Spoiler alert! The Tokina 16-28mm is the sharpest third-party ultra-wide f/2.8 zoom ever. There, this review could be done now! Actually, it’s the second-sharpest f/2.8 ultra-wide zoom on the market, period! It is also the most sturdy third-party ultra-wide lens on the market, but then again rock-solid lenses are a Tokina tradition…
If you have the money and you know you need this type of specialty ultra-wide lens, then this review could end here. Buy it! If you’re on the fence, hopefully this information will give you everything you need to make a decision.
The Tokina 16-28mm has been on the market for about three years now, and yet somehow it has avoided the spotlight for the most part. So after having used numerous copies of this lens over the past few years for varios projects, we thought we’d give the lens a hard-earned 15 minutes of fame.
You probably already know your budget, and whether or not you can afford something else like the Nikon 14-24mm, or a Canon 16-35mm mk2 L. Well at currently just $699 the Tokina is nearly 1/3 of the price of the Nikon, and exactly $1,000 cheaper than the Canon. (The Tokina originally listed at $1,400, by the way, and has gradually dropped to the $750 range, and it is currently on sale with a $50 mail-in rebate.)
This is defintely the lens’ number one strength. Tokina put all their optical design magic into this one, and its overall image quality is superb. (Not just sharpness but also things like vignetting, aberration, distortion and coma)
Tokina has always gone the opposite route of the other third-party makers, in that they don’t build cheap plastic crap. Many of Tokina’s designs incorporate a lot of metal parts, and this beast is no exception. This lens can survive reasonable abuse for years and years without any trouble.
- Low flare and great Sunstars
In addition to overall image quality, flare and sunstars are two things that many people overlook when considering a lens, even landscape photographers! Tokina has been know for lenses that have utterly terrible flare problems, with little balls of light running through your entire image if the sun even barely hits the front element. Well, Tokina has taken a big step with the 16-28 in reducing flare! It’s still there, and if the sun is actually in the photo then you get a tiny bit of streaking, but it’s about normal for any ultra-wide lens.
The sunstars are also pretty cool; depending on how far down you stop (f/16 is always a good safe bet. They’re not to big and pointy, (like many Canon lens sunstars) yet not too small. (Like many Nikon lens sunstars…)
- “Almost as good” Autofocus
My first quibble was simply that I felt the autofocus wasn’t up to snuff compared to Canon and Nikon’s name-brand AF technology The 16-28 does at least have a built-in AF motor, so it can function on any Nikon camera including the few beginner DX models that don’t have an AF motor. Of course this lens isn’t really idea for a beginner DX camera; you’d be much better off with the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 DX in that case. But I digress. The reality is, this lens actually focuses quite well. My initial scare was mostly due to a body that had a front-focus error, and after switching bodies I found AF to be much more consistent. The lens may need a little bit of AF microadjustment, but honestly that is not unique to Tokina or 3rd party lenses in my experience, all lenses will require regular calibration if they are used heavily for years. So while the “name-brand” autofocus technology is indeed slightly better, the Tokina still delivers.
- Limited zoom range
In case I haven’t said it frequently enough yet, the zoom range is slightly limiting for general use. A photojournalist who doesn’t care that much about extreme corner sharpness wide open might be better off with a lens that goes all the way to 35mm or 40mm, even if it means using an f/4 lens. But that is a personal decision- If for example you already find yourself using a 24-70mm most of the time, then this lens’ range is probably just fine. But if you don’t care for the 24-70 range and prefer to just roll with two cameras that have “permanently attached” 70-200 and ultra-wide zooms, you might want to think twice about a lens that stops at 28mm. It’s up to you.
- Weight, Size, and Front-End Vulnerability
It is common knowledge that unfortunately, the Tokina front-cap that comes with this lens is borderline worthless; after just a few months of regular use it will become so loose that it just falls off. Many photographers have recommended that you just shelve the stock front cap right away, and opt for a $13 neoprene “sock-type lens cover” instead. We agree! Anyways in general this lens is just a beast, and if you’re not ready for the heft and the vulnerable front element then you can find yourself leaving it at home more often. If you’re a general travel photographer, (family vacations?) …or an f/16 landscape photographer, you should think twice.
Who Should Buy It?
This lens, like the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, is one of the most specialized ultra-wide lenses on the market. While other ultra-wide lenses go all the way to 35mm, or even 40mm in the case of the Canon 17-40mm f/4 L, this lens stops at 28mm which is barely even a departure from the “ultra-wide” range. So unless you have a very strong need for both the f/2.8 aperture and the exceptional sharpness, you’re probably better off with a more versatile zoom range or a more affordable option. (Although for only ~$700, there might not even be a more affordable f/2.8 option out there!)
Bottom line? In my opinion, this lens targets only a few specific types of photographers:
- Primarily, this lens is for landscape and outdoor photographers who value f/2.8 and wide-open sharpness more than they value zoom range or portability. Otherwise, a more traditional landscape photographer who finds themselves always shooting at f/16 and frequently hiking / traveling with their gear on their back, well, they’re much better off just buying an f/4 ultra-wide zoom that is equally sharp stopped down and usually weighs a lot less while offering a longer zoom range.
The type of landscape and outdoor photographer who will realize the full value in this lens are the ones who need the f/2.8 aperture to photograph starscapes, or nightscapes. Of course there are many other things that you might want to photograph at f/2.8, but you get the idea- This lens is great for pushing the envelope in low-light conditions.
- Speaking of low-light conditions, aside from landscape or “nightscape” photography, photojournalists are the other group that often need an f/2.8 aperture and great sharpness wide-open at their disposal. Shooting hand-held in extremely dim conditions, every last bit of shutter speed that your lens can help you gain is very worthwhile!
- Of course f/2.8 is not just useful in extremely dim conditions, it is also useful in moderate and even bright light, if you’re photographing high-speed action sports. While most sports are photographed from the sidelines with big telephoto lenses, there are also plenty of sports where being extremely close and wide is an awesome thing. Lots of racing and extreme sports are really cool to photograph from up close! And if you want to get your shutter speed up into the thousandths, having f/2.8 at your disposal is very helpful.
(If I missed your own special type of photography for which you think this lens is a a clear winner, I do apologize!)
- If you buy this lens and you find yourself ALWAYS just using it at 16mm, and often wishing you had something even wider, then you probably should have bought a 14mm f/2.8 prime instead, such as the amazingly sharp Rokinon / Samyang / Bower 14mm. The Tokina 16-28mm is nearly a prime anyways, so there’s very little reason to lug around such a heavy zoom unless you really do need the range. If you’re a slow and methodical landscape photographer, just buy yourself a 14mm f/2.8 and a 24mm f/2.8, and you’ll come out under cost and under weight! Or, if you have a bigger budget and want the absolute best sharpness ever at 14mm, the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 is of course the reigning ultra-wide champion.
- Oppositely, if you buy this lens and you find yourself ALWAYS wishing that it could go longer than 28mm, then you probably should consider more versatile lenses like the Nikon 16-35mm f/4 VR, or the Canon 17-40mm f/4 L, or even the Tokina 17-35mm f/4.
- If you want both f/2.8 and extra zoom as well, your options include the Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 and the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 mk2. However both of these lenses cost quite a bit more while not offering much better image quality, or even worse sharpness on the average copy of these lenses. So really, they’re only a good buy if you absolutely need the longer end and/or the ability to use filters. Otherwise, save yourself a bundle and get the Tokina!
Considering that I’ve made the same statements about this lens multiple times now, I believe this review has reached a good stopping point. ;-) Buy this lens if you need the specialty range but are on a budget. Or even if you’re not on a budget but have plenty of other stuff you’d also like to invest in, you can safely buy this lens and be happy! However, keep in mind that it is a specialty item and may not be the right tool for many photographers. As such, we give it 4 out of 5 stars for the majority of our readers.
Take care and happy clicking,