Review – Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro VC USD

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Review – Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro VC USD
By: Dustin Abbott – WWW | Facebook | YouTube
Discuss the Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro VC USD

The third party revolution continues!  Sigma and Tamron have really upped their game in the past few years, and both the ART series and Tamron’s new SP series of primes have provided shockingly competitive lenses while still undercutting the first party lenses in price.  It was only 28 months ago that I was reviewing the predecessor to this lens, and my final verdict was that it was generally excellent and a strong competitor to lenses like the Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS while undercutting it significantly in price. So why, you might ask, is Tamron already replacing a lens that few people would suggest needed an update? The answer to that question is at the heart of our comparison of the older lens (known by the internal code F004) and the new Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD (code F017).

If you prefer to watch your reviews, I’ve got you covered!  Check out my video review here:


Tamron has been more recently known for producing highly competitive zoom lenses with great optics.  Their lone prime lens (for full frame systems) was released in 2013 – the 90mm f/2.8 VC lens (F004), a lens I reviewed a few months after its release.  The F004 lens was generally excellent, proving to be optically competitive with the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS (a lens I own and love). I directly compared the two lenses in my review and found that while they were remarkably close, I found the Canon still had a very slight edge in the overall handling and performance. Are the new upgrades enough to push the advantage balance into Tamron’s camp?

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In the past year Tamron has turned its attention to the prime lens market and simultaneously released the excellent 35mm and 45mm f/1.8 VC primes in their new SP (Super Performance) prime line. I reviewed both of those lenses and added the 45mm VC to my own kit. These lenses pioneered a completely new look for Tamron, from the logo to the lens design to the class of the build quality. They are competitive with, well, everything, despite having a slightly smaller maximum aperture than some competitors (mostly the Sigma ART series). Those lenses have been well received critically, and have proven to be only the opening salvo in a whole new line of lenses. The second wave of announcements features this lens along with a highly anticipated 85mm f/1.8 VC lens. In the midst of this was another important announcement: the release of the Tap-In console for all of the new SP lenses that will allow the lenses to receive firmware updates and even to customize aspects of focus, focus limiting, and VC performance. This is similar to Sigma’s USB dock, and, while not for everyone, it does allow a deeper level of customization for those users with the expertise and desire to maximize productiveness from their lenses. The new Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di VC USD (F017) is compatible with the Tap-In console, which reveals at least one of the reasons for the redesign.

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Yes, the lens does take pictures of cats just like every new lens should – :)

The Zeiss lens company announced and released 6 lenses simultaneously in their new Milvus line last year. Only two of those lenses had brand new optical designs. The goal was more about standardizing the look/identity of some of these lenses while upgrading their build, coatings, and handling to modern standards; their optics were already good. I see a similar logic here from Tamron. The question is, “Do the updates to the 90mm f/2.8 VC take it from being a competitive lens to a superior one?


The Upgrades

Let’s group the upgrades together: substantial build updates, including more metal in the construction and superior dust and moisture resistance, improved coatings (including fluorine on the front element), improved AF speed and general performance, and the addition of XY-Shift compensation to help VC performance…particularly at macro distances.  There is also updated coatings (Tamron’s new proprietary eBAND and BBAR) along with optimization of the bokeh performance, all of which whose importance should not be underestimated.

So while the basic optical formula is unchanged from the previous lens, there are a number of significant changes that will improve the function, performance, and yes, the look of the images produced by the lens. In short, there is a lot going on here beyond just standardizing the look of Tamron’s prime lenses.

While Tamron’s original 90mm macro lens has continued to be sold, it should be noted that the new lens will immediately replace the last generation 90 VC (F004) and it will no longer be sold.

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Right off the bat there is one obvious difference; the build quality advantage now belongs to Tamron. Tamron’s new SP design language is very nice, very modern, and very elegant.  It is also noticeably more robust than previous Tamron lenses. It is reminiscent of the Sigma ART series on some levels, though unique in its own way and actually more functional.  The design is now all lightweight metals as opposed to engineered plastics over a metal shell. It has a more thorough dust and moisture resistance than before, which includes seals not only at the mount but at critical junctures near the switches, focus ring, and other areas.  The F004 generation claimed “moisture resistance”, while the new lens professes to be “moisture proof” and “dust resistant”.  Tamron stressed this language in the lens’ relief, so they are clearly far more confident in the sealing.  Saying “moisture proof” is rather bold, but still don’t plan on dunking this lens in water.  Typical weather shouldn’t adversely affect it, though. The fluorine coatings on the front element repels water and fingerprints and improves durability as well.  I noticed while doing this comparison that my 100L definitely has some dust in it despite have some form of weather sealing, so if Tamron has gotten this figured out it is another big advantage.

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I’ve had some interested photographers from India that are planning to buy this lens based on the enhanced weather sealing alone.  The heavy monsoon season there is destructive to lenses, and one photographer’s 100L was in the shop because the aperture blades were stuck due to the weather conditions.  He stated that he had other photographer friends with similar issues.  He plans to sell his Canon and purchase this lens because of the more robust weather sealing (and the much longer warranty period doesn’t hurt, either!)  I stated in the reviews of the 35mm and 45mm VC lenses that I felt Tamron was making a smart move by setting its products apart by offering more robust weather sealing (something Sigma hasn’t included on any of the ART series primes).

The overall size and shape is very similar to the previous lens but not identical.  The new lens is minutely larger (4.61″/117.1mm vs. 4.51″/114.5mm) and heavier (610g vs. 550g).  The F017 is also 2.5mm thicker.  Neither of these size changes are significant enough to make any real difference in the field, but the improvements to the build over the F004 are well worth the marginal size and weight increases.  I’m not aware of any macro lens that bests the build of the F017, though I haven’t (yet) tested the Zeiss Milvus 2/100 Makro-Planar lens.  The F004 lens made the jump to being internally focusing, and the F017 continues that tradition.  Nothing moves externally during focus.  A standard lens hood is included.

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Even the filter threads are made of metal (rather than plastic) on the SP Primes series.  My one (minor) gripe about the build is that the front filter threads continue to be for a 62mm filter – this is a pretty uncommon size and it may be unlikely that you will be able to share filters with other lenses in your kit (Tamron’s 70-300mm f/4.5.6 VC USD is the one other lens that comes to mind that uses the same filter size).  On a positive note, the smallish size of the 62mm standard means that filters will be relatively inexpensive.

There are three switches on the side of the barrel:  a 3 position focus limiter, AF/MF switch (though full time manual override is available), and an On/Off switch for the VC.  I find the switches on the SP Primes to be a tactile improvement over the older Tamron designs.

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As with the other SP primes that I have reviewed, the lens says both “Designed in Japan” and “Made in Japan” on the barrel.  Tamron is clearly wanting to make the point that, unlike on some of their cheaper offerings, there is no development or manufacturing outsourcing going on with the SP series.  This is a very pretty lens.

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Macro lenses have very unique image stabilization needs. The nature of macro photography introduces unique stresses on trying to stabilize an image at close focus distances. The F017 introduces new technology into the VC (Vibration Compensation) system of the previous generation, including an accelerometer to compensate for shakes on the x-y plane.  Here’s one of the several handheld macro shots I took during my review period.

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The end result is better stability at all focus distances, including macro. One final plus for the F017 is the ability to customize the stabilization behavior to your unique needs through the Tap-in Console, though I wasn’t able to test this due to the fact that the Tap-in has not yet been released.

One of the improvements that immediately stood out to me is the improved performance of the USD (Ultrasonic Drive) autofocus motor.  The press release from Tamron stated, “The control software program for the USD (Ultrasonic Silent Drive) actuator has been revised to provide substantially improved focusing speed and accuracy when using AF.” Real world testing shows that the autofocus is noticeably snappier, and typical adjustments come almost instantaneously. The lens is even able to rack through the whole very large focus range of a macro lens quite quickly. Autofocus performance can be further customized through the use of the three position focus limiter switch, and, in the near future, through software tweaks via the Tamron Tap-in Console accessory.

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When I did a typical AFMA on the 90 VC (F017) I found that while it needed a good bit of adjustment (-10 on my review body) the results were consistently repeatable each of the three times that I did the test. Focus results were also nicely consistent during the review. More customization will be possible once the Tap-in Console arrives.

Compatibility with Tap-in is a big advantage for the F017. This type of lens will have even more areas that can be customized than the average lens, including focus limiter, VC performance, and autofocus tweaks. This provides a unique advantage over all other macro lens competitors at the moment. It also helps give peace of mind that the lens can be easily updated via firmware in the future to both improve performance and ensure ongoing compatibility with the camera systems it is developed for. This accessory also means that those of you without the ability to do microadjustment within your camera body will still be able to tweak the AF via the console.


Image Quality:

If you want to dig deeper, you can find a slightly more robust look at the image quality in my full review on my website here.

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Image quality  was already excellent in the F004 lens, so few improvements were needed here.  I did notice what I would consider an improvement in the overall contrast of the images.  In a direct comparison between the Canon and the F017 I found that the Tamron appeared to have the slightest of edges when it comes to contrast and the overall look of the images.  Here’s a screenshot comparison, though it will be hard to see at this resolution.  There are few more direct comparisons (at larger sizes) here.

Wide Open Close Distance Comparison

Macro lenses tend to be very sharp anyway, and the Tamron is no exception.  Here is a handheld, wide open (f/2.8) shot with crop that shows a pretty good self portrait within the eye of this little dog:

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Tamron mentioned that the F017 has received “optimizing” to its bokeh “to minimize any blurring with a doubled image appearing for a single line because that phenomenon has a considerably negative impact on background image quality.”  I looked back at some similar images I had taken with the F004 two and a half years ago, but I wasn’t able to actually see what they are referring to.

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Suffice it to say that the bokeh here seems quite good overall and looks almost identical to that of the Canon 100L, a lens I have long praised for its bokeh performance. The bokeh from the F017 looks pretty yummy here:

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Here are a few other “bokehlicious” samples:

The F017 has nine rounded blades in its aperture that help retain a circular shape when stopped down.  Tamron has also updated the coatings to their proprietary eBAND and BBAR coatings. These are designed to reduce flare and ghosting, help eliminate chromatic aberrations, and increase contrast. Mission accomplished. I shot into the sun a fair bit without introducing any kind of veiling or ghosting.  I saw extremely low levels of CA (very important for a macro lens and all of those shiny surfaces you will be shooting), the flare resistance was excellent, and the contrast compared favorably with the Canon 100L Macro lens.  The end result is the already excellent image quality from the previous lens now has a bit more pop.

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One area where the Tamron still lags behind the Canon competition is in a typical Tamron weak spot – light transmission. I noticed when testing the stabilization on a calendar with constant lighting that the Canon consistently exposed more brightly than the Tamron with identical settings. I had to increase the Tamron’s image by about half of a stop to get an equal histogram.  It has been pointed out that DXO actually found the light transmission better on the F004 than the Canon, so I can’t really account for that except to say that Canon sometimes does a little tweaking under the hood with first party lenses that doesn’t show up in settings.

One other minor niggle was that I found the VC (Vibration Compensation) a little louder than I’m used to. It may have been specific to my review copy, or it could be due to the new accelerometer.

To see many more images, check out the Lens Image Gallery here:


Conclusion:

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After having spent some time with the new lens it is easy to see why Tamron refreshed this lens in the way that they did. Now all of their prime lenses will conform to the same standard and will share a “family resemblance”, but beyond that the end result is a significantly improved lens that has great optics in a class leading build.  The ability to customize the lens via the soon-arriving Tap-in Console gives Tamron (at least temporarily) a one-up on the competition. This is one of the rare occasions where third party AF is completely competitive with that of the first party lens. Vehicle manufacturers sometimes do a “mid-cycle refresh” to their vehicles that often significantly improves them, and Tamron has done the same here. The Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di 1:1 Macro VC is a great lens that deserves to make its way into a lot of photographer’s bags.  I’m very satisfied with the Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS macro lens, but if I didn’t own it already I would be very tempted by the Tamron.

Purchase Options:

Pros:

  • Vastly improved build quality that is now class leading
  • Enhanced “moisture proofing” and “dust resistance” (Tamron’s words).
  • Class leading 6 year warranty
  • Improved AF performance that now matches first party AF
  • Ability to use the Tap-in Console to install firmware and customize performance
  • Improved coatings increase performance
  • VC Performance has been enhanced specifically for macro performance
  • US pricing has actually gone down rather than up compared to last gen

Cons:

  • Light transmission lags behind Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro
  • VC system seems a little noisier (accelerometer?)