Ultra-wide angle lenses are an absolute-must for every photographer who focuses on Walt Disney World or Disneyland photography. They are best used to create stunning architectural photos, but truly have a myriad of uses. The Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens is currently my favorite ultra-wide angle lens for crop-sensor (normal DSLR) Disney photography. With an aperture of f/2.8, it’s fast enough to use hand-held at night (or on some Disneyland or Walt Disney World dark rides!) and its image quality is stunningly sharp while barrel distortion is minimal. At 11mm, it’s incredibly wide, although not quite as wide as some other lenses.
The Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 is a rectilinear lens, as opposed to a fisheye lens like the 8mm fisheye I previously reviewed, meaning that straight lines stay straight with this lens. There can be distortion in photos taken with this lens, but it’s great for architecture because your straight lines stay straight. What you get instead is perspective distortion, which is great when you want to capture something up close and personal, yet at the same time use the objects or horizon in the background as part of the composition of your photo without losing focus. As is typical with almost all ultra-wide angle lenses, the Tokina 11-16mm has a very large depth of field, even at smaller apertures, meaning that objects in the distance behind your subject are usually going to appear just as sharp as your subject itself.
That said, due to the lens’ 1 foot minimum focus distance, you can achieve what I call “ultra-wide angle closeups” where you get close as close as possible to your subject for maximum distortion. When you do this, if you’re using an aperture of f/2.8, you will achieve some background bokeh.
Besides photos of architecture and photos with perspective distortion, the other primary use of an ultra-wide angle lens is simply “getting more stuff in the shot.” While this type of photo offers huge appeal, overuse can be one of the pitfalls of the ultra-wide angle lens, because you end up with a lot of photos that simply have more crammed into them, and lack layering of a definite subject. This type of photo is often characterized by large empty areas of sky or ground. There are certainly a lot of other creative uses for the ultra-wide angle lens, but it’s certainly a specialty lens.
If you’ve read my Tamron 17-55mm f/2.8 review or my 8mm Fisheye Lens Review, you probably know that I’m not the type of person who uses an “all in one” lens to travel light. There are a lot of people who do exactly that, especially on vacation. I can’t say I necessarily disagree with this, but for me, photography is a big part of the fun when taking a trip to Disneyland or Walt Disney World, and since I’m not a professional photographer, I’m not looking to travel light to get a “break” from my regular photography job when on vacation. So if that’s your style of shooting, my recommendations probably won’t be that useful to you.
However, if Disney photography is a hobby unto itself for you (or if you’re reading this review for non-Disney photography purposes), I would strongly discourage you from purchasing only an “all in one” lens. If you want to avoid changing lenses and to have a simple solution that can do it all, in my opinion, you’re better off purchasing a high end point & shoot camera, like the Canon S95. It won’t be as good of quality as a DSLR plus an all in one lens, but it’ll be close, and if you’re willing to compromise a bit of quality with the DSLR by using the all in one lens, perhaps you’re willing to compromise a bit more quality for the convenience of a point & shoot. This is not meant to be a knock on people who prefer all in one lenses, especially those who use them as a “break” from their normal camera gear.
But I digress. So, who does this lens best-suit? Well, since Disney has some amazing architecture and since this lens is great for dark rides, my answer is “everyone traveling to Walt Disney World or Disneyland.” Although it’s dramatically different from a fisheye, if you already own a fisheye lens and only one other lens, I can’t say I’d recommend this as your next purchase. However, if your bag contains a fisheye but is otherwise well-rounded, you should still consider an ultra-wide angle lens. The two lenses have distinctly different purposes. (This was something about which I was worried when I first considered owning both a fisheye and an ultra-wide angle; once I had both, I discovered my fear was unfounded. So hopefully this assuages any similar fears you might have.)
The Tokina’s biggest strength is its sharpness. It’s ridiculously sharp. Other ultra-wide lenses have issues with soft corners, but not the Tokina 11-16mm. It is sharp across the entire frame, even when wide-open at f/2.8. As far as image quality goes, vignetting isn’t much of an issue nor are chromatic aberrations. I’ve only really ever noticed chromatic aberrations (on rare occasion) in the corners of the frame.
I shoot into the sun a lot, so one of my biggest concerns with any lens is how it handles flare. Normally, this lens has no issue with flare. When shooting directly into the sun, there are some flare issues and sunspots due to the lens coating, but these are mostly correctable in Photoshop by using spot removal. When stopped down, the sunbursts that I get are sharper “rays,” which aren’t my favorite type, but your mileage may vary on that as it’s personal preference. I know not everyone shoots into the sun like me, so this may be a non-issue to you.
As I touched upon above, a huge advantage of the Tokina 11-16mm is the f/2.8 minimum aperture. The importance of this aperture really cannot be understated. There’s a reason pros favor f/2.8 lenses–it’s because they allow more control over depth of field, not stopping down as much to achieve maximum sharpness, and handheld photos in darker conditions. With ultra-wide angle lenses, the depth of field control isn’t such a big deal. However, with Disney photography, handheld photos in darker conditions is a HUGE benefit. I’ve used this lens on dark rides to great success (like for the Spaceship Earth and Buzz Lightyear’s Spaceranger Spin photos below), which is something you can’t even consider with most wide angle lenses, and to capture photos at night (like the one above of the Main Street Electrical Parade) without a tripod.
Another big advantage of the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 that some other ultra-wide angle lenses don’t have is that it can accept filters. While some filters produce uneven results on ultra-wide angle lenses, I like being able to use a neutral density filter on my ultra-wide angle lenses (I rarely use polarizing filters). Neutral density filters are really useful for creative photography and fireworks photography, so if you don’t own any, they’re worth checking out. (Here’s my neutral density filter overview. WARNING: after reading that, you may find yourself spending more money on photography equipment. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!)
For me, these are the two biggest advantages of the Tokina 11-16mm after its image quality. They more than offset its biggest drawback, which is that it’s only 11mm on the widest end. Now, compared to a normal 18-55mm kit lens, this is a huge difference. If you’ve never used a wide angle lens, you’ll be shocked by just how much wider it is. However, it’s not quite as wide as the newer Sigma 8-16mm lens (which I also own…at least as of the time of this article’s writing). The difference between 8mm and 11mm may not seem like much, but it is. 8mm offers quite a bit more in terms of field of view. I am crazy about my wide shots, so this was enough for me to justify owning both. It may not be as big of a deal for you, especially since the Sigma 8-16mm doesn’t accept filters and doesn’t offer an f/2.8 aperture. Or, the 8mm may be a bigger deal to you than the filters and the f/2.8 aperture. It’s really a personal preference. I personally love both lenses.
The other strengths of the Tokina are its exceptional metal build quality, with well-built rubber focus and zoom rings. It also includes a sturdy lens hood, and all in all, the lens is decidedly well built. It certainly feels much better than the normal kit lens–like it will last for years. Beyond that, the auto-focus is incredibly fast (although it won’t auto-focus with entry-level Nikons).
So, what about the competition? I’ve owned three separate ultra-wide angle lenses and tested another: the Sigma 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 DC HSM AF Ultra Wide Zoom Lens for Nikon, Nikon 12-24mm f/4 ED IF AF-S Lens, Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G AF-S DX Nikkor Lens, and this lens. Out of the four lenses, I’d rank the Tokina #1, the Sigma #2, the Nikon 10-24 #3, and the Nikon 12-24 #4. The Tokina has all of the strengths discussed above that don’t really need to be iterated here. The Sigma takes the #2 slot because of the extra 2mm it has on the Nikon 10-24mm at the wide end. This may not seem like a big deal, but it is. It’s weaknesses, however, are that it’s slower (f/4.5-5.6) than most ultra-wides, it doesn’t accept filters, and its focus is a little slow. The fact that it’s 8mm on the wide end makes up for those faults, though. It also has amazingly little distortion and is very sharp. Although I couldn’t compare the Nikon 10-24 and 12-24 side-by-side, the 10-24mm seemed a little less sharp, but its lower price (still more expensive than the Sigma or Tokina, though) moved it to the #3 spot. It also accepts filters and is 1mm wider than the Tokina, which is nice, but the f/2.8 of the Tokina is nicer. Both control distortion well, and I think the Tokina is sharper. The top three lenses on this list are really close to one another in terms of how much I like them.
By contrast, the Nikon 12-24mm is a bit of a non-factor as it’s more expensive, less wide, and slower. It does have more range than the Tokina, but I rarely (very rarely) use the long end of ultra-wide angle lenses. In fact, well over 50% of my photos with my ultra-wide angle lenses are taken at their widest focal length. I would just as soon have them be incredibly wide prime lenses, actually. So if zoom does matter to you, you might want to weight that accordingly. I give short reviews of each in our capsule overview reviews of different photography equipment, accessories, books, and software for Walt Disney World and Disneyland photography if you’re interested in reading a bit more about those lenses. If you’re really interested in Disney photography, you should also listen to ISO 5571, a podcast I co-host that is entirely focused on Walt Disney World and Disneyland photography. We think it’s somewhat humorous, but most people disagree!
All told, is this lens worth purchasing? My answer is an emphatic YES! With its sharpness, f/2.8 aperture, ability to accept filters, and exceptional build quality, I think it’s the best crop sensor ultra-wide angle lens on the market. It actually pains me to have to get rid of it now that I’m moving to the full frame Nikon D700 (speaking of which, if you want me to offer detailed reviews for other lenses I presently own, you might want to ask soon in the comments, as I’m getting rid of a lot of them in the next couple weeks!). For me, the lens’ biggest fault is that it’s “only” 11mm, but most people probably won’t miss the extra couple mm of zoom, especially given the other benefits of this lens. Even years after its release, the Tokina 11-16mm is still sometimes backordered as it’s that popular. The quality of this lens makes it a good investment (in fact, it costs more now than it did when I purchased it a couple years ago) and one that you should hesitate to buy if you’re in the market for a wide angle lens.
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Do you own the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8? Interested in it? Share your thoughts about this wonderful ultra-wide angle lens in the comments!