Tokina (a lens brand by Kenko) recently sent me their new 400mm f/8 SZX mirror lens to test. It’s an all-manual fixed-aperture mirror lens, and I was interested in testing this lens because I already have the Tamron 500mm f/8 BB lens that I reviewed a few months ago. I’ve shot for a few months with the Tokina 400mm now and here are my conclusions. I already produced a YouTube review of this lens:
However, I’d like to also give a slighty more in-depth written review of this lens. I suggest watching the YouTube video above since you can see some video footage taken with the lens, as well as a few clips of me handling the lens, which will give you a much better idea of its size.
Why a mirror lens?
In the video review, you’ll see just how small this lens is. Even Nikon’s very compact 400mm f/4.5 lens for its Z cameras is just huge compared to Tokina’s 400mm f/8. Of course, it’s f/8 aperture (which is 1.66 stops slower than f/4.5) makes it naturally smaller, but its mirror design is what really makes it tiny.
Therefore, if you want to shoot with long focal lengths, a mirror lens might be the way to go if you can’t stand the idea of hand-holding a large bazooka like a typical telephoto.
I got into mirror lenses back in the day when I was just experimenting with bird photography. Since then, I have signficantly upgraded my gear and I now use Nikon’s 500mm f/5.6 PF lens as my main birding lens, and even before that I often shot with my Tamron 150-600mm G2. The 500mm f/5.6 is sharper and faster than the Tamron 150-600mm G2, and even the Tamron G2 is so much better than the Tamron 500mm 55BB. So why do I still have the Tamron?
Well, it’s mostly just for fun. It’s a really small lens with a reproduction ratio of 0.33x and it’s actually sufficiently sharp to produce some interesting photos with it. So, is Tokina’s latest offering good enough to join the ranks of the Tamron 55BB? Let’s see…
I already talked a little about the build quality and handling in my video, so I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice it to say, it’s well-made but the focus throw is a bit short. What I want to talk more about is the optical performance. And of course, I compared this little 400mm against the Tamron 55BB.
In my test, I took a shot of some money with a flash and the lens and camera mounted on a tripod at a distance of about 2 meters. I used the Panasonic G9: it’s small pixels size will reveal the most flaws with a lens. I matched the field of view with the Tamron and then compared 100% crops from the center (click to enlarge):
This image says it all: the Tokina 400mm f/8 SZX is a level below the Tamron 55BB. But how big is this difference in real-life shooting scenarios? The good news is that it is still definitely possible to obtain nice shots with the Tokina. But don’t take my word for it: just judge based on the images on this page. It can certainly produce good stuff. This is especially true when using it on a full-frame camera and just getting closer: the smaller pixels and crop of my Panasonic G9 strained this lens a little too much.
The Tamron 55BB though is noticeably sharper in the field, and side-by-side in most scenarios, there is a noticeable difference even when not viewing at 100%. At typical bird distances, there is no doubt that the Tamron 55BB resolves more detail. I think this is important to mention because I have read a few other reviews on this lens and they do not really go into this. For example, let’s check out Christophe Anagnostopoulos’s review, where he says
[…] image sharpness is indeed a little lower from today’s standard, but for sure way better than previous generation lenses […]
Which, based on these tests, is not accurate. Of course, there were also many lesser-quality mirror lenses produced during those early days as well, so perhaps that is what Christophe is referring to.
I also noticed something else that I didn’t mention in my video review: the Tokina 400mm’s ideal distance seems to be about a meter to three meters. It has macro capability up to 1:2.5, though you have to be really careful here, because the Tokina’s image quality degrades even more when shot up close. This definitely is not the case with the Tamron 55BB, which magnifies slightly less at 1:3.
I think the Tokina 400mm f/8 SZX is a nice lens, and it is a great way to shoot at 400mm without breaking the bank (MSRP $329USD), or your back (weight: 355g). However, I will underline the most important point: the Tokina 400mm f/8 will lose noticeable feather detail at typical bird distances. So, if you are into bird photography and want to do creative bird ‘n mirror lens shots, I would probably go for a used Tamron 55BB instead.
At the same time, I’ve seen some pretty creative uses of this lens. Some people use it for portraits, in fact. I’ve tested it myself with portraits and then the results are pretty nice, especially if you can leverage the donut bokeh of this lens. Portraits don’t demand an insane amount of resolving power like birds, so if you want to do some creative portraits, it’s unlikely you’ll be held back by this lens.
Finally, there is no doubt that this lens’s size and weight can come in handy. It’s even smaller than the Tamron 55BB, not to mention smaller than some modern 50mm lenses! If you watched my video, you’ll see that this lens is really pretty decent for…video. Video shot at 1080P for example is such a low resolution that the slightly lower resolving power of this lens isn’t such a problem.
If you are into mirror lenses, this lens deserves some consideration. It’s rather crazy to shoot at 400mm with such a small lens, and I had fun doing so!