Review – Tamron SP 35mm f/1.8 Di VC USD
It’s been a long time since we have seen a prime lens from Tamron outside of some very good macro lenses. While Sigma has been making a name for itself with its ART series primes (along with a few innovative zooms), third-party rival Tamron was accomplishing something similar with its pro quality stabilized zooms. But it’s clear that Tamron was keeping an eye on Sigma’ success with the ART series and has been quietly working behind the scenes to create its own pro-grade prime lenses. This new line of primes has now been unveiled, and I’ve been spending some quality time with the Tamron SP 35mm f/1.8 and Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 VC lenses over the month or so. The 35mm f/1.8 VC and the 45mm f/1.8 VC are only the first in a line of SP (Super Performance) prime lenses.
For those of you trying to decide which focal length you prefer, here’s a visual comparison of what the difference between the 35mm and the 45mm focal lengths looks like.
Here are the raw numbers: the Tamron SP 35mm is 479g and 3.2″/81mm long. The Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS is 335g and 2.46″/63mm long. The bigger end of the “under a thousand” autofocus 35mm club is the Sigma ART series. It comes in at 665g and is 3.7″/94mm long. The Tamron has ten elements in 9 groups, including 1 LD (Low Dispersion) element and 2 Aspherical elements. In short, the Tamron is a medium sized lens that is almost perfectly slotted between its two main competitors. But is that the sweet spot? Is the Tamron SP 35mm f/1.8 VC the new lens to beat? (If you want a little more in depth analysis, read the full review here:
These new prime lenses will be the first with an aperture this wide to receive in lens stabilization. In a Canon system the EF 35mm f/2 IS (an excellent lens that I own) has been Canon’s widest aperture prime to receive image stabilization. Both these new Tamron primes will now become the title holder. The Sigma ART prime lenses have a “sexier” (and larger) f/1.4 aperture, and while Tamron’s VC will allow for lower minimum shutter speeds in some situations (with a static subject), I suspect that some photographers will at least initially view these lenses as being less “pro grade” because of not having an f/1.4 aperture. Tamron will have to fight a bit of an uphill battle in the “perception war” with Sigma over this.
Tamron’s way of equaling the balance (while undercutting its competition in size) is through the inclusion of VC. This is a feature that many photographers will perceive as very valuable, and is a matter of priority for those that shoot video. Tamron’s experience in implementing VC pays off here, as the VC performance here is very good. It is completely unobtrusive, with almost no hints of its operation beyond the steady viewfinder and the nicely stabilized images. High resolution sensors really punish camera shake, so having good stabilization makes a huge difference. The VC is almost silent and does no unseemly jumping when activated. Handholding 1/10th second images is a piece of cake, and slower shutter speeds are possible with good technique and a static subject. This image is .3 second and perfectly sharp:
Another area that Tamron has been developing some valuable expertise is in the development of moisture resistance/weather sealing. Photographers with pro grade camera bodies want the liberty to match lenses that also have weather sealing so that they can shoot in a broader range of weather conditions. Tamron has gone to a whole new level (for them) with the weather sealing on these lenses, with actual seals at the appropriate places (even the focus ring), a rear gasket, and expensive fluorine coating on the front element. They back up this weather sealing with an industry leading six year warranty (in North America/5 years in Europe), which suggests they are serious about the build quality of these lenses. And these lenses are beautifully built, with a premium feel that is a real joy to handle and use. The weather sealing and build seem easily the equal of the new Canon 35mm f/1.4L II, a lens that costs a good 3 times more. Here’s a video breakdown of the size and build quality of these new lenses:
The build quality is really high grade and is punching WAY above this lens’ price point. This is manifest in a number of ways, including a body that is primarily made of lightweight metal alloys (including metal filter threads!!), a metal mount (obviously), and a quality feel to the switches (AF/MF and VC ON/OFF). If you squeeze the lenses, there is no flex (unlike most of the engineered plastics common to modern lens design). The build here exceeded my expectations, and it is also an area where it really creates some distance between the Canon 35mm f/2 IS (a lens that it shares a price point with in the US) and even the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART (which also lacks weather sealing).
The new build design is simple and clean, and faintly reminiscent of Sigma’s ART series, although the materials here are actually higher grade. I do find the texture variety on the Sigma ART series a little more appealing, but the Tamron primes do have the edge in overall build quality. The black of the barrel is broken up by white lettering (etched rather than printed) here and there along with a “SP” (Super Performance) badge and a light metallic ring near the lens mount that Tamron euphemistically calls “Luminous Gold”. This deviation from the black on black is probably the design aspect that most distinguishes the lens from the ART series, however, and will help Tamron with branding. Several surfaces have a slightly rubberized/soft touch feel that has a tactile pleasing quality. It makes me wonder if Tamron will adopt this new design for future high end zooms, or if this “look” will be reserved for the SP primes.
The focus ring is extremely nice. It is very generously wide and almost perfectly damped. It glides smoothly either in MF mode or in full time manual override, and while the stops at minimum and infinity focus aren’t as definite as a true manual focus lens, they are definite enough that you don’t try to focus past them. There is also sufficient travel (nearly 180 degrees) to accurately focus manually. The focus rings on these lenses are some of best I’ve used outside of dedicated manual focus lenses, and are better than several of those, too. The quality of the focus ring in width and operation is noticeably superior to that of the Canon 35 IS.
The lens has focus distance window but no hyperfocal markings (not surprising). The lens takes an easy to find/inexpensive 67mm filter for those nice metal filter threads. The build quality here is a new high for Tamron, and belies the moderate price point ($599 USD). The look of the Sigma ART series is still perhaps minutely better, but the build quality of these new Tamron primes exceeds any of the four Sigma ART series lenses I’ve used. Even the front and rear caps have been redesigned and improved for these lenses. Unlike the Canon, the Tamron includes a petal shaped lens hood, but unlike the Sigma (which also includes a lens hood), the Tamron doesn’t include a case of any kind.
But Is It Super Performance?
Watch the video here to see me break down Tamron’s various claims about the “Super Performance” of these lenses.
I’m happy to announce that yes, the Tamron SP 35mm f/1.8 VC is a super performing lens in most regards. I’ve long been impressed with the great sharpness from Canon 35mm f/2 IS wide open. I mostly shoot it that way. At 10 feet the depth of field at f/2 is right over 3 feet; plenty of depth of field to even shoot a small group if they are positioned roughly on the same focal plane. The Tamron’s DOF at this distance will be 2.74 feet, while the Sigma’s DOF is 2.11 feet. The advantage for the Sigma is that the shallower DOF will help create a little more separation of the subject from the background.
I don’t think that anyone is going to be disappointed with the wide open resolution from the Tamron 35mm VC. I looked at image after image at a pixel level and was consistently impressed. Sharpness is excellent in the center of frame but appears excellent even towards the edges. I don’t see the biting resolution/contrast of the Otus series (not surprising), but even wide open landscape shots show high resolution across the frame without any hint of that haziness/indistinct edges that softer lenses will show. This is great news for the times when you are shooting in lowering lighting conditions and want to keep the ISO setting down. The lens also exhibits a nicely flat focal plane. I haven’t found a situation where I would hesitate to use the lens wide open. I’ll leave the chart testing to those that excel at it, but I suspect that one would be hard pressed to realistically tell a difference from the Sigma 35mm ART even if there is one. Stopping down to more typical landscape apertures produces outstanding detail.
Tamron’s eBAND and BBAR coatings provide an almost complete resistance to flare and ghosting. Many prime lenses are susceptible to a variety of flare defects, from veiling to ghosting to a variety of flare related artifacts, but despite thorough torture testing during my time with the lenses I found them extremely resistant to flare. This is important in a wider prime lens, as the circumstances when the sun will be in the frame are more frequent. With a telephoto you typically have to purposefully put the sun there, but that’s not always the case with a 35mm focal length. The lens passes this test with flying colors, with no apparent hazing, ghosting, or flare artifacts that I’ve seen. These lenses perform more strongly in this aspect than any ART series lens that I’ve used, though the Sigmas are far from poor in this regard. This is also an area of strength for my Canon 35mm f/2 IS, and as a portrait photographer I’ve frequently used backlighting in shots because I don’t fear the image being affected by flare/haze. One could definitely do the same with this Tamron. This portrait was taken at midday, wide open, with a lot of flash to overpower the sun that was strongly glaring into the frame.
Bokeh quality is very nice from the rounded nine bladed aperture iris with one exception. I’ve not seen anything jittery or objectionable, and in normal field shooting I was very pleased with my results. Where the 45mm (and the Canon 35IS) surpass it is in the “busyness” of bright circular highlights. In the Tamron 35 VC they exhibit a fair bit of what is often called “onion bokeh”, although I only saw this with my Christmas light test. You can see more bokeh series tests in the full review here.
In field use I didn’t notice any of that busyness, and actually felt the lens handled the transition zone (medium distance bokeh) quite well. That is the area where some lenses really fall apart, and produce hard edged bokeh that is eye catching in a bad kind of way. Still, if you have bright bokeh highlights in the image you may see some concentric circles (onion effect) in the bokeh. One advantage for the Tamron shows up in this test, however, and that is in the overall roundness of the bokeh circles, which are rounder than the Canon’s throughout the frame.
Where the Tamron excels is in its ability to produce bokeh/defocus. It can get so close to subjects that it can really, really throw backgrounds out of focus, and there are myriad ways to utilize such an ability (more on this in a moment). On the other end of the aperture spectrum, stopping down the nine bladed aperture produces nice sunstars/sunbursts that add a lot to an image.
Vignette control is also a strength. There is a negligible amount of vignette visible in the corners at wide open apertures, but far less than competing primes. This is an area of weakness for the Canon 35mm f/2 IS (nearly three stops of vignette in the corners), but the Tamron also improves on the Sigma’s performance in this area as well. Take a look at the comparison between the Tamron and Canon here:
The use of a slim circular polarizer did not add any obvious vignette. In most situations there isn’t enough vignetting to even be noticeable. In field use I haven’t noticed enough vignette from the lens that I would feel the need to correct anything. This, combined with low native distortion (a tiny amount of barrel distortion), means that not having an in-camera profile isn’t much of a liability.
Color rendition seems very good overall. Colors are natural and rich. You can judge for yourself by checking out the Lens Image Gallery which contains a number of samples and a few full resolution samples.
The 45mm VC struggles a bit with chromatic aberration control, but the 35mm does a better job overall. They do exist, but you will only see them in extreme situations. Here is an example from a very high contrast target – the white lettering on the Tamron cap. They aren’t noticeable on the full size image, but a 100% crop will show that there is purple fringing beyond the plane of focus and light green fringing beyond.
There isn’t enough to be objectionable, however, and I think the situations where this will be an issue for you are few and far between. Overall the optical strengths of the lens far outweigh the very minor negatives.
Close Encounters of the Magnification Kind
I’ve saved one of the best features of the lens until last. When I first saw the press release for the 35mm, I have to confess I completely missed just how good the Tamron SP 35mm f/1.8 VC’s maximum magnification figure was. I saw 1:2.5 and read .25x, which seemed to make sense, as the Canon 35mm f/2 IS had the peak figure I was previously aware of at .24x. Tamron claimed a class leading performance, and so a .25x figure was class leading, if only by a small margin (but isn’t that the nature of marketing?). But a kind viewer on my YouTube channel set me straight. I was misreading the figure; the value was 1:2.5, equaling a .40x magnification. This blew me away, as it is (I believe) the highest figure I’ve personally seen from a non-macro lens. I can’t even begin to tell you how useful such magnification is. Tamron accomplishes this through the use of a floating element (Tamron calls it their “Floating System”). They’ve done a fabulous job of its implementation, and it enables the 35mm to focus down to a miserly 20cm (under 8 inches). Remember that this figure is from the sensor, so once you remove the 3.2″ of the lens (and another 2″ of hood if you have it mounted), it means you can pretty much get on top of your subject and still focus. To get this picture, for example:
I was set up this close to the subject. (Forgive the distinctly not glamorous iPhone picture).
The challenge then is to not shade your subject with the lens itself. It will probably help to remove the lens hood when you want to shoot at such close focus. Here is the difference between the previous record holder (the Canon) and the new record holder (Tamron) when it comes to close focus for a 35mm lens:
This is enough magnification to treat the lens essentially like a macro lens in a lot of situations, and the use of an extension tube would add even more magnification (though getting you ever closer to your subject). I like the working distance of the 45mm a bit more, but its magnification (.29x), though also class leading, is behind this lens by a fair margin. If you don’t have a dedicated macro lens this will probably be a more than reasonable replacement. The resolution at minimum focus is still very high, and the fairly flat plane of focus from the lens makes it useful. Backgrounds will be highly diffused at this kind of distance.
This is an IOS Lightning Cable end – and this still isn’t quite minimum focus distance! I’ve been shocked at how many reviewers have just skimmed right over this feature while solely examining the usual suspects of resolution, chromatic aberrations, and vignetting. There are some features that have a very practical advantage in the real world, and this is certainly one of them!
This is an area where these lenses really need to distinguish themselves. I own the Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS, and it is a focusing standout. It’s fast, but more importantly, it is exceptionally accurate. I won’t own a lens that I cannot trust to consistently and accurately autofocus. The Achille’s heel for the Sigma ART series in my experience has been sometimes inconsistent autofocus accuracy. As a result I don’t have any of the otherwise excellent ART series lenses in my personal kit. Both Tamron and Sigma are forced to reverse engineer Canon, Nikon, and Sony’s autofocus algorithms because these companies will not license their technology to them. Large aperture primes are very demanding for autofocus, so this is a key point for Tamron if it wants to convince photographers to choose its lenses over first party choices.
Things got off to a good start when I performed calibration. The Tamron 35mm needed a -2 adjustment; a value that was highly repeatable (but specific to my copy/body combination). I prefer small adjustments as a matter of principle; it means that those without the ability to perform microadjustment in their camera bodies can still expect reliable performance out of the box. Autofocus performance would have been good without any adjustment, but that bit of microadjustment produces slightly more repeatable autofocus accuracy. The one advantage that Sigma has to offset its autofocus issues is the ability to tune focus through the Sigma USB dock. Some report that this makes a huge difference; others report that autofocus inconsistencies remain for them even after tuning via the dock. This Tamron lens doesn’t have the dock, but fortunately what it does have is highly accurate autofocus.
The autofocus motor in the lenses is Tamron’s USD (Ultrasonic Drive). This is a true ring type AF motor similar to Canon’s USM. The AF feels a bit snappier in the 35mm than the 45mm. The 35mm is roughly similar in speed to my Canon 35mm f/2 IS in most situations (which is to say very good!), although I would still give the Canon the slight nod, particularly in challenging conditions. The Tamron always achieved accurate focus lock, but sometimes not as quickly at the Canon in challenging situations.
I was consistently delighted when I zoomed in 100% on images and saw amazingly good focus and fantastic sharpness. I hate seeing images fall apart at a pixel level due to missed focus (yes, I’m a pixel peeper). I’m particularly picky when shooting portraits and focusing on eyes. The clients may not notice, but I DO!! I did a quick portrait series in very challenging light (very bright and glaring at mid-day) and cranked up a flash to combat the natural light. The Tamron 35mm f/1.8 VC performed flawlessly for me, giving me one sharp photo after another. Here’s a portrait sample, wide open, with crop. I chose this one because the various stalks around the subject could have been distractions for the AF:
Manual focus is exceptional for an autofocus lens due to the combination of the nice focus ring I mentioned previously along with the rock solid VC. I don’t usually have the luxury of an image stabilizer when I manually focus, so it makes manual focus a kinder experience than on most AF lenses. Videographers will appreciate this along with a full 180+ degrees of focus throw.
I also used the lens on both a Canon EOS M3 body (via Canon’s EF adapter) along with a Canon 70D to test it with DPAF. The lens is a nice fit on the M3, if a bit large, but it focused quickly and accurately in one-shot mode. Video tracking was a bit less impressive, with some focus transitions happening…reluctantly. Here’s a couple EOS M3 + 35VC results:
As with the M3, DPAF on the 70D was overall nicer with shooting stills than recording video. Nothing other than STM lenses are truly quiet and smooth in focus during video capture, but if you are recording audio separately this lens would work fine. Here’s a little sampling of videos using DPAF.
The 35mm is also a very, very nice lens mounted on a crop body like my 70D (and gives a nice weather sealed combo for general shooting or portraiture). The lens has a very appealing 56mm equivalent focal length on a crop sensor and is perhaps one of the nicest “50mm crop sensor lenses” currently available. By the way, using the lens on a crop sensor body gives you a little more working distance when shooting near minimum focus, and this lens is definitely better optically than the crop sensor specific Sigma 30mm (not 35mm) f/1.4 ART. This is definitely a lens you should consider if you shoot a crop sensor body and even remotely think you might move to a full frame body in the future (or even if you don’t plan to make that move).
Canon Rumors readers live in a new world of choice. There are three appealing 35mm lenses from Canon at varying price points, and now there are also high quality 35mm primes from both Tamron and Sigma to consider. Which one to choose? If you want a specific comparison with the Canon 35mm f/2 IS, take a look at the full review here:
Watch the video review here:
It was the 45mm lens (read my review here) that most excited me and initially captured my attention, but when I turned my attention to this Tamron SP 35mm f/1.8 VC I found one fantastic lens. Using this lens reminded me of how much I enjoy the 35mm focal length, and the extreme flexibility of this instrument was a real joy to use in unleashing my creativity. In the US market it is priced equally with the Canon 35mm f/2 IS (still a very valid option!) at $599. This undercuts the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART by a fairly wide margin of $300 (the Sigma is currently $899). In the US market this makes the Tamron an extremely compelling option on price, but some other markets are currently showing a much less definitive price advantage for the Tamron. Price aside, however, this is certainly a lens that can compete on merit. The Tamron has a lot of strengths to offset its slightly slower aperture when compared to the Sigma. Its amazing close focus capability, exceptional build, image stabilizer, and great optics overshadow the occasionally busy bokeh highlights and slight bit of chromatic aberrations. The good news for consumers is that we now have three compelling options in the “affordable” 35mm category, and frankly there isn’t a bad choice in the bunch. I look forward to seeing more of the SP primes from Tamron in the future.
- Exceptional build quality
- High grade weather sealing
- Fluorine coating
- Bar raising .40x maximum magnification
- Excellent manual focus ring with good focus throw
- Excellent resolution from wide open on
- Extremely low vignetting
- Quality bokeh from nine blade aperture
- Well performing VC system
- Fast and accurate autofocus
- Excellent price to build/performance
- Somewhat busy bokeh highlights (onion bokeh)
- Chromatic aberrations not perfectly controlled
- Autofocus isn’t quite as confident as the Canon
- No case included
Here’s a few more images to check out: