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.

My Gear: Make the little things count: Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Macro

Tamron SP 90mm ƒ/2.8 Macro Di VC on the Canon 760D

Did you know that a butterfly’s eyes are dotted? It was surprising to me to see that on one of my own pictures. Macros – or close-up images in general – have always been fascinating me, because they allow you to take your time and see details that are usually overlooked.

Even for my old compact cameras I had some screw-on close-up lenses to take pictures of flowers, for instance. Considering my skill level and equipment at the time, the results were not very impressive, though. When I started to get deeper into photography in the fall of 2015, I quickly came across several video tutorials focused on macro photography. There many different technical approaches to doing this; e.g. the so-called “extension tubes”, which are mounted between the lens and the camera body, or retro-adapters, which allow you to mount the lens the other way around to your camera. These are widely used and inexpensive ways to get started.

However, I wanted to get seriously into this from the very start, so I immediately started looking for a dedicated macro lens. A review on a German YouTube channel brought the Tamron to my attention, and I was lucky to get a good deal on it by buying it used on eBay.

TAMRON SP 90mm ƒ/2.8 MACRO DI VC

Tamron SP 90mm ƒ/2.8 Macro Di VC
Tamron SP 90mm ƒ/2.8 Macro Di VC

One thing to consider is the fact that macro lenses aren’t just good for close-ups. They typically offer superior image sharpness, and with an aperture of ƒ/2.8 they also lend themselves well to making portraits. The model of the Tamron I have (F004) is currently (Feb. 2017) available for around 350 to 400 Euros on either eBay or Amazon. Since 2016, its successor (model F017) is available. The new model has a redesigned, more modern exterior, and according to internet reviews also some improved optics. However, the price point for it is between 650 and 700 Euros. From a value for money perspective, the old model is unbeatable in my mind, and has proven itself very well.

EQUIPMENT

Size and weight of the lens are in the mid-range. The lens alone weighs around 600g (1.3lb), and together with my 760D it’s around 1.200g (2.6lb). So it can be easily carried around, and, if necessary as described below, held in one hand. It comes with caps for the front and back, as well as a lens hood. The autofocus is relatively quick, and its range can be limited to different settings: 0.3-0.5m, 0.5m-∞, and full range. Thus, you can avoid the camera going through the full focus range when “hunting” for insects, which will save you precious seconds. Of course, the lens also has an image stabilizer – Vibration Control (VC) as Tamron calls it – which renders good results. You’ll have to keep in mind, though, that when working in close range, different rules apply for avoiding camera shake.

USE AND RESULTS

There are many different ways to perform macro photography. There is one thing however that you will always need: lots of light. When shooting close, especially when hand-holding the camera, the shutter speed should be as fast as possible to avoid camera shake. This close to the camera, the image stabilizer is of limited use – even at 1/100 of a second it’s not all that unusual to have some blurry images. When the sun is out, I grab my camera and the lens and go outside, looking for motivation. This is how I found the ice crystals, and the maple seed covered in white frost, in the example pictures below. While the bright sunlight around noon is shunned by landscape and portrait photographers due to harsh shadows and strong contrasts it causes, this is exactly what makes it ideal for macro photography because it emphasizes all the fine details.

If there isn’t enough sun, I use a flash in addition – either a dedicated macro flash that mounts to the front of the lens, or a regular flashgun which I hold in my left hand and then aim for the subject of my motivation as needed. I use wireless remotes, or a cable, to fire the flash. Handling the flashgun is a bit circumstantial, especially because it means having to hold and operate the camera with one hand as well, but it provides more freedom for setting the light. I took the photos of the butterfly and the bumble bee using this approach.

Of course the “hunt” for moving targets such as insects demands a lot of patience. The little beasts are faster than you think, as you will notice when you wish for one to just once sit still for a second. On a single weekend, I took about 500 pictures at our lavender bush – in the end, I kept ten.

Finally, you can set up your camera and flash around a table and position your object of interest in front of the lens. I fixed the dandelion in a small vase and then photographed it piece by piece. Close up, the depth of field is very shallow, so it’s impossible to get the entire blossom sharp from front to back in a single exposure. Hence I took several images, focusing on different areas of the dandelion – front, center, back – and then afterwards combined them in Photoshop to a single sharp image (“focus stacking”).

Looking for the tiny things, or tinkering with focus stacking, is a lot of fun for me, and the results are astonishing over and over again. The fantastic image quality the Tamron renders contributes to this as well.

ACCESSORIES

Over the course of the last year, I picked up a variety of accessories for macro photography; a macro ring-flash, a camera slider for the tripod, a cable for the flash and an additional close-up adapter. I will write more about those in future posts – in particular since now that spring is coming up, the number of interesting motivations quickly increases again.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: I can highly recommend the Tamron to anyone taking a serious interest in macro photography. The old model (Foo4) renders very good results and provides unbeatable value for money.

What I’ve learned: Macro photography is great fun! No matter whether you’re outside, on the hunt for flowers, insects, and other details, or if you take your motivations back home and then carefully set them up – seeing all the fine details afterwards enlarged on your screen is amazing. And this is how I learned that a butterfly’s eyes are dotted.


LINKS

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.


EXAMPLE IMAGES:

Dandelion - Composite of nine images by focus stacking
Dandelion – Composite of nine images by focus stacking

 

Butterfly on a lavender bloom
Butterfly on a lavender bloom

 

Bumblebee on a lavender bloom
Bumblebee on a lavender bloom

 

Maple seed with white frost in the morning sun
Maple seed with white frost in the morning sun

 

Ice crystal on a car roof on a frosty January morning
Ice crystal on a car roof on a frosty January morning

YouTube Recommendation: Christopher Frost

Christopher Frost Photography

When I started looking for additional lenses for my 760D, the YouTube channel by Christopher Frost was among the first I subscribed to. Chris is an enthused photographer living in Cardiff and currently training to be become a vicar. He characterizes himself as a “lens enthusiast” and continuously publishes detailed reviews.

I’ve come to appreciate these reviews a lot. Chris follows a thorough and consistent scheme, so that his reviews can be easily compared to each other. From time to time, he takes advantage of that himself and combines several reviews into a “battle” – for instance, ten different 50mm prime lenses, or eight ultra wide-angle ones. Hence, it not only becomes evident how one particular lens behaves under various settings or on different cameras, but you can also easily compare lenses to each other.

He assesses the following points:

  • Look & feel, build quality, and equipment
  • Image quality (sharpness, contrast, chromatic aberrations) – on a full-frame as well as an APS-C camera, as far as applicable, at different apertures, and (for zoom lenses) at different focal lengths.
  • Distortion and vignetting
  • Close-up image quality
  • Behavior against bright lights
  • Bokeh

When it comes to lenses, he tests about everything that can be mounted to a Canon DSLR; in particular off-brand ones. Thus, he created more than a 130 videos by now. Recently, he obtained a mirrorless camera, so that lenses made specifically for DSLMs are now being reviewed as well.

The videos are made in a very likeable way. In addition to the always-similar test images, they always contain some example images as well as personal experiences when using the lens. He’s enthusiastic about what he’s doing, but he doesn’t overdo it. The videos have a very convenient duration of five to ten minutes each. His British English can be easily understood. Based on his reviews, for instance, I have decided to go with the Tamrom SP 70-300mm ƒ4-5,6 Di VC as my telephoto zoom lens.

PLAYLIST RECOMMENDATIONS

In addition, Chris has some other playlists mostly focused on music, TV shows, and his engagement at Church.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: If you’re looking for well-made, substantiated, and informative reviews on lenses for Canon cameras, then Chris’ YouTube channel comes highly recommended!

What I’ve learned: Due to the comparability of the reviews, I have learned how significantly different lenses can behave concerning sharpness and color-fringing at different aperture settings and focal lengths, and also how big the differences can be when using one and the same lens on full-frame body or an APS-C camera.


LINKS

Title image: YouTube Screenshot

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