Tuesday, March 03, 2009

tokina at-x 90mm f2.5 macro lens review


My Olympus E-410 dSLR and the legendary Tokina AT-X 90mm f2.5 Macro combine to snap a photo of a happy Madagascar Day Gecko. Lund, Sweden. (2009). Original photo properties: Olympus E-410 dSLR, Tokina AT-X 90mm f2.5 Macro lens (180mm, 35mm equivalent), handheld, LiveView, manual focus, aperture priority, matrix metering, 1/250s f2.5, ISO 100, 2490 x 2490 pixels (after crop), RAW.

Introduction
We normally reserve the photo nerd stuff for starfish and waffles' sister sites, dingobear photography and dingobear photography at Zenfolio, but today we're going to make an exception for a couple of reasons. First, the editor's been snapping at my ankles to post a little more often. Second, I've finally tracked down the Tokina AT-X 90mm f2.5 Macro lens I've been searching far and wide for, and thought it might be helpful to post some of the preliminary results for those who also might be interested in the lens. If this doesn't sound immediately interesting to you, we understand completely - just scroll down and enjoy a few pictures. Otherwise, read on.

At this point, I'd like to give special thanks to highly respected concert photographer, Todd Owyoung, for his exceptional review of the Tokina AT-X 90mm f2.5 Macro lens, which proved to be a valuable resource when constructing this post. Written back in 2005, Owyoung's review is still THE definitive source for information on this lens. (Also check out Owyoung's über-cool website, ishootshows.com).

Background
As mentioned above, the lens in question is the fabled Tokina AT-X 90mm f2.5 Macro, which was in production between 1984 and 1997. Harking back from the days of 35mm film, the manual focus and aperture lens possesses an unmatched pedigree, with an optical formula that is speculated to be a NASA design originating from US firm, Perkin Elmer (of Hubble space telescope fame). As legend has it, the Tokina 90mm's predecessor, the Vivitar Series 1 90mm f2.5 Macro (produced from 1975 to 1981), was designed under contract by Perkin Elmer and manufactured according to Vivitar's exacting specifications by the Japanese-based Tokina. When Vivitar ceased production of its Series 1 90mm, Tokina quietly purchased the patents before re-surfacing the superb optics to market under its own brand a few years later.

For the uninitiated, Tokina is a third-party lens manufacturer that was founded in the early 1970's by a group of former Nikon engineers who wanted to focus on the design of high-quality zoom lenses. Although not a zoom, the Tokina 90mm lens has stood out for many years as a shining example of the Japanese firm's best work. Manufactured in a number of different camera mounts including Olympus OM, Minolta MD, Pentax K, Pentax M42, Contax / Yashica, Nikon AI-S, and Canon FD, the Tokina 90mm was a premium-priced 71,800 yen (approximately US$300, in 1984 dollars) at its introduction and is a rare find in today's second-hand market. Whether this scarcity reflects a small overall production run, an unwillingness of Tokina 90mm owners to sell, or some combination of the two, is unclear.

Performance
What is clear is the optical performance of the lens. Its colour, contrast, and clarity characteristics made the lens an immediate cult classic for 35mm film and, as far as I can tell, the Tokina 90mm has no issues resolving its world-class qualities on modern-day, digital sensors. Sharpness is superlative - the Tokina 90mm sports the highest photodo.com MTF score amongst all reviewed macro lenses (tied with the Pentax SMC-F 50mm f2.8) and ranks in the top 10 of all lenses ever reviewed by Photodo, period.

However, what sets the Tokina 90mm apart is its tremendous rendering of out-of-focus areas in a frame. Buttery smooth with nary a harsh highlight, the bokeh is simply beautiful. Perhaps this shouldn't be surprising: the Tokina 90mm is nicknamed the "Bokina" for good reason.

Further, the solid, all-metal construction of the lens is befitting of the outstanding optics housed inside. Turning the well-damped focus and tactile aperture rings, one can't help but notice the oozing quality. A cheap, plasticky, dSLR kit zoom this is not.


The Tokina AT-X 90mm f2.5 Macro lens has professional build quality, and is beautifully finished. They don't make 'em like this much anymore. Original photo properties: Olympus E-410 dSLR, OM Zuiko Auto-S 50mm f1.8 lens, Manfrotto Tundra NGTT1 tripod, manual focus and exposure via LiveView, centre-weighted metering, 1s f8, ISO 100, 3648 x 2736 pixels, RAW.


Impressively, the superb optics of Tokina 90mm f2.5 are housed in a small package. As you can see from the photo above, at infinity focus, the Tokina (at left) isn't much bigger than the diminutive Olympus kit zooms, the Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm f4.0-5.6 (centre) and the Zuiko Digital ED 14-42mm f3.5-f5.6. Original photo properties: Olympus E-410 dSLR, OM Zuiko Auto-S 50mm f1.8 lens, Manfrotto Tundra NGTT1 tripod, manual focus and exposure via LiveView, centre-weighted metering, 1.3s f8, ISO 100, 3505 x 2629 pixels (after crop), RAW.


Here's a shot of the Tokina 90mm, with barrel fully extended at closest focusing distance, and compared to the Zuiko Digital 14-42mm with its lens hood attached. Original photo properties: Olympus E-410 dSLR, OM Zuiko Auto-S 50mm f1.8 lens, Manfrotto Tundra NGTT1 tripod, manual focus and exposure via LiveView, centre-weighted metering, 1.3s f8, ISO 100, 3648 x 2736 pixels, RAW.

Impressions
Given the Tokina 90mm's sterling reputation, I've been on the lookout for a used copy of the lens for over a year. As longtime readers of starfish and waffles and dingobear photography may be aware, my current dSLR of choice is the wonderfully diminutive Olympus E-410. One of the benefits of the Olympus E-System and Four Thirds standard cameras in general is the short flange-back distance of its dSLR's, which allows for the use of legacy film lenses from many mounts and makers via adapter.

Given the rarity of the Tokina 90mm, this flexibility in mount choice is nice. On the used market, availability of the Bokina seems most prevalent in Canon FD and Nikon AI-S mounts. Unfortunately, when mounted on Olympus Four Thirds cameras, infinity focus is impossible with Canon FD lenses (to the best of my knowledge) and, with regard to the Nikon-mount Tokina 90mm, would-be buyers are competing with a huge pool of Nikon shooters who would love to get their hands on this lens.

As a result, the second-hand prices of the lens remain healthy, recessionary economy or not. On eBay, the Tokina 90mm tends to sell for US$300 and up (lens only, in good condition); when the matching optical extender (which allows for 1:1 reproduction) is included, prices are even higher.

Happily, bargains can still be found if you're patient. Case in point, about a month ago while perusing the KEH website, I stumbled upon a Minolta MD mount version of the lens in "excellent+" condition, with optical extender and leather case included, for the great price of US$76. I didn't have to think twice - I had the lens in my shopping cart within seconds!

My Tokina 90mm arrived in the mail last week with little fuss. Now, as you may already know, due to the relatively short flange-back distances of Minolta SLRs and the deep bayonets of Minolta lenses, there are several potential issues when using MD-mount optics on Olympus dSLR's. First, adapters tend to be thin and are difficult to manufacture, which, in turn, is reflected in their high cost. Second, when mounted via adapter on an Olympus dSLR, an MD-mount lens sits rotated about 30 degrees to the left of what it would normally be, which is not ergonomically ideal. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the protruding aperture pins of some MD-mount lenses will scrape the mirror boxes of certain Olympus dSLR's, making lens modification necessary in these cases.

With a chance to use the Bokina at a below-market price of US$76, I was willing to take a chance on these issues. Regarding an adapter, I ordered one for US$45 from the RJ Camera Accessory Store, an eBay seller based in China. Fast shipping and good product, I have no problem recommending RJ's MD-to-Four Thirds adapter if you're in the market for one. Unfortunately, regarding the issue of the aperture pin, I did, indeed, run into a problem.

As I had feared, the protruding aperture pin of the MD-mount Tokina 90mm is long enough to scrape the mirror box of my Olympus E-410. While the lens does mount on the camera, when locking the lens into place, the aperture pin just barely catches the mirror box and, as a result, the aperture is held in place at the wide-open setting. In other words, I can't stop down after mounting the lens.

After consultation with a few of the gurus on DPReview's Olympus dSLR forum, I've established that I can remedy the issue by filing off about 1mm of the brass(?) aperture pin. My Tokina 90mm's small surgery has been scheduled; in the meantime, all of the samples you see in this post have been shot wide open at f2.5.

Editor's Update: The aperture pin of my Tokina 90mm has now been filed down by approximately 1mm. Success! A metal file purchased from the local hardware store was used for the procedure.

Conclusion
Even though, for me, it's still early days with the Tokina AT-X 90mm f2.5 Macro, I can already tell that this lens is something special. Given the issues described above, however, it is recommended that interested Olympus dSLR shooters try more easily adapted versions of the lens (Olympus OM and Nikon AI-S, for instance). Still, even if you can only find the lens in the less user-friendly Minolta MD mount, I think it's worth the extra trouble. The out-of-this-world (literally!) optics are just that good.

Tokina AT-X 90mm f2.5 Macro Lens Specs
Lens Construction ... 8 elements in 7 groups
Lens Dimensions ... 76mm (length) x 65.5mm (diameter)
Aperture Blades ... 8 (octagonal-shaped diaphragm)
Aperture Range ... f2.5 to f32 (adjustable in half-stops after f4)
Closest Focusing Distance ... 0.39m
Maximum Image Magnification ... 0.5x (1.0x with matching optical extender)
Filter Thread ... 55mm
Weight ... 510g (lens only), 700g (lens + optical extender)


Fuschia finest. Lund, Sweden. (2009). Original photo properties: Olympus E-410 dSLR, Tokina AT-X 90mm f2.5 Macro lens (180mm, 35mm equivalent), handheld, manual focus, aperture priority, spot metering, 1/80s f2.5, ISO 100, 3418 x 2563 pixels (after crop), RAW.


Crown of Thorns. Lund, Sweden. (2009). Original photo properties: Olympus E-410 dSLR, Tokina AT-X 90mm f2.5 Macro lens (180mm, 35mm equivalent), handheld, manual focus, aperture priority, matrix metering, 1/160s f2.5, ISO 100, 3648 x 2736 pixels, RAW.


Queen's Day. Lund, Sweden. (2009). Original photo properties: Olympus E-410 dSLR, Tokina AT-X 90mm f2.5 Macro lens (180mm, 35mm equivalent), handheld, manual focus, aperture priority, spot metering, 1/200s f2.5, ISO 200, 3648 x 2736 pixels, RAW.


What's up, Buttercup? Lund, Sweden. (2009). Original photo properties: Olympus E-410 dSLR, Tokina AT-X 90mm f2.5 Macro lens (180mm, 35mm equivalent), handheld, manual focus, aperture priority, centre-weighted metering, 1/200s f2.5, ISO 200, 3336 x 2502 pixels (after crop), RAW.


Non-Stop® candy, non-stop fun. Lund, Sweden. (2009). Original photo properties: Olympus E-410 dSLR, Tokina AT-X 90mm f2.5 Macro lens (180mm, 35mm equivalent), tripod, manual focus and exposure via LiveView, centre-weighted metering, 1.6s f2.5, ISO 100, 3648 x 2736 pixels, RAW.


Distant armies. Lund, Sweden. (2009). Original photo properties: Olympus E-410 dSLR, Tokina AT-X 90mm f2.5 Macro lens (180mm, 35mm equivalent), handheld, manual focus, aperture priority, centre-weighted metering, 1/30s f2.5, ISO 800, 3648 x 2736 pixels, RAW.


On the home front. Lund, Sweden. (2009). Original photo properties: Olympus E-410 dSLR, Tokina AT-X 90mm f2.5 Macro lens (180mm, 35mm equivalent), handheld, manual focus, aperture priority, centre-weighted metering, 1/30s f2.5, ISO 800, 3512 x 2634 pixels (after crop), RAW.


Go, green gecko! Lund, Sweden. (2009). Original photo properties: Olympus E-410 dSLR, Tokina AT-X 90mm f2.5 Macro lens (180mm, 35mm equivalent), handheld, LiveView, manual focus, aperture priority, matrix metering, 1/250s f2.5, ISO 100, 3648 x 2736 pixels, RAW.


Rhythm and bass. Lund, Sweden. (2009). Original photo properties: Olympus E-410 dSLR, Tokina AT-X 90mm f2.5 Macro lens (180mm, 35mm equivalent), handheld, manual focus and exposure via LiveView, spot metering, 1/200s f2.5, ISO 1600, 3648 x 2736 pixels, RAW.


Shades of spring. Lund, Sweden. (2009). Original photo properties: Olympus E-410 dSLR, Tokina AT-X 90mm f2.5 Macro lens (180mm, 35mm equivalent), handheld, LiveView, manual focus, manual exposure, centre-weighted metering, 1/320s f4, ISO 200, 3648 x 2736 pixels, RAW.


Kryptonite superfly. Devon, Canada. (2010). Original photo properties: Olympus E-620 dSLR, Tokina AT-X 90mm f2.5 Macro lens (180mm, 35mm equivalent), handheld, image stabilization on, manual focus, aperture priority, centre-weighted average metering, 1/640s f2.5, ISO 200, 3024 x 4032 pixels, RAW.

9 comments:

  1. While I love the chess shots, my favourite is still that last gecko. Outstanding. And thanks for the backstory on the Tokina. I'm sensing an emerging obsession...

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  2. Thanks, Mashed Swede, appreciate the comments. About the chess pieces: it was good having the opportunity to take shots of those.

    Haha, as for obsession, I'm not sure about that but I expect that the Tokina will get a pretty fair workout going forward ...

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  3. I just wanted to give a note of thanks for keeping the little Tokina 90/2.5 alive.

    It's funny, because when I first bought my first copy years ago, I originally set out to buy find a used copy of the well-regarded Tamron 90/2.8.

    Little did I know what exactly I had brought home from Adorama in NYC until I started using the lens.

    I'm thrilled if the review I wrote has introduced others to this fantastic lens.

    On the note of the aperture, I shot the lens mostly wide open or stopped down to f/4, but generally no more. It's wide open or at f/2.8 or so that the lens has its most special quality for me: superlative sharpness while also rendering a very, very smooth character.

    Stopped down, the lens becomes much more "common" in its character, though the sharpness is second to none.

    Even wide open, the lens rendered pixel-level sharpness on the Nikon D2x.

    Best,
    Todd

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  4. Todd, thanks very much for stopping in and taking the time to leave a comment.

    I think many would agree that your review of the Tokina 90mm is as legendary as the lens itself. The fact that the original thread is still active almost 5 years after it was first started is testament to its influence. I know it definitely influenced my decision to seek out the lens and now that I have it in my arsenal, I couldn't be more pleased.

    Thanks also for sharing your thoughts on the Tokina 90's different apertures. I haven't yet had the chance to test the lens at anything other than wide open but your experience is valuable information to keep in mind. I've seen your Tokina 90mm samples and, quite frankly, they speak volumes.

    Kind regards,
    Felix (dingobear)

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  5. Hey Felix,

    Thanks very much for the kind words. In many ways, I just feel like the messenger for this great lens. I'm certainly not the first – nor the last – person to recognize it's special qualities.

    At f/4, the defocused elements of the lens start to have a more pronounced influence from the diaphragm, which doesn't benefit from the rounded aperture blades of so many modern lenses.

    At f/5.6, the blades again have a less "interesting" shape.

    Not soon after I "published" that review of the Tokina, I was saying that I was going to update the images and the write-up.

    Maybe if I ever get a non-concert site up, I will publish the Tok review and those of a few other lenses.

    I actually have an unpublished review of the old 55mm f/1.2 CRT Nikkor. The review is essentially 100% complete and includes the history of that lens, which was even more obscure than the Tokina.

    You might be interested in some of those images, too.

    Best,
    Todd

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  6. Hi Todd,

    If you ever set up a non-concert site, please do let me know. I gotta say: ishootshows.com is amazing, you're living the rock star dream, my friend! Great photography, helpful tips, and I respect the way you take the time to respond to questions and comments.

    And definitely I'd be interested in learning more about the Nikkor 55 f1.2. One of the fun things about using an Olympus dSLR is the ability to try out different glass from other systems, so I'm always on the lookout for some unique.

    Cheers,
    Felix

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  7. I just found this lens & extender (Nikon mount) at a thrift store for a song. I just ordered a Nikon to P/K adapter so I can use it on my K20D. I was able to try the lens out on the K20D as is but the lens won't lock in. I am happy with what I am seeing so far. I'll let you know about my experience with it.

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  8. It seems that prices for the Tokina 90 have gone up lately, and I've seen lenses sell for as much as $450 on eBay, so nice job on getting a good deal in the highly desirable Nikon mount. Thanks for stopping in, and please do share your experience with the little Tokina on your Pentax K20D because I am curious to hear about it.

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  9. I shoot Pentax and owned the original Bokina (Vivitar Series 1) with matching 1:1 extension which I found from a local seller for $150. I later sold it, but always sort of regretted it. Then I found the Bokina II (Tokina AT-X) version in a PK/A mount, with original case and 1:1 extender. The "A" part is pretty special, as it means I can shoot with it in AV mode easily on my Pentax K-5. I've seen regular PK versions, but only one other PK/A. It has better coatings than the Vivitar and is MUCH lighter (less of a tank) than the Vivitar S1 version. I've only begun to test it out, but it is a keeper and is in mint condition. I also have the Pentax-F 100mm f2.8 Macro, but I'm not a big fan of autofocus in macro lenses. I may keep them both, or I may do a head-to-head comparison to see if there is a noticable difference between them and sell the "loser".

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