Tamron recently unveiled the 150-500mm VC VXD for Sony E-mount, a compact, low-priced, ultra-telephoto zoom packing plenty of eye-catching features.
It certainly sounded like a stellar lens for bird and action photography (after reading the press release, I wanted a copy!), but as all experienced photographers know, the specifications are only half the story. To really understand a lens – and to determine whether it’s a worthy addition to your camera bag – you have to see how it holds up in practical, real-life, everyday situations.
Which is why I recently sat down with Ken Hubbard, Tamron’s Field Services Manager and resident bird photography extraordinaire. Ken’s been using the new 150-500mm for quite some time now, so I knew that he could give me the low-down on its real-life capabilities. He didn’t disappoint!
What follows are key takeaways from my discussion with Ken, covering the lens’s performance, its usefulness for bird and action photographers, plus some bird photography tips for good measure.
1. The 500mm focal length lets you get frame-filling shots in the wild
In bird photography, you frequently need the longest lens you can afford. And as many beginners quickly realize, even a 70-300mm zoom doesn’t cut it – especially when you’re shooting distant and unapproachable subjects such as birds of prey or tiny subjects such as songbirds.
That’s where the Tamron 150-500mm comes in handy.
Zoomed in to 500mm, you can get ultra-close to birds, even those that are skittish or small. You can capture birds in flight, and you can produce gorgeous, detailed shots of songbirds such as orioles and goldfinches. Ken shared a few of these beauties with me:
You also have a shorter 300-400mm range just in case you need it. If you’re shooting at your backyard feeders or at a location where birds have become acclimated to humans, you can just zoom out to capture the perfect frame.
Also, if you’re after more environmental images, you might even try working at 150-300mm.
Quick tip: When you’re photographing a perching bird, don’t frame it too tightly. It might spread its wings, which will get clipped by the frame’s edges (a big no-no in bird photography!). Leave a bit of space around the bird; that way, when you get a nice wing spread, you can capture the pose.
2. The incredible optics provide ultra-sharp feather detail
Here’s a simple fact about the Tamron 150-500mm:
It’s really, really sharp, even at its widest apertures.
In fact, the phenomenal sharpness was the first thing Ken noticed upon viewing his images.
For bird photographers, this is a big deal, because birds offer lots of tiny details worth capturing (feathers!), plus you’ll sometimes want to crop in for a frame-filling final result. And if the sharpness isn’t there, your photos just won’t pass muster.
Take a look at the feather detail on this owl:
Another problem that bird photographers often face – especially when shooting darker birds against a bright sky – is chromatic aberration. It appears as colorful fringing along high-contrast edges such as bird wings, and it looks terrible.
Fortunately, chromatic aberration on the 150-500mm is negligible, certainly not enough to cause problems (even for a serious bird shooter like Ken).
3. Thanks to the lens’s lightweight build, you can handhold without trouble
Ultra-telephoto lenses tend to be insanely heavy. Which means that handholding for long periods of time is often out of the question.
The problem, of course, is that handholding can be useful, especially if you like the freedom and flexibility of pointing your lens in every direction from every reachable perspective, or you just don’t want to carry a tripod on top of cameras and lenses and other accessories.
But as it turns out, the Tamron 150-500mm is surprisingly lightweight (it comes in at 60.8 oz or 1725 g). Yes, it feels like a lens, and it’s not exactly a feather, but you should be able to handhold without issue.
Photographers will also appreciate the lens’s three Vibration Compensation modes, which keep your shots sharp when handholding at slower shutter speeds. In fact, two of the modes – Mode 2 and Mode 3 – seem tailored to birds and other action subjects, which means you can shoot sharp action images even in low light.
4. A small minimum focusing distance guarantees close-ups of tiny objects (such as songbirds)
You’re standing in a clearing, surrounded by beautiful yellow warblers. As they hop from branch to branch, getting closer and closer, you wait with your camera – but then, just as one tiny subject fills the frame, your lens fails to focus.
So you miss the shot. And the next shot, and the one after that, because your lens just can’t focus close enough.
You see, every lens has a particular minimum focusing distance (or MFD). Once your subject crosses the MFD, a lens won’t be able to focus any closer, and your shots will turn out blurry.
This becomes especially important when photographing tiny subjects such as songbirds and shorebirds. If you want to fill the frame, you need a lens with a small minimum focusing distance (in other words, you need a lens that can focus close). You do have the option of purchasing extension tubes, but these can be annoying to carry around and use.
The Tamron 150-500mm, however, is an unusually close-focusing lens. Its minimum focusing distance is 70.9 in (1.8 m) at 500mm, which means you can create intimate portraits of tiny goldfinches, or you can capture tight headshots of larger birds such as owls.
It’s how Ken manages to capture images like this:
(As an aside, you can also create some great photos of insects and flowers. While the Tamron 150-500mm isn’t a true macro lens, it can still get you pretty darn close!)
5. An Arca-Swiss compatible mount makes for easy tripod use
Earlier, I explained how the 150-500mm lets you handhold in low light.
But sometimes you’ll want to consider working with a tripod. Tripods are great for smooth panning, and they’re also nice for situations where you’re photographing in the same position for hours on end.
Unfortunately, working with telephoto lenses on a tripod can be a pain. You don’t want to mount the lens to the camera and the camera to the tripod; that can put stress on the lens and camera mount, which is definitely a bad thing. So instead you need to put a tripod collar on the lens, which then attaches to an Arca-Swiss plate, which mounts to the tripod head and balances the whole setup.
Some of the above does apply to the Tamron 150-500mm. It comes with a tripod collar, which slips around the lens. But very conveniently, the collar includes an Arca-Swiss compatible foot. So you can forego the Arca-Swiss plate and instead attach your Tamron 150-500mm directly to the tripod head.
(Quick tip: The tripod collar contains strap holes, so if you plan to hang the rig around your neck, make sure to thread your camera strap through. That way, your strap can connect to the lens, and you’ll get a better-balanced setup.)
6. The f/5-6.7 maximum aperture provides wing-to-wing sharpness
When you’re photographing birds in flight, here’s a good goal to strive for:
Getting the entire bird sharp, including the wings.
The same is true for perching birds, except you simply need to get the body in focus (there are no spread wings, after all!).
But how do you do this?
You’ll often want to keep your aperture relatively narrow, because a narrow aperture gives a deeper depth of field and hence keeps the full bird in focus. Ken often shoots in the f/6.7-f/8 range for this reason; it’s how he gets optimal detail in his bird photography.
The Tamron 150-500mm offers a maximum aperture of f/5 on the wide end, which increases to f/6.7 by 500mm. And as you can see from the photos above, this works out great!
Would it be nice to have an f/4 aperture for low-light shooting? Sure – but as Ken explains, a wide maximum aperture comes with tradeoffs, such as size (f/4 ultra-telephoto lenses tend to be huge), weight, and price. So if you’re after a more compact lens that still reaches those ultra-telephoto distances, the Tamron 150-500mm is a stellar option.
7. You can use the flexible Zoom Lock to keep a constant focal length
The Zoom Lock wasn’t a feature I had thought about until Ken mentioned it. I knew what it did – it lets you lock the lens focal length in place – but not why it was useful.
However, once Ken explained it to me, I realized that it was a neat little addition, especially for shooting birds high up in trees.
You see, heavy zooms tend to suffer from something called lens creep, where the lens barrel starts to contract as you aim the lens upward (and extend as you aim the lens downward). In other words: when you shoot eagles against the sky at 500mm, you may notice your focal length dropping over time. It can be frustrating, especially if you’re photographing subjects from a consistent distance.
The Zoom Lock, however, prevents lens creep. Once you’ve settled on a focal length, you simply push the zoom ring forward, and it locks the zoom mechanism in place. Then, once you’re ready to adjust the focal length again, you pull the zoom ring back to disable the Zoom Lock.
While you won’t always use this feature, it’s nice to have – and in certain situations, it’ll be a huge help.
8. You can focus on fast-moving birds with the VXD mechanism
As you’re likely aware, birds are speedy. Which means that photographing moving birds can be a challenge, especially if your equipment isn’t up to snuff.
So going into the discussion with Ken, I wanted to know, point blank: Does the Tamron 150-500mm focus fast?
Ken confirmed that yes, it does focus fast. In fact, thanks to Tamron’s VXD technology, focusing is both ultra-fast and super accurate. The lens stops on a dime, and it can lock onto moving subjects with ease. (It’s also very quiet, in case you’re shooting in situations where you don’t want to be noticed.)
It’s great for birds in flight:
As well as birds taking off:
Now, it is worth noting that focusing depends on three things:
- Your technique
- Your lens
- Your camera
The 150-500mm won’t guarantee you perfect focus, the same way a world-class guitar won’t guarantee you beautiful music. But if you refine your technique, and you use a reasonably fast-focusing camera (most of Sony’s recent full-frame or APS-C cameras will work great), then the 150-500mm will give you that final variable in the focusing equation.
Speaking of focusing technique, I asked Ken to share how he gets photos like those featured above.
He explains that focusing begins with your camera settings. Put your camera into AF-C mode so that it continues to focus as long as you hold the shutter button. If you have it, activate Animal Eye AF. You’ll also want to choose an AF area mode that works for moving subjects, such as Sony’s Zone AF, and you should select the fastest-available burst mode.
Then, if your subject is perched on a branch, pre-focus. Get your AF zone over the bird, and be locked and ready to go. As discussed above, make sure your framing isn’t too tight – remember, you don’t want to clip the wings! – then as soon as the wings extend, fire off a long burst of shots. Track the bird with your camera, continuing to shoot as it flies by.
Capturing a bird already in flight is harder, but still doable. Use all the same settings as above: AF-C, burst mode, and an optimized AF area mode. Put your eye to the viewfinder, but – here’s the trick! – keep both eyes open. One eye should be looking through the viewfinder, while the other eye searches the wider sky.
Then move your lens to follow the bird, and half-press your shutter button to lock on. Keep your framing loose, and try to center the bird (you can always crop later!) – then fire off burst after burst.
(Note: If you really want to maximize your accuracy, try using back-button focus. It decouples focusing from the shutter button, so you can maintain focus even when your finger comes off the shutter.)
Ken shares that you’ll end up with a huge number of shots, and only a few of them will actually look good, with a well-lit head, a nice wing position, and a nice background.
But that’s okay, he says. Because you can easily go through your photos later on the computer; the good ones will stick out, you can flag them, and get rid of the rest.
(One more tip: Buy the fastest memory cards available. Without fast cards, your camera won’t be able to shoot long bursts, which can lead to missed photos in critical situations.)
9. The strong build quality is perfect for outdoor photography
Bird photography (and outdoor photography in general) can get pretty rough.
You’re often traveling in dusty conditions, lying in mud, and/or dealing with high humidity. And the best shots tend to come from the worst weather: when you’re standing in the cold, getting soaked by rain or snow.
So you need a camera setup that can handle the elements.
Of course, I (and Ken) can’t speak to your camera. But the Tamron 150-500mm offers very solid build quality – it’s likely the first thing you’ll notice when you pull it out of the box.
Plus, thanks to its moisture-resistant construction, you can shoot in messy weather without worry (though I still recommend you use a waterproof cover!).
Tamron 150-500mm takeaways: final words
Well, there you have it:
The nine key takeaways after shooting with the Tamron 150-500mm Di III VC VXD. Ken is a huge fan of the lens, and I can see why: It’s an affordable, fast-focusing zoom that bird, wildlife, and action photographers will love. Ken’s experiences – as well as the photos in this article, all taken with the 150-500mm – make that clear.
Note that the lens will start shipping on June 10th, though it’s currently available for preorder at Tamron-authorized in-store and online retailers.
So if you’re a Sony shooter looking for a stellar ultra-telephoto lens, I highly recommend you take a look!
Tamron is a paid partner of dPS.