Tamron 35-150mm f/2.0-2.8 Di III VXD review

The first magazine test of the new Tamron reached Cameracraft readers in our March/April edition. Now that other magazines are reviewing the lens, it’s time to release David Kilpatrick’s practical user report on-line.

Tamron 35-150mm on Sony A7RIV body

IT’S THE MIDDLE of a dark winter and the new Tamron super-fast ‘group to portrait’ zoom has been doing the rounds of dealers, and we get the chance to use the lens for a good test period starting in January just as the days are getting longer. It’s 3pm and it looks like 4pm with heavy cloud. A quick exposure check says why this lens will be a priority purchase, in a hurry, for wedding photographers.  Fortunately the days get brighter and longer during the time trying out this versatile lens.

So many weddings have been postponed due to earlier Covid venue restrictions. To get 1/125s shutter speed, which is very much needed to ensure expressions and fairly small movements are not motion-blurred, it was ISO 2500 at f/2.8 on the day the lens arrived. Between this and the end of useful daylight that changes rapidly to ISO 6400 and beyond, and eventually to 1/30s. Any sensible wedding photographer would now be digging out the f/1.4 lenses, firing up the battery flash kit and hoping the indoor setting works well.

However, there’s a zoom now for Sony full frame users which can cover most weddings or outdoor portrait sessions on its own, replacing a fast 35mm and 50mm and most of the range of a 70-200mm f/2.8.

The Tamron is 155mm long and 90mm in diameter

The new Tamron 35-150mm manages to hold its widest aperture of f/2 from 35mm to just short of 40mm, and doesn’t drop to f/2.8 until 80mm. 

f/2 35 to 39mm

f/2.2 40 to 59mm

f/2.5 60 to 79mm

f/2.8 80 to 150mm

This is good, as so many zooms with a fast minimum focal length lose a third or half a stop with a mere nudge of the ring – those 17-35mm f/2.8-4 lenses made for SLRs were often f/3.2 at 18mm! With studio flash you might set f/2 and start work at the short end of the zoom, but with so many systems studio or location now being TTL and high-speed sync of one kind of another this probably doesn’t matter. Set the lens to f/2.8 or any smaller aperture, and it acts as a constant aperture zoom

How about the chosen focal length range? I’d argue that 28-135mm, with similar aperture benefits, is more useful because there’s a chance of never needing to change lenses.  There’s a quick way to check what matches 35mm for groups, using just the long side of a landscape frame. It’s almost the same as the 36mm dimension of the sensor, with an angle of 55° covered horizontally. If you’ve got an APS-C sensor it matches 23mm, on MFT 17mm, on Fujifilm GF and other popular 50MP medium format models it’s 44mm, on the biggest like Hasselblad HD6-100C it’s 53mm. 

35mm is not a bad wide end for practical reasons

This angle of view works well because many rooms have Golden Ratio dimensions, not unlike an A4 page. Stand near one end of a 5 x 7m room, put a group at a comfortable distance away from the opposite wall, and you’ll cover it well with some of the side walls visible. In a square room, you can just take in the opposite wall with no sides visible. The working distance gives scope for bounced flash, there’s no distortion of body or face width towards the ends of a group even if it’s tightly composed.

In fact having the wide-angle end limited to 35mm may improve your group photography and weddings in particular by making you keep that little bit of extra distance.

However, the real world sometimes throws difficult spaces and camera distances at you. This new Tamron is not an all-in-one outfit. It’s almost essential to have a 24mm, or a zoom such as Tamron’s 17-28mm or Sony’s 16-35mm.

The range

The statue of Sir Alec Douglas Home at The Hirsel estate, Coldstream, is a rare example of a life-size bronze standing on a soap box height plinth. The versatility of the 35-150mm range and the fast aperture is demonstrated here – above, 35mm and f/9 for the depth of field; below, both at 150mm and f/2.8 from different distances, showing the bokeh pattern.
At 150mm, from a distance…
At 150mm again, from closer in. Both at f/2.8.
Zooming out to 35mm and closing in a bit shows how different a perspective on a figure can be achieved. For test, taken at f/2 full aperture.
Still at 35mm, moving in close and keeping the aperture wide open at f/2. This can be a versatile lens.

Tamron 35-150mm performance

The optical performance of the 35-150mm is well above expectations for an f/2-2.8 design. It’s better than any past attempt at ƒ2.8 on a similar range, and this is down to mirrorless versus SLR body thickness. You can use it wide open at any focal length and be sure of sharpness in the plane of focus, and that is pretty flat corner to corner despite considerable pincushion distortion growing from 50mm to 150mm. The  built-in and Adobe lens profiles are essential but not identical – while in-camera JPEGs are very well balanced across the frame, the default Adobe vignetting correction is much too strong. 

Without correction this lens loses between one and two stops of light in the outer field when used wide open, with a central zone of around 20mm diameter representing the nominal aperture. The lens profiles boost the gain to compensate and if you set the Sony A7RIV to its ISO invariant optimum of 400, faces at the extreme ends of a group may be recorded as if ISO 1600 was used. For the best results, shoot raw and don’t underexpose (no need to follow the expose to the right mythology though). If you use the Adobe Lens Profile, adjust the vignetting to minus 60 for full aperture shots if you want to remove the effect. If you stop down to ƒ5.6 it’s pretty much gone anyway.

At 150mm with no Adobe lens profile correction, showing vignetting and pincushion distortion at ƒ2.8.
The same raw file with Adobe Camera Raw profile corrections applied. In-camera JPEG corrections do much the same.
Here we have 35mm and f/2 uncorrected.
This is the same raw f/2 file with profile correction applied.

There’s a strong case for just letting the wide aperture vignetting be – don’t correct it at all. Many pictures will look better, including landscapes, portraits and most street shots.  The distortion correction, on the other hand, is worth leaving turned on. Because the lens has pincushion rather than barrel distortion over most of its range, the corners don’t get stretched, it’s the centre of the image which is expanded slightly. As this is the sharpest area the correction tends, if anything, to even out the finest detail rendering over the frame unlike barrel distortion correction which degrades the corners visibly in many cases.

When Sony’s 90mm G macro was constantly being called the best lens ever, I tried three examples and all fell short of the standard expected. Just for interest I set the Tamron 35-150mm to 90mm (actually reported 91…) and shot a series from wide open to smaller apertures, on the same architectural distance subject I’d used for the Sony. Despite being on 60MP not 42MP the Tamron zoom was clearly much sharper across the frame than the Sony.

Here’s what detail enlarged from the 150mm f/2.8 shot looks like.
Here’s 35mm f/2 detail. Sadly The Border Hotel’s delapidated facade will soon be a thing of the past, as it’s been a great test target for several years. The letters of the name fell off one by one but no-one was killed…

But – it’s a fast superzoom. Plenty of expert voices on Facebook will assure you it can not possibly be as good as a modest range zoom or an acclaimed macro prime.  Don’t take their word for it, try the lens. And now we need to look at the downside of such an ambitious superzoom – it’s a large and heavy lens, it uses an unusual internal and extending hybrid zoom design, and it doesn’t focus into the semi-macro range like most other Tamron and competing lenses now do.

I regularly walk round with the 70-180mm Tamron f/2.8 on the camera and the 17-28mm and 28-75mm in a small shoulder pouch. All three of those go into the little Vanguard Sydney II 22 bag with the A7RIV. But just the body and this one 35-150mm lens could fit.

My first step was to replace my slim camera strap with an extra wide heavy duty neoprene Optek – the springy shock-damping handled almost 1.9kg of combined camera and lens round my neck well enough. Often I hold my camera in my right hand ready to lift to the eye and shoot, and don’t let the weight hang on a strap. It was like having a 70-200mm f/2.8 to handle and many users are happy with that all day. I’m not that keen on the 82mm filter thread, but that’s what it has to be.

The lens hood has a single bayonet release button set in its rim, and you need to get it the right way up to fit. It’s very secure once on.

The USB socket

Then you come to the advanced aspects – this is a very fast focusing near-silent voice coil drive (VXD) design, and has three control buttons plus zoom lock, AF/MF and a three-position Custom function switch. With the aid of USB connected software (no dock needed) the lens can be customised for aspects like focus barrel direction/speed and even function (change to control ƒ-stop), and two preset focus points via the buttons.

The zoom ring is placed near the body with the focus ring being the main much deeper front barrel. This is the opposite to existing Tamron zooms and takes some getting used to, but it’s practical with the size and weight of the lens.

More statuary, this time at The Haining, a publicly owned mansion with a loch and grounds entirely free to walk round – not even a parking charge – in Selkirk, Scottish Border. This one is at 150mm and f/2.8.
Here’s a more likely aperture to use if you had real people in a random group – f/11. But note how obtrusive the background has become.

With minimum focusing of 85cm at 150mm to 33cm at 35mm, the subject scale is 1:5.9 and 1:5.7 respectively – that’s a field around 9.5 x 14cm, so not in the wedding ring shot class but fine for flowers, hands and many other close-ups. The 9-blade aperture creates a very attractive smooth defocus and if there are lights or candles in the background this lens gives full aperture bokeh discs, not clipped ellipses, at focal lengths from 35 (f/2) to 60mm (f/2.5) and with only a hint of cat’s eye shape at the extremes of the shot at 80mm (ƒ2.8). Longer than this and you’ll see some degree of this effect though using an APS-C or smaller crop cuts out the more visibly ellipsoid highlight bubbles. Depending on the light source you’ll see some ‘orange peel’ texture which is typical of zooms using moulded aspherical elements – there are many ways to remove this from finished edits. There are no ‘onion ring’ effects which are much harder to remove and occur with lenses using older aspherical moulding methods.

Bokeh Airey discs, f/2.8 and 150mm.
Zooming back to 107mm still at f/2.8.
82mm and f/2.8 – a 10 x 8 shape crop from something like a party or wedding shot with lights would lose the cat’s eye shapes at the ends of the frame.
At 60mm and f/2.5 the chatoyance only affects the extreme corners. Sure, I write elliptically. What less would you expect?

As for real cat’s eyes, the lens behaves perfectly with Sony’s animal and human face detection and eye AF and even managed to keep up with the most impossible close range movement of chickens – fine for eye sharp focus if not for the shutter speed.

Sony Animal Eye-AF at 150mm and f/2.8. It’s got that bit more depth of field than a 200mm f/2 or something extreme. However, it’s hardly unique to this lens. Every 70-200mm f/2.8 pot-boiler zoom ever made for an SLR or DSLR or mirrorless can do 150mm f/2.8 much the same. They just can’t do 35mm f/2.

This lens has a USB-C connection (no cover, it’s a waterproof port) and the Tamron Lens Utility, on 64-bit PC or Mac, can customise functions.  After thinking the utility was not working (on three different systems) because it said Lens Not Connected when it was, I found you ignore this and click on the Start button for the functions you want to modify – like changing the 1, 2 and 3 positions of the Custom switch to alter the behaviour of the focus ring (direction, linearity, use as aperture ring) or lens buttons (AF/MF, A-B Focus, Preset Focus, Assign Function from Camera, or Clear Settings).

Lock for zoom (not really much needed) and one of the three lens function buttons which occupy the remaining cardinal points.

All three lens buttons do the same, which might be missing some useful tricks such as two focus points assigned to different buttons. A-B focus and Preset distance have selectable focus speeds, and are strictly Movie functions (you have to press the Record button in Movie mode to program the distances, then use the lens buttons to activate the focus change during filming). The lens is fairly silent in focusing but an external microphone is desirable. It has almost no focus breathing regardless of the focal length set, though use at full aperture will produce some shifts as the bokeh expands and contracts – the real angle of view remains very constant from close-up to infinity.

You are advised to get a good USB-C cable to make use of the software to program the lens’s functions (mostly of interest to movie makers who can set the buttons to initiate point-to-point focus transitions).

This lens costs £1,599 so you need to know you need it to invest. It hardly came off the camera in six weeks partly because of the convenience of not having to change lenses, and just carrying the camera and this one lens.

– David Kilpatrick

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Sony A7RIII review in Cameracraft

Read David Kilpatrick’s review of the Sony A7RIII

Cameracraft January/February started the A7RIII test report, and March/April 2018 continued it. Both are free to read now on ISSUU. In the second issue you’ll also find the review of the 24-105mm f/4 FE G OSS lens. In the first issue, Gary Friedman looks at the RX10 series and one-inch sensor quality as well – and David tests the Voigtländer Nokton 40mm f/1.2 Aspherical FE manual focus lens, Sigma 16mm f/1.4 DN DC, and Samyang 35mm f/2.8 AF FE.

Part 1

Part 2