Tamron SP AF 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro : Review

Introduction

The Tamron SP AF 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro is a highly popular lens amongst amateur photographers looking forward to take themselves into the realm of macro photography. I will be showing you the results of my own tests on a Nikon D700 full-frame DSLR. This lens belongs to the SP (Super Performance) line of lenses made from Tamron, that generally have been delivering very good performance and (especially) great value for money. This lens has been replaced recently by the VC USD version which adds Vibration Compensation optical stabilization system and a silent and fast Ultra-Sonic Drive motor with the purpose of being compatible with the newest entry-level Nikon DSLRs.
Here’s how it looks with the D700:

Announced in 2004, this particular iteration (model 272E) was optimized for digital sensors, hence the Di (Digitally Integrated) designation, and received a few cosmetical changes. Internally, this lens has 12 elements in 9 groups, none of them being of any special kind, and has 9 straight aperture blades. It doesn’t have an AF motor, so it will not focus automatically on the newest entry-level DSLRs. Speaking about focus, selecting between auto and manual is done through a push-pull clutch mechanism, which isn’t exactly friendly on the field, but mainly when it doesn’t auto-focus on the exact point at first shot and one needs to override it slightly. But when doing macro photography, most of the time it’s better to use manual focus anyway, and although the focus ring isn’t damped by any means, it is easy to turn the focus ring around since the mass of the moving elements is low. The lens is very light and compact, and with a filter thread of 55mm and weighing only about 400g, it makes a very portable lens to carry around, either on the field doing macro or on the streets shooting candids unconspicuously.
The lens is mostly plastic on the outside and has a metal mount. There’s also a rotating switch on the side that limits the minimum or maximum auto-focusing distance, depending on the current focusing point – it can either limit AF between 0.44m and infinity, or between 0.29m and 0.42m, which is nice to have to speed up the AF time. The front element doesn’t rotate while focusing, but the lens extends a lot between infinity and 0.29m, which is a bad disadvantage when shooting small insects from very close distances. In this matter the Micro-Nikkor AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G ED VR, which I also reviewed, is priceless. Like most lenses made for Nikkor until 2004, the Tamron has an aperture ring and allows to lock it at f/32 for AF, otherwise the camera would show an fEE error on the display.
Today, the Tamron can only be found on the used market, and at a price of about 250€ it’s a tremendous value for money for seriously starting getting into macro photography.

Technical Specifications

Focal length 90mm
Maximum aperture f/2.8 (far distance) – f/5.6 (nearest)
Minimum aperture f/32 (far distance) – f/64 (nearest)
Field of view 27 degrees (on FX)
Weight 405g
Dimensions 97 x 72mm (148 x 72mm, extended)
Optical construction 12 elements in 9 groups
Aperture blades 9, straight
Filter diameter 55mm
Minimum focus distance 432mm (270mm from the front element, focus limiter on), 290mm (95mm from the front element, focus limiter off)
Hood 2C9FH, round
Mount Nikon F

Mechanical Characteristics

Zoom ring n/a
Focus ring Plastic and metal with rubber finish, no infinity stop
Focus throw 260 degrees (focus limiter off)
Focus motor No
Optical stabilizer No
Front element rotation while zooming n/a
Front element rotation while focusing No
Internal focusing No
Lens extension while focusing Yes, up to 51mm
Lens extension while zooming n/a
Maximum magnification 1:1

Handling

With the D700, the Tamron is very lightweight and it’s easy to hold while doing street photography or portrait work. The lens is not a beauty by any means, and feels kind of cheap in use mainly due to the almost all-plastic build and the odd focus clutch mechanism. The front element is deeply recessed from the front of the lens, about 20mm, which makes it hard to reach for cleaning, and also because of this I never used the lens hood.
In macro photography and manually focusing, the lens provides a focus ring with a long throw for careful focusing, which is always nice to have, but the lens extension is so long that it can be very cumbersome when shooting insects from very close distances. This aspect of the lens is what makes it feel so cheap in use and separates it completely from the likes of the Micro-Nikkor AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G ED VR. On the other hand, there are differences concering autofocus as well: although the Tamron can’t be said to be slow focusing, it hunts a lot in low light and even under good light if the contrast is a little low. Switching the AF limit on can speed up the back-and-forth hunt but not by as much as one could expect. Another issue with the Tamron is the permanent out of focus when trying to focusing on targets at similar distances, but only at medium to high distance targets. This problem arises when I use the lens to shoot portraits or street photography at maximum aperture, whenever I do a sequence of shots on the same target, and the result is: the first shot generally is in focus, but all the next shots will be out of focus, and the only way to work around this is to stop down to f/4 at least. Mind you that the problem exists only at maximum aperture, so I’m not sure if it’s only with my copy or a known issue with this lens. Because of these observations, and not surprisingly, the Micro-Nikkor trumps the Tamron in the AF department in every way possible. It’s simply in another class of its own, as the price suggests.
In summary, handling this lens is not really very pleasant, and unfortunately it may be not the ideal tool for some areas of macro photography either.

Resolution

For the resolution test I shot the 5 Euro bill as usual. Focus was achieved using Live View to avoid auto-focus imprecisions and to compensate for possible field curvature issues.
The first column shows a crop of the image center, the DX corner crop is on the second column and the third column shows a crop of the FX extreme corner. Each row represents an aperture setting, from maximum to f/22 in full stops. I opted to show crops only until f/22, since closing the aperture even more results in more and more diffraction. Also, the target was at a such distance from the camera that the maximum effective aperture was f/3.0 instead of f/2.8 – the camera always reports the effective aperture. Here are the results:

It shows the incredible amount of detail that the lens is capable to deliver in short distance department, right from the maximum aperture from corner to corner. It appears to be even a hair sharper than the 105mm VR in the FX corner, which loses a bit of “bite” there at maximum aperture.
The Tamron is a winner here, and for the price it’s fantastic! But what about long distance targets? Let’s see below:

There’s a loss of sharpness at f/2.8 in the FX corner, just like happened with the 105mm VR, and there’s also some vignetting affecting the exposure. At f/4 the problem is solved.
This indicates that the Tamron could be a superb lens for every kind of shooting, and I can only fault it when it misses focus wide open when using AF.

Distortion

I tested distortion with the usual brick wall shot:

Distortion is extremely low but has a wavy characteristic that it’s a little hard to describe and depict here in this image, but it’s virtually never a problem in the field and barely visible even in this kind of targets.

Vignetting

In this test, I shot a white wall at home using tungsten white balance and set exposure manually:

There’s a lot of vignetting at the widest aperture that affects the entire picture, but decreases substantially by stopping down. At f/5.6 it’s completely gone.

Chromatic aberrations

For this test I shot a car from above on a bright sunny day early in the afternoon:

This lens is Di (Digitally Integrated) which means it should take care of chromatic aberrations better than its antecessors, but although this test doesn’t show any vestiges, I know from experience that it shows a some wide open especially in metal surfaces under bright light. But at f/4 they’re completely gone.

Coma

Coma was tested using a LED source, at home in a dark room. I put the light source at the center (first column), corner and extreme corner of the frame (second and third columns, respectively), at maximum aperture and stopped down.

Coma is visible at full aperture already in the DX corner in these type of test shots, but it’s rarely seen in practice. The points of light are always pretty much circular everywhere and only the small less bright areas around the center are kind of oval, but hardly distracting. By f/4 the “problem” is not visible anymore. All in all, it’s a more than good performance here.

Flare

I shot some foliage in my garden against the sun, to see if I could see any flare vestiges. I shot directly against the sun, then placed the sun at one corner and finally made some shots with the sun just outside the frame.

Shot directly against the sun.
Shot with the sun placed at one corner of the frame.
Shot with the sun just outside the frame.

The lack of special elements in the design of the lens also shows here in this test. Shooting against the sun doesn’t result in a real loss of contrast, but the problem is the high amount of internal reflections when the sun is placed in the corner of the frame or just outside. Of course, macro photography and sun in the frame usually don’t go together, but it’s a real problem when shooting landscapes of any things other than macro with the sun there or nearby. It’s also susceptive to flare at night with street lamps, so watch out.

Bokeh

The lens has 9 straight aperture blades, and therefore it’s expected to see circular out of focus highlights at maximum aperture and polygonal shapes when stopping down. I took a defocused picture at the widest aperture of the city lights and got crops of the center, corner and extreme corners. The test was repeated for the subsequent two stops. Due to the focus distance I selected for this test, the maximum effective aperture was reduced to f/3.5.

As expected, bokeh at the widest aperture is generally pleasant but not as creamy as with the 105mm VR because of the visible edges. This is especially noticeable when shooting against foliage and the sun, where the multiple out of focus highlights and their edges can be a little distracting. At f/4 the difference is the begin of the polygonalization of the highlights, which are clearly seen at f/5.6.
Of course, overall it’s still pretty good.

Macro/Close-up

With the focus limiter switched on, the Nikkor was capable to focus as close as 43.2 centimeters from the sensor plane, or 27 centimeters from the front element. When the focus limiter is switched off, the focus distance drops down to 29 centimeters from the sensor plane or 9.5 centimeters from the front element, to a maximum magnification ratio of a real 1:1.
I shot an 1 Euro coin and this is what to expect at the minimum focus distance:

Focus limiter on

Focus limiter off

Summary

Build quality 6 Almost entirely plastic but the build is tight
Handling 4 Lens extension while close focusing and clutch mechanism may bother some, repetitive misfocus wide open is bad
Resolution 10 Superb sharpness across the frame at all apertures, it hardly gets better than this
Distortion 10 Absent in all practical shooting
Vignetting 9 Very strong at full aperture, but improves a lot by stopping down
Chromatic aberrations 8 Easily seen in metal surfaces in bright light at maximum aperture
Coma 10 Pretty much unnoticeable in practice
Flare 4 Contrast almost doesn’t suffer but may produce harsh internal reflections
Bokeh 6 Very soft but highlight edges can be distracting at times, gets polygonal too early by stopping down
Overall 78% A good lens for getting started with macro photography, and delivers beautiful results in many other areas

Samples

Here are some samples of pictures I made with this lens. Settings: native JPEG, picture control set to Landscape mode, no post-processing applied except reducing to 600 pixel width.

90mm, f/11, 1/125s, ISO 400, external flash
90mm, f/8, 1/200s, ISO 200
90mm, f/2.8, 1/200s, ISO 200
90mm, f/20, 1/80s, ISO 500, external flash
90mm, f/4.5, 1/10s, ISO 200, tripod
90mm, f/3.0, 1/500s, ISO 200
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Voigtländer Color-Skopar 28mm f/2.8 SL II Aspherical : Review

Introduction

I’m back again with my newest lens review, this time of the Voigtländer Color-Skopar 28mm f/2.8 SL II Aspherical lens for the Nikon mount, tested as usual on a Nikon D700 full-frame DSLR. Just like its twin sister lens, the Voigtländer Color-Skopar 20mm f/3.5 SL II Aspherical, this is a pancake lens with a slim, elegant design, and makes a very portable and lightweight combo with the D700 as shown below:

Just like its twin, the retail price of €449 doesn’t seem cheap at first, but besides being an all-metal lens it has a relatively fast maximum aperture, especially for a pancake design. Pancake lenses are particulary rare in Nikon mount, and this lens may be like a God’s send for those who appreciate shooting with this type of lenses. This lens looks so similar to the 20mm f/3.5 that I will base my description of the 28mm on that review I wrote some time ago.
The lens includes an aspherical element to reduce aberrations and distortions. Being a manual focus lens, it can be a bit limiting for you depending on your shooting style, but that’s also true for every manual focus lens such as Nikkor AI or Zeiss ZF lenses. The fact that the lens has a wide focal length reduces this limitation a bit, being very easy to focus anywhere you want.
I’ve been shooting with this lens for some months now and I have better feelings with it than those I had with the 20mm which performed badly on the full-frame sensor, and now I trust this lens for every occasion where I need to travel light. The 20mm was a sweet lens on DX, it had the perfect focal length to cover a great range of scenarios, and I used it mainly to shoot street scenes, landscapes, monuments, inside museums and churches, cafés, pretty much everything I wanted. But when I migrated to FX I wasn’t that enthusiastic with the focal length, and worse, it performed badly in the corners. So I looked forward to Cosina to release a new pancake lens with a equivalent focal length on FX, and voilà, it seemed that Cosina was listening to me and didn’t took much time for this 28mm to arrive. I was also thrilled that they increased the maximum aperture to f/2.8.
Last time I used this lens was on my summer vacations in southern Spain and I loved it, it performed so much better than the 20mm, that I was shooting at f/4 all the time in churches and museums with no regrets. The maximum aperture was also excellent when I needed to do a close up or a quick portrait, since the quality at the center of the frame is very high. It looked like I was shooting again with the 20mm on my old D300, but seemed even better! This lens was also good to shoot unnoticed among the multitude of tourists that visited the region at that time of the year, but also got a few smiles from other photographers that were curious about its diminute size. But I will describe its performance in detail below.

Technical Specifications

Focal length 28 mm
Biggest aperture f/2.8
Smallest aperture f/22
Field of vision 74.8 degrees (on FX)
Weight 180 g
Dimensions 25 x 62 mm
Optical construction 7 elements in 6 groups, 1 aspherical element
Aperture blades 9, straight
Filter diameter 52 mm
Minimal focus distance 22 cm
Hood LH-28N (optional)
Mount AI-S, CPU integrated

Mechanical Characteristics

Zoom ring n/a
Focus ring All-metal, with infinity stop
Focus throw 160 degrees
Focus motor n/a
Optical stabilizer n/a
Front element rotation while zooming n/a
Front element rotation while focusing No
Lens extension while zooming n/a
Lens extension while focusing Yes, 6 mm
Internal focusing No

Handling

Handling this lens is every bit the same as handling the 20mm, so I will basically copy-paste the same description.
The Voigtländer is a very compact lens as you can see above in the pictures, and being all-metal it’s very well built and surprisingly heavy for such size. Being a manual focus lens, probably the most important aspect is how the focus ring feels on your fingers, and it does indeed feel great. The focus ring is perfectly damped and focusing is very smooth. I have been shooting with some manual focus lenses (AI-S and Samyang) but focusing with this lens feels even better than those. It feels smooth and has a long throw of about 160 degrees for precise focusing. This is mostly useful in near distance, of course, because from about 10 meters to infinity there’s almost no need to move the focus ring again. The lens stops focusing on infinity which is great news for astrophotographers.
The less positive things about this lens is that it doesn’t have a lock on the aperture ring, therefore watch out and keep the aperture ring at f/22, otherwise you’ll get a fEE error on your LCD display. Because the lens is so tiny and there’s almost no space between the focus and aperture rings, attaching and dettaching the lens from the camera can be a bit difficult, but with a firm grip on both focus and aperture ring, along with the fixed 3mm spacer in between, it can be done but be warned that the lens gets almost glued to the camera.
Anyway, my only thumbs down goes (once again) to the front cap which gets off so easily with just a small touch. I instantly replaced that cap with a (heresy!) Canon one.

Resolution

For the resolution test I shot a near distance object and a far away building to find out if there were any visible differences in image quality between those distances. As usual, I focused with Live View and re-focused when moving the target to the corners.
The first column shows a crop of the image center, the corner crop is on the second column and the third column shows a crop of the extreme corner. Each row represents an aperture setting, from maximum to minimum in full stops. Here are the results:

The resolution at the center is already excellent straight from the maximum aperture, showing high contrast and clarity. This is always true until f/16, from which diffraction starts affecting the image and there’s a loss of contrast. The DX corner resolution is not so good wide open but is more than acceptable at f/4 and peaks at f/5.6, and keeps on high values until f/16. The extreme corners are a bit weaker at f/2.8 and appear affected greatly by vignetting, but after quick correction in post-processing it is visible that the problem is not that much the lack of sharpness. If DX corner sharpness improves greatly at f/4, the extreme corners will take one more stop to reach similar levels. But still, for very good sharpness across the frame it’s better to stop down to f/8, or f/11 if critical sharpness is needed on the extreme corners of FX.
This is great performance on very close targets, but what about “real world” where most of the time the target is at at least several meters away?

Although this target seems a bit flat in contrast, careful examination shows that there are no meaningful differences in resolution, being already excellent at f/2.8 in the center and very good in the DX corner, but not so good in the FX corner and still affected by heavy vignetting. The aperture of f/8 delivers very good resolution across the frame, just like we saw in the previous test.
In conclusion, this is a much more versatile lens than the 20mm with a broader range of useful apertures, which was to be expected from the start since 20mm is more difficult to produce than a 28mm lens, especially when we’re talking about pancake lenses, and also because the maximum aperture is higher.

Distortion

For the distortion test I shot some tiles:

The lens distortion is well controlled. There’s a mild amount of barrel distortion but generally it’s not noticeable on most shots, and it’s easy to correct in post on architecture photos if needed.

Vignetting

In this test I shot a white wall at home using tungsten white balance.

Just like it was detected previously on the resolution test, vignetting is very heavy wide open and improves significantly by f/4. From f/8 and down it generally doesn’t show up in images. Notice that this is mostly visible on shots of white walls like this. As a matter of fact, f/5.6 is already pretty much free from vignetting.

Chromatic aberrations

It was a clear bright sunny day with the sunlight reflecting on my car, and I took pictures of a area of high contrast:

The use of an aspherical element is an important feature in this lens for taking care of distortions and aberrations, and once again Cosina made an excellent job to keep aberration levels at negligible levels. From all the shots I made with this lens there wasn’t a single day I noticed any fringing issues. The lens deserves the maximum score here.

Coma

Coma is an important requirement in astrophotography and usually affects the corners of most lenses, especially wide-angle lenses and particularly old designs. I tested coma using a LED source of light in a dark room.
I put the light source at the center (first column), corner and extreme corner of the frame (second and third columns, respectively), at f/2.8 and f/4 (one stop down).

At f/2.8 the lens produces high amounts of coma even in the DX corner and much more so at the extreme corners, and doesn’t really get much better by stopping down. This is very unnattractive for astrophotographers, and if you are thinking of going out shoot the stars wide open, you better think twice or you might not like the results. This lens is awful in this regard, just like the 20mm was.

Flare

I shot several pictures on my backyard trying to get flare vestiges, and the result is as follows. I started to shoot directly against the sun, then placed the sun at one corner and then shot with the sun just outside the frame.

Shot directly against the sun
Shot with the sun placed at one corner of the frame
Shot with the sun just outside the frame

The Voigtländer has very good quality coatings inside and the results put it along with the best lenses I’ve used, with great flare resistance and keeping the overall contrast on high levels. There’s just a bit of veiling flare around the sun but no ghosting was detected on other parts of the frame. You just need to be a little cautious when shooting with the sun just outside the frame, and for this it might be a good idea to use the LH-28N lens hood available separately. Overall this is a very good result.

Bokeh

This is a wide angle lens and therefore the quality of the out of focus area of an image is not a primary aspect to consider, but still, since the lens has a relatively fast maximum aperture and 9 diafragm blades, one might expect acceptable renderings of out of focus highlighs. So lets see how the lens fares in this matter.
For this test I took a defocused picture at f/2.8 of the city lights and got crops of the center, corner and extreme corners. The test was repeated for f/4 and f/5.6.

The out of focus highlights are pretty circular at f/2.8 thanks to the 9 aperture blades, as expected, although the corners reveal the cats-eye distortion due to vignetting. Although circular, the highlights show pronounced edges and nervous interiors, but nevertheless it’s not distracting at this aperture when looking at the entire picture on my monitor. Closing down to f/4 reveals the outcome of the straight aperture blades and stays like this when closing down further. Generally, with this lens it’s better to shoot close-up subjects with the maximum aperture, where the center sharpness is already very good, to get the best out of focus renderings.

Macro/Close-up

The Voigtländer was capable to focus as close as 22 centimeters from the sensor plane, or about 15 centimeters from the front element. I shot an 1 Euro coin and this is what to expect at the minimum focus distance:

Summary

Build quality 9 A beautifully well crafted lens, but the front cap is rubbish
Handling 10 Buttery smooth focus ring and very solid, compact lens, with CPU contacts for the automated exposure modes
Resolution 8 Excellent center sharpness, very good corners and fairly good extreme corners at moderate apertures
Distortion 8 Well controlled barrel distortion for a wide-angle lens and easily correctable if needed
Vignetting 7 Very strong wide open but improves greatly stopped down
Chromatic aberrations 10 A winner just like its 20mm sister lens
Coma 6 Very strong in the corners wide open, gets just a little better by stopping down
Flare 9 Great performance, but be most careful when the sun is just outside the frame
Bokeh 5 Circular only at f/2.8 but very nervous and pronounced edges, and gets polygonal at smaller apertures
Overall 79% A good pancake lens with very much expanded range of useful apertures for FX

Samples

Here are a few pictures I took during my past holidays and in my backyard. Settings: native JPEG, picture control set to Landscape mode, no post-processing applied except reducing to 600 pixel width.

f/4, 1/25s, ISO 800
f/8, 1/400s, ISO 200
f/5.6, 1/160s, ISO 200
f/8, 1/80s, ISO 400
f/4, 1/640s, ISO 200
f/8, 1/320s, ISO 200

Nikkor AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8 G ED N : Review

Introduction

I’ve been shooting with the Nikkor AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8 G ED standard zoom lens on full-frame for several months now, and since I already know this lens pretty well I decided to write yet another review of this lens. This is a widely known lens and has been very well regarded as a reliable workhorse of many professional photographers out there, being particularly popular amongst photojournalists and event photographers. These last words are easily associated with the focal range of this lens, which allows to take a variety of shots from groups of people to full body portraits and even head shots.
The camera used in this review is a Nikon D700 full-frame DSLR. Here’s a couple of images of lens and body:

This lens was introduced in 2007 and has been untouched since then, both in performance and price, basically because the third-party alternatives failed to deliver in crucial aspects for professional photographers: AF speed, toughness and optical characteristics such as sharpness wide-open and bokeh, except for, maybe, the previous professional zoom lens Nikkor AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8 D ED that was a very good lens already and only needed an update. Only very recently has emerged a new contender from a third-party maker, the Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD, which I had with me for less than a week – I was ready to buy the Tamron but exchanged it for the Nikkor – and couldn’t review for such short period of time, but it was a very nice lens and throws image stabilization as a bonus. Maybe Nikon is planning an update with VR? Since this lens was mainly designed to shoot moving subjects and the latest Canon addition doesn’t have IS as well, I’m not sure if VR is such welcome feature for pros.
The Nikkor employs 15 elements in 11 groups, with 3 of these elements being of ED type to reduce color aberrations and another element equipped with Nano Crystal Coat to take care of internal reflections. On the outside, the lens is a looker; such well crafted piece of metal gives you confidence for the roughest scenarios and it’s a pleasure to use in the field. The downside is that it is very heavy even on a body like the D700, but according to other users it seems to balance very well with a battery grip. Personally I don’t use a battery grip because I’m not a heavy shooter and don’t use the combo in portrait orientation very frequently, but I might add a grip in the future for the sake of the experience.
At a steep price of about 1600€, it’s about one third more expensive than the Tamron offer, but does the performance of the Nikkor gives the price any justice?

Technical Specifications

Focal length 24 – 70mm
Maximum aperture f/2.8
Minimum aperture f/22
Field of view 84 – 34 degrees (on FX)
Weight 900g
Dimensions 133 x 83mm (155 x 83mm extended)
Optical construction 15 elements in 11 groups (3 ED elements, 1 element with Nano Crystal Coat)
Aperture blades 9, rounded
Filter diameter 77mm
Minimal focus distance 38cm (19.8cm from the front element)
Hood HB-40, petal-shaped
Mount Nikon F

Mechanical Characteristics

Zoom ring Metal with rubber finish
Focus ring Metal with rubber finish, no infinity stop
Focus throw 74 degrees
Focus motor Yes, Silent Wave Motor
Optical stabilizer No
Front element rotation while zooming No
Front element rotation while focusing No
Internal focusing Yes
Lens extension while focusing No
Lens extension while zooming Yes, up to 21mm
Maximum magnification 1:3.7, at 70mm

Handling

The Nikkor AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8 G ED is a huge lens for walking around on the streets and screams pro and expensive anywhere. It wasn’t designed for the amateur shooter, the tourist or the hiking afficionados, but instead, was developed for the event and photojournalism photographer with speed and optical performance in mind. I’m speaking about this because it seems that I did the wrong choice: I’m not a pro, I rarely shoot events or other “high responsability” services, and I’m basically a walk around shooter that loves to travel and doesn’t love carrying heavy weights very much. That said, I had sold many of my cheap lenses and had funds, so I wanted the best possible lens for my most used focal lengths in the last years – from about 28mm to 70mm. So that’s when the Tamron offer arrived; I tried it for less than a week but I ended finding it not very ergonomic because it’s a big fat lens, always felt that I had paid too much for the plastic build, and didn’t like the 82mm filter size. The VC was a nice feature for an amateur like me but I lived well until then without image stabilization, so it wasn’t crucial to me. In the performance area I found that it was something better than the zoom lenses I had before, but things like AF speed and bokeh left some buyers regret in my mind; for the money I guess I was expecting more. So I decided to take the plunge and ended paying 500€ more on the Nikkor and returned the Tamron back to the store.
The Nikkor felt more comfortable on my left hand due to its compact size and that way I seemed to have better shooting technique, because I could have a firm hold on the lens that never did with the Tamron. The Nikkor is very long for a standard zoom lens but the real problem is its weight. At 900g the lens alone, it’s not anymore the friendliest travel lens that I had before with the Nikkor AF 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 D, but now it’s a complicated beast to carry around and I quickly had to forget walking around with a wrist strap, or I might end injured. Now I carry the combo with a nice leather strap put diagonally around my body and support it with my right hand just in case if something goes wrong. As I said, the length of the lens is not a problem but the weight is. If you’re thinking of getting this lens for your new D600, you could be in for an unpleasant surprise of severe front-heaviness. Anyway, whenever I come home after a day shooting out there and watch the results on my monitor, I quickly forget all the sacrifice because the output is so fine looking.
When using the Nikkor with the supplied lens hood, the overall length remains constant because the lens hood is attached to the fixed part of the lens. The moving part of the lens extends when zooming towards 24mm and towards 70mm. The length is lowest at 50mm. Nikon were clever about the way they designed the zoom mechanism, because since the lens extends much more towards 24mm that towards 70mm, in the end it is the right thing to do because that way it minimizes the risk of adding vignetting at 24mm due to the lens hood. By the way, the hood is a sturdy piece of quality plastic that is very hard and doesn’t bend. The Tamron design is the regular one: the length is lowest at 24mm and highest at 70mm, and the hood is attached to the moving part of the lens; hence, its total length varies with the zoom setting.
The Nikkor is a very fast lens regarding AF speed and never hesitates even in low light. It will focus on the subject in the lowest light available until there’s nothing to focus on, and only then the lens begins to hunt. It’s a joy to use it in continuous focus tracking when following people on the streets or other moving objects. Therefore, if you absolutely need a fast standard zoom lens (and I don’t mean the aperture), this is the lens you need.
So now let’s find out below more in deep what this lens is about.

Resolution

For the resolution test I shot the 5 Euro bill as usual. Focus was achieved using Live View to avoid auto-focus imprecisions and to compensate for possible field curvature issues.
The first column shows a crop of the image center, the corner crop is on the second column and the third column shows a crop of the extreme corner. Each row represents an aperture setting, from f/2.8 to f/22 in full stops. Here are the results:

24mm

At 24mm the center resolution is already excellent at f/2.8 and only starts to get worse at f/16 due to diffraction. The corner and border resolution never reach the same level and sharpness is even slightly disappointing at this focal length at the corners. The edge-to-edge resolution is acceptable but nothing to rave about, and stopping down doesn’t improve things much around here.

I was curious and thought that usually my real world photos are better than this, so maybe it could be an issue related to the focus distance. So I decided to test the resolution on long distance shots. I will follow up the short distance test with a new long distance test shot to check for any differences.

It seems that after all the resolution at the corners is really lower than at the center, even when stopping down to f/8, but the good thing is that it’s slightly better than in the short distance shot. From f/8 and down, the sharpness is acceptable for landscape photography but the resolution levels are far from any prime lens especially in the corners. Another thing is that long distance shots never have so much vignetting.

35mm

At 35mm the lens delivers excellent sharpness in the center and borders, but never reach the same level at the extreme corners in the short distance shot.

It can be seen that in the long distance shot the resolution across the board is excellent but suffers a little only at f/2.8 in the extreme corners. Overall it’s still better than at short distances.
The resolution in this focal length increased very much compared to the resolution at 24mm and it’s very good already at f/4 across the board.

70mm

At 70mm the sharpness at f/2.8 is excellent in the center but there’s a penalty in the borders that only recovers at f/8. The extreme borders are very good from f/11 and beyond.

Once again, the sharpness difference from center to extreme corners is not so noticeable in the long distance shot and the main differences from f/2.8 to f/8 are mainly in the amount of vignetting.

In summary, the resolution characteristic of this lens clearly indicates that this lens is clearly geared towards events and photojournalism professionals with excellent rendition from medium to telephoto ranges and less so at the widest focal lengths. There’s also much more vignetting problems on very short distance shots even using moderate apertures, but in real world photos, which most of the time mean medium to high distance targets, both resolution and vignetting are very well controlled.
The Nikkor is widely known to be a lesser performer, or even described as being quite bad from some users, at 24mm. That is my experience too. If find that the sharpness across the board improves a lot from about 28mm and peaks at 50mm. In my real world shots I’m always pleased with sharpness at the center at every focal length and I just make sure I stop down to at least f/8 on general landscape photography.
If I need to shoot at f/2.8 at 24mm I do it without thinking twice. Here’s an example at 24mm and f/2.8 that I took recently inside a church:

The photo was taken at ISO 640 and has been resized only.
Personally, I which that this lens were better at 24mm than at 70mm because I shoot wide most of the time. In the few days I had the Tamron, it seemed to perform better at 24mm than at 70mm, so watch out the focal lengths you use more and what are most important to you.
If you absolutely need superb sharpness at 24mm, any prime will do it even the oldies. It’s up to you to decide if you need the convenience of the zoom lens.

Distortion

Here are the brick wall shots:

24mm

35m

70mm

The Nikkor produces a considerable amount of barrel distortion at 24mm that evens out at about 28-30mm. Above that, the distortion characteristic switches to pincushion type and remains constant up to 70mm.
Beware when shooting architecture at 24mm, especially horizontal lines. Above that there’s not much to complain about.

Vignetting

In this test, I shot a white wall at home using tungsten white balance and set exposure manually:

24mm

At 24mm, vignetting is very strong wide-open and down to f/4. By f/5.6 the light loss is acceptable and improves greatly afterwards.

35mm

At 35m there’s still an hefty amount of vignetting wide-open but almost vanishes at f/4.

70mm

At 70mm, the lens vignettes badly wide-open but quickly improves already at f/4. From f/5.6 and later there’s nothing to worry about.

The lens suffers from heavy vignetting at f/2.8 on both focal ends but the amount is very acceptable stopping down to f/4. This is particularly visible in short distance shots, but everywhere else it’s a lesser problem and some photographers like to add a touch of vignetting in post-processing, thus in the end it might be a non issue. For landscape photography be prepared to remove it in post or in camera.

Chromatic aberrations

For this test I shot a car from above on a bright sunny day early in the afternoon:

24mm

70mm

This lens employs three ED elements in its optical construction to reduce chromatic aberrations, and as expected it doesn’t disappoint in this matter. Sometimes there’s a small glimpse of purple fringing in the extreme corners at f/2.8, mainly at 24mm, but only if you’re shooting foliage against the sun or other extreme situations. This lens is amazing in this regard.

Coma

Coma was tested using a LED source, at home in a dark room.
I put the light source at the center (first column), corner and extreme corner of the frame (second and third columns, respectively), at maximum aperture and stopped down.

24mm

70mm

The lens suffers from a small amount of coma distortion wide-open at 24mm but it’s almost perfect at any other setting. This is perfect for astrophotography, you just have to remeber to stop down at 24mm.

Flare

My usual building shot for evaluating flare is no longer in construction, so this time I shoot foliage against the sun to see if I could get any flare vestiges. I started to shoot directly against the sun, then placed the sun at the corner and finally made some shots with the sun just outside the frame.

Shot directly against the sun.
Shot with the sun placed at one corner of the frame.
Shot with the sun just outside the frame.

This lens has one element with Nano Crystal Coat to reduce flare and ghosting and, contrary to what I found on the Micro-Nikkor AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G ED lens I reviewed, flare is well controlled to a minimum and contrast is always kept in high values. When shooting against the sun there’s a halo around it but it doesn’t occupy the entire image as happens with the Micro-Nikkor, and contrast is high in the rest of the image. Placing the sun in the corner of the frame makes the worst case possible revealing the internal reflections, but the worst thing is that blue tinted ray that ruins the shot. Mind you that I did this test without the lens hood, and in fact I can confirm that the hood is very efficient eliminating flare and ghosting. When the sun is just outside the frame there are vestiges of ghosting but there’s no veiling flare at all.
I can judge this lens based on using it with hood or not. Without the hood, flare can easily ruin a shot if you attempt to put it in a corner, and with the hood on the lens is simply superb.

Bokeh

The lens has 9 rounded aperture blades, thus it’s expected to get circular out of focus highlights. I took a defocused picture at the widest aperture of the city lights and got crops of the center, corner and extreme corners. The test was repeated for the subsequent two stops.

24mm

70mm

The bokeh produced with this lens is already quite good at 24mm in the center of the frame even stopping down, although can be a little distracting due to the edges at f/2.8. Another problem is that the corners may reveal some polygonal shapes. This level of performance is already amazing for a zoom lens and incredible for such low focal lengths. Zooming in to 70mm makes perfect out of focus highlights with only a slight amount of nervousness, and once again might produce some polygonization in the corners.
Overall, this is a superb performance for a standard zoom lens and leaves any other current contenders to dust.

Macro/Close-up

The Nikkor was capable to focus as close as 38 centimeters from the sensor plane, or 19 centimeters from the front element, resulting in a maximum magnification ratio of 1:3.7 at 70mm.
I shot an 1 Euro coin and this is what to expect at the minimum focus distance:

24mm

70mm

Summary

Build quality 10 A bulky piece of metal that gives you confidence wherever you are
Handling 9 Except for the weight, it’s a compact lens with all rings in the right place and has lightning fast AF
Resolution 8 Great resolution overall, but its Achilles heal is the wide end
Distortion 7 Noticeable barrel distortion at 24mm and a little pincushion then
Vignetting 8 Strong at f/2.8 at any focal length but well controlled otherwise
Chromatic aberrations 9 Occasionally visible a glimpse in the extreme corners
Coma 9 Some distortion at 24mm and f/2.8, and that’s about it
Flare 5 Use the hood and the score becomes a 10
Bokeh 9 Stunning for a standard zoom lens, even at 24mm versus some primes
Overall 81% A sharp and reliable standard zoom lens for the professional that just delivers the goods, anywhere and anytime

Samples

Here are some samples of pictures I made with this lens. Settings: native JPEG, picture control set to Landscape mode, no post-processing applied except reducing to 600 pixel width.

24mm, f/8.0, 1/500s, ISO 200
70mm, f/2.8, 1/160s, ISO 200
70mm, f/11, 1/160s, ISO 200
70mm, f/5.6, 1/80s, ISO 400
36mm, f/8.0, 1/400s, ISO 200
35mm, f/11, 1/125s, ISO 200

Tamron SP 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD : Review

Introduction

This is a review of the Tamron SP 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD telephoto lens for the Nikon mount. The test was once again made using a D700 full-frame DSLR. This is a well-built lens, very solid without any wobbling parts, and competes directly with the Nikkor AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR lens which has been very successful among amateurs and enthusiasts. Here’s how the D700 combines with the Tamron lens:

This has been a very welcome addition to the market, because the Nikkor had been alone price-wise, and third-party options were not up to the standards. Fortunately, the Tamron is a very viable alternative and it even has some characteristics that surpass its direct rival, as we will see. The Tamron belongs to the SP (Super Performance) line, the same line that has, among others, the highly praised 17-50mm f/2.8 (DX) and 28-75mm f/2.8 (FX) lenses. This 70-300mm is the first Tamron lens having the new USD (Ultrasonic Silent Drive) auto-focus motor for fast and silent focusing, and also the first including their innovative optical stabilizer mechanism, VC (Vibration Compensation). Indeed, the lens is very silent and rather quick focusing, but may hunt at times in areas with low contrast, the same happening in low light situations, otherwise the lens focuses quickly. The lens also has special glass elements, LD (Low Dispersion) and XLD (Extra Low Dispersion), which are employed to take care of chromatic aberrations. One thing that’s always good to have is IF (Internal Focusing) and this lens got it, and because of that the front element never rotates when focusing, therefore using a polarizer is no problem.
At a retail price of €389 right now, at a first sight and looking at the specifications, the lens seems to have a great price/perfomance ratio, but that’s the thing we’ll find out later in this review. On the D300 I had before, this lens was stellar for the price, having very good sharpness corner to corner at every aperture and only with a slight drop at 300mm, being a terrific combination for quick operation speed and optical performance in all focal lengths for users who don’t normally shoot in low light situations.

Technical Specifications

Focal length 70 – 300mm
Maximum aperture f/4 – f/5.6
Minimum aperture f/32 – f/45
Field of vision 34 – 8 degrees (on FX)
Weight 765 g
Dimensions 144 x 80mm (194 x 80mm extended)
Optical construction 17 elements in 12 groups (1 LD element, 1 XLD element)
Aperture blades 9
Filter diameter 62mm
Minimal focus distance 144cm (125cm from the front element)
Hood HA005, petal-shaped
Mount Nikon F

Mechanical Characteristics

Zoom ring Plastic with rubber finish
Focus ring Plastic with rubber finish, no infinity stop
Focus throw 160 degrees
Focus motor Ultrasonic Silent Drive, allows full-time manual focus override
Optical stabilizer Vibration Compensation, up to 4 stops capability
Front element rotation while zooming No
Front element rotation while focusing No
Internal focusing Yes
Lens extension while focusing No
Lens extension while zooming Yes, up to 51mm

Handling

The Tamron is a big fat lens and even with the D700 is a little front-heavy, but not overly so. Playing with the zoom ring feels like plastic against plastic, but nevertheless it’s not only smooth enough for quick operation, but also acceptable enough for the times when you need precise framing. Some people complain that the zoom ring is a little stuck on their copy, but that might be true when the lens is brand new; I don’t remember mine having a stuck zoom ring. The focus ring feel is similar, but since it’s lighter it’s easier to turn around.
The lens allows full-time manual focusing without the need to turn the lens or camera to manual focus. Common with other built-in auto-focus motor lenses, the focus ring never stops rotating and is capable to focus past infinity. The Tamron focuses as near as 144cm from the focus plane (125cm from the front element) at 300mm, resulting in a maximum magnification ratio of 1:4, which is less magnification than the previous Tamron 70-300mm was capable of (1:2).
The lens has a long petal-shaped hood and the caps are of good quality. The front cap is similar to Nikon’s, allowing you to take it off and put it on without the need to take the hood off. The lens has a metal mount, which is a must-have for such weight, but doesn’t have a tripod collar, so be sure to have the camera well attached to the tripod socket when using the combo for long exposures.

Resolution

For the resolution test I shot the 5 Euro bill in the studio. Focus whas achieved using Live View to avoid auto-focus imprecisions and to compensate for an hypothetical field curvature.
The first column shows a crop of the image center, the corner crop is on the second column and the third column shows a crop of the extreme corner. Each row represents an aperture setting, from maximum to f/22 in full stops. Here are the results:

70mm

At 70mm the center resolution is already excellent right from f/4 and only deteriorates at f/22 due to diffraction. The corner resolution is on a very good level until f/11 and drops noticeably at f/16. The borders are on a much lower level; by f/4 the sharpness is only acceptable and improves slightly at f/5.6, but reaches a good level from f/8 to f/11 before dropping again at smaller apertures. All in all, a very good performance at this focal length (not that, from now on, if you’re considering using this lens on DX, use the first and second columns only as reference, since the second column shows crops of the same area as the extreme corners on DX).
Moving on to other focus lengths now…

100mm

At 100mm the resolution at the center and corners is excellent already wide-open and only drops by f/22. The extreme corners are good wide-open at reach very good figures by f/5.6 and the resolution drops a bit at f/16. From 100mm to 135mm seems to be the lens’ sweet spot.

200mm

At 200mm the center resolution is always on an excellent level but the corners start to show some limitations. Wide-open and until f/8 the resolution figures are only on an acceptable level and the extreme corners follow closely. At f/11 there’s a sudden increase in quality in the entire frame and that continues at f/16. By f/22 the resolution drops a little but not by much as in previous focal lengths.

300mm

At 300mm, resolution drops noticeably in the entire frame but remains good to very good at the center. On the downside, the corners are never on the same level, and for good edge-to-edge sharpness one has to stop down to f/16 or even f/22. This is not noticeable in the real world, trust me, because at 300mm you tend to put the subject at the center anyway.

Overall, the Tamron shows a strong performance, producing sharp and contrasty images at all focal lengths, and its strongest selling point is the resolution and contrast at 300mm. This is much better than the Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 APO Macro I had before and better than its direct rival, the Nikkor AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G ED VR I had played with.

The only thing that changed my opinion about the Tamron now, compared to the performance delivered with my previous D300, is the noticeable variation in exposure. It is very visible, at all focal lengths, that the lens underexposes a lot at the maximum aperture and less so stopped down, exposes well at f/8 and overexposes at f/11, before underexposing again by f/16. The weird thing is that it wasn’t noticeable at all with the D300, when only I had some minor overexposures in bright sunny days which were corrected simply dialing to -0.3 or -0.7 EV, independently of the aperture I was using. Now I can’t say that my lens doesn’t underexpose or overexposes, but instead a combination of the two that is dependent on the aperture. I can’t really say if this is because of heavy vignetting, but if so it affects the entire pictures and not only the borders, but also there’s a bit of overexposure at f/11 that is visible in the camera histogram. This will be more visibly explained below in the vignetting test.

Distortion

For the distortion test I shot a brick wall, again:

70mm

135mm

300mm

The lens distortion is practically absent at 70mm but starts producing a certain amount of pincushion at 135mm which stays constant until 300mm. On the field this is practically invisible and can be easily corrected in post-processing if needed.

Vignetting

In this test I shot a white wall at home using tungsten white balance and setting exposure manually. The exposures were judged by the camera histogram and are considered to be spot on when it’s centered.

70mm

At 70mm, vignetting is strong wide-open and less so at f/5.6, before improving considerably at f/8. At smaller apertures it disappears completely.

135mm

At 135mm, the same behaviour happens exactly as before.

300mm

At 300mm, only the widest aperture is affected by vignetting but in a very strong way. At other apertures there isn’t any noticeable light losses towards the edges.
As said above, the lens is affected by exposure differences that affect the entire image, as opposed by vignetting which only affects the borders of an image by any degree. I also could not find an explanation for the overexposure seen at f/11 from 70mm to 135mm. This is the first time I had a problem like this one and I’m not sure if the problem is related to this particular copy or any other sample. There are many people who complained about their copy producing under- or overexposed pictures, but mine gives exposures that were unpredictable at first, but can be corrected dialing exposure compensation accordingly depending on the aperture used. This phenomenon is more visible in Matrix metering mode and less so in Center-Weighted mode. I found no differences between aperture and shutter priority, or manual exposure modes. I will try to repeat the test if I have the chance of getting another copy.

Chromatic aberrations

For this test I shot a car roof from above, on a very sunny day early in the afternoon.

70mm

300mm

The Tamron employs low dispersion glass elements to reduce chromatic aberrations and it’s clearly visible that the lens performs as advertised. Aberrations are negligible at almost every aperture, except at its maximum where minor vestiges can be found on extremely high contrast situations, but only at the widest focal length. That’s a very good performance for a lens in this price point.

Coma

Coma is an important requirement in astrophotography and usually affects the corners of most lenses. Lenses that are affected by coma produce comas (hence the name) instead of bright light points in dark backgrounds. One way to test coma is using a LED source of light at home in a dark room.
I put the light source at the center (first column), corner and extreme corner of the frame (second and third columns, respectively), at maximum aperture and stopped down.

70mm

300mm

The lens isn’t much affected by coma and the only distortions visible are in the halos around the center, where they stretch the more the points are closed to the borders, but the points themselves remain perfectly circular. This is not uncommon for lenses with such moderate maximum apertures.

Flare

I shot a building in construction in front of me, with the sun sneaking from a window, to see if I could see any flare vestiges. I started to shoot directly against the sun, then placed the sun at the corner and finally made some shots with the sun just outside the frame.

Shot directly against the sun.
Shot with the sun placed at one corner of the frame.
Shot with the sun just outside the frame.

The images are not much affected in all situations, which shows that the lens has good resistance to flare keeping contrast on a high level. The worst case is when the sun is placed at one corner, where the multiple internal reflections of light may be noticeable in the opposite corner.

Bokeh

Thanks to the 9 aperture blades, we can expect circular out of focus highlights from this lens. I took a defocused picture at the widest aperture of the city lights and got crops of the center, corner and extreme corners. The test was repeated for the subsequent two stops.

70mm

300mm

The bokeh from this lens is perfectly circular at the center and suffers from the cats eye distortion due to vignetting in the corners and more so in the extremes. The out of focus highlights are rather nervous on the inside at 70mm but get perfectly smooth at 300mm, and the edges aren’t much accentuated, resulting in smooth transitions and backgrounds that are soft and not distracting at the longest focal length. All in all, the lens has good bokeh characteristics which are amongst the best in its class, especially when we take the moderate apertures involved into account.

Macro/Close-up

The Tamron was capable to focus as close as 144 centimeters from the sensor plane, which means 125 centimeters from the front element, resulting in a maximum magnification raio of only 1:4 at 300mm. I shot an 1 Euro coin and this is what to expect at the minimum focus distance:

70mm

300mm

Image stabilization

This lens introduced Tamron’s new image stabilization technology, VC (Vibration Compensation), to compensate for unwanted small movements, and it’s advertised as giving an advantage of 4 stops. This means that at 300mm, one can shoot with speeds as slow as 1/20 seconds.
To test it, I shot the back of a street lamp from my window. The first column shows crops of the subject shot with VC off, and the second column shows them with VC on for comparison. Here are the results at 300mm:

It shows to me clearly that the VC works as advertised, resulting in sharp images at 1/20 seconds. Of course, one has to build some technique to hold the camera and lens steady, so that the benefits of this technology can be applied. The image taken at 1/20 is a little softer but due to diffraction (an aperture of f/32 was used).
Contrary to Nikon’s VR mechanism where 2 axis (up and down) are used, VC used 3 axis: up, down and yaw (up-left, down-right) to compensate for diagonal shakes. One more difference to VR is that VC appears to work with full power right from the moment you press the shutter button halfway, and stays there moments after the picture is taken. VR works with less power and only commutes to full power when you press the shutter button down to take the picture. This is the reason why the images in the viewfinder are almost static with VC, when compared to what is visible with VR. This doesn’t mean that VR is much worse, because it’s not, but I found VC to give me more keepers. And it works as advertised, which is amazing.

Summary

Build quality 7 Mostly high quality plastic but all parts are tight together
Handling 7 Nice feel overall with silent and fast AF in most situations, the zoom ring could be damped for smoother operation
Resolution 7 Very good center sharpness, good corners and acceptable extreme corners in most apertures, amongst the best in class
Distortion 9 A little pincushion distortion but not noticeable in everyday shots
Vignetting 8 Strong at biggest apertures, negligible afterwards (not considering the variations in exposure)
Chromatic aberrations 9 Rarely visible, if any only at 70mm at the widest apertures
Coma 9 Not perfect, but the lens almost doesn’t have issues here
Flare 8 May produce some flare in harsh conditions, but contrast stays always on a high level
Bokeh 7 Circular but very nervous with accentuated edges at 70mm, but gets pleasantly smooth at 300mm
Overall 79% Very good lens on DX and FX, a valuable lens if you need stabilization and can’t afford any of the 70-200mm offerings

Samples

Here are some samples of pictures I made with this lens. Settings: native JPEG, picture control set to Landscape mode, no post-processing applied except reducing to 600 pixel width.

300mm, f/5.6, 1/125s, ISO 200
300mm, f/11, 1/160s, ISO 200
70mm, f/4.0, 1/1600s, ISO 200
70mm, f/4.0, 1/2000s, ISO 200, -0.7 EV
270mm, f/5.6, 1/1250s, ISO 200
70mm, f/11, 1/320s, ISO 200
100mm, f/4.2, 1/1250s, ISO 200

Voigtländer Color-Skopar 20mm f/3.5 SL II Aspherical : Review

Introduction

I present you my first review, of the Voigtländer Color-Skopar 20mm f/3.5 SL II Aspherical lens for the Nikon mount. The test was made on a D700 full-frame DSLR. The lens has a very compact design, which is commonly referred as “pancake”, and if you’re like me you’ll appreciate the size and weight of this lens, making a relatively lightweight kit with the D700 for walking around the streets. Watch the funny combo below:

Its retail price of €449 seems fair for a pancake lens. Having a maximum aperture of only f/3.5 it’s not the fastest prime lens out there, but this aperture limitation is common for such design. In fact, there are not many pancake lenses as cheap as this one, and particularly on Nikon land these pancake lenses are a rarity. The lens includes an aspherical element to reduce aberrations and distortions. As a manual focus lens, it can be a bit limiting for you depending on your shooting style, but that’s also true for every manual focus lens such as Nikkor AI or Zeiss ZF lenses. The fact that the lens has a wide focal length eases this limitation a bit, being very easy to focus anywhere you want.
I didn’t write a review of this lens when I had my previous D300, but from the tests I did and all the real world shootings I made, I found this lens to be a very good performer on DX stopped down. I even went on a trip to Holland only with this lens and didn’t need anything else on the streets. On DX, the focal length is just perfect and it was very handy for taking pictures of churches and other tall buildings, street scenes and urban landscapes. This time I’m showing you the results of a much more demanding test (on FX), so let’s find out if the Voigtländer is worth your consideration if you’re searching for a wide angle lens.

Technical Specifications

Focal length 20 mm
Biggest aperture f/3.5
Smallest aperture f/22
Field of vision 94 degrees (on FX)
Weight 205 g
Dimensions 29 x 63 mm
Optical construction 9 elements in 6 groups, 1 aspherical element
Aperture blades 9
Filter diameter 52 mm
Minimal focus distance 20 cm
Hood LH-20N (optional)
Mount AI-S, CPU integrated

Mechanical Characteristics

Zoom ring n/a
Focus ring All-metal with rubber finish, no infinity stop
Focus throw 170 degrees
Focus motor n/a
Optical stabilizer n/a
Front element rotation while zooming n/a
Front element rotation while focusing No
Lens extension while zooming n/a
Lens extension while focusing Yes, 3 mm
Internal focusing No

Handling

The Voigtländer is a very compact lens as you can see above in the pictures, and being all-metal it’s very well built and surprisingly heavy for such size. Being a manual focus lens, probably the most important aspect is how the focus ring feels on your fingers, and it does indeed feel great. The focus ring is perfectly damped and focusing is very smooth. I had been shooting with some manual focus lenses (AI-S and Samyang) but focusing with this lens feels even better than those. It feels smooth and has a long throw of about 170 degrees for precise focusing. This is mostly useful in near distance, of course, because from about 10 meters to infinity there’s almost no need to move the focus ring again. Beware, though, that the lens is capable to focus past infinity which isn’t good news for astrophotographers. Fortunately most cameras today have Live View, which is of precious help if you want precise infinity focus. The focus ring has a rubber finish for a perfect grip.
The less positive things about this lens is that it doesn’t have a lock on the aperture ring, therefore watch out and keep the aperture ring on f/22, otherwise you’ll get a fEE error on your LCD display. Because the lens is so tiny and there’s almost no space between the focus and aperture rings, attaching and dettaching the lens from the camera can be a bit difficult, but with a firm grip on both focus and aperture ring, along with the fixed 3mm spacer in between, it can be done but be warned that the lens gets almost glued to the camera.
Anyway, my only thumbs down goes to the front cap which gets off so easily with just a small touch. There were many times that I had my camera and lens on my shoulder pack and the cap was off. Just throw it out and get a Nikon one.

Resolution

For the resolution test I shot a near distance object and a far away building to find out if there were any visible differences in image quality. I focused using Live View and focused again using this method when moving the target to the corners. Turns out that the lens performs very similarly and all distances, regarding resolution and vignetting, therefore I’m not showing the far distance results this time.
The first column shows a crop of the image center, the corner crop is on the second column and the third column shows a crop of the extreme corner. Each row represents an aperture setting, from maximum to minimum in full stops. For the near distance test I used a 5 Euro bill as target. Here are the results:

You can see that the center resolution is already very high and the images have very good color and contrast. This is always true until f/16, from which diffraction starts making effect. The corner resolution is very weak at f/3.5 and gets acceptable only by f/8, where I mainly use the lens on landscape photography (or f/11 for that matter if there’s enough light). The extreme corners are dismal – this is the effect of putting a pancake lens on a full-frame camera – resolution practically doesn’t exist wide open, and coupled with heavy vignetting this makes an awful combination for available light photography. The extreme corners get much better only by f/16.
If you want corner-to-corner sharpness this lens has to be stopped down to f/16 at least, or f/11 if you can tolerate some mushy corners. Depending on your subject even f/8 can be used, as long as the corners don’t have fine details.
In conclusion, this is a lens to be used on sunny days or with the help of your tripod. This is a huge disappointment to me because the lens is great on DX!

Distortion

For the distortion test I shot a brick wall, of course:

The lens distortion is well controlled. Vertical lines are always straight and there’s no signs of barrel distortion, which is great for taking pictures of buildings. The problem resides on horizontal lines, and this mustache distortion can be very noticeable if the target has many horizontal lines. This type of distortion is very difficult to correct in post-processing, so it is best to avoid placing horizontal lines on the top or the bottom of the frame, where distortion is mostly visible.
As an example, here’s a “real world” photo of an interior. You can see that vertical lines remain straight as long as you hold the camera parallel to the ground. Because there weren’t any horizontal lines due to the framing angle I used, this shot seems perfectly balanced:

Vignetting

In this test I shot a white wall at home using manual white balance.

As detected previously on the resolution test, vignetting is very heavy wide open and things start to get even only by f/8. Notice that this is mostly visible on shots of white walls like this. As a matter of fact I can make a nice use of the vignetting wide open on shots of flowers and other small stuff like that. Fortunately most or all vignetting can be removed in post-processing.

Chromatic aberrations

It was a clear bright sunny day with the sunlight reflecting on my brother’s car and I searched for a spot where to make the shots. I shot the FIAT logo at all apertures because it was so shiny:

The use of an aspherical element is an important feature on any lens, and it’s pretty clear that Cosina made an excellent job to maintain the CA levels negligible. From all the shots I made with this lens there wasn’t a single day I noticed any fringing issues. The lens earns the maximum score here.

Coma

Coma is an important requirement in astrophotography and usually affects the corners of most lenses. This can be tested on the field, on a starry night, to check for weird distortions on the stars. Basically, lenses that are affected by coma produce stars that are no longer light points but comas instead (hence the name). One other way to test it is using a LED source of light at home in a dark room.
I put the light source at the center (first column), corner and extreme corner of the frame (second and third columns, respectively), at f/3.5 and f/5 (one stop down).

You can see that at f/3.5 the lens produces high amounts of coma at the extreme corners, although it gets better by stopping down. This is no big deal since the moderate maximum aperture is not very attractive for astrophotographers anyway, but if you’re taking this lens to the field be sure to use at least f/5 to avoid coma. Other than shooting stars and LEDs, there aren’t any more real world examples I can remember that may produce this coma aberration, so this shouldn’t scare you away.

Flare

I walked around my backyard doing many shots trying to get any flare vestiges. I started to shoot directly against the sun, then placed the sun at the corner and finally made some shots with the sun just outside the frame.

Shot directly against the sun.
Shot with the sun placed at one corner of the frame.
Shot with the sun just outside the frame.

I took many more pictures and tried hard to produce flare but without success. That demonstrates that the Voigtländer has top quality coatings inside and the results put it along with the best lenses I used, with terrific flare resistance, and all of this without the need of the LH-20N hood available separately.

Bokeh

The Voigtländer has a moderate maximum aperture and a very wide angle, so the defocused quality of an image doesn’t get the same importance as with the fastest professional grade lenses. The lens has 9 aperture blades so we can expect pretty circular out of focus highlights.
For this test I took a defocused picture at f/3.5 of the city lights and got crops of the center, corner and extreme corners. The test was repeated for f/4 and f/5.6.

The bokeh from this lens is pretty circular at f/3.5 thanks to the 9 aperture blades, as expected, except at the extreme corners where weird distortions are visible. The bokeh is very nervous internally and the edges are a bit pronounced which of course isn’t attractive at all. Stopping down to f/5.6 starts producing polygonal highlights. Generally, with this lens it’s better to shoot close-up subjects with the maximum aperture, where the center sharpness is already very good, to get the best out of focus renderings.

Macro/Close-up

The Voigtländer was capable to focus as close as 20 centimeters from the sensor plane, that is 12 centimeters from the front element. I shot an 1 Euro coin and this is what to expect at the minimum focus distance:

Summary

Build quality 9 The front cap gets off too easily, otherwise the lens is a jewel
Handling 10 Superb feel of a very solid lens, very easy to focus manually, with exposure being controlled automatically by the camera
Resolution 6 Very good center sharpness, poor corners and horrible extreme corners even at moderate apertures
Distortion 7 Some mustache distortion to be aware of, especially when placing horizontal lines at the top and bottom of the frame
Vignetting 6 May work on your favor or against you, depending on the subject, but it’s easy to correct
Chromatic aberrations 10 None, this is probably the best lens I have with such resistance
Coma 7 Wide open there’s coma at the extreme corners, but stopping down minimizes the problem
Flare 10 Top notch, no vestiges found whatever I have tried
Bokeh 5 Circular only at f/3.5 but very nervous with accentuated edges, and gets polygonal at smaller apertures
Overall 75% Excellent lens on DX, but look elsewhere if you need good edge to edge resolution and low vignetting on FX

Samples

Here are some samples of pictures I made in my backyard. Settings: native JPEG, picture control set to Landscape mode, no post-processing applied except reducing to 600 pixel width.

f/3.5, 1/200s, ISO 200
f/3.5, 1/160s, ISO 200
f/3.5, 1/320s, ISO 200
f/3.5, 1/200s, ISO 200
f/11, 1/15s, ISO 200, -0.7 EV
f/8, 1/400s, ISO 200
f/3.5, 1/320s, ISO 200
f/4, 1/50s, ISO 800