Tamron takes on Nikon’s 55-300 & 70-300, and Sigma’s 70-300
My previous 70-300mm lens didn’t have any kind of Image Stabilisation, which is OK when you’re shooting sailing boats in bright sunny weather at 1/500 or faster. The other morning, not long after sunrise, I took a bunch of shots of a Pelican landing and taking off among the swimmers on Balmoral Beach. Even at ISO 800, the fastest shutter speed I could use was 1/200, and most of the shots came out blurred.
So I looked around for a lens with Image stabilisation that would let me get sharp action shots even in poor light. The new Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6g VR hit the camera shops at about the same as I started looking, and that made an already tough decision even more difficult since there were now too Nikons, a new Tamron and a not quite so new Sigma.
Pricing varies for many reasons, but here’s a snapshot taken today at Adorama (readers in OZ: $ parity doesn’t mean price parity unless you buy from US or Hong Kong shops).
Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5–5.6G VR $369.00
Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5–5.6G IF-ED VR $482.00 (or $399 for a Nikon refurb)
Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG OS $399.00
Tamron SP 70mm f/4-5.6 DI VC USD $450.00 (- $50 rebate from Tamron)
One down, three to go
With prices this close, the decision would clearly be made on other parameters. The Sigma was the first to go, even though it won editor’s choice from Margaret Brown at Photo Review http://www.photoreview.com.au/reviews/cameraaccessories/sigma-70300mm-f456-dg-os-lens.aspx . Gary Wolstenholme at ephotozine gave it a decent/good value rating http://www.ephotozine.com/article/Sigma-70300mm-f456-DG-OS-12755.
I owned the non-OS version of this lens until I sold it on eBay after the pelican shoot, and it had a couple of annoying features: the AF is noisy, clunky and hunts in poor light, and the barrel and focus ring rotate. For some reason, Sigma didn’t use an HSM AF motor in this lens. These aren’t issues in the bargain-priced non OS lens but Gary complained about the same things in the new OS version.
So I crossed it off the list, with reluctance because the lens is well-built yet shorter and lighter at 600g than two big guns here. I like lenses that don’t weigh me down on long walks and when I saw the Nikon 55-300 on special, I grabbed it despite the few lukewarm reviews - it doesn’t focus internally either and the VR is a bit clunky according to Gary http://www.ephotozine.com/article/Nikon-AFS-DX-Nikkor-55300mm-f4556G-ED-VR-14570 .
On my example, the VR worked just fine, and I thought it was a pretty good lens for the money – see my short test drive below this review. The new Nikon’s biggest advantage is its smaller size and lighter weight compared with the other lenses here. The 55-300 VR supersedes the plastic fantastic 55-200mm f/4 5.6 VR, the tele zoom bargain of the decade.
The 55-300 VR is the only DX lens among these four – the others are designed for full frame (FX) sensors. So the Nikon 55-300 will works best on a D40, D90 or D7000 while the others can take full advantage of the bigger sensors of FX cameras like the D700. On a DX body, the 1.5 crop factor provides an effective magnification that results in a FOV equivalent to a 105-450mm lens on a film or FF body.
Two more down, one left
I decided I wanted more AF speed and better quality build so the 55-300 VR went up for sale on eBay. That left the two big guns here. The Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR weighs in at 750g and is 14.5 cm long before you add the hood or extend the zoom. It’s an instrument of impressive length, and has built a strong reputation.
Nikon 70-300 VR on D200 body. Photo courtesy of Thom Hogan http://www.bythom.com/70300vrlens.htm
The reviews are excellent across the board, praising its AF speed, effectiveness of the VR and Image Quality, but they all say that sharpness drops off noticeably above 200mm. Still, I was pretty well convinced that this was the best choice until I read the reviews on the new Tamron.
The street price of the Nikon lens has come down a lot, even if some Aussie shops still ask close to $1,000 for it. You can get one from Hong Kong for around $500 including shipping http://www.dwidigitalcameras.com.au/store/product.asp?idProduct=961
I wrote an article on where to buy camera stuff at fair prices a while back here http://www.digital-photography-school.com/how-to-choose-your-next-camera-what-and-where-to-buy#author
Tamron – the new kid on the block
The write-ups for Tamron’s 60-year anniversary lens range from glowing to incandescant, and that’s how I ended up choosing this one. Here’s a small selection:
To put things in perspective, Tamron’s new 70-300 is a little cheaper than the Nikon and a little faster at f/4. The bad news is that the Tamron is the same size and weight as the Nikon. Fully extended with lens hood on, it’s an inch short of a foot long. Without the hood and zoom extension, it’s just on 6 inches or 14.5 cm. The worst part is that it’s 3 inches or 80cm in diameter, which means it doesn’t fit easily even into big paws like mine.
The only consolation is that all lenses beyond this price range, especially the pro-level 70-200 f/2.8 models, are much bigger, much heavier and much more expensive.
USD, or Ultrasonic Silent Drive, is new for Tamron, and works well. According to the Nikonians review, this is ‘Tamron’s first lens to use a coreless drive motor. Much like Nikon’s Silent Wave motor, the lens is not dependent upon the camera’s internal shaft drive to move the optical elements. Instead, USD pulls battery power from the camera and uses a ring motor to silently and swiftly arrive at the desired focus. It’s perfect for fast moving action but discreet enough in events requiring a low noise profile.
VC (Vibration Compensation) is really useful in a long a telephoto lens which otherwise would require bright light or high shutter speeds to avoid hand shake effects. Tamron claims that its VC adds four stops for hand-held shooting, allowing you to shoot at much smaller apertures/slower speeds in poor light, or at lower ISO settings. I suspect they all exaggerate a bit on that score.
Optical Formula – 17 elements in 12 groups. This lens features an LD (Low Dispersion) and an XLD (Extra Low Dispersion) optical element that helps prevent chromatic aberration (the so-called purple fringing effect).
Tamron doesn’t have the best reputation for quality of construction, I don’t know why. I own three of the SP range lenses – the 17-35mm f/2.8-4 wide angle, 17-50mm f/2.8 walkabout and the 90mm f/2.8 macro, and they’re a cut above Tamron’s or Nikon’s consumer/kit lenses. SP is Tamron speak for ‘high performance spec’ but Semi-Pro is better fit. The f-numbers you see above are typical of fast pro lenses, but the prices are not, and neither are size and weight as a rule which suits me.
The new 70-300 is the exception: it’s a hefty lump which looks and feels well-built despite the plastic on the outside. Tamron’s ribbing is a bit excessive and hard to keep clean, but the material is decent and all the moving bits have a quality feel to them.
The fat diameter of the lens means you need to take care handling it, and it pays to make sure you get a good grip on it. Cradling the camera/lens outfit in your arm is a better idea. The lens doesn’t look or feel comfortable on the little D5000, and I suspect it won’t be that much better on a D90/D7000. A D200/300 or 700 size body is a better fit, but now we’re approaching 2kgs.
The zoom ring and focus rings have firm actions and there’s no lens creep at any angle. The zoom ring and focus ring are reversed, to my mind at least, although more and more consumer lenses seem to put the zoom ring at the front of the lens now, and the focus ring near the camera body. There is a distance scale for manual focusing but no aperture ring. Just like Nikon G lenses.
The lens hood is an exaggerated affair, so much so that turning it around over the lens obscures both the zoom and focus rings. The lens diameter is the old familiar 62mm so filters and hoods and caps are not too hard on the pocket.
Performance – The lens works well, with no obvious flaws. Zooming in and out is even across the considerable zoom range, the amount of rotation needed is just right and the firmness of the zoom ring is constant. The new USD mechanism mostly does what it says on the tin and provides fast and silent focusing. Like most systems, it’s less accurate in poor light and we’ll come back to that.
There are a couple of switches on the lens, one for AF or MF, and you have to throw the switch before you can focus manually. The other switch turns VC on and off. Why do you want it off? The VC mechanism (not just Tamron’s) can compromise ultimate image quality so you’d want to turn it off when you’re shooting from a tripod or at over 1/500 – both situations where you don’t need it. You do see VC at work sometimes – the image seems to shake in the viewfinder – but it works well.
I tested this lens by taking lots of shots walking about, often early or late in the day, and the ratio of sharp shots isn’t as high as I expected. When you help things along and use a prop or a steady shooting position, tack sharp photos are easier to produce. And the lens can freeze action nicely as the shot above shows. The best thing is that the fall-off in sharpness you inevitably see at the long end of tele-lenses is not an issue with this lens.
I'm not dreaming of becoming a wedding photographer - it just so happens that I live near the rotunda at Balmoral, which is a popular spot for weddings. It's also a tough spot for cameras, with its extremes of light and shade on a sunny day. That's why I like using it for testing lenses. It's very good for testing tele lenses because you have to keep your distance with other people's weddings. Please click on the images for larger versions.
The colours look a bit like the vibrancy was enhanced by editing but it wasn't - this is exactly what the light and the scene on that very sunny afternoon produced. Colour reproduction is accurate with this lens except in the bright early morning sun, where objects can take on a strange golden glow at times.
There are no obvious problems with flaring in bright light though (highlight blow-outs), or distortion (lines that aren’t straight), vignetting (light fall-off near corners and edges) or chromatic aberration (fringing or halo effects). The lens’s bokeh is pretty decent, even if it makes no claims for macro ability of any kind.
The real world
The new Tamron is a strong performer where it counts: delivering great image quality in a variety of settings. The new USD focus system works well and so does the Vibration Control most of the time. They're not fool-proof, mind you: when you combine high speeds and long distance, you'll find their limits and you'll have to fall back on your technique or a tripod.
And keep in mind that this new Tamron is not the kind of walk-about lens you casually throw into your kit bag (as you'd do the Nikon 55-200). No, picking this lens up will make you think twice and, on second thoughts, you’ll probably leave it for a special day out catching distant wildlife with a tripod. It's a lot of lens for the money, literally.
I wanted a lens that was good at catching distant objects or fast-moving animals or people, even in less-than-ideal light. Am I disappointed? A little. Were my expectations too high? Yes. This is not a pro lens but its size makes it unwieldy. And, over 250mm, you’re getting into a range where any small deficiencies in technique or technology are magnified.
Summing up, the Tamron is a bargain in terms of performance, image quality and build. About as good as it can possibly get, I suspect, as long as you're prepared to forego thoughts like small and handy. A bonus is that this lens works with both DX (including D40/3000/5000) and FX Nikons so, if you trade up to a D700 in the future, you can keep this one.