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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Field Report - Tamron AF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 SP Di VC

I have been using my trusty Canon 70-210 EF F4 (1987) zoom for a couple years and was looking to upgrade to a lens which has some form of vibration control as a feature.  Not only that, the Canon 100-300 EF I own is a very poor performer on the 300mm side.  I needed a lens that not only offered VC but also had the image quality at the longer end of the zoom range.

The Search
My search started, as do most searches, on the internet.  I read review after review and lens test after lens test.  There was a great deal of interest on my part with the Canon 70-200L F4 on just its reputation alone so that was an obvious choice for me.  The price of this lens ended up being about $200.00 more than I was really wanting to spend and this lens required a teleconverter to get to the 300 mm range I wanted to attain. By the way, the IQ of the 70-200 is amazing without a doubt, but the older version does not have image stabilization so I had to rule it out completely.  The rejection of this lens led me to the Canon 70-300 EF (non-L).  I read some great reviews but in the end I ruled this one out because of issues Canon was having with the IS when going vertical and the lack of full time manual focus.  I shoot a great many vertical shots and this was not acceptable.  I know that Canon will fix this at no charge but I did not want the hassle.  Finally I came across reviews stating how great the Tamron 70-300 DI VC was in both image and build quality.  Throw in the fact it also had full time manual focus and I was sold.  As soon as I got the funds together, I ordered a used model from KEH and thus began my journey with a 3rd party lens.  I will go through several sections including unboxing and the features of the lens then conclude with tests of the lens in the field.

The box arrived from KEH well packaged as usual. KEH is an amazing store for used camera gear and their customer service is top notch.  A first look at the Tamron lens revealed that it was larger and heavier than the comparable Canon lens. As with many modern lenses, the lens hood is tulip shaped and mounts in reverse on the lens when not in use.  The front element is a large piece of glass with a filter diameter of 62mm.  Because of this filter size, adding a polarizer could get a bit pricey, but for me this is not a reason to not buy a lens. The lens has a manual focus ring, a switch for turning on vibration compensation (VC) and one for switching to autofocus or manual.  Zooming is controlled by another ring at the front of the lens.

The manual focus ring is heavy duty and is smooth to operate.  This lens has a feature called full time manual focusing which is often found on higher quality lenses.  What this means is the photographer does not have to flip a switch from autofocus to manual in order to focus the lens manually.  To some this may not be an important feature, but I am a bird photographer and many times I don't have time to flip to manual or adjust my autofocus points to get the shot.  Full time manual focus allows me to get the shot without frightening the subject.

Next, this lens has what Tamron calls vibration compensation (VC) which is their term for image stabilization (IS).  With the flip of a switch located on the side of the rear of the lens the VC is engaged.  VC will not help you if you are dealing with a moving subject since that is a concept called subject blur.  It will only help to shoot at a slower shutter speed with still subjects.  This happens more often for me when shooting animals or birds.  Often a bird is perched quietly in a tree in early morning but the light is too low to get a fast shutter speed.  This is an example of a perfect solution for this feature.  Photographers should note that you must turn this feature off when using a tripod and I have not tried it with a monopod.  Also note that VC will automatically detect panning to disengage the feature during the pan.

The zoom ring is top notch and I noticed no zoom creep.  I was especially impressed with this since it was a used lens.  I did notice that it took a couple seconds to fully zoom but this is a problem with the modern, non-pump style lenses.  Given enough time, I might get used to this and my speed improve.

Field Tests
First, let me just say that I am always skeptical of 3rd party lenses.  Not because they are horrible lenses but because of all the bad reviews on quality assurance.  Before starting the image analysis I can honestly say that first and foremost the quality of this lens is awesome.  With that in mind let us get down to doing some real tests.

There is a local organization in the Lake Norman area of North Carolina called the Carolina Raptor Center.  Each year they have special days when they close down so professional and advanced amateur photographers can come in and take photographs of the birds in their natural environments without being attacked by mobs of anxious tourists.  This event will be the backdrop for my field testing.  All of the test shots created at this event were created with the Tamron lens coupled to a Canon 1D Mark II.

I began shooting at around 10 in mostly open shade locations, handholding the camera with VC turned on. This shot below of the American Barn owl was shot at 1/200, 300mm, F8.  The sharpness of this lens is phenomenal at any price, but for a $280.00 used lens it is unbeatable.  Even at F8 my consumer grade Canon lens cannot match this. My Canon 1 Series camera has a 1.3x (1.255) crop factor and I noticed no issues with focus in the corners or center.  I am sure there was some degradation but  it was well under control.  The chromatic aberrations were minor and easily corrected in post processing.

American Barn Owl Tamron 70-300mm VC, 1/200, F8 at 300mm

This first image, although probably still hand holdable by some, to me should not be attempted at less than a 1/500 of a second shutter speed. The VC gave me the confidence to go a stop or two lower.  The next shot of this Eastern Screech Owl was shot at a much lower shutter speed of 1/100 of a second at F5.6.  This I know would not be possible for me at 300mm with a non stabilized lens.  I did use some fill flash here so some motion might have been stopped by that but not that much.  It was pretty low powered fill.

Eastern Screech Owl - Tamron 70-300 VC, 1/100, F8 at 300mm
Now, here is the bad news for me on the vibration compensation and why I have a hard time fully recommending it.  For my shooting needs I rarely got good results at greater than 1.5 stops.  Part of this I believe is because of the really heavy Canon 1 series body I use which was causing me to tire and the other problem is that the VC only holds while you have the shutter pressed halfway.  I don't know of a better way they could have designed it but it forces to the photographer to have to worry about both focus and making sure the VC has engaged and has locked down the image.  As you press the shutter down, the VC will attempt to stabilize the image and will visibly lock into place when it has the image vibration under control.  As I continued to tire throughout the day, it became harder to stay still and keep the lock in place.  This is the best way I can explain this and I might not be doing the lens justice by explaining it this way, but this was my feel or impression.  Having said all the negative, it was still a joy to have in place and ready to help me out.

Finally the lighting got a bit better and I turned off the VC.  The following image shows just how sharp this lens can get and why I highly recommend it for its image quality at 300mm.  The Bald Eagle below was shot at 5.6 and it is tack sharp.  At F8 I would not be surprised if the quality rivaled some of the expensive "L" quality glass.  I did find the contrast was a bit low and I had to crank it up in lightroom, but this is a minor issue to me.  If I was shooting slide film back in the 90s it would be an issue, but not in todays world of digital processing.

American Bald Eagle - Tamron 70-300 VC, 1/400, 300mm, F5.6
Before concluding I wanted to say a word about autofocus on this lens.  It was good but not great.  I put it up against close flying birds and it failed horribly but then again most lenses would have difficulty tracking close.  It did quite well on stationary birds and I noticed no problems with back focus or front focus.  The focus is sharp and that is really all I need to say.

In my mind Tamron met and in some cases exceeded my expectations.  The lens is built well, has good autofocus and decent image stabilization.  I highly recommend that anyone pro or consumer buy this lens.  You will not be disappointed.

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