There has been, and likely always will be, a lingering debate among professional photographers and amateur photo enthusiasts, about whether or not a third party lens can be every bit as good as the native glass produced by your camera’s manufacturer.
There is often a margin of compromise between cost and quality. Over the last five years or so, that margin has become increasingly slim. It’s become so small in fact, that we find ourselves living in an incredible time when these third party lenses are equalling the performance of high end lenses, in terms of optical performance and build quality.
To date, very few lenses I have evaluated have exemplified this coming of age of lens manufacturing, more so than the Tamron 85mm F1.8 Di VC USD. It is intended to be used with full-frame dSLR’s, as well as APS-C bodies (it becomes 136mm equivalent). This lens embodies what could be called a levelling of the playing field, in terms of cost versus performance. Recently, Tamron announced their intentions to re-energize, and improve their lens offerings with increased image quality, and more reliable build. During this review I was amazed at just how much punch Tamron has been able to deliver with their 85mm f/1.8.
After breaking open the box I found the lens, along with hood, to be very well cradled in its packaging.
At first feel, the Tamron 85mm f/1.8 seemed hefty, with a solid weight. Not overly heavy at 24.7 ounces (700 g), but certainly not light either. You will definitely know this lens is on your camera. The look of the lens is clean and classic.
The lens body itself is nicely finished in matte black, while Tamron has added some silver-toned accents; most notably of which is the new metallic ring at the base of the body around the mount. The focus ring is pleasantly rubberized, and feels very comfortable to the touch. There is also a voucher for a free download of SilkyPix, Tamron’s post processing software, included with the lens purchase.
As I said, the most noticeable physical aspect of this lens is its weight. Which isn’t a bad thing, and it strikes a balance when compared to other similar lenses: the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 and the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L which come in weighing 14.99 oz (425 g) and 36.16 oz (1.025 kg) respectively. Keep in mind that neither of those two lenses sports image stabilization(more on this feature later). Overall, the Tamron just feels serviceably solid. The focus ring is firm and extremely smooth when turning. All the markings and accents are very well executed and the focus indicator window is nicely done.
Here are the Tamron 85mm F1.8 mounted to a Canon 7D Mk1 alongside another excellent prime, the Canon EF 50mm F1.4 (below) for a size comparison.
The VR( image stabilization) and AF/MF switches are well placed for easy operation, and they switch on/off firmly. The included barrel-type lens hood looks great without screaming “Hey! Look at me!” and locks on securely with ease.
Here’s the official specification sheet from Tamron
One thing which I’ve always found so pleasing about Tamron, albeit a small detail, is their attention to their lens cap ergonomics. I know, I know – it’s just a lens cap. But it’s a very important element of any lens that is intended to be used extensively. I mention it due to the fact that Tamron lens caps have a very deeply recessed front pinch.
Very much of my work centers around adventure and outdoor photography, where the elements aren’t always cooperative. Being able to take the lens cap on and off without fear of dropping (even with gloved hands) is a huge advantage in those kinds of situations. Small detail? Yes. An important detail? Very much so. It’s a feature that my fellow landscapers and outdoor photographers will greatly appreciate.
Now, back to your regularly scheduled review.
If you look closely at the lens you might notice a small black rubber gasket at the area of the lens mount.
This is part of the advanced steps Tamron has made to improve the resistance of their lenses to the elements. Though not as readily visible as the seal on the lens mount, the entire lens design has incorporated increased weather sealing on the areas between the focus ring and lens barrel. This means better long term service and protection from the grit and grime, often found when making photographs in the outdoors, where dust and moisture make themselves an unwelcome nuisance.
The 85mm F1.8 is intended to be a medium telephoto lens, that offers decent compression for portrait work, as well as true to life color rendition. In all these things, Tamron has excelled. I was excited to see that the lens performed very well, and was very sharp through the complete f/1.8 to f/16 aperture range. The corners were a little soft at f/1.8 but became crisp at f/4 and beyond. Overall sharpness was best observed from f/4 to f.8, with f/5.6 seeming to be the sweet spot of this review model.
Admittedly, I was very impressed with the sharpness, but the color performance is a point where this lens truly shines. Colors come through well saturated, with only moderate chromatic aberrations at wide apertures (past f/2.2 becomes very good) and contrast is wonderfully bold.
This is a series of uncropped images, showing the performance across common apertures from f1.8 through f/16.
Now, have a look at that same set after being cropped to approximately 1:1.
The nine curved aperture blades produce a creamy bokeh, which portrait shooters will love. I especially loved the bokeh produced at the largest aperture of f/1.8. In some situations it even hinted at a faint swirling effect, reminiscent of the selectively loved/hated Helios 44-2.
In any case, you will no doubt be pleased with the background blur of your images. Taken alongside the great color and contrast, the 85mm f/1.8 will consistently produce quality images with good sharpness, in a wide range of situations.
Here are some additional sample images made with the Tamron 85mm F1.8.
Autofocus and Image Stabilization Performance
This is the part of the review that I could not wait to write about in regard to the 85mm F1.8. The autofocus of this lens is fast, accurate, and quiet. The ultrasonic motor drive produced very little vibration during autofocusing, which was great. I’m a big time fan of having the final say with my focusing. Tamron has included a full-time manual override capability, which definitely allows greater control for pinpoint adjustments when needed, without having to switch the AF/MF switch to manual.
The autofocus tracked very accurately when shooting moving subjects as well. Overall, the AF performance of the lens is top notch.
The image stabilizer on this lens is an absolute marvel. In most cases, vibration reduction technology is useful, but for me, it’s never been a make or break selling point when I shop for lenses. With the 85mm – I must say that I am thoroughly impressed. The image stabilization performance of the lens is one of, if not the best, I have ever encountered. Tamron states that the 85mm F1.8 was the first 85mm fast-prime to include the technology (as of January 2016). The VR (vibration reduction) makes shooting at what might be considered impractically slow shutter speeds in sub-optimal light, very possible. This is great for street photographers, and really anyone who finds themselves needing to keep their ISO in check, who also frequently encounters low light conditions.
This is an image shot handheld at 1/10 second with VR turned off.
Here we see the almost magical impact of the image stabilizer once the VR is switched on.
Generally, I base the majority of my exposures around the Reciprocal Rule (1/focal length) so at 85mm I wouldn’t normally go slower than 1/80th of a second, or 1/60th on a good day. The fact that I was able to pull off this measure of sharpness at 1/10th of second, means that the image could have been made with an even slower shutter speed, while still maintaining acceptable clarity. This means a lower ISO can be used in situations when it would previously not have been possible. Tamron has hit the VR out of the park with the 85mm F1.8.
What you’ll like:
- Outstanding sharpness through entire aperture range.
- Great color and contrast performance.
- Build quality is great.
- Improved weather sealing helps control moisture and dirt problems< ./li>
- The VR performance is outstanding. Image stabilization level: Jedi.
What you might not like:
Well, it’s difficult to list anything here. An extremely scrutinous shooter might mention the weight and moderate chromatic aberrations at f/1.8 as drawbacks, but both fall very safely in the range of what would be considered acceptable for most uses.
It’s difficult for a lens to leave a reviewer without having any real negatives. Still, the Tamron 85mm F1.8 appears to have done just that. There were no issues encountered that would warrant inclusion. The fact is that the optically quality is superb, and the build is very solid.
Taking into consideration the fast autofocus, and the incredible image stabilization, it truly is a tough lens to beat at this price (around $749 USD). Add in the beefed up weather protection, and you are left with a beast of a mid-range telephoto lens, which will excel at portraiture and street photography, while holding its own during adverse shooting conditions in the outdoors.
4.5 out of 5 Stars