Lenses for astrophotography – a comparison

I love photography, and I have an interest in astrophysics and astronomy. It only makes sense to combine them, and have fun with astrophotography. But which equipment is best for the beginner without breaking the bank? Let’s explore the options.

Some interesting photographs can be captured using a wide-angle lens to view the whole sky, but here I am specifically talking about long, telescope-like lenses. There are three solutions that I have at my disposal:

  • Meade 60AZ 700mm f/11 telescope, with T-mount adapter for 35mm SLR or DSLR
  • Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6 telephoto lens, native mount on DSLR with 2× teleconverter to make it a 600mm f/11
  • Tokina 400mm f/5.6 telephoto lens, native mount on 35mm SLR with adpater for DSLR and 2× teleconverter to make it a 800mm f/11

So the “zoomiest” lens is the Tokina but that isn’t the only factor. Which lens is sharpest? What about chromatic aberration? What about other things affecting practical use for astrophotography?

First let me say a few words about each lens (and offer my apologies for the quality of the photos of the lenses – as you can see, my DSLR is in each picture so I was using my phone).

Meade 60AZ

The Meade 60AZ is an inexpensive 700mm telescope. The front element is 60mm in diameter, making it an f/11.7. There’s no variable aperture. It has the usual 1.25″ eyepiece fitting, so it’s easy to get hold of an adapter to turn this into a T-mount fitting. Once you’ve got T-mount, well, Bob’s your uncle, and you can adapt T-mount to anything else – including 35mm and digital SLR cameras, such as my AE-1P, EOS 450D and EOS 300. I bought mine from a car boot sale for £15, and then paid about £20 for the adapter to mount the camera.

Meade 60AZ on Canon 450D

It has an optically simple design with few elements, so chromatic, comatic and spherical aberrations may not be so well corrected for. This isn’t important for viewing by eye with an eyepiece, but aberrations show up more significantly in photographs that can be studied. Technically it is not a telephoto lens, since it does not have a telephoto group, and is correctly known as a long-focus lens.

Being a telescope, it comes with its own tripod which is a little flimsy, but easily capable of taking the weight of a camera.

Tamron 70-300mm

The Tamron 70-300mm is an inexpensive autofocus SLR zoom lens, offering a maximum aperture at 300mm of f/5.6. It mounts natively to the Canon EF mount, for use with 35mm and digital SLR cameras, including my EOS 450D and EOS 300. The 13 elements are coated to reduce flare and correct for various aberrations. My sample was bundled with my 450D at Jessops, but it costs around £100 new at the time of writing. I bought a Kenko Teleplus teleconverter for £30, second hand.

Tamron 70-300mm on Canon 450D

Autofocus is practically useless for astrophotography since there isn’t enough available light. On this lens, the focus ring is quite sensitive, undamped, and hard to use accurately. This will count against it in practical use.

Using a 2× teleconverter will double the effective focal length to almost match the Meade telescope, at the cost of a couple of stops of light and some sharpness – but still faster than the telescope.

This lens does not come with a tripod mounting collar but should be used with one, since the fully-extended lens with teleconverter is quite heavy, and unstable when the tripod attaches to the camera.

Tokina 400mm

The Tokina 400mm is a fixed focal length prime lens, with a maximum aperture of f/5.6. With a 2× teleconverter this gives me the longest effective focal length at 800mm while still being faster than the Meade telescope. It’s a manual focus lens with a large and well-damped focus ring which actually makes it easier to use than its contemporary rival, the Tamron. I paid £50 for this lens, second hand, and the Super Paragon teleconverter was about a fiver, I think.

Tokina 400mm on Canon 450D

It mounts natively to Canon FD-mount manual focus cameras like my AE-1P, but will work with Canon EF-mount EOS cameras with an adapter, which I wrote about recently. This adapter has the effect of making the lens a bit zoomier. I haven’t exactly measured the amount, but it could make this 800mm lens produce an image like a 900mm. We shall see.

This lens also does not come with a tripod mounting collar but should be used with one for best effect, because it is long, metal and heavy. They sure don’t make lenses like they used to.

Sample images

This article is about astrophotography really, but taking test photos of the moon or other celestial objects means carrying equipment to a dark place. I’m not sure I can be bothered to carry these three heavy lenses and two tripods and other accessories out at night, so for now you’ll have to make do with these images of the chimney at Frenchay Hospital, which is about one mile away. This is a city, so the atmosphere is quite hazy.

These pictures were taken with a Canon EOS 450D. The main images are exactly as they came out of the camera – no editing. The second images are cropped around the top of the chimney to show fine detail.

Meade 60AZ

Meade 60AZ

It’s immediately obvious that the image from the Meade telescope suffers from very poor contrast and colour saturation. This is perhaps obvious given its inexpensive and crudely coated elements. It might be possible to improve the contrast by using filters and shooting in black & white, since colour isn’t always important in astrophotography.

In its defence, the sharpness is good and I’m frankly shocked at how small the chromatic aberration is, given that this is a cheap 2-element lens.

Tamron 70-300mm

Tamron 70-300mm

The Tamron 70-300mm, a modern multi-coated lens, has no such problems with colour and contrast. The colours are vibrant and bold. However, it suffers badly from chromatic aberration. We might expect this from a cheap zoom lens – the effect will be less prominent with a fixed focal length prime lens.

As before, it might be possible to reduce the effect of chromatic aberration by using a coloured filter and shooting in black & white.

Tokina 400mm

Tokina 400mm

It’s immediately obvious that the Tokina 400mm is the zoomiest lens, with its teleconverter and FD-EF converter to mount it on the 450D. The colours and contrast are good, especially for a lens manufactured in the 1970-1980s.

The effect of chromatic aberration is also extremely small, presumably because it is a fixed focal length prime lens. I think the overall image quality is best out of the three lenses tested here.

Summary

The Tokina 400mm definitely seems to be the most useful for astrophotography and lunar photography. It has the longest effective focal length, the best sharpness, the best chromatic aberration and reasonably good contrast. Its manual focus ring is easy to use

Don’t forget that these images aren’t the best that each lens can produce – they are the lowest common denominator of what each lens can do. With careful processing, the images could be sharpened and have their contrast boosted. For some subjects, it might be appropriate to stack the images. For certain images, coloured or other filters could be used to work around the effect of chromatic aberration and atmospheric haze.

In the past, I experimented with a catadioptic mirror lens but the results were not great. In theory, mirror lenses should be well suited to astrophotography, so perhaps I had a bad sample. I also wrote some thoughts on other types of long-focus lenses for general use, and some of it might be relevant to astrophotography.

That’s enough discussion of lenses. I’m now waiting for a clear summer’s night when I can go for a short drive out of the city and hopefully capture some great images of the moon, and maybe other things in the sky. I should probably read up on astronomy so I know what to point the camera at! :)

  1. Jupiter II | Jonathan Gazeley - pingback on September 29, 2011 at 10:11 pm
  2. Hi, what’s the name of the tripod mount collar you are using on the tokina 400mm?

    I got the same lens and looking for a mount for it.

  3. Thank you every much :)

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