The best lens for photographing the Northern Lights

*Update at end of article*

Last year I was in need of a lens more suitable for photographing the Northern Lights. I have been "making do" with my Canon EF16-35mm f4L IS, but the relatively small maximum aperture obviously limits what I can do, especially when using the 5DSr, which isn't great at high ISO settings. I had various options to choose from but after some online research these were the most compelling:  

Canon 16-35mm f2.8L III £2050
Pros: Sharp, low coma, maximum versatility as I wouldn't need to carry an extra lens
Cons: None other than price

Samyang 14mm f2.4 AE XP £899
Pros: Sharp, low coma
Cons: Heavy vignetting

Sigma 14mm f1.8 ART £1679
Pros: 1-stop wider maximum aperture
Cons: Mixed reviews, coma, size, weight, price

Laowa 12mm f2.8 Zero-D £899
Pros: Wider angle useful for some but not all situations
Cons: Put off by disappointing optical quality of 15mm f4 Macro

Irix 15mm f2.4 Firefly/Blackstone £409/£599
Pros: Sharp, price, weight (of Firefly), build quality
Cons: Wave-type field curvature, ugly bokeh, coma

In the end I opted for the Irix 15mm f2.4. The main reason being that I'm very happy with my EF16-35mm f4L IS and didn't really want to change it for the f2.8 version when I only use it at wide-open aperture occasionally. The Irix lens had received some very good reviews and was a far less expensive option. I now had the choice between the Firefly and Blackstone versions of this lens. Optically they are said to be identical. In fact they only differ in the material used for the exterior of the lens, with the firefly being lighter weight plastic and the Blackstone more robust magnesium. The Blackstone version "looks" nicer but costs 30% more. I opted for the Firefly version and I think I made the right decision. The packaging alone is impressive. The lens comes in a very well designed box inside which is a metal tin which the lens sits inside well protected by a moulded foam insert. These things may not be that important but they do help to give you confidence that you've bought a quality product, especially when dealing with a new brand like Irix. The lens itself appears to be very well constructed and certainly has a quality feel (especially compared to the Samyang and Laowa). It also has some nice features including a focus ring lock, rear gel filter holder and user adjustable focus calibration. My initial tests in daylight show that the Irix is definitely slightly sharper in the corners of the frame when shooting at maximum aperture compared to my Canon EF16-35mm f4L IS  (even at f2.8) and my EF24-70mm f2.8L II. It's still not perfect, but it is an improvement. However, I have noticed what appears to be quite severe wave type field curvature when shooting with the aperture wide open and, whilst this would not be an issue when shooting stopped down for normal landscape photography, it would be a big problem for night photography at maximum aperture. I hope to be testing it for real on the Northern Lights later this month, at which point I will also be able to assess it for coma distortion.

*Update 21/08/18*

Whilst the Irix 15mm f2.4 Firefly is a very nice lens to use and is well built, there are a couple of things that I dislike. Firstly my copy does exhibit wave-type field curvature. It is not extreme, but the effects can be seen when shooting with the aperture wide-open, with inconsistent sharpness across the frame. Secondly the bokeh (behaviour and smoothness of the out of focus areas of the image) is unpleasant. I have tested the Sigma 14mm f1.8 ART, but I found the coma (specifically the distortion of point sources of light towards the edges of the frame) a little too much to justify the high price tag and weight penalty. In the end I decided to opt for the Canon 16-35mm f2.8L mkIII. My preliminary tests looked positive so I will see how I get on with it during the upcoming Northern Lights season.

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