At the CP+ show in Yokohama last month, we talked with senior executives from several major camera and lens manufacturers including Tamron. In our conversation with Mr Takashi Sawao, Mr Kenji Nakagawa and Mr Minoru Ando, we discussed various topics including the 40th anniversary of the 'SP' series, Tamron's plans for mirrorless, and the shrinking APS-C market.

Participants:

  • Takashi Sawao, Executive Officer, General Manager, Imaging Products Business Unit
  • Kenji Nakagawa, Product Manager, Product Planning Dept., Imaging Products Business Unit
  • Minoru Ando, General Manager, Optical Design & Engineering R&D Unit

Please note that this interview has been edited for clarity and flow.


Why did you decide to make a premium F1.4 35mm?

‘SP’ stands for superior performance, and this year we’re celebrating 40 years since we first introduced ‘SP’. We had the F1.8 35mm and 45mm, and for those lenses the concept was compact prime lenses and 'good balance'. F1.8 turned out to provide an optimal balance, having weighed various design criteria to deliver the highest possible performance and practical functionality including the VC feature. For the 35mm F1.4, we thought particularly about optical performance.

Since other manufacturers already have high-performance 35mm F1.4 lenses we wanted to achieve a very high-level prime lens. The MTF shows [better performance] than other lenses in this category.

Because this year is the 40th anniversary of SP, our engineers really tried to get the best optical performance with this F1.4 model. We really wanted to achieve high-quality, high-resolution images. Superior performance.

So the SP 35mm F1.4 is a 40th anniversary lens, in effect?

Yes, and we believe it’s performance is better than other brands. We have a lot of confidence in it.

The Tamron SP 35mm F1.4 Di USD should - according to Tamron's executives - offer superior performance to competitive lenses from the other major manufacturers.

It feels very well-constructed - what does ‘SP’ mean in terms of build and design?

Tamron always tries to make unique lenses making a lens as compact as possible, or as lightweight as possible – and sometimes we trade off certain specifications to achieve that such as focal length, aperture range, or image quality. But with SP lenses we don’t do that. We just want to make a really high-performance lens with superior performance. We don’t want any compromises.

Is the weather-resistance different?

It is the same as other lenses described as having 'Moisture-Resistant Construction'.

35-150mm is an unusual focal length range - can you explain this decision?

We see a lot of demand from portrait and wedding photographers, and wedding photographers. Especially in the US and Asia. They mostly use prime lenses like 85mm, 105mm or 135mm - single focal lengths. We wanted to make a very convenient lens that could cover from 35 to 150mm, which is the range mostly used for portraiture.

Effectively, this is six prime lenses in one

There are two popular focal length ranges - 24-70mm and 70-200mm, and usually people will take those two lenses when they shoot. We wanted to only make one lens. So while 200mm is maybe too long [for portrait photographers] and 24mm is too wide, 35-150mm allowed us to make the lens as compact as possible. Effectively, this is six prime lenses in one.

On an APS-C camera this lens will cover 56-240mm, do you anticipate that a lot of APS-C shooters will buy this lens?

Our primary goal is to cover the most popular focal lengths for full-frame. And by having 85mm in the middle of the range, which is the most popular focal length for portraiture, [that’s where] MTF is highest.

What is the maximum aperture at 85mm?

F3.5.

The Tamron 35-150mm F2.8-4 Di VC OSD offers an unusual focal length range, intended to incorporated the major prime lens focal lengths used by portrait photographers.

Are you confident that performance is a match for high quality primes?

Yes. And the bokeh effect is really soft and natural.

When you design a lens that you intend to be used for portraiture, what does that mean from an optical design standpoint?

When we make portrait lenses, we focus on very natural bokeh together with high resolution. Those factors are really difficult to achieve at the same time, but with this lens we’re really concentrating on that. Sharp, high contrast from the center to the edge together with a very natural bokeh effect. Those two factors are really important.

The 17-28mm F2.8 Di III RXD is the second of your full-frame Sony E-mount lenses - do you have plans for more?

Yes of course. People really want a telephoto zoom to cover focal lengths longer than 75mm. We’re looking [into] that.

Do you have plans to create lenses for Canon RF and Nikon Z?

Yes, we’re also looking at that area. We have to do a lot of research and development into the reverse engineering, because they don’t disclose the details of their systems, so it’s a really hard job for us.

There are now four main full-frame mirrorless systems with different mount dimensions. Will you make completely different designs for the different mounts?

Each system has a different flange back distance and diameter. We need to do more research to see if we can use the same optical designs for the different mounts. But basically our approach will be the same as it is for DSLR. When we launch DSLR lenses we have the same optical design, and we customize for the different mounts. Even if the systems are totally different we’ll try to make a unified optical design.

If we design optics for a long flange back, we can adapt them for short flange back systems. It doesn’t work the other way around.

Tamron's new 17-28mm F2.8 Di III RXD is the second of the company's lenses designed for Sony's full-frame mirrorless cameras. Slated to be available in the coming weeks, it will be joined by a third FE lens, covering the 75mm+ range, at some point in the future.

How important is APS-C to Tamron?

APS-C is still important to us, but when we think about the [industry], the full-frame market is expanding, so we’re looking at that market first - that’s the first priority. So gradually we’ll create a [full-frame] line and then at another time we can launch more APS-C lenses. The APS-C market is shrinking quite fast.

Do you think that will change?

It might stop shrinking, but we’re looking at customers who buy APS-C cameras, and they tend to have a single zoom kit and they don’t [tend to] invest in additional lenses.

What do you think differentiates Tamron from other lens manufacturers?

Our target is those photographers who really want to enjoy photography with a lightweight and compact [package]. We introduced the FE 28-75mm f2.8 for Sony E-mount, which is really compact and matches the Sony cameras really nicely for size and weight. This lens is selling quite well, and we’re backordered for six months.

Tamron always tries to give photographers another solution

Other manufacturers are making very big lenses with high resolution and wide apertures, but people are struggling to carry such heavy lenses. They can’t take a lot of them when they’re out shooting. Tamron always tries to give photographers another solution. Lenses that are compact, with very high quality, but maybe a slightly different spec. Like this 17-28mm F2.8 Di III RXD, it’s a different solution - you can see the really compact size of this lens. Our aim is to provide another solution to our customers.

In a compact lens of this kind, how much are you relying on software correction?

We utilize software corrections in the camera body, but even without correction this lens will still give good performance. Of course this lens will let a Sony camera correct some things, but it offers a very high level of quality. We checked pictures from the lens, without any corrections, and the picture quality is very good. The quality only gets better with corrections from the camera body. We’re very confident [in its performance].


Editors' note: Barnaby Britton

The 'SP' lineup is 40 years old, and even if you forgot its birthday, Tamron's engineers didn't. According to the executives that I spoke to, the new SP 35mm F1.4 is, to all intents and purposes, a special 40th anniversary lens. A 'no compromise' design intended to take on, and beat, the best that the company's competitors can offer.

Although I've only spent a few minutes handling a pre-production sample, that was enough to whet my appetite. We're hoping to get hold of a final copy soon, so watch out for some sample images the minute we do. The large, heavyweight SP 35mm F1.4 doesn't seem to quite fit with the company's 'compact' lenses philosophy, but we'll let Tamron's engineers off this time - it is a birthday, after all.

Also coming soon is the 35-150mm F2.8-4, at first glance a somewhat odd lens that I, like a lot of people, I suspect, originally assumed was designed for APS-C when it was announced earlier this year. On the contrary, this is a full-frame lens, specifically designed to replace the most common focal lengths for portrait photographers. We're told that in the middle of its range, around 85mm, it should deliver an optimal combination of sharpness and attractive bokeh for portraiture. Tamron has made lenses of this kind before - the ancient Adaptall-2 35-135mm F3.5-4.5 and its subsequent variants was pretty well-regarded, but the 35-150mm appears to be a much more specialized lens.

The APS-C market is shrinking, and Tamron would be irresponsible to pour resources into a contracting market

My question about whether Tamron expected APS-C users to be interested in its 56-240mm equivalent focal length was given polite consideration, but it was obvious from this conversation that the company is focused elsewhere: on full-frame. The APS-C market is shrinking, and Tamron would be irresponsible to pour significant resources into developing lenses for a contracting market. The audience for lenses designed for full-frame mirrorless, on the other hand, is guaranteed to grow over the coming years. With two FE lenses for Sony already on the market, it was reassuring to hear from Tamron's executives that longer focal lengths are being planned, to round out the lineup.

Next, of course, will be reverse-engineering lenses for the Canon RF and Nikon Z mounts (it seems unlikely that Tamron will bother with L-mount given Sigma's head start as a member of the alliance). In our conversation, Tamron's executives reinforced what we've been told by other optical engineers (including Sigma's Kazuto Yamaki) that designing for a longer flange back distance and adapting that design to shorter mounts is the only practical way to create one optical formula for several mounts. As such, it seems possible that before too long, the popular Sony FE-mount 28-75mm F2.8 might form the basis of new standard zooms for Canon and Nikon mirrorless.

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