Wednesday, August 31, 2011

In-Depth Review: Tokina 80-400 f4.5-5.6 AT-X

Tech Specs
Focal Length: 80-400mm
Dimensions: 5.4 x 3 in.
Weight: 2 lbs 5 ozs.
Maximum Aperture: f4.5
Minimum Aperture: f32
Diaphragm Blades: 8
Front Element: rotating, extending
Optical arrangement: 16 elements in 10 groups
Autofocus Mechanism: Mechanical drive
Closest Focus: 100 inches
Maximum magnification: 1:5.4
Filter Size: 72mm

Ever since the advent of the zoom lens, photographers have bee wanting lenses that go both a long way and long at the same time. Hence the birth of the supertelephoto zoom. Back in the manual focus film days, Tokina came out with what was, back then, the longest supertele zoom around: a 150-500 monster. For anyone interested in this dinosaur, Ken Rockwell has a complete review here. In the advent of the AF era, Tokina came up with a more modest supertele zoom design: the 80-400 that is the subject of the review here. In the subsequent years, Tokina has updated its 80-400 with a 'PRO' version and many other manufacturers, especially Sigma, have jumped on the supertele zoom bandwagon, too. So, how does this common ancestor of the supetele zooms fare when put through its paces? Read on to find out!
The lens nearly doubles in length when zoomed to 400mm.

The lock switches are a nice touch.

                                               The non-removable tripod collar: you'll either live it or hate it.

Build Quality 5/5
Tokina is a company known for its high standards of construction and the 80-400 AT-X does not disappoint here. Constructed of solid metal, the lens is built like the proverbial tank and could probably double as a hand-held weapon, too. As for the rings, both are rubberized and highly textured, making them a pleasure to use. In operation, the zoom ring is smooth, but not floating on air smooth and the focus ring is a bit loose, although this may be, to a degree, from age. When focusing, the front element rotates and will extend about half an inch. Some other features of the lens are as follows. First, there is a non-removable, but rotating tripod collar. Whether this is good or bad, that's your call. However, a feature that everyone should be sure to appreciate are the lock switches, one on the aperture ring and the other on the zoom mechanism, which is a single cam design.

AF Performance 3/5
First of all, being a mechanical drive lens, the Tokina 80-400 AT-X will only focus with cameras having a built-in focus motor, which means there will be no AF with the entry-level Nikons. Now, on cameras where focus will work, there may be some variance in speed depending on the strength of your camera's motor. On the top of the line D700, focus is always accurate, but rather leisurely in terms of speed. In practical terms, this lens is good enough for most casual shooting but for anything like birding or fast-moving sports, there will be better choices. Now, there is every reason to believe that the inner focusing 'PRO' successor to this lens will be faster thanks to the fact that the AF drive has to move only the smaller rear elements, not the giant front ones.
Optics: 2/5
A lot goes into determining the optical quality of a lens, so let's look at them separately.

Sharpness at 80mm
At its widest setting of 80mm, the lens delivers excellent performance across the entire frame, with only slight softening showing up in the most extreme part of the corner. Stopping down really doesn't do anything for the center and mid frame areas, but closing down to f8 does sharpen up the corner a little, but going beyond f8 doesn't add anything, though.
Sharpness at 150mm
Shot wide open at 150mm, the lens delivers respectable performance both in the center of the frame and in the mid portion but the corners are pretty mushy. Closing up one stop boots the sharpness in the center and mid areas but the corners aren't appreciably helped, though. Closing up two stops to f11 really doesn't help anything anywhere

Sharpness at 300mm
At the 300mm setting, the lens delivers respectable performance in the center, mushy in the mid frame, and a total mess in the corner. For the bad news, stopping down really doesn't help anything, anywhere.
Sharpness at 400mm
Wide open at 400mm, the lens has a rather hazy look in the center and gets rather mushier once one hits mid frame. By the corner of the image, things are very messy, indeed. Stopping down does sharpen up the center a little bit but, disappointingly, does virtually nothing to help the mid frame and corners, even 2 stops down at f11. No doubt about it: the last 100mm are barely usable except in the center, and there some post-processing will be required.

Performance really falls off after 300mm, here's the difference between 300 and 400 which, as you can see, is not all that much.
The Tokina 80-400 AT-X is a Jekyll and Hyde lens, from 80-150mm, it's good by any standard and really good when considering its age. Unfortunately, on the long end (which is what people will probably be buying it), it is a huge disappointment, with only a small sweet spot in the center at 300mm and a smaller, not as sweet spot at 400mm. Looking at the 80-150mm range, it would get a 4/5. 300 to 400mm? 1/5, not good. Also, when considering sharpness, consider the mid frame on the FX D700 as the corner on an APS-C crop cam. If you're a crop shooter, the lens suddenly looks a lot better.

Vignetting is well controlled (especially down a stop) from 80-150, but obvious at 300 and up.

The vignetting here is a tale of 2 lenses. At the 80 and 150mm settings, there is shading wide open but is disappears by stopping down one click. At 300mm, vignetting is more pronounced and, even at f11, never disappears completely. At 400mm, the darkening is more dramatic and stopping down offers less improvement than at 300mm.

Yes, there is distortion, so avoid taking pictures of bricks at 300mm and up!

There isn't any in practical terms on the short half of the zoom range but, come 300mm, there is pincushion distortion. At 400mm, it gets worse. The good news is that, for a lens of this type and its intended use, the distortion should never be an issue.

There is some CA, but it's not all that obnoxious when not viewed at 100%.

Chromatic Aberration

In terms of chromatic aberration, Tokina lenses have a reputation for suffering from false color. This lens, though, is a pleasant surprise in that the false color is very well controlled except at the 80mm setting. The good news is that the false color only shows up in the most extreme situations, like a white fence on a sunny day and it disappears by stopping down one click.
In my brief experience with the lens, it wasn't much of a problem.
Value: 2/5
With telephoto zoom camera lenses going up to 300mm, there are some really, really cheap options out there, as in sub $200. Unfortunately, when going above 300mm, the prices increase, a lot, to the tune of $600 and up. Being able to be had for around $300, give or take on the used market, the Tokina 80-400 AT-X is, without doubt, a steal. Unfortunately, when shooting on the long end (which is where most users will probably use it most), only the center is what one can call usable with the 400mm setting being, in practice, more of a marketing ploy instead. Basically, this is a 80-300mm lens when one considers the usable focal lengths. However, from 80-150, optics are excellent and there is no doubt about the top-notch build quality.

Unlike when Tokina first brought the 150-500 to market, the supertele zoom field is now very, very crowded by both third party products as well as name brand manufacturer lenses. First of all, in camp Tokina, there is the newer 'PRO' version of the 80-400, which features the same tough construction but that then adds inner focusing and the focus clutch mechanism. While not quite in the same class, Tamron produces a 200-500mm zoom. Sigma? Well, they make more supertele zooms than one can even shake a stick at. As for manufacturers, Canon makes a 100-400mm, Nikon a 80-400mm, and everyone else makes something of the sort, too. Unfortunately for the lens being reviewed here, all of these other options have some edge on the old Tokina 80-400, except in the area of price. Now, with so much on the market, one needs to research accordingly to see whether the extra bells and whistles offered on these other lenses are worth their much higher prices. Then there's the optical shortcomings at the 300mm and higher settings. However, for anyone who can live without stabilization, blazing fast AF, and weather sealing, and the softish optics outside the center of the frame on the long end, the old Tokina can be just the thing for you.
The Tokia 80-400 f4.5-5.6 AT-X: regard it as a 80-300 instead.

Conclusion: 3/5*
The Tokina 80-400 AT-X is, on paper, quite a steal, selling for about half of what one would pay for a new lens of a similar focal length. First, the good. The build quality is absolutely top-notch. In fact, many manufacturer lenses that cost far more aren't built anywhere near this well. Now, the bad. While the optics in the 80-150mm range are good, at 300mm and up, there is a lot to be desired with only the center performance at 300mm being anything near acceptable. 400mm? There's no doubt about it, that's 100mm too much for a full-frame camera. Croppers? Well, you'll lose the mushy corners and vignetting but I'm looking at the lens in absolute, not relative terms. Glaring flaw aside, the rest of the lens can be described as vanilla, namely something that will not draw strong opinions one way or the other. AF speed is good enough for most uses, CA is well controlled, vignetting is not overly distracting when closed up a stop, and distortion, while there, will probably not be a distraction when this lens is put to real life uses (and not brick walls!). Final recommendation? I'd skip this one because there is no way around the fact that the optics leave much to be desired on the long end (which is the main selling point). Unless you absolutely need a lens that doubles as a club, go for one of the new, similarly-priced xx-300s out there and just crop for the extra reach as they are sure to have better tele-end performance than this Tokina.
* Final rating is highly skewed by the build quality, if not for this, the lens would rate much lower.

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  1. Thanks for this thorough review! I was thinking of getting this lens for my D7000 to acquire more reach than my Nikkor AF-S 70-300 VR provides (for birding and for fast action outdoors). After reading your review, though, I'm inclined to think I'd only be disappointed with the Tokina.

    I know Nikkor's AF-S 300 mm f/4 + TC-14EII would run me roughly twice the price of a new Tokina 80-400 (and either of the Nikkor 70-200 mm VR f/2.8 lenses plus a TC-20EIII would be even more, even if I got one of these lenses used). Is there one of these you'd recommend over the other to try to get to 400 mm semi-affordably? (I say "semi" because I'm currently sinking a lot of my $ into a really good tripod, so such a lens is probably a year away for me, though I might be able to swing the TC now and then rent some lenses in the interim if only I knew which of these options would be likely to be better).

    I'm not really tied to VR for any of the long lenses I'd like to purchase. The lens is likely to spend most if not all of its time on a tripod. Fast AF and image quality is more important to me. I'm not really considering a used Nikkor 80-200 f/2.8, though, because I've heard its AF isn't very fast (as it's not an AF-S lens).

    Thanks so much for your advice! I've really been enjoying your blog.

  2. Lynn,

    I'd go with the 300f4 + TC combo. Generally speaking, primes will take a TC better than a zoom (even one as good the the 70-200 Nikkor)will and you'll be getting a little extra reach, too.


  3. Thanks, Dennis! Hopefully the 300f4 will still be available in a year or so when I've saved my pennies.