Tamron has turned over a new leaf, and it’s a wonderful thing. Recently they blew us away with their insanely high quality 45mm and 35mm f/1.8 lenses, and that train looks to continue rolling after testing their new macro lens, the 90mm f/2.8 VC. Though it isn’t flawless, the lens does impress and will serve as an excellent starting point for anyone looking to get into true 1:1 macro work.
As always, let’s talk about price and build quality right off the bat. Tamron has made a statement with their lens redesign to keep performance high, and cost low. The 90mm f/2.8 is no exception to that statement, coming in at a cool $650, well below what we have come to expect from high-end optics at any focal length. The price is probably one of the biggest selling points of the lens, and something to certainly consider if you’re looking to pick up macro.
The build quality of the lens incredibly pleasant for a few reasons. Firstly, the lens is very, very light. It might be the lightest macro prime I’ve ever held, and it manages to do so without feeling cheap. The focusing ring feels quite good, nailing the perfect sweet spot between too loose and too tight. Everything from the lens cap to the lens hood to the way it clicks into the camera feels clean, high-end and professional. These are all excellent features, and the Tamron manages to hit them all quite well.
When evaluating optical performance, we prefer to put lenses under real-world stress tests to see how they would actually perform in a real-world situation asking the most out of their design. To do this, I enlisted the help of Oakland and San Francisco food photography experts Dan and Sedona from Flashpoint Collective, since macro/still life are their bread and butter (ha, food photography pun).
The camera we used in this test was the Canon 5DS R for maximum resolution for evaluating performance.
To test the lens, we chose two different subjects with two different lighting arrangements. To test sharpness, we started with star anise, a spice used in baking and cooking.
Sedona and Dan set up a deceptively complex lighting arrangement here, with the goal of not only getting a great photo, but also producing images with which we could test the viability of the lens. Below is a final result, shot at f/9:
What we are looking for here firstly is sharpness, and the Tamron did not disappoint: it’s VERY sharp. But f/9 is right in the sweet spot of the aperture range, and there we expect it to be sharp. To see how it handles everywhere else, we took a photo at every full stop from wide open to fully closed. Below are 100% center crops from there, and you can see how the lens performs for yourself:
The lens seems to stay relatively sharp throughout the range of apertures, even wide open at 2.8. However, sharpness did seem to start falling off a bit by f/16 or so, which is pretty expected of a lot of modern lenses, especially those in this price point. By the time we close down past f/22, the sharpness falls off to such a degree that the photos start to look out of focus. That’s really not ideal at all, and we recommend keeping your photography down below f/16 if you plan to pick up the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 macro.
We also used this opportunity to check for any vignetting, and though there was some at the lower apertures, it was slight and easily correctable in post. The lens also did an excellent job controlling any distortion, which we did not notice to any degree when reviewing the photos.
Unfortunately it wasn’t all roses, as the autofocus left a lot to be desired. In the bright studio with additional controlled lighting, we had issues getting the lens to focus accurately and consistently at this distance to our subject:
The Tamron would “hunt” frequently and take us out of the shooting groove, and had clear issues with sensing contrast up close. In the end, we switched to manual focus for this shoot so that we could ensure that the photos came out sharp. We imagine that the lens would work fine for portraiture and the like, but expect it to hunt when you get in close… even in ideal lighting conditions.
For aberration control, we looked to a glossier subject in a Cherry, which would reflect more light and show us how the optics handled contrast.
This lens comes packed with Tamron’s best tech: vibration compensation. I spoke to the San Francsico Food Photographer duo regarding any sort of image stabilization.
You wouldn’t be hand-holding a macro unless you were shooting really fast. Hand tremors alone can make it blur. Though I can see it being very useful for nature photographers or shooting on the fly. I enjoy it on my 70-200mm when hand holding, though rare.
Hand tremors at that close range can kill an image. Many times when I use something past 1:1, I have to control my breathing to get the shot. I can see the usefulness of that in those situations for sure.
I will say image stabilization is annoying as hell if you are on a tripod and forget about it. Sometimes that will blur the image. In this case, however, with VC on the whole time our images all came out crisp, so that’s good news on the viability of VC here.
I remember shooting an eye with canons super macro and wishing I had stabilization. I had my hand on the models face and the lens at the same time to just keep the sharpness. Glad the model was someone I knew!
I also asked Dan and Sedona to give me their final opinion of the lens, and where it, to them, stood among the possible choices out there:
For our purposes, we felt that it was just slightly too short for the kind of macro images we normally take. If you wanted an entry-level macro, this could be a good start. While having 1:1 magnification is a plus, we’d personally spend the extra cash and go with a 105mm.
That is to say, the only thing they really complained about was the focal length and the autofocus. For many, the former matters for some uses, and the latter is also less of a concern for locked-off macro photography. Where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us with a lens that performs extremely well in normal macro conditions, and at $650 it’s an excellent pro-grade entry-level lens for those looking to get sharp, 1:1 macro images.
The Tamron 90mm f/2.8 is a very good lens that hits a lot of high notes without being held back by many downsides. With great build quality, excellent sharpness and distortion control with the only real problem being a slightly hinky autofocus, the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 is an great addition to Tamron’s new lineup.