When Tamron introduced the Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 VC a few years ago it really shook things up (Model A011, but hereafter I’ll call it the G1 for simplicity). Priced just over a grand, the G1 offered people the chance to get into wildlife photography without dumping five figures into a supertelephoto prime lens. Not only was it inexpensive, it was surprisingly sharp as well; much sharper than many of us expected a lens in that price range to be. Sigma followed up a few months later with not one, but two 150-600mm zooms, then Nikon joined the fray a year later with its Nikon 200-500mm zoom.
While the Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 VC did great optically, it suffered autofocus freeze-up issues with Nikon bodies and the long barrel extension coupled with a lack of weather-sealing made it a real dust pump. Nevertheless, the light weight, good image stabilization and general handholdability of the lens made it a keeper in my book. With the Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 VC, I could reach locations I wouldn’t lug a 500mm or 600mm prime to. It focused quickly and tracked reasonably well for birds in flight as well. Overall, it got me a lot of shots I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
Still, those AF freeze-ups annoyed the hell out of me, so when Tamron announced a new 150-600mm zoom (designated the G2 for Generation 2) that was weather sealed and boasted improved autofocus performance, I jumped at the chance to field test one even though the MSRP jumped to $1,399. In addition, Tamron has released dedicated 1.4x and 2x teleconverters for this lens. I tested the 1.4x (MSRP $419), but gave a pass on the 2x as this would let so little light in (f/13 maximum aperture at 1200mm) that I doubt even in bright light that it would autofocus and at f/13 the viewfinder would be so dark as to make manual focus difficult, forcing you to use live view – not ideal for wildlife.
1) Key Features and Improvements
Below is the list of key features and improvements on the Tamron SP 150-600mm G2:
- The G2 rocks a revamped optical formula with a whopping 21 elements in 13 groups, three of the elements are low dispersion glass
- New AF system is claimed to be faster than previous model (which was pretty fast already)
- 2.2m minimum focusing distance – 1:3.9 maximum magnification for close-ups
- 4.5 stops of vibration reduction – choice of three VR modes (Tamron calls their vibration reduction VC, for vibration control)
- eBAND coating – this is Tamron’s version of what Nikon calls Nano coating
- Fluorine coating on front element
- Full weather sealing
- Electromagnetic diaphragm
- Tripod collar with Arca-Swiss compatible grooves
- Metal lens barrel
- Optional TAP-in console to update firmware and customize AF and VC settings
Wow, it sounds like Tamron has really listened to the market and is offering all the latest perks consumers want. But have they delivered? Let’s find out.
2) Build and Ergonomics
Out of the box, the build feels good and the lens balances well on all the bodies I attached to it (Nikon D500 with and without battery grip, D810, and D4s). Tamron has made the lens barrel from metal, not plastic. For some, this is a selling point, but I don’t feel it matters when it comes to whether I get the shot or not. The only complaint I have about the build is that the switches are not positive enough. On the G1 there was a very distinct click, and switching modes felt deliberate and positive, however, to push them into place it helped to take the camera away from your face. The G2 switches are easier to manipulate if you’re looking through the viewfinder. Just a light touch moves from mode to mode. But it’s this light touch that causes problems when you accidentally nudge the focus limiter to the wrong range and miss a shot because the lens won’t focus beyond a certain distance. The light action on these four switches (VC mode, VC on/off, AF/MF and focus range limiter) makes the switches feel cheap. As I use rear-button focus, the AF/M switch becomes redundant, so I ended up taping it in place, because I inadvertently bumped out of AF multiple times. Though all of the switches are prone to being nudged out of place, the AF on/off and focus limiter switches, due to their position on the lens barrel, seemed to get bumped more than the VC mode and VC on/off switches.
Full zoom takes about 160 degrees, or for me two good twists (might take three if your fingers are shorter than mine). The zoom ring action has an even feel with no tight spots. If you really need to zoom in or out in a hurry, you can grasp the front of the barrel and push or pull as needed. I avoided this with the G1 as I worried it would pump more dust into the lens interior. With the G2’s weather sealing, this should be less of a concern. When using the push/pull technique there seems to be more resistance the further you zoom out.
There is both a zoom lock switch and a new Flex Zoom Lock. The zoom lock switch works only at 150mm. The Flex Zoom Lock utilizes a slight pull outwards of the zoom ring to lock the barrel at any focal length. I personally didn’t like this feature as it was easy to unintentionally lock the barrel and not realize it, only to end up in a situation where you want to zoom and can’t. I’m sure I’ll get used to this with more use and I see where this could be helpful say when panning and you don’t want to focal length to change image to image, ditto with chimping and raising the lens back up for the next shot of the same subject. The lens exhibits minor zoom creep, mostly between 150-300mm. Beyond 300mm, you really have to bounce around to get it to creep.
The manual focus ring is also smooth, but I wish it were wider and easier to find. When hand-holding, I like to support the lens by the tripod foot and the focus ring is a bit tricky to grab in this position. If you support by holding the lens barrel, then the focus ring is easier to grab. The focus scale goes from near (left) to infinity (right), same as Canon, opposite of Nikon. As Canon outsells Nikon, I don’t blame Tamron for making this manufacturing choice, but I wish they would incorporate same direction focusing for both platforms. Of course this would drive the price up, perhaps beyond what consumers would want to pay for this feature.
The tripod foot is a big improvement over the G1. It’s longer, with room for all four of my fingers (the G1 had room for just 3 fingers). Furthermore it has Arca-Swiss compatible grooves. Finally a lens manufacturer has incorporated this design that has been the pro standard for quite some time. This should work great with screw lock Arca-Swiss style tripod head connections. With my Really Right Stuff quick release, the fit was uncomfortably tight. Really Right Stuff machines all their gear to their own specifications and I’ve noticed Arca-Swiss plates from other manufacturers don’t always mate well with Really Right Stuff, sometimes being too tight or too loose. Seems like there isn’t exact agreement on just how wide the Arca-Swiss standard is, or that this is an issue of manufacturing tolerances. Another nice feature of the G2 tripod foot is it now has two screw holes instead of one like the G1. So if you do add a two-screw tripod plate to it, that connection won’t twist at all.
Rotating the lens in the collar when mounted on a tripod can be a grabby proposition depending on how well balanced you’re set up on your tripod and on if you have a heavy or light body attached. This is typical of tripod collars in general, except for those with roller bearings and such collars are usually only seen on high-end lenses costing over ten grand.
The lens hood on the G1 was pretty fussy to attach and reverse on the lens. The G2’s hood is easy to attach. It’s a tad fussy to reverse for storage, but not near as bad as the G1.
After shooting this lens for four months, there is no appreciable dust inside so the weather sealing seems to work well. As you can see from the above illustration, Tamron did a pretty good job with weather sealing the lens. In comparison, the G1 in an equivalent length of time would collect a lot of dust inside.
3) First Impressions
My first field experience wasn’t good. While out shooting, the G2 seemed to hunt focus a lot more than my G1. I had acquired the TAP-in console with the hope that I could fine-tune things like AF speed (Sigma’s similar dock lets you do this), but it turns out it only lets you adjust the AF focus limiter switch settings (and some VR settings) and upload firmware updates.
I wasn’t psyched to be missing shots because of focus hunting, but when I got back home and loaded down images I was pleased with the sharpness. Furthermore, the more I got familiar with the lens, the less hunting it did as I made adjustments to my technique.
Below are a host of images shot at different distances, apertures and focal lengths. My opinion is that such practical field testing is of greater value than how well a lens focuses on a flat target at a fixed distance, especially when the lens will primarily be used for sports and wildlife, subjects that aren’t flat and vary greatly in distance from the camera. Nevertheless, I hope Nasim gets a few copies to bench test and can add Imatest data to this review in the future. If you value lab data over real world results, skip this article and roll over to DXOMark and see how bad the one copy they tested did then spend ten times as much on a sharper, but less versatile prime. While you’re out there you may also wish to check out this article by Lens Rentals Roger Cicala about bench testing zooms. Okay, lets get out of the lab and back to the real world.
The G1 had a reputation of being a tad soft at 600mm, especially wide open (though my copy seemed fine at 600mm). The G2 shows much improvement at the long end. The shot below is at 600mm and wide open:
And this Roadrunner was shot at f/7.1, nearly wide open and at about 10 feet away:
Are those real eyelashes?
Stopping further down to f/8 this Common Moorhen is looking sharp:
I didn’t have a lens chart handy so I got the next best thing – a Black-crowned Night Heron. Primarily a nocturnal hunter, they have a tendency to hold real still throughout the day. Here’s a sequence at 600mm stopping down from wide open to f/22. These are at 100% and shot with a D500 that has a tighter pixel pitch than a D810.
All lenses suffer from diffraction. With the G2 at 600mm, it looks good to f/14, some diffraction kicks in at f/16 – 18 (nothing some added sharpening in post can’t improve), and gets pretty ugly at f/20 or smaller.
And some samples at shorter focal lengths:
And at 150mm the results are scary:
Wildlife photography takes me to many beautiful locales and I’m a fan of using telephoto compression in my landscape shots. Also I like to feature shots of wildlife in their environment. With both the aforementioned styles, corner sharpness is very desirable. This is where the G1 shined compared to the copies of the Nikon 200-500mm VR and Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary zooms I tested before. The G2 also does fine from corner to corner, especially when stopped down around f/9-f/11. This is a generalization and varies with focal length, the corners of the copy I tested being softer wide open at the long end.
5) Bokeh Performance
Bokeh is an objective characteristic and subject to individual taste. Below are some examples to make your own mind up. Often the G2 bokeh is quite smooth.
With small specular highlights in the background there can be some slight donut edges as seen below:
It doesn’t bother me much in that shot unless I put my readers on and really squint. However, in the shot below the highlight off the eye of the mallard drake in the background looks a bit creepy.
With specular highlights in the foreground the edges are more uniform.
6) Ghosting and Flare
With all those elements inside, even eBAND coating can’t knock off all the ghosting and flare if you shoot with the lens hood off. Put the hood on and things look crisp, as expected:
7) Autofocus Performance and Accuracy
Tamron claims the G2 focuses faster than the G1, but in my field tests they seem to be the same. If the G2 is faster, it was imperceptible to me. But this isn’t a bad thing as the G1 was reasonably fast in the first place and noticeably faster than the Nikkor 200-500mm. After I got used to the lens, the biggest problem I had was with bumping the focus limiter switch by mistake.
The AF motor is as quiet as the Silent Wave Motor on the Nikkor 70-200mm f/4.
I had a few instances where the focus got stuck at the close end and/or jumped back and forth incessantly like the lens was possessed. This happened maybe 3-4 times in as many months and is not something I’ve been able to duplicate, hence I can’t totally rule out user error or a problem on the camera’s end. Given my shaky experience with the G1’s AF issues, this gives me some cause for concern. I’ve contacted Tamron about this and will likely send the lens in to get it checked out. Tamron is very good about their three-day turnaround (plus shipping time) on repairs.
8) Vibration Control / Image Stabilization Performance
The G2 has three Vibration Control modes. Mode 1 maximizes the stability of the viewfinder image allowing easier acquisition and framing of your subject. Mode 2 is for panning in a straight line. Mode 3 only kicks in the VC when the shutter is released, giving the maximum amount of stabilization to the shot, but at the cost of a shaky viewfinder view.
I shot mostly in Mode 1 and was impressed by the results. I got 3 – 3.5 stops of image stabilization, shooting at 600mm and down to 1/125 sec with acceptable results over 80% of the time. At 1/60 sec this went down to 60% with slight blurring 40% of the time. At 1/30 sec I was down to 20% success, and below that zero percent.
In Mode 3 the viewfinder image at 600mm is quite shaky, making it hard to compose and accurately position a focus point. Nevertheless, the results were superior to Mode 1 with over 80% success down to 1/30 sec at 600mm, 60% at 1/15 sec, and 20% at 1/8 sec. 1/30 at 600mm is 5 1/3 stops below the 1/focal length standard – impressive, especially as I didn’t even have a drink to steady my hands. I think Mode 3 makes the most sense in three cases; for landscape style images at the shorter focal length settings, working off of a beanbag or flimsy tripod, and for small subjects that will require cropping, hence precise composition is unnecessary. In the last case one may want to focus in Mode 1 first, lock the focus, then switch to Mode 3 assuming the subject doesn’t change distance.
I won’t bore you with the newsprint photos. Instead, here’s a practical example:
This was before sunrise, shooting wide open at ISO 12800 and all I could muster was 1/50 sec for a shutter speed.
This was at 1/20th sec, 5.5 stops under the 1/focal length standard. The owl is sharp (other than twitching “ear tufts”). Mode 3 at work. I had to take multiple frames to get one this sharp; even then the photo is boring, but it does illustrate the point. The VC worked well.
I used Mode 2 for bird in flight action.
9) Photographing Birds in Flight
The G2’s relatively light weight makes for easy hand-holding and panning. Acquiring focus was occasionally tricky, but no more so than with most zoom lenses. When I could gain focus it tracked well.
Sandhill Cranes are easy subjects – slow, direct fliers. Predictably, the G2 had no problem with the cranes.
Northern Harriers are erratic fliers and a tougher bird in flight subject. Despite that, I had pretty good luck with the G2.
10) Dedicated 1.4x Teleconverter
Common knowledge has it that pairing a teleconverter with a zoom lens is a recipe for marshmallow soft images. For instance, pair the Nikon 1.4x with the Nikkor 80-400mm zoom and in my experience the results are worse than simply cropping in. Tamron however, has apparently designed this 1.4x TC to pair specifically with the 150-600mm and if used with best practices, the results are mindbogglingly sharp. How sharp? Check this out:
And at 100%:
Wide open at f/9 results are so-so with the 1.4x TC attached:
But stopped down to f/10 they dramatically improve:
and at 100% for your pixel-peeping pleasure:
Below is a Cottontail at 100 percent and various apertures. The lens was braced on a beanbag:
With the 1.4x TC attached, the maximum aperture drops to f/9 at full zoom, beyond the rated ability of most AF systems. However, the G2 with 1.4x did autofocus on the three bodies I tested it with (D810, D500, D4s). In dim light, it had trouble and was slow, but in bright light, it did just fine if I used the AF points near the center.
Manual focus is tough in dim conditions due to a dark viewfinder image from so little light coming through the lens.
If you’re shooting a full frame camera and need more than 600mm of reach your best bet is to switch to a crop sensor body instead of a teleconverter. You’ll get the extra reach but retain a higher wide-open aperture and less image degradation.
Photographed with the 1.4x TC, this night heron looks pretty good to me but how does it stack up against the Nikkor 800mm f/5.6 VR prime?
No surprise here, the $18K prime kicks the zoom + TC’s butt. It focuses much faster, is decidedly sharper, displays better contrast and has a 1 1/3rd stop wider maximum aperture. But is all that worth 16 grand more? If you have $16K just kicking around in the sofa cushions, sure. But for most final outputs I’d say the economics aren’t justified. I wouldn’t hesitate to send G2 + TC shots to the magazine editors I work with. This is assuming they are the sharp G2 + TC shots. As stated above, you need to work with best practices or your hit rate with this combo will be low. I recommend a tripod or a very high shutter speed with this combo.
Of note is that 600mm times 1.4 equals 840mm (though it lists as 850mm in your metadata) but my shots at full zoom gave nearly identical image size as my 800mm prime shots. In fact, maybe even a tad shorter, like 780mm. As with the G1, Nikon 200-500mm and Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary, the G2 has noticeable focus breathing.
If you need even more reach go with the teleconverter plus a crop body for results like this:
This is handheld and at 100%. Not bad for 1260mm equivalent (before cropping) at 1/400th sec. This is sharp enough for Facebook, Instagram, etc., but nothing I’d submit to a publisher. If we don’t crop so tight we can do pretty good like with this Cooper’s Hawk:
And when properly supported (in this case resting atop a pack as I lay on the ground) such as in the 1:1 rabbit shots above, the results can be pretty darn good.
11) Lens Comparisons
Please refer to my Tamron G1 vs Nikkor 200-500mm vs Sigma Contemporary 150-600mm lens comparison. In that article, you will see that the G1 I tested bested the copies of Nikkor and Sigma as far as overall sharpness goes, especially corner-to-corner. Bear in mind I only had single copies of the Nikkor and Sigma to test, so sample variation definitely comes into play. If you got a superior copy of the Nikkor or Sigma, bravo! That said, the G2 copy I tested is a superior lens optically and mechanically to the G1, which I found to be better optically (though not AF-wise) to the Nikkor and Sigma. As well the G2 has desirable features not found on the Nikkor or Sigma, such as full weather sealing, Arca-Swiss tripod foot, and fluorine and nano-coatings.
In fantasyland I wish Tamron and Nikon could join forces – Tamron’s optics and vibration control combined with Nikon’s reliable autofocus. Currently at B&H, the Tamron G1 is marked down to $869 (Nikon mount, Canon mount). The Sigma Contemporary 150-600mm is $989. And the Nikkor 200-500mm is $1397. Compared to all these, the Tamron 150-600mm G2 is $1399.
Sigma also offers the Sigma Sport 150-600mm, currently selling for $1999. The price is hefty and so is the lens. It has a reputation for great sharpness and a sturdy build, but is so heavy that it is hard to handhold, hence in a different league than the lenses mentioned above.
And who can forget the legendary Sigma 200-500mm f/2.8? Have fun handholding this 34-pound beast. But at $25,999 MSRP, at least your wallet will be lighter and to be fair, it does come with it’s own matched 2x teleconverter.
12) Summary and Recommendations
The Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 is a very good lens. For the money, it’s a great lens. It’s very sharp throughout its range, has effective image stabilization, quick autofocus, and is relatively light and handholdable for a lens of its focal length. All this adds up to a lens that will let one get shots they might not get otherwise. As an example, I was shooting with the Nikkor 800mm f/5.6 VR on a Nikon D500 for 1200mm equivalent. This Pied-billed Grebe comes up with a frog for lunch. The problem is, the bird is heading towards me and dropping a focus point on the head will be tough and furthermore, the bird might come closer than my minimum focusing distance for the 800mm. This is not cropped.
While the grebe ducked underwater to adjust its grip on the frog, I switched to a D4s with the G2 attached. Now I’m at 600mm and have some space to work with both cropping-wise and minimum focus-wise. And voila, I get the shot:
Had the grebe come even closer, I had the option to zoom to a shorter focal length. This is when the versatility of a zoom with a short minimum focus distance comes into play.
Other advantages the G2 possesses are the weather sealing, the Arca-Swiss compatible tripod foot and a well-matched optional 1.4x teleconverter. The build quality seems good other than the switches which have too light an action and are prone to bumping out from the desired setting. The other drawback I can think of is the autofocus – at first it seemed to hunt a lot, but with practice this happened less frequently. Minor nits are the tough rotation through the tripod collar when on a tripod and the tripod foot being a smidge wide for my tripod head’s quick release. There is a warm cast to the G2’s images (compared to the Nikkor primes) that some photographers will like, others might not, but either way is easily changed in post. At 600mm, I’d stop it down to f/7.1 for improved sharpness in the center. If I need more corner sharpness I’ll go to f/9 – f/10 or smaller.
I own the Nikkor 500mm and 800mm primes and I have bought the G2 to add to my kit because it’s lightweight, hand-holdable and versatile, allowing me to get shots I can’t get with the primes. Furthermore, the G2 is no slouch optically and I’m sure it will pay back for itself quickly.
And last but not least, one I call “Canon, as wildlife sees it” 🙂
Text and photos copyright John Sherman, no reproduction without written permission.
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