Macro Lens Review: Tamron SP 90MM F/2.8 Di VC USD 1:1

Tamron’s SP 90mm f2.8 Di VC Macro sees Tamron building on its earlier version of the 90mm (with the same name,) to make a macro lens that is more in step with its competition (Nikon AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED Lens, Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM Lens, and the Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro Lens,) improving the overall quality and bringing it “into brand” with a new look and new features.
Tamron’s recently released 90mm Macro Model F017 is an update and upgrade of their well-liked Model F004, changing the look and function of the lens. The lens now looks like its sibling Tamron SP (Super Performance) lenses; with a matte finish, white lettering, ribbed rubberized focusing ring, rocker switches for AF/M and VC/Normal modes, and focus distance window, it is easily identifiable as a Tamron. As with their other SP lenses, they have also added their patented VC (Vibration Control) technology, and topped it off with an integrated accelerometer which, working in tandem with a gyro sensor, compensates for motion shake to help stabilize handheld images – remember to turn VC off when you’re on a tripod or it will fight you to make focusing and locking down more difficult. Another big change Tamron has added is IF (Internal Focusing) System which focuses by moving only the internal lens group, leaving the overall length unchanged. In turn, this does away with the 2 inches that the model F004 used to extend with changing focus distance. This makes the lens about 2/3 of an inch longer overall, but alleviates the chance that you’ll knock into your subject in macro situations.
While the 90mm is technically a “fixed” f2.8, working at very close focusing distances causes the max aperture to decrease due to the “bellows effect”: the distance of focus changes, therefore your sensor receives less light, and the aperture changes in relation to the light admitted, but not to the relative depth of field of the f-stop…it’s physics not a lens issue. With the Nikon, the digital readout will actually change to give you an “f-stop” relative to the light available, not the actual visual f-stop.

With all the basic changes and technical bits out of the way, let’s talk about how the lens feels and performs. I tested the Nikon version of the 90mm on the Nikon D750. The lens is fairly lightweight, but manages to not feel cheap. Its focus ring has decent tension and gives good control, especially when manually focusing for macro, with smooth movement that stays where you focus it on manual focus. However, I found the AF (Auto Focus) for macro was a little off. It would miss focus a bit, traveling up and down the focal length, even with definite edges/contrast to lock on to. When working in macro, however, I toggled the focal limit to 0.3m-0.5m, which seemed to help the lens lock focus more quickly. It’s always possible to flip over to manual focus if that’s not working, so while I noted it, it’s not a deal breaker. On a side note, you might be able to tweak the fine focus using Tamron’s “Tap-In Console,” which can be used to fine tune focus on the lens, although I did not have access to it.
To put the macro to the test, I grabbed a small ceramic elephant that I have (about 2.5″ × 2.5″) and placed it on a sari with detailed stitching on the hem, to give a better idea of the detail and bokeh. The reason I picked the elephant is because it’s a shiny object with some texture and fine detail, to ensure I could have a good look at the sharpness while also having a chance to check for chromatic aberration. I put the camera on a tripod, with the lens and camera on Manual focus (and the VC off), to keep everything sharp and in one place and proceeded to put the lens through its paces.
Remembering that the Nikon shifts the f-stop values for available light when using the macro function, I’ll be listing the f values from f3.5-f40. At f10, the elephant’s eye is nice and sharp, which it should be since f0 (f9) should be the lens’ sweet spot. What impressed me more is that the lens stayed fairly sharp at f3.5 (f2.8), although sharpness begins to soften at f20 (f16 or so). While the shots above f16 are potentially usable, they aren’t ideal as the sharpness falls off noticeably, but this isn’t unexpected for a lens at this price point. (See examples below)

F10 ISO 800

F10 ISO 800 (Detail)

From these examples, you can also see a bit of vignetting at lower apertures, but not so much that it can’t be fixed fairly easily in post (Lightroom already has a profile correction that works well). Looking at the highlights on the elephant, the lens seems to have light distortion under control, since there’s little to no sign of chromatic aberration. Just to check, I ran another test with some glass tumblers and even on the highlight areas of the glass, there is only really definitive chromatic aberration at the widest aperture. (See examples below)

F4 ISO 100

F11 ISO 100

F32 ISO 100

Since the 90mm isn’t only a macro, I took it out and ran it at infinity in bright sunlight, again setting it on a tripod but with AF on this time. In these conditions (outside of the macro world), the 90mm doesn’t hunt for focus – it locks on as quickly as expected and mostly holds focus (I lost focus slightly on the f4 frame, but that seems to be an outlier.) More importantly, what you can see with this test is the vignetting at the wider apertures (which wasn’t as obvious in a macro setting). Again, this is easy enough to correct for in post, but something to be aware of nonetheless. (See examples below)

F8 ISO 100

I also used the 90mm briefly to take some shots at a local park, as an informal test of the VC and it performed well as I panned around and took some longer shots. (See examples below) Also, I had seen in a few reviews of the Tamron 90mm that the VC made the lens “louder” and while, if you listen closely, you can hear something beyond the virtually noiseless AF of the lens, you would have to have much better hearing than I have to qualify it as “noisy,” especially outside.

1/125th @ F4.5 ISO 100 – Cropped to give better detail

1/100th @ F5.0 ISO 100n – Cropped to give better detail

1/200th @ F5.0 ISO 100 – Cropped to give better detail

My reaction to the Tamron 90mm 2.8 Macro (Model F017) is that it is a solid lens and a worthy upgrade to the Model F004, with more to recommend it than not. The lens has a solid, though plain build and optically it has good sharpness and distortion control. Tamron seems to have optimized it for macro shooting, including the IF System that its predecessor lacked.
The only minor drawbacks for me are the AF at the macro level and then the loss of sharpness past f16. However at a price point of $650 these are minor complaints, and as I mentioned earlier, there are ways to compensate for it. I feel like this lens would perfect for a photographer who is just starting macro photography or a great tool when shooting weddings, since the macro f2.8 maximum aperture, 90mm length and VC would make it a solid choice for both detail shots (gotta get those rings!) and portraits.
The SP 90MM F/2.8 Di VC USD 1:1 Macro is available for the Nikon and Canon mount models and the Sony version SP 90MM F/2.8 Di USD 1:1 Macro will be available soon (but will not include the VC designation since the Sony DSLR cameras include built-in image stabilization.)

All Comments based on the SP 90MM F/2.8 Di VC USD 1:1 Macro with a Nikon compatible mount on the Nikon D750 Full Frame camera body.

Review written by: Kevin Goggin

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