This is a detailed review of the Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD, an ultra-telephoto zoom lens that was announced in November of 2013 for enthusiasts and professionals that are looking for a high quality, versatile zoom lens for a variety of needs, including wildlife photography. Although many DSLR lens manufacturers have been making telephoto zoom lenses that cover long ranges, whether looking at Sigma’s 50-500mm / 150-500mm lenses, Canon’s 100-400mm or Nikon’s 80-400mm, none of them can reach the focal length of 600mm natively without teleconverters. And as we have discovered in our Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G VR review, attaching teleconverters on slower zoom lenses is generally not a good idea, since there is a bit too much of sharpness loss / image degradation, or even potential loss of autofocus capability. Thus, the Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 is a rather unique lens in this group, which is why our team at Photography Life has been anxious to get a hold of the lens for a while now.
Since more than one person in our team was able to get a hold of the Tamron 150-600mm, this review will be a collaborative effort between several members of the team, including Thomas Stirr (who wrote the bulk of the initial review), Tom Redd (our wildlife guru) and Nasim Mansurov (everyone wants to see those lens performance graphs right?). We hope you enjoy our first joint effort and find feedback from multiple photographers valuable.
1) Lens Overview
For many people the Tamron SP 150-600mm VC lens can be considered a ‘game changer’. After all, how many other zoom lenses are available on the market today that give a photographer 600mm reach on a full frame camera for less than $1,100 US? The answer is…none.
Sure there are other lenses in this general zoom range that buyers will consider like the Nikkor 80-400 VR (approx. $2,700 US), or one of the two 500mm Sigma zoom offerings: the 50-500mm (approx. $1,500 US) and 150-500mm (approx. $870 US). There will likely be endless debate about the relative merits of these other telephoto zooms, or even comparisons to the Nikkor 300mm f/4 (approx. $1,370 US) when used with a tele-converter. Some people may even be inclined to make image quality comparisons to high end Nikkor telephoto glass costing thousands of dollars more and claim that the Tamron SP 150-600 VC is vastly inferior.
None of that really matters. The truth is that the Tamron SP 150-600 VC holds a unique place in the market as the only telephoto zoom currently available that can provide 600mm reach at f/6.3 on a full frame camera (or an equivalent field-of-view of 900mm at f/6.3 on a Nikon DX body). And, it does that while still being affordable for most people. In that regard, the Tamron SP 150-600 VC opens up a new world of bird and nature photography for many people…amateurs and enthusiasts alike.
2) Lens Specifications
- 4x ultra-telephoto zoom lens with a focal length range of 150mm to 600mm
- World class image quality, employing 20 elements in 13 groups and boasting an advanced optical design
- Achieves a 600mm focal length in a compact easy-to-handle package
- Beautiful background blur effects thanks to a 9 blade circular diaphragm
- VC (Vibration Compensation) mechanism creates greater opportunities for sharper handheld photography
- Comfortable autofocus featuring a USD (Ultrasonic Silent Drive) motor
- New elegant, high-class external finish
- Easy-to-use tripod mount
- Mount Type: Nikon F-Bayonet (also available for Canon and Sony mounts)
- Focal Length Range: 150-600mm
- Maximum Aperture: f/5-6.3
- Minimum Aperture: f/32-40
- Angle of View (DX-format): 10°38’ – 2°40’
- Angle of View (FX-format): 16°25’ – 4°8’
- Lens (Elements): 20
- Lens (Groups): 13
- Compatible Format(s): FX, DX, FX in DX Crop Mode, 35mm Film
- Diaphragm Blades: 9
- LD Glass (Elements): 3
- Autofocus: Yes
- USD (Ultrasonic Silent Drive): Yes
- Minimum Focus Distance: 106.3 in (2.7m)
- Focus Mode: AF/MF
- Filter Size: 95mm
- Accepts Filter Type: Screw-on
- Length: 10.1 in (257.8mm)
- Weight (Approx.): 68.8 oz (1,951 g)
- Lens Hood: Flower-shaped HA007 lens hood
Detailed specifications for the lens, along with MTF charts and other useful data can be found in our lens database.
3) Build Quality
The Tamron 150-600 VC is constructed mainly of high grade plastic which some buyers may interpret as being inexpensive and not of professional quality. For a lens of this price range the build quality is very good. I don’t ‘rough-house’ my gear and I can see the Tamron 150-600 providing many years of trouble free operation. The use of plastic for the housing does help to eliminate some weight, and make no mistake, the Tamron 150-600 is a large, relatively heavy, zoom lens. It weighs 4.3 lbs. (1.95 Kg), and measures approximately 4.16” (105.6mm) x 10.15” (257.8mm). When fully extended to its 600mm focal length the lens measures 13” (330mm) and the lens hood adds another 4” (101.6mm) to the overall length.
I found the zoom action was very smooth and all of the controls felt solid. The discernable ‘click’ sounds when using the controls adds to the quality feeling of the lens. Both the zoom and focus rings have well-grooved surfaces which provide excellent grip and a solid feel.
From a tactile perspective the control ring surfaces on the Tamron felt more solid than the ones on my Nikkor 70-200 f/4.
The Tamron’s F-mount is constructed of metal and in my experience provided the same level of camera/lens coupling as the Nikkor glass I own. As would be the case with any lens weighing over 4 pounds it would be prudent to never let this lens hang from your camera body unsupported.
The Tamron SP 150-600 VC has three controls on the left hand side of the lens body: a focus limiter (full, 15m to infinity), auto/manual focus switch, and vibration control on/off.
The switches are well positioned with the focus limiter on the top. It was very easy to find when shooting ‘in the moment’ which was important as the focusing speed of the Tamron 150-600 is improved when the focus limiter is used appropriately.
Like other lenses that extend when they are zoomed out, the Tamron’s focus ring is closest to the camera body and the zoom ring is further out. Since this is a large and fairly heavy lens it is very easy to inadvertently lightly touch the palm of your shooting hand or a fingertip on the focusing ring. This can hamper lens auto focusing.
The two rings are about 7/8” (22mm) apart so it is quite easy to unintentionally obstruct the focus ring operation if you are not careful. As a result you may blame the lens for not focusing, when the issue could be with how you are holding the lens.
On the right hand side of the lens there is a zoom lock which operates at two focal lengths: when the lens is fully retracted and at approximately 400mm.
The lock works well. You don’t have to worry about lens creep when it is engaged. The 400mm lock position is quite handy to use as it provides a decent amount of zoom should a fast-breaking photo opportunity arise and you don’t have time to disengage the zoom lock.
On the top of the lens there is a distance gauge in both Imperial and metric measures. Focal length markings are in easy-to-read white type.
I really enjoyed shooting with the Tamron 150-600 VC lens. The controls are easy to access and use, and the zoom worked very well. Since the zoom has a long throw, from 150mm-600mm, the zoom ring needs to be rotated about 150-degrees to achieve full zoom range. As a result I found that using the zoom ring was practical when trying to achieve focal length differences of up to 200mm or so. Adjusting focal length more than that requires a series of wrist twists on the barrel. I found that it was much easier to simply hold the end of the lens and use it like a bellows to achieve the desired focal length. You can also position the tripod collar to help facilitate the ‘bellows’ movement and reduce potential torque on the lens/camera F-mount…more on that later under “Practical shooting considerations”.
6) Autofocus Performance and Accuracy
The Tamron 150-600 was married up with my Nikon D800 for most of my testing. I found that auto-focus operation was fast and accurate, especially so in good lighting. I did not detect much of a difference with auto-focus speed at 600mm. During my testing I never felt that my shooting was restricted because of auto-focus issues when using my D800.
Using the Tamron SP 150-600 VC with older Nikon DX bodies like the D7000 and D3200 did result in very noticeable focus lag. For example, I found using single point auto focus when shooting birds in flight with a D7000 resulted in significant focus lag, frustration, and numerous missed shots. The number of missed shots was obviously much lower with perched birds. I spoke to my contact at the Canadian Tamron distributor about this issue. I was informed that newer DSLR bodies (i.e. 18-24 months old) should not have any problems focusing with the Tamron SP 150-600 VC. I had the opportunity to try the auto-focus on a D7100 and found it to be very solid and significantly better than with the D7000.
When mounted on older bodies, the Tamron distributor recommended that users should try to engage as many cross-type focus points as possible as this should improve auto-focus speed. I tested this out with a D7000 and I did find that the focus lag was greatly reduced when additional cross-type focus points were engaged. This did improve the performance of the D7000 when shooting birds in flight quite a bit…but it still fell short of the D7100, and did not come anywhere close to the performance with my D800.
I read on a number of internet forums that Canon shooters also had some initial issues with inconsistent auto-focus performance with various Canon bodies when the Tamron SP 150-600 VC was first introduced. I suspect that this is a firmware-related issue and Tamron will likely address these issues with updates in the future. I understand some firmware updates were done with the Canon version of the lens.
The Tamron SP 150-600 VC was not recognized by either my Nikon 1 V2 or my Nikon 1 J1 at all. I’ve been advised that Tamron engineers are investigating this issue to see if a firmware update can be designed to address this issue. There is no answer currently available on this specific problem.
7) Lens Sharpness and Contrast
In my two ‘preview’ articles which have appeared here on Photography Life recently I showcased a number of images taken with the Tamron 150-600 with my D800. If you missed those preview articles or would like to view them again they can be found here:
I found the image quality to be very good for a lens of this type. There is some softness at the 600mm end of the range, but it is quite common for a zoom lens to lose some sharpness at its longest focal length so this is not unexpected. Stopping down to f/8 does help to increase sharpness on the long end of the lens. The vast majority of people shooting with the Tamron SP 150-600 VC will shoot in RAW and apply some sharpening in post.
To give you an idea of jpeg sharpness, here is an out-of-camera jpeg taken at 600mm (EFoV 900mm) with my D800 in DX crop mode at f/8, 1/1600th, ISO-800. No adjustments have been made to this image, or the crop that follows it.
And, here is a crop from the image above. Keep in mind that this level of cropping represents less than 5% of the total image area of my D800’s sensor.
As a comparison here is an image taken at 600mm with my D800 in DX crop mode (EF0V 900mm) at f/8, 1/2000th , ISO-800. This image, as well as the crop that follows, were processed using the RAW file.
Image quality does improve when the lens is used below the 600mm maximum. Here is an image of a black crowned night heron taken in its nest with my D800 in DX crop mode. It was shot at 460mm (EFoV 690mm), f/8, 1/2000th, ISO-800.
Here are two 100% crops from the above image.
Here is a night heron in flight that I captured with my D800 in DX crop mode. It was shot at 240mm (EFoV 360mm) at f/8, 1/1600th, ISO-400. The image was processed from a RAW file using DxOMark OpticsPro 8, CS6 and Nik Suite.
For those of you wondering about the image quality when using a cropped sensor body, here is a photo taken with a D7000 at an EFoV of 570mm, f/8, 1/640th , ISO-400.
This is a 100% crop from the above image.
This peacock image was taken with a D7000 at the Metro Toronto Zoo at an EFoV of 900mm, f/6.3, 1/200th , ISO-200.
If you are wondering how well the Tamron SP 150-600 VC can capture fine detail, have a look at this image taken with my D800 in FX mode at 600mm, f/8, 1/1600th , ISO-400, -1 EV. You’ll notice a fly on the white flower.
Now have a look at a 100% crop taken from the image above. The fly was 8.4 meters, or about 27.5 feet, away from me.
This photograph of a dandelion seed head was taken with my D800 in DX crop mode, EFoV of 900mm, f/6.3 1/1250th, ISO-3200.
Here are a few more images of birds taken with the Tamron SP 150-600 VC using my D800 in DX crop mode. This next image was taken at an EFoV of 900mm, f/7.1, 1/2000th, ISO-800.
This cormorant was shot at an EFoV of 450mm, f/8, 1/2500th, ISO-800.
The flying gull photo below was taken at an EFoV of 450mm, f/8, 1/200th, ISO-800.
This stationary gull was shot with an EFoV of 900mm, f/8, 1/6400th, ISO-800.
The majority of users should find the image quality of the Tamron 150-600 VC to be more than acceptable. Obviously having realistic expectations of a lens costing about $1,100 US is needed, and not being an obsessive pixel peeper would also be a plus.
The Tamron 150-600 does incorporate eBAND and BBAR coatings to help reduce lens flare and ghosting. I did shoot the Tamron quite a bit without the lens hood and I did not find any issues with lens flare. Overall, I found the image quality to be quite good in terms of colour rendition and contrast.
8) Vibration Control
Tamron has a very good reputation for the quality and effectiveness of its vibration control technology, especially with its most recent lenses, and the 150-600 VC does not disappoint in this regard. Obviously when shooting a long telephoto zoom very good hand-holding technique is required as the vibration reduction in any lens will never eliminate the effects of bad technique.
Since the majority of Photography Life readers are likely owners of cropped sensor cameras I took my vibration control test shots hand-held with my D800 in DX crop mode. Here are two shots taken hand-held at 600mm, or an EFoV of 900mm. The first one is at f/6.3, 1/160th , ISO-400, -1 EV. You’ll see in the 100% crop that the details in the label are quite good, especially given the equivalent focal length and shutter speed. These shots are out of camera jpegs with no adjustments what-so-ever.
I was also able to get a useable image shot at 600mm (EFoV 900mm) f/6.3, ISO-100, -1 EV, at 1/40th of a second. While the type on the label in the 100% crop may not be pin sharp I think this is still excellent performance given the equivalent focal length of 900mm, aperture of f/6.3, and a shutter speed of 1/40th, and demonstrates the capability of the vibration control built into the Tamron 150-600.
With proper technique I think most people should be able to get good quality hand-held images at 1/125th and 1/160th when shooting at 600mm (900mm EFoV) with the Tamron SP 150-600 VC.
9) Low-light Performance
I found that the Tamron SP 150-600 VC performed well under low light situations with my D800. In order to push the lens beyond what most people would likely attempt to do with it, I took the following hand-held shot at 600mm (EFoV 900mm) with a D7000 at f/6.3, 1/80th, ISO-5000. The following image is an out-of-camera jpeg with no adjustments, other than cropping out the license plate.
The high contrast in the scene likely helped with auto-focus but I still think the image came out quite well and is a good indicator of what many photographers could hope to achieve hand-held in low light shooting situations. You can see the quality of this low light jpeg in the following 100% crop…again no adjustments were done to the out-of-camera jpeg.
10) Practical Shooting Considerations
For those of you who may be wondering how realistic it is to hand-hold the Tamron SP 150-600 VC lens I can tell you that after shooting with it for 2 weeks and having taken over 10,000 frames with it, I never once felt the need to use a tripod or monopod. Every image I have taken to date has been hand-held. My hand-held photo sessions lasted between 3 and 6 hours each.
That’s not to say that this lens is a piece-of-cake to handle. It’s not. There is bulk and weight to contend with but there are some simple things you can do to deal with those issues.
First, I recommend that you always keep the tripod collar attached to the lens…even if you have no intention of using a tripod or monopod with it. Why? If you rotate the tripod collar upside down and tighten it on the lens it serves as an easy-to-hold handle. This is ideal when you are hiking between shots.
It can also be difficult to change settings with your camera with such a large, heavy lens attached to it. By keeping the tripod collar attached it can serve as a convenient grab point when you need to support the lens while adjusting your settings.
As I mentioned earlier, because the zoom ring has to rotate about 150-degrees to zoom through the entire range it is much easier to hold the end of the lens and simply pull it in and out to achieve your desired focal length. This could put some torque on the F-mount body connection and potentially cause damage to the lens/camera mount. To eliminate this potential damage you can rotate the tripod collar to the right, towards your shutter finger.
You can then use your middle finger to hold the lens tripod collar. I found it most comfortable to place my middle finger on the collar’s tightening knob. Now that the lens is being braced by the middle finger of your shooting hand, your other hand can achieve the focal length you want with the in-and-out bellows movement. This eliminates the push-pull motion from being transferred to the lens/camera mount.
There will be times when you are waiting for photo opportunities to present themselves, or you may be walking to another spot with the lens. To help lessen the load you can cradle the lens and keep your arm in a relaxed downward position. Wrapping your camera strap around your wrist provides additional security.
Or, if you have a shoulder bag with a well-padded strap you can simply rest the lens on top of the bag, even if the bag is not physically large enough to hold the lens inside.
The focus limiter on the lens is very effective and helps to reduce potential focus hunting by the lens and I’d recommend using this feature whenever you are out shooting with the Tamron SP 150-600 VC.
The lens takes a large 95mm filter and if you are going to buy a UV filter as protection for the lens make sure you buy a good quality one like B+W, as cheap filters may degrade image quality, especially when shooting at the long end of the zoom.
If you do not have much experience shooting at long focal lengths do not expect to be able to pick up this lens and get great hand-held shots at 600mm immediately. It will take some practice and patience, but the Tamron SP 150-600 VC can deliver great results for you.
If you are using a body more than 18 months old you may experience some focus lag. To minimize this be sure to engage as many cross-type focus points as possible when you are shooting.
The Tamron SP 150-600 VC lens strikes a great balance between performance, price, and size/weight. For many amateur and enthusiast photographers who have been waiting for a reasonably affordable lens for bird and nature photography the Tamron SP 150-600 VC can be a ‘game changer’ for them. There is nothing else on the market that delivers 600mm reach on a full frame camera (EFoV of 900 mm on a DX body) at this price point. Period.
Buyers need to keep their expectations in line with the fundamentals of this lens – it is a long zoom, not a prime lens, so it is unrealistic to expect the performance of a 600mm f/4 Nikkor prime that costs nearly 10 times more than the Tamron SP 150-600 VC lens.
If you own a Nikon body that is more than 18 months old you may want to wait a bit to make sure Tamron issues some firmware updates that may help your body avoid focus lag with this lens. And, if you own a Nikon 1 V2 or V3…keep your fingers crossed that Tamron figures out a way for those cameras to work on this lens…it would be amazing!
The more I shot with this lens the more I enjoyed it. In fact, I will be suffering from a major case of LWS (lens withdrawal syndrome) when I have to return it to Tamron’s Canadian distributor next week. This lens is one of those optical products that can bring back the fun and adventure in photography that many people have been missing for a very long time.
12) Where to buy and availability
13) More image samples
Article and Images Copyright 2014, Thomas Stirr. All rights reserved. No use, reproduction or duplication including electronic is allowed without written consent.
Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD
- Optical Performance
- Bokeh Quality
- Build Quality
- Focus Speed and Accuracy
- Image Stabilization
- Size and Weight
Photography Life Overall Rating