New value-price wildlife lens champion: Tamron 150-600mm zoom field-tested

New value-price wildlife lens champion: Tamron 150-600mm zoom field-tested

Wildlife photographers have some amazing, and amazingly expensive, lens options from Canon and Nikon, but for many the huge price tags – not to mention large size and weight -- make them impractical. Instead, they have needed to compromise image quality to meet their budget. Fortunately, modern manufacturing techniques and lens design software improvements have continued to improve the quality of third-party value-priced lenses. The first of this new breed is the that I field tested in Texas during my workshops this month...

I was pleasantly surprised by both its image quality and focus speed. I plan to review , but for now I wanted to pass along my thoughts on the exciting new Tamron…

The Tamron provides excellent image quality for a value-priced lens,
as shown by this Curve-billed Thrasher eating cactus fruit image from our .

Plenty sharp, even out to 600mm

I expected to see some image quality loss at the long end of this lens, and perhaps even cramp my shooting style to avoid it, but I didn’t have to. I could push the lens out to 600mm and take professional-grade images (some of which are showcased in this review). Often when I review value-priced lenses while I’m on a safari, I feel the need to go back to my “pro” lenses to get real work done. In this case, I left my Nikon 200-400mm f/4 in my camera bag for most of the two weeks, and was quite happy with my results using the additional reach of the Tamron (without needing to add and remove a teleconverter all the time). Now, the problem with reviewing value lenses is that purists always get bent out of shape because, after all, the $1070 super-zoom is NOT as sharp as the $12,000 600mm f/4. Okay, no it is not. Duh! That’s not the point. The point is that if you can get close enough for most people for 1/10th the price, and less than half the weight. If you’re in doubt, then you may want to rent one first and decide for yourself.

This Bobwhite was captured at 600mm. It is what I’d call “acceptably” sharp, although of course
not as tack sharp as with a (much more expensive) 600mm f/4 prime lens.

It is hard to get detailed data comparing the to other lenses as the category is so new. So I put together a comparison with the old-version Canon 100-400, and the new version Nikon 80-400. The Tamron falls in between the two. It’s overall rating is reduced a bit because it is evaluated out to 500mm. If measured only out to 400mm, it would score even better. I would have used the new version of the Canon, but it hasn’t been benchmarked yet:

Surprisingly-fast focus speed – out to almost 400mm

For most of its focus range, the built-in focus motors, combined with a modern DSLR’s focusing software, provide very quick focusing. As you move past about 350 to 400mm out to 600mm, the variable aperture of the lens shifts past the magic f/5.6 to f/6 and eventually f/6.3, and the lens focuses noticeably more slowly. It is still reasonable for most applications, but in situations where you need very quick focus, keeping the lens zoomed out until the aperture can be set to f/5.6 is really helpful. Note that you don’t have to set the exposure to f/5.6, becauses lenses always focus using their maximum aperture, but you do need to be at a focal length that makes f/5.6 possible.

Even at 600mm, the Tamron focused fast enough when used with my to capture
this Crested Caracara as it took off from its perch.
Photo from our Rio Grande Valley Photo Safari.

Excellent Image Stabilization (aka Vibration Reduction)

The Vibration Compensation (VC, as Tamron calls it, or VR for Nikon, or IS for Canon) technology in the lens performed amazingly well for a lens of this focal range and price. I was able to hand-hold shots at 1/60s, even out at 600mm, and get sharp images. That’s a large plus, especially since this lens is actually light enough for most photographers to do at least some hand-holding if they need to.


Obviously the lens isn’t just for birds.
This Desert Cottontail was captured at 500mm,
during our

Simple design with limited features

As you’d expect in this price range, the lens isn’t long on fancy controls. It does have a lock switch – which is nice since it is not an internally-focused lens, and gets longer as you zoom. Turning the switch on keeps it from creeping if you carry it vertically. There is also a handy focus limit switch, although in addition to the Full range, the limited range is from 15 meters to Infinity – a bit further out than I’d like given that the minimum focus distance is a remarkably good 2.7 meters (about 8 feet).

Black-throated Sparrows aren’t the most colorful bird in the Hill Country,
but they are still really cool looking!
Image from our .

The Tamron did a great job of showing color,
like that of this Painted Bunting.

Summary: Should you buy one?

In short, if you are looking for a reasonably-priced lens for wildlife photography, this is the best model I’ve seen out there (pending my review of the ). This is especially true if you need the added reach of 600mm for bird photography, or for safaris where you are not able to get close to mammals (for example, in National Parks in Africa, where typically you can not off-road, or in the US, where there are often practical considerations that limit how close you can get).

One great thing about having a zoom is that you can zoom out to help find small subjects in the lens,
then zoom in for tight shots like this Cactus Wren photographed at 600mm