Third party manufacturers have transformed the Sony full-frame ecosystem, giving the brand the most affordable and wide-ranging lens line-up of any mirrorless camera. Tamron has been at the center of this evolution, offering excellent lenses with intelligent compromises. The new 70-180mm f/2.8 Di III VXD is no exception.
First came the incredibly successful 28-75mm f/2.8, followed closely by the 17-28mm f/2.8. Two short years after this early hint that an alternative trinity might be on the way, Tamron has completed the set. Sony promised us that mirrorless would mean smaller and lighter; strangely, it’s Tamron that’s made that promise a reality.
- Focal Length: 70 to 180mm
- Maximum / Minimum Aperture: f/2.8 — f/22
- Angle of View: 34° 21’ to 13° 42’
- Minimum Focus Distance: 10.63” / 27 cm
- Maximum Magnification: 0.5x
- Macro Reproduction Ratio: 1:2
- Optical Design: 19 Elements in 14 Groups
- Diaphragm Blades: 9, rounded
- Focus Type: Autofocus
- Image Stabilization: No
- Filter Size: 67 mm (Front)
- Diameter: 3.19 “ (81 mm)
- Length: 5.87 “ (149 mm)
- Weight: 1.78 lb (810 g)
- Price at launch: $1,199
Tamron or Sony?
The immediate question is how it compares to Sony’s own version, the 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS, and many readers will be furiously trying to figure out if the $1,400 you save on buying the Tamron version (yes, it’s less than half the price — $1,200 instead of $2,600) is acceptable given the compromises. Here’s a direct list of how the key stats stack up, working on the assumption that lighter and smaller is better:
The Sony lens includes a tripod collar to accommodate its size and weight.
No doubt, your compromises will come down to personal preference and what you shoot. For me, the extra 20mm of reach isn’t a massive difference (you’ll lose just shy of 20% of your resolution if you crop 180mm to 200mm) and I can live without stabilization. As usual, your mileage may vary. While both are weather-sealed, if you need a lens that gives you more options in low light (stabilization) and doesn’t risk sucking in dust and moister (internal zoom), unfortunately for your wallet, the Sony is by far the better choice. As a professional option, the GM still tips the balance, as you might expect.
Of course, this is exactly where Tamron is differentiating its brand. These are not lenses designed specifically with jobbing professionals in mind. The 70-180mm is geared towards semi-professionals and enthusiasts such as myself who shoot events and want an affordable lens without compromising on the maximum aperture and image quality. Once again, with the 70-180mm lens, this is what Tamron has achieved.
Tamron loaned me a “pre-series model” of the 70-180mm lens, arriving about a week or two into the lockdown here in France. My wife and I have been incredibly lucky in being isolated and far from much of the crisis, but, like many of you, almost all of my work has disappeared and movement was severely restricted. Please don’t for a moment think that what we’ve endured is anything like that experienced by those who have contracted the disease or lost loved ones, but the last few months have been challenging. Motivation has been low and opportunities to photograph are still fairly limited. I had to make a conscious effort to stop photographing blossom, and the horses in the fields close to my house were getting bored of me pointing a camera at them.
For lens reviews, I like to try to get a sense not just of performance and technical attributes, but of what it feels like to use the lens, and essentially whether it makes you want to pack it in your bag every time you leave the house. This means taking it on an adventure or two, such as exploring architectural curiosities on the English coast, or a week of camping and rock climbing in a Swiss valley. By contrast, much of my time spent shooting with the 70-180mm has been at home or very close to it.
This is a phenomenal piece of equipment. However, despite its speed, sharpness, and convenience, and to paraphrase Marie Kondo, this is not a lens that sparks joy in the same way that I experienced when shooting with the Tamron 17-28mm f/2.8 or the Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8. This lack of a spark is probably due to a few extraneous factors: I don’t often use telephoto zooms and the conditions under which I’ve been testing this lens have been far from ideal.
In keeping with other recent Tamron lenses, the barrel is a high-grade plastic with a refined, solid feel to it. The dampening on the zoom and focus rings are pleasing, though you might be annoyed that the two rings are the other way around to Sony zoom lenses. There’s a switch to lock it at 70mm for travel, but no autofocus toggle switch [a previous version of this article stated otherwise — apologies]. There’s no custom control ring or button which is what you’d expect from a lens that is seeking to be as affordable as possible. The plastic lens hood snaps pleasantly into place.
Using this lens without a grip to bulk out an a7 series camera is not a daunting prospect. This is a long lens that gives a hint of seeking to twist the camera out of your grip, but I can happily shoot one-handed at 70mm while making changes to the dials under my thumb and forefinger. For a telephoto zoom, this is unexpected and very welcome.
Third-party lenses have undergone an incredible evolution in the last five or ten years and it’s now hard to find glass that doesn’t deliver sharp images. Tamron’s ability to deliver crisp files is no exception, and on the 24-megapixel a7 III — possibly the camera to which most Sony shooters will be attaching this lens — the results are impressive.
As you might expect, I’ve predominantly been shooting this lens wide open. It’s pleasingly sharp at both ends and corner sharpness improves both at 70mm and 180mm when you stop down to f/4.
Focusing is rapid, even in low light situations which will be great news for wedding photographers who are looking to lighten their bag (though don’t forget that stabilization is missing — more on this later).
As well as being snappy, this is another quiet lens, in keeping with the two other zooms, and a world away OSD (Optical Silent Drive) used in the trio of f/2.8 primes (20mm, 24mm, 35mm) that were released last year. Tamron has rolled out a completely new motor system for this new telephoto lens: the VXD. This "Voice-coil eXtreme-torque Drive" is a linear focus mechanism which Tamron claims is the best it has ever produced. It’s hard to compare it to my 17-28mm, but it’s definitely fast and accurate, not to mention quiet.
As a bonus, the macro capabilities are exceptional for a lens of this type, something that’s become almost a trademark of Tamron’s E-mount lenses. The Sony 70-200mm offers a minimum focusing distance of more than three feet (96 cm), bettered slightly by the Tamron which gives you 33.5 “ (85 cm) throughout the focal range. What makes it remarkable is that when you switch to manual focus, this minimum focussing distance drops to 10.6 “ (27 cm). Thanks to physics, you’ll get some softness on the periphery, but the subject in the center of the frame will be fairly sharp. Tamron is proud of this feature (and rightly so) to the extent that it has a dedicated page on its website explaining how it works.
For a telephoto zoom, you’d expect focus breathing to be far worse than it is. It’s there, but it’s far from dramatic.
Testing its ability to track quickly moving subjects has been challenging given the lockdown, my wife’s injured knee, and the fact that horses will quite happily stand completely motionless for an inordinate amount of time. This is one area where the lens doesn’t quite perform as you might hope. I’ll spare you the photographs of rather boring French cars driving along a rather nondescript road. Those approaching me at around 50 mph did not remain sharp throughout a sequence of shots on the a7 III shooting at 10 frames per second, despite the green boxes dancing all over the moving vehicle.
Will You Miss Stabilization?
Much more of an issue for videographers, the lack of stabilization on the Tamron lens is a significant disadvantage over the Sony. For photographers, it strikes me as less of a problem and, comfortably braced, I was able to shoot relatively consistently at 180mm down to about 1/6th of a second using the a7 III’s own internal Steadyshot stabilization. When I shot weddings, I never ventured below 1/15th when grabbing tight shots of the ceremony or guests during the speeches, so this should be a lens welcomed many wedding shooters who are keen to keep the weight of their bag down.
With only 9 aperture blades over the 11 found inside the Sony 70-200mm f/2.8, bokeh fans will not be blown away. The balls are consistent and smooth with a few hard edges, and out of focus areas are pleasant enough, just not particularly exciting. Out of focus areas produced by telephoto lenses have never made me salivate, however, and regardless, I doubt many will be buying this lens specifically for its butteriness.
With some gloriously sunny evenings here in France, we took advantage of some golden hour shooting. The lens holds up admirably, with focus performing well despite the lack of contrast. Eye autofocus failed, as you’d expect under such circumstances. Flare was minimal, and the resulting images did not wash out too dramatically.
Elsewhere, chromatic aberration was pretty much impossible to create, despite my best efforts.
Unless you were fan of the quirky macro capabilities of the primes, Tamron’s recent batch of lenses was a little underwhelming. By contrast, the lens that completes its trinity of intelligently compromised f/2.8 primes is a return to exceptional form, and Sony shooters should now be delighted to have what is by far the most complete set of lenses available for any full-frame mirrorless system. Five years ago, you would have assumed that Sigma would be the company to make this happen; instead, Tamron has dropped the price — not to mention a few millimeters — and got there first.
The 70-180mm f/2.8 is not a lens that inspires me but it is a remarkable tool, especially when you consider that you can kit yourself out with all three in the Tamron trinity at a cost that's not far beyond a single Sony equivalent. Professionals may likely prefer the internal zoom and slightly more rugged build of the Sony, but for those countless a7 III shooters who need to mind their spending, the Tamron is a lot of lens at a fraction of the price.
What I Liked
- Size and weight
- Weather sealing
- Speed of autofocus
What I Didn’t Like
- Not an internal zoom lens — this will draw in dust over time, despite the weather sealing
- Autofocus tracking seemed to struggle a little