When Tamron introduced the Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 VC a few years ago it really shook things up (Model A011, but hereafter I’ll call it the G1 for simplicity). Priced just over a grand, the G1 offered people the chance to get into wildlife photography without dumping five figures into a super-telephoto prime lens. Not only was it inexpensive, but it was also surprisingly sharp as well; much sharper than many of us expected a lens in that price range to be. Sigma followed up a few months later with not one, but two 150-600mm zooms, then Nikon joined the fray a year later with its Nikon 200-500mm zoom.
While the Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 VC did great optically, it suffered autofocus freeze-up issues with Nikon bodies and the long barrel extension coupled with a lack of weather-sealing made it a real dust pump. Nevertheless, the light weight, good image stabilization and general hand-holdability of the lens made it a keeper in my book. With the Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 VC, I could reach locations I wouldn’t lug a 500mm or 600mm prime to. It focused quickly and tracked reasonably well for birds in flight as well. Overall, it got me a lot of shots I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
Still, those AF freeze-ups annoyed the hell out of me, so when Tamron announced a new 150-600mm zoom (designated the G2 for Generation 2) that was weather sealed and boasted improved autofocus performance, I jumped at the chance to field test one even though the MSRP jumped to $1,399. In addition, Tamron has released dedicated 1.4x and 2x teleconverters for this lens. I tested the 1.4x (MSRP $419), but gave a pass on the 2x as this would let so little light in (f/13 maximum aperture at 1200mm) that I doubt even in bright light that it would autofocus and at f/13 the viewfinder would be so dark as to make manual focus difficult, forcing you to use live view – not ideal for wildlife.
Build and Ergonomics
Out of the box, the build feels good and the lens balances well on all the bodies I attached to it (Nikon D500 with and without battery grip, D810, and D4s). Tamron has made the lens barrel from metal, not plastic. For some, this is a selling point, but I don’t feel it matters when it comes to whether I get the shot or not. The only complaint I have about the build is that the switches are not positive enough. On the G1 there was a very distinct click, and switching modes felt deliberate and positive, however, to push them into place it helped to take the camera away from your face.
The G2 switches are easier to manipulate if you’re looking through the viewfinder. Just a light touch moves from mode to mode. But it’s this light touch that causes problems when you accidentally nudge the focus limiter to the wrong range and miss a shot because the lens won’t focus beyond a certain distance. The light action on these four switches (VC mode, VC on/off, AF/MF and focus range limiter) makes the switches feel cheap. As I use rear-button focus, the AF/M switch becomes redundant, so I ended up taping it in place, because I inadvertently bumped out of AF multiple times. Though all of the switches are prone to being nudged out of place, the AF on/off and focus limiter switches, due to their position on the lens barrel, seemed to get bumped more than the VC mode and VC on/off switches.
Full zoom takes about 160 degrees, or for me two good twists (might take three if your fingers are shorter than mine). The zoom ring action has an even feel with no tight spots. If you really need to zoom in or out in a hurry, you can grasp the front of the barrel and push or pull as needed. I avoided this with the G1 as I worried it would pump more dust into the lens interior. With the G2’s weather sealing, this should be less of a concern. When using the push/pull technique there seems to be more resistance the further you zoom out.
There is both a zoom lock switch and a new Flex Zoom Lock. The zoom lock switch works only at 150mm. The Flex Zoom Lock utilizes a slight pull outwards of the zoom ring to lock the barrel at any focal length. I personally didn’t like this feature as it was easy to unintentionally lock the barrel and not realize it, only to end up in a situation where you want to zoom and can’t. I’m sure I’ll get used to this with more use and I see where this could be helpful say when panning and you don’t want to focal length to change image to image, ditto with chimping and raising the lens back up for the next shot of the same subject. The lens exhibits minor zoom creep, mostly between 150-300mm. Beyond 300mm, you really have to bounce around to get it to creep.
The manual focus ring is also smooth, but I wish it were wider and easier to find. When hand-holding, I like to support the lens by the tripod foot and the focus ring is a bit tricky to grab in this position. If you support by holding the lens barrel, then the focus ring is easier to grab. The focus scale goes from near (left) to infinity (right), same as Canon, opposite of Nikon. As Canon outsells Nikon, I don’t blame Tamron for making this manufacturing choice, but I wish they would incorporate same direction focusing for both platforms. Of course this would drive the price up, perhaps beyond what consumers would want to pay for this feature.
The tripod foot is a big improvement over the G1. It’s longer, with room for all four of my fingers (the G1 had room for just 3 fingers). Furthermore it has Arca-Swiss compatible grooves. Finally a lens manufacturer has incorporated this design that has been the pro standard for quite some time. This should work great with screw lock Arca-Swiss style tripod head connections. With my Really Right Stuff quick release, the fit was uncomfortably tight. Really Right Stuff machines all their gear to their own specifications and I’ve noticed Arca-Swiss plates from other manufacturers don’t always mate well with Really Right Stuff, sometimes being too tight or too loose. Seems like there isn’t exact agreement on just how wide the Arca-Swiss standard is, or that this is an issue of manufacturing tolerances. Another nice feature of the G2 tripod foot is it now has two screw holes instead of one like the G1. So if you do add a two-screw tripod plate to it, that connection won’t twist at all.
Rotating the lens in the collar when mounted on a tripod can be a grabby proposition depending on how well balanced you’re set up on your tripod and on if you have a heavy or light body attached. This is typical of tripod collars in general, except for those with roller bearings and such collars are usually only seen on high-end lenses costing over ten grand.
The lens hood on the G1 was pretty fussy to attach and reverse on the lens. The G2’s hood is easy to attach. It’s a tad fussy to reverse for storage, but not near as bad as the G1.
After shooting this lens for four months, there is no appreciable dust inside so the weather sealing seems to work well. As you can see from the above illustration, Tamron did a pretty good job with weather sealing the lens. In comparison, the G1 in an equivalent length of time would collect a lot of dust inside.
My first field experience wasn’t good. While out shooting, the G2 seemed to hunt focus a lot more than my G1. I had acquired the TAP-in console with the hope that I could fine-tune things like AF speed (Sigma’s similar dock lets you do this), but it turns out it only lets you adjust the AF focus limiter switch settings (and some VR settings) and upload firmware updates.
I wasn’t psyched to be missing shots because of focus hunting, but when I got back home and loaded down images I was pleased with the sharpness. Furthermore, the more I got familiar with the lens, the less hunting it did as I made adjustments to my technique.