When it comes to third-party lenses, the two companies photographers are probably most familiar with are Tamron and Sigma. Though these brands might not conjure the same kind of dewy-eyed respect that actual Canon L-series lenses or top-of-the-line Nikkor glass do, Tamron and Sigma optics are often significantly lower in price while their quality is usually very good and occasionally great.
I’ve reviewed both of these company’s pro-grade lenses over the years but probably with greater frequency since the global economic collapse in 2008 forced everyone to start looking more closely at their bank accounts.
While Sigma has launched some impressive professional lenses recently—I raved about the 120-300mm F2.8 EX DG OS APO HSM lens ($3,180) in a review late last year—Tamron’s latest offerings have been mainly aimed at prosumers. So it roused my interest when I heard in March that Tamron was developing a new 24-70mm f/2.8 lens with Vibration Compensation (aka optical image stabilization).
A workhorse focal length/aperture combination for professionals—particularly wedding and event photographers but really anyone needing a high-quality standard zoom—a 24-70mm f/2.8 is an essential part of a DSLR system. Throw in Tamron’s Vibration Compensation feature and a price tag ($1,299) that’s a good stretch cheaper than Canon and Nikon’s own comparable glass, and you have another potential low-priced gem.
As usual, Tamron has given this straightforward lens a rather awkward name: the SP 24-70mm F/2.8 Di VC USD (Model A007). I got my hands on a test unit of this new Tamron 24-70mm in a Canon mount and took it for a two-week test drive while attached to a Canon 5D Mark III. Here’s what I thought.
Tamron’s SP 24-70mm F/2.8 Di VC USD has a primarily polycarbonate build but you might not guess that from looking at it. Its all-black design with a gold Tamron band around the center with the model name is simple but attractive and suggests it’s made of stronger metal. The polycarbonate keeps the weight down to 29 ounces without making it feel flimsy. The lens is solid and well balanced; a serious tool designed for professionals.
Unlike Sigma’s own short and stubby 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, the Tamron SP 24-70mm F/2.8 Di VC USD’s 4.6-inch length is more in line with Canon’s 24-70mm f/2.8 L lens. Though I liked the portability of the shorter Sigma lens, Tamron’s 24-70mm f/2.8, which is weather-sealed and “moisture-resistant,” felt more professional. It should be noted that the three-year-old Sigma 24-70mm F2.8 IF EX DG HSM now retails for $824. That lens doesn’t, however, have an image stabilizer.
It’s also worth noting that the older Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM, which doesn’t offer image stabilization, sells for $1,599. Meanwhile, the new “version II” iteration of that Canon lens also does not have stabilization and goes for $2,229.
All of this is to reemphasize the point that the Tamron SP 24-70mm F/2.8 Di VC USD is a pretty good bargain for a pro lens. Though I had no major complaints about its construction, I did find the lens’s one-inch wide, rubberized zoom ring to be rather stiff. While this did a great job in preventing lens creep, i.e. having the lens unintentionally shift its zoom length when pointed downward because of its weight, it made quickly changing focal lengths a slow and somewhat rough experience. (If you really want to prevent lens creep—especially when your lens is stowed for travel—there’s a locking switch on the barrel.)
Official dimensions of the Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 are 4.3 x 3.5 inches and it has an 82mm filter size. The lens is topped off by a removable, flower-shaped, flanged hood.
Along with Vibration Compensation (VC), which you can turn on or off via a small switch on the side of the lens, the Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 has a very effective Ultrasonic Silent Drive for tamping down noise. I literally could not hear the lens focusing, which is a great thing if you don’t want to draw attention to yourself while taking pictures.
While I found the wide rubber zoom ring to be stiff and a bit slow to use, the lens’s autofocus was fast and pretty much spot on in good light. While the medium focal length doesn’t make the Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 ideal for sports, images I shot outdoors of fast-moving basketball and soccer were tack sharp. The real challenge was in dim or mixed lighting with low contrast and while the Tamron felt just a tick slower in focusing than my Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM, that lens is very quick and the difference was barely noticeable.
Wedding photographers seeking to capture the perfect moment during the ceremony or event photographers covering a party or reception will appreciate all of this. They’ll also appreciate the lens’s VC, a feature I got so used to not having on my Canon 24-70mm, I didn’t really know what I was missing. On the Tamron 24-70mm with the VC turned on, I was able to shoot at shutter speeds two or three stops slower than normal and still avoid motion blur in photos.
Of course, there’s full manual override for all of this. For portraits, to ensure that close-up details such as eyes, eyelashes and lips were extra sharp, I appreciated the easy-to-adjust, manual-focusing ring. The same was true for my Macro shots of flowers, fauna and insects. (It is butterfly season, after all!)
Though this lens is not really designed for Macro work—minimum focusing distance is about 15 inches—I got some lovely close-ups with natural looking, blurred backgrounds at f/2.8. Sure, it’s not going to create as dramatic a look as, for instance, Tamron’s excellent 60mm f/2 Macro lens for APS-C DSLRs, the 24-70mm is fine for close-up work of things like a bride’s bouquet or hands during a ring ceremony.
Regarding image quality, let me first say that the Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 is a high resolving lens. As mentioned earlier, I used it with a Canon 5D Mark III, a camera I’m more and more impressed with the more I use it. In particular, the 5D III’s 22.3-megapixel, full-frame CMOS sensor does a great job of capturing crisp images even at high ISOs in low light.
With the Tamron lens attached, I captured spectacular amounts of detail in my test shots. At 24mm, the centers of my images were extremely sharp though there was some fall-off in sharpness towards the corners. This was disappointing in comparison to the Canon 24-70mm lens but it still beat my results from the Sigma 24-70mm, which suffered from noticeable corner softening at 24mm. The Tamron lens was sharpest at f/8 at 50mm, which is where you’ll pull the most resolution out of the camera. (When zooming in to 200 percent on images shot with the 5D Mark III, I saw details that I did not know were there.)
Most photographers will probably lean heavily on the lens’s maximum f/2.8 aperture and the rounded, 9-diaphragm blades produced very nice, natural-looking bokeh at this f-stop. Portrait photographers will definitely appreciate this.
I experienced very few chromatic aberrations even at 24mm when shot wide open. This is likely the result of the lens using three LD elements to prevent fringing. All in all, it’s a high-quality product that also utilizes three glass molded aspherical lenses, one hybrid aspherical lens and two XR (Extra Refractive Index) glasses.
The Bottom Line
If you can get over whatever reservations you might have about third-party lenses, the Tamron SP 24-70mm F/2.8 Di VC USD is definitely worth a look. It’s a well-crafted, professional-grade lens in a very popular zoom length/aperture that could very easily become the new optical workhorse in your camera bag. Plus, the Tamron 24-70mm costs significantly less than Canon’s comparable lens and you get Vibration Compensation thrown in to boot. Sounds like a bargain to us.
Pros: Solid but lightweight professional-grade build; Vibration Compensation helps for shooting at slower shutter speeds in low light; fast, virtually silent focusing; great resolving power and excellent image quality results
Cons: A step slower focusing in low light than Canon’s comparable lens; zoom ring is stiff and slow to turn; some fall-off in corner sharpness at 24mm
Price: $1,299; www.tamron.com
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