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The official title of this lens is the Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD. Let’s break down that name a little to see the goodies this lens encompasses.
SP is Tamron’s line of high-end lenses and it carries a price tag of $650 currently on Amazon. With an aperture of f/2.8, the lens has solid speed in low light and great separation between subjects. Macro 1:1 means you can achieve a life-size capture of your subject on your camera’s sensor. VC stands for Vibration Compensation and USD is for Ultra Silent Drive, which is a quieter form of automatic focusing.
The lens comes in mounts for Canon, Nikon, and Sony, although the Sony mount does not include the VC feature as the Sony cameras that would fit this lens have their own VC built into the bodies.
NOTE: All sample images in this article are presented with a minimal amount of correction to show nearly out-of-camera examples.
When I am asked by students about buying new lenses, I tell them to go to a brick-and-mortar store and lay their hands on the new equipment. While not always 100% true, you can tell a lot about DSLR equipment by handling it and lenses fit the bill as well.
In the case of the Tamron 90mm, it feels solid, and that’s hard to fake in the world of optics. The heavier a lens is, the more glass has been used, and in this case, it is Tamron’s Extra Low Dispersion Glass. The effect is sharper images as compared to lenses made with a lot of acrylic elements. This brings the price up a little, but I believe Tamron has done a good job of balancing the two.
Two features I enjoyed were the extra large focus ring (it takes up half the lens barrel, making it easy to use even with gloves on) and full-time manual focus. Not having to reach for a Manual/Auto switch on the side of the barrel makes precise focus in macro situations a lot easier.
While other features, like internal focusing and image stabilization, help with the process of taking images, Tamron’s claim of a rounded diaphragm intrigued me. It’s a nine-blade diaphragm which retains a nearly perfect circular shape two stops down from wide open. This, they say, creates a softer blur of background (or foreground) objects for better separation. While I didn’t have another 90mm macro to test it against, I found the results shooting nearly wide open to be very pleasing.
One more note; About that image stabilization, it now includes an accelerometer. This helps the lens understand which way movement is happening and compensate better than lenses without it. It’s a small thing, but it helps the lens establish a 3.5 stop compensation against movement. Mind you, I always caution against the “in the lab” stats for compensation because they don’t match in-the-field tests. Speaking of stats…
You can find a whole passel of stats on Tamron’s site. The important highlights include:
I paired the Tamron with my 1-year-old Canon 7D Mark II during all tests. That means my images have a crop factor of 1.6x, so please take that into consideration. I then shot the following scene at f/2.8 and increased one stop all the way to f/32. Focus was set to dead center (the word “tip” in the text) and a tripod, 2-second timer and mirror lockup were used.
From my observation, f/11 is the sweet spot on this lens. F/2.8 and f/4 offer great drop off (almost too much with a crop-factor camera at f/2.8) and will give great separation of subjects. After f/11, things get a little soft although more of the image is in focus. By f/32 things start to blur too much to be useful for an extreme closeup.
The lens is a comfortable and well-balanced tool in the field. I always love the simplicity of prime lenses and I found the large manual focus ring to be very useful when getting close, or just when my camera wanted a different focus point than I did.
I enjoyed knowing the lens has a moisture-proof construction but this only goes so far. Moisture-proof is not the same as waterproof or weather-sealed. But for the price, it works well enough. Just know your limits and don’t think this is an L-series lens from the likes of Canon.
The lens mounts easily and focuses quickly. I enjoyed the limiter switch on the side with its three ranges; 0.3-0.5m for the closest of items, 0.5m-infinity for non-macro items and Full, for when you don’t know what you’ll encounter. As to be expected, when it is set to Full, the lens can take a while to hunt if it doesn’t grab focus on an object at 0.3m on the first try. I highly suggest using the limiting switch when shooting close-in to save time and frustration.
This lens is a pleasure to use, that I can say for a fact. I don’t shoot a lot of macro work, but this lens could easily do double-duty on a full frame camera for both macro and portraiture. With a crop sensor camera like mine, 144mm isn’t practical for portrait work so it’s a little more specialized.
Focus was quick but not lightning fast and the IS worked well, but I have my doubts regarding the truly 3.5 stops of latitude. I’d give it a solid 2-2.5 stops ,which is just fine, and it does help when getting in close to dimly lit subjects.
The focus was sharp and to my liking. It fell off as expected as the aperture stopped down.
There are a few things that nag me a little, but they are fairly superficial. The first is the lens alignment mark for the Canon mount. This is the little mark that you line up with the mark on your camera in order to mount the lens. The mark on the lens is white, but Canon uses two colors of marks on their cameras; red for standard mount (this is the only mount of full frame cameras) and white for EF-S lenses (those intended only for use on APS-C sensor cameras). I’m used to lining up white for white and red for red, but the white mark on the Tamron actually goes with the red mark on the camera body. It’s a little thing, but I found it annoying.
The other small thing is some chatter from the IS system. This is subjective (unless you to get a sound meter and test all lenses) but the IS system, when first activated with a half shutter or AF button press, makes something of a low, slightly grinding sounding noise. My Canon lenses make noises too, but this is just slightly louder and more gnarly sounding, if that makes sense. Again, not huge, but in my mind this kind of overshadows the USD feature.
Interested in adding this lens to your kit bag? Get a price on the Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD on Amazon.
Finally, here are some images shot with the Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8. It’s a bit lower in price than either the Canon or Nikon options ($800 and $900 respectively), and the Sony which is over $1000. If you’re in the market for a macro lens, you may want to give it a look.