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From Dawn to Dark with the Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2

By Jeff Wignall   Friday January 13, 2017

“…He sailed off through night and day,
and in and out of weeks,
and almost over a year,
to where the wild things are.”

            Maurice Sendak/Where The Wild Things Are
                        


It's amazing the interesting wild things that you can find close to home if you make an effort to look for them on their schedule. I photographed these hooded mergansers on the Housatonic River just a few minutes after sunrise on a cold January morning. Several friends that live near the river said they'd never seen one before--but they're actually pretty common in winter. Photographed at 600mm (900mm on my Nikon DX body) handheld. Exposure for the top shot was 1/200 second at f6.3 and for the bottom shot 1/400 second at f/6.3; both at ISO 400.

Snapshot:

Name:  Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2
Maximum Aperture:  f/5-6.3
Minimum Aperture: f/32-40
Angle of View (diagonal): 16°25' - 4°8' (for full-frame format);
10°38' - 2°40' (for APS-C format)
Optical Construction:  21 elements in 13 groups
Minimum Object Distance:  2.2m (86.6 in)
Filter Size: 95mm
Length: 260.2mm (10.2 in) Canon; 257.7mm (10.1 in) Nikon
Weight: 2,010g (70.9 oz) Canon; 1,990g (70.2 oz) Nikon
Image Stabilization Performance: 4.5 stops
Standard Accessories: Lens hood, lens caps, lens case
Compatible Mounts: Canon, Nikon, Sony
Full Specs: Here

In Brief: Field testing the new Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 G2 (Generation 2), second generation of this much-respected super-zoom lens.


One of the nice things about getting out while it's still dark is that you're there when the sunrise explodes into the sky. I'm a big fan of the way that a long telephoto compresses space in landscape photos. I shot this at 600mm with an exposure of 1/160 at f/7.1, ISO 400, with the lens resting on a rolled up sweater in my van's door frame.


The Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 (Generation Two)--a whopping piece of telephoto zoom lens that retails for around $1400.


The only other human I saw that was nuts enough to be walking the beach before dawn on a January morning was this treasure hunter diligently working the sandbars with his metal detector and scoop. He was dressed a lot warmer than I was. Shot at 600mm and exposure for 1/320 at f/6.3, ISO 640. I was pleasantly surprised that this Tamron lens is light enough and well-balanced enough to shoot handheld without any problems.

900mm is the new 300mm

I have always been a long-lens photographer. It’s just my visual nature to like the two qualities that very long focal-length lenses offer: the ability to bring distant subjects close and the apparent compression of space. Plus, I am essentially a wildlife photographer at heart, so long lenses are pretty much required equipment. In my day-to-day shooting it’s rare that I use a focal length shorter than 200mm and the lens that I use most often is a Nikkor 70-300 mm which maxes out at 450mm on my DX bodies. As much as I like wider lenses for some subjects (walking around Manhattan, for example), telephoto zooms are where my heart lives and the longer the focal length the better.

So when a lens like the new Tamron SP 150-600mm G2 comes around, my heart skips a beat. In terms of wildlife, in particular, the worlds that a lens this long opens are are incredible. On my Nikon DX body I am effectively shooting with a 225-900mm lens—zowie! A photographer friend of mine that lives in Savannah, Georgia joked on Facebook that if I got a 2x extender for it he could stand out in his yard and wave and I could shoot photos of him from here in Connecticut. Maybe not, but as you can see in some of the photos here, I was able to get decent shots of a duck that’s the size of a football and probably 40 to 50-feet away. Creatures that came closer, like the fish crow shown below, filled the frame with no cropping and only halfway zoomed out. Dang.


I shot this fish crow with the lens set at 340mm (510mm in 35mm equivalent) from about 10-feet or so away. The picture is so sharp you can count the feathers. Exposure was 1/60 second at f/8, ISO 400. The background is a bit busy in this shot because it's fairly close to the crow and rather contrasty, but overall the bokeh of the lens is excellent.

The “G2” in the Tamron lens name of this lens stands for “Generation Two” and that’s exactly what this lens is—an updated version of the successful original SP 150-600mm (Model A011) that was first introduced in late 2013. Earlier this year I tested Sigma’s version of this same focal-length range—the Sigma 150-600mm 5-6.3 Contemporary DG OS HSM (you can read that review here). If I recall correctly the original Tamron 150-600mm was actually the first of these super-zoom lenses on the market, followed by two versions of the Sigma (Contemporary and Sport), and now this Tamron G2 version rounds out the category.

The updated Tamron is similar in a lot of ways to the original lens but, says Tamron, it features better overall optical performance, faster AF speed, a few kind new vibration compensation (VC) enhancements, plus a Fluorine coating on the front surface of the lens. There is also a kind of cool feature new called Flex Zoom Lock (see below) that lets you quickly lock down at a particular focal length.

Tamron has also introduced new1.4X and a 2X tele converters for use with this lens. I’m hoping that at some point I can borrow this lens again with a tele converter and if I do, I may have to move into my blind for a few weeks. An 1800mm lens? I’m so there.

Where the Wild Things Are...at Zero Dark Something

The best way to test a wildlife lens, of course, is to go where the wild things are and at a time when they are likely to be there. And so for my week or so of test shooting, with Maurice Sendak creatures creeping around in my head, that’s exactly what I did. About an hour before sunrise on several cloudy January mornings, stumbling around in total darkness, I headed down to the river to shoot whatever critters I could find and at sunset I headed down to the beaches until dusk. Fortunately we’ve been having a pretty mild winter in New England (knock on wood) and so testing the lens was actually very fun. Here are some of my observations after about eight days of shooting:

Sharpness. This lens is remarkably sharp. I was particularly impressed with its ability to produce excellent contrast and resolution in both very flat and very contrasty lighting. Impressively too, the resolution holds up across the entire focal-length range. I saw very little in the way of vignetting or corner softness and the images are sharp from edge to edge. I shot a landscape scene at the widest focal-length setting and photographed lots of shots of both wildlife and landscape scenes full out at 600mm and the results were consistently sharp. All of the merganser shots here were made at 600mm and while depth of field is limited, as it is with any lens of this focal length, the key areas of sharpness are flawless.


I spent several hours over a few days watching two pairs of hooded mergansers on the Housatonic that were hanging out together. The males were trying to outdo one another with courting postures and poses by raising their hoods and dancing to get the females' attention. It was quite a spectacle to watch and it was a lot of fun to capture it with this big long zoom. I would have killed for a little more intensity in the lighting, but you take the light you're dealt.  Both shots were made at 1/640 second at f/6.3, ISO 640.

Focus speed. The lens focuses blazingly fast and it has a limiter that lets you restrict the distance range so that if you’re shooting close-up subjects the lens focuses that much faster. I was very impressed by how quickly it locked focus even when following small subjects like the mating mergansers that change speed and direction almost constantly. By switching the VR to the pan mode (see below) and my Nikon body to continuous focus, the focus with moving subjects was as fast as any long tele that I’ve ever used. Also, full-time manual-focus override lets you make fine-focusing adjustments by just turning the focusing collar.

Size and weight. I’m a dedicated tripod person and I don’t like the idea of trying to use such a long lens handheld. Over the course of several days, however, I found that the balance of the lens is so good that I ended up shooting ducks and other birds without a camera support (don’t tell any of my students this). The tripod mounting bracket makes a nice handhold and if I was able to prop my elbow up on a rock or lean on the hood of my van, I was able to shoot comfortably for quite a long time. With the VC active I was shooting photos at 1/30 second with the lens at 600mm. Speaking of the tripod mount, it’s nicely designed and has a large knob that lets you loosen it to adjust quickly from portrait to landscape mode.

Construction.  The lens has a lightweight metal body that provides a very solid and substantial feel to it and I found the zoom and focusing collars easy to identify and grasp without having to take my eye away from the viewfinder. The lens is also weather sealed and the front element has a Fluorine coating to protect it from moisture and finger smudges.

VC modes.  In addition to your basic on/off modes, the lens also offers a unique series of three VC modes. The first position is a standard mode where the lens is reducing vibration on both the horizontal and vertical axis as you compose and shoot. Because you see the results in the viewfinder as you shoot, the first position is good for general shooting and for video shooting. In the second mode, a pan mode, the VC is shut off on one axis so that you can pan with moving subjects. In the third mode the camera is actually setting the compensation at the instant of capture and, says Tamron, this mode provides roughly an extra 2/3 stops of VC.

Flex Zoom Lock. This mechanism quickly locks or unlocks the zoom at any focal length simply by sliding the zoom ring. I actually discovered the feature by accident before I knew it existed by inadvertently sliding the locking collar forward. Suddenly the zoom wouldn’t adjust and I momentarily freaked out until I realized what was happening. I came to love the feature because, for one, it allows you to shoot from any angle without the zoom changing focal lengths. If you’ve ever had a long zoom “creep” on you as you shot down/up at a steep angle, you know what a pain that can be. Also, locking the focal length allows you to set a certain framing distance while tracking a moving subject—a swimming duck, for instance, so that your framing remains constant. I love the feature.


Toward the end of the day I headed toward the beach to see if I could capture a great sunset. That never materialized, but I was able to catch these gulls (the top one is a ring-billed gull) enjoying the last golden rays. The top frame was shot at 1/1250 at f/8 and the bottom at 1/250 second at f/8, both at ISO 800.

Conclusion

Is there anything I didn’t like? Yeah, a few really minor things. Replacing the lens shade in its reversed (stored) position on the lens, for example, was a royal pain in the neck. Maybe it was just me, but I just couldn’t seem to line it up quickly and it ended up fussing with it for five minutes every time I went to put the lens away. Grrrrr. Also, the lens case that comes with the lens is basically just a cloth bag and I’m surprised that it doesn’t ship with a better case. You are absolutely going to have to buy a good protective case for this lens.

My overriding reaction to this lens itself, however, is simple: wow. This is one super impressive super zoom and for a wildlife and bird photographer, it’s a dream lens. It’s still hard for me to get my mind around the fact that I can get a lens of this incredible range and this resolution for such a reasonable price—and with a relatively fast maximum aperture even at 600mm. In terms of sports and wildlife photography, this lens provides a reach and a quality level that, for someone like me who had to nearly pawn his life to buy his first 300mm lens many years ago, is hard to fathom.


I shot this factory just as the sun was setting and the last rays were lighting up the edges of the building. Shot at 1/80 second at f/7.1, handheld, ISO 400. The dual-axis stabilization in this lens is great--I was able to shoot at the equivalent of 900mm handheld and still get perfectly sharp images.


After a long day of shooting I was unloading the car when I looked up and saw the crescent moon begging to be photographed. Guilt forced me into setting up the tripod one more time. Shot at 1/6 second at f/6.3, ISO 1250, on a Manfrotto tripod. This is an uncropped shot on my Nikon DX body with the lens set at 600mm.

New Products

Panasonic GH5.It's not in the stores yet, but one of the big stories out of CES last week was the announcement of the eagerly awaited Panasonic GH5. The new camera features a splash/dust/freezproof body with a 20.3MP Digital Live MOS sensor. In terms of video the new camera offers 4K 60p/50p (QFHD 4K: 3840 x 2160 / MOV or MP4) video capture. The vibration reduction is also very impressive: 5-Axis photo/video Dual I.S. 2.0 up to 5 Stops with compatible LUMIX MFT lenses, plus In-body stabilization Support for classic non-o.I.S lenses.Other features include Wi-Fi + Bluetooth with 3.2" LCD, as well as Post Focus & Focus Stacking. With a bit of luck I'll be testing the new body for Street Tests very soon.

Nikon D5600.Another big story out of CES is news of the American release of the Nikon D5600 camera body, successor to the very popular D5500--and one of the camera's that's at the top of my personal shopping list. The camera was released in Europe and other areas of the world a few months ago but is just now hitting store shelves in the U.S. The DX-format body features a 24.2MP CMOS sensor, a 5 fps shooting speed, an ISO range of 100 to 25,600, an EXPEED 4 image processor, a fully-articulated 3.2-inch (1.037m-dot) Vari-Angle touchscreen LCD, as well as full HD 1080p video recording. The LCD also has a "scrubbing" feature that lets you scroll through all of your images the same way you do on your phone. Cool! Can't wait!

2 Comments

  1. Donna Caporaso commented on: January 13, 2017 at 7:51 p.m.
    Great shots. Would love to try out this lens when I'm ready to.ipgrade.
  1. Jeff Wignall commented on: January 14, 2017 at 3:16 a.m.
    Thanks Donna. I'll try to show it to you before I ship it back. You'd love it.

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