I recently find myself photographing with a 300mm focal length quite often. Most of the times I feel that a 200mm focal length is a little bit too short and a 400mm focal length is a bit too long; a 300mm focal length seems perfect. Although not exactly with the same analogy, this is close to saying that an 85mm focal length lens (regarded as the portrait lens with a perspective similar to a human eye) is a bit too short for portraiture. While a 135mm focal length makes a portrait look a bit compressed, a 105mm focal length seems perfect.
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I used to own a 400mm focal length lens (Tokina 400mm f/5.6 SD AT-X) and used to carry it with me quite often. But, for my shooting interest or perhaps my limited skills in the long-focal length range, I seldom find a subject suitable for it (unless I shoot birds or wildlife, which I rarely do). With a 300mm focal length, the advantage seems to reveal itself more appropriately. I often carry my 300mm focal length with a 1.4x tele-converter, which with it will make the 300mm f/4 become 420mm f/5.6.
For one reason or another, the Tokina 300mm f/4 SD AT-X (catalog name: AT-X 304AF) is less popular in the main stream. For Nikon users, the Nikon 300mm f/4 ED-IF is the folklore, repeatedly praised by both professionals and amateurs to be the sharpest, constructively tough and most affordable lens in the Nikon line. (Please note: I am referring to the non-D version 300mm f/4 ED-IF with front barrel accepting 82mm front filter thread, not the new AF-S Nikon 300mm f/4D ED-IF with 77mm filter size). I think it is ironic that the Tokina 300mm f/4 SD AT-X is less spoken about. As I will discuss in this review, this lens is impressive, both optically and mechanically.
I believe this lens, along with the Tokina 400mm f/5.6 SD AT-X, has already been discontinued. However, it is still available at most camera store. I picked mine up on Ebay from Samy's Camera for $225, back in November 2002. I consider this an incredible bargain compared to its street price around $500.
I have had my share of the Nikon 300mm f/4 ED-IF lens in numerous occasions. In the past year, I have used a number of different samples in various user conditions ranging from a beat-up one to a like-new one. Their optical quality is more or less the same. Taking its excellent optics for granted, I have never tested the lens to its fullest. The results I found from my shooting were more than confirm and justify the praise by those people who have used it. No doubt, the Nikon 300mm f/4 ED-IF is the most solidly built lens with formidable high image resolution. Even with the introduction of its successor (AF-S 300mm f/4D ED-IF), the Nikon 300mm f/4 ED-IF is still a highly sought-after lens in a used market such as Ebay. So why do I look for a different lens instead of holding on to the Nikon 300mm f/4 ED-IF? Well, if I can find a similar focal-length lens that can offer optical quality without the heavy price tag, I would get it. And I seem to have found it in the Tokina 300mm f/4 SD AT-X.
My first reason for getting the Tokina 300mm f/4 SD AT-X was the reasonably cheap price. In fact, it was too cheap that I bought it without a second thought. There are a few other things I initially like about the Tokina, which I will discuss as follows.
COSMETIC COMPARISON: BODY CONSTRUCTION and FEATURES
Cosmetically, the Tokina is comparatively small, particularly in terms of length. It measures 7.4 inches long compared to Nikon at 8.7 inches. It weighs 1140 grams, almost 200 grams lighter than Nikon (1330 grams). Compared to the 82mm front filter thread of Nikon 300mm f/4, the Tokina accepts a 77mm filter. I can use all my existing 77mm filters on this lens. My lens pouch, originally used for my 80-200mm f/2.8, can easily accommodate this lens, but not the Nikon.
In terms of body construction and its cosmetic ruggedness, Tokina is almost as good as Nikon. It possesses most of the features existed on Nikon, such as the built-in lens hood, tripod collar and distance scale window. However, the Tokina does not have the M/A switch on the lens. Its focusing ring rotates at all time during focusing (be it manual or auto). This will somewhat hinder the handling of the lens (in auto focusing mode), because it will restrict a certain way for handholding. Two other features absent on the Tokina are the built-in filter holder and the focus limiter ring (that controls the lens to focus within a certain range of distance). The 77mm front filter thread of Tokina is the reason for the absence of the internal filter holder which makes it accessible to the popular 77mm filters.
The texture of the two lenses looks almost alike. It features a rough armalite finish, which further enhances the high quality appearance. However, the Nikon 300mm f/4 seems more rigid and solid due to its massive size and hefty built. Nonetheless, the Tokina is quite a wonderful lens, and not much inferior to the Nikon in terms of durability and handling. It is built to the highest standard, suitable for professional use or abuse, much more sturdy to be used and appreciated by general photographers.
The tripod collar of the Tokina is small compared to the Nikon, but it provides a tight secure grip and stability as good as the Nikon in terms of body size and weight ratio. It features a 360-degree free rotation. However, the tripod knob is very small and I find it difficult to operate sometimes, especially when wearing gloves. The Nikon is far better, with its large knob almost three times the size of Tokina's.
In spite of the small tripod collar knob and the full-time rotation of focusing ring, the Tokina is quite a well-constructed lens. It consists of two SD (Super-low Dispersion) optical elementstwo large ones at the front of the optical assembly. It also features a unique Internal Rear Focusing (IRF) system for fast auto focusing. Yes, this lens focuses quite fast for a lens its speed. The lens also incorporates a D technology that relays distance information for a 3D matrix metering system on a Nikon camera body with this technology. Needless to mention, the Nikon 300mm f/4 ED-IF is a non D-type lens and it therefore cannot factor in the distance information for a 3D matrix metering system.
TEST COMPARISON: NIKON 300mm f/4 ED-IF and TOKINA 300mm f/4 SD AT-X
I have conducted a few simple tests on these two lenses to see how a less known Tokina 300mm f/4 SD AT-X stands up to the highly praised and respected Nikon 300mm f/4 ED-IF. With the lens being a fixed focal length, it doesn't cost much or require a lot of time to perform such tests; and it is quite simple. There are basically four things I look for in the test: 1) light fall-off, 2) sharpness relative to aperture, 3) sharpness relative to distance and 4) its sharpness with my 1.4x tele-converter (which I know I will use quite often on this lens).
For sharpness relative to aperture and distance, I tape a 16x20-inch advertising ad, consisting of texts with various size, flat on the wall. I place the lens at the middle of its focusing range (at about 15 feet) and photograph a sequence of aperture from f/4-f/22. Then I move the lens closer to its minimum focusing range and photograph another round of aperture sequence. In both testing, the lens is securely mounted on my tripod and the camera is fired via a cable release and a mirror lock-up to help prevent or reduce any vibration that may inadvertently affect the sharpness of the photograph. For a test on light fall-off, I photograph both lenses at f/4, f/5.6 and f/8. The whole testing sequence for both lenses requires less than one 36-exposure roll of film.
1) Light fall-off on the Tokina at f/4 was visible, particularly at the corners. Tiny effect of underexposure at the corner compared to the center. Stopping down to f/5.6 it disappears almost completely.
Nikon 300mm f/4 ED-IF has good control of light fall-off. At f/4, it is slightly visible and almost gone by f/5.6. I judge light fall-off in both lenses to be comparable.
2) Usually a lens performs at its best with the aperture near the middle of its range. Nevertheless, I still want to know what and where its weaknesses are so I can apply them in the field decisively. At f/4, the Tokina is quite good, only with slight softness on the edges and with uneven exposure due to light fall-off. At f/5.6, image resolution improves dramatically, and gets very sharp at f/8 throughout its film plane. It stays sharp at f/11 and f/16, even at f/22. I think this lens yields the sharpest image and excellent contrast at f/11 and f/16, but Im quite certain it produces images just as sharp and contrasty at f/5.6 and f/8, especially f/8; it is very difficult to tell. I purposely omitted testing it at f/32, for a reason that I dont really see I will shoot the lens at this aperture. For portraiture and for low light photography, I am not afraid to shoot this lens at f/4. For optimum sharpness, the lens should be used either at f/8, f/11 or f/16.
Nikon 300mm f/4 ED-IF is sharp at f/4 with slight softness at the corners, but quite good. It immediately gets very sharp at f/5.6, and stays sharp all the way to f/16, even at f/22 with just a tad decline. Nikon may display a sharper image at wide open; it is very difficult to tell with my Schneider 8x loupe, even with a side-by-side slide comparison of the same subject. Nikon also seems to produce sharpest images at f/8 and f/11. Based on my test comparison, Tokina is very close to Nikon in terms of optical performance. If Nikon is sharper, it is not by much and is very difficult to judge.
3) I realized that sharpness relative to distance is almost irrelevant in this lens, because I did not find any noticeable variations. I plan on using this lens with an extension tube to focus closer for some close-up shots. My tests showed that the lens is equally sharp at minimum focusing distance as well as at the middle and infinity range.
I have used Nikon 300mm f/4 ED-IF a number of times with an extension tube to focus closer. This lens performs extremely well. However, in terms of close focusing, Tokina has a slight advantage over Nikon; it can focus closer than Nikon by 0.5 meters. In other words, Nikon 300mms minimum focusing distance is 2.5 meters, while Tokina is 2 meters. Therefore, on extension tubes, Tokina can offer quite a greater advantage.
4) With a 1.4x tele-converter, the Tokina 300mm f/4 becomes 420mm f/5.6. At the effective f/5.6, the image is quite good, indistinguishable from its resolution without the tele-converter. Light fall-off is almost non-visible. With the 1.4x tele-converter, the Tokina is just as sharp throughout its aperture range, particularly at the effective f/8, f/11 and f/16.
I have made enlargements from slides up to 8x12-inch prints with excellent details and sharpness. I have not made enlargements larger than this size, but I am quite confident that the optics of this lens will not let me down.
OPTICAL QUALITY: COLOR and CONTRAST
I have shot with this lens in the field for a number of months before deciding to finally conduct a formal test I reported above. In terms of color and contrast, this lens is outstanding. It produces a non-bias color; in other words, great and neutral color. A side-by-side comparison (with the very same subject taken by both lenses) indicates that both lenses produce identical color on my Fujichrome Velvia slide. Great contrast is maintained throughout its aperture range and at all distances I have shot with this lens.
Optical distortion is very well corrected. My test does not show anything to suggest such a flaw. In fact, I cannot see any pincushion distortion at all. Therefore, this lens is well corrected optically.
Flare is very well controlled with its long lens hood. If bright object such as the sun is near the frame, the lens can easily produce flare. But that also depends on the shooting angle. I have photographed icebergs at sunset, with the sun just above the frame but not in the frame, and I could see traces of flare from the top to bottom of the frame. Ghosting is very well controlled; for instance, there is no indication of ghosting image of aperture opening when photographing with the sun or bright object in the frame.
PERFORMANCE in the FIELD: HANDLING and BALANCE
I almost always photograph with this lens securely mounted on my tripod; and it balances quite well. Overall, the lens performs exceptionally well in the field. Its well-designed telescopic lens hood is very useful. In fact the lens looks nicer with its hood extended, making the lens look much longer and more appealing, yielding a nicer balance with a bigger camera body such as Nikon F5. The golden ring at the base of the hood adds a certain appeal to it, too, suggesting that it is a well-made lens. The hood can slide in and out firmly and very nicely.
The lens also balances quite well for shooting handheld. Its compact design (for a lens in its class) makes shooting handheld a pleasure, and well balanced with most camera body. The tripod mount is small enough to act as a base for support. It can be rotated out of the way if needed. I only have a complaint concerning the full-time rotation of its focusing ring. It may require some practice to handhold the lens in a certain way so that the hand or finger does not retard the focusing ring. Although, not a serious problem, it takes a bit to get used to. (Nikon certainly handles better in this regard.) The focusing ring is smooth in operation and with good damping to yield excellent manual focusing. I did not detect any focus creep in any shooting condition.
Its autofocus response may depend on the camera body being used. In general, it is quite fast and noticeably quiet. I have tested its AF response on two different camera bodies, and its focusing ability varies somewhat. As a comparison, I am tempted to say this lens focuses almost as fast (or responsive) as my Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8. It appears that the movable optical elements do not have to travel that far to achieve its focus, a benefit from its Internal Rear Focusing technology compared to my 80-200mm f/2.8s front focusing design.
I have tested autofocus response of the two lenses (Nikon 300mm f/4 ED-IF and Tokina) on Nikon F5, by setting the lens at infinity and then have it focus on a bright subject at about 12 feet. I have done this several times, and each time it seems that the Tokina has a faster AF response. It is not by much, but I can certainly tell that tiny difference. Not that it really matters or makes any difference, since I mostly shoot this lens in manual mode, but its good to know that Tokina 300mm f/4 SD AT-X cannot be under-estimated.
In terms of durability, I am quite certain this lens is built to last. I had the lens (its barrel) bumped onto my tripod head and legs a number of times during my shooting in the field; no scars as a result of this. This lens is built to withstand rough handling.
I have been longing to get the new Nikon AF-S 300mm f/4D ED-IF (77mm) for over a year now. With a street price of about $1100, I had scratched my head a number of times. The reason I wanted it was because of all the nice features, such as its Silent Wave Motor technology, its 77mm front filter size, a removable tripod collar, even the D technology. It was the price that held me back. I seem to make such a big deal about the 77mm filter size, although 82mm is not that much larger. I personally prefer this size because virtually all my lenses (at least the ones I regularly use) accept the 77mm filter. It certainly saves a lot of cash (without the need to get a new set of filters), not to mention less equipment to carry in my camera bag.
Now that I own the Tokina 300mm f/4 SD AT-X 304 AF, I am not sure if I will get the Nikon AF-S 300mm f/3D ED-IF. Of course, with the Nikon AF-S, the Tokina has no comparison in terms of fancy features, such as those I mentioned above. But in terms of price, I think it is better off to stick with the Tokina. Furthermore, in terms of optics, I am quite certain I can live with the Tokina 300mm f/4 SD AT-X. If I can save enough money, I will get the AF-S 300mm f/2.8 instead, and still use the Tokina 300mm f/4 SD AT-X when space and weight are the major concern.
I gave an overall rating of 5 stars particularly for its optical performance, compact design, a solid built and a reasonably cheap price. Although I have two complaintsits focusing ring and small tripod knob, I am quite certain that its optical and mechanical performance will out-shine these two minor drawbacks. If you mostly shoot this lens handheld, then the small tripod knob will not pose any inconvenience. The fact is that I have been using it for six months already, and right now it has become a regular lens in my bag, which proves that I am very satisfied with its overall performance.
The 300mm focal-length lens with a maximum aperture of f/4, in general, is quite appealing, especially if we consider its affordability, size and weight, and optical quality. The 300mm focal length is readily available in most zoom lenses, such as 70-300mm or 75-300mm. However, the one that comes with the zoom normally has a maximum aperture of f/5.6, for example Nikon 70-300mm f/4-5.6, and is considered slow. Another good reason the 300mm f/4 seems an excellent choice is that it is much lighter and far cheaper than the 300mm f/2.8 that has only one stop faster. That is the reason why I think the 300mm f/4 is the best choice. It provides a brighter viewfinder compared to the 300mm f/5.6. Moreover, it is not outrageously expensive. For example, the Nikon 300mm f/2.8D ED-IF AFS can cost over $3000, while the 300mm f/4D ED-IF AFS is about $1100. It seems that you pay this much just to get one stop faster in aperture. The Tokina 300mm f/4 SD AT-X is a clear example of this analogy, since it is much cheaper than even the Nikon 300mm f/4.
I highly recommend this lens to anyone looking for a lens with outstanding optical performance at a very attractive price. It is good to know that its reasonably cheap price has no compromise in optical quality. For me, thats the major difference and the only thing that matters. It is generally impossible to find such a combinationexcellent optics at a great price. But with the Tokina 300mm f/4 SD AT-X, this combination is the real thing.
Technical Specifications: Tokina 300mm f/4 SD AT-X 304AF (IRF)
Mount: Canon, Minolta, Nikon (D)
Aperture Range: f/4-f/32
Optical Construction (Elements/Groups): 9/7 (2 SD glass elements)
Number of Blades: 9
Focusing Type: Internal Rear
Angle of View: 8 1/5 degrees
Lens Hood: Built-in
Closest Focusing Distance: 2 meters
Filter Size: 77mm
Dimension (diameter): 84 mm
Dimension (length): 187 mm
Weight: 1140 grams
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