It wasn't until recently, that I ever considered picking up a long telephoto, faster than f/4-5.6. Anyone reading this most likely knows, a lens' aperture and price tag have a direct relationship; As the aperture gets larger, so does the cost. I don't have a whole lot of money, so as usual, I of course was sure to explore all of my options. The digital age has swept photography by storm and left in it's wake garages full of lenses composed of older optical designs, dated coatings, complete lack of electronics, and pure, primal manual focus. But just how inferior or dated are these lenses?
I am looking to get more into shooting sports. I would also love to do some birding and wildlife photography. Currently, my longest lens is the Nikon AF 80-200mm f/2.8D, a stellar piece of glass, but not nearly long enough for the aforementioned purposes. There are always teleconverters, however, this solution immediately cuts into the speed of the lens defeating the whole purpose of a fast telephoto. I want speed!
Most likely due to the cost of R&D and production, a vast catalog of alternatives to the major manufacturer's long prime lenses does not seem to exist. In fact, in all of my searching for a means to attain a relatively inexpensive taste of the fast tele market led me to only a handful of choices: the Tamron 300mm f/2.8 (of which a few variations exist: 107B, 60B, 360B, 90E), the Tokina MF 300mm f/2.8, and as far as the 2.8s are concerned, that's about it. Now allow me to place a disclaimer here: I am speaking from the standpoint of a Nikon user. Also I am keeping in mind commonality. These models will pop up on the used market fairly regularly whereas I am sure other fast tele's exist but remain fairly hard to find.
Having a limited choice can be both a good and bad thing. On one hand, the decision is certainly more sane than attempting to choose a normal zoom, which has almost a hundred various designs/focal lengths/manufacturers to choose from (24-70, 24-50, 28-70, 35-70, and so forth). On the other hand, having only a couple alternatives also begs the question, "Is there a reason only a couple competitors exist? Should I even bother attempting to go with Third-party? Just how great are those Nikkor (premium) telephotos?"
Situation and Decision Process
Being newer to the telephoto market is no accident. The first time I saw the prices of those Sports Illustrated lenses, I was more than shocked! The low end of those lenses are two or three times more than my first car! When I mean fast, I mean 200 f/2, 300 f/2.8, 400 f/2.8, 500 f/4, 600 f/4. etc. You can pick up a 70-300mm f/4-5.6 for around $200. These lenses however, are not fast enough to fully separate the subject from the background (in similar settings) like those beautiful, giant rocket launchers the SI guys schlep around. They certainly don't carry 'em just to build muscle. It is because of that crisp separation of subject from background that I have decided I am completely willing to lug around one of these beasts.
If you too find yourself ready to make the jump to a faster telephoto but have a budget in mind, consider these few things:
The first decision: Zoom or Prime. While the zoom will afford you variability in your composition, a fast zoom lens will cost a fortune. Many people's first lens is a zoom. The basic kit lenses for cameras are often 18-55mm, 55-200mm, or even 70-300mm. These lenses however, are quite "slow" often only opening up to f/5.6 at the longer end. You might be surprised at the difference in a couple apertures. The highly rated Nikon 200-400 f/4 provides an amazing focal length with a great constant aperture; but at over $5k it ought to! A prime on the other hand, can deliver the speed but inversely restricts your flexibility in terms of composition (Obviously, you will have to physically move closer or further to change your composition significantly). In the end, the speed and resulting DoF combined with a lack of unlimited funding led me to a prime.
AF or MF. This is a tough one. Sports/wildlife subject matter is constantly moving. The newest auto-focus lenses make photographing moving objects much easier so that more effort can be devoted to composition. Even though I would love to go all out, I just cannot afford these long/fast telephotos right now. Anything f/2.8 or f/4 in the realm of 300mm or more with AF is easily $3000. I even thought about getting a shorter focal length and using teleconverters*. When you shoot this stuff for a living, no problem. When you're a broke freelancer, it's somewhat of a different story. If you have the money, the AF is a no brainer. For those without that financial background, here is where the Nikon system shines! Manual focus lenses can be had for fractions of the price of newer AF lenses. The way I see it, the pros years back shot manual focus everything and did just fine. If nothing else, it will make me better and more adept for the time being. (Or at least this is what I tell myself to cope...)
*For the Nikon shooter, I think it important to note a couple things I ran into with teleconverters. I thought about using either the Nikon 80-200mm AF-D, 80-200mm AF-S or 70-200mm AF-S VR with a 1.4x or 1.7x TC. Here's the thing. For optimal image quality most photographers use the Nikon brand TCs, the TC-14E, TC-17E, and TC-20E. These TCs ONLY work with the AF-S lenses. They actually have tabs that will not allow other lenses to be mounted including AF lenses. I have heard they can be milled but I don't know about paying over 2 grand to "rig" something. So scratch the 80-200 AF-D (the one I conveniently already own). Not only that, those AF-S lenses (as of March 2010) are running about $1000-2600 depending on which lens you're looking at. And those TCs run $300+ by themselves. You can't even use them on the $1500+ Nikon 300mm AF lens. As I said, you could choose to use any one of these lenses and just buy a Third-party TC but from all I have seen it is relatively hit or miss and if you're spending the money, you may as well know what you're getting for it. All told, I find the TC solution a possible solution, but not the best for the miserly photographer who does not already own a tele-zoom.
Nikon or Third-Party. As per usual, the Nikons tend to run a good amount more than the third party lenses depending on the model, but from all reviews perform extremely well. This is the big decision for me. Again, the third-party lenses aren't cheap, just less expensive. Typically, for just about the same price of a nice condition third-party, a photographer could purchase a beat-up Nikkor. This was an important decision to me since I appreciate owning and using well cared for gear. This can also be important in terms of quality of your sample. Not only can there be performance variation among different samples of the same lens, but consider such a precision instrument being treated like garbage for a few years. Why would you expect it to perform flawlessly? Plus, a clean, cared for lens makes resale a whole lot easier if things don't work out. I, however, managed to get an excellent price on a good condition Tokina 300mm f/2.8 SD manual focus lens. So despite the Nikon going for $800 in "bargain" condition, I picked up an alternative for barely over half the price.
Tokina MF 300mm f/2.8 AT-X
I have found very little factual information on this lens. Just about every time I search it, Google, Flickr, or whatever search I am using pulls up info or examples from the Tokina AF 300mm f/2.8 AT-X Pro. This is much newer lens design incorporating more advanced technology. It's considerably larger price tag also causes me to believe it is perhaps a much better optical design. In regards to what I have found on this older manual focus 300mm, people have said some great things about it. But again, lots of talk, little evidence. I originally had very little tech info on the post but after further searching I found Photodo.com and a Japanese site (which it seems got their info from photodo). I had actually initially posted a few items based on tests I did, such as minimum focusing distance and they corresponded with the Photodo numbers almost exactly, so that's great! Photodo says min focus distance is 2.4m. I kept getting 2.3 m. I also think they weighed the lens without the metal hood, which adds a pound or two. No real big differences!
Aperture Range: f/2.8-32
Angle of Acceptance: 9°
Optical Construction: 9 elements, 7 groups
Maximum Reproduction Ratio: 1:7 at 2.3 m
Minimum Focusing Distance (From Film Plane): 2.3 m (7.65 ft.)
Length with Hood: 350.5 mm (1.15 ft.)
Length without Hood: 213.4 mm (0.7 ft.)
Maximum Barrel Diameter: 117 mm (0.38 ft.)
Accessory Size: 112 mm and 35.5mm (filter tray)
Weight with Hood: 2.7 kg (6 lbs.)
This lens is a tank. The particular lens I bought, is somewhat of a "beater" (the hood and larger portions of the barrel have been retouch a bit in the images for the sake of this site). The glass looks very nice with a bit of dust. No scratches, fungus, haze, oil on blades, etc. so optically quite usable! But as far as cosmetics this thing got beat up. The barrel shows mars in the metal, a slightly bent hood, which fortunately is all metal (I have actually read this lens in particular had issues with the hood tightening screw breaking and thus the hood becoming flimsy, which has happened to my sample. A small piece of adhesive felt fixed this for me). Despite the battle scars, it's a rock. The hull of this lens just thuds when you flick it, no reverberation of any kind. You may as well be flicking a solid brick of steel. This MF version sports a large Tokina brand 112mm protective filter that came with the lens (also quite beat up on my lens but still in great optical shape). You have a rear 43mm drop-in filter which is the only plastic in the whole lens. I don't particularly like how flimsy it is compared to the rest of the lens, but I doubt I will ever mess with it to be honest.
Operationally, the Tokina MF 300mm is very basic. No quick focus settings or limiter switches. Just a large, extremely accessible, silky smooth focusing ring dressed in the Tokina AT-X line's signature knurled-like grip. Such a fluid focusing ring is key to improving the shooter's ability to focus quickly and accurately.Performance
For performance, see link below:
If you have any info or links on this lens, message me or e-mail. I would love to get some more together for others who may be looking!
Japanese Blurb on this MF Tokina 300 through Google Translate -
Photodo.com's review with some MTF data -