A Visit to Barnumopolis with the Tamron SP 85mm F/1.8

By Jeff Wignall   Thursday July 7, 2016

Paper Moon

…It's a Barnum and Bailey world
Just as phony as it can be
But it wouldn't be make-believe
If you believed in me

Say, it's only a paper moon
Sailing over a cardboard sea
But it wouldn't be make-believe
If you believed in me

Yes, it's only a canvas sky
Hanging over a muslin tree
But it wouldn't be make-believe
If you believed in me

Paper Moon, Lyrics by E. Y. (Yip) Harburg

The Barnum Institute of Science and History (aka the Barnum Museum) in Bridgeport, Connecticut was conceived designed by P.T. Barnum himself and has been a part of the downtown Bridgeport landscape since 1893. Shot at 1/640 second at f/8, ISO 200.  

The building is a fascinating red-stone and tile and gold-brick structure that, surrounded by modern structures, today stands out like one of Barnum’s sideshow attractions. The color fidelity of this Tamron lens is as good as it gets. I shot the museum in very intense “golden hour” light and that can be a real challenge when it comes to keeping things like neutrals and whites clean while still recording the intensity of saturated colors accurately, but the images from this lens were perfect. Shot at 1/640 second at f/8, ISO 200.


Complete Name: Tamron SP 85mm F/1.8 Di VC USD

Available mounts: Canon, Nikon, Sony (Sony mount is currently without VC)

Filter size: 67mm

Length: 91.3mm (3.6 in) Canon; 88.8mm (3.5 in) Nikon

Optical Construction:  13 elements in 9 groups

Weight:  700g (24.7 oz) Canon; 660g (23.3 oz) Nikon

Maxiumum aperture: f/1.8

Minimum aperture:  f/16

Angle of view:  28°33' for full-frame format; 18°39’ for APS-C format

Minimum focusing distance: 0.8m (31.5 in)

Image stabilization: VC (Vibration Compensation). 3.5 Stops (CIPA Standards Compliant); For Canon : EOS-5D MarkIII is used / For Nikon : D810 is used

Includes: Lens hood and lens caps

Special protection:  Weather resistant. Resists moisture using special seals around focus ring and lens barrel

Wiggy Goes to Barnumopolis

In his lifetime, Phineas Taylor Barnum (aka P. T. Barnum) was famous for a lot of things, probably most notably for being the world’s most flamboyant (and successful) showman and circus owner. Part of his success came from the fact that he’d say and display almost anything--even if it meant exaggerating a tad--to get people into his shows. Sideshow wonders like the “Feejee Mermaid” that was half fish, half monkey drew throngs of curious circus goers. But Barnum was also a polymath of the highest order and had success as a retailer, an advertising and promotion genius, an author and publisher, a philanthropist, and a museum owner. His American Museum on lower Broadway in New York City (1842-1865) was perhaps the most successful museum in the country and had more than 850,000 “exhibits and curiosities” in its vast archives. 

Barnum was also a successful and dedicated politician and reformer (and you thought hucksters in the political arena were something new) and he served several terms in the Connecticut legislature. From 1875-76 he was the mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut—city of my birth (you knew I’d get back into this story sooner or later) and lost a personal fortune trying to improve the city. Barnum was also among the founders of and the first president of Bridgeport Hospital, where I was born. How can I not love this guy? He wrote a great autobiography, by the way. 

In June of 2010 the museum was hit by what museum officials call "the trifecta from hell." In very short order the museum was struck by a tornado, Hurricane Irene and then Superstorm Sandy. Millions have been spent trying to restore more than 20,000 priceless artifacts, but much of the museum's facade still remains boarded up. Unfortunately the main part of the museum remains closed during restoration. Shot at 1/640 second at f8, ISO 200. 

Although Barnum’s most famous quote is the old adage about never giving a sucker an even break, in reality he never said it—someone said it about him. Barnum did, however, say, “Whatever you do, do it with all your might. Work at it, early and late, in season and out of season, not leaving a stone unturned, and never deferring for a single hour that which can be done just as well now.” Great advice for photographers! Exposure was 1/500 second at f/9, ISO 200.

I’ve been doing an FM radio show with my radio partner (Ken Brown) for about 23 years and he and I often get into heated arguments (on the air) about ridiculous topics. One topic we’ve been debating for years has been the idea of changing the name of the city of Bridgeport to help improve its image. Naturally we wanted to drag its most famous resident into that renaming and we have often argued over whether Bridgeport should be called P T Barnum City (my idea) or Barnumopolis (Ken’s). Ken won, so we rechristened the city Barnumopolis. We think Phineas would be pleased. 

So, on a complete whim (or perhaps divine inspiration), while looking for a fun places to test the Tamron SP 85mm F/1.8 Di VC USD lens, I headed back to the land of Barnum and to the museum that Barnum himself designed. It proved to be a good choice with lots of creative opportunities and challenges. 

The contrast of old and new shown here is really striking. People driving up Main street who have never seen the building before literally slam on the breaks to stop and gawk. I had a lot of fun capturing the intricate details of the facade. At times while working the images in Photoshop I found myself making the unusual decision to not use image sharpening at all. The images were perfectly (and I don’t use that word lightly) sharp out of the box. And as I said, the color fidelity even in very saturated situations (like the Barnum Museum in late light) was beautiful. Exposure was 1/500 second at f/9, ISO200.

No matter where you look on this building strange faces look back at you. I shot this monkey-like creature at the lens' closest focusing distance (about 31 inches) and used a relatively wide f/3.5 aperture to concentrate focus on the weather-worn face. Shot at 1/80 second, ISO 200. 

Priming the Creative Pump

While most photographers probably see a prime lens of this focal length as a great portrait lens (and it is), there is something about the moderate compression of space that really appeals to my eye when it comes to shooting landscapes and city views. I was using the lens on a DX body (so approximately 120mm in 35mm terms) and so the compression effect was a bit stronger than with a full-frame body. 

As I’ve talked about in other prime-lens reviews, one of the challenges of using a prime lens is that your feet are your only zoom control. If you want a closer or more distant perspective, you have to take the Nike express. When it comes to shooting building details, of course, you’re limited to some degree by the height of the building and closing in on distant details requires either a longer prime or a telephoto zoom. (I’d love to reshoot the museum’s facade details from a cherry picker, by the way.) It’s a creative challenge to pick a subject—like the Barnum museum—and then see how many compositions you can build with just one focal length. Try it sometime. It forces you to stretch your imagination in ways that a zoom lens doesn’t.

The modern architecture that surrounds (and dwarfs) the Barnum Museum provides a surreal contrast to its ornate 19th century neighbor. One of the things that really impressed me about this lens was its complete lack of optical distortion--every vertical and horizontal line in this shot is perfectly aligned and the image is sharp from edge to edge--very impressive performance. Exposure was 640 second at f/8, ISO 200. 

Barnum used to winter his circus in Bridgeport and Main Street was often site of an elephant parade as he returned triumphantly from his circus tours. Shot at 1/200 second at f/4.5, ISO 200. 

Classic Feel & Super Performance

This fast medium-telephoto prime came on the heels of the 35mm f/1.8 and 45mm f/1.8 lenses that Tamron introduced last year. Tamron says it is the world’s first 85mm f/1.8 prime to have a VC system (at least as of January 2016). The “SP” in the lens name stands for “Super Performance” and, based on my time with it, I would have to concur: this is a superb lens. Here are some of my observations:

The top of this modern building next to the museum has always reminded me of an Escher illusion. Exploring scenes like this from ground level is one of the fun things about using prime lens. Exposure was 1/640 second at f/6.3, IS0 200. All of my shots were made handheld with the VC turned on.

For one, this is an incredibly sharp lens. Although most lenses are at their sharpest toward the middle of their aperture range (f/8 for this lens), I found the lens to be blazingly sharp even at its widest aperture setting. In fact, while a moderate amount of sharpening is a part of my normal editing workflow for all images, some of the architectural images I shot with this lens were so sharp that I did zero sharpening—and that is very rare. And the images are sharp from edge to edge and corner to corner. Everything that I shot was handheld (with VC on for most shots) and when I focused carefully, I could find no flaws anywhere in the images. Also, even at huge enlargements on my 24-inch monitor, I didn’t spot a single indication of “color fringing” that you so often see with lesser optics.

For the optically (and geekishly) inclined, the lens features a combination of LD (low dispersion) and XLD (extra low dispersion) lens elements that are designed help to reduce color fringing and to provide sharp images with extremely high color fidelity. Based on the shooting I’ve done with it, none of that is marketing hype. The color accuracy of this lens is a sight to behold. In the shot of the plaza shown above, for example, the complex combination of highlights, shadows and subtle coloring is a nightmare to record accurately and I was impressed by how accurate the colors were. Even in the shots of the museum, with late afternoon sun spotlighting the red-stone facade, color accuracy was stellar. 

Once I'd finished shooting the Barnum Museum the light was so nice I decided to keep wandering around the city shooting architectural details. I found this amazing lion and the ornate facade about a block away, glowing in the afternoon light. It's truly amazing what you can find just by walking the side roads of an old city like Bridgeport. Both were shot at 1/250 second at f/8, ISO 200. 

This lens also has a nice solid feel to it and while it’s a tad on the heavy side (due partly to the large elements required to create such a fast-aperture lens), I found it very comfortable to work with. I actually prefer a heavier lens to the lightweight plastic-body lenses and this Tamron has a very similar feel to the classic prime lenses that I used 30 or more years ago. It’s all-metal construction and excellent weatherproofing absolutely put the lens in the pro category.

Though I didn't shoot any portraits with the lens, I shot a few things with soft out-of-focus backgrounds and the bokeh is buttery smooth--beautiful. Backgrounds just melt into the distance with no visual distraction at all. Shot at 1/400 at f/5.6, ISO 200. 

Finally, the lens focuses very fast and it’s virtually silent—absolutely silent (an important factor when it comes to shooting candids at a wedding, for example). It has a very short focus throw so subjects snap into sharp focus almost imperceptibly.


There are a lot of things to love about this lens. As I’ve said, the resolution and color fidelity are flawless and even wide open at f/1.8, the lens is killer sharp from corner to corner. I haven’t had the lens long enough (or found enough willing victims yet) to use it much as a portrait lens, but for the type of work I like to do, there is probably no lens in this focal length that I have used that can outperform this one.  

Price is almost always a factor when buying a lens and usually (though not always) price is a pretty good indicator of where a lens falls in terms of speed, optical quality and build compared to similar lenses. This lens, for example, is $200-300 more than the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G and roughly $150 less than the slightly faster Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM. I think that at its current street price this lens is absolutely worth the extra cost and were I in the market for a prime medium tele, this one would be at the top of the list.

After a few hours of shooting in the city I decided to head over to nearby Seaside Park--one of the most spectacular parks on the east coast, it was built on land donated to the city by Barnum. I found the old guy sitting atop his perch looking out at Long Island Sound. I couldn't ask for a more fitting end to the day of shooting. Exposure was 1/640 second at f/6.3.

New Product News: 

Fotodiox Pro LED Studio-in-a-Box. Portable table-top studios can be a lot of fun and you can get some very respectable photos with them. The problem with most is that you have to bring your own lights. Fotodiox has solved that by creating a Studio-in-a-Box with a built-in circular array of LED lights in the top of the box. The lights, say the folks at Fotodiox, provide a nice even light for small product shots. There are four sizes available (16x16, 20x20, 24x24, and 28x28-inches) and they come with four drop-down backgrounds (blue, gray, black and white). Does it work? We’ll find out—it’s going to the the subject of my Street Tests review next week!

Mosaic2 LED Panels.  As long as we’re on the topic of lighting things, Manfrotto, who distribute Bowens and Limelight products, have introduced the Mosaic2 LED Panels from Limelite by Bowens. There are two panels available: one is daylight balanced (5600K) and the other features a Bi-Color (3000K-5000K) option. Both units measure a foot square and use 576 high fidelity LEDs that are dimmable from 100-0% and, says Manfrotto, produce outstanding color accuracy and up to 4000 Lux @ 1 meter. The panels, which can be used for both still and video lighting, come equipped with a pre-mounted AC adaptor and international cable kit and are ready to be used anywhere in the world. 


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