I’m kind of a big fan of Canon and Nikon’s long glass. More than once I’ve taken either Nikon’s 800mm or 600mm lenses with a fast body, or Canon’s 600mm. On these occasions my subjects are usually birds and often birds in flight, as they tend to challenge even the best gear out there.
This time I chose to take out something a little more budget-friendly and less bulky: the Tamron 150–600mm f/5–6.3 Di VC USD lens in the Nikon mount. The following is my impression of the quality of this lens.
Tamron’s past lenses have felt somewhat chintzy to me in the past. I own an old 28–75mm lens that had the fit and finish of a cheap kit lens. I’d come to associate them with lenses of that sort; inexpensive, plasticky, and far from high-end.
Like Sigma, however, Tamron seems to be working through a bit of a reinvention. Their 24–70mm f/2.8 lens is still the only lens covering that focal length and maximum aperture with optical image stabilization made by any manufacturer. It’s actually an optically sound piece of glass with a far better build quality than I’d expected.
The 150–600mm lens has a similarly surprising solidity and heft to it. Gone are the creaks and clicks I remember from my brief encounter with their 200mm–500mm lens; this one feels solid enough to almost feel like a Sigma lens — and I mean that as a compliment.
The barrel is plastic with a slightly textured finish, while the focus and zoom rings are ridged rubber. Both rings move smoothly and firmly; they feel neither loose nor too stiff. The front element of the lens does move in and out as you zoom, increasing its length by an additional 2/3 or so, and it comes with a hood that clips on pretty securely with a push button to release it from a locked position.
Towards the back of the lens are the switches for image stabilization on/off, autofocus distance, and focus modes. There’s also a window for a range readout. A lock switch keeps the lens from extending/creeping due to gravity and it must be disengaged to zoom in.
The Tamron also comes with a tripod collar that has a single 1/4″ mounting hole in it so you can drop this onto a tripod. It secures easily with a quick twist of the locking knob in just about any position. I spun it to the right and mounted it on a mini gimbal head; it was a bit top-heavy when fully extended but worked just fine.
This lens is nowhere nearly as heavy as a full-sized 600mm f/4 lens, being a fraction of the size. I was able to hand-hold it for short amounts of time but it was best when I rested it on something, like a retaining wall, fence post, or the window of my car. The 4.3 lbs will make itself known after a while, so don’t expect to lug this around all day around your neck.
Let’s be really, really clear about what this lens is not: It is not a replacement or a substitute for professionals who are used to using the pro-level 600mm f/4 prime lenses. Neither is it a lens you should expect to be sharp wide open at 600mm. In fact, “wide open” (which refers to keeping the aperture open to its widest setting) is a relative term for this lens. It’s pretty slow at f/6.3 at the 600mm focal length so it’s best to have a camera with decent high-ISO performance.
What this lens is, what it’s all about, is reach at an affordable price point. Starting at a rental price (as of this writing) of just $49 for 3 days, it’s the most affordable optic we carry that goes out to 600mm. It does so without much fanfare or mind-blowing sharpness but, when combined with the right camera, it can get you very, very, very close to your subject.
I used a Nikon D7200 for this test as that is in the class of camera most people are likely to use with a lens like this. It has some pretty solid high-ISO performance and I shot primarily around ISO 800 and above to keep my shutter speed high enough to freeze birds in flight, my favorite subject when testing a lens like this. It also has a snappy autofocus system and I knew from past experience with it and the Nikon 80–400mm lens that the limiting factor for AF speed and accuracy would be the lens, not the camera.
So, how did this lens perform in the wild?
Surprisingly well, actually.
These days, any lens will do a good job of autofocusing when shooting a stationary object, so I didn’t spend a lot of time testing for that. What few stationary birds I photographed came out nice and sharp; the lens locks on pretty quickly and accurately. I did encounter a few instances when using the Nikon’s 3-D autofocus system where the unit locked onto the body of a bird instead of its eye, but switching to a more conventional 21-AF-point cluster in the center of the frame solved that quickly. In fact, I spend most of my time with that configuration, finding it to be the most effective.
The real test of a lens in this scenario comes when challenging its ability to perform continuous autofocus on moving subjects and that’s where the Tamron is a bit of a mixed bag.
The lens occasionally had some difficulty getting the initial lock onto a moving subject. More often than not, it did get locked on but when it failed, it hunted quite a bit. At those times, it was simpler for me to focus on something stationary or rotate the focus ring manually to get it back into the focal range of my subject.
When it did lock on to a subject, however, it stayed locked on pretty consistently. I was actually surprised by this, as I expected performance in that area to be a lot worse.
That’s not to say that it never lost a subject — it did, especially when the subject moved in front of a busy background, but those occasions were relatively few.
The lens did a much better job of locking and staying locked on to birds in flight if they were moving across the frame (left-to-right or right-to-let) but tended to have a tougher time when trying to track subjects moving towards or away from the camera. The Nikon 80–400mm lens, for example, had a much easier time of it, especially when I switched to the D7200’s 3-D focus mode, so I suspect this is one of those cases where a third-party lens doesn’t communicate as effectively with the camera as a first-party one. Still, I was pleasantly surprised and would absolutely take this lens out for casual shooting again.
With regards to optical performance, to put it bluntly, the lens is sharpest at 150mm and gets progressively worse as you zoom in. That being said, “worse” is a relative term; at 600mm, I had plenty of shots that were acceptably sharp. As I mentioned earlier, this lens is all about reach at an affordable price point; if you want fantastic optical performance across the frame, you need to step up to one of the aforementioned “big guns.”
Since I used it on a crop-sensor camera, I didn’t really see any vignetting or a lot of distortion; if you’re shooting with a full frame body, you’re likely to see more of that.
Honestly, for what this lens does, I’m a tad surprised at how sharp some of the images can be, as you can see in the shot above.
The Really Fun Part
Matching this lens with the right camera can lead to some pretty nice results and can give you the kind of reach that puts a wide grin on your face.
In my tests, I used a Nikon D7200. The crop sensor on this camera automatically turned this lens into a 900mm lens on the long end of the zoom. But that’s not all.
The D7200 has a “crop” mode that uses the central part of the sensor for imaging and adds an additional 1.3x crop factor to the lens’ focal length. So, what you end up with is a lens that’s almost 1200mm on the long end. You lose resolution, as the camera drops down to about 12MP from 24, but 12MP isn’t anything to sneeze at given just how close this lens can get you.
The Tamron 150–600mm isn’t the sharpest optic you can get at 600mm on the long end. It’s not the quickest to autofocus and it’s not the most accurate at tracking a fast-moving subject.
That said, the Tamron is definitely something I would take out again if I got the urge for a bit of casual bird photography. This is a lens you can actually get really solid results from — better than the 200–500mm any day — and it’s one you can actually carry around on a strap (tip – attach a plate to the tripod foot of the lens that you can then attach a strap to), unlike the Nikon 600mm f/4 or one of the other “big guns.” The reach of this lens i unlike most other things in our inventory at this price point and size and, honestly, a bit of careful anticipation and planning can really go a long way towards mitigating some of its shortcomings.