We’ve been proponents of so-called third-party lenses being viable and, typically, more affordable alternatives to the premium glass from brands such as Canon and Nikon. The two main third-party lens companies, Tamron and Sigma, both produce lenses for Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Pentax DSLR camera mounts that are often good and occasionally great. Of the two companies, however, Tamron has really been on a roll lately when it comes to pro-level glass.
Last year, we named the Tamron SP 24-70mm F/2.8 Di VC USD (Model A007), “Lens of the Year” in our annual “Gear of the Year” awards roundup. And this year, I got a chance to try out the Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC USD (Model A009) and, aside from my usual grumbling about Tamron’s awkward lens model names, I think the company has another winner on its hands.
The one main catch is that the base starting price for this Tamron lens, $1,499, is actually not a heck of a lot cheaper than lenses from Canon and Nikon with similar specs. (Of course, street prices for this lens are bound to go down, so if you’re interested, make sure you shop around.) The other catch is that this 70-200mm lens is not available in a Pentax mount.
For a zoom lens with this focal length and a constant f/2.8 aperture, along with the built-in Vibration Compensation image stabilizer, the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 is large but felt smaller than competing models from Canon and Nikon. It weighs approximately 52 ounces with the (included) tripod collar attached and is about 8 inches in length.
I tested it on the Canon EOS 6D—also reviewed in this issue—with my occasional co-tester, photographer Jordan Matter, and while it didn’t quite overwhelm that small-ish full-frame DSLR, it’d be a bit too big for a consumer-level camera like a Canon EOS Rebel T4i. (It would also change the focal length to 112-320mm because of the Rebel’s APS-C-size image sensor.)
As with the Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, the 70-200mm has a primarily polycarbonate body with a plastic filter thread on front, but it’s all-black design and rubberized zoom and manual focus ring make it look and feel professional. Both rings have nice, textured grips and were large enough to turn while wearing gloves. My only gripe about the two rings is that they’re placed rather close together, and I occasionally manually focused when I thought I was zooming.
The control switches to change between autofocus and manual focus, and to turn the Vibration Compensation (VC) on or off, are easy to access on the side of the lens and lock into place with a snap. The lens comes with a flower-shaped lens hood, which adds four inches (at the hood’s longest point) to the front of the lens.
Inside, the Tamron 70-200mm lens is comprised of 23 glass elements in 17 groups with one piece of XLD (Extra Low Dispersion) glass and four LD (Low Dispersion) elements. The lens has a nine-blade, rounded diaphragm for producing attractive background blur (aka bokeh)—but more about that later.
It’s powered by a USD (Ultrasonic Silent Drive) autofocus motor but also has manual focus override by just turning a ring. The Tamron 70-200mm features a moisture-resistant construction, which should protect it from having some splashes and drops penetrate the lens, but I wouldn’t recommend taking it out in a rainstorm without a cover.
The Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 lens was fast, virtually silent and had no trouble locking in focus, even when quickly swinging the lens from target to target. The only area where it struggled a bit was in low-contrast, dim conditions, which is a typical bugaboo for even Canon and Nikon’s top-of-the-line glass.
The Tamron lens actually performed about on par for low-light focusing with the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, which I reviewed in the December 2012 issue of PDN. That Canon lens, for comparison, has a list price of about $1,000 more than the Tamron in a Canon mount. On the other hand, the older but still high-quality Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 IS USM model can be found for roughly the same price as Tamron’s new 70-200mm lens.
The Tamron lens features the company’s propriety VC image stabilization system. The system uses three coils, which trigger the shake compensation electromagnetically via three ceramic balls. Tamron’s come a long way with this VC system, allowing it to be more compact to keep the size of the lens down. Tamron’s original VC stabilizer used a moving magnet system, which was more cumbersome and increased lens bulk.
The new version is also very effective, though maybe not quite on par with Canon’s Optical Image Stabilizer technology. We found the Canon lens gave us about four stops of shake correction across the entire focal range while the Tamron’s VC offered about three stops of correction. While handholding the Tamron lens at 1/10 of second, about 60 percent of my shots had acceptable levels of sharpness; with the Canon 70-200mm IS II lens, I achieved about 75 percent success rate.
In a head-to-head image quality test, we pitted the Tamron 70-200mm against the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, which has been Jordan’s go-to lens for shooting “Dancers Among Us” photos and for his headshot and portrait business. The Nikon lens lists for about $900 more than the Tamron but you can find the previous version of the Nikon 70-200mm for about the same price as the new Tamron.
The Tamron fared about as well as the Nikon for the “Dancers Among Us” action shots, with about an 80 percent sharpness success rate. But for the headshots, the Tamron produced images that just looked better overall.
Photographing static subjects, such as the models and actors Jordan shoots headshots of, is probably a better test for lens sharpness, and the Tamron 70-200mm displayed excellent center sharpness even when shot wide open at f/2.8. Things got even better for lens sharpness in the middle of the aperture range (f/4 to f/8), as is typical with most lenses. We also liked the contrast the Tamron lens produced better than the Nikon, with the subjects’ faces really popping against the pleasing, out-of-focus background bokeh. Both the Tamron and the Nikon produced dramatic background blur, but the Tamron’s bokeh seemed more dramatic, probably because the face was so sharp and the lens produced so much resolution. With the Nikon, it was almost as if a grey screen was in front of the model’s face.
The lens also handled chromatic aberrations, which are identified by the purple fringing you see in areas of high contrast such as branches against a sky, quite well. While I could see some traces of them when I zoomed in to 100 percent, it was pretty minor. (In contrast, however, the Canon 70-200mm I tested last year produced virtually no chromatic aberrations at all.)
The Bottom Line
Tamron continues its streak of producing high-quality, professional-level lenses at lower prices than its name-brand competitors with the stellar SP 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC USD. A lens with this focal length and aperture is a workhorse in most photographers’ bags and there’s a good chance most already have one that they lean on heavily. If, however, you’re in the market to replace that trusty workhorse with one that produces excellent image quality and sharp results, the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 with the latest version of the company’s VC image stabilizer is a great choice. While it’s not as low priced as some of Tamron’s lenses have been in the past, that’s probably because the quality of this lens is about as high as any Tamron we’ve tested.
Pros: Excellent overall image quality with crisp sharpness, great contrast and impressive resolving power; lower priced than the name-brand competition; smaller and lighter than the competition
Cons: Polycarbonate build not quite as sturdy or weather-resistant as Nikon and Canon lenses; while Tamron’s VC image stabilizer is good, Canon’s latest Optical Image Stabilizer is even better; zoom and manual focus rings placed too close together
Price: $1,499; www.tamron.com
Read all of our lens reviews at www.pdnonline.com/lenses.