Quick Review: Tokina 300mm f/6.3 for Micro 4/3ds

882238Generally a lot of the stuff I review is on the professional, end of the scale, high-performing but expensive. There’s a pretty good reason for that — during the season especially at least 98 percent of the shooting I do is for paying clients, and I want to use the best equipment for the job. But when Tokina recently announced the 300mm f/6.3 Mirror lens for Micro 4/3rds, it stirred my interest. Mirror lenses seemed like things of the distant past, so I wanted to see how they had done balancing the strengths and weaknesses of the design for the new age. But also there seemed to be a unique opportunity when paired with the Olympus OM-D. Generally, the only situation that you can shoot something at 300mm and f/6.3 is under very brightly lit conditions, generally full sun. But with the impressive noise performance and highly effective in-camera lens stabilization of the OM-D, it seemed like it might be possible to shoot in more general conditions.

First: What is a mirror lens? In broad brush strokes, basically it’s a telescope that fits on your camera. They have one fixed aperture and with very rare exceptions are manual focus. They never became widely popular largely because of the fixed, usually very slow apertures, and because the design produces some very strange bokeh, turning any patches of light into swirly donuts:

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Ok, so what’s the point? Weight and cost. They tend to be much cheaper than equivalent “real” lenses and much, much lighter — especially when combined with the 2.0 crop factor of micro-4/3rds. Here’s what it’s like to carry the Canon 600mm f/4 (taken from Juza Photo) next to what it’s like to carry the OM-D and Tokina.

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These set-ups have similar frames of view, though of course the similarities end there. The tokina is manual-focus, a smaller unchangeable aperture, and in depth of field terms on a full frame camera it is similar to a 600mm f/13. But you can see why this might be the sort of thing a private eye would want in their bag.

As someone who only shoots above 85mm in certain situations, shooting at 600mm was an interesting challenge. For the first few days it was actively jarring to put the camera up to my face, and astonishing how far back I had to stand from my subjects. The Tokina has surprisingly close focus, and functions as a 1:2 macro. But even photographing something as small as a wedding ring meant standing two or three feet away!

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It’s almost unfair to compare the optical performance of this little guy to the professional glass I normally use, but in any case do not expect much. When my assistant looked at some photos I had taken with it, he said “I think something’s wrong with your camera, these are really cloudy.” Contrast is not very good at all in most situations — that can be corrected somewhat in post-processing, but post can never make up for that entirely. But when everything works right, it can be sharper than I expected:

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As the 100 percent crop shows, even with the good performance of the OM-D, shooting at f/6.3 indoors means learning to live with noise. To shoot this (from way, WAY across the room) in good window light, I had to be at ISO 5,000. This is not a normal use lens.

It’s also not very easy to manually focus an ultra-telephoto lens — shooting motion with this will take both skill AND luck. My diopter was off just a tiny bit on the OM-D, and even that made focusing nearly impossible. Something like the Panasonic 100-300mm is going to be well worth the extra money for most users. It’s almost double the weight, and is a lot more conspicuous … but nothing like walking around with a 600mm. Some of the possible uses for this lens seem well, a little creepy, but we won’t focus on that. For non-creepy users, it’s mostly recommended for people who want to shoot telephoto but very rarely, because this is a lot easier to keep in a little bag at all times than the Panasonic, or for people who really like swirly donuts. With the right subject, even a lens like this can turn out good results: