Sharpness is always the key component we look for in a lens. Sure, build quality, autofocus and handling are important too, but what we really want is fantastic image quality. So we challenged ourselves to find the ultimate affordable Tamron DSLR glass on the market, asking the third-party lens specialist to send us its three sharpest lenses with a street price of under £1000. We asked for primes only (ie no zoom), as the optical design of fixed focal length lenses generally results in the best image quality.
Founded by Takeyuki Arai in 1950, Tamron is named after Uhyoue Tamura, one of the optical component designers who laid the foundations for the firm’s technical expertise. Tamron has been at the forefront of bringing photographic kit to consumers since its beginning, debuting the world’s first interchangeable SLR lens mount in 1957, with the now classic T-mount.
When zoom lenses were still seen as a specialist item, Tamron was again keen to bring such a versatile optic to the mainstream, releasing the world’s first mass produced zoom lens in 1961 – the 95-205mm f/6.3. From the turn of the early 2000s to the current day, Tamron’s third-party DSLR lenses have played a vital role in offering the public more choice than just the own-brand models. The firm’s four latest SP primes – the 35mm f/1.8, 45mm f/1.8, 85mm f/1.8 and 90mm f/2.8 – share a very high-end finish to compete with other premium glass.
1. Tamron 90mm f/2.8 SP Di Macro USD VC
Tamron’s 90mm f/2.8 is a true 1:1 macro lens for Canon, Nikon and Sony DSLRs.
It boasts a minimum focusing distance of 30cm so you can fill the frame with even very small subjects. Tamron’s VC also reduces camera shake caused by handholding. It’s quite a tall lens, with dimensions of 79x117.1mm, and takes on a nine-bladed aperture.
There are three switches on the side to engage the VC, MF/AF and also limit the focus. There’s also a focus distance window, which makes it easy to see where the focus lies. The autofocus is quick to find bright subjects, but did hunt a little in low light. That said, it’s very quiet when autofocusing so shouldn’t scare off any wildlife you’re shooting in close proximity.
Images are sharp across the board, even at the widest aperture of f/2.8. There is a small vignette between f/2.8-5.6, and a tiny amount of purple and green fringing. Hardly any distortion can be detected.
Minimum focus: 30cm
Filter size: 62mm
Size (DxL): 79x117.1mm
AF struggles in low light
2. Tamron 35mm f/1.8 SP Di VC USD
The 35mm f/1.8 SP Di VC USD was joint-first lens to be released in Tamron’s new-look range.
Its build feels sturdy and it sports a premium finish. Its dimensions of 80.4x80.8mm make the prime portable and easy to fit in a kit bag. It’s a little on the heavy side for a 35mm, weighing 480g, and has ten elements arranged in nine groups. There’s a minimum focusing distance of just 20cm – this means you can get very close to your subjects with the wide 35mm focal length. The autofocus speed isn’t the fastest we’ve come across, but it is relatively quiet and very accurate when searching for a subject.
Our test charts were pleasingly sharp across the frame at f/1.8, although they were even sharper at f/2.8. Here a small amount of chromatic aberration became apparent. We saw a small vignette between f/1.8-2.8 and a minor amount of barrel distortion too.
Minimum focus: 20cm
Filter size: 67mm
Size (DxL): 80.4x80.8mm
3. Tamron 85mm f/1.8 SP Di VC USD
Initially, it might seem strange that Tamron would release both 85mm and 90mm models in its newly-designed lens range.
The main difference between them is that the 85mm doesn’t have macro capability, with a minimum focus distance of 80cm (Tamron’s 90mm can focus just 30cm away). But what you do get is a much faster f/1.8 maximum aperture. This makes it easy to blur the background and bring emphasis on to your subject. You also get faster shutter speeds when shooting at such a wide aperture, so it’s good with fast-paced action too.
Like its 90mm sibling, Vibration Compensation (VC) is on the bill – good news for handheld portrait shoots where flash isn’t used. Its weight of 700g gives the prime a solid feel in the hand when attached to a full-frame DSLR. Contributing to some of this weight is its 13 elements. These are arranged into nine groups. The nine-bladed aperture also sits inside the lens barrel and can be set between f/1.8 and f/16.
During testing, we found the autofocus to be pretty nippy and accurate when locating a subject. It’s quiet when focusing too, though a faint whir can be heard in a quiet location.
Tamron has implemented an eBand nano-structured coating to reduce reflection and ghosting. This seems to have done its job because this is handled extremely well. We found an impressive level of sharpness across the frame at f/1.8, with images becoming pin-sharp between f/2.8 and f/11. There is a small vignette between f/1.8 and f/2.8, but hardly any fringing or lens distortion.
Minimum focus: 80cm
Filter size: 67mm
Size (DxL): 84.8x91.3mm
Quick and quiet focusing
A little on the heavy side