If you had to pick just one lens to live with for an entire year, what would it be? For some, it’s prime all day every day. Fast glass and small footprints are the name of the game. For others, it’s all about lightweight gear that prevents weighing you down. And others still want the ultimate in versatility (read: zooms). No matter which type of lens you would choose, it’s ultimately all subjective and dependent upon what you like to shoot. Whether it’s purely as a hobby or your main business is irrelevant. Pick the right tool for the job. And today’s tool we’re taking a look at is what some may call a workhorse: the 70-200.
In this case, it’s 70-180mm as Tamron has opted for a slightly more unique focal range on their Sony E mount 70-180 F2.8 Di III VXD lens, differing from the standard 70-200 you’ll find in almost every other “trinity” from the beginning of time. Without further adieu, let’s get to it.
- Glass: 19 elements / 14 groups / 6 special dispersion / 3 aspherical
- Max Aperture: f/2.8
- Min Aperture: f/22
- Aperture blades: 9
- Focal length: 70-180mm
- Filter Thread: 67mm
- Mount: FE
- Minimum Focus Distance: 0.85m (33.46″)
- Auto-focus: Yes
- Image Stabilization: No (relies on in-body / IBIS)
- Weather Sealing: Yes
- Weight: 815 g (1.80 lb)
- Length: 149 mm (5.87″)
The 70-200 is a workhorse for a bevy of photographers across multiple photography types. But one thing that often causes it to come off the body and into the bag is size and weight. It’s either too noticeable, too in your face, or just too much to lug around for multiple hours a day. Take for example the big poppa of the bunch, the Sony 70-200 f/2.8 which clocks in at 3.26 lbs. (1480g) and 3.46 x 7.87″ / 88 x 200 mm. It’s measurably larger than the Tamron here both visually as well as physically once your arm has to move that beast around. Does that make the Sony a bad lens in 2021 since it i is indeed aging? Not at all. It is definitely a better built lens that is going to take an absolute beating. But in addition to that size difference, it’s also over 2x the cost of the Tamron, coming in at ~$2400 USD brand new vs the Tamron’s ~$1200 price tag. And as of early 2021, you can usually find $50-$100 off if you just spend a bit of time looking around online.
Size and monetary differences to Sony’s flagship aside, what else makes the Tamron a viable alternative? Quite simply, it performs ahead of the pack in terms of what the price tag may lead you to believe. In fact, based on numerous real-world comparisons I have seen and read (I do not have a Sony 70-200 f/2.8 to verify myself), the Tamron 70-180mm is incredibly sharp, and in fact, sharper than the Sony wide open. Yes, the Sony will catch up around f/4-5.6. But for a lens whose big selling point is that faster f/2.8 across the entire zoom range, it makes sense to highlight this. Coming back to the workhorse statement, I really like low light / night photography as well as the 85+ focal range and that compressed style in general. If you’re shooting anything with even a little bit of motion and want to keep your ISO relatively in check, something like this lens is a staple in your kit. In addition, this type of lens can easily pull double duty for portrait photography whether it’s humans, animals, or cars. If one could justify the cost of the Sony for this multi-subject versatility, one can certainly double down on that rationalization for something that is less than 1/2 the cost but can at times perform better.
One other aspect that the Tamron excels at revolves around focusing. Again, given the price, it is very quick, smooth, and quiet. The Sony might come away a bit faster here and there (expanding the lead a tad more in lower light) but it’s honestly not that large of a difference. We are talking fractions of a second here.
For all of the performance value you get out of this lens, in order to get said value, Tamron had to let up in other areas. One such area that is apparent is in build materials. This mostly plastic lens feels and looks a lot less “professional” than the Sony counterpart. To some, that is hardly a deterrent. (Let us not forget, that is part of why this lens is so small and light!) But in the professional world of photography, especially those that travel more than just to and from the studio, the added weight and resiliency of the Sony could very well add up to additional years life.
Another cost saving measure – features. In the lens world, “features” ends up being a few extra buttons and switches. If you look at the Sony and Sigma lens of the world, there are often, 3, 4, or more additional things on the lens itself offering up expanded functionality such as programmable buttons, focus locks, stabilization settings, and more. On the Tamron you get none of that save for a solitary lock switch that keeps your lens locked at the lowest 70mm focal length for travel. After starting my life with a Tamron lenses, getting a Sigma or two and living the multi-switch/button life, and going back to something like this 70-180, I honestly don’t miss the buttons and switches. On one hand, the Tamron lacks stabilization so the switch that other lenses will have to adjust stabilization type is moot. But I digress. It is either one of those things you live and die by or something that is a nice to have / not a deterrent to not have.
One other point to highlight in this deep dive that I think can be very important for some is the issue of filters and filter thread size. For this 70-180, and in fact all of Tamron’s Sony E mount lenses, you’re presented with a 67mm filter thread. This universal size of sorts is fantastic if you use screw-on filters and don’t want to have to maintain different filter sizes for different lens. It really is a nice value prop especially if you already have one or two other Tamron E mount lenses in your kit.
As I touched on above, performance out of this lens punches up. It is not far behind the Sony at all, and at times comes out ahead, all while coming in at less than half the cost and a considerably smaller and lighter package. Day to day, the focusing is plenty fast, the IQ at the top of the pack, and focusing performance accurate enough that anyone from hobbyist to pro alike should be more than pleased.
If there was one thing to nitpick about it would be the bokeh, though with a disclaimer that this is more of a common complaint I see others making and less of an issue I personally have. In short, the 9-blade aperture is less than the Sony 70-200 f/2.8 which features 11. To my eyes generally, it doesn’t make too much of a real world difference. Though there are times admittedly where the Tamron’s bokeh blobs come across a bit more cat eye looking than smooth and round. Ditto for creamy smooth backgrounds — side by side with the Sony the Tamron is just a touch behind here.
Is that worth over $1400 more? Only you can answer that.
Value & Wrap-up
While I tried to steer away from a Sony/Tamron comparison the entire time it was honestly pretty hard. Value is woven into every gram of this lens, which is why it is such an easy one to recommend. Provided you can live with the slightly worse bokeh performance, 20mm shorter long end, and lack of image stabilization, this lens is quite the steal for what some may say matters most: sharpness and IQ.
At the end of the day you will have to judge if the small improvements in image quality or implied quality/resiliency due to weight are worth the additional cost of the Sony, and/or if you are going to wait for Sigma’s repeatedly rumored f/2.8 70-200. But above all else, if you do pick up this lens, you can be at ease and know that you aren’t getting a bad lens or a bad value by any stretch.
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