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If you’re looking for an affordable ultra-wide angle lens for your APS-C cropped sensor Canon, Nikon, Sony or Pentax DSLR in 2010, you have quite a few choices. In the last year or two, most lens makers have updated their ultra-wide offerings: Tamron replaced its 11-18mm model with a new 10-24mm (available for Nikon, Canon, Pentax and Sony), Sigma produced a new, faster 10-20mm (Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony), Nikon replaced its 12-24 with a 10-24mm and Olympus added a more affordable 9-18mm model to the existing 7-14 mm f/4.0.
Canon didn’t do anything but, by all accounts, the current EF-S 10-22mm is a great lens worth every dollar of its reasonable asking price. Even Ken Rockwell says it’s better than Nikon’s dearer ultra-wide. This is an EF-S lens and will only fit on APS-C (cropped) sensor Canons. All the lenses listed below are designed for cropped sensors. The list includes recently updated/replaced lenses which are still on the market:
1) The Tamron 10-24mm is available with an inbuilt AF motor for small Nikon DSLRs – D40/60/3000/5000.
2) The Tokina 124 AT-X Pro 12-24mm is the obvious bargain here at US$400, but the inbuilt AF-motor for small Nikon DSLRs costs another $100.
3) The Tokina AT-X 116 Pro DX is faster but dearer and offers no inbuilt AF motor for Nikon.
4) The new Sigma 10-20mm f/3.5 takes the lens diameter from 77mm to 82mm. That’s a pain if you’ve invested in 77mm filters.
5) The Pentax lens listed here looks like a Tokina 12-24mm in a different suit. It is indeed a close relative as Pentax and Tokina are both owned by Hoya. There’s no Pentax version of this Tokina.
I owned the cheaper Sigma (10-20mm f/4-5.6) not long ago but sold it on eBay a while back, mostly because it turned out fewer keepers than all the other lenses I’ve used. Still, I missed not having an ultra-wide and decided to buy the Tokina since all the reviews said that it was the sharpest and the best built, and the 12-24mm comes with an inbuilt AF motor for my trusty old Nikon D40.
The Sigma goes to 10mm, which gives almost 10 degrees more Angle of View (roughly 100 vs 110°), so it’s well worth considering if 12mm is wide enough for you. It’s 50% wider than a kit zoom, to be sure, and bear in mind that more width brings more distortion. With ultra-wide lenses, that’s the nature of the beast.
With the Sigma, sharpness was often difficult to achieve without a lot of post-processing, which I tend to avoid. Still, every once in a while, the Sigma would produce a stunning shot like this one:
These lenses need a fair bit of concentration and good technique to get the best out of, something I’ll explore in a future article. Their optics are stretched to the ragged edge and it shows when you work on the super-wide end of their zoom range. Away from the centre of the images, things tend to go a bit squishy, and the Tokina is no different from the Sigma in that regard.
The Tokina AT-X 124 Pro uses a chrome-plated brass mount plate and features an all-metal zoom unit, with polycarbonate covering the outer lens barrels. The optics include 13 elements in 11 groups, including 2 aspherical elements and an SD element. The minimum focus distance is 0.30m, and the lens features 9 aperture blades.
The lens does not extend during zooming and the non-rotating 77mm filter threads mean that filters are not affected by changing focus. It’s possible to change filters without removing the petal shaped hood. The lens uses an inbuilt micro-motor for auto-focusing, which is fast and not noisy.
Switching between auto-focus and manual is a simple matter of sliding the focus ring back and forth, which can be done in any focus position. A constant f/4 across the zoom range makes the lens useful in imperfect light conditions. Tokina offers the 11-16mm f/2.8 if you need a faster lens. A flimsy user guide that comes in Japanese, Japanese or Japanese is the only letdown.
The AT-X 124 Pro looks like pro lens costing two or three times as much, with a subtle, classy-looking crinkle finish and a quality lens cap. It feels nice as well, with none of that cheap plastic stickiness. If you dropped the 570g AT-X 124 Pro on your foot, I suspect that your toes would break before the lens. It feels a bit hefty on a small Nikon or Canon body but the barrel is only 8cm long without the hood.
Tokina’s one-touch focus clutch mechanism is pretty slick, and there is a distance scale for manual focusing. Both the zoom and focus rings move smoothly with just the right degree of resistance. Getting the lens hood on and off takes a bit of effort, as the slot is very positive. The hood is pretty substantial too and won’t come loose once it’s locked in.
The biggest issue with ultra-wide lenses is flare, the white-out caused by bright light in the frame. Their wide angles catch a lot more light than normal lenses, and the Tokina performs no better in this area than the Sigma despite claims of improvements for this DX II version of the lens. You’ll see what I mean about the light in the next image – and the sun’s a long way to the left here.
On the positive side, AF is accurate and colours are realistic. The Tokina is a little sharper than the Sigma, but not to the extent the reviews suggest. The problem is worst at the 12mm end but, even at 18mm the Tokina isn’t as sharp as my Nikon kit lens. Not in a long shot, any way.
Getting right in close to the subject is often a better idea with these lenses than trying to grab an armful of landscape, and then sharpness is not such an issue.
If you want to get technical, there’s a fair amount of barrel distortion at the wide end, and a some vignetting (darkening of the image corners) but these problems are not hard to solve with a good editor. Colour fringing is much harder to correct but happens less often. The most frequent problem is flare, and it rears its head as soon as you aim the lens anywhere near bright light (the hood makes little difference).
I’ve posted a gallery of more test shot on my blog. There are some decent shots but I threw out more than ten for every I kept.
I’m a bit disappointed by the Tokina, mostly because so many positive reviews led me to expect more. Yes, the build quality is tremendous for the money (or any money) and yes, the price is great, but the performance is not convincing where it counts most: at the wide end of the spectrum. Lenses like this really have few other uses.
The Tokina is good for dramatic shots when you’re right in the middle of things, or in cities or buildings or rooms as long as you watch the light. And it’s good for motorbikes and cars, of course, as long as you lie on the ground.
Spending more money may not improve things – Ken Rockwell who is no fan of third-party lenses says there’s little difference in Image Quality between the Nikon 12-24mm and the Tokina (the older version without the in-built motor).
Ultra-wide lenses aren’t easy beasts to use or live with and, as I hinted above, I’m planning an article on how to get the best out of them in the near future. Meanwhile, here some other views and resources: