Tamron Lenses 101: A Cheaper Alternative Without the Sacrifice
Tamron lenses are a great alternative to expensive glass. Here's why.
We previously highlighted the cine and photography Sigma lens lines, which got us thinking about other budget-friendly glass. Tamron immediately came to mind as its SP series aim to compete optically with Canon L and Nikon NIKKOR ED lenses with significant savings.
Tamron's lens story dates back to the 1950s, when the company developed a 135mm f/4.5 for the 35mm single-lens reflex cameras. Then, in 1961, Tamron introduced a 95-205mm f/6.3, an affordable telephoto zoom lens, to make a splash in the market next to Zeiss, Cooke, Canon, and others. (The first zoom lens was patented in 1902 by Clile C. Allen; the first non-telescopic complex zoom lens for cinematography was the Bell & Howell Cooke Varo 40-120mm.)
Recently, Tamron announced two new lenses: the SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 and the 18-400mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC HLD. Below, we break down the current offerings and tell you what all the "Di," "VC," and "USD" is all about.
Tamron offers primes, macros, telephotos, wide-angles, fast zooms, and all-in-one-zooms, covering many different sensor sizes. For the sake of brevity, we won't dive into any discontinued (or video surveillance) models, so while you're reading, be sure to note the publishing date.
Tamron uses "Di" to denote the lens series which is also linked to sensor size. Currently, there are three: Di, Di II, and Di III.
- Di: "Digitally Integrated" for full-frame and APS-C
- Di II: "Digitally Integrated" for APC-S sensors
- Di III: "Digitally Integrated" for full-frame, APS-C, and Micro Four Thirds sensors
Before looking at each series, let's define the functional features and lens elements.
SP: Short for "Superior Performance," these are Tamron's top-of-the-line lenses developed with high-resolution standards in mind. SP lenses look to compete with similar Canon and Nikon lenses and have been redesigned from the core, providing improved optical performance, functionality, and handling over previous iterations. The SP lenses can cover full-frame or APC-S sensors and are encased in a robust barrel frame with smart switch locations, intuitive response, smooth mechanical operation, and balanced barrel-weight proportions.
G2: "Generation 2" lenses feature a redesign with improved optical performance, faster autofocus, better image stabilization, metal barrels, improved weather sealing and other features like TAP-in Console, Flex Zoom Lock, Flourine, coating and optional teleconverters. If you see G2 in the name, it's Tamron's next generation of lenses with upgraded optics and a sleeker design.
VC: "Vibration Compensation," in simple terms, helps reduce image blur caused by camera shake. Tamron's VC uses a tri-axial configuration to compensate for camera shake occurring diagonally, up and down, and side to side.
Lenses will either have a single VC mode or a multiple VC mode like the SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2, allowing you to choose between three different settings.
- VC Mode 1: The standard mode that strikes a balance between the stability of the viewfinder image and the stabilization effects.
- VC Mode 2: Exclusively used for panning.
- VC Mode 3: Prioritizes the stabilization of the captured images and forgoes the stabilization of the viewfinder image.
The multiple VC mode is still "based on the same three-coil mechanism that activates the lens group electromagnetically through three steel balls," but it reverses the position of the magnet and connects the lens to the coils for a lighter, more efficient lens.
Based on image stabilization performance levels established the CIPA (Camera & Imaging Products Association), Tamron says that while in VC Mode 3, the lens effectiveness is equivalent to 4.5 stops.
MPU: "Micro-processing Unit(s)" can be found on lenses like the SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 to help signal processing and improve Vibration Compensation for better autofocus performance. The dedicated MPU gives the lens its multiple VC mode.
HLD: "High/Low torque-modulated Drive" is an autofocus system you'll find on lenses like the 18-400mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC. It provides accurate and fast focus, quietly, while adjusting the motor's rotation from low to high for smooth autofocusing. With HLD, you can manually focus without needing to switch from auto to manual mode.
USD: "Ultrasonic Silent Drive" is another Tamron autofocus system. The ring-type motor employs a piezoelectric ceramic element to generate two high-frequency ultrasonic vibrations on the motor’s stator ring for fast, near noiseless autofocus. Like HLD, it allows for manual focus adjustments without switching modes. You'll find USD mainly on its full-frame line.
PZD: The "Piezo Drive" is an ultrasonic autofocus motor system based on piezoelectric technology. Small and light, it provides fast and quiet autofocus. Like HDL/USD, it, too, allows for manual focus adjustments without switching modes.
A quick explanation on Tamron's autofocus systems: The PZD and USD were introduced in 2010 and HLD in 2016. Both PZD and USD share similar accuracy and speed. In practice, because of its design and use with smaller zoom and compact lenses, PZD is faster. USD is generally used for larger lenses. The HLD uses an entirely different autofocus system from the USD and PZD but retains pinpoint accuracy.
IF: "Internal Focusing System" is a lens that does not change length or rotate while focusing. Since the lens is moving only some of the elements, these lenses tend to be faster-focusing.
FZL: Not to be confused with Zoom Lock, "Flex Zoom Lock" is a mechanism that locks or unlocks the zoom at a focal length by sliding the zoom ring.
ZL: "Zoom Lock" is a switch that prevents unwanted barrel extension during transportation.
MOD: The "Minimum Object Distance" is how far the image can still be in focus.
1:1: 1:1 magnification.
TAP-in Console: This functionality allows for USB connectivity to update firmware and customize features, like autofocus adjustment of the lens on your computer.
eBAND: "Extended Bandwidth and Angular-Dependency" is a coating that uses nano-structured layers to suppress regular anti-reflection and angulated incident rays.
BBAR: A multi-coating, "Broad-Band Anti-Reflection" helps eliminate ghosting and flares that can occur when photographing backlit subjects while increasing light transmission in both longer and shorter wavelengths.
Fluorine: A coating that repels water and dirt (and makes it easier to remove smudges, as well).
AD: "Anomalous Dispersion" is a type of optical glass used to achieve more precise control of chromatic aberrations.
LD: "Low Dispersion" lens elements reduce axial chromatic aberrations.
XLD: "Extra Low Dispersion" is like LD, but more advanced. Found in telephoto lenses, it compensates for axial chromatic aberration and magnification aberration throughout the entire zoom range.
XR: "Extra Refractive Index" is glass found in more compact lenses that balance size and aberration control. XR glass reduces the lens diameter and size for the same focal length with maximum F-stops.
UXR: "Ultra-Extra Refractive Index" is the same technology as XR, but more advanced and more compact.
XGM: "Expanded Glass Molded Aspherical" are lens elements to control aberrations and enhance sharpness.
GM: Similar to XGM, "Glass-molded aspherical" help control transverse chromatic aberrations that can be an issue in wide-angle glass.
Now that we have some basic terminology down, let's look at each individual series. Most Tamron lenses are available for Canon EF and Nikon F mounts with options for Sony Alpha series (no VC) and Pentax cameras. We made note of those in each line. Additionally, G2 lenses can be used with a Tamron Teleconverter to increase the focal length by a factor of 1.4x or 2.0x.
- 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di VC PZD (Canon, Nikon, Sony)
- SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD (Canon, Nikon, Sony)
- SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 (Canon, Nikon)
- SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD (Canon, Nikon, Sony)
- SP 28-75mm f/2.8 XR Di LD Aspherical (Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax)
- SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 (Canon, Nikon)
- SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD (Canon, Nikon, Sony)
- SP AF70-200mm f/2.8 Di LD [IF] MACRO (Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax)
- SP 35mm f/1.8 Di VC USD (Canon, Nikon, Sony)
- SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC USD (Canon, Nikon, Sony)
- SP 85mm f/1.8 Di VC USD (Canon, Nikon, Sony)
- SP 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD (Canon, Nikon, Sony)
- 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di LD (Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax)
- SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 (Canon, Nikon, Sony)
- SP 150-600mm f/5.6-6.3 Di VC USD (Canon, Nikon, Sony)
- SP 90mm F/2.8 Di MACRO 1:1 VC USD (Canon, Nikon, Sony)
Di II Series
- 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC (Canon, Nikon, Sony)
- 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD MACRO (Canon, Nikon, Sony)
- 18-400mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC HLD (Canon, Nikon)
- 18-270mm f/3.5-6/3 Di II VC PZD (Canon, Nikon, Sony)
- SP 17-50mm f/2.8 Di II VC (Canon, Nikon)
- SP 17-50mm f/2.8 Di II LD (Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax)
- 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 Di II VC HLD (Canon, Nikon)
- SP 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 Di II LD Aspherical [IF] (Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax)
- SP AF60mm f/2 Di II LD [IF] MACRO 1:1 (Canon, Nikon, Sony)
- SP 180mm f/3.5 Di LD 1:1 MACRO (Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax)
Di III Series
- 14-150mm f/3.5-5.8 Di III
- 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 Di III VC (Canon, Sony)
As you can see, Tamron currently has three G2 lenses, with more to be released in the future. While Tamron doesn't have an extensive line of full-frame primes, it carries an abundance of fast zooms if you're a Canon, Nikon, or Sony user.
You can also see the trend of lens creators leaning towards full-frame options and beyond as a starting point. If you're interested in watching reviews, Scott Dumas has a great one for SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2. FStoppers also has one comparing Tamron with Nikon lenses.
What are your favorite lenses? Let us know in the comments.