Tamron SP 35mm and 45mm f/1.8 Di VC USD Hands On Review

On September 2, 2015 Tamron announced a redefined SP (Superior Performance) lens series and the first two products in the line: the SP 35mm f/1.8 Di VC USD and the SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC USD. The new SP lenses are designed to provide a very high level of performance, while staying reasonably small, light, and affordable.

The SP 35/1.8 Di VC USD and the SP 45/1.8 Di VC USD incorporate a number of features designed to maximize their performance and utility. These include:

  • Advanced optical design using molded aspheric elements and special low index glasses to minimize aberrations, such as field curvature and coma, and maximize resolution.
  • Optical stabilization (VC, Vibration Control): The 45/1.8 is the first “normal” prime lens from any manufacturer to have optical stabilization built in.
  • A very short minimum focusing distance, 7.9" for the 35/1.8 and 11.4" for the 45/1.8: These are the closest focusing distances for non-macro 35mm format lenses from any manufacturer. Floating elements are used to minimize aberrations.
  • Smooth bokeh: In addition to the optical design, a 9 blade iris keeps the aperture almost circular, even with the lens stopped down.
  • Very low flare and ghosting: The traditional multi-layer anti-reflection coating is enhanced by an eBAND hybrid low index nano coating that further reduces reflections to an extremely low level.
  • A fluorine containing coating on the front element that repels water and oil, making the removal of dirt and smudges easy.

I’m reviewing these two lenses together because they are so similar, not only in focal length but in size, weight, and cost. They are both about 80mm in diameter, both take 67mm filters, both weigh around 1 lb., both take the same lens hood, and they both have a $599 list price. Both should be available (in Canon and Nikon mounts) by the end of September 2015 (the Sony mount will be available at a later date).

Tamron SP 35mm and 45mm f/1.8 Di VC USD Specifications

Tamron 35/1.8 Di VC USD Tamron 45/1.8 Di VC USD
Focal Length 35mm 45mm
Aperture f/1.8 – f/16 f/1.8 – f/16
Optical Construction 10 elements, 9 groups 10 elements, 8 groups
Minimum Focus Distance 7.9" 11.4"
Maximum Magnification 0.4x 0.3x
Filter Size 67mm 67mm
Maximum Diameter 3.16" 3.16"
Length 3.2" (Canon), 3.1" (Nikon) 3.6" (Canon), 3.5" (Nikon)
Weight 16.9 oz. (Canon), 15.9 oz. (Nikon) 19 oz. (Canon), 18.3 oz. (Nikon)
Aperture Blades 9 9
Mounts Canon, Nikon, Sony (no VC) Canon, Nikon, Sony (no VC)
Lens Hood HF102 (supplied) HF102 (supplied)

Physical Appearance and Controls

Both lenses have a smooth matte black finish with a pale gold metal ring next to the lensmount (the symbol of the redefined SP series lenses). Each lens has a broad rubberized focusing ring (about 1" wide) that rotates smoothly with no backlash. Both lenses feel substantial, weighing about 1 lb. The focusing ring is active at all times (full time manual focus), but does not rotate during AF. Focusing is internal, so the length of the lens does not change as the lens focuses. As you would expect, there’s no rotation of the front element during focusing either.

There are two switches on the left side of the lens, one for AF/MF and one to turn VC on and off. These switches are raised from the barrel and have a positive action, so they are easy to find (even with the camera held up to your eye) and it’s easy to tell when they are switched from one state to the other both by sound (there’s an audible click) and feel.

There’s a very legible and somewhat larger than normal focusing scale. Tamron says that they went to the extent of designing a new font to make the scales and lettering on the lens more readable. I can’t say I’ve had difficulty reading the fonts Tamron has used in the past, but the markings on these lenses are certainly quite clear and easy to read.

When mounted on an EOS 6D (the camera I used for testing), the combination feels well balanced. The lens mount has a rubber gasket for sealing against the camera and Tamron states that there are also internal seals that make the lens weather resistant. Obviously it’s not an underwater lens and it’s not 100% waterproof, but it should be OK in light rain.


EOS mount lens. Note black rubber gasket around mounting flange.

Lens Performance

The comments on optical performance are based on several hundred images shot with each lens using an EOS 6D as the test camera. Subjects from models to the night sky to test charts were used to evaluate both lenses.

Autofocus

With both lenses, autofocus was fast, accurate, and almost silent. I compared manual focus, phase sensitive AF (normal AF mode using the 6D AF sensors), and contrast detection AF (using Live View mode with the EOS 6D). Both at extended focus distances and closest focus, AF was accurate with no micro focus adjustment required.

Focus time on the EOS 6D from infinity to closest focus for the SP 35/1.8 Di VC USD was about 0.6 seconds. The SP 45/1.8 Di VC USD was slightly slower at about 0.68 seconds. Note that if comparing focus times to other lenses, both of these lenses have the shortest close focus distance in their class and so have to focus over a greater range than other similar focal length lenses when going from infinity to close focus.

Distortion

As expected from prime lenses in this focal length range, distortion wasn’t an issue. If it’s there at all, it’s negligible.


Tamron 35/1.8 @ f/2.8, EOS 6D

Vignetting

One of the points Tamron has made about these lenses is that they were designed so that they could be used wide open and still retain excellent imaging quality. They were designed to show low levels of vignetting. In all the “normal” shots I took with both the 35mm and 45mm lenses (most of which were shot wide open at f/1.8), I did not notice any vignetting, so in practice it’s not an issue.


Tamron 45/1.8 @ f/1.8, EOS 6D, Model: Jordan

However, this is a review, so I actually measured the amount of vignetting for each lens and, yes, there is some vignetting wide open. For the 45/1.8, I measured about 1.6 stops of vignetting in the extreme corners of the frame at f/1.8. At f/2.8 this had dropped to about 0.7 stops and at f/4 it was around 0.3 stops. For the 35/1.8, I measured about 1.6 stops of vignetting in the extreme corners of the frame at f/1.8. At f/2.8 this dropped to about 0.6 stops and it remained at about 0.6 stops at f/4 and f/5.6.


Tamron 45/1.8 @ f/1.8, EOS 6D, Rooftop Graffiti, NYC>

So while there certainly is vignetting wide open, it’s really not of much practical concern with either lens. If it ever did become an issue, vignetting is fairly easy to mitigate in most image editors and/or RAW converters.

Flare and Ghosting

Both flare and ghosting are very well controlled. Only under the most extreme conditions (e.g., shots with the sun actually in the frame) can they be seen, and even then they are subtle effects.

The image below shows that even with a high key shot and a very bright background, good contrast is retained in the subject.



Tamron SP 45/1.8 @ f/1.8, EOS 6D, Model: Jordan

Chromatic Aberration

Chromatic aberration is well controlled in both lenses. There is some lateral color observable at the edges and in the corners of the full frame image as shown below. The area shown in red at the top right corner of the leftmost image is shown enlarged to 100% in the rightmost image.


Tamron SP 45/1.8 @ f/2.8, EOS 6D, 200% crop on right

This level of chromatic aberration isn’t obvious unless there’s a high contrast edge and you’re looking closely at a reasonably large print. It can be pretty much eliminated digitally in most editing software if it becomes an issue.

Spherochromatism

Warning: This might get technical!

Many (in fact, probably all) fast (below f/2.8) lenses show what is usually referred to as spherochromatism when shot wide open. This is a chromatic aberration related to spherical aberration. Unlike longitudinal and axial chromatic aberration, spherochromatism typically manifests itself only in the out of focus areas of an image and is not seen in focused areas. It happens when spherical aberration is well corrected for the point of focus, but appears in the out of focus areas. It’s only an issue because it has a chromatic component; otherwise it would just blend into the defocused background. It’s typically seen as green or magenta fringing in areas slightly behind the focus point and the complementary magenta or green fringing in areas slightly in front of the focus point.

As expected, both the 35/1.8 and 45/1.8 exhibit spherochromatism when shot wide open. It’s rarely, if ever, an issue in normal photography, but it can appear in images shot wide open when a subject is shot from the side rather than head on. Here’s what it looks like in a shot designed to show it at its worst.


A series of black and white bars shot at an angle.

Try as I might, it was hard to find it in any of the real world shots I took (most of which were shot wide open). The image below was the one in which it could be seen most clearly.


Tamron SP 45/1.8 @ f/1.8, EOS 6D, Model: Jordan

You can’t see anything? I’m not surprised. You have to look very closely at the far cheek of the model. Focus was on the near eye, so the far eye and cheek fall slightly out of focus. There’s a green fringe that’s spherochromatism. Below is a 100% crop of the area affected.

As you can see, it’s not a big deal. You’re unlikely to notice it and in the vast majority of images you won’t see it even if you look for it. All fast lenses do it. I wouldn’t mention it, but this is a “warts and all” review and I noticed it while doping some focus testing. If other reviews you read don’t mention it either, they didn’t look for it or might not have recognized it if they saw it!

Bokeh

It’s hard to quantify bokeh—the character of the out of focus regions. You can judge it for yourself on many of the sample images posted here. To me it looks quite smooth (i.e., pleasing). Both lenses use a 9 blade iris to produce almost circular (actually nonagonal) out of focus highlights when the lens is stopped down, which helps smooth the out of focus regions.



Out of focus points at f/8 (100% crop), Tamron SP 35/1.8 Di VC USD

Below is a shot taken with the SP 35/1.8 at f/1.8. The out of focus highlights take on a slightly lenticular shape away from the center of the image due to vignetting when the lens is wide open. They are the shape of the iris that the sensor “sees” in those regions due to mechanical vignetting.



Tamron SP 35/1.8 @ f/1.8, EOS 6D, Seward Johnson sculpture at night, NYC Garment District

Image Sharpness

A fast lens that needs to be stopped down to be sharp is of limited use. There are some situations in which sharpness isn’t critical, but you really don’t want to be analyzing every shot to see if you can afford to shoot wide open or if you need to stop down to get sharpness.



Tamron SP 45/1.8 @ f/1.8, EOS 6D, 100% crop

Thankfully both the Tamron SP 35/1.8 Di VC USD and SP 45/1.8 Di VC USD are sharp wide open. Not quite as sharp as when stopped down, but sharp enough that you don’t need to think about whether to shoot wide open or not. Wide open the edges aren’t quite as sharp as the center, but that’s rarely a problem since if you’re shooting wide open it’s unlikely you’ll be too concerned about edge sharpness due to depth of field considerations.

First let’s look at the 35/1.8. Below is a series of shots taken using an EOS 6D. The upper row are 100% crops from the center of the image and the lower row are 100% crops taken from the corner of the image.

As you can see, in the center of the image you don’t get any appreciable sharpness increase as you stop down from f/1.8 to f/5.6. However, in the corner of the image you get both brightening (vignetting is reduced as the lens is stopped down) and an increase in sharpness.

A similar result is obtained for the 45/1.8 as shown in the series of 100% crops below. Again the upper row is from the center of the image and the lower row is from the corner.

As with the 35/1.8, in the center of the image there’s no really significant change on stopping down. In the corners there’s a change in brightness due to lower vignetting at smaller apertures and an increase in sharpness when stopped down a couple of stops.



Tamron SP 45/1.8 @ f/4, EOS 6D, New York Graffiti

Close Focus Performance

The Tamron SP 35/1.8 Di VC USD focuses down to 7.9" and the Tamron SP 45/1.8 Di VC USD focuses down to 11.4". Note that focus distance is the distance from the sensor to the subject, not the distance from the front element to the subject (that’s the working distance). The 35/1.8 has a working distance of about 3" and the 45/1.8 has a working distance of about 6". At closest focus the 35.1.8 gives a magnification of 0.4x and the 45/1.8 gives a magnification of 0.3×. According to Tamron that makes them the closest focusing primes in this focal length range (other than true 50mm macro lenses). While Tamron does not designate these lenses as macro lenses, they do incorporate floating elements (close range corection) that minimize aberrations, such as field curvature and spherical aberration, which otherwise lower performance at close focus distances. At the presentation in New York, Tamron indicated that the floating elements were moved electronically rather than by a mechanical cam system, though I don’t see any reference to that in any of their printed literature.



Tamron SP 35/1.8 @ f/1.8, EOS 6D, Sunflower

A lens such as the 35/1.8, which can achieve 0.4x magnification, can be used for anything from group portraits to close up product shots or from landscapes to detail shots of flowers. The close focusing ability greatly increases the utility of the lens.



Tamron SP 35/1.8 @ f/1.8, EOS 6D, Sunflower Closeup

But how good are these lenses in the macro range? Well, here are some 100% crops from a series of closeup images of a banknote (Canadian $1 bill) shot with the Tamron SP 45/1.8 Di VC USD at minimum focus distance using an EOS 6D.



Upper Row: Extreme corner of image; Lower Row: Center of image.

As you can see, just stopping down from f/1.8 to f/2.8 gives you almost full sharpness in the center. At the extreme corner, stopping down to f/8 gives best image quality (there’s slight diffraction softening at smaller apertures).

Below are similar 100% crops, this time shot with the Tamron 35/1.8 Di VC USD at closest focus.



Upper Row: Extreme corner of image; Lower Row: Center of image.

As with the 35/1.8 you can see that the biggest difference comes from stopping down by just one stop, with the biggest sharpness gain coming in the corners of the image.

Tamron seems to have done a pretty good job of close focus aberration correction with these lenses. They may not quite match the standards of a dedicated 50mm macro lens, and they can’t reach 1:1 magnification, but by the standards of non-macro lenses, close focus performance is excellent.

Image Stabilization

Both lenses feature Tamron’s image stabilization system. They both seem to work quite well, allowing hand holding of the lenses at shutter speeds up to 3 times slower than is possible without stabilization. They can also ensure maximum sharpness at shutter speeds normally considered fast enough for hand holding a lens (1/35 sec for the 35mm, 1/45 sec for 45mm), even with current high resolution, high pixel count full frame cameras like the EOS 5DS.

Comments

I think Tamron has succeeded in its attempt to redefine a series of SP (Superior Performance) prime lenses. They’ve obviously thought about what would make such a prime lens series useful, such as VR, a 9-blade aperture, close focusing ability, excellent flare suppression, and good sharpness wide open. Their choice of f/1.8 is a good compromise of size, weight, and cost.



Tamron SP 35/1.8 @ f/1.8, EOS 6D, Model: Jordan on the High Line

Their initial choice of a 35mm and a 45mm lens might not please everyone, especially those trying to decide which one to buy! Some might have preferred to see a 28mm and a 50mm lens, making the choice an easier one. A 28mm lens also makes a good “normal” lens on APS-C (defining “normal” focal length as being equal to the diagonal of the frame) and a 50mm lens makes a good short portrait lens on APS-C. However, it’s highly unlikely that these will be the only two primes in the new SP series and I’d expect to see something like a 28/1.8 (and/or 24/1.8) somewhere in the future, maybe along with an 85/1.8.

One thing to note is that both lenses have a minimum aperture of f/16. While that probably is the limiting aperture beyond which diffraction softening becomes noticeable on a full frame camera, some photographers might miss the option to stop down to f/22, even though it might produce a softer image.

One inevitable forum question is how does the Tamron SP 45/1.8 Di VC USD stack up against a lens like the Canon EF 50/1.8? I did this comparison using my old Mk I (metal mount) EF 50/1.8. Though it’s mechanically different, optically the Mk I lens should be the same as the current Canon 50/1.8 lenses. On an EOS 6D (20.2MP full frame) there really wasn’t much obvious difference in sharpness in the center of the frame. At the corners, especially at wide apertures, the Tamron lens was sharper and it showed less vignetting. The Tamron 45/1.8 also showed significantly less ghosting and flare when shooting into the sun. The Tamron 45/1.8 could be handheld at shutter speeds up to 3 stops slower than the Canon lens when VC was activated. The Tamron 45/1.8 focused closer, giving 0.3x magnification versus the 0.15x of the Canon 50/1.8, plus it was sharper at close focus distances. The only advantages of the Canon 50/1.8 are that it’s smaller, lighter, and cheaper (all of which can be important). Apart from those factors, the Tamron 45/1.8 Di VC USD is certainly a better and more versatile lens.

Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to directly compare the Tamron 35/1.8 Di VC USD with the Canon 35/2 IS USM, it’s most obvious competitor.

Conclusions

Both the tamron_sp_35_1.8 and the tamron_sp_45_1.8 are very useful lenses. They’re sharp, focus very close, and can be handheld at shutter speeds around 3 stops slower than might be possible with unstabilized lenses. They are well built and come with a lens hood and a 6 year warranty from Tamron. Also included will be a copy of the Silkypix Raw converter with aberration correction profiles for each lens. Unfortunately, at the time of this pre-release review the profiles for these new lenses were not available, but they will be released along with the lenses on September 29th, 2015.

The ability to close focus (almost into the macro range with the 35/1.8 at 0.4x) is a very useful feature for picking out details such as flowers, jewelry, etc. and may mean a photographer has one less lens to carry since these lenses could replace a macro lens in a number of situations.



Tamron SP 45/1.8 @ f/1.8, EOS 6D, Model: Jordan

The main problem for many photographers considering these lenses would probably be which one to pick! They are very similar in terms of features, size, weight, cost, and focal length. The decision may come down to which other lenses you already have as much as which one best suits your photographic style. If you already have a 50/1.8 or 50/1.4 (as many photographers do), then the logical choice might be the Tamron SP 35/1.8 Di VC USD. However, if you don’t have a normal lens, but do have something like a 16-35/2.8 zoom, then you’d probably get the most out of choosing the SP 45/1.8 Di VC USD. I really can’t say that one of these lenses is “better” than the other and since they are so similar in focal length there are many situations in which they’d be equally useful.

Alternatives

There are a number of lenses with somewhat similar focal length, speed, and price but none offer all the features of these Tamron SP lenses.

The Tamron 45/1.8 obviously has strong competition from the Nikon and Canon 50/1.8 primes like the nikon_50/1.8G and canon_50/1.8, which are considerably less expensive (around $125 for the Canon, $135 for the Nikon AF, $220 for the Nikon AF-S), but those lenses don’t focus as closely, nor are they stabilized. The nikon_50/1.4G and canon_50/1.4 are under $500, but neither have image stabilization or focus as close as the Tamron lens does. They are 2/3 stop faster though.

The Tamron 35/1.8 competes with the canon_35_2_is and the unstabilized nikon_af-s_35/1.8G_ED. All three have a list price of around $600. The Tamron has the closest focusing with 0.4x magnification versus 0.16x for the Nikon and 0.24x for the Canon. The canon_35/1.4 and nikon_35/1.4G are much more expensive ($1500+) and neither is stabilized or can match the magnification of the Tamron 35/1.8.

In their Art series lenses, Sigma has the sigma_sigma_35mm_f14 (0.2x max magnification) for around $900 and the sigma_50_1-4_DG (0.14x max magnification) for around $600. Neither is stabilized and neither can focus as closely as the Tamron lenses. They do have the advantage of being 2/3 stop faster, of course, and a reputation for good optics.

Zeiss has just introduced a “Milvus” line of lenses, including a 35/2 and 50/2. They are heavy (1.5-2 lbs.), expensive ($1100-$1200), manual focus only, aren’t stabilized, and the 35/2 isn’t close focusing. The 50/2 is designated as a “makro” lens and is capable of 0.5x magnification. Optically I’d expect them to be excellent, though I have not had the chance to shoot with either of them. They are available in Canon and Nikon mounts.

Acknowledgements

I’d like to thank Tamron USA for making these lenses available for review and hosting the Press Event in New York. I’d also like to thank Erik Valind, Photographer, for setting up the High Line shoot with Jordan and for his help and advice there.
http://www.ErikValind.com

Thanks also to Clelia @ Utopia for hair and makeup
http://www.utopianyc.com/hair-makeup/clelia-bergonzoli_make-up-hair/fashion

And of course thanks to Jordan H @ Major Models NYC for being a very patient model!
http://www.majormodel.com/portfolio/mainboard/women/865137/jordan-hathaway

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    • Interesting lenses, especially the 35mm. Thank you for a good review.

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    • I think the Zeiss Milvus 50/2 is close focusing, up to 0.5 size magnification.

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    • Ed - You are correct and I've revised the review to reflect that. The Milvus 50/2 is actually designated as a "makro" lens and can reach 1/2 life size. In that regard it's maybe closer to a lens like the Canon EF 50/2.5 macro than the Tamron SP 45/1.8. I guess the Tamron is still the closest focusing 45mm lens though - and the only one with image stabilization. Thanks for pointing out the error.

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    • and the 35/2 isn’t focusing.

      is it broken?

      [No, but it's now not close focusing! Thanks for spotting the error]

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    • nice comprehensive review....when you compare the tamron 45mm f1.8 to the canon 50 f1.4 usm   you say  you lose 2/3 of a stop.... however i find what must be 3 stops of vignetting  with the 50 1.4 on my 5D MK1  making it unusable  below F2 so the 50 1.4 lives on a crop body and find its a FL i like

       

      Edit i see  as normal the US price of $599 ends up a pre order price of £579GBP or $878 
      and they wonder why we look at gray imports 

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    • Yes, UK prices are higher, though I presume they include 20% VAT. I'll trade you that for the cost of my health insurance here in the USA...

      I can see why grey market imports might be popular in the UK though.

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