Cheap telephoto or expensive toy lens?

Started Oct 14, 2014 | User reviews thread
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sbszine
sbszine Contributing Member • Posts: 521
Cheap telephoto or expensive toy lens?
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Overview

The Tokina 300 / F6.3 is a manual mirror lens with macro capability. It's pretty compact for a telephoto prime, measuring 66mm long and weighing in at 300g.

Characteristics of Mirror Lenses

Mirror lenses like the 300 / 6.3 have an unusual optical design that makes them very compact but introduces some weird characteristics. So although they are similar on paper, the image you're going to get out of this lens will look nothing at all like the long end of the Olympus 75-300 / F4.8-6.7.

The first thing to note is that the Tokina's aperture is physically fixed at F6.3, i.e. you can't stop down the lens to control exposure or increase depth of field. You can fit ND filters to control exposure, but since the Tokina is a pretty dark lens you should be able to deal with very bright light using EV or shutter speed adjustments. Variable ND filters won't work with this lens due to the hood design and rotating front element.

In terms of image quality, mirror lenses tend to have low CA (good!) but also low contrast. The contrast is so low compared to conventional lenses that the mirror lens design was once popular in portrait photography, to smooth out skin. This low contrast can make an image appear less sharp than actually it is. The other effect to watch out for is ring shaped bokeh. The 300 / 6.3 will render out of focus lights in a kind of hazy doughnut shape, which many people find unattractive.

Doughnut bokeh (Himalayan Tahr at Taronga Zoo, Sydney)

Build Quality / Design

Build quality is excellent, with an all-metal barrel and a smoothly damped focus ring. The barrel includes an accurate distance scale and a bayonet mount for the included lens hood. The lens is threaded for 55mm filters. I found the lens hood to be excellent: it's reversible, internally flocked with black felt, and locks into place snugly. My only gripes with the construction are that the front element rotates, and that you have to turn the focus ring through a full rotation to locking and unlocking the hood for storage. A centre pinch lens cap is included.

The lens is a good match with O-MD bodies, where it feels well balanced and will benefit from IBIS.

Electronic Connections

Although it doesn't have autofocus, the Tokina does have electronic connections on its mount. As well as providing EXIF data to the camera body, they also set the correct focal length on the camera's image stabiliser and trigger any relevant manual focus aids (e.g. peaking). So yes, IBIS works out of the box with this lens! Unfortunately, the 300 / 6.3 cannot receive firmware updates when connected like other MFT lenses. I haven't tested whether it sends CA and vignetting corrections to the body, but I suspect that it does not.

Image Quality

In general, the Tokina is not very sharp. It is actually capable of taking photos that are as sharp as a good kit lens, but these are difficult to obtain due to the long focal length (making the lens prone to camera shake / shutter shock) and the very thin depth of field. Sometimes the DoF is so thin that you cannot achieve focus by turning the focus ring, even with very precise handling.

A relatively sharp image (Punta della Dogana, Venice)

The lens seems to be optimised for macro and for subjects that are only 1-2 metres away. I think the 300 / 6.3 would actually be pretty good for tripod and flash type macro on a budget, though for $200 more you could buy an Olympus 60 / 2.8 and get something that's much better optically.

Macro example (10" glass dish containing blue jigsaw pieces)

Telephoto performance is pretty poor, so this isn't a great lens for birding or astrophotography. For the price, I think you would probably get better performance out of the long end of a kit 40-150 with digital teleconverter.

Astrophotography example (Moon)

Birding example (rainbow lorikeets)

Is It Good for Anything?

Yes! It turns out that the 300 / 6.3 is good at two things: fields of flowers, and paparazzo / private detective type photography where getting the shot is more important than image quality. The hazy, low contrast quality of the lens gives a dreamy feeling to fields of flowers, and the light weight and extreme range makes it great for photographing unsuspecting celebrities and insurance fraudsters.

The closest thing I have to a field of flowers  (check the Flickr group for better examples)

Princess Kate tattoo insurance fraud shock!

Processing

I initially found images from this lens quite difficult to process, due to the very low contrast and dull colours -- even maxing out the saturation slider wasn't enough. Eventually I hit upon the idea of using the Olympus art filters as a starting point, and that really helped. The pop art filter in particular adds an insane amount of saturation, and from there you can just add some contrast and desaturate slightly to get a relatively normal image. I've noticed that other photographers on Flickr can somehow get lovely natural colours out of the 300 / 6.3, so I put this down to my inexperience rather than an insurmountable flaw of the lens.

If you're considering this lens, I strongly advise checking out the Tokina Reflex 300mm group on Flickr. It's got some great photos by better photographers than me, which really show off what this lens is good at.

Conclusion

The Tokina 300 / F6.3 is not for everyone. Aside from its practical uses in surveillance and tabloid journalism, it's basically a toy lens for people wanting hazy, doughnutty nature photos or extreme close-ups. That's what I wanted from it, so I am a satisfied customer. But if you're looking for a telephoto prime with decent IQ, best to look elsewhere.

 sbszine's gear list:sbszine's gear list
Olympus Tough TG-2 Olympus OM-D E-M5 Olympus PEN E-PM2 Panasonic Lumix G 14mm F2.5 ASPH Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 14-42mm 1:3.5-5.6 II R +5 more
Tokina Reflex 300mm F6.3 MF Macro
Telephoto mirror prime lens • Micro Four Thirds • RX300M43
Announced: Jul 17, 2012
sbszine's score
3.0
Average community score
3.2
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