The Tokina AT-X SD 150-500mm f5.6 is an extremely long telephoto lens featuring low dispersion glass and a relatively impressive fixed aperture of f5.6 throughout the zoom range.
|List Price when new|
|Angle of view||24°~8°|
|Optical Construction (Groups / Elements)||13 / 15|
|Maximum Macro Magnification ratio|
|Filter Size||95mm front, 35.5mm rear|
Background and availability
The Tokina AT-X SD 150-500mm f5.6 is a pretty rare lens – it seems – and was fairly expensive when launched at around $1,000 (according to Ken Rockwell who has a detailed review of this ‘exotic’ lens). The lens carries the ‘AT-X’ label that applies to Tokina’s best lenses (prior to the later, less subtle, ‘AT-X Pro’ label added to lenses aimed at professionals) and it boasts ‘Super Low Dispersion’ glass (indicated by ‘SD’) as well as a drop-in holder for 35.5mm screw-in filters. A drop-in filter should be present for the lens to focus properly.
It shares features with other big telephoto lenses in the Tokina manual focus line-up – it uses a slide-out metal integral lens hood with the SD red stripe like the Tokina SD 400mm f5.6 and has a drop-in filter system like the Tokina AT-X SD 300mm f2.8 as well as the same patterned rubber grip (the mere SD 400mm f5.6 has a different pattern). It has a 95mm filter ring, but did not come with a filter as standard like the 300mm f2.8 – but any 95mm filter will fit (be prepared to pay a lot for a branded one).
It’s a big lens, measuring nearly 13 inches when focused down to its minimum focus distance of 3 metres and it weighs just over 2.2kgs – a little lighter than its shorter sibling the 2.8kg 300mm f2.8. Naturally, you are going to have to be cautious when attaching this behemoth to the relatively minute Sony NEX 5N and a monopod will definitely come in handy in use so as not to strain the camera mount when using the push-pull zoom, focusing shots and trying to hold the lens with one hand whilst working the shutter and balancing the whole lot with the other (whilst trying to put as little weight as possible through the camera).
Ken Rockwell liked the lens, noting that it had ‘the least distortion I’ve ever measured in a telephoto zoom’ and that it is ‘Optically excellent at 150mm, [getting] a little softer at 500mm’. In terms of sharpness he concludes:
it’s wonderful even wide-open at 150mm and then softer at 500mm.
150~250mm: Sharp edge-edge, even wide-open.
400~500mm: It looks like it has some spherical aberration wide open (f/5.6) Stop down a stop or two and it’s better. My sample is a bit softer on the right side at the longer focal lengths.
It is interesting to note that Ken Rockwell tested this lens on a full frame camera, the crop factor may be more forgiving to the lens as it will use more of the sweet middle, and less of the extreme edges of a full frame lens. He also points out that you can find a review in ‘Modern Photography, March 1988 pages 61 and 62’ – so I’ll assume it probably came out in 1988, making it not that ancient compared to some of the lenses I have used.
This lens is rare. Ken Rockwell states that in the USA over a 10 year production run only around 1,000 were sold. The lens is also made more desirable in theory because the focal length it covers is also not common – Canon made an FD 150-600mm f5.6L but this lens is exceedingly rare and eye-wateringly expensive. The only realistic alternative is the Tamron SP 200-500mm f5.6 – but this lens is also rare and seems to be quite expensive when it does become available.
I have only seen three of these Tokina lenses for sale. One, I purchased for a very reasonable price indeed, another is on Ebay at the moment buy-it-now for $625 (representing what the seller wants, not necessarily the realistic worth of the lens) and another was listed on another site for more than this – although it may not have sold.
To sum up: no real idea of its worth, unless the price I paid was really all the lens is currently worth to buyers, given that I won the auction with a very modest bid – I wasn’t really prepared to pay a lot for a lens, given that I just spent a lot (in relative terms) on the Tokina AT-X SD 300mm f2.8.
If you see one I guess you need to negotiate hard with the seller (difficult as they’re rare) or pay them the asking price, or wait patiently for an auction which might end reasonably (few and far between). Either way, given the £12,000 launch price of Canon’s new 200-400mm lens I’m actually really pleased with this old Tokina – a big telephoto zoom without the price tag.
Performance and handling
Firstly, it is possible to handhold this lens, but not really advisable. For starters, at 500mm you’re going to need really steady hands, strong arms and good light given the modest aperture of the lens. I’d recommend a monopod for general walking around with this lens – it just makes everything easier. At 500mm stopping down to gain sharpness isn’t too much of an issue, given that at f5.6 the depth of field is so shallow you might want a bit more depth for most wildlife work. So far I’ve only stopped down to f8 and I have been very pleased with the results, in good light I will stop down a bit more to see if this improves things further.
Wide open I have been happy with the results at 500mm – where this lens tends to live with me most of the time – and a lot of the time I’ve had to keep the lens wide open due to lack of light. Again, a monopod helps to keep the lens steady at slow shutter speeds, handheld work at 500mm in poor light would be impossible without adequate support. I find the lens controls purple fringing well, and it seems to fare better than the Tokina SD 400mm f5.6 and better than the Tokina AT-X SD 300mm f2.8. One advantage the zoom has is the ability to better find subjects. On the NEX 5N with no viewfinder you rely 100% on the screen and I find myself rarely standing directly between the screen and the object I am trying to photograph. This means that if I spot a bird in a tree I then have to try to find that bird on the screen. WIth a 300/400mm prime lens that is difficult as your eyes move straight from a ‘zoomed-out’ state to a close-up view.
With the Tokina AT-X SD 150-500mm f5.6 you have to worry a lot less about this tiny frame hunting, you just leave the lens at 150mm, find the bird and then just zoom straight into it. Zooming from 150-500mm is quite impressive and the lens has a useful range for wildlife photography. In my price range I cannot think about another lens that I could even find. The Tamron SP 200-500mm f5.6 still commands a premium (and doesn’t have any low dispersion elements, unlike the Tokina), the Canon FD 150-600mm f5.6L is on Ebay at the moment for £1,999 and the Cosina 100-500 f5.6-8 is slower and isn’t that good by all accounts.
All in all I’m really pleased with the photos I have taken so far with the Tokina AT-X SD 150-500mm f5.6 – both in terms of the image quality that the lens provides, as well as the sheer possibilities that would otherwise be outside of my budget. If you are lucky enough to find one at a good price, snap it up – you won’t regret it.
When the lockdown has ended I will borrow this lens back (I sold it to my brother) and try it on my A7ii for some landscape and wildlife photography.