Fstoppers Reviews the Tamron 85mm f/1.8 Di VC Lens

Fstoppers Reviews the Tamron 85mm f/1.8 Di VC Lens

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."

First Impressions

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.

A decidedly utilitarian looking lens, the Tamrom 85 f/1.8 Di VC USD is happily a sturdy thing in terms of tactile considerations.

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.

I mean, it's a pretty little thing. Nothing particularly noteworthy about how it looks, but it is definitely tasteful and well built.

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.

Naturally,, I started out testing the Tamron 85 f/1.8 Di VC at - you guessed it - f/1.8. Even wide open, I slowed the shutter a bit so I could keep using ISO 100 even on this very overcast day in St. Louis. The stabilization made it a touch easier.

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.

As is my usual lately, when I strobe outdoors, I work with f/4 for a decent depth effect that doesn't lose too many details and clarity. The Tamron 85 f/1.8 Di VC destroys in that aperture, and razor sharp results were abundant.

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).

I tend to frame my subjects near the edge of the frame, so any lens that has a massive drop-off in sharpness towards the perimeter of the frame is a huge problem for me. Thankfully, the Tamron does this well, even at 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?

The Hits

  • 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

The Misses

  • $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

Conclusion

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.

Have they managed to? If you have the Tamron 85 f/1.8 Di VC USD, let me know your thoughts in the comments! 

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16 Comments

The Tamron SP 85mm F/1.8 VC is also weather sealed, compared to the Canon and Nikon ones, in addition to the stabilisation

Nino Batista's picture

Fair point, though I did hear some grumbling about it not being "totally reliable" on that front without a filter on it. I didn't test that out in any capacity, to be clear, tho.

Ryan Cooper's picture

From the looks of your sample shots (and assuming you didn't correct for it in post) the CA looks much better controlled wide open than my Nikon 85mm f/1.8G ever manages.

Nino Batista's picture

Never did try the Nikon 85 1.8 before, but yep this Tam seemed to do well in that regard.

Spy Black's picture

There was a review of the Nikon 105 f/1.4 a while back at Nikon Rumors, and the reviewer had samples of the new and old 105, as well as the latest 85mm f/1.4 Nikkor, and this Tamron, which he happened to own and threw in for the hell of it. With the exception of the new 105, the Tamron was sharper and better corrected than all of the other lenses. Sharp to the edges and no CA. Even though it wasn't the subject of the article, for me it stole the show!

Ryan Cooper's picture

I'm pretty sure the 105mm out-resolves the Tamron, especially wide open but not in a meaningful way. The Tamron has a slight warm color shift too from what I've seen in other reviews having not shot with it myself. I often think about grabbing the Tamron but its the 1.8 that puts me off a bit. Imo it is indisputably the best 85mm 1.8 out there but its also the most expensive one that I know of so makes sense. Having the the option of opening up to 1.4 or 1.6 though is a big deal for many photographers. I think if Tamron hit the market with an 85mm 1.4 VC at like $1500 that they would have one hell of a winner on their hands.

Spy Black's picture

In all honesty, the wide aperture thing with long lenses is greatly overblown. The difference between 1.4 and 1.8, or sometimes even 2.8, is simply not that dramatically different. However for $50 you can rent a Tamron 85 for a whole week from Lensrentals and you can see for yourself firsthand if this lens fits your work and shooting style.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I disagree. I feel the difference between 1.4 and 1.8 is a world of difference. I'd also add in that a 1.4 lens at 1.8 is generally going to do much better in terms of performance than a 1.8 lens at 1.8.

As for renting, unfortunately not really on option for us Canadian folk. The rental houses here in Vancouver almost exclusively only carry Canon mount. (film industry) and very rarely carry any obscure lenses such as Tamron. They also would charge closer to $50/day to rent a new $1000 lens. A few are starting to carry Sigma but as aforementioned only in the Canon mount. Most of the places that even stock Nikon or other mounts are often extremely old, out of date lenses. For example the rental house nearest me stocks the 85mm f/1.4d (1995) as their 85mm offering (at $106 ($77usd) for a 3 day rental) and even more ridiculous is that the best Nikon body they offer is a D2X (2004) at $45 per day. Its rather... frustrating...

Generally if I want to try a lens, I have to buy it.

Spy Black's picture

A world of difference? Fascinating. ;-)

I got this lens a couple of months ago, and before that I hunted down every written and video review I could find. I just shoot for myself and wanted to learn portraiture, so cost/benefit was the most important thing to consider. Here's a short summary: 1. The Tamron 85mm f/1.8 is supposed to be "weather proofed" and not truly weather sealed, but the rubber gasket on the mount is still nice to have; 2. autofocus is really good, quick and reliable; 3. Stabilization might hurt image quality if it is left on when not really needed; 4. I'm not sure about comparisons to the Nikon 85mm f/1.8, but every comparison to the Canon 85mm f/1.8 notes how much sharper the Tamron is, with no chromatic aberration of notice, which is supposed to be an issue with the Canon. That, and the fact that the Canon design is from 1992, was reason enough for me to go for the Tamron.
I'd recommend Dustin Abbott's review of the Tamron 85mm for a thorough look, and his review of the Sigma 50-100 f/1.8 compares it to the Tamron 85mm, if you're shooting APS-C, which is my case (The Sigma is sharper at 1.8, but the Tamron makes up for it stopped down). I haven't really found much on professional use of this lens, but it looks like the Sigma and Zeiss 85mm are both sharper, but not by a significant amount, and of course, f/1.4 lenses, but are also much more heavier and expensive. I'm happy with it, but my own experience is limited to compare it to anything else. It does take pretty pictures though.

Jesse Patterson's picture

I also have this lens and after a bit of AFMA with the TAP-In console, I found this lens to be much better than the Canon 85 1.8. The Tamron 85 autofocus speed is the same as the Canon however, every other aspect is better:

Weather Sealing; Better CA Control; Better Flare Resistance; Sharper at 1.8; 6 Year Warranty; ability to update firmware and AFMA with TAP-In Console; and of course VC

This is my go-to headshot lens. I do tend to get a couple more shots than I like that are not critically sharp however, from what I understand, that's bound to happen unless you are shooting with Sony A series cameras.

I also agree, Dustin Abbot has a fantastic review of this lens.

ALEXANDER TARDIF's picture

BTW, Zeiss Batis glass (85mm and 18mm, specifically) have been rumored since their release dates to be designed by, or at the very least, closely collaborated on with Tamron. If you look at the Tamron's design patents (not for the lens in the article, but a design they nonetheless patented) and compare them to the Zeiss's actual designs it's petty obvious.

This line, "$749...and all you seem to get for it is stabilization," does a great disservice to the lens. Should potential buyers ignore that the lens resolves 65% more than the Canon version? Maybe that sentence should read, "A 78% increase in price gets 65% increase in resolving power plus image stabilization, less chromatic aberrations, less distortion, and weather sealing." Or maybe at least put "65% more resolving power than the $2,000 85mm 1.2 II" under "The Hits" section.

Nino Batista's picture

My reviews are and always have been off the cuff and based on the initial impact the experience with the lens left me with. There are better technical reviewers out there, by a long shot, and of course DxO is a bit of a benchmark for those who need / want detailed technical reviews and analyses. Fine by me for readers to bring up these technical considerations, and your DxO screen cap is undeniable. But my reviews are always based on the organic experience of using the lens (or other gear) and how I felt the end results were. I enjoyed the look of the shots I got with the Tamron, but they didn't jump out at as me as being significantly better than my Canon 85 1.8 (again, for the 2 hours I used to Tamron in a real world shoot). My reviews are, one could say, more opinion-editorial than technical breakdown/dissection. There are already fantastic resources for that sort of information on the web!

Thanks for the feedback...

...attached

I really like your review, although I would have liked it more if you had also taken the same photos with a cheaper lens/camera combination as it is hard to tell how much of the great photos is from you and how much from the good gear. Have you ever considered doing this?
I just wonder that as the lighting is good and a lot of the photos' wow factor is from the composition, whether you could have got similar with cheaper.