My Gear: The long arm of the sensor: Tamron 70-300 mm f/4-5.6

Tamron SP 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 Di VC USD on the Canon 760D

When I considered what lenses to get for my then-new Canon 760D, it was clear from the beginning that I wanted to have a telephoto zoom lens as well. I am using longer focal lengths only occasionally, but still have effective use for them every now and them. As a result, good value for money was key for me. After some research, two lenses made it on my shortlist: the Canon EF-S 55-250 mm ƒ/4-5.6 IS STM, which I will talk about more in the ‘alternatives’ section below, and the Tamron, which I am going to introduce now.

TAMRON SP 70-300 mm ƒ/4-5.6 DI VC USD

The concurrent conclusion of many of the reviews on the internet was, that there is almost no difference between the two aforementioned lenses in terms of image quality. Thus, the longer focal range of the Tamron was the deciding factor for me at the time. After all, my “always-on” lens already covers the range up to 70 mm, so the Tamron perfectly falls into line. 300 mm on a Canon APS-C Camera render the same field of view as 480 mm on a full-frame camera. That takes you a long way, literally. Which also justifies the higher price compared to the Canon 55-250. If bought new, the Tamron currently (April 2017) costs around 300 Euros. I bought it used on eBay, in very good condition, for 180 Euros. At the recent CP+ trade fair in Yokohama, Tamron presented a successor to this lens, with slight improvements for the auto-focus system and the image stabilizer. However, it is not clear yet when, and for what price, the new lens will be available.

Tamron SP 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 Di VC USD
Tamron SP 70-300 mm ƒ/4-5.6 Di VC USD

EQUIPMENT

The lens’ features are characterized by the three abbreviations at the end of its full designation: ‘Di VC USD’. ‘Di’ indicates that this is a lens for full-frame cameras. Of course, it will fit on a smaller APS-C camera as well. But the point is: it’s huge! In particular, with the lens hood attached and zoomed in all the way to 300 mm, it reaches an impressive size. That also means it will take up a lot of space in your camera bag, and you will think twice whether you’ll take it along on every trip. The large lens hood, as well as the lens caps for the front and back are supplied with the lens.

‘VC’ stands for Vibration Control, which is Tamron’s brand name for its image stabilizer. On the 70-300, it renders quite impressive results, at least for still photos. I mostly shoot hand-held, and even at 300 mm, only a few images turn out blurry from camera shake. I never recorded any videos with this lens; the reviews say the image stabilizer tends to twitch and jump when filming hand-held, though.

Finally, ‘USD’ is short for ‘Ultrasonic Silent Drive’ and describes the type of auto-focus system used. It works sufficiently fast and it is extremely silent. In general, the auto-focus of the Tamron 70-300 works very well together with my Canon 760D. Only at 300 mm does it hunt back and forth occasionally.

The lens has two switches: one for the VC and one for the auto-focus. The lens features full-time manual focus, which means that even when the AF is activated, you can still manually adjust the focus. There is no focus range limiter as on the Tamon 90 mm ƒ/2.8 Macro, but then with the 70-300, the minimum focusing distance is 5 ft. The large zoom ring is very good to handle, but also tight enough so that the lens does not extend on its own when carried upside down, even with the lens hood attached.

USE AND RESULTS

I primarily use the lens to photograph far-away subjects.  With a minimum focusing distance of about 5 ft., the lens does not really lend itself to taking close-up pictures. There are some exceptions, however, as can be seen in the example images below. For portraits, I prefer lenses with a much wider maximum aperture, such as the 90 mm ƒ/2.8 or the 50 mm ƒ/1.8.

Be that as it may, capturing far-away subjects is what the Tamron excels at. Obviously, on a zoom lens that covers such a wide focal range, there will always have to be some compromises in the optics. At least at this price point – there is a reason why the professional lenses in this category cost seven to eight times as much. Hence it is not much of a surprise that the image, in particular at 300 mm on an APS-C sensor, is not razor sharp. On the other hand, the Tamron handles chromatic aberration – the green and purple fringes on contrasting edges – really well. The little that can be seen can be easily corrected in post-processing.

Long story short: I’ve always been very happy with the image quality.

Here’s a small extreme test to give you an impression of the lens’ performance. Below are two pictures taken during last year’s vacation in the Alps near Salzburg, Austria. They show the view from a mountain cottage to the summit of the Hochstaufen, which is a bit more than four miles away. The first image shows the entire mountain, taken in the evening at 90 mm:

Alpenglow: Hochstaufen illuminated by the setting sun
Alpenglow: Hochstaufen illuminated by the setting sun

The next morning, I wanted to see what the Tamron is capable of. Here’s the full image, taken from the same spot, as seen with the lens at 300 mm on an APS-C sensor:

The Hochstaufen summit from a distance of about 4.2 miles - Full picture at 300mm
The Hochstaufen summit from a distance of about 4.2 miles – Full picture at 300mm

The 760D has a 24-megapixel sensor, so the resulting images files have a dimension of 6,000 x 4,000 pixels. I zoomed in to 100% and then cut out the center of the frame around the summit cross. The cross is about 14 ft. tall. If there had been climbers at the summit when I took the picture, you would have clearly seen them. You can clearly see the golden ornament on the cross. There is a close-up image of the summit cross on Klaus Isbaner’s homepage for comparison.

The Hochstaufen summit from a distance of about 4.2 miles - 100% crop from the center of the frame
The Hochstaufen summit from a distance of about 4.2 miles – 100% crop from the center of the frame

I probably could have gotten a sharper image on a sunny day (with a faster shutter speed) and using a tripod. But then, who has perfect conditions whenever taking a photo? This way, I think the images give a representative impression of the lens’ performance. There are more “every day” example images below, at the end of this post.

ALTERNATIVES

As mentioned initially, the main competitor to the Tamron 70-300 mm, at least when using a Canon camera with an APS-C sensor, is the Canon EF-S 55-250 mm IS STM. Since it is designed specifically for these smaller cameras, it is built more compact. For comparison: the Tamron measures (diameter x length) 3.2″ x 5.6″ and weighs 27 oz. The Canon comes in at 2.7″ x 4.3″ and half the weight: 13.2 oz. While the difference in outer dimension doesn’t read impressive, it does make a significant difference in practice. The Canon costs around 180 Euros new; the Tamron around 300 Euros (April 2017). Concerning image quality, both lenses are on par.

In the meantime, I have decided to go for one of the classic 70-200 mm lenses with a constant aperture of ƒ/2.8. The wider aperture offers much more leeway in difficult lighting conditions (at dusk or indoors), for faster shutter speeds when taking action photos, or to blur out the background in portraits. There are several lenses available in this category, but there is one thing they all have in common: they are significantly larger and heavier than even the Tamron. A 70-200 ƒ/2.8 certainly is no lens to always take along wherever you go; I will only pack it for specific purposes. Which makes it important to have a small, light-weight alternative to carry on trips. Hence, I will switch my “everyday telephoto lens” from the Tamron to the Canon. What is a telephoto lens good for if you don’t pack it because it’s too bulky?


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: For its price, the Tamron offers great picture quality and a powerful image stabilizer. If you own an APS-C as well as a full-frame camera, or want to switch in the not too distant future, then the Tamron is the perfect all-round lens for you, and you will definitely have a great time with it! If you’re shooting exclusively with APS-C, and those last 50 mm of focal range are not absolutely mandatory for the type of photography you do, then I recommend the Canon EF-S 55-250 mm ƒ/4-5.6 IS STM for its smaller dimensions and lower price. Both lenses offer similar performance.

What I’ve learned: Personal standards change over time – hence the aspired upgrade to the 70-200 mm ƒ/2.8. I’ve also come to realize that the Tamron, due to its size, is a bit unwieldy – it barely fits into my camera bag. Thus, for the first time now, I will sell one of my lenses again. Nonetheless, I don’t want to miss a telephoto zoom lens in my equipment.


LINKS

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.


EXAMPLE IMAGES:

Puppy in Action
Puppy in Action – shot from further away, the dog has plenty of space to fool around. The grass nicely shows the depth of field.

 

Short break from playing
Short break from playing – the longer focal lengths lend themselves very well to portraits. The dog was sitting directly at the edge of the field, thus the background is not completely blurred.

The following example images are taken from the post “In Focus: Changing the Perspective“:

Apple Blossoms in the Morning Sun
Apple Blossoms in the Morning Sun. Focal length and aperture help to emphasize the blossoms in the foreground, while the blurred blossoms in the back show it’s just one branch of a blooming tree.

 

Japanese Maple in Fall
Japanese Maple in Fall. Again, the telephoto lens at 300mm and aperture f/5.6 help to pull in the details while at the same time blurring the trees in the background into an even yellow backdrop.

 

Cherry Blossoms
Cherry Blossoms. With the telephoto lens at 300mm, you can get quite close to your neighbor’s cherry tree. At an aperture of F/5.6, the trees in the background get blurred enough to no longer distract.

In Focus: Changing the Perspective

Through nature with different Focal Lengths

The little detail or the big picture: from a photography point of view, nature can be captured in many different ways. With their abundance of blossoms and colors, as well as the beautiful golden light in the morning and evening hours, spring and fall in particular invite one to grab the camera and venture outside. In your own garden, in the street in front of your house, or in the next forest – there’s more than enough to photograph!

ONE MOTIF – DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES

The advantage of an interchangeable lens camera is the enormous bandwidth of focal lengths it supports. With my Canon 760D, for instance, my lenses reach from 8 mm with the Fisheye lens to 300 mm with the telephoto zoom lens. This equals roughly 15-480 mm on a full-frame camera.

This offers great creative latitude. Close-up images of individual blossoms, colorful leaves, and other details are classic subjects, of course. For this purpose, you usually select a medium to long focal length to get your subject filling the frame. Or you go straight for a dedicated macro lens, such as the Tamrom 90mm ƒ/2.8 Macro. I have included several example images in my blog post about that lens, hence I am skipping the topic of macros here.

Magnolia Blossom
Magnolia Blossom. The intent here was to capture a single blossom. The aperture is set to ƒ/8 to have most of the blossom in focus.

But you can also go to the other end of the spectrum and use a rather short focal length, such as an ultra-wide angle lens, or even a Fisheye. These will also allow you to show an object large in the foreground; the difference compared to longer focal lengths is that due to the wide angle of view, you will also capture a lot of background in your image. It will also not be as blurry. As a result, your subject will be shown in the context of its surroundings, i.e. it’s not a “single blossom”, but a “blossom on a blooming tree”. The two pictures of our Magnolia tree illustrate this clearly.

Magnolia Tree in Full Bloom
Magnolia Tree in Full Bloom. It’s not primarily the large blossom in the foreground that is the main subject of the image, but more the entire tree with its many blossoms. The distortion from the fisheye lens is clearly visible in the upper half of the frame, but does not disturb the image as a whole. Due to the short focal length and the aperture set to ƒ/11, basically the entire picture is in focus.

I want to show you some of the creative possibilities for the various focal lengths. Not all flower photos have to be the same!

FISHEYE & ULTRA-WIDE ANGLE

I have two lenses in this category: The Samyang 8 mm ƒ/3.5 Fisheye, and the Tokina 11-20 mm ƒ/2.8 Ultra-wide Angle. Both offer a very wide field of view, which means you will get a lot into your pictures. The short focal length also means that objects at a distance will seemingly be pushed much further away. If there is nothing interesting in the foreground, the resulting images can look empty and boring. However, the background requires some attention as well. At such a short focal length, you won’t be able to blur the background much, even with a wide-open aperture, except when you get the camera very close to your subject. And even then, the background will still be recognizable – in particular with the Fisheye lens. Nonetheless, you can deliberately utilize this.

Rose in our Garden
Rose in our Garden. The intent of the image is to show not just a rose, but a rose in our garden. The framing makes the strong distortion typical for the fisheye lens less noticeable.

Here are two examples for this: the image of the rose above was taken with the fisheye lens, and the little red flower below has been captured using the Tokina. In both cases, it is clear what the subject of the image is; at the same time, it easy to see where the scene is located. The Tokina, with its wide-open aperture, even allows you to blur the background a bit despite the short focal length when being so close to the subject, so that the plant is standing out more. The rose in the image above was at the same distance from the camera, but due to its even shorter focal length and an aperture of ƒ/8, almost the entire garden including the house is in focus.

Little Flower in the Cops
Little Flower in the underbrush. Hidden under a large hazelnut bush, these little blossoms strive for sunlight. The short focal length includes a lot of background in the image, thus showing this scene is located in a garden. The wide-open aperture isolates the subject.

No rule is without exception: of course, you can use a short focal length deliberately without anything in the foreground, if you want to emphasize the size and vastness of the space you’re in. This is what I did when capturing the fall forest in the image below: I put the camera down on the ground and pointed the Fisheye lens straight up. Indeed, the biggest challenge when taking this photo was to not appear in the frame myself. I took a similar picture with my “always-on” standard zoom lens; the result was “a tree in the fall forest”. Using the Fisheye, I was able to capture the entire fall forest.

Fall Forest
Fall Forest. The Fisheye lens, with its enormous wide angle of view, captures practically the entire forest in a single frame. It also emphasizes the height of the trees. The straight lines leading to the center of the frame render the Fisheye effect almost imperceptible.

STANDARD ZOOM

This relates to the “default” zoom range, which is covered by the usual kit lenses. For an APS-C camera, that typically is 17-50 mm; equaling 24-70 mm on a full-frame camera. For reference: the back camera on an Apple iPhone, depending on the model and converted to full-frame, has a focal length of 25-30 mm. This should not imply that this “default” range is boring – on the contrary. Depending on whether you want to capture an entire tree, a plant, or just a couple of leaves, there’s a lot of creative leeway.

Colorful Maple Tree
Colorful Maple Tree. I wanted to capture the entire tree, to show that all fall colors appear in one and the same tree. This requires a default wide angle; the aperture is stopped down to ƒ/8 so that the entire tree is in focus.

It is worthwhile to play with zoom, aperture, and object distance; even, or in particular, with the kit lens. The most important recommendation in this context is: change your perspective! The usual snapshots taken from eye height quickly become boring. Hence, when you’re out and about: look straight up – what is above you? Get down on your knees and photograph the little mushroom as it pushes through the leaves into the grazing light of the setting sun…

Mushroom in a Forest
Mushroom in a Forest. The short focal length shows the mushroom in its environment; the wide-open aperture isolates it as the main subject of the image.

If there is such a thing as a “must have” lens for every photographer with a single-lens reflex or mirrorless camera, then it certainly is the 50 mm ƒ/1.8, and for a simple reason: value for money. Basically, every camera manufacturer offers one for a little money; it usually costs around 100 Euros. It is small, light, and versatile, which has earned it the nickname “nifty fifty”. On a full frame camera, this is a standard focal length, perceived to offer a very natural perspective similar to what the human eye sees. On an APS-C camera, the field of view equals 80 mm, so it can be considered a slight telephoto lens.

The distinguishing characteristic is its wide open aperture of ƒ/1.8. Most kit lenses have a maximum aperture of ƒ/4 or ƒ/4.5 at 50 mm, that’s a difference of 2-3 stops. This means that the “nifty fifty” not only lets in a lot of light; it can also provide a much narrower depth of field. This makes it a popular all-round lens, which is often used for portrait work. So why not take some portraits of colorful plants?

Maple Trees in Fall
Maple Trees in Fall. At 50mm, you can show not only a single leaf, but entire branch. Using an aperture setting of ƒ/1.8 still allows you to clearly separate the branch from the background.
Maple Leaves in Fall
Maple Leaves in Fall. The narrow depth of field helps to focus the view on the leaves in the center of the frame.

TELEPHOTO

This category basically covers everything with a focal length of 70 mm and up. There are essentially two types of lenses: the telephoto zoom lenses, like my Tamron 70-300 mm ƒ/4-5.6, and the prime lenses, especially macro lenses, in the range of 90-150 mm. The main difference is in how close you can get to your subject. With my aforementioned 70-300 mm zoom lens, the shortest distance I can still focus at is 1.5 meters. With the 90 mm macro, I can get as close as 30 centimeters!

This obviously has a significant impact on the creative possibilities. However, keep in mind: a macro lens can take more than just macro images, and you can use a telephoto zoom not only to capture things that are far away. You can probably guess where this going: I’m talking about perspective again.

Garden Flower
Garden Flower. Due to the narrow depth of field at 90 mm, the ground is already blurred despite using an aperture of ƒ/8.

With long hedges or bushes as shown below, you can try a “grazing shot”. It shows the details of the leaves and blossoms as well as the extent of the hedge in a single image. In a frontal picture, you could only see one of the two, depending on the distance. This works in the same way horizontally on a flowering meadow. It’s not a macro in the original sense, but I make use of the wide-open aperture and resulting narrow depth of field of the macro lens to show just a small stripe of the Kerria bush in focus.

Narrow Depth of Field in a Kerria bush
Narrow Depth of Field in a Kerria bush. At 90 mm and an aperture setting of ƒ/2,8, only a narrow band of the bush is in focus.

I have taken the following image with my Tamron 70-300 mm, even though at 92 mm, I could have taken it with the macro lens just as well. I didn’t have it with me, though, and I actually preferred the flexibility offered by the zoom lens on that photo excursion. The blossoms are at the minimum focusing distance (1.5 m). In the end, the best lens to take a picture with is always the one you have with you.

Apple Blossoms in the Morning Sun
Apple Blossoms in the Morning Sun. Focal length and aperture help to emphasize the blossoms in the foreground, while the blurred blossoms in the back show it’s just one branch of a blooming tree.

Of course, the distinguishing feature of telephoto lenses is to pull in distant objects. This allows for capturing details to which you cannot get close, for whatever reason. Blossoms in the crown of a tree are a good example. The narrow angle of view also allows controlling the background, or getting rid of it entirely. The image of the Japanese Maple above shows an almost evenly yellow background, made from trees with yellow leaves. I could have gotten closer to the leaves and used a shorter focal length, thus a wider angle of view. But then the house on the right side, and the garden shed on the left side, would show up in the frame and the background would no longer be evenly yellow.

Japanese Maple in Fall
Japanese Maple in Fall. Again, the telephoto lens at 300 mm and aperture ƒ/5.6 help to pull in the details while at the same time blurring the trees in the background into an even yellow backdrop.

How much the background gets blurred not only depends on the focal length and aperture setting, but just as much from the ratio between the two distances; camera – subject and subject – background. The two images of the Japanese Maple above and the Cherry Blossoms below were taken with identical settings, and the trees in the background were at about the same distance in both pictures. However, the maple was much closer to the camera, hence you can see a substantial difference in the appearance of the background.

Cherry Blossoms
Cherry Blossoms. With the telephoto lens at 300mm, you can get quite close to your neighbor’s cherry tree. At an aperture of ƒ/5.6, the trees in the background get blurred enough to no longer distract.

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Well, that’s quite obvious in this case, isn’t it? Go outside and try it out!

What I’ve learned: In the end, it doesn’t matter which camera or lenses you have – interesting perspectives can be found all around you. Up close, far away, from above, from below, wide angle, telephoto, with or against the sun… It’s worthwhile to simply grab your camera next time you go on leisurely stroll or walk your dog.


LINKS

Last but not least, some YouTube videos with further inspiration:

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

Book Review: Tony Northrup – Stunning Digital Photography

Book Cover: Stunning Digital Photography (www.northrup.photo)

A comprehensive photography book, video tutorial and online community, all in one – does that even exist? Yes, it actually does. In his book, “Stunning Digital Photography” (SDP), Tony Northrup covers the ground from instructions for beginners to more advanced tips and tricks, across basically all photography disciplines.

When I started to take a deeper look into photography, I was primarily looking for orientation. What are the possibilities? What do you need, to do what? Where to start? After discovering YouTube as a plentiful source of information when choosing my camera and lenses, as well as for tutorials on photographing the Milky Way, I quickly came across the many videos in Chelsea & Tony Northrup’s channel – and thus, the book.

SDP: ONE FOR ALL

The book is available in various formats: as classic paperback, or as ebook for all major platforms. I strongly recommend the ebook, because here, the numerous videos with examples and tutorials can be accessed directly through embedded hyperlinks. This allows you to quickly jump between reading and watching. This makes the book very vivid, because the videos demonstrate the effect of certain settings much clearer than a few static sample pictures in the book could do. This appeals a lot to me, and was the reason for me to buy the book.

Another advantage is the fact that the book is never “finished”, it’s a living document – sections and videos become either updated or added on a regular basis. Once you have bought the book, you will have access to all future updates, which you can simply download from the homepage.

BOOK STRUCTURE

The book starts with a few generic chapters: the “Quick Tips” for people who want to get started right away, followed by sections on composition, lighting and flash, and camera operation in general. This part of the book explains the basics, such as the effect of aperture, perspective, and light direction on an image. In addition to the general operating instructions, Tony also offers one-hour in-depth video tutorials for many popular camera models, where he explains their operation and specific capabilities in great detail. The general part of the book is wrapped up with a trouble-shooting chapter that helps you track down why an image turned out blurry, or why the colors were off.

The second part of the book is comprised of chapters which, based on the foundation built in the first part, deal with specific photography disciplines: Portraits, Weddings, Animals, Landscapes, Night Photography, HDR Images, Macros and Close-ups, and finally Underwater. Each section starts with an introduction, followed by specific instructions and inspirations for planning, camera settings, equipment, and how to avoid common mistakes. Many sections also contain a short quiz, which allow you to quickly check how much of what you’ve read and watched you’ve memorized so far.

THE VIDEOS

The videos are all well-made – with a running time of two to five minutes each, they have an enjoyable duration. Complex topics might take ten minutes or more to explain in detail. Many of the videos are freely accessible on YouTube, but there also are a lot that can only be accessed through the hyperlinks in the book, which provides additional value. Chelsea’s and Tony’s English is easy to understand; in addition, you can switch on subtitles on most of the videos.

Each video focuses on a specific topic and demonstrates it clearly. This can be a bit of theory, such as the effects of the aperture setting on the image, or practical tips, for instance on photographing birds. I still access videos from the book every now and then, when I want to know or try something specific.

FACEBOOK COMMUNITY

Once you have the book, you can also ask for access to the closed Facebook group, “Stunning Digital Photography Readers”. Here you can upload your own images and thus get immediate feedback from this rather large community. Experience shows that, the more specific any questions you post with the picture are, the better the feedback will be. In addition, the many images from other photographers can serve as inspirations for your own efforts. This community is another reason that made buying the book worthwhile for me.

FURTHER ON

“Stunning Digital Photography” deals primarily with making the pictures. Post-processing is mentioned only briefly, which is OK for me. It would increase the size of the book to the point where it became unwieldy. Also, it depends on which software you are using because the workflows and terms differ significantly from program to program. If you’re using the Adobe tools, Chelsea and Tony offer additional books specifically for  Lightroom and Photoshop. They are structured similar to SDP, and in the same manner. Many, but not all, of the video tutorials are freely accessible on YouTube.

In case the explanations on the theory of photography, e.g. image composition or camera technology, given in SDP don’t go far enough for you, or if you’ve simply become curious and want to know more, I strongly recommend watching Mark Levoy’s Lectures on Digital Photography.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: “Stunning Digital Photography” will give you an all-in-one package to get started with this fascinating hobby. I can definitely recommend buying it.

What I’ve learned: The book, and even more so the videos it contains, have given me a great overview of the basics as well as the entire spectrum of photography. At the same time, I’ve learned to cross-check the contents with reviews and tutorials from other photographers to not just believe everything, but actually to question things and to try them out. In the end, doing something yourself always grants the best learning experience.


LINKS

Title Image: Book cover; Source: http://northrup.photo/

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