When we were tasked with finding the best Tokina super-telephoto lenses under $500, the usual course of action took place. We dove into the company’s inventory, put each lens through its paces, argued at length over which are the best features, then finally came up with the most affordable, budget-friendly optics in the price range.
But once in a while, a lens manufacturer simply doesn’t have that many choices in our chosen category. This means if you’re dead set on owning Tokina glass in the super-telephoto zone and have a budget of $500, your options are limited. However, we will go over what you can get in this category and offer some alternatives which may be out of today’s price range, but may also be more of a seamless fit.
1. Tokina atx-i 100mm f/2.8 FF Macro (Overall Winner)
While the Tokina atx-i 100mm f/2.8 FF Macro may not exactly stretch into the super-telephoto zone, it does offer a 150mm equivalent focal length on crop sensor cameras. We have also gone with the quality of optics over length, with this lens having a very usable f/2.8 aperture and doubling up as a macro lens.
The macro mode offers a life-size 1:1 magnification, which is very high quality with the ability to pull out plenty of detail. But it’s the telephoto abilities which we are most concerned with today. The atx-i 100mm achieves its high-quality image reproduction with a flat field optical design for vastly reducing field curvature. A multi-layered coating reduces the usual amount of lens flare and ghosting throughout the lens.
For those who prefer to set the aperture manually, a manual aperture ring has been included, which is very quick and seamless to use in reality.
The autofocus system on the lens is a top performer, being quick to snap into focus, with only the odd occasion of focus hunting in low-light conditions. This lens is also extremely sharp throughout its aperture range, both as a regular lens and in its macro mode.
Check out our buying guide on the best 100mm lenses if you’re looking for a happy medium between macro and telephoto.
2. Tamron SP AF 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro
Depending on which camera mount you need, the Tamron SP AF 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro can vary in price by a good few hundred dollars. The lens is available for the Canon, Sony, Nikon, and Pentax mount, with the Nikon version being the most expensive and the Canon mount having the cheapest price tag.
Just like the option above, the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 doubles up as an affordable macro lens, offering a 1:1 reproduction ratio. Also, just like the Tokina atx-i 100mm f/2.8 FF Macro, we have gone for overall image quality over length, as the 90mm lens is a good all-rounder prime for a variety of situations.
To maintain image integrity, a multi-coating has been applied to all the lens elements. And while the lens barrel may not be fully weatherproofed, it’s solid and robust enough to take the odd drop of rain. The lens also has a unique way of switching between auto and manual focusing, with a simple slide of the focus ring back and forth. This is a handy feature for those who want to deliberate over manual focusing at a moment’s notice.
This lens displays very low amounts of chromatic aberration and the f/2.8 aperture makes it a good choice for low-light shooting. The autofocus system is respectably fast for the price and the sharpest images come in from f/4 and above. Essentially, this is one of those good lenses for a wide variety of tasks, providing plenty of image detail, contrast, and color, while also being a cheaper option.
3. Tokina SZX SUPER TELE 400mm f/8 Reflex MF (Budget Winner)
The SZX SUPER TELE 400mm f/8 Reflex MF fits our chosen criteria the most seamlessly, with a very long 400mm super-telephoto range and a very cost-effective price point. Early iterations of this lens design were a better concept on paper than in reality, but times have moved on and the design has better optics than ever before.
The lens itself can squeeze the 400mm focal length into such small dimensions by using a catadioptric optical design. This results in a ridiculously lightweight package of only 355g and a length of only 76mm. In comparison, a regular 400mm prime lens can weigh many kilos and generally needs a super sturdy tripod for not just weight-bearing but also to gain the sharpest images.
Along with the small dimensions, the 400mm f/8 Reflex MF is fully manual focusing, with a fixed f/8 aperture. Image clarity is maintained with a multi-layer anti-reflection coating, along with a high-reflectivity silvered coating and a protective antioxidant layer on the mirrored surfaces for longevity.
One of the unusual aspects of this lens is the way it produces doughnut-shaped highlight balls or bokeh. This is a very subjective area of the lens, which is essentially one of those Marmite moments. You either like the effect or you don’t.
In terms of overall sharpness, when you’ve spent some time focusing this lens, it is relatively sharp, but it will need a good amount of light due to its fixed f/8 aperture.
The Tokina SZX SUPER TELE 400mm f/8 Reflex MF will basically be a good solution for those who want a very long prime lens at the most affordable price point. This lens is also one of the most compact solutions at this focal length.
A Closer Look at Tokina Super-Telephoto Lenses Under $500
As originally stated, when you’re playing with a particular budget and with only one lens brand, there will be a time where options are limited. All the lenses above provide sturdy offerings for their price point, with the first two lenses on the list being shorter in focal length, but providing great optics for the price.
As with everything in life, if you don’t mind spending just a little bit more, the amount of options soon increases. Sticking with Tokina, you can find more options in our guide on the best Tokina telephoto lenses under $1000, including the AT-X 70-200mm f/4 PRO FX VCM-S, which at $899 is a very high-quality option. It will cover everything you need up to the end of the medium telephoto zone, with a far more impressive reach on crop sensor cameras. If you can stretch to the extra cost of this lens, it will be one of the most versatile telephoto zooms you can own and a very good alternative to other third-party offerings.
If you like the idea of the reflex lens above, then the Tokina Reflex 300mm f/6.3 MF Macro at $588 has a shorter focal length than the 400mm version above but has a wider aperture and a macro mode.