Sunday, April 21, 2019

In-Depth Review: Tokina 17 f3.5 ATX-PRO

The Tokina 17 f3.5 ATX-PRO

Tech Specs

Focal Length: 17mm
Dimensions: 2.2 x 3.3 in.
Weight: 15.3.
Maximum Aperture: f3.5
Minimum Aperture: f
Diaphragm Blades:
Front Element: non-rotating, extending
Optical arrangement: 11 elements in 9 groups
Autofocus Mechanism: Mechanical drive
Closest Focus: 9.8 inches
Maximum magnification: .11x
Filter Size: 77mm

It seems that with every new generation of camera lenses, opticians are able to push the extremes a little bit wider. By the arrival of the 1980s, sub 20mm was now the new standard for ultrawide SLR lenses. Of these, the Tokina 17 f3.5 was one of the most affordable. With the arrival of the AF era, Tokina created a new AF version of its 17mm f3.5 optic, the 17mm f3.5 AT-X, for 1993. The only real fault of this lens: a built-on lens hood, a bit of overkill for a lens without a protruding front element. Eventually, Tokina redid its 17mm ultrawide in 1999, keeping the optical formula the same, but redoing the cosmetics and dubbing the new model 'PRO.' AF was now controlled by the famous Tokina clutch system and the idiotic built-on hood became a thing of the past. To date, the Tokina 17mm f3.5 ATX-PRO lens being reviewed here, discontinued as of 2005 is Tokina's last ultrawide prime ever produced save for Sony.

Build Quality 5/5
Tokina is a company known for its high standards of construction and the Tokina 17 f3.5 ATX-PRO is built to the highest of standards, namely, out of solid metal. Honestly, many manufacturer lenses of today aren't built anywhere near as well as the third-party Tokina offering. Picking up the lens, it is quite heavy but this heavy construction goes a long way in inspiring confidence, showcasing that this lens is a true photographic tool and not some dinky toy. Onto the mechanics, Tokina was nice enough to include an aperture ring lock switch so that the ring can be locked at minimum aperture for use on today's cameras. In the act of focusing, the front element extends a tiny, tiny bit (maybe 2mm) but does nor rotate. The focus ring is of the variety where one must find the window to move it. To do this, simply rotate the ring while pushing forward/pulling back on it and wait for it to snap into the desired position.

Note the AF/MF ring positions.

Notice the Nikon-only AF slot screw at 5 o' clock

AF Performance 4/5
As with all ultrawide lenses, AF speed on the Tokina 17 f3.5 ATX-PRO is, at least on the D700, very fast and, for a mechanical drive lens, very quiet. However, as with all mechanical drive lenses, there is no full time manual focus feature as is seen on newer optics, which means that you need to manually switch from AF to MF mode. At least with Nikon, AF speed has a lot to do with the camera, so it may be slightly slower/faster on yours depending on what you have. In regards to accuracy, focus is dead-on every time. Additionally, thanks to the clutch mechanism, the focus ring doesn't spin when the AF is operating, so hold it anywhere.

Optics: 4/5
A lot goes into determining the optical quality of a lens, so let's look at them separately.

For a lens of such an extreme design, the Tokina 17f3.5 ATX-PRO performs very well. Straight out of the gate at f3.5, the center is razor sharp, with virtually nothing gained by stopping down. At f16, though, sharpness falls off due to diffraction limiting. Mid Frame, f3.5 is a little soft, but f5.6-f11 are all razor sharp, with diffraction again creating a softening at f16. In the corners, the lens is pretty mushy wide open but sharpens up nicely at f8, save for the extreme (emphasis on extreme) corners of the frame. F11 is also very good and, yet again, diffraction limiting sets in at f16. Overall, the best overall image quality across the frame is at f8, with nothing gained by closing up a stop to f11. Overall, not bad for such an extreme optic of mid 1990s design. On crop frame cameras, it should be pretty much razor sharp across the frame.

This lens vignettes noticeably when shot wide open. Stopping down to f5.6 greatly reduces the corner darkening and closing up to f8 reduces it a little more, with nothing gained past that point. If shooting on a crop camera, vignetting should be a non-issue.

For a 17mm optic, distortion is very well controlled even when shooting brick walls. In real life shooting, it should go unnoticed.

Chromatic Aberration
For a company known for lenses that had false color (purple) chromatic aberrations during the time this optic was produced, the Tokina 17 f3.5 ATX-PRO does very well here. Only the biggest pixel peepers will notice anything at all at f3.5. Seriously, you have to actively look for it to see it at all even at 100%. The composite is 100% and the other image is the full uncropped shot.

Avoid bright lights just outside the frame as the lens will flare, thought obnoxiously. The hood doesn't help much if at all.

Value: 5/5
Simply put, this is a lens that anyone with a FX format Nikon camera should take a serious look at. Priced at around $350 on the used market, this lens is the way to go for anyone wanting a portable, ultrawide optic that won't break the bank. Simply put, nothing else comes close to the Tokina 17 f3.5 ATX-PRO in regards to price. The best part: no protruding, vulnerable front element

Simply put, there are no direct competitors for the Tokina 17 f3.5 ATX-PRO. Yes, there are wider optics out there, namely the 14mm f2.8s everyone is making, but these are comparatively large, unwieldy lenses that can never fit into a pocket and that have bulbous, flare/scratch-susceptible front elements. On top of that, all the manufacturer optics are all are priced much, much higher. Tamron used to make a 14 f2.8 but, like the manufacturer optics, it has a bulbous front element and is the build quality is greatly inferior. If one doesn't mind adding a few millimeters of focal length, there are some interesting 20mm options, Nikon's 20 f2.8 and Sigma's 20mm f1.8. Neither are built to the standards of the Tokina but the Nikon is much smaller and 2/3 stop faster and the Sigma is 2 stops faster but much larger and, according to some reviews, quite soft wide open across the frame, unlike the Tokina. In all, there are a lot of interesting ultrawide primes on the market but no single lens that can go toe-to-toe with Tokina's masterpiece.

The Ultrawide Myth
Many beginners believe (incorrectly) that an ultrawide lens like this will be just the thing for “getting it all in” the frame. Well, there's yes and no to that. Yes, you'll sweep up everything around you but, on the other hand, your point of focus will be appear to be pushed way into the distance. Long story short, this is not a landscape lens. On the other hand, if you find yourself shooting in tight quarters and constantly wishing that you could only back up more to fully capture a scene, this is the lens for you. Who is this lens for? Indoor architectural photographers and even realtors come to mind. Astrophotographers (like me) will also love this lens for its ability to capture nearly all-sky views, especially during meteor showers, without distortion. Paparazzi? Yes, even you scumbags of the photography world will benefit from this lens as its ultrawide field will allow you to just about shove your camera up a celebrity's nose and still get a full headshot. Crop frame shooters? Don't waste your money here as 17mm on your camera isn't ultrawide by any means. Get something in the 8-12mm range instead.

Conclusion: 4.5/5
The Tokina 17mm f3.5 ATX-PRO is quite a lens even before one considers its rock-bottom price point. Build quality and AF capabilities are top-notch and the optics, though not perfect, are very respectable for a lens in this class. The real shame about this lens is that it is out of production and so difficult to find. To start with, Tokina is the smallest of the major third party lens manufacturers, which means that there were less of these lenses produced than its Sigma, Tamron, and not to mention Nikon near-equivalents. Perhaps the true barometer of how good a lens is is to look for the frequency with which it appears on the used market. In the case of the Tokina 17mm, one hardly ever sees it show up, even at the big places like Adorama, B&H, and even the world's largest used photo gear dealer, KEH. Simply put, people know a good product when they get one and are reluctant to let go of it. Such is the case with this Tokina gem. Bottom line, if you have a FF camera, this is the best $300ish you can ever spend, that is if you're lucky enough to find this lens at all. 

Tokina Fan? Check Out These Reviews
Tokina 100 f2.8 ATX-PRO Macro
Tokina 80-200 f2.8 AT-X
Tokina 80-400 f4-5.6 AT-X
Tokina 28-70 f2.6-2.8 ATX-PRO

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