Sunday, 3 July 2016

Tokina 100-300mm f/4 AT-X

We call it flooding; the river calls it freedom. Seventy-five percent of the Earth's surface is covered in water, and from outer space the planet appears blue because the greens and yellows and browns of the land are overwhelmed by the blue of the sea. On an objective level Earth is a water planet with some landmasses. The affairs of man are inconsequential compared to the affairs of fish, because it is their world, not ours. The ocean itself is alive, and has a mind. It is engaged in a constant struggle to obliterate the land. Torrential rains and flooding are the ocean's attacks against soil and rock.

Little does the ocean know that it is doomed. When the sun burns out it will expand, and all the Earth's water will evaporate into space. The dominant substance of the universe is not water, or earth, it is instead hydrogen, the most common element. Hydrogen powers the sun. One day the ocean will learn to split itself into oxygen and hydrogen, and perhaps then it will make peace with the land.

If I was a multimillionaire I would consider opening a fish bar. It would be called Nautical but Nietzsche, and I would only welcome patrons who had rejected conventional morality. Just outside the door would be a doll of a priest that guests would be encouraged to beat with a plastic haddock. The only bands I would book would be Ska bands. There is no meaning in this world, and we are free, and so are fish.

That is why it would be a fish bar and not for example a barbershop or a book store. Today we're going to have a look at the Tokina 100-300mm f/4 AT-X. It's an old manual focus push-pull zoom lens from the 1980s. I decided to try it out at the Yeovilton air show, thus all the images of aeroplanes and stuff in this post.

I put it on the front of a Fuji S5, an ancient six-megapixel SLR with a clever HDR sensor. The S5 is an eccentric choice for an airshow, especially so in 2016. The resolution doesn't lend itself to cropping, and the camera's eight-frame, 1.4fps "burst mode" isn't very good. But the sensor does well with clouds, and I don't have any other Nikon bodies, and why not? Human history is full of wise men who were overruled and ignored by irrational egomaniacs who wanted a golden bicycle, and I intend to make history and have a golden bicycle.

The Sea Vixen had a two-man crew. The pilot sat in the cockpit, the radar man sat undermeath the bulge on the left, where he was safe from seagulls.

Show here on a Pen F, with the Nikon-Pen F adapter from the previous post. I toyed with the idea of taking this to Yeovilton, but the Pen F's vertical framing would be awkward. Also, JCII sticker, aw yiss.

The red ring is a bit embarrassing. Tokina was probably copying the red ring of Canon's FD-era zoom lenses. It was a contemporary of the Canon FD 100-300mm f/5.6L, and perhaps it was designed to one-up that lens - the 100-300mm f/4 is a stop faster. It's about the size of a modern 70-200mm f/4L but has a built-in tripod mount...

...which is adjustable but not removable. It's in the right place balance-wise, although it's much too small to use as a handhold. The push-pull action is awkward because infinity focus isn't quite at the infinity mark, and it suffers from zoom creep. Otherwise it feels very tough. The lens has an internal zoom mechanism, and although mine must be thirty years old it has only a tiny amount of dust. The rear element is fixed in place and perhaps the zoom control filters out dust. Irritatingly the front part rotates when you focus. It takes 77mm filters.

The lens came with a hood that mostly filtered out flare, but not in this case.

What's the performance like? In my experience of old telephoto zooms the best of them were surprisingly sharp, but the colours were washed-out and the last 100mm or so was often very poor. The 100-300mm f/4 is surprisingly good in those two respects. Wide open at 300mm f/4 it's entirely usable. The colours have nothing wrong with them and vignetting is mild. For the following images I stuck it on a full-frame Canon 5D Mk II with an adapter.

The full frame at 300mm f/4, focusing on the gutter, because that is where my mind spends so much of its time. There's a bit of pincushion distortion, but not much, and with a textured backdrop the vignetting is basically undetectable.

Central sharpness is fine - not bitingly sharp, but good enough for 300mm f/4. Highlight edges have purple fringing. At the top the image with no processing, at the bottom some added unsharp mask. Stopping down to f/8 doesn't improve the image to a noticeable degree.

Towards the edge of the frame there's obvious CA and an overall soft glow.

The same image, but with CA correction and sharpening. There's still a soft glow, but at reasonable enlargement sizes you can't tell.

Bear in mind these are 100% crops from a massive 21mp image. For all practical purposes the Tokina 100-300mm f/4 is usable at 300mm f/4. I briefly tested it at 100mm and it was razor-sharp; I'm not going to fill this post with endless shots at different apertures and focal lengths, just trust me that 300mm f/4 is the worst. Bokeh at the minimum focus distance of 2m is a smooth paste. The lens appears to be parfocal, e.g. if you focus at 100mm and then zoom in, it stays in focus. I say "appears to be", because it's difficult to zoom the lens in and out without changing focus slightly.

Does it make sense nowadays? Under optimal conditions the lens performs very well, but life has surface noise. A lens is just one part of a photographic system, which encompasses not only the technology but also the human factor. Throughout my life I have used photography as a means of artistic expression; in the case of artistic photography the human factor is by far the most important element. I have a strong heart, robust guts, muscled legs, firm buttocks, a keen eye, steady hands, and a mind that is complex, well-fed, and endlessly questioning. I stand on the brink of infinity, gazing at the clouds below me. It is this that I try to capture with my photography. The sense of impending oblivion.

Conventional airshow photography, at least on a deliberate level, is all about the photographic system, the combination of lens, camera body, location and timing, of which the lens is just one component. It is also an accidental illustration of transience, futility, and the cold hard grip of the iron laws of thermodynamics, but the same is true of all human endeavour. Car shows, fireworks displays, marriages, they are all doomed to decay. The aeroplanes degrade every time they are flown, and even with meticulous care the metal can only take so much abuse before it fails. Perhaps the machines can be rebuilt, but at some point they become new machines. Each year a generation of photographers visit the show, generating a flood of images that delight the eye for a day and are then forgotten. The state of photographic technology marches on; the slides that wowed Mr and Mrs 1983 are nowadays cute novelties; stills photography itself is a throwback in an age of high-speed 4K footage captures with drones and GoPro remotes. As the saying goes, this year's top fighter prototype is tomorrow's chip paper.

At 300mm the 100-300mm's image quality is fine, but as part of a photographic system it doesn't really work for airshows. It's not long enough, and manually focusing a push-pull zoom while tracking a plane through the sky is difficult. At f/4 it's a stop faster than the typical modern 75-300mm f/4-5.6 plastic zoom at the long end, but plastic zooms tend to have image stabilisation, and furthermore the optical deficiencies of modern zoom lenses are generally easy to correct in Photoshop whereas motion blur is a killer.

The Textron Scorpion is a light attack aircraft that resembles the old Dornier Alpha Jet. It is still under development and might have missed the boat - the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down - but nonetheless it has attracted several sales leads.

As a tribute to naval aviation the poor chaps in the back saluted the crowd.

There was a demonstration of an AH-64 blowing things up. After fifteen years of LiveLeak videos it's hard not to think of thermal images of people blown into bloody chunks.

By all accounts the 200-400mm f/4 TC is a superb lens, although I'm not convinced that it's the best choice for airshows, especially not on a full-frame body. On the positive side it has excellent autofocus and image stabilisation, the problem is range. The nature of airshow manoeuvres is such that when the aircraft are closest to the stands, they're turning away, so you need to capture them on the far end of their loops. A 600mm f/4, a 300mm f/2.8 with a 2x converter, or a 400mm f/2.8 with a 2x converter mounted on a 7D all have superior range.
The counter-argument is that you lose the ability to photograph planes that get too close - but they never get too close!

And that was Yeovilton. Last year I took along an infrared camera and photographed the last Vulcan; it no longer flies, so the roster this year was relatively mundane. The Royal International Air Tattoo will have an F-35, which has just flown across the Atlantic. This of course means that we can fly it back across the Atlantic and bomb New York if we want - stealthily. With precision munitions and the F-35, the UK now has the ability to kill any individual walking around in the open in New York and nobody need ever know.

Random observations: it was sunny, and then it rained, and despite getting damp the 100-300mm f/4 didn't break. I know very little about the lens, or for that matter Tokina. Judging by the adverts in Popular Photo it was launched after 1982 and replaced before 1992 by an autofocus version, which was in turn replaced by a second version that is now discontinued. Tokina no longer sells a telephoto zoom. The company still exists but gives the impression it is on its last legs.

Whilst taking pictures I was surrounded by people with weather-sealed lenses, using weather-sealed camera bodies; the moment it started to rain they rushed to put their lenses away and get under cover. There's an old saying that two is company, three is a crowd, but in reality three is a trio, and after the introduction of the Public Order Act of 1986 - which abolished the crime of unlawful assembly - a crowd (at least in the context of riots) is a gathering of twelve or more people. Three people is not a crowd. This has nothing to do with air shows or photography, I just wanted to get it off my chest. The rooster was mundane.