Macro lenses have always had a reputation for being well made with high quality optical designs. While not all macro lenses have been exceptional, most true macro lenses are at least very good.
The first macro lens I purchased came late in my photography experience in the form of a Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Di SP for Canon EF. This lens is one of the best bangs for the buck in lenses that you can currently buy new. It's a plastic body lens, has slow and noisy autofocus, but the optics are top notch. Many consider it to be one of the sharpest lenses currently available anywhere. With it's slow autofocus performance, it proved to be only good for macros and sat on the shelf a lot so I sold it to a friend who needed it more than I did.
This year I came to need a macro lens again. Knowing that autofocus wasn't really required for macro work, I looked for something older so I could save some money and still get top quality. The first lens I picked up was a Tamron SP 90mm f/2.5. This lens is a classic macro lens which is well known for high quality optics. Knowing it was the grandfather of the new Tamron I sold, I felt confident that it would serve well. Unfortunately the lens I bought used had an issue with it's aperture mechanics. With a lens that old and 9 aperture blades, it happens. Fortunately the shop I purchased it from was able to swap it for another lens.
This is how I came to own the Tokina AT-X 90mm f/2.5 Macro. This was a virtually new specimen complete with 1:1 adapter and the carrying case...it even came in the original box and came with instructions! I didn't know at the time but this lens is famous for being one of the best macro lenses ever made and one of the sharpest lenses ever made. It's also renowned for having excellent bokeh. So much so that its nickname is the 'Bokina'. It's a tank of a lens that screams of classic quality construction. For a lens first released in in the 80s and based on a Vivitar design from 1975, I was dying to know if it could stand up to the best today had to offer.
It was with that thought that I went out and rented one of the best current macro lenses which would fit my Canon cameras. The EF 100mm f/2.8 L IS was introduced in 2009 and was the first lens in Canon's line up to offer Hybrid Image Stabilization. With it's weather sealed design and 'L' quality, it is one of the higher quality Canon lenses.
Tokina AT-X 90mm f/2.5 Macro
Introduced in 1986
8 Lenses in 7 Groups
f/2.5 to 32
8 aperture blades
18.7oz / 530g
Up to 1:2 Macro, 1:1 with extender
Not Weather Sealed
Front Element Extends on Focus
Effective focal length as tested 135mm
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 L IS USM Macro
Introduced in 2009
15 Lenses in 12 Groups
F/2.8 to 32
9 rounded aperture blades
23.8oz / 675g
Up to 1:1 Macro
Effective focal lens as tested 160mm
I don't own a full frame camera which can mount the Tokina so the comparison will be done on APS-C sensors. The Canon will be mounted on my 7D and the Tokina on my Sony NEX-7 via an adapter. These cameras have very similar image quality and should be good enough to see if there are any appreciable differences between the two lenses. Part one of the test will be on the street using these lenses as regular medium telephotos, the Tokina without it's macro extender as the lens can't focus to infinity with it mounted. Part 2 will focus on true macro capabilities in controlled conditions with each pushed to their limits.
Canon and Sony side by side with Extension tubes fitted
Today I took both lenses to the local farmers market to see how they handled in the real world. My observations follow:
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 L IS USM
For a 100mm lens, it's big. Bigger than my 135mm f/2 L and while it's heavy, it feels like it should be heavier. Considering it has 4 stops worth of image stabilization, internal focusing down to 1:1 macro, and Canon L glass quality, some bulk and weight is to be expected. It handles well for a hefty lens. This would be a good portrait lens but if you don't need macro capabilities there are better lenses to own in this focal length ball park like the 100mm f/2, 85mm f/1.8, and 135mm f/2 L...all of which are cheaper, faster, and smaller lenses.
The image stabilization works very well and allows you to handle the heft at lower shutter speeds. If hand held macro shots are your style, this lens delivers. You can easily get the f-stop values you want for macro work in natural light without having to push ISO too high. If you're walking around with this lens for a while, IS will be a welcome feature especially in failing light.
In the morning shade of one of the farmer's market booths, I shot this close up of some Kale. At ISO 800 the shutter speed at f/8 was down to 1/15 of a second. It looked good at the time and the IS worked well but still wasn't quite sharp when I got it home. One of the pitfalls of trusting autofocus for macro shooting is that even the slightest shift after the camera focuses can ruin the shot despite amazing image stabilization.
In better light, hand holding macro shots is no problem.
The autofocus is fast on this lens and can be switched between macro only ranges and longer ranges in case the autofocus hunts. The bokeh looks good as one would expect from a quality lens such as this with 9 rounded aperture blades. As with most macro lenses it's sharp wide open and at most apertures. At no time did I notice unreasonable levels of sharpness even wide open in the corners
Shot at f2.8
Shot at f/4.0
Tokina AT-X 90mm f/2.5 macro
This lens without it's 1:1 extender is much smaller and lighter than the Canon lens but is very beefy for it's size. It feels very sturdy and handles well despite being quite a bit of lens to have mounted to the skinny NEX-7. The focus ring has a lot of real estate to grip on which is nice since it rotates nearly a full 360 degrees from infinity to it's minimum 1:2 macro focusing distance. It's not quick to manually focus this lens except when your subject is near it's infinity focusing distance. This is a poor lens for capturing any sort of action. Even in this configuration 1:2 macro isn't bad and you can still get a lot of great hand held macro shots.
Once I got the pictures back to the computer the thing there were two things which struck me as amazing about this lens. First was that the bokeh really does live up to the hype. This is pretty amazing considering it has 8 non-rounded aperture blades which aren't even symmetrical. Stopped down, they produce an uneven shape which you can see in the picture at the top of this post. Despite this the bokeh looks really good, especially wide open. The other is the contrast. Pictures taken with this lens just appear to have a pop that I haven't seen before with other lenses. Typically I need to make tweaks in post production to get the blacks to look black and the whites to look white but I felt zero need to make any edits to the images I shot at the market. These two things combined create a background separation which is the best I've ever seen from a lens. Subjects in the foreground really stand out. For this reason I feel that this lens would make an excellent portrait lens. I own the outstanding Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 Ai-S and would really like to compare them to see which works best for portraits.
On the way home I took a few shots at f/32 just to see what they would look like. Normally a lens produces it's poorest results stopped down to it's smallest aperture. I was surprised that the images, while not exactly sharp, were better than I expected.
Based on what I saw today I can only say that both of these lenses are outstanding. Each have their pros and cons. Certainly there are features which make the Canon lens superior with it's weather sealing and image stabilization. That said, the Tokina cost me over $1000 less than what the Canon lens is worth new which is extremely good value in my books for a lens which is easily the equal of the Canon for image quality, if not better.
Full resolution versions of the photos can be viewed here: http://bit.ly/OeMQLU