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.

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2 comments

    1. Langfristig wird es wohl ein 70-200 f/2.8 mit Bildstabilisator. Entweder das neue von Tamron (G2) oder ein gebrauchtes “L II” von Canon; die liegen preislich auf einer Höhe. Davor gibt es aber noch einen Zwischenschritt.

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