Primes for the People: Tamron throws down the gauntlet with two sharp, sweet, affordable primes!

by Dave Etchells

posted Wednesday, September 2, 2015 at 5:15 AM EST


(UPDATE: B&H pre-order links added.)

Tamron is probably best known as a manufacturer of zoom lenses, although they do have a few primes in their lineup, including their classic 90mm F/2.8 macro. 

This may be changing, though, as Tamron is revamping and re-branding their "SP" line of higher-quality lenses. At a press event introducing their two newest lenses in New York yesterday, Tamron made it clear that they're setting a new bar in terms of optical quality, build quality, and the je ne sais quoi of "feel" in the hand. Based on our early experience of the new lenses, it seems they may have succeeded.

New sensors, new challenges; can lenses keep up?

In his opening remarks, Tamron Corporate Vice President Hisaaki ("Hank") Nagashima pointed out the incredible advancements in camera sensors in recent years, with resolutions of 36, 42, and even 50 megapixels now widely available. This poses a challenge to lens manufacturers, to develop lenses capable of matching the sensors' resolutions, and that was a driving motivation behind the new lens models and rebranding of the SP lens line.

The Tamron SP 35mm F/1.8 Di VC USD lens.

The two new lenses are a 35mm f/1.8 and 45mm f/1.8, and after just a short while using them, we can say they're pretty sweet. They're designed to be "normal" focal length lenses for APS-C and full-frame cameras, respectively. On a sub-frame camera, the 45mm is a short tele, equivalent to 67mm on Nikon bodies or 72mm on Canons. (Sony-mount versions of both lenses are also promised, but they'll be arriving at a later, unspecified date.)

Image stabilization in "normal" primes

Unusually, both models include built-in image stabilization, a rarity for "normal" primes. (At least in their Canon and Nikon-mount form: The Sony-mount variants will forego stabilization in favor of Sony's in-body solution.) The stabilization -- or VC, for vibration compensation, as Tamron calls it -- seems quite capable. It's rated at 3 stops of improvement on the 35mm and 3.5 stops on the 45mm, but we found it very effective, hand-holding a very high-resolution camera (the Canon 5DSR) in dim if not dark conditions.

One of the advancements in these first two members of the rebranded SP line is their Vibration Control systems. Shown above (the top image being for the 35mm, the bottom for the 45mm), the new VC systems are smaller and more compact than what's gone before.

While we didn't test it to its ultimate low-light limits, we found the image stabilization on these new lenses quite effective. We were shooting with Canon's 50-megapixel monster the 5DSR, and were frankly surprised by how sharp shots came out that were captured as slow as 1/15 second. Considering the resolution of the sensor, that's quite a feat.

Precise autofocus

Of course, having a really sharp lens is only useful if you've managed to focus swiftly and accurately on your subject, and to that end Tamron's new optics both include ring-style Ultrasonic Silent Drive motors, the company's equivalent of Canon's USM or Nikon's SWM. That means precise, responsive and quiet autofocus, which should help you make the most of each lens' optical qualities.

Tamron calls their ultrasonic motor technology "USD" for Ultrasonic Silent Drive. It's the same basic technology as used by other manufacturers to provide quick, nearly-silent focusing.

Shooting with both lenses, we found them to be unusually sure-footed when autofocusing; they seemed to move directly to the final focus setting, with no dithering or hunting involved. We didn't feel they were necessarily as fast as Tamron touted them to be, but we were very happy with the focus accuracy they displayed.

Finally! Modern AF lenses designed for manual focus as well!

How many of us have cursed modern AF lenses when focusing manually? In the interest of speeding AF, manual focus has been left in the dust, with many lenses having absurdly short ranges of motion for manual focusing. Who hasn't cursed the lens designers, when trying to nail focus manually, with all of a centimeter of focus-ring adjustment, to cover the range from minimum distance to infinity? For those of us preferring (or needing) to focus manually, these new lenses are a joy to use. Tamron put a lot of effort into tuning both new SP lenses for, as they describe it, "high-grade MF operation". Both have a very long focus throw that allows for precise focus adustments, and the focus mechanism has a really great feel, as well.

No matter how well-crafted your lens, it's likely all for naught if it doesn't have a durable, quality feel to it, though. We photographers are just as prone to judging a book by its cover as anyone else, and your opinion of a new lens -- or one you're handling for the first time in the store as you mull a potential purchase -- will doubtless be colored to some degree by how it feels and looks in-hand. It goes beyond just the point of purchase, though: Who wants to use a lens that's awkward or unpleasant to use?

The Tamron SP 45mm F/1.8 Di VC USD lens.

A truly great feel, and real weather-sealing

Tamron accordingly put quite a lot of thought into the build and styling of its new SP series. Shapes, materials, surface finishes... even the typefaces used for lens markings have been taken into account. The end result of all that design work is that these new lenses feature metallic bodies with very clean lines, nicely-placed controls and a brand-new, more modern font chosen in no small part for its legibility. Even beyond look and feel, though, the physical design of both lenses includes weather sealing as a key feature -- and this isn't just accomplished via close-fitting plastic (as is the case in some cameras we've seen), but rather involves actual physical seals at key points. The fact that the new lenses are internal-focus designs means there's no "breathing" involved in using them, so no need or chance to suck in surrounding damp or dust.

Almost-macro focusing

In their presentation, Tamron made a big deal of the new lenses' close-focusing ability. We agree with the importance of this. We can't count the number of times we wished we could focus closer with "normal" lenses on our cameras, without having to switch to a separate macro lens.

The wider of the two new SP primes is the Tamron SP 35mm F/1.8 Di VC USD (Model F012), and it's capable of focusing to as close as 7.9 inches (20cm) for a 1:2.5 magnification ratio. Image quality is said to be very uniform across the frame regardless of focal distance, something that was accomplished using floating lens elements. Interestingly, rather than the typical cam-actuation, the floating elements in these new-generation SP lenses are actuated electronically and separately from the other lens elements. The company is also promising relatively little vignetting from a 10 element, nine group optical formula which includes two molded glass aspherics produced in-house by Tamron, as well as one extra-low dispersion and one low-dispersion element. 

Optical formula of the Tamron SP 35mm F/1.8 Di VC USD lens.

Designed as a "normal" lens for APS-C cameras, the new Tamron 35mm f/1.8's wide-open MTF curves show remarkably little falloff in sharpness from the center of the image to the edges of the APS-C frame.

There's more falloff on full-frame bodies, but we were generally surprised by how well it did for its price point.

The Tamron SP 45mm F/1.8 Di VC USD (Model F013) likewise has an internally-focusing design with floating focus elements, and can focus down to just 8.4 inches (29cm) for a 1:3.4 magnification ratio. And again, there's a very flat MTF curve indicating that the corners should look great, not just the center of your images. Here, the 10 element, eight group optical formula includes two molded aspherics and one low-dispersion glass element.

Optical formula of the Tamron SP 45mm F/1.8 Di VC USD lens.

The 45mm is designed to be well-suited for full-frame bodies, and as such is unusually uniform from the center to the edges of the 35mm frame.

Interestingly, we noticed a slight softening in some images a little ways out from the center, that got better as we looked further to the edges and corners of the frame. The dip and recovery in the 30 lp/mm meridional MTF curve matches what we observed in real life. (Always nice, when lab results match what you find in the real world :-)

Even with that, though, images seemed remarkably good for a lens of its price, shooting wide open.

Advanced coatings for unusually low flare

We've just mentioned the optical formulas of both lenses, but its equally important to note the coatings that these new optics share, aiming to control both flare and contamination issues and maximize image quality. For one thing, there are long-lasting fluorine coatings that provide both oil and water-repellent properties for the front lens elements, so moisture and smudges can be easily wiped away. For another, Tamron's eBAND and BBAR coatings provide a multi-layer system that helps control flare and ghosting. The Broad-Band Anti-Reflection coating is applied first (this is a conventional multi-layer refractive coating), then it's topped with the Extended Bandwidth and Angular Dependency coating, Tamron's name for a nano-coating that increases transmissivity and is particularly helpful with preventing reflection of more strongly-angled incident rays. The net result for users is that you should be able to shoot into the sun or against very bright backgrounds and still get decent contrast in your images.

Texture and detail at 35mm and 1/15 second. The ISO is a little high here, at 1600 on the 5DSR I was shooting with. There's an impressive amount of detail here, given that I was shooting as slow as just 1/15 second. Kudos to Tamron and their Vibration Compensation system!

First impressions

We've already had the opportunity to shoot with both new lenses, and while we're obviously keen to get them into the lab and out for a more extended field test as well, our early impressions are very positive. Both of these new SP lenses feel extremely good in the hand, and their autofocus drive seems very sure-footed indeed. There's no hint of hunting or bobbling; the AF drive just takes you directly to the correct setting. With that said, it didn't seem especially fast to us, although we'd been told to expect very swift performance.

Too much of a good thing? Some people looking for shallow depth of field may not realize just how shallow it can be on a full-frame camera, especially when shooting from right up close to your subject. This close-up shot was captured with the Tamron SP 45mm lens at f/2.8, and the in-focus area is just a tiny sliver of the total depth seen here.

And both lenses do indeed seem very sharp wide-open. In fact, they're surprisingly good in the corners at around their bright f/1.8 maximum apertures -- much more so than we'd normally expect to see. We did notice some longitudinal chromatic aberration when shooting wide-open, though, which showed up as purple fringing around strongly-backlit objects. (That's not too terribly difficult to correct in software, though, and Tamron assured us that lens corrections for Adobe and other products were in the works. Each lens will also ship with a license key for the SilkyPix RAW converter, with the appropriate correction algorithms built-in. Given the choice we'd certainly opt for a lens that was sharper in the corners, versus one with more tightly-controlled CA.)

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear... This forlorn bear sitting on the sidewalk made a perfect sample subject to show off the extraordinary resolution of the 35mm paired with the Canon 5DSR. Even at f/4.5, the depth of field here is very shallow.

Fuzzy, round two. Here's a shot of the same subjecct, but this time captured with the 45mm f/1.8, shooting at f/4.5. Once again, exceptional detail.

Affordable quality

With pricing of around US$600 apiece when they ship towards the end of this month (Tamron's giving a September 29 in-store date for US retailers), we're really very impressed with what we've seen so far. Both of these lenses look to be very aggressively priced for their quality, and it's going to be very interesting indeed to test them! Based on what we've seen thus far, there's really nothing on the market anywhere near the price/value combination these new optics represent.

Manhattan funk. These scruffy-looking buildings and storefronts showcase the Tamron SP 35mm F1.8 lens' great eye for detail.

Female pedestrian at f/1.8. We admit we just don't have the chops to be street photographers; just haven't figured out how to pop a camera in someone's face and have them like it. Instead, we resort to sneaky shots like this one, with the camera under our arm and us not even looking at the subject when we snap the shutter.

Shot with the 35mm at f/1.8, the result came out better than we deserved, and the level of detail is amazing. You can almost make out the names of her children (?) on the charms on her necklace. Really impressive, when you consider that it was shot with the lens absolutely wide open.

Where can you find detail like this at f/1.8 for under $600? Nowhere, that's where. These are some very, very impressive lenses!

Want to see more from both lenses at full resolution, complete with raw files? We've just added 15 images shot with the Tamron SP 35mm and 45mm F1.8 lenses in JPEG and .CR2 raw formats to our Canon EOS 5DS R gallery. Click here to see the updated gallery, and if you want to know more about the camera on which we mounted these new Tamrons, be sure to read our Canon 5DS R review as well!

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