Review – Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 DI VC USD
I’ve been on quest ever since I first got the Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS to find a 50mm equivalent of the lens. There are a lot of good 50mm lenses out there, but not any single one that has checked enough of the boxes for me. I’ve reviewed a LOT of 50mm lenses in the past year or so. I’ve reviewed the Canon 50mm f/1.2L along with the nifty fifties (50mm f/1.8II and STM), Sigma’s 50mm f/1.4 DG and 50mm f/1.4 ART, the Rokinon 50mm f/1.4, Zeiss Planar T* 1.4/50mm, Makro-Planar 2/50mm, and the Otus 1.4/55mm. On top of that I’ve done mini-reviews of some vintage 50mm glass, including the SMC Takumar 50mm f/1.4, 55mm f/1.8, Helios 44-2, and Zeiss Planar T* 1.7/50mm. That’s thirteen, by my count, not including the lens at hand. When I first heard the announcement of these two lenses my first reaction was, “45mm? What’s up with that?” But when I stopped and thought about it, I realized that it was close enough to 50mm to be interesting. It also checked a number of similar boxes to the 35IS that I became increasingly interested, so when Tamron asked if I wanted to take an early look at the pair of new primes, I jumped at the opportunity. If you would like to read my more complete review, take a look here:
It’s been a long time since Tamron has been associated with prime lenses (with the exception of their macro lenses). As a consumer I’m always glad to see new competitors driving development, innovation, and price points among the first parties. Sigma has really started doing this with their ART series primes over the past several years, and those of you who read Canon Rumor’s SP 35mm f/1.8 VC review know I found the new Tamron 35mm to be highly competitive with both the EF 35mm f/2 IS and the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART. 35mm is a widely used and accepted focal length, but 45mm?
Yeah, I scratched my head, too. I posed the question to Tamron, and got the reasonable response that these two lenses were the opening salvo of more Tamron SP primes and there was a certain amount of shared R&D costs between these two first lenses. They share the same front element sizes (67mm), and perhaps the move towards 50mm might have exceeded the shared design for the two lenses. I would have preferred 55mm to 45mm, myself, but that’s not what we got. Some readers have already expressed additional interest because of the 45mm focal length – so it all comes down to your own preferences. Tamron (probably wisely) elected to develop an excellent 45mm lens rather than a less excellent 50mm lens. The reality is that it doesn’t behave much differently in practice to any 50mm lens. Here’s what the difference between a 45mm and a 50mm looks like in real life:
Step back a few more feet (this is from about four feet/1.25m away) and that difference will become near imperceptible. By the way, this is also what the difference between f/1.4 and f/1.8 looks like. And here is the first challenge for the Tamron – at 5 feet the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART will have a depth of field of only 3.07″/7.8cm, while the Tamrons DOF will be 4.88″/12.4cm. Put simply, the Sigma is going to be able to create more subject isolation than the Tamron. The 50mm f/1.4 shot here is from my SMC Takumar 50mm f/1.4, which, despite its age, still has some of the nicest drawing I’ve seen from a 50mm lens. Those of you debating between a 35mm and 50mm prime may find this focal length (45mm) an acceptable compromise. And, just for fun, here’s what the difference between the 35mm and the 45mm Tamrons looks like.
Here are the raw numbers: the lens is 544g and 3.6″/91mm long. This is 270g less than the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART (815), but 254g heavier than the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 (a lens not in the class of these lenses in any way). the Sigma is also 9mm longer. The Tamron has ten elements in 8 groups, including 1 LD (Low Dispersion) element and 2 Aspherical elements. In short, the Tamron is a medium sized lens that is visibly smaller than its Sigma competition, but considerably larger than the EF 50mm f/1.4.
Here is a video that examines the build quality of this lens:
The new build design is really quite beautiful. It’s simple and clean, and faintly reminiscent of Sigma’s ART series, although the materials here are actually higher grade. The Tamron is almost all metal components up to and including a metal filter thread and metal bayonet mount. I do find the texture variety on the Sigma ART series a little more appealing, but I do really like this new, clean design. The black is broken up by white lettering (etched rather than printed) here and there along with an “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.
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 (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. This becomes very important when one considers the amazing minimum focus ability of these lenses. At macro distances most photographers prefer manual focus anyway, and these lenses are joy to use in a pseudo-macro fashion. The lens has focus distance window but no hyperfocal markings (not surprising). Both lenses take a moderate, inexpensive, and easy to find 67mm filter for those nice metal filter threads that is shared with a number of other lenses. The build quality here is a new high for Tamron, and belies the moderate price point ($599 USD with serious variation in other markets).
There are two switches on the body with a different look and feel than any other Tamron lens I’ve used. They resemble (wait for it…) the ART series a bit more, save these are a bit wider and flatter. They are the basic switches you would expect, with an AF (Autofocus)/MF (Manual Focus) switch (full time manual override is always available), and the second switch is an ON/OFF for the VC (Vibration Compensation).
Clearly Tamron has its eyes on some of Sigma ART series success. Sigma has been able to carve out a great niche for itself by producing stylish wide aperture lenses with image sharpness that frequently surpasses first party lenses while undercutting them in price by a wide margin. This has been particularly true for the 35mm and 50mm focal lengths, and Tamron has chosen to target these same focal lengths. It might even be said that Tamron has a taken a book from Sigma in the overall design ethos of these lenses, but then again, Sigma managed to borrow heavily from Zeiss with its own design refresh a few years ago. I’ve already noted that Tamron is at a bit of disadvantage when it comes to maximum aperture, and the Sigma lenses are optically exceptional (save perhaps some ho-hum drawing and bokeh). How is Tamron going to distinguish its own lenses?
Apparently by doing what Sigma isn’t, or, specifically, prioritizing a feature set that Sigma hasn’t. I’ve reviewed and used the majority of the Sigma ART series lenses. My “criticisms” would center around sometimes inconsistent autofocus, a lack of weather sealing, and perhaps the lack of image stabilization. The Tamron 45mm shows strength in all these areas.
This video examines Tamron’s claim of these new primes being “Super Performing”
Tamron has been one of the industry leaders in both the design of their VC (Vibration Compensation) system along with their broad implementation of it. They were ahead of the curve with putting image stabilization in a standard 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom as well as a wide aperture, wide angle zoom (15-30 VC). The record holder for widest aperture with an image stabilizer for Canon shooters has been the 35IS, but these Tamron lenses are now the new standard bearers. Image stabilization is undeniably valuable (particularly for video shooters), and I’m happy to announce that this is a very nice implementation of the system. It is completely unobtrusive, with almost no hints of its operation beyond the steady viewfinder and the nicely stabilized images. High resolution sensors like the new 5Ds/5DsR 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 1/8th second and essentially perfectly sharp:
This is clearly one area that Tamron plans to offset Sigma’s aperture advantage. Whether the faster aperture of the Sigma or the inclusion of the VC is better really depends on your type of shooting and subject matter.
Many of us around Canon Rumors have wished that the Sigma ART series would come with weather sealing. Even a number of Canon’s key “L” series primes have lacked appropriate weather sealing, meaning that some lenses get favored over others when the weather turns sour. Tamron decided to attack on this front, and the degree of moisture resistance hits a new high for a Tamron (and most other lenses, for that matter.) There are internal seals at the focus ring and the switches, a gasket around the rear mount, and an expensive fluorine coating on the front element. They back up this weather sealing with an industry leading six year warranty (in North America), 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 45mm VC appears to be a seriously pro-grade lens, with one of the higher levels of build quality that I’ve seen in a while. This lens quickly becomes one of the top options for a 50(ish)mm lens for photographers that need to shoot in sometimes adverse weather conditions and prioritize weather sealing. The build here easily surpasses both that of the Sigma 50A and the Canon 50mm f/1.2L.
Tamron has really been touting its new coating technologies, which they call “eBand” (to suppress ghosting and flare) and “BBAR” (to aid light transmission). I did some thorough torture testing and found the lens to be completely resistant to flare and ghosting at a variety of aperture settings and lighting conditions. This will be a great lens to use when backlighting your subject. You get spoiled by modern lenses; I was shocked the other evening when I was shooting some backlit portraits with my Canon 135mm f/2L and saw the image completely wash out when the sun was in the frame. Not so with the Tamron. Here are a couple looks both wide open and at f/11:
The second image shows off the nice shape of the sunburst when the nine bladed aperture is stopped down.
The Achille’s heel for the Sigma ART series in my experience (and that of many other photographers – particularly other Canon shooters) has been sometimes inconsistent autofocus accuracy. Sigma’s HSM motors focus quickly (most of the time) and very quietly, but not always accurately. I’ve read of many photographers on the forums here that have returned Sigma lenses because of inconsistent autofocus but can’t recall even one that returned a Sigma ART because of poor optics. Tamron has GOT to get this right if they want to convince photographers to choose this lens over a first party option (or a Sigma).
Things got off to a good start when I performed calibration. The 45mm required only a +1 AFMA adjustment and seemed nicely dialed in. Before long I was counting eyelashes:
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, but don’t let this fool you into thinking that autofocus is going to be lightning fast here – it’s not. One thing to consider is that these lenses focus closer than their competitors, so if the lens is completely defocused it will take a split second longer to achieve focus as it has a larger focus range. Less extreme focus changes come quickly, and the lens has proven able to focus confidently even in challenging situations like backlit or dimly lit environments. There is a split second feeling of momentum gathering before the elements fly into motion which is accompanied by a faint sliding sound of the elements shuffling. It isn’t as quiet as Sigma’s HSM motors, nor is it as fast as the better USM motors from Canon (or the Sigma 50A). It isn’t slow, but significant focuses changes take long enough that you notice. Interestingly, however, in a Japanese language interview (it doesn’t translate perfectly) Tamron engineers intimated that they prioritized accuracy over speed. It was probably the right choice. The 45mm is fast enough…and accuracy is paramount for me.
I’m happy to report that I’m getting excellent focus accuracy results. As per usual, lenses on the 6D prefer AF points closer to center (it has a super focus point in the middle and unexceptional focus points beyond). While focus takes longer on the outer points the lens consistently focused accurately for me.
The lens also performed well for me in a portrait setting (according to the interview above the Tamron engineers consider this to be more the portrait lens of the two new primes). If you want to see someone who uses both the new Tamrons and the Sigma ART primes well, take a look at this guy’s profile on 500px. The lens focused where I want, and I had great sharpness on my subject.
In this series the lens also did a good job of not getting confused by the undergrowth I was shooting through.
I’d like faster autofocus, but the fact that I got consistent autofocus is paramount to me.
EOS M3 notes. While these lenses are on the larger side of what I would deem natural for my smaller EOS M3 mirrorless body, the focal lengths are appealing crossover ones. I was happy to find that the lenses focused nearly as quickly and accurately as native M mount lenses, although video AF Servo shooting can be a bit slow when making major transitions. Images produced with the combination are very appealing. It’s ironic that many recent Tamron lenses behave more mannerly via the EF adapter than most of the Canon lenses. Something about the way they achieve focus seems to agree with the M3. I recognize this affects only a few of you, but just in case…
How about Canon’s DPAF? A few readers were interested in how these lenses would work with Canon’s DPAF. I have a Canon 70D body, the first to use DPAF, and one of the few DSLRs to have quality servo AF during video recording. The lenses that work best with DPAF for video are those with stepping motors like Canon’s STM, but I’m happy to report that while these lens don’t focus quite as quickly as STM motors (and are bit louder in doing it), they focus smoothly and accurately. If you are using something else to record your audio I don’t see an issue. Here’s a little sampling of videos using DPAF.
What About Image Quality?
Tamron faces some serious competition when it comes to image quality, as Sigma has set the bar very high. I don’t do chart testing, but those that do are reporting that resolution numbers are pretty close for these two lenses. The Sigma seems to still have the overall edge, but outside of the vacuum of the test chart it would be extremely hard to tell the difference. The Tamron is crushing all three Canon 50mm options at equivalent apertures (as was the Sigma ART before it). The lens has a nicely flat focal plane and I haven’t found a situation where I would hesitate to use the lens wide open. Here’s a few wide open landscapes:
The lens shows a similar strong contrast and lack of haziness to the Sigma ART but not quite at Zeiss Otus levels (nothing is!) Here’s a close focus example and crop that shows the fine amount of detail:
The one thing the Tamron cannot do, of course, is shoot at f/1.4. Its great sharpness at f/1.8 does help soften the blow, however. Where the Tamron seems to surpass the Sigma 50A is in drawing and bokeh. Bokeh quality is very nice from the rounded nine bladed aperture iris. Bokeh quality is creamy and soft, with a nice transition to defocus. This is true of the bokeh before the plane of focus and beyond it. The nine rounded blade aperture is doing its job, too, with bokeh highlights remaining round when you stop the lens down. My one objection is a common one – towards the edge of the frame the bokeh highlights take on a somewhat “cat-eyed” quality and are less round. When putting bright defocused lights into the scene (like with the Christmas lights below) the bokeh shows a minimum of busyness.
At a pixel level there are some very, very light concentric circles (commonly referred to as “onion bokeh”) that become a little more pronounced as the lens is stopped down. This “activity” is less pronounced than it was with the Zeiss Otus 1.4/55mm, however, and none of us are complaining about it’s bokeh. The inner line of the Tamron bokeh circle is very soft, and that lack of a hard edge is a strong indicator of quality bokeh. I’ve found the bokeh from the lens to be rather delicious:
At close focus distances the lens creates extremely strong blur that looks a lot like a macro lens.
The combination of nice optics and strong bokeh performance means that this is a lens capable of producing a lot of beautiful images! Vignette control is also a strength. There is some vignette, but it a bit less than competing primes and is nicely gradual, meaning that it is either easy to remove in post or (in many cases) produces a subtle, desirable effect. This, combined with low native distortion (a tiny amount of barrel distortion), means that those of you concerned about not having a lens profile in camera to correct for these things shouldn’t have much to worry about. Color rendition is similarly excellent.
The parade of optical goodness comes to a crashing (and surprising) halt when it comes to chromatic aberration control. This is definitely the optical weak point. I was surprised by the amount of both purple and green fringing I saw in high contrast areas in certain images. This is one area where the Sigma ART 50mm definitely exceeds the optical performance of the lens. It seems like so many modern lenses seem to have this monster defeated, so I’m frankly disappointed by this performance. In most cases chromatic aberrations can be easily corrected in post, but it’s a stage that I personally prefer to avoid. Here is the worst example I saw during my review period.
This wide open sample also shows off the very impressive sharpness, though. If you want to see many more image samples, including some full size images you can download, please visit the Lens Image Gallery here. Expect to see some green fringing in bokeh highlights and the occasional amount of purple fringing in high contrast areas. This was one area that I was quite disappointed by the lens.
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 45mm, I did a double take. High maximum magnification figures are not the norm for 50mm lenses. The class standard for a 50mm lens is a maximum magnification figure of around .15x – not particularly high. A little better than the typical 85mm; a little worse than the typical 35mm. Here’s what that standard looks like:
Some of the new releases better that mark by a bit (the Sigma 50A allows for .17x magnification). The fresh design of the Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM is much better and allows for focus down to 14″ or 35.5cm, giving a .21x magnification figure (though at the cost of an IQ hit). But the new Tamron SP 45mm is in a league of its own, allowing for a minimum focus distance of 11.4’/29cm, and maximum magnification of .29x. Here’s what minimum focus distance looks like with it by comparison.
Umm, wow! I doubt that I need to tell you how impressive this performance is. And, unlike the Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM, resolution remains razor sharp at minimum focus distances. I’ve been surprised by how many reviewers have just glossed over this feature and scarcely given this a mention. Perhaps this isn’t a priority for them, but I personally love using a 50mm focal length to shoot fine art shots of objects near minimum focus, and viewers seem to love those kinds of images as well!
You can get close enough to give a very macro look to the image, with the background completely diffused. This opens up any number of creative shooting options:
I find that it can focus close enough and resolve highly enough that I can treat it much like a macro lens, right down to needing to consider closing down the aperture because the depth of field is so narrow (depth of field at minimum focus is only .18 inches or just 4.47mm – that’s tiny!). The performance is good enough that if you don’t need true 1:1 life size reproduction and mostly want to shoot flowers or similarly small objects you would probably be very satisfied with using this lens as your macro lens. The working distance isn’t terrible and that is already a lot of magnification. A bit of cropping and suddenly you have life size. Adding an extension tube would get you even closer! The fact that the focus ring works so well (most macro photographers like to use manual focus) makes this a treat to use at close focus range.
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. This is one of the features that I’m most excited by because it fits my own shooting style so well.
Is the lens the holy grail that I’ve been looking for? Not quite, but frankly I’ve despaired for the moment of Canon producing the lens that I (and probably you) want – a 50mm f/1.4 (or f/1.8) IS lens with a similar form factor to the 35mm f/2 IS. But while this lens is a bit larger than what I wanted (and a bit slower focusing than I wanted), it also checks more of the boxes than any of the other 50mm lenses I’ve reviewed, so I informed my wife that I’ve chosen my Christmas present and my order is in. If you want to dig a little deeper yourself, you can find a more thorough look at the lens here.
The fact that this lens is only f/1.8 and a Tamron might cause you to think that this is not a serious, pro-grade lens. This could not be further from the truth, though. My time with this lens lets me know that Tamron means business. These are lenses designed for working professionals despite the reasonable price (well, if you are in the United States, that is!). They are built more like Zeiss lenses than Tamrons of old, save these are weather sealed. The optical performance is stunningly good, and there are some killer apps like VC and a crazy minimum focus distance that really set this lens apart from the pack. If it was a 50mm f/1.4 VC lens the line-up to purchase would already be forming. It’s a reasonably sized lens that won’t be onerous to pack along or carry. The image quality and bokeh is as good as anything not called Otus. My only nitpicks are that I’d like a bit faster focus and a lot less CA. But these principle shortcomings (along with a smaller than f/1.4 aperture) seem positively offset by so many strengths. Unless you absolutely feel like you need f/1.4 this lens is a stunning pick and highlights just how desperately Canon’s own EF 50mm f/1.4 needs an update. Tamron has undercut the price of the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART by $350 in this lens (in the US), and it is a LOT of lens for $599. Remember too that these lenses come with Tamron’s 6 year North American warranty (5 years in Europe). That in itself is a great value. This lens isn’t the holy grail, but all things considered, it’s pretty close.
- Exceptional build quality
- Better weather sealing than any other 50mm lens
- Fluorine coating
- Amazing .29x maximum magnification
- Excellent manual focus ring with good focus throw
- Excellent resolution from wide open on
- Low vignetting
- Quality bokeh from nine blade aperture
- Well performing VC system
- Accurate autofocus
- Larger than other 50mm f/1.8 lenses
- More chromatic aberrations than expected
- Autofocus speed could be faster
- Doesn’t include a case/pouch
- Smaller maximum aperture than main competitors