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Lenses and Optics

Tamron 150-600 Telezoom Shootout

Published January 19, 2014

There’s been a lot of interest in the newly released Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 SP Di VC USD lens. (For those wondering what the initials mean, VC means vibration compensation, the others all read ‘marketing drivel’.) But meaningless initials or not, with a price under $1,100, a superior range, and vibration compensation, this lens has created a lot of excitement.

Recently, the good people at Imatest have developed an ultra-high resolution, backlit chart printed on photographic film that is perfect for testing long telephoto lenses in the lab. The combination of a new, cool Imatest setup and a new, cool lens proved irresistible, so we decided to compare the new Tamron with the older Tamron 200-500mm, Sigma 50-500mm OS, and Canon 100-400mm IS lenses.

 

One important note: this is a higher resolution type of chart than the printed charts generally used for Imatest work (if you’re into geeky stuff, there’s an addendum about this at the end of the article).  We haven’t done enough comparisons to say exactly how much it increases Imatest MTF50 numbers (it’s not a linear kind of thing) but it does to some degree. So don’t take today’s numbers, compare them to one of our previous tests, and say something dumb like “Roger showed the Tamron 150-600 is sharper than the Canon 70-200 f/2.8”. Different tests mean different data ranges. 

One other note: I am totally aware that 713 of you have suggestions for further testing. Heck, I have suggestions for further testing. But we won’t be able to do further testing on this group anytime soon. This kind of stuff is incredibly time consuming and right now our repair department has larger priorities.

Meet the Contestants

 

Left to right: Canon 100-400mm IS, Tamron 200-500mm, Sigma 50-500 OS, Tamron 150-600mm VC

 

Tale of the Tape:

  Tamron 200-500 Tamron 150-600 Canon 100-400 Sigma 50-500
Price$950$1070$1700$1510
Weight (lb.)2.724.33.044.33
Length (inches)8.910.157.48.6
Filter Size mm86957795
min. focus dist. (ft)8.28.95.91.64

Telephoto zooms are not small lenses, so size and weight are important considerations. Two lenses, the Canon 100-400 IS and Tamron 200-500, weigh about 3 pounds while the Sigma and Tamron 150-600 are well over 4 pounds. That’s critical for some people.

For those who might want to shoot with a filter on, the Sigma and the Tamron 150-600 require expensive 95mm filters, while the Canon uses more reasonably priced 77mm filters. Probably the most important difference to most people, however, is the price, and the Tamrons are clearly less expensive.

Testing

We only received three copies of the Tamron 150-600mm today. Quick testing showed they were all well centered with little sample variation. We tested two of those lenses against two copies of each of the other lenses (which had previously been tested and found to be well-centered copies well within the ‘normal’ range for those lenses). We followed our usual Imatest protocols with the exception that the new backlit film chart was used in this test.

One word about focal length scales: when we set up Imatest we set the lens to a focal length, then position the lens-tripod combination to a distance that fills the camera frame with the test chart. At 200mm and 400mm three of the lenses agreed they were at 200 and 400mm, but the Sigma 50-500 read as 210mm and 420mm at those same shooting distances.

I had planned to just test the lenses wide open, but that, too, presents a problem. At 200mm, for example, the Canon and both Tamrons are at f/5 wide open, while the Sigma is f/5.6. At 400mm the Sigma is at f/6.3 wide open, while the others are all f/5.6. To level the playing field, we repeated the tests with the other lenses stopped down to the same aperture as the Sigma. The half stop does make a difference in MTF50 readings.

MTF 50 at 200mm

  Center MTF 50 Avg MTF 50
Tamron 150-600 (f/5)895745
Tamron 200-500 (f/5)715510
Canon 100-400 (f/5)980780
Sigma 50-500 (f/5.6)980780
Tamron 150-600 (f/5.6)980810
Canon 100-400 (f/5.6)1010850

The takeaway message is the Tamron 200-500mm lens clearly doesn’t resolve as well as the other three lenses at 200mm. That’s not shocking, it’s 1) a much older design and 2) working at its widest focal length while none of the others are at the extreme end of their zoom range here.

The other three lenses are in the same ballpark. The new Tamron 150-600 may not be quite as sharp at pixel-peeping resolutions when all are wide open, but put them all at f/5.6 (where the Sigma is wide open) the three lenses are nearly identical. The Canon’s numbers are a bit higher, but the difference is probably not significant enough to notice in a photograph.

MTF 50 at 400mm

  Center MTF 50 Avg MTF 50
Tamron 150-600 (f/5.6)945840
Tamron 200-500 (f/5.6)795665
Canon 100-400 (f/5.6)945835
Sigma 50-500 (f/6.3)780640
Tamron 150-600 (f/6.3)975840
Canon 100-400 (f/6.3)1000870

At this focal length the Sigma 50-500 OS appears to be fading compared to the other lenses, which surprised me at first. We repeated the test with several more copies of the Sigma, though, and the results were consistent.

I had not seen this drop off at 400mm in previous Sigma tests, although it was clearly present at 500mm. I think the reason for the difference is when previously testing the Sigma, we tested at 400mm according to the lens. In this test, the Sigma was set at 420mm so that it matched the field of view that the other lenses have at 400mm. I assume the fall off occurs right after 400mm on the Sigma lens.

(Each Imatest run at a given focal length requires a complete teardown and new setup, so it’s a very time consuming matter to check at 400mm, 420mm, 450mm, etc.)

The bottom line, though, is at 400mm the Tamron 150-600 VC and Canon 100-400 IS are virtually identical, with the Tamron 200-500 and Sigma 50-500 a bit behind. Let’s keep it in perspective, though, both the Sigma and Tamron 200-500 are still very good at 400mm.

As an aside, because I expect it will come up in discussions, there are a number of people on the internet who say their Canon 100-400 isn’t as sharp at 400mm as it is at shorter focal lengths. My experience is this usually means a slightly decentered front element. Good copies are equally sharp throughout the zoom range.

MTF 50 at 600mm

There’s only one contestant here, obviously  — we just wanted to compare the Tamron’s results at the extreme end to the rest of the range. And let’s be realistic: at 600mm and f/8 technique is going to have a lot more to do with how good the images look than the MTF 50 data generated in a lab. Yeah, I know you have a great image taken hand-held at 600mm and f/8 with 1/150 shutter speeds. One time I dropped my camera, the shutter went off when it hit, and it made a great macro of the bottom of a dandelion.

There’s no question that resolution drops off at the extreme telephoto end of the zoom range, as shown below. A number of photographers have noted the same thing, but have shown 600mm resolution is much better at f/8.

 

 

Realistically, though, the fact that a zoom reaches a true 600mm focal length at all is rather amazing. Sure, the resolution drops off a bit there, but no other zoom gets there at all.

Summary

I don’t do resolution testing at telephoto range very often. The new Imatest equipment certainly makes it possible, but in general I don’t find it particularly useful. Working at these focal lengths the lens’ MTF just isn’t as important as real-world variables (atmosphere, tripod support, photographic technique, etc.). Additionally, testing the lenses at lab distances (13 to 30 feet depending upon focal length) may give slightly different results than would be seen if we could test the lenses at longer distances.

On the other hand, those real world variables tend to make looking at posted images confusing. Each of the lenses we tested today have many soft and many sharp images posted online. Technique, lighting, atmospheric conditions and a host of other variables create a lot of variation. So I think lab testing does give some worthwhile information and confirmation.

My summary would be that the selection between a Tamron 150-600, Canon 100-400 IS, and Sigma 50-500 OS should be made on criteria other than MTF 50. There are some minor differences in resolution, but nothing that makes one clearly better than another. Price, weight, autofocus accuracy, effectiveness of vibration compensation, and a number of other factors (did I mention price?) are more important considerations when choosing among these lenses.

It’s pretty obvious that the Tamron has both 600mm range and the lowest price. These tests, and everything I see from photographers using the lens in the field, support that it’s of at least equal image quality. Some people will prefer the extra wide range of the Sigma, others the lighter weight of the Canon. But for a lot of people, the Tamron is going to be the best bang for the buck.

One note for Nikon shooters: I’m sorry I won’t have time to run the same tests on Nikon cameras when the Nikon mount is released. However, the new Nikon 80-400 AF-S zoom is, as near as we can tell, equivalent to the Canon 100-400 IS as far as resolution goes, so you should be able to extrapolate pretty easily.

 

Roger Cicala and Aaron Closz

Lensrentals.com

January, 2014

 

Addendum: About Imatest Charts

I’ve been using Imatest for several years. Lots of reviewers and testers do, too. I’ve written before about why Imatest numbers are different among different testers. In the last year, or so, though, I’ve become more aware that there’s another difference I hadn’t appreciated before — the quality of the charts used when obtaining the images for Imatest analysis.

Back when I started using Imatest a 12-megapixel camera was the norm, and 16 megapixels nearly the maximum. Now we’re testing 36 megapixel cameras on lenses that are immensely better than anything we had a decade ago. But a lot of people are still testing on charts printed on 300 DPI inkjet printers while others test using higher resolution, professionally printed charts. More recently, Imatest has developed even higher resolution transmissive film charts, although they aren’t being used by many testers.

 

Magnfication of inkjet test chart (upper left) compared to film transparency charts (upper right and lower left). Image courtesy Imatest: http://www.imatest.com/2013/09/transmissive-chart-quality-comparison/

 

The chart type doesn’t make much difference when testing average quality lenses on 16 megapixel cameras. It probably does make a difference testing highest quality lenses on 36 megapixel cameras.

I should mention, too, that Imatest is sensitive to the lighting used – it’s important to keep the lighting similar with every test run if you want equivalent results. Transparency charts obviously have different lighting than reflective charts.

For all of these reasons, results testing a lens using a reflective chart and a transmissive film are going to be slightly different. The difference should be greater with higher resolution cameras and the best lenses, but there will be some difference with even more routine equipment.

We have to test hundreds of lenses on both types of charts before we will feel we can convert between the two charts with some degree of accuracy. Until we do that, we can’t directly compare numbers from a test run on a film transparency chart with numbers from a test run with a reflective chart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Lensrentals.com. Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Lenses and Optics
  • The fall from 500mm to 600mm seems huge. So much so that I would guess than a crop from a 500mm image will look slightly sharper than the 600mm image.

  • Peter

    Roger,

    I tried to follow your advice on how to take a macro photo of the bottom of a dandelion. I dropped my D4 about a dozen times in a flower field, without the desired results. I even tried changing the perspective control on my 45mm f/2.8. Could you please advise about your technique in more detail? I’m really not getting the results you suggested.

    Thanks for your help,

    Peter

  • Roger Cicala

    Jesse and Stever, I won’t be comparing with the Sigma 150-500 because we dropped that lens a couple of years ago. Too much variation and too many soft copies – but even the good copies just weren’t that good.

  • Roger Cicala

    Steve, it was wide open. Roger

  • Roger Cicala

    Sanjeev, for me I’d be waiting to see reports of how well it autofocuses on subjects similar to what I shoot. If you’re a BIF shooter, for example, AF speed and accuracy might be far more critical than a bit more reach.

  • Sanjeev

    Dear Roger,
    Thanks for this excellent article and test. I have the 100-400 L and the 500 II L lens and have been very happy with them. I was keenly waiting for this test and was hoping to sell the 100-400 and get the Tam 150-600 but after your results, I think I might just hold on to the 100-400 L :-)What is your take on it? Keep the 100-400 L ?
    Cheers,
    Sanjeev

  • Richard

    Great info!! Any comments on how the bokeh compared?

  • Mount Spokane Photography

    Thanks for a good review.

    The one question in my mind, is how my 100-400L with 1.4X TC compares to the Tamron at f/8. I wouldn’t expect it to be as good, but how close?? Of course, a 1.4 TC on the Tamron makes it 840mm and a 2X on my lens is not all that wonderful.

  • Moonlight Knight
  • Steve

    Roger

    Your performing of these tests are much appreciated. Just wanted to verify, the test of 600mm was wide open, at f/6.3?

    If so, it would be interesting to see the comparable test results of 600mm at f/7.1 and f/8 at a future date when you’re workload allows (suggestor #714).

    Thanks
    Steve

  • Stever

    for a while I owned both the Tamron 200-500 and the Canon 100-400 and shot with Canon 20D and 40D. the 100-400 was reliably good for 13×19 prints wide open – the 200-500 was marginal at best, with 500mm not really useable. with the lack of IS the use was very limited so I sold it a while ago – and have continued to be satisfied with the 100-400.

    From the data, the 150-600 should be an alternative to the 100-400, but unless it really is a lot better stopped down to f8 at 600mm it might best be considered a well-priced 150-500. the 100-400 is significantly better at f8 also, and shooting with the 5D3 makes this possible much more often.

  • A different Jesse

    I understand what you said about making suggestions for further tests. But I was really looking forward to a comparison with the Sigma 150-500. It’s comparatively priced and the shots I’ve seen on google image search and flickr have been a lot nicer than those I’ve seen from this Tamron lens.

    They seem sharper clearer and seem to have nicer color. But of course they could have been improved with photoshop while the tamron samples people have been posting have been streight from camera.

    The easiest solution to this would be to post a link to a comparison between the Sigma 150-500 and the OTHER lenses in this test.

  • Max

    Roger, how did the materials I sent you work out? Max

  • Seth

    Minor nitpick: You’ve got two great comparison shots of the four lenses, and then a nice chart showing some of the specs – in a completely different order (arranged by price point). Makes it hard to do the ol’ visual association between lens and spec.

  • Roger Cicala

    JRM and Jesse, one thing that images online seem to demonstrate very well is the Tamron at 600mm and f/8 is much, much sharper than it is wide open. I regret not testing it there but literally by the time we finished the last images at 600mm they were waiting on us to lock up the building so I had to quit.

    Roger

  • Roger Cicala

    Lorenzo, I will be testing it under similar conditions when time allows as we set up the database for the new chart, but I do expect the numerical values will be better with the backlit chart on the D800 for certain.

    As a lens I find the Canon 100-400 and new Nikon 80-400 very close – but the resolution of the D800 should also give higher numbers with either the 80-400 or the new Tamron.

  • Roger Cicala

    Florent, I can tell you that with both the m4/3 lenses they are not close to this. Not a system limitation, those lenses just aren’t very sharp at the long end when tested. As an m4/3 shooter I can also verify it’s true in the field. After some extensive testing, I found cropping a Canon 100-400 shot on a 6D was superior to either of the m4/3 lenses.

  • Roger, thanks a lot for this article. Very informative!
    Regarding budget 600mm zoom lenses, is there a chance you would include the Panasonic 100-300 and Oly 75-300 mk2 in your comparison chart?
    I’m perfectly aware we are talking MFT here and not full frame, but I’d still be interested in knowing how they fare at 300mm compared to the Tamron at 600mm.
    Thanks!

  • Lorenzo

    Could we get a look at the new Nikon 80-400G under the same test procedure? I’d really like to see how it compares to this company at both 200 and 400mm. The previous test results from the 80-400 comparison with the 70-200 plus 2x tc suggests that the 80-400 is not quite as sharp as the the lenses in this test (with the exception of the 200-500). Does the backlit chart cause a difference in readings?

    Thanks, and keep up the great work!

  • Alan Lillich

    Thank you Roger and Aaron for this timely and very helpful post!

  • Jesse

    If you crop an image, does the MTF50 drop proportionality? I would assume it does since it is lines per picture height?
    Anyway, by the chart above it appears that the 150-600 has the highest lines of resolution on a subject at 500, with 600 having a little less than 400 due to the steep falloff.
    Net is you may be better off limiting yourself to 500 and cropping a bit more…

  • Tony

    I hear you – speaking of endless chain of initials – this is from my Tamron 70-300 review on Amazon: “Tamron 70-300 f4-5.6 Di VC USD XLD PhD LSD M-O-U-S-E (sorry, I couldn’t help myself)”

  • JRM

    A question, please. There are two ways to get to a 600mm final image on the Tamron. A) shoot at 600mm. B) shoot at 500mm, then crop the result. Given the drop in resolution at 600, would a cropped 500 be better/the same/worse/much worse than the 600? Does the answer depend on the pixel density of the body?

    Also, unfortunately you didn’t do a full test at 500 (so little time! so many demands from strangers!). Any speculation, would a lens going only to 500, and thus perhaps having its own resolution drop off compared to 400, be worse than the Tamron at 500?

  • Roger Cicala

    I know, Christopher, I just tire of the endless chain of initials.

  • Christopher

    Roger, may I respectfully point out that the USD in the lens’ name isn’t marketing drivel – it stands for UltraSonic Drive, Tamron’s equivalent of Canon’s USM or Sigma’s HSM.

  • Bryan Stone

    Roger
    Thank you for all this hard work. Very useful.

  • Tony

    Thanks for the test Roger – above and beyond the call of duty. Also interesting new test as well! Hopefully this should answer some of the questions for folks.

    Bottom line – if you’re really, really interested in this lens, I’m pretty sure LensRentals.com has a copy you can try out! (just get in line!)

  • Michael H.

    Fun comparison. At 600mm, I bet this could substitute as a telescope for many, especially on crop sensor.

    Do you have any comments on other characteristics, such as focusing speed or IS?

  • Steve

    Roger,

    Did you get a chance to test the Tamron @ 600m when stopped down?

  • Steve

    Roger, did you get a chance to look at the results from 600mm when stopping down?

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