Recently, while on a speaking engagement in St. Louis, I had some time to chat up several glass manufacturer reps at the conference and ended up testing several lenses, including a side-by-side comparison of the new Sigma 135 f/1.8 Art and the manually focusing Zeiss 135 f/2 Milvus (read that here if you missed it). I also snagged a new 85mm option from Tamron, the 85 f/1.8 Di VC USD, and spent a couple of hours with it. How did it go? Well, let's just see.
There was a time, not long ago, when Tamron was regarded as a bit of a farce in the world of "serious" lenses, including and especially for portrait work. But not unlike Sigma, recent glass released by Tamron has been turning heads and extinguishing doubters the world over, or so I'm told, and now I get to find out if any of that chatter is valid.
I owned a Tamron once. Oh, wait, no I didn't. But I know people who have, so that makes me the industry-leading expert in the very formal category of "all things Tamron."
Right out of the gate, let's just state this 85's party piece is stabilization (what Tamron calls "Vibration Compensation" or VC), something not terribly common for 85mm primes. Tamron was screaming that fact from the rooftops last year and for good reason: it is the very first stabilized 85mm prime ever released for DSLRs (Zeiss has a stabilized 85mm for the E-mount). And seeing how this is Tamron's first foray into that focal length prime territory as well, it's a gutsy maneuver. But is it any good? We'll get to that, but let's discuss this little black cylinder's overall aesthetic first.
Well, It Looks Like a Lens
It's a cute lens. But that's not to say it isn't well made. In fact, when the very nice Tamron rep in St. Louis handed it to me for the first time, I immediately noticed that its weight and build were remarkable. I have to admit I didn't expect that. Attached to the camera, it's not as light and breezy as the Canon 85 f/1.8, but mercifully far more manageable than Canon's 85 f/1.2L II beast in hand.
But here's the thing: I have literally snapped hundreds of thousands of frames over the years using the Canon 85 f/1.8 and tens of thousands using the Canon 85 f/1.2L. Overall, 95 percent of my work is shot on an 85mm prime as it is, as it is my no-apologies, go-to focal length for most of what I do. In short, I'm about as experienced using an 85mm prime as anyone, and I have some damn strong opinions about them.
As is my usual, I grabbed the lens, slapped it on the camera (in this case, a Canon 5D Mark III that I was borrowing; thanks, Buddy!) and just went for it. I was so focused on just getting the shots that I forgot about the "Vibration Compensation" until I back-buttoned the AF for the first time. Immediately thinking I had forgotten to eat again and was becoming disoriented (it happens), it then hit me that the stabilization had kicked in and was, well, stabilizing my view. Neat.
Almost all my experience on lenses with stabilization stem from my many uses of the Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS II on the road (rented or borrowed), and no one can refute that it does a damn fine job of stabilizing. The classic Canon 70-200mm is smooth when it stabilizes, never imposing, and it's an absolute benefit on the longer end of the focal range. But I'd never had a major desire or need for stabilization on an 85mm prime. It never occurred to me that I'd never used a stabilized 85mm before, to be honest.
The short story is the Tamron 85 f/1.8 Di VC doesn't disappoint in that category. The stabilization is quick, fairly smooth, and I found myself confidently dragging the shutter (on some shots) because of it. Sure, it's "only" an f/1.8 lens, but if low light is your concern, you can definitely profit from the stabilization by slowing your shutter as needed (in some cases, anyway.) Yes, you can hear the nearly inaudible clicks and hums as the stabilization on the Tamron does its thing, but by no means would I consider it problematic.
But let's also be real for a second. Stabilization doesn't make you a better portrait shooter, and it doesn't make your images better by itself. In my portrait work, I find that a lens with stabilization gives me a little more of a success rate using slower shutter speeds (yay!), and I get to watch as the cool function performs in the viewfinder (yay?).
I have a decently stable hand and have survived just fine with a non-stabilized lenses for many years. So, at least to me, the fact that this Tamron 85 has image stabilization is not initially a major reason why I would consider purchasing one. Speaking of, this lens is currently $749 on B&H, and that's not particularly cheap for a f/1.8-rated 85. Yes, I know the Zeiss 85 f/1.8 Batis for Sony (a great lens, by the way) is $450 more than the Tamron, but that's how you roll when you play the Big Z game. Tamron, on the other hand, is decidedly not Zeiss, or rather, they have never been regarded as a top-tier glass maker. So, a price point of USD$749 for the Tamron being $300 more than the (admittedly aging) Canon 85 f/1.8 is a tall order in my book.
The good news is, if you really need or desire Vibration Compensation, the Tamron provides it in spades, and does it well.
So, how does the Tamron do stopped down? I aimed to find out when I set up a mixed light (strobe and sun) set outside at f/4. The Tamron succeeded excellently in this regard. This is both fantastic and relieving, because if a portrait prime can't manage incredible sharpness at f/4, something has gone catastrophically wrong in its engineering. Said another way, it's one thing for a Canon 70-200 f/4L to be reasonably sharp at f/4, but any prime lens in the common portrait focal length range better excel at f/4 or it is basically worthless. (I did not test this lens stopped down beyond f/4).
But Can It Focus?
Yep, it sure can. The autofocus was locking it solidly and fairly accurately shot to shot. Upon review later, I did have a slightly higher rate of unfocused shots with the Tamron than I would have liked, but I have to be totally honest and admit I was working in a very hurried manner that day, shooting in-between two classes I was giving. Could I have done slightly better if I would have paced myself? Likely. So, I have to give the benefit of the doubt to the Tamron and declare its autofocus to be very good to excellent, because I had stacks of usable, sharp shots.
In fact, I am extremely happy to report that I trust this lens pretty darn well when wide open at f/1.8. Oh sure, it missed focus a few times, but it had a better success rate than my Canon 85 f/1.8 when wide open. That's a major plus.
85 primes are legendary for getting lost (in terms of AF) in certain back-lit situations, but the Tamron had that mostly under control. While the best autofocus 85mm lens setup I have ever used was the combination of a Zeiss 85 f/1.8 Batis on a Sony A7R II, the Tamron did not disappoint on the Canon 5D Mark III, locking in and never slowing me down as I was working.
But is the Tamron 85 f/1.8 Di VC worth it?
- Sharp as a tack and quite often even when wide open
- Stabilization or "Vibration Compensation" in Tamron parlance, was very good and pretty helpful
- Stands alone in the world of stabilized 85mm primes for DSLRs (for now)
- Well built, feels solid
- Reasonably controlled autofocus in backlit situations
- Soft, creamy bokeh was very nice (the hallmark of an 85 prime)
- Not too heavy, which is great for long days of shooting
- $749 is a lot more than the Canon or Nikon 85mm f/1.8s, and all you seem to get for it is stabilization
- Tamron's very first 85mm and the world's first stabilized 85mm, so if you're not the early adopter type, you're probably going to be nervous about this one for now
Overall, the experience was pleasing and invisible. That is, I didn't waste any time trying to adjust or accommodate what I did with this lens; I just put it on the camera and went to work. Sure, I noticed its nuances compared to my usual 85mm, but I never fought with it to make things happen. Without any real effort, I knocked out a decent little set with Bella and returned the lens to the Tamron reps when we were done.
I have always believed that the 1.2 and 1.4-rated 85s of the world are generally pretty overinflated in terms of how much better they allegedly are when compared to their 1.8-rated little siblings. Yes, the Canon 85 f/1.2L II does exceptionally well between f/1.6 and f/2.2, and maybe I wouldn't feel entirely confident pushing my Canon 85 f/1.8 full tilt to 1.8 very often. Fine. But the 1.2 is literally five times as expensive as the 1.8, and I just don't see how that has ever been worth it (an opinion that my fellow Canonites have attacked me for many times). It's the better of the two, make no mistake, but deciding between those two price points when purchasing a Canon 85mm is and always has been ludicrous. Canon is allegedly set to release a stabilized 85mm f/1.4L IS according to the rumor mill. If true, that could potentially be a game-changer if priced properly.
But back to the Tamron. The thing is, most lens-maker's flagship 85mm lenses are very, very good as it is. Super low cost 85mm lenses are one way to break into the market when you first launch one, but at $749 for an 85mm f/1.8, Tamron came out swinging as if they wanted to play with the big boys last year.