Conclusion - Pros
- Excellent optical quality
- Very good macro capability
- Relatively lightweight for its class, but still generally solid build
- Low price
Conclusion - Cons
- Slow and noisy autofocus motor
- Somewhat clunky manual focus switchover mechanism
- Tendency towards slight misfocusing (at least in Canon mount)
The SP AF 70-200mm F2.8 Di LD (IF) Macro is certainly a very creditable effort by Tamron to produce a high quality, yet affordable fast telephoto zoom. Indeed if we look solely at the studio optical tests, it is a resounding success, as the technical quality of the images this lens can produce is superb throughout most of the range, matching or even outperforming the much more expensive Canon 70-200mm F2.8 L IS USM. It's slightly soft wide open in the middle of the zoom range (most visibly on the more demanding APS-C/DX sensor format), but stop down a little and the quality really starts to shine through. Resolution is excellent from corner to corner, chromatic aberration is generally very low, and vignetting about average for a lens of this class. The close minimum focus distance is very welcome, especially as image quality holds up pretty well, and the rendition of out-of-focus regions of the image is very pleasant; this may not be a substitute for a true macro lens, but it's not bad at all. About the only flaws are the slightly high distortion on full frame (unlikely to be a problem for most typical uses of a telephoto zoom) and occasional severe flare issues with strong light sources just outside the frame (which tends to be a weak point of fast telezooms generally).
The big problem with this lens, however, lies in the focusing systems. The autofocus motor is relatively slow and noisy, which puts it at a major disadvantage compared to its ultrasonic motor-equipped competitors, simply because AF performance impacts strongly on many of the typical uses for a fast telezoom lens. The slow speed of the motor means focus tracking simply isn't fast enough for sports or action, or even children running around playing; it's also a distinct problem in low light or with low-contrast subjects, where the lens can take what feels like an eternity to achieve focus. This is compounded by the noise the motor makes, which could be a real problem in situations such as wedding or event photography for which the user wishes to remain unobtrusive; discrete it is not. Also the Tamron lacks a focus limiter switch, so has a tendency to hunt back and forwards through its entire range when it fails to lock focus first time. But perhaps the biggest problem we encountered was a tendency for the lens to mis-focus, seemingly at random and disturbingly frequently, such that F2.8 shots in particular were often not critically sharp (although it must be pointed out that this may be specific to either our test sample, or the Canon mount version).
However it's not just the autofocus system which is an issue, and the manual focus isn't perfect either. The use of the push-pull clutch on the focus ring to engage manual is a good idea in principle, but not perfectly implemented in practice; the action is remarkably noisy (in context, the click-clunk noises on switching between AF and M are substantially louder than the shutter release on any current DSLR, including the top-end professional models such as the Nikon D3 and Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III), and the focus ring has a bad habit of sticking in an intermediate position in which the gearing isn't correctly engaged, and manual focus doesn't work properly. Also, it's not possible to use autofocus to pre-focus on a specific point then switch to manual, as the focus distance can often be thrown in the switchover. Finally, the manual focus ring is just a little too highly geared, with relatively short travel between infinity and the close focus of 0.95m, making critically accurate manual focus difficult to achieve (certainly outside of live view).
Now it must be acknowledged that we've only tested this lens in the Canon EF mount, and we can't assume it will behave in exactly the same way on other mounts. We'd presume that the Nikon version shares the same AF motor system, so will likely be just as noisy and probably as slow, but may well not suffer from the accuracy problems we observed with Canon bodies. It's also fair to say that the body-driven Pentax and Sony versions may behave rather better all round. Of course users of these two brands will then have to put up with the irritation of needing to select manual focus using both the body switch and the focus ring clutch, but that would be a small price to pay for the prospect of having these excellent optics benefit from a faster and more consistent autofocus system, especially on a body with built-in image stabilization. (Indeed on that point; it's a pity Tamron couldn't have incorporated the impressive stabilization system from their 28-300mm VC lens into the 70-200mm, at least for the Canon and Nikon mount versions.)
So ultimately what we have here is a flawed gem, a lens which fully capable of delivering excellent images, but also frustratingly capable of missing focus on that once-in-a-lifetime shot, either through mis-focus or simply being too slow. And this is a real pity, because the optical quality of this lens is genuinely superb. Now if you shoot mainly outdoors in bright light, the focus speed and noise issues probably won't be a great problem (especially if you're not trying to track fast moving subjects), in which case this lens could well be ideal. However if you shoot frequently in low light, need to track erratically moving subjects, or demand quiet operation, then the relatively unrefined autofocus will leave you frustrated. Also, whilst the mis-focusing issues we observed can certainly be mitigated by taking multiple shots if you have the time and opportunity, that's simply not always possible. Because of these issues, the Tamron 70-200mm F2.8, despite its stellar optics, just fails to take our top award.
Rating (out of 10)
|Ergonomics & handling||8.0|
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Tamron 70-200mm F2.8 Di LD Tamron 70-200mm F2.8 samples