Sunday, October 30, 2011

Tokina 50-135 f/2.8 AT-X Pro DX Review

It's funny how we're so many years into the digital revolution, yet things like full-frame crop frame equivalences still trip us up. Take the matter of the ever popular Nikon 70-200VR; no working pro would be taken seriously without it for weddings and social functions. Yet this is the equivalent of 100-300mm on a full frame camera, and the f/2.8 aperture is equivalent to f/4 on an FX camera like the D700. Sigma and Tokina made 100-300mm lenses like this, yet, for film and FX, it falls strictly into the neither-nor category... not really the working zoom, no quite long enough for birding and the more extreme sports. Yet there is no equivalent to what the 70-200VR on full frame is to the DX world, at least not in the Nikon camp. Tokina's 50-135mm f/2.8 has the equivalent angle of view as the venerable Nikon on full frame, yet most shooters in this category skip past this offering. Strange.

Update: Some more action shots with this lens here.

This is a lens to love.  The build quality is at a professional level... metal body, fluid dampened zoom ring, and a fluid dampened tripod collar. The petal hood is very long, and unlike what you would find with a consumer grade lens, the inside surfaces are lined with black velvet to further cut down on unwanted glare. It feels quite weighty, but it's not over burdening. Strap one on your camera and you'll know that you've got a serious tool in your hands, yet it isn't so long and heavy to the point of being unwieldy. You could fit this inside most day to day camera bags.... mine fits just fine in my moderately-sized Crumpler Six Million Dollar Home. That's with room for another lens and a camera body with a a lens mounted.

50mm, ISO 100, f/7.1, 1/160s
Well, it's strange that this lens isn't more popular,  but understandable. Your typical DX shooter is more inclined to be a hobbyist or semi-pro, and in the order of lens acquisitions, the next lens after the kit and prime lens is one that has "zoom". In other words... "Give me more". Hence you have various incarnations of telephoto zooms, the 55-200, the 55-300, the 70-300... the more you pay, the more zoom you get. But these are variable aperture lenses, and are quite limited in the amount of depth of field control that they can produce.

That takes us further up the price scale to the 80-200 AF in it's various incarnations and the 70-200VR, both faster f/2.8 lenses, both with professional build quality. However, that whole DX multiplier thing comes into play again. Neither are small lenses, and worse, you loose a bit of flexibility at the wide end of the zoom range. That's where the the Tokina 50-135 shines... 135mm is just long enough for most social situations (think weddings) and 50mm leaves just enough room so that you don't have to be completely removed from the situation. It's not the longest lens, it doesn't have VR or AF-S, but it has terrific optics combined with a zoom range that is matched to it's intended purpose. It also has a dedicated tripod collar, which is an indication of how serious his lens is. It's not removable, though, so it does take some used to shooting this lens hand held. Different, but not unbearable.

135mm, ISO 200, f/2.8, 1/400s

As mentioned in the previous bokeh review, the Tokina 50-135 does quite well for a f/2.8 zoom. Backgrounds won't melt away like they will with the 85mm f/1.4 lenses, but they can be reasonably smooth and generally free of the harsh fringing that you might find in other fast lenses. I would still be careful at what you keep in your backgrounds, though.  The resolving power is terrific, for all intents and purposes, as sharp as any zoom lens within this focal range. Some nits, though... lateral chromatic aberration can be a nuisance but not a deal-breaker, and as you can see from the orchid example above, vignetting is present to varying amounts depending on aperture and zoom. Whether or not it's an issue is wholly personal, but in all fairness, some situations call for a bit of vignetting from time to time. And for all practical purposes, virtually all DX lenses produce vignetting. However flare can be a big problem with this lens, hence the very deep lens hood that it comes with. Be very careful if there are bright light sources around.

135mm, ISO 200, f/8, 1/400s

The above is a 100% crop of the moon. Despite being a "zoom" lens, this isn't the best lens for distance work, but here's an example of what you could pull out of it if you tried. Resolution at with the lens zoomed out to 135mm is still good, but it's better just below that in the middle of the zoom range, just around the 'portrait' focal lengths. If you think 'perspective compression' rather than 'distance', then you'll settle into a good rhythm with this lens.For me, 100mm is the longest practical length that I use, 135mm tends to be for 'emergencies' when a little extra length is needed.

135mm, ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/3200s

Focus speed isn't the fastest, this being an AF-D screw-drive lens. Actually, by modern standards, it's quite slow, but not as slow as what you would find with any of the 50mm lenses. (Focus speed doesn't just depend on the mechanism of the focus motor, it is also dependent on how fast or slow a particular lens is geared for.) However, that doesn't mean you can't capture moving subjects with it. As with any type of panning shot, it's more about technique than equipment... you you track smoothly and anticipate the motion, the lens' autofocus system will keep up. Just don't expect to grab a snap of a moving object that out of the blue... this is a lens that you have to intentionally plan your AF-C type shots.

100mm, ISO 100, f.2.8, 1/80s
However, there is no escaping that this is a 'people' lens. It's just at the right focal length for head shots and capturing people at there most candid. You can't help think 'wedding' when you think about lenses in those terms. I've come to quite like this lens between 70 and 100mm for head shots.... between a 50mm lens at f/1.4 and a 100mm lens at f/2.8, I'd much prefer the latter... if you have the space for it, that is. One very useful feature is Tokina's focus clutch technology. Instead of reaching back to the camera body to switch the AF/manual lever, all you have to do is to give the focus rig a gentle tug towards you, which disengages autofocus and which allows you to manually focus the lens. 

Used copies are floating around on Craigslist for $600 to $650 CDN in my area at the time of writing... I would say that currency being roughly equal, that would be fair for the United States at this time as well. If you do find one, make sure that it still has the hood, as lens flare is a real issue. Demand doesn't seem to be as strong as that for the 70-300VR, so postings don't get snapped up the instant they go online. The most immediate alternative is the Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 II EX DC HSM... it's fairly close between the two. The Sigma zooms out further, but is also a bit weaker at maxiumum zoom and the aperture opened up. Sigma has a new OS stabilized version of their lens now, but it' grown quite a bit in size and in price.

95mm, ISO 400, f./2.8, 1/400s
A less obvious alternative is the older Nikon 80-200 AF f/2.8 push-pull, which goes for just slightly more than the Tokina on the used market. Another hundred dollars brings you to the two-ring version,which is just a little bit better optically. With these classic zooms, you get more reach, but you have to remember that that's with the sacrifice of having the Tokina's wider focal length at the short end of the lens. Which is more important will depend on the user's needs.

If you're looking at this in comparison to the 70-300VR, then you're looking at two different tools for two different purposes. The popular consumer zoom is all about distance, but you'll have to supplement it with something else if you want nice bokeh for the portrait range.

One final word. A zoom lens without image stabilization in this day and age sounds very anachronistic, but this one comes alive on a modern camera like the D7000. The current middle weight Nikon champ has plenty of ISO power to keep this lens fed with light. Remember, we're not talking about super long lens here, so following the 1/effective focal length rule, at maximum zoom you'll need at least 1/200s of shutter speed, which is fairly manageable considering that you can push a D7000 to ISO 3200 without really worrying about noise intruding into your pictures.

In the end, this is a lens worth having. If you're the kind of person who keeps eyeing the 70-200VR, then you might not keep this lens for long, but even so, it will give lots of joy for the time that you have it for. However, if you do come across one don't be too hasty to give it up, as the lens is now out of production, and there aren't really any equivalents of it out there on the new or used market.


  1. thanks for sharing this post. ive been looking for more information on this lens and comparisons with other popular lenses for awhile now. it seems everyone who owns this lens is very happy with it. thanks to this blog i just might get one next month. cheers

  2. I own this lens and couldn't be happier. Picked it up in 2008 and use it for most things.
    I agree with all the comments above.
    Great for portraits (and some landscapes).

  3. I bought this lens a few months ago and paired it with my D7000 and now have a very capable and comfortable companion. Light weight and as sharp as I could ask for. I see owning this lens for a very long time. The tripod collar is a slight annoyance but love the lens all the same.

  4. Yep, I wish there was a way to take off the collar, since I tend to use the lens a lot as portrait zoom, but I eventually got used to it being there.

  5. I think the Sigma 50-150/2.8 is very similar and existed as a direct rival of this one... body made of plastic results in building quality but optical performance is slightly better... and a little bit more expensive...

  6. I have a tokina 50-135 and a canon 40D, but my pictures are very soft!! i can't get sharp images!!

    1. Check for a lens misalignment, either front-back or possibly a de-centered lens element. If it`s the latter, then you might have to send it to Tokina to have it adjusted. Otherwise, the lens is sharpest up to 100mm; at 135mm it`s only so-so if you are looking for outright sharpness.