60-120mm f/2.8 Tokina AT-X
TheTokina AT-X 60-120mm zoom exhibits build quality that is as good as the best lenses made by Minolta.

If you have read my 'Background' page with its brief review of the sharpness of zooms versus primes, you might wonder why I own any zooms at all! You might also think that if I was going to own a zoom, then surely it would be a Minolta zoom. After all, aren't brand name lenses always better than third-party lenses?

Well there is a good reason why I own some zoom lenses. After a year or two of being totally focused on the sharpness that the great Minolta prime lenses achieve I realised that for some purposes the convenience of a zoom outweighed the additional sharpness that a prime delivered. For example, when shooting family snapshots that will never be enlarged larger than 6 x 4 there is less reason to choose a prime. Also, when travelling and restricted in what you can carry, a good zoom might enable you to get photos you otherwise would miss. OK, so that understood, which zoom lens out of the many available do you select?

I acquired this lens as a second lens in a package with the purchase of my first 300mm, the Minolta 300mm MC Tele Rokkor - HF. The seller would not split the lenses, and the price was just too good to refuse, so I purchased the lenses, figuring I would sell this one. I had heard that the Tokina AT-X brand was a particularly good brand, being the professional line produced by Tokina, but I still had an aversion for using zooms. However, when I received the lens I just couldn't bring myself to sell it. The build quality of the lens was outstanding, and the few images I took with it seemed quite good. It struck me that it would make a good 'wedding' lens, in circumstances where I may not have time to change lenses to get the right shot. The fast (f/2.8) aperture, and the good range that covers all of the popular portrait lengths also added value, and so I decided to keep it.

I didn't, however, really start using the lens because of my lingering questions about the sharpness of zooms, even professional zooms. In fact, it was only the prospect of a long overseas photo holiday where this lens would be very handy that made me pull it out and really put it to the test. I decided to test it against two lenses of outstanding sharpness, the 85mm f/2 MD Rokkor-X, and the 100mm f/3.5 MD Macro Rokkor-X. The outcomes of this testing are detailed below, based upon 100% scans taken at approximately 2200 dpi. It is noted that at 2200 dpi, the full resolution potential of these lenses is not being achieved.

Apologies are given for the boring nature of the shots, but hey, these are only lens tests. It is noted that the film used was Kodak Portra 400UC, an exceptionally fine-grained 400 speed film.

Tests at 85mm
Here's the results when compared to the 85mm f/2 MD Rokkor-X, an incredibly sharp portrait lens.
The original image shot with the 60-120mm at 85mm
Performance at f/2.8

60-120mm f/2.8 at f/2.8 - centre

85mm f/2 at f/2.8 - centre

60-120mm f/2.8 at f/2.8 - side
85mm f/2 at f/2.8 - side
60-120mm f/2.8 at f/2.8 - corner
85mm f/2 at f/2.8 - corner
Looking at the 100% crops above it is quite obvious that the prime walks all over the zoom in terms of sharpness. Rather than being surprised by the performance of the zoom, which I actually think is very good given it is wide open, I am totally blown away by the results for the 85mm f/2. I knew it was a sharp lens, and it has a great reputation, but wow! Look at the sharpness in the absolute corner of the image at f/2.8! That is the best result from any of the lenses I have tested to date.
Performance at f/4

60-120mm f/2.8 at f/4 - centre

85mm f/2 at f/4 - centre

60-120mm f/2.8 at f/4 - side
85mm f/2 at f/4 - side
60-120mm f/2.8 at f/4 - corner
85mm f/2 at f/4 - corner
At f/4 the zoom's performance improves a little, you can see more detail in the corner image and the contrast appears improved. When you look at the prime's results however, there's just no comparison. Believe it or not, the performance of the 85mm just gets better. You can actually see the texture in the rippled glass in the crop from the side of the image, and the corner crop has improved contrast. Wow!
Performance at f/5.6

60-120mm f/2.8 at f/5.6 - centre

85mm f/2 at f/5.6 - centre
60-120mm f/2.8 at f/5.6 - side
85mm f/2 at f/5.6 - side
60-120mm f/2.8 at f/5.6 - corner
85mm f/2 at f/5.6 - corner

At f/5.6 the zoom has again improved, but the results still don't come close to the prime lens. The improved sharpness/contrast also reveals that the corners and sides of the zoom's image show some slight chromatic aberration (colour fringing).

It seems obvious that even a professional zoom like the Tokina AT-X 60-120mm f/2.8 just does not compare to the 85mm f/2 MD Rokkor-X. To show just how much better the prime is, here is the ultimate test. There's no way a prime wide open at f/2 could beat a professional quality zoom at f/5.6.....is there?


85mm Prime @ f/2 vs. 60-120mm Zoom @ f/5.6


60-120mm f/2.8 at f/5.6 - centre

85mm f/2 at f/2 - centre

60-120mm f/2.8 at f/5.6 - side
85mm f/2 at f/2 - side
60-120mm f/2.8 at f/5.6 - corner
85mm f/2 at f/2 - corner
Well, quite obviously it is possible for the prime, wide open at f2, to beat the professional quality zoom stopped down to f5.6. The only possible complaint about the prime is that the corner image appears slightly darker, indicating some light falloff. While one could easily draw conclusions about the quality of the zoom on the back of these samples, I think that really what we are seeing is a prime lens that is simply astounding in terms of its performance. Not many lenses stood much of a chance against it.
Tests at 100mm
Here's the results when compared to the 100mm f/3.5 Macro, a lens which would naturally be expected to have significantly better results than the zoom. Given the prime has a maximum aperture of f/3.5, we are testing the lenses at f/4 (f/3.5 for the 100mm) and f/5.6.
The original image shot with the 60-120mm at 100mm
Performance at f/4

60-120mm f/2.8 at f/4 - centre

100mm f/3.5 at f/3.5 - centre

60-120mm f/2.8 at f/4 - side
100mm f/3.5 at f/3.5 - side
60-120mm f/2.8 at f/4 - corner
100mm f/3.5 at f/3.5 - corner
At f/4 the performance of the two lenses is close in the centre, possibly the zoom has higher contrast? It is very hard to split them. At the side and in the corners the prime is considerably better.
Performance at f/5.6

60-120mm f/2.8 at f/5.6 - centre

100mm f/3.5 at f/5.6 - centre

60-120mm f/2.8 at f/5.6 - side
100mm f/3.5 at f/5.6 - side
60-120mm f/2.8 at f/5.6 - corner
100mm f/3.5 at f/5.6 - corner
  At f/5.6 the zoom is a little better, but the prime is still out in front, and the centre sharpness of the prime has benefited from the extra stop of aperture. Interestingly, the 100mm f/3.5 macro has not performed as well as the 85mm f/2. This was certainly not expected, as you would expect a macro lens to be considerably sharper than a portrait lens. What does this all mean? Well it means that to paraphrase Charlton Heston, "You'll have to prise my 85mm f/2 from my cold, dead hands".  
Bokeh example - 60-120mm f/2.8 @ f/2.8

This is my ex-wife's dog Fu - sadly now passed away. Note the excellent bokeh of the zoom lens, and the capacity to really isolate the subject from the fast f/2.8 aperture. You can see the very slight light fall-off in the corners of the image, considerably less than on many zooms and almost unnoticeable.

Tokina AT-X 60-120mm f/2.8 @ f/8
Here's a shot I took a few weeks ago using the zoom. I was actually very impressed by the sharpness and contrast in the image, and had all actually expected that it would give the primes a run for their money on the back of this 'real-life' test. Little did I know!

In summary, the overall performance of the lens at f/2.8 was really very sound for a zoom. It demonstrated acceptable centre sharpness, nice bokeh, and only very minor light fall-off in the corners that was completely gone at f/4. While corner sharpness was poor, this is to be expected when wide open, and really the performance of the zoom was excellent, it was just made to look worse by the outstanding sharpness of the 85mm f/2 MD Rokkor-X. As far as distortion is concerned, it is negligible, as can be seen in the full size images in the test section.

As a portrait lens, or a lens for events where flexibility in focal length is needed (eg. weddings), the Tokina AT-X 60-120mm f/2.8 would be an excellent choice. However, if your goal is the best possible resolution and you plan to make very large prints, the best choice is still primes.

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