The Tamron 100-400mm

Tamron Canada has been on fire lately – releasing one stellar lens after another. I’ve been a big fan of Tamron since the first SP 24-70 F/2.8 Di VC lens – it was a game changer that let me capture images I couldn’t with any other lens in that focal range. Thankfully, the tradition continues with the latest SP 100-400mm F/4.5-6.3 Di VC USD.

The 100-400 VC’s barrel is primarily magnesium, and the build quality feels very good, but it manages to come in as the lightest lens in the class at 40oz/1.11 kilos (about half the weight of the 150-600 G2 lens). The lens itself is fairly compact at 7.8”/199mm (the 150-600 G2 is 260mm). It’s actually a few millimeters longer than the Canon, but has a slimmer profile (about 8mm less in diameter) which results in a very common 67mm front filter thread.

Tamron’s current design language is decades more modern looking than their older lenses from 3 years ago and older, with a sleek “slightly-shinier-than-matte” finish and an understated platinum looking accent ring near the lens mount.

There is a focus distance window with markings in both feet and meters, and also a zoom lock (only locks in the 100mm position). The lens barrel does extend during zooming, but the damping/weight of the zoom action in my review copy was pretty much perfect. For those who care about such things, the lens zooms in the “Nikon” not “Canon” direction. The manual focus ring is nice and wide and moves easily, though without a lot of feel to it. You won’t mistake it for a Zeiss MF ring, but it gets the job down. The MF ring is closest to the camera, with the zoom ring further towards the end of the lens.

One area that I complained about the Sigma 100-400 Contemporary lens was that it didn’t come with a tripod collar. For many shooters this a key piece of equipment. The Tamron 100-400 VC doesn’t come with a tripod collar either, but at least it is designed to work with one, though the A035TM tripod mount is an additional cost accessory. This is clearly an area where Tamron has elected to keep the cost of the lens down. Some shooters that don’t use a tripod collar will undoubtedly appreciate not having to pay for something they won’t use.

The 100-400 VC employs two switches on the barrel, both with a high-quality feel and three rather than two switch positions. The AF/MF switch has a focus limiter in between these two positions. You will be able to tweak the focus limiter distance in the Tap In Console (an additional accessory, though you may find it a throw-in with some retailers). The second switch is for the VC (Vibration Compensation), and has two different VC modes along with the OFF position available. You will also be able to make minor customizations with the VC behavior in the Tap In.

The 100-400 VC sports a moisture resistant body, complete with a rear gasket at the lens mount, internal seals, and a fluorine coating on the front element. All in all, this is a very nicely built lens that strikes a nice compromise between build quality and weight savings. The build quality and functionality belies the relatively affordable price.

The 100-400 VC has an optical formula of 17 elements in 11 groups, and, while I was surprised at how well the Sigma did in my earlier comparison, my expectations had grown as a result. I had high expectations for this lens. Fortunately the Tamron delivers, and in my head to head tests the image quality produced by it is just as good as that of the much more expensive Canon. The A035 delivers a very strong maximum magnification figure of nearly 0.28x, which is very handy for shooting macro-ish shots with an amazing working distance of right under 1.5 meters.

The perfect benchmark for the Tamron lens would be the Sigma 100-400mm Contemporary lens, but I didn’t have it on hand. What I did have, however, was the same lens that I benchmarked the Sigma against – my copy of the Canon 100-400L II. It’s an excellent lens, though in a completely different price bracket. Can the Tamron 100-400 VC punch above its weight like the Sigma did? The short answer is, “yes!” Check out this video segment where I break it all down in detail.

A very impressive performance in terms of resolution and contrast. Images are crisp, detailed, and the lens produces excellent contrast even with the aperture wide open. I also saw consistently strong performance across the focal range, with an excellent performance at the perhaps most important focal length of 400mm.

All in all this is a lot of lens for the money. It is very, very close to the first party options in performance while offering up exceptional value. Many photographers cannot afford the pricey first party lenses in this class, but the Tamron 100-400 VC is much more attainable. For those wanting better reach and image quality than the “consumer grade” kit zooms, the Tamron 100-400mm f/4.5-6.3 Di VC USD is a breath of fresh air.  An added bonus is the USD focus system, which is fast, quiet, and provides tracking ability near that of the first party options.  You have to accept very few compromises with this lens, and that makes it an easy lens to recommend.

Pros:

  • Excellent image quality that rivals that of the first party lenses
  • Good compromise between weight and quality in the build
  • Weather sealed design
  • USD autofocus system is accurate, quiet, and fast enough to track action
  • VC system works as effectively as first party systems
  • Good magnification value and doesn’t focus breathe
  • Good bokeh quality
  • Chromatic aberrations near non-existent
  • Great performance to price ratio
  • Tap In Console compatibility
  • Excellent warranty

Cons:

  • Tripod collar must be purchased separately
  • Flare resistance good but not exceptional