Ok, I am reviewing a lens that I would call it a cult classic that many have totally forgotten in recent years – Tokina AT-X 270 Pro f/2.6-2.8 (Yes!!! f/2.6!!!!)
Like many other third-party lens manufacturers in Japan, most photography enthusiasts and professionals considered their lenses were second grade next to their top-quality professional optics from Canon and Nikon (or Minolta, Olympus or whoever existed at the time). Most of the time it was true and I must admit that’s how I thought when I first came into photography over ten years ago. But today there are brilliant third-party lenses that are BETTER than the original manufacturers such as Zeiss and even I will say Sigma! Since Cosina took over Zeiss’s lens manufacturing, it has always offered premium quality glass but not until recent years that it produces some truly stunning optics (of course the old German Zeiss was something else). Sigma made a big leap in recent years and had finally caught up to the top of the class. 2013/14 saw Sigma produced some premium performance lenses without premium pricing. All of its ‘Art’ series lenses were truly stunning in terms of performance and build. So there are choices now.
So what about Tokina and Tamron? They are both Sigma’s main competitors, even to date. Since the digital revolution and the popular crop-sensor DSLR flooded the market like nothing else, both have shifted most of their research and design toward the smaller format and that means there aren’t many full frame lenses in their respective catalogues.
But today I am taking time to talk about a legendary lens that Tokina produced when ALL third party lenses were considered as JUNKS.
So why this lens?
Tokina has produced many versions of this fast professional grade lens over the past three decades. Many regards the first three versions were the best when the later SV models were all cheap and below par in terms of build and performance. I’ve never tried any other versions other than the one I bought, used but in NEW condition on evil bay.
As a pro Canon user, I already have all the RED ring optics that I needed. Moreover, I already have the brilliant Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM so why would I want to buy another lens that covers virtually the same range? The answer is – CURIOSITY.
28-70mm is a good and versatile focal length for day-to-day use and I came across this lens when I learnt something about a very fascinating French optics engineering company named Angenieux. This company produced some innovative zooms back in the 70’s through to the late 80’s then it stopped producing lenses for SLRs and concentrate on its root business for cinematic and medical optics. I am not digging into this company but from what I gathered from people who used Angenieux lenses and saw some sample photos, I was blown away buy that unique European look. Not German but European look. The rendering of these lenses had some artistic quality. They may not have the German’s pin-sharp optical perfectness but that ‘draw’ really made me drooled all over my computer.
But the problem in sourcing the Angenieux model was rather difficult (expensive) and I didn’t think I would throw all that money into something that I may not even make money. But what came out of my searches was this Tokina AT-X Pro model. I have not hard evidence about what’s said on the net but the model I have now, in fact all the 2.6 models, is based on the licensed Angenieux design. From what some of the video comparisons I saw, indeed there are negligible differences in terms of sharpness this is something I will discuss later. There you go, totally out of curiosity and I bought this lens.
Everything made in the ‘old’ days seemed better made than today’s posh plastics. My ‘2nd grader’ Tokina was made in full metal together with that weird screw on metal lens hood (same as Angenieux). Talking about the hood, it’s such a rare item that I think it’s very expensive in used market if you are ever going to find one! I am not joking because everybody I talked to in various different forums said that I was the luckiest guy on earth to find a Tokina 2.6 with original hood! In fact, I got everything, from the box, manual to that nice presentation case!!! Ok, so back to the hood, I don’t take it out or use it because of its rarity because I am worried about losing it or damaging it by accident.
So the construction is great with this lens. It’s not as heavy as the Canon 2.8L and a little bit more compact. The front element is about the same and both lenses accept 77mm diameter filters. But the rear elements have some sizable differences. Canon’s 2.8 is much larger than Tokina’s 2.6. To be frank, because of Canon’s electronics, I could only use 2.8 on the Tokina anyway since it doesn’t recognize 2.6 aperture value. Thought Nikon user can select the proper 2.6 via the mechanical aperture ring!
Overall, this lens is very well built, I have used it a few times with weddings but that was it. I don’t know how durable it is when comparing to Canon’s L lens but being a metal lens means it should withstand some knocks and bumps!
Using it in practice, good and bad
Ok this lens performs pretty much like my Canon, despite having a slightly narrower 28mm vs 24mm. In terms of balance, I actually prefer the Tokina because of its slightly lighter weight and shorter profile. During zooming, the lens doesn’t move in and out too which is great! When it comes to picture quality, here comes the big questions, do you prefer just pure sharpness or overall pleasingness? Canon is sharper in any situation but Tokina is no slouch, especially in the wide end. When shot wide open, both lenses perform just about the same at 28mm through to 50mm. At 70mm, Tokina falls short in sharpness.
When stopped down to 5.6~6.3, both are pretty much equal. But that Tokina has some of those ‘old school’ charm and glow (yes, you heard that right, glow!!) It’s coma but this creates this little dreamy look on the subject without suffering from sharpness lost. I love this kind of Leica-like-glow for some wedding shots. It’s just magic. So it’s an art lens in my opinion and suitable for professional work in ‘certain’ circumstances.
So far so good? Yes, by looking at some quick comparison shots, Tokina also produces some flatter images (lower contrast) than Canon. To me it’s actually good. Like many videographers, they like flat profiles because they can ‘tune’ things up in post to get the look they want. This is down to the coating Tokina used at the time. Yes, this gives me greater flexibility in post so I am not worry at all. In terms of fringing, Tokina isn’t better than Canon but that is also, perhaps, affected by the older type of coating. The zoom throw is actually very short when comparing to that of Canon. You only need to turn a little between 28-70mm, amazing and quick to operate! I love that.
Finally, Tokina has a weird ‘clutch’ system for manual focusing. You have to first select the AF/MF switch to disengage the electronic, then you have to manually turn and pull down the focusing ring to engage the mechanics within the lens. It’s a strange affair because when you focus the lens manually, it’s like turning a electric motor with lots of gears inside. It’s definitely not the smoothest experience I have in any lens. Auto focus is fairly loud because there’s no silent ring motor like USM in Canon or HSM in Sigma. It’s the ancient grinding noise you get. Slowish and audible focusing noise. Not great for churches but find in outdoor areas if you wish not to be noticed.
This conclusion is rather odd. I do fall in love with this Tokina and I do not believe that I will EVER going to let this go. It does have this old-school charm and that European ‘look’ in the images it draws just sucks me into it. I haven’t had much chances to shoot with this gem over the past few years of ownership. I do hope to use it more often however. But with so much work at hand, I am using my workhorse equipment daily and leaving some of these little wonders lying around the house. I am writing this review just to remind me just how wonderful this lens is.
If you ever want to get an affordable TRUE art lens (sorry Sigma) that produces some beautiful yet not clinically sharp pictures, take a look at this lens. Tokina made them in different mounts so you are sure to find one for your camera. Tokina, once again I thank you for making this lens but I hope you can make more wonders like this in the future. Sigma is good and it’s your turn to shine. This Tokina-Angenieux hybrid may not be the perfect optical design of any kind or a true replacement of your pro-level 2.8 zoom today, but it offers an alternative for you to create something with a little difference (not worst). Happy shooting!
eBay is currently the largest market in used Leica lenses so if you want to try a sample of this lens, feel free to click on to the following links