In Praise of the Tokina Wide Zoom

It’s hard to find a title for this article. It’s also not immediately obvious why this lens should have risen above its peers. Historically there’s been a distinct pecking order for lens reputation: in first place, any third party lens made by Leica and Zeiss; in second place, native glass – first Canon, then Nikon; in third place, the others: but mainly Sigma Art. The best lenses made by Samyang (XP), Tamron (SP) and Tokina (ATX) occasionally bubble up to challenge the natives: honourable mentions must here be made for the invention of the 35-150/2-2.8 ‘genre’; Samyang’s 135/2 and 85/1.2, Tamron’s SP 35/1.4 DI, and the lengenday ‘Bokina’ macros. But more prosaically, Tokina’s not-too-expensive ultrawide APS zooms have consistently bettered their Tamron, Canon and Nikon peers.

By ‘better’, we mean having a fixed f2.8 aperture, and sharp with it. They have very low innate distortion in an era when the norm is to ship with wonky geometry and a correction profile. They have larger image circles than required. And they aren’t blighted with significant aberration or flare issues. They quietly found a niche as workhorses for stills and video shooters on many more platforms than they were intended for.

Over the years Tokina refreshed the design package, but never really evolved it significantly: the latest version still has an MF/AF clutch that is only differently clunky to the original. Compared to the first iteration, the latest ATX-i makes an equally loud, but timbrally different kind of sawtooth buzzing noise when it autofocuses. These are admitted downsides, but for many not deal-breakers.

What to call it then? Once there was just the 11-16mm f2.8 ATX. It was replaced by the barely different 11-16mm f2.8 ATX II. In turn, this diverged into the mirrorless-compatible 11-18mm f2.8 and the still-for-APS-DSLR 11-20mm ATX-i. 

Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 ATX

Useable at f2.8, very sharp from f5.6-11 across an APS-C frame. Sneakily useable on full-frame at 16mm, and slightly wider with the hood removed. Moderately strong CA in Zone C (outside APS-C and in its corners). Excellent geometric distortion control – perfect at 12-14mm; moderate barrel at 11mm, tending to fractional pincushion at 16mm. Some flare/ghosting issues.

Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 ATX II

Refreshed version with identical optics, slightly less noisy autofocus and improve coatings for reduced flare.

Tokina 11-20mm ATX

Better coatings again, and slightly sharper throughout. Sweet spot of minimal distortion now 12-18mm. Better CA control than 11-16mm. Flare resistance still not exemplary, but improved. Focus breathing improved.

Tokina 11-20mm ATX-i

Optically identical to its immediate predecessor but significantly better flare resistance. AF slightly quicker, but equally noisy. Focus breathing very slightly improved over 11-20/2.8 ATX: still not zero, but modest.

None of these are truly parfocal, but they’re not far away. All render good sunstars from f8 onward, improving to their prettiest at f16. As the coatings improved, so did contrast and flare resistance.

Off-Piste Excellence

Personally, I’ve never owned an APS-C camera for more than a few months – despite having shot every format professionally from 8mm to 5×4. And yet I’ve owned and relied every one of these wide Tokinas. Why?

First, many full-frame cameras perform best for video in crop mode. The constant f2.8 aperture and that little bit of zoom flexibility is very useful and the rendering of the Tokina wide is conistently sweet.

Second, that huge image circle. I’ve even shot with this APS-C lens on GFX, where at 20mm it covers the 44x33mm format with barely any vignetting. It’s a handy backup to full-frame lenses like the Sigma 14-24/2.8 that are my everyday drivers. With the hood removed, it also goes wider than 14mm for those rare moments when I might reach for (and defish) a fisheye.

Third, that huge image circle. I shoot a lot with Micro 4/3 as a second system: valuing its speed, portability and reach for stills, and excellent stabilised video. The Tokina 11-20mm is sometimes adapted with movements – in which scenario it becomes a tremendously handy 22-40mm tilt/shift zoom capable of delivering 80MP+ pixel-shifted images. Even after using it a lot I’m regularly amazed at the results achievable with a M43 body like the G9 (worth less than £500) and an unregarded Tokina worth less than £200 on eBay.

Fourth, that huge image circle. The quality of the Tokina 11-20mm can also be accessed for M43 via a SpeedBooster. In combination with the Metabones 0.71x Ultra, this APS-C lens that thinks it’s a full-frame optic becomes a very sharp 15-28mm-equivalent zoom, with a maximum f2 aperture.

Finally, the Tokina 11-20mm works very well as a general video lens for all M43 bodies. The 22-40mm-equivalent range goes about as wide as you’d every want, and reaches up to the magic 40mm, beyond which you’re starting to think about using a different set of lenses for isolation rather than context. F2.8 is also the perfect aperture for a video lens: allowing you to work in a wide range of lighting environments.

On a mirrorless body, the 11-18mm faces stronger competition from native glass. If you’re only looking for a lens that covers that focal length range on one body, today’s Tokina ultrawide is just another good option – not the obvious winner it was in yesteryear. But the old Tokina, with its huge image circle, still works very well indeed via adaptors on Nikon Z, Canon R and Sony full-frame bodies – and especially on the M43 bodies that so ruthlessly expose poor resolvers.

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