Before the Japanese photo industry nearly quashed Germany's in the mid-1960s, there had been only a handful of major independent European lens manufacturers: Angenieux, Enna, Meyer, Rodenstock, Schneider, Steinheil, and Zeiss. Each bore its name proudly and never masqueraded under others.
On the other side of the globe, the ever-expanding number of small Japanese lensmakers cared little what name the lenses bore as long as U.S. importers were willing to buy them. Who had ever heard of lenses named Acall, Kino, Komura, Sun, Taisei, or Zunow? Importers and even single photo stores renamed lenses they imported. And so we had, among others, Accura, Cambron, Caspeco, Kalimar, Rokunar, Sakar, Samigon, Soligor, and Vivitar.
Why did distributors import them? They were inexpensive; Japanese designers produced usable zooms long before the camera makers; and distributors could easily switch manufacturers if they found a less-expensive source. This annoyed anyone who ordered two identical lenses, only to find the second lens was nothing like the first.
Dozens of manufacturers were more than the market could bear, though, and by the 1990s the number had fallen to three of the oldest companies, each in business over 50 years: Sigma, Tamron (formerly Taisei), and Tokina. All three have been busy not only producing innovative lens designs, but vastly improving optics and construction quality. Today their products are often the equal of those produced by the camera manufacturers.
Years ago, when Leitz planned its first zoom for the Leica R, it had little experience with such optics and turned to a company that had much: Tokina proudly showed me the Leica zoom, swearing me to secrecy, but after more than 25 years, I can let you in on it.
Today, Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina produce lenses for camera companies, camera retail chains, and others. If you were a manufacturer and could sell your lenses to more than 700 Ritz stores, would you mind if Ritz wanted them to carry its Quantaray label?
Tokina had the greatest multiple brand triumph a few years ago, simultaneously marketing a decent 19-35mm f/3.5-4.5 autofocus under four different brand names: Phoenix, Tamron, Tokina, and Vivitar. The street price on release was a low $170 or so. It's still in the Phoenix and Tokina product lineups -- for even less!
Pentax and Tokina have now taken a bold step together: They're sharing an optical design. They jointly developed one of my favorite lenses, the 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 Pentax SMCP-DA fisheye zoom (see Test, June 2006). After getting a year's head start as a Pentax-only lens, it now also appears as a Tokina AT-X DX in both Canon and Nikon mounts. A Sony-mount lens may come in a few months.
When two or more lens brands use the same design, they generally change little even in cosmetics. Not this time. The Tokina has a completely different barrel construction and appearance. The zoom and focusing rings are located differently. The Pentax lens is finished in a satin black, the Tokina in black crackle.
The Pentax lens ($500, street) is assembled in Vietnam from glass (and perhaps parts) imported from Japan. The Tokina ($549, street) is manufactured totally in Japan.
I felt a bit embarrassed touting the Pentax version when the lens wasn't available for Canon or Nikon DSLRs. Now they, too, can play. I wonder what other lens cooperative ventures we might see in the future.
Round eyeful: Until now, only the Pentax DSLR cameras with a 10-17mm fisheye zoom could make such a zoom shot at 11mm of the famous London Eye ferris wheel. Now Canon and Nikon DSLRs can join the fun.
Same optics, different Look: The Pentax 10-17mm fisheye, left, has its focusing scale far forward, and broad zoom ring behind. The Tokina, right, has a broader focusing ring in front, a window to show distance, and zoom ring behind.