Portrait Lens Review: Tamron SP 85mm F/1.8

Tamron recently released a new addition to their line of SP (Super Performance) Prime lenses with the SP 85mm f1.8 Di VC. Tamron has been upping their game for a number of years, releasing lenses with a hardier construction and better AF (autofocus) system.

The lens itself is solid and basic looking with a matte aluminum barrel, rubberized focal ring, and both VC and AF/M toggle switches next to a focal distance window. It’s only 3.34″ × 3.50″ in size and weighs 1.45lb. There are also weather seal gaskets outside and inside to help ward off the elements, as well as a Fluorine Coating (a water and oil repellent coating that allows for easy cleaning and enhances the durability) on the front element. This lens is solid enough, more than comparable to the Nikon and Canon lenses of the same speed (F1.8,) but slightly less substantial that the 85mm f1.4 from Nikon, Canon, and Sigma (although they are very similar in size and weight). However, the Tamron 85mm does split the price difference between the Nikon f1.8 and Nikon f1.4, and comes in at $200 less than the Sigma F1.4 Art Lens. It also boasts the addition of the Tamron VC (Vibration Compensation, which helps control “lens shake” when shooting handheld) and is the first full frame compatible 85mm lens for DSLRs with some version of vibration control. Additionally, it comes with a sturdy lens hood.

Since the 85mm is most properly a portrait lens (long enough not to round the nose and shrink the ears), I had to test it out on a model. Luckily, I had the opportunity to put it through its paces with the lovely Natasha Pelak and you can see the results below (Example Group A). I do a fair amount of portraiture/headshots, but with longer glass (Nikon’s 80-200mm f2.8), so the experience of shooting with the Tamron 85mm was a change for me in both size and weight. On the plus side, it’s a whole lot less threatening to the subject than the 80-200mm, but for me the weight made the camera feel less substantial, and I felt almost “jittery” with the lens. Luckily, that “jittery” feeling went away immediately once I remembered to turn on the VC in fine focus and I could actually see a little less movement in the viewfinder. Even with the VC on, you probably still wouldn’t want to try handhold on a portrait below 1/30th of a second (the odds of either you or your subject moving is high). However, it did give me potentially usable frames down to about 1/8th of a second. The only problem I see with the VC on this lens is it may affect the sharpness slightly. It’s hard to tell for sure since it’s difficult to test on a tripod because the VC “fights” being locked down and can cause little camera movements (which is why you want to turn off VC or VR when on a tripod.) Since I noticed it, I figured other reviewers have as well (and they have), but I didn’t feel like anyone pinned it down with authority. Therefore, my view is: if you need the VC, use it. But if you don’t, then don’t because ultimately it’s better to have a useable image that’s slightly less sharp than an unusable shaky image.

Group A:

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Next let’s talk about the autofocus on the Tamron 85mm. The autofocus is nice and quick, no searching in and out, and it was pretty reliable in lower light situations. The only issue I had with it was a slight stall sometimes when I focused with the VC on that went away when I turned the VC off – I double checked this by putting the lens on my D700 as well, with the same result. I’m not sure if the delay is a feature (the VC causes it to make sure it’s in full control,) or a bug (the delay happens as the VC engages?) Another thing I noticed as I was shooting some low light portraits was that I could distinctly hear the VC engage when I thumb-locked the camera AF on my subject. The subtle noise of the VC became more pronounced, to the point that I mistook it for the lens autofocusing. Once I got used to it, I was actually happy to know it was working, and I was pushing it, shooting between 1/15th and 1/40th of a second at the time, so the VC was working hard to compensate for my handholding the camera at longer shutter durations. The VC on the Tamron 85mm SP does help, and if your options are camera blur and unusable with it off versus less blur but ever so slight less sharp, I would go with the latter and consider it a pro versus a con.

The last thing I’m going to talk about are the optics. The Tamron 85mm F1.8 SP uses Tamron’s BBAR and eBAND coatings as well as LD (Low Dispersion) and XLD (Extra Low Dispersion) glass elements to reduce chromatic aberrations, flare, and to improve contrast and color fidelity. The lens also has a 9 bladed circular aperture to keep a more natural looking bokeh. What all of those things mean for the lens when it’s in use are: Little to no chromatic aberration even in bright highlights, beautiful sharp looking images with bright color and good contrast, and backgrounds where objects blur out to more rounded shapes with no halos, which you can get from aperture blades that are more squared off. (the SP 85mm F1.8 Di VC stays almost perfectly round for two stops down from maximum aperture, which means that at the tightest aperture (f16) specular highlights will have an 18-pointed star effect from the light passing the points of the polygon created by minimum aperture. (See Examples Group B) Also, and not unexpectedly, there’s considerable vignetting at f1.8, but it clears up quickly as the lens is stopped down, pretty much disappearing at f5.6. (See Examples Group C)

Group B – Aperture Effect:

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Group C – Vignetting:

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I spent a fair amount of time shooting with the SP 85mm F1.8 Di VC USD, and I really enjoyed it. The lens is well constructed, the AF is quick and reliable, and the lens is sharp and just about distortion-free. The lens is also very sharp edge-to-edge (when I wasn’t trying to hand hold it in the dark at f1.8,) and the size, build, and VC gave it a solid feel. I can highly recommend this lens and would say it’s definitely worth the extra cost over the Nikon and Canon f1.8 offerings. You will have to decide for yourself whether you’d rather pay more to get an f1.4 from Nikon, Sigma, or Zeiss or an f1.2 from Canon, but with the sharpness, quality, and features of the Tamron SP 85mm f1.8 Di VC USD, I think that decision will become a little less cut and dry.

Other sample photos taken:

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[All Comments based on the SP 85MM F/1.8 Di VC USD (F016) 1:1 with a Nikon compatible mount on the Nikon D750 Full Frame camera body.]

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