Thursday, 25 August 2011

Tokina 20-35mm: Circle Like a Girl

Across Lake Como
from the castle above Varenna
in the vale of Iserath, beyond the portal of Shimeril

Today we're going to have a right old goosey gander at an old wide angle zoom lens from the autofocus film era, the Tokina 20-35mm f/3.5-4.5. Mine was made for the Canon EOS mount, although Tokina sold versions for Nikon and probably Pentax and Minolta as well. I've been using it with a Canon 5D MkII, a full-frame digital SLR, motion to picture on the right (point). Incidentally I'm sorry for coming over all Cockney back there, with the goosey-gander nonsense. "Have a look" would have been enough. But I don't want enough. Enough is for professionals, I'm better than that.

On an APS-C camera it's a silly thing, a slow not-quite-wide nothing, but on a full-frame SLR it's the kind of versatile lens that you could leave on the camera all the time. 20mm is very wide, although no longer ultrawide nowadays; 35mm is a kind of universal focal length, although it's a shame it isn't faster than f/4.5.

Ultra-Wide Zooms
20-35mm zooms were a late-80s, early-to-mid-1990s thing, a novelty that has since been surpassed by ever-wider designs. Until the mid 1980s the widest zooms started at 24mm or thereabouts - Nikon's top ultrawide lens in the very early 1980s was a hefty 25-50mm f/4, for example, which has a cult nowadays and is quite sought-after. The only 20mm lenses were primes, but Canon changed all that with the 20-35mm f/3.5L of the mid-80s, which was one of the earliest red-banded L lenses. When the company introduced its EOS autofocus system in 1987 they also introduced a 20-35mm f/2.8L ultrawide autofocus lens, which was followed a few years later by a consumer-orientated 20-35mm f/3.5-4.5. Sadly neither of these lenses have left much trace on the internet.

The Bridge of Sighs, Venice, September 2011
See also this post, which has shots from October 2010 and September 2009

The 20-35mm f/2.8L is nowadays an interesting alternative choice for modern full-frame digital SLR owners, although the few samples I can find - [1] [2] - suggest that it was shockingly poor in the corners, although to be fair the first example is so awful that it might be a bad sample of the lens, or a mislabeled photo. This image, shot with film, is a lot better, although with film there's no way to know how much of the edges of the image have been cropped off. A chap on also subjected it to a test with a film camera here - the results are rubbish at f/2.8, better but not brilliant stopped right down. The subsequent discussion thread is full of stereotypically awful photo snobs, all men, who are hopefully all dead by now. Here are three shots I took with a Zenitar 16mm fisheye lens on a Canon 5D, and then defished with PTLens:

Absolutely irrelevant to the current topic, but they look nice. I explored the topic in greater detail way back in 2009, at a time when this blog was transitioning from a format that had masses of text and the occasional illustration to one which has slightly less text and more illustrations.

The consumer-level Canon 20-35mm f/3.5-4.5 had a reputation for being overpriced at the time, optically not quite as good as the Tokina 20-35mm. It never seemed to excite people. Whereas the 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 had a second wind when APS-C digital SLRs started to take off - it was the unofficial "kit lens" for the D30, D60, and 10D - the 20-35mm was born to obscurity and remained obscure. It was discontinued a few years ago.

A fountain above Varenna, Italy
I knew the water was safe because flowers had fallen in it
Flowers don't fall into poison
They are drawn to beauty

By the early 1990s the competition had more or less caught up with Canon, and so had the third-party manufacturers. I've written about Cosina's ultra-cheap 19-35mm before, and it was better than I expected, although physically flimsy. The company sold the design to numerous marketing firms who slapped their own names onto it, and it pops up on eBay as a Vivitar quite commonly.

Tamron sold a 20-40mm f/2.7-3.5, Tokina sold a 19-35mm which apparently wasn't the same as Cosina's 19-35mm, although it might have been, and Sigma had a 21-35mm design. Good luck finding anything about them nowadays. Pentax made a 20-40mm f/4, which could in theory be used on a Canon camera with an adapter; it would be a bit pointless on modern Pentax bodies, as it seems unlikely that whatever remains of Pentax will ever launch a 35mm-format digital SLR.

That broken bit of wood (or one very much like it) sticking up out of the water is famous, e.g. this review of the Nikon 8400 from 2005, this blog post from 2007. There are only so many places to stand if you want to photograph the bridge from this angle, and that bit of wood is in the way. Aliens from space watch us, and wonder why people take so many photographs of that broken bit of wood; imagine if they decided to declutter the background by removing the bridge.

Also, it's a good example of a photo that would be ten times better if the camera was about five feet higher and fifteen feet to the left, so that the bit of wood slotted neatly in the empty space at the bottom right of the image. Shame I didn't have a little helicopter.

Another part of Monza's park
Monza, Italy

Still, as the 1990s wore on, the 20-35mm range fell out of use. Not wide enough. Nikon arrived quite late to the party, launching their own 20-35mm in 1993. Canon then pushed wider with a 17-35mm f/2.8, although at this point the company seemed to be emphasising a "one wider" philosophy over optical performance, and the few tests and samples I can find are unexciting. The lens coincided with the early days of the internet's digital SLR review infrastracture; it appears, for example, in the sample gallery of DPReview's review of the original Canon 1Ds. This shot, taken at f/4, isn't very impressive in the corners. Corner performance is something Canon never really got with wide angle lenses. Yes, two of the corners are usually sky, and corners are corners, tucked away in the... in the corner, because that's what they are, but, dammit. If I have a full-frame camera, which I do, I want good corner performance. It's the hallmark of a good lens. What if I do want to make big prints? Mr Do?

Incidentally I seem to have photographed the exact same traveling photo exhibition that appears in DPReview's sample shot, but several years later, whilst checking out my old Kodak DCS 460 (the Twin Towers are on the other side of the nearest board). The photos in that exhibition seem to have been shot with a Canon 16-35mm, so I was photographing photographs taken with an ultrawide lens with an ultrawide lens, swirling black hole of unreason.

EDIT: In fact, it's the Earth from the Air exhibition, which was mostly shot in the early 1990s with a Canon EOS 1n film camera - using ISO 50 film, from a moving platform - so presumably at least some of the images were shot with a 20-35mm f/2.8. Which is a spooky bit of synchronicity. The shot of Pripyat / Pripet here has the same kind of rubbish corners seen in the links above, blurry with tonnes of CA. All throughout the book there are wonderful photographs that have rubbish corners. I guess the lesson is that a wonderful photograph trumps corner quality every time, albeit that there's nothing wrong with having both. And that a helicopter is a great way to get a wonderful photograph. That and a tonne of cash.

Canon replaced the 17-35mm with a 16-35mm f/2.8, which was apparently better, and a 16-35mm f/2.8 MkII, which was apparently better still. In the meantime Nikon launched a highly-regarded 17-35mm f/2.8 in 1999, to accompany the Nikon D1 digital SLR, and it's still Nikon's standard ultrawide full-frame lens even today, twelve years later. In 2007 the company launched a 14-24mm f/2.8, which received glowing reviews, and is so good that several professional photographers use it on Canon bodies with an adapter ring, as a manual focus lens.

In the world of third-party lenses, the old full-frame ultrawide zoom has died off a bit, as manufacturers concentrate on APS-C and Micro Four Thirds cameras. Back in the early 2000s Sigma sold a headline-grabbingly-wide 15-30mm, which was in part aimed at digital SLR owners, and nowadays they sell a 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6, which remains the widest full-frame autofocus zoom ever made. Tokina has a 16-28mm f/2.8 which is apparently very good, although I surmise it has sold in tiny quantities and I can't imagine the company ever replacing it.

Zeiss sells a 16-35mm f/2.8 for the Sony full-frame system, although perhaps not for much longer given that Sony's full-frame system has been a bit of a damp squib. Zeiss briefly sold a 17-35mm f/2.8 for the Contax N Digital full-frame system, which also died a death. Both lenses are or were apparently very good. I bet it riles the men of Zeiss that their wonderful lenses don't have a wider audience. They are born of hard work and great mental effort; born to die.

But to the matter at hand. There were two versions of Tokina's 20-35mm f/3.5-4.5. The original one, which is the one I'm writing about, has an orange ring around the front. That was Tokina's contemporary livery back in the days of Limp Bizkit and A Bit of Fry & Laurie. I always felt sorry for Hugh Laurie. Ignore the foppishness; he was a handsome, or at least presentable man. And he could play the piano. Women like that. But what talent did he have otherwise? Doomed eternally to play uptight straight man to the brilliantly witty Stephen Fry. Other straight men thrived; Griff Rhys Jones made a tonne of cash from his production company, Norman Pace went on to do theatre work, but what about poor old Hugh?

You know, it's not often that I think of Hale & Pace. My mind has tried to blank out that period. Gazza. Enigma, you remember, with the shak-u-hachi... and the KLF, they were wicked, State of the Art, the Amiga demo... Second Reality, that was the biggie. Red Dwarf, back when it was funny. Dr Who, when it was a sad pathetic cancelled failure. The Nine O'Clock News, when it had a CGI intro that flew into Big Ben. Damn, the 1990s. I must stop digressing from the topic.

No, hang on, it was the News at Ten that had the CGI. See. It was a bit edgier, a bit slicker, because it was on ITV. Mid-way through Aliens. Which had the swearing dubbed out.

Tokina also sold a 28-80mm f/2.8 with an orange ring, and a similar physical design, and a 24-40mm f/2.8, presumably as a professional counterpart to the 20-35mm, although they were built to the same pretty decent standard. Later in the 1990s Tokina rationalised their range and launched a MkII version of the 20-35mm, plus an f/2.8 equivalent, both of which were well-made and very grey, like battleships, or an expensive grey suit, or a finely-detailed model of an elephant.

The MkI 20-35mm has a distance scale window, which I never look at. The lens is made out of metal to a generally good standard, although it doesn't feel rock-solid, and has a bit of wobble. The front part rotates as it focuses, which is problematic if you use a polarising filter or one of those Cokin-style filter mounts. There's a simple switch to turn the autofocus off, not one of those silly clutch things.

By a twist of fate I actually ended up with two of these lenses, a Canon EOS version and a Nikon F example that was dirt cheap; the Nikon version is lighter, because it doesn't have a built-in autofocus motor, and it's slightly smaller as well:

Nikon version on the left there. It has a conventional aperture ring that, in typical Nikon fashion, has to be set at the smallest value in order for the lens to work in the automatic exposure modes. The EOS version has a M/AF switch, the Nikon version doesn't, because autofocus is turned on and off with a switch on the camera. It's an odd, non-standard world, the Nikon world. They do things differently over there. As you can see from looking at the distance scale, the two lenses focus in different directions; this is another thing that differentiates Canon and Nikon, and it was nice of Tokina to build two versions of the lens.

The EOS version focuses and works properly on my 5D MkII, despite predating Canon's current range by fifteen years or more, so obviously Tokina either reverse engineered Canon's autofocus system to a higher standard than Sigma, or they coughed up for some insider info. The one exception is Live View focusing, which sometimes confirms autofocus despite being way out. I can forgive this. Live View was science fiction in the early 1990s. The Nikon version works like a charm on both my D1 and my S3 and focuses very quickly.

72mm filter thread. Internet legend has it that the MkII version is optically superior, but this may or may not be nonsense, as according to this chap the optical elements are the same. But then again perhaps the newer versions are made to a higher standard, or are on average less bashed about. I mention this because my Canon copy is noticeably fuzzier in the left side of the image than the right, presumably due to decentering, whereby one or more of the glass elements inside the lens is slightly out of alignment. Here's the full frame, 20mm, f/8, shot with a Canon 5D MkII, Canon copy at the top and Nikon copy at the bottom:

And here's the left edge, Canon at the top again, Nikon at the bottom:
In contrast the Canon lens is slightly sharper on the opposite, right edge of the image. As such you'll have to take the following test with a pinch of salt, given that I decided to look at the top-left corner. What was I thinking? Imagine this as a kind of worst-case scenario. The lens is cheap enough on eBay that you could buy several copies, evaluate them, and auction the bad ones off. But don't mention this article, otherwise people will think that you're selling a lemon. Instead of a lens. Try putting a lemon on the front of your camera; won't fit.

For the test I went off to romantic Bermondsey, on a typical summer's day in England. I can confirm that the linked clip is an accurate portrayal of Bermondsey. Here's the full frame, 20mm, f3.5 at the top and f/8 at the bottom:

Lots of vignetting there. Never really goes away, although it's harder to spot at f/11. A long time ago this used to be a functioning port, and an awful dump; now it's exclusively luxury flats for wealthy Patrick Bateman types and their parasite infrastructure. Here's the centre, f/3.5, f/8, and f/11 in that order, 100% crops, without sharpening or noise reduction or CA correction, ISO 200, highlight tone priority on, Canon 5D MkII:

The Gherkin and the moiré buildings there. It's extremely sharp in the middle wide open at 20mm, with just a tiny tiny bit of fuzz, and ascends to brilliance stopped down. So sharp it almost has a tactile quality. No problems there.

Top-left corner, same apertures:

Awful at f/3.5, improves to badness at f/8, doesn't get much better at f/11, but this is a wonky sample. For fairness here's the bottom-right corner, same apertures:

That's a lot more like it, although harder to interpret because there are fewer straight edges. I surmise that a golden copy of the lens would be very good indeed. It tends to get better across the frame when zoomed in, although the faint fuzz in the 20mm f/3.5 crop is magnified. Here's the middle at 28mm, f/3.5, which is still very sharp:

I'm not going to post the f/8 and f/11 samples because they're much the same, perhaps fractionally sharper, and without the slight purple glow. Here's the top-left corner, 28mm, f/3,5, f/8, f/11, again a 100% crop with no correction, noise reduction at all:

A lot better, but still not up to the standard of a good prime, e.g. the old Nikon 28mm f/2.8 AIS that Marco Cavina has a look at here. But then again it's not a prime, it's a zoom, an autofocus zoom. Different beast entirely.

Big segemented head there. Absolutely screams the 80s. It's been there for donkey's years, and they still haven't finished unpacking it properly. Perhaps they ran out of money. Which would be another thing that screams the 80s. Having money, and then running out of it. Here's a clip of Clive Owen in Chancer -> clip.

As a slow ultrawide lens it doesn't really do background blur, although here's a little bit, shot at 35mm f/4.5 on an APS-C Nikon D1, for a forthcoming blog post about same (edit: voila, four months later):

On an APS-C camera it becomes a 30-50mm, roughly, which is the kind of range that died out in the 1980s. It's usable, but there are wider, longer, faster choices with image stabilisation. Perhaps because of this the lens sells quite cheaply on eBay, also perhaps because people confuse it with the el cheapo Cosina 19-35mm. I wonder if Tokina's contemporary 28-80mm f/2.8 was any good?

Still, shame about the decentering. In summary, it's awesomely sharp in the middle, and would be good stopped down to f/5.6 across the range on an APS-C camera, albeit that the range is odd (a bit like the Canon 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 I wrote about a while back), and on a full-frame camera it's decent stopped down if you have a good copy, and roughly one-eighth the price of a 16-35mm f/2.8 or 17-35mm f/2.8. The rest is silence.