Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD Lens
With any kind of photographic equipment there’s always a compromise, and with lenses it’s no exception. It’s usually either price, weight or image quality. So when this new Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD lens (available for Canon, Nikon and Sony; retailing at £949 or $1,149 USD) turned up for me to test, I was looking for the compromise from the outset. Not that that’s a pessimistic viewpoint, but over the years using and testing equipment I’ve noticed that there’s always something that could be better and at this price, it’s to be expected! Still though, being a lover of all things photography I was rooting for this lens and want it to succeed. Tamron have been about for a long time now and they’ve started to produce some good optics, and at the time of review there wasn’t anything with this kind of focal range covered in one lens for the price. On paper it’s a massive 450mm zoom range to choose from; couple that with a crop sensor camera and that’s a whopping length in a relatively small compact size. Could this be the perfect wildlife lens we’ve been waiting for?
This isn’t a lab test by any means, so if you love staring at charts then I’m sure a quick Google will find them. Whilst they are definitely a great insight into the lens’ capabilities, I’m always interested in the real world test. Setup in a hide or even strolling around snapping random things – that’s when I want something to perform and get the real questions answered. How good is the auto focus for birds in flight? Does it hunt? How nice do the out of focus areas look? Is it sharp? Is it heavy to hand hold? All of these things you will require straight of the box. Yes, you can apply micro adjustments on your camera bodies to fine-tune the focussing to possibly improve it, but I believe if you buy something of this price it should be spot on. Let’s find out…
Being a Canon shooter, I guess the competition for this lens would be the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS USM lens with extenders. It’s a very, very popular wildlife lens for a lot of people, and now with the Mk2 version of the lens being release, the Mk1 could be a great second hand buy without too much difference in price. Other options would also be the EF 400mm f/5.6 prime, again with extenders. Personally, if it’s purely for wildlife I would always opt for the prime, it will be sharper at 400mm and lighter in weight. The prime doesn’t have image stabilisation for hand held shooting, but to be honest at the longer lengths I’d suggest using a tripod anyway. I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for the 400mm prime and consider it to be one of the best bird in flight lenses you can buy.
Over both of those though, the Tamron will take you 200mm closer to your subject straight out the box at a loss of only 1 stop of light. The Tamron is quite a bit heavier though so it depends upon your style of shooting: whether you sit with a tripod where weight wouldn’t be an issue or shooting walking around on the fly. There has also been a new Sigma 150mm-600mm released, so this can also be put into the mix. I wasn’t a big lover of the Sigma 150-500mm lens as I found it quite slow and soft, so I would be keen to test these two head to head and find out which one was the best non-manufacture alternative.
Handling, Features & Build Quality
With the hood reversed it’s around a foot long so should fit quite easily in most normal sized camera bags, even with a camera body attached it’s still a decent size considering the focal coverage. The lens comes with a massive lens cap (95mm) to protect the front element and a large hood that is locked into place by a simple rotate and click. I found the hood a bit flimsy, but even with a slight nudge it didn’t undo so you shouldn’t lose it. With most telephoto zoom lenses you zoom in by rotating the centre ring to increase the focal length. As this lens goes right up to 600mm, it’s quite tricky to send it from 150mm to 600mm in one hand spin whilst keeping your subject in the centre. So, unless you’re on the ball you might miss that action-packed sequence whilst you’re busy fiddling to zoom in and find it in the viewfinder. I’m sure with practice and more time with the lens you’ll get to know it, but that’s something I noticed.
The lens has a lock for when at ‘rest’ (150mm) to stop the lens extending on its own, but this lock can’t be engaged at any length. Because of this, on a few occasions after having been shooting at 200mm, I would be walking along holding the lens foot with it hanging down, and it would slowly extend out to 600mm. This is slightly annoying, but I’m not sure how this could be solved by Tamron. I did like the way it handled though; it felt very balanced with a body & grip attached, allowing me to track moving subjects smoothly. The focus and zoom rings are nice and smooth with mostly no clunks, however it isn’t super smooth around 600mm. This is probably due to the weight balance of the main barrel. The switches are all positive and aren’t easily nudged out of place.
For a long lens, it’s nice to see a great four stop Vibration Control (VC) image stabilisation system present here. It’s quite quiet in operation – nothing that would put off your subjects and it also does a good job when shooting handheld. With the limited maximum aperture, hefty weight and long focal length, it’s good to have a helping hand with the VC turned on. It’s a great feature to have to help you out, especially when shooting at the long end. Generally though, using the reciprocal rule, shooting at 600mm on a full frame you ideally want a 1/640 second shutter speed and only slightly less than that using the VC. Again, a tripod is worth its weight when the shutter speeds start to drop.
I have to say, focusing on this lens is fast, quiet and really does latch on to where you target it. However, on the odd occasion it does do some hunting, especially on moving targets unless you’re spot on. I found it was easier to roughly compose any moving subjects at around 300/400mm and then zoom in to gain focus. As you can imagine, trying to focus on something flying straight off the bat at 600mm handheld can be tricky, so I’d definitely recommend using a gimbal head on a tripod when possible. I’m used to using my 300mm Canon prime every day which is renowned for being a lightning fast focusing lens, so at first I did find this lens quite sluggish. But then you have to think that this retails at under £1,000 new, so you have to take a hit somewhere.
The first thing that comes to mind with long telephoto zooms is that they have a variable aperture. Starting off at 150mm you’re at f/5, then zooming in from 225mm onwards it’ll change to f5.6 as the minimum aperture right up to around 420mm. Then it’ll go to f/6.3 all the way up to 600mm. Another downside of longer focal lengths when used wide open (f/6.3 in this case @ 600mm) is that image sharpness can be effected, making images appear soft. One way to counteract this is to stop the aperture down, say to f/8 or f/10, but by doing this you not only need more light to keep the shutter speed up, but those lovely wildlife portraits that jump out at you from the screen will be harder to achieve thanks to the increased depth of field. However, with lenses like this in this price bracket, you’ll have to compromise the low light performance figure when it comes to minimum apertures limited to f/5. That’s one of the main reasons the expensive super telephoto lenses cost what they do, as they allow you to keep shutter speeds high when the light starts to drop.
The main point of any lens really is what is the image quality like? I used this lens on a 5D Mark III which really does make things apparent if the lens isn’t up to standard. The quality and resolution from the Tamron was very good. Chromatic aberration was controlled nicely and even extreme cases could be removed easily in Lightroom with a simple tick-box. Images had great resolution and it did a really good job of capturing the small details of my subjects.
Stopping down the aperture really did make things sharper and I’d personally put say this lens is better at capturing details than the Sigma 150-500mm I tested earlier in the year. I would say the 400mm Canon prime would beat it on image quality, however for a fair test you’d need to put a 1.4 extender on it to compare it on a similar focal length/aperture value, and then I think it would be very close indeed!
Summary & Buying Options
I think for under £1,000 new it is a great lens for the money. It’s made well, works well, produces decent results and isn’t too slow for moving subjects. It does have some niggles, but again you have to come back to the price. It’s a very well equipped piece of kit and definitely a step in the right direction for any wildlife or sports photographers out there looking to upgrade.
This lens is available from the following reliable retailers for both Canon and Nikon cameras:
- (Most Countries) Amazon – Canon; Amazon – Nikon
- (Europe) Wex Photographic – Canon; Wex Photographic – Nikon
- (USA) Adorama – Canon; Adorama – Nikon
- (USA) B&H Photo – Canon; B&H Photo – Nikon
- (UK) Jessops – Canon; Jessops – Nikon