Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Tokina 11-16: Ultrawide for Low Light Portraits

In this post, we review the Tokina 11-16 f/2.8, a crop-sensor lens with a fast constant aperture and a reputation for sharpness.  Is it worth the extra cost?  Hit the jump for our review and samples.

EDIT: Added comments re chromatic aberration, ghosting and flare.

Just a couple of months ago, I got an ultrawide lens, the Sigma 10-20 f/4.0-5.6 (reviewed here).  I unexpectedly found it very useful for people photos, not just for shots of locations.  The one thing about the Sigma 10-20 that I was not completely satisfied with was the aperture.  It was a slow lens.  For locations and inanimate subjects, it was perfectly fine.  When there was plenty of light or when I was using flash, it was also excellent.  However, for available light photos of people in indoor or dim light, the aperture was a little too slow.  Subjects would appear blurred, not so much from the camera movement, but the movement of the subjects themselves.

Sigma 10-20: noticeable blur from subjects' movement due to the narrow aperture.  f/4.5, 1/10, 1600 ISO.
After shooting with the Sigma for a while, I began to consider upgrading to the Tokina 11-16.  First, the Tokina has a constant 2.8 aperture.  I would be able to shoot at double the shutter speed compared with the Sigma.  Alternatively, it would be like having one extra stop of ISO.  Second, reviews of the Tokina say that it is a very sharp lens.  The Sigma was quite sharp for me, but hey, an even sharper lens would be great.  Finally, the Tokina has a trick that the Sigma doesn't have: even though the Tokina is a crop sensor lens (like the Sigma) the Tokina can actually be used on a full frame camera (with limits).  So I sold the Sigma that I loved so much and got the Tokina 11-16.

The Tokina 11-16 is Tokina's second ultrawide lens for crop sensor cameras, and it looks virtually identical to its older sibling, the Tokina 12-24 f/4 (which is also a well regarded ultrawide). 

The Tokina 11-16 is part of Tokina's AT-X PRO series, which is Tokina's line of professional grade crop-sensor lenses.  It's made of plastic and it feels rather light but solidly-built.  The Tokina features a Focus Clutch Mechanism which allows you to easily switch from autofocus to manual and back merely by pulling or pushing the focusing ring.  When pulled back, the focus ring disengages the focus mechanism from the camera's focusing motor, allowing the user to set the focus manually.  Pushing it in re-engages the focus mechanism.

Tokina 11-16 on Fuji S5. f/8, 1/500, ISO 200
I first tried the Tokina outdoors.  Not surprisingly the Tokina had stellar performance under these conditions.

Even when used wide open, the Tokina 11-16 has corner-to-corner sharpness.  These shots are all at f/2.8:

Note: vignetting was added in post-processing

However, the primary reason for my upgrade was to be able to use it for people photos in dim light, especially when I can't use a high ISO.  Well, I got to use it under exactly those kinds of conditions.  Specifically, I had used it with a Nikon D70, not exactly a low-light performer (it maxes out at 1600 ISO).  Here's a shot:

Tokina 11-16 on Nikon D70.  f/2.8, 1/80, ISO 1600.  Ambient light only.
Part of what made this shot possible is that the Tokina is sharp even at f/2.8.  However, perhaps an even more important factor here was that at f/2.8 I was able to get a shutter speed of 1/80 (at 1600 ISO), which helped me get a sharp shot even with the dim light.  Exactly what I wanted.

But wait - there's more!


As I mentioned before, the Tokina 11-16 can be used on a full-frame camera.  The widest focal length available on full frame depends on your tolerance for vignetting and the intended frame ratio.

At 14mm, there is heavy vignetting in the corners.  However, if your frame ratio is 1:1 (square) or close to it, 14mm may be usable.
14mm on full frame
Similarly, 15mm may be usable with a frame ratio of 4:5 or possibly even 5:7.
15mm on full frame
At 16mm, there is still some vignetting at the corners, but in my opinion, the entire frame is usable. 16mm might not sound super wide, but remember that that's the actual 35mm focal length, i.e., it's equivalent to a 10.67mm APS-C lens.
16mm on full frame
The fact that the Tokina 11-16 can be used on a full frame is very useful because I can take advantage of the full frame high ISO capability AND the fast f/2.8 aperture to get shots in marginal lighting conditions.  Case in point: Disney's Small World.  It's quite dark inside and to make it even more challenging, you're on a little boat that is always moving.  Let's see what shots we can get here.

Yes, it is possible to get sharp portraits under these conditions:

True, I had attempted shots at small world before, using the Sigma 10-20.  But there are a couple of big differences.  First, I was able to use a wider aperture of f/2.8 instead of f/4.  Secondly, I was able to use the entire full frame sensor, instead of just an APS-C crop.  Using a crop means that the noise will be magnified, effectively diminishing the high ISO potential.

With the Sigma 10-20, noise is much more visible because of the APS-C crop, and the slower shutter speed results in more noticeable blur
The Tokina 11-16 is supposedly very vulnerable to ghosting and flare.  Among the shots I've taken, I have yet to see one where there is flare that noticeably reduces the contrast across the frame.  By contrast (excuse the pun), I have several examples of flare with the Sigma 10-20.  As for ghosting, I also haven't seen much of it from the Tokina 11-16.  Again, I recall seeing more examples of ghosting from the Sigma 10-20.  For what it's worth, please check out the new post testing filters for protecting lenses.  You'll see examples of ghosting from this lens as well as another lens, the Nikkor 24-70 2.8G.  Considering that the 24-70 2.8G has a Nano Crystal Coating that is supposed to reduce ghosting and flare, and considering that the Tokina was tested at a much wider angle (16mm equivalent vs. 24mm), I believe the Tokina 11-16 had reasonably controlled ghosting.
The Tokina 11-16 does have a vulnerability to chromatic aberration and purple fringing.  However, Lightroom 4.1 has a couple of tools to reduce chromatic aberration and purple/green fringing.  Check out our post on Lightroom's Defringe tool.  The lens I used there was the Tokina 10-17 Fisheye, but the 11-16 has similar amounts of purple fringing.  You'll see how well Lightroom controls those fringing issues.  Personally, I'm not really bothered by purple fringing and now that LR has those defringing tools, I'm even less concerned about them.  Just my opinion.

Here are my thoughts on the Tokina in comparison with the Sigma and similar ultrawides:
  • In terms of sharpness, in my opinion I think both the Sigma 10-20 and Tokina 11-16 are sharp.  I would probably not upgrade to the Tokina 11-16 merely for sharpness per se.
  • If you use an ultrawide to take a lot of people shots (or shots of moving subjects) in low light, the extra stop makes it more likely that the shutter speed will be high enough to keep the shots of the subjects sharp.
  • The Tokina 11-16 can be used on a full frame camera, so if you have one, the Tokina is even more useful in low light.
  • The Tokina is not as long as the Sigma 10-20, but I almost always use the Sigma at 10mm and the Tokina at 11mm anyway, so that's not a big deal.
  • The one thing I would have wished for on the Tokina 11-16 is a built-in autofocus motor.  I believe an ultrawide is much more usable when you have a camera with a swing out LCD to allow you to take shots from unusual angles.  Unfortunately, the only Nikon cameras with swing out LCDs (D5000, D5100) or remote live view (D3200) don't have autofocus motors, so the Tokina 11-16 can't autofocus on those bodies.  (Canon users have no such issues.)  The new version of this lens is now available (see here) and costs just $40 more than the first version.
Here are some more samples from the Tokina 11-16 from a recent trip to Las Vegas.

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