens feels solid, yet light enough to justify a spot in my bag for nearly every adventure. To me, this is a ​huge​ deal. The only lens in this review that doesn’t feel like a 1965 Buick means it’s the only lens that would probably make it into my bag for a big trip or outdoor adventure. Some of the best astrophotography landscapes are only accessible after miles and miles of hiking, or extended travel via plane, helicopter or boat. An overly heavy bag can be a deal breaker for airlines, and a backbreaker for long hikes and, as such, I cannot overstate how much I appreciate the lightweight and compact form factor of the Sony 24mm GM.

The manual aperture ring turns easily, yet with a satisfying click. I found it somewhat difficult to focus, but not because the lens itself is lacking in refinement, but rather because the field of focus is so narrow at f/1.4 that my clumsy sausage fingers simply lacked the necessary dexterity. More travel on the focus ring would allow for easier fine-tuning of the focus, and perhaps that’s something that can be rolled out in a future firmware update.

The optical performance of this lens is what really sets it apart, in my opinion. Even wide open at f/1.4, the coma was nearly imperceptible, and the stars were impressively sharp. I did see some magenta fringing in the center of the frame while shooting wide open, but this is easily fixed by editing, as mentioned above. Stopping down to f/2.8 resulted in one of the sharpest astro images I’ve ever taken, and completely removed all vestiges of coma and astigmatism.

These are 100% crops from the Sony. On the left is a center crop and on the right is a corner crop.

Despite absolutely flawless performance from this lens, I did find myself wishing it were a bit wider. 24mm is a fantastic and versatile focal length, but astrophotography is a very unique subset of photography that really requires a wide field of view. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that Sony releases a 16mm f/1.4 with this level of optical perfection in the future, but for now I can happily make do with this spectacular rendition.

All in all, this was the clear winner of the showdown, and despite the narrower field of view, it is without question the lens that will end up in my bag for summer nights under the stars.

Nate Luebbe is a self-taught photographer and lifelong explorer of the outdoors. An avid environmentalist, conservationist, and raconteur of experiences, you can find more of Luebbe’s spectacular images online, at www.nateluebbe.com, and on Instagram, @nateinthewild.

3 Comments

Hi Nate-I've got one more lens to mention; the Laowa 15mm f/2 FE Zero-D Lens. Looks like Robert S., Brent B. and I have 3 good choices for you to do a repeat test! I'm looking forward to your next post on this topic. Thanks!

Have you thought of the Sigma 16mm F1.4 lens?  Have you tried it?

I'm surprised you didn't include the Sony FE 20mm f1.8G lens. I am curious as to it's comparrison to the Sony 24mm that you did use. But then again, without having a sherpa you can't carry everything

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