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

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