Once you start using wide angle, you become aware of how much product photography uses it. That sleek looking shot of a graphics card or laptop looks so because of the perspective imposed by a wide angle lens. Both look like boring rectangles of circuitry using a standard lens.
Since starting this blog though, I’ve realised that almost all photography reviews out there are slanted heavily towards the IQ (Image Quality) crowd. I’d like to focus on issues more important to me (the happy enthusiast) rather than the professional, simply because I can’t find many other reviews that target the my crowd, and especially not in alpha-mount.
My first review item is a definite case in point; the Tokina 11-16mm (Sony Alpha Fit). Although there are many reviews on this lens, almost all of them get into technical detail issues and none of them discuss issues I am more concerned with, such as
- Is it fun to use?
- What can I do with this that I can’t do with other lenses?
- What can’t I do with this lens?
- Is it worth the cash? Even if I don’t make a living from photography?
- Will I actually use this once the Lens envy has worn off?
The wide angle effect can be used to add humor and movement to an image. This is perhaps why wide angle images are very popular in stock photography
The Tokina is a cool addition to any lens set. It gives you a very wide field of view, and this can be very useful in creating atmosphere, particularly for landscape and architectural shots. There are some very good examples on the Flickr Tokina 11-16 group here. If you’re here to compare Tokina 11-16 vsSigma 8-16, you may also want to look at the Sigma 8-16 group here and while you’re at it, one of the better non-pixel pusher reviews of the Sigma 8-16 I dig is here.
There’s a less obvious use of the Tokina 11-16, and that is in using the wide angle effect to make your subject ‘pop’ out of the picture more. A good example of this is the image below;
This is actually my first ever shot using the Tokina 11-16. I went out into the garden to look for an interesting subject, and Marmite came bounding over to inspect the new lens (she immediately became bored of it once she realised she could not eat it). Marmite’s nose is about a centimetre away from the end of the lens, and I am focusing on her blue collar. Hence most of her head is out of focus (but that’s okay because it gives us some movement).
I always assumed that fisheye lenses were used in the extreme ‘big-head, small body’ effect but I now know that fisheyes produce too extreme an effect. A wide angle lens is different because it keeps the distortion proportional; straight lines stay as straight lines in wide lenses. Instead, parallel lines become angled to a point. In a fisheye the lines curve and this is a much less pleasing effect on faces and/or the effect only works if the face is at the exact centre of the shot.
As you can see, the wide angle effect can be used to add humour and movement to an image. This is perhaps why wide angle images are very popular in stock photography. A wide angle is not something you would use to take portrait shots at a wedding but it can be used to take non-formal portraits to add a sense of playfulness, movement, or simply give a humorous perspective that demands a second look. Wide angle also goes hand-in-hand with another up and coming photographic technique; HDR (high dynamic range). HDR works well with wide angle because the wide angle tends to extend the required tonal range of a shot.
Anyway, lets start at the beginning
Tokina 11-16 unboxing
The first two things in the box are a short instruction sheet and a guarantee card. Of particular note is the fact that you don’t get the big verbose legal guarantee sheet that many consumer products tend to come with these days. Instead, you get a smallish card (about the size of a playing card). Nice.
Apart from the two items above, the only other things in the box are the lens and its hood, wrapped in a polythene bag.
Unwrapped and ready to go.
Tokina 11-16 product images
View of the top of the lens. Note that the front glass is a dome, something we will touch on later.
The rear of the lens, showing the Alpha mount
The lens on the Sony A200 (NB – the sample images at the end of this article were taken with the lens attached to an A500).
Update July 2010: here’s a larger shot of the lens (taken whilst practicing realistic light HDR). For the curious, it was taken on a coffee table using natural light from a window, -2EV to +2EV in 1EV steps.
So how useful is wide angle, and how does the Tokina compare to other offereings?
What I like about the Tokina 11-16
Once you start using your own wide angle, you also become aware of how much product photography uses it. That sleek looking shot of a graphics card or laptop looks so because of the perspective imposed by a wide angle lens. Both look like boring rectangles of circuitry using a standard lens.
The coolest things about the Tokina 11-16 when compared to other wide angles are threefold.
Firstly, the Tokina produces linear distortion, and this makes any curvature easy to remove. Recall that wide angle brings straight lines to a point, but a good wide angle should never curve the lines (so curvature should be eliminated). It is trivial to remove such curvature caused by the Tokina in either Photoshop or LightRoom. This is not the case in competing Sigma and Tamron wide angle lenses.
Secondly, the Tokina 11-16 is the fastest wide angle lens in its class. At f2.8, you will never need a tripod outdoors, and you will rarely need one indoors either. The Sigma/Tamron offerings are much slower lenses and are much more likely to require a tripod, and in my book, tripod = less spontaneity. As a slight aside, I would recommend the Tokina 11-16 even against the newer Sigma 8-16 due to the former’s simpler distortion and faster speed. Faster speed also becomes important when you need a polariser filter (and you will more often need to do this with a wide angle than most other lenses), you lose up to two stops, making that competing f4.5/5.6 wide angle even less useful. Have a look at Dom Bowers Youtube video review of the Tokina 11-16 here, where he discusses at length the speed of the Tokina 11-16 ( as a bonus, you will also see how fast it is in auto-focusing and why it is pretty good on weather sealing).
Thirdly, the Tokina has a very good build to it. The build is very good and better than I see in competitors within this price range. The Tokina looks and feels like a solid professional item and on my Sony Alpha a200, auto focusing is fast and precise. Also, I see none of the fixing issues on the Alpha mount that some of the CaNikon users complain about. The lens is easy to attach and take off the camera body, and fits as well as Sony-built lenses.
There is potentially a fourth really cool use of wide angle; video. The Sony Alpha range does not currently support video, although there are early indications that the a700 replacement (the a750) will. Wide angle + video is Super Cool. Take a look at http://vimeo.com/9600167.
Although I con’t confirm sharpness of the Tokina vs other wide angle lenses, I can confirm that it is very sharp at f2.8 for the middle 90% of the image. There’s a little softening at the edges at f2.8, but its still sharper than anything else I have used at such low f numbers except primes (also, most non-primes at the same price range don’t even do f2.8, so there’s actually little to compare to!).
As with all lenses, there are downsides with the Tokina 11-16
Cost and the ‘is it practical or just lens envy’ factor
The Tokina 11-16mm is the most expensive lens I have bought so far, especially when wide angle is usually seen as a specialist niche. As hinted above, wide angle is actually much more widely used in commercial photography (product photography, stock photography, advertising) than you would expect. Buying a wide angle massively increases your creative potential. Since most people who have moved away from simple point and click to dSLR do so because of the creative potential (rather than simply wanting to ‘record treasured moments’), this is a major factor in going for a good wide angle. As most enthusiasts will typically buy no more than three lenses, I’d go so far as to pick a 3 lens set consisting of ‘fast prime + slow super zoom + wide angle’ over the more traditional ‘fast prime + slower super zoom + macro’. This is mainly because you can use the fast prime + cheap diopeter or fast prime + lens rings to give you a macro. See my previous post on extending a prime to act as a macro here.
Another factor in buying a wide angle rather than faking it on the cheap (via, for example, a x0.45 diopeter attachment that is widely available on Amazon/eBay) is because the ‘fake it’ methods produce blurring and chromatic aberration that is obvious even to a non-pro and non-pixel-peeper like myself. You can fake macro on the cheap, but wide angle is much more complex optically (I know, I’ve tried!). Additionally, most standard zoom lenses call 18mm ‘wide’. Take it from me, 18 mm is nothing like wide angle. There might only be 7mm in it, but it makes a world of difference when you are going down from 18mm because the proportional change is much larger (i.e. a 7mm change from 18mm is a 40% change whereas at 100mm it is only a 7% change, and the optical changes in view reflect the percentage change, not the absolute mm change).
For wide angle, you really need a purpose built wide angle lens. You can’t fake it on the cheap with an attachment, and you should not assume that the low end of a super zoom is anything like looking down a true wide angle lens.
On the ‘is it practical or just lens envy’ question, the Tokina 11-16 is now one of two lenses I take with me when shooting;
- I use the Tokina11-16 and Sony Sal18250 when I know I will be mostly outdoors (together, the two lenses give me an almost unbroken range of 11-250mm!)
- I use the Tokina 11-16 and Sony SAL1850 when I know I will be only indoors (together they give me a fast wide, and faster 50-prime).
So yeah, the Tokina 11-16 is a lens that is already deep in my workflow, and expect to get a lot of use out of it.
Wide angle is difficult
A wide angle lens takes a little bit of getting used to. I initially thought that my copy had weird front/back focusing issues, but soon realised its actually down to the way wide angle works. As with all new lenses, I tried checking focusing by taking shots of a page of small text a few metres away, to see how legible the text was when looking at the image fullscreen in Lightroom. The trouble was that the text was always blurry!
This happens because everything in the middle range gets pushed back to the far range when using wide angle. So text that would be legible in a standard (non wide) lens looks unfocused because it has been pushed back so far that it is only 2 or 3 pixels high!
And that is also why wde angle is difficult; you lose your middle ground so have to make sure your foreground or background maintain interest.
For me, wide angle is a challenge. I’m still new to it, and have to take a few shots before I get one where the odd perspective looks great. When I get it right, it’s cool because that shot could not be faked in Photoshop or done with any other lens type. In fact, I have a theory that wide angle is currently having a massive surge in popularity with enthusiasts because of digital cameras. The fact that you could not review your shots immediately when working with film cameras meant that wide angle was just too damn unpredictable. In digital, you can take 10 shots and review them immediately.
Specific Bad Things about the Tokina 11-16
The Tokina is heavy, about as heavy as the camera itself if you have an entry level or enthusiast dSLR. Worse still, all the weight is at the front of the lens. If you drop the camera, it will land lens first. The front of the Tokina is not flat. It is a glass dome. That glass dome will most likely be the first thing to hit concrete. Ouch.
So unlike many other lenses, where putting a protective filter on the front is pretty much optional because the camera will hit the ground first, with the Tokina, it is necessary. You always need to have either the hood on, or you need to have a 77mm protective filter on the damn thing.
You will not get away with a standard filter – you will need a thin profile one, so double the cost. It gets worse yet… one of the defining features of wide angle is that you will get lots of sky. Wide angle skies are beautiful (especially if you are dabbling in HDR), but you need a good polarising filter, and probably a good quality circular polariser to avoid over exposure. Double the cost again. I use the Hoya 77mm PRO1 Digital Circular PL Filter. It has a recommended retail price of ‘far too much’, and you will need to factor in the price of something similar if you want to use wide angle to its full potential. Update – See also added thoughts on the need for more low profile filters in the conclusion; I have now extensively tried standard profile filters on the Tokina11-16 and they are not as bad as I first expected, and may be acceptable to many users.
The Tokina seems to have a higher than usual amount of chromatic aberration. Like almost everything else about this lens, this fault is generally linear and predictable, and therefore easily removed through lightroom. A side effect of this may be significant for HDR users though; CA is addative in HDR. If you are going for wide angle because you want to play with HDR landscapes, then be aware that you will definately have to take care of the CA in post processing (either before you merge your exposures, or after you perform tonemapping). I have not seen the CA as a dealbreaking issue when testing the Tokina with HDR creation (esp when most HDR images require at least a little tweaking in Photoshop after tonemapping anyway!), but I note it as a potential gotcha.
Another minor potential niggle with the Tokina is the low zoom range; you get only 11-16 mm. Believe me, thats not really a niggle, you will use the 11mm end of the range almost exclusively. What is a real niggle is that the focusing ring is loose and doesn’t make any noise when it turns. Its very easy to accidentally rotate it and end up at 13 or 14mm. That makes a big difference. I really wish they had put a lock on it so I can fix it at 11mm. Grr.
Looking at the mounting, I see that the Tokina does not have the full set of 8 gold contacts, meaning that it doesn’t send the ADI flash distance information to the flash (which will therefore default to TTL). This will most likely affect absolutely nobody (and this is probably why Tokina chose not to implement ADI on a wide angle lens).
The other thing to be aware of is that the Tokina is for APS-C cameras only. It is not full frame. Unless you own an a850/a900 (or are looking to buy the forthcoming a700 replacement, which is rumoured to be full frame), this should not be an issue; most cameras in the enthusiast/prosumer range are not full frame.
Finally, for those of you who need to see the opinion of serious pixel peepers, have a look at Tokina 11-16/f2.8: I thought I was going to buy one but… over at dpReview. I should note that I have seen the described ‘softness at the edges at f2.8’, and on my copy of the lens, it only extends about 200 pixels out from the edges on a 12M image (so it really is right at the edges, and anyway, I don’t actually think it is softness but also stretching caused by the wide angle…. more on this below). However, there’s a bigger issue here; if you’re taking pictures, no meaningful part of the main subject should really be that close to the edges of the image, and there should be nothing that close to the edges that you can’t just sharpen up in LR and forget about. No lens is perfect (they are all compromises after all, with cost usually being out on top), but the Tokina tends to keep all its abberations linear and localised (and therefore easy to fix in post production).
Perhaps the only non-linear issue with the Tokina (i.e the one thing that is non trivial to remove in Lightroom) is its ability to flare a lot. If you point this lens close to the sun, you will see flare streaks or flare circles. You really need to keep the lens hood on!
Added July 2010
The images below were taken during a short walk in woods with my partner and they are typical of the sort of shot I use the Tokina for. I really want to get across that I dont consider wide angle to be a one trick pony. You really can take wide angle shots of things other than architecture and wide landscapes, and once you get to grips with wide angle, its entirely possible to keep the effect subtle enough so it doesnt draw attention to itself as ‘this month’s new trick’.
I was using the Tokina 11-16 as a walkabout lens on my Sony Alpha a500. None of the shots were posed as I’m trying to show how the Tokina 11-16 (and wide angle in general) can translate everyday shots. Hopefully these shots will give you a better appreciation as to whether you need a wide angle lens in your repertoire.
All images were colour corrected in Lightroom, but I’m noting what I did to keep me honest.
This first image is a quick shot on a sit-down break. Not one of my best shots (and rather unflattering because of the direct-from-above light direction!) but I include it to show three things;
- Although wide angle is usually associated with extreme perspective shots, you can get a very natural looking image if you either avoid straight lines or keep the camera perpendicular to the lines. In this shot I do both; I avoid horizontal perspective lines, and I have kept the camera 90 degrees to the vertical lines created by the trees.
- You could be mistaken into thinking that this is a standard lens shot, possibly on the assumption that this is a posed shot… it looks like we are arranged in a circular clearing. This is not the case. The effect of the woods ‘wrapping around us’ is created by the wide angle. This becomes more obvious if you look at the circular texture created by the fallen leaves. That circular effect would not exist in a standard lens.
- This image shows how distant close objects become in wide angle. I am actually sitting around 3metres from the subject. In wide angle, composition can be much harder because your main subject can become lost very quickly.
Post processing: no crop, exposure +0.7, added contrast, desaturated greens slightly, removed blues completely.
In this second shot, myself and the subject are sitting on the same fallen log. I’ve placed the camera about 2-3 metres away from the subject, running parallel to the log.
This is a more traditional wide shot; I’m playing with the perspective created by the extreme angle. The subject is perhaps a little farther away than I’d like, but I’m also trying to get in the interesting shapes of the gnarled tree branches to the rear.
There are a few things to note here;
- I tried to keep the trunk central and the gnarled tree vertical. As you can see, I didn’t quite manage either! Wide angle shots are like that. The perspective can change drastically simply by moving the camera slightly.
- I’m using a graduated grey filter attached to the lens. It is causing the darkening of the tree trunk close to us.
- This image is shot with a shutter speed of 1/25s. Although the lens doesn’t have anti-vibration technology, the camera (Sony Alpha a500) does, which is why I can go so low on shutter speed and stay hand held.
Post Processing: Converted to B/W in Lightroom. Darkened reds, greens and yellows during the conversion, and increased blues. Increased exposure +20% on eyes only (via adjustment brush). 5% crop to straighten out the trees a little.
Here’s an actual size close up of the previous image. As you can see, the Tokina is very sharp!
For my last shot, I’m trying to build up a final composition. I’m trying to get the perspective lines to draw the eye towards the centre. At the centre I want the tree to frame the figure.
The figure’s right hand is blurred because she’s holding a fan (it was very hot!). You may also notice that I’m trying to hide the fact that I’m using wide angle here at all; this image does not immediately look like a wide angle shot on first inspection, but you soon see that it is the wide angle view that is actually making it work! Wide angle is only a strong effect if you have strong perspective lines. If you chose your composition so that you have few perspective lines, the effect can even become subtle.
Post processing: added fill light, Vibrance +49, Saturation -75, added constrast to shadows. No crop. Added darkening gradients to bottom edge and left edge.
Going back to the most common complaint agaist the Tokina 11-16, i.e. that it is far less sharp at the edges than at the centre, you can see from my final composition that this not even an issue when you actually use the lens because little of the main subject is ever that close to the edges! In fact, I dont see any softening at all at the edges for this shot (although, admidedly I am at f10 – any softening would be most evident at f2.8). However, there’s a lot of stretching right at the edges caused by the normal wide angle ‘elongated perspective’ effect. This effect is normal, and I am left wondering whether it is actually this that is being confused as excessive softness by those unused to wide angle!
Wide angle was not popular with film cameras because the effects it could create were unpredictable; wide angle shots are very dependent on the camera position, and being wide angle (i.e. it lets in LOTS of light), exposure was easy to get wrong. With dSLR’s none of those problems apply simply because you get immediate feedback.
Its important to realise that wide angle has a ‘niche’ label because of its legacy with film; with digital cameras it becomes much more fun and totally practical.
It’s also important to realise that wide angle is not a one trick pony (as are the closely related fisheye lenses). You can vary the strngth of the wide angle perspective by chosing a composition that has more or less dominant perspective lines. To be useful, any photographic effect has to have the ability to be subtle. Fish eye is never subtle, but wide angle can be subtle.
The Tokina 11-16 lens is a good wide angle lens to go for. It’s main advantages are its speed, clarity and build quality. It does have some problems (the main ones being Chromatic aberration and lens flare, but these tend to be linear and easily correctable. If you do not use post production, then the CA and flare are potentially problematic. There is some softening at the extreme edges at f2.8, but this is less than to be expected at this price range, although it may look worse than it is to those unused to wide angle (because extreme wide angle tends to magnify and/or stretch the extreme edges). Also, the low zoom range of the Tokina (11-16mm) is not a deal breaker as you will almost never use anything other than the 11mm low end.
You will probably need to budget for filters to go with your wide angle lens. I recommend a circular polariser and a graduated grey. A low profile filter is best, but if expense is a concern (and if you are okay with post processing), I would suggest that you just go with standard filters and clone the shadows at the 4 corners out. Update July 2010: using a standard (non low profile) filter on the end of the Tokina actually only results in a 30 pixel shadow right in the corners! I suggest that if you have Lightroom or Photoshop (and are not creating HDR images), just go with standard filters and click each of the 4 corners once with a medium opacity, 40 pixel wide clone tool. Although using standard height filters with HDR images creates significantly worst vignetting (actually, its worse than that; it creates banding), I would let that pass as you probably should not be using filters at all with HDR – that’s kinda the point!
Bottom line: I’d go so far as to say that if you already have a decent zoom and a prime, you should consider a wide angle as you next lens. Why? Because you use a dSLR for the creative potential, and a wide angle is the next best lens to add to your set to give you more of that potential.