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A very commonly asked question for Sony shooters since the introduction of the Tamron 70-300 SP USD is “is it worth it to get the Sony 70-300G at twice the price, or is the Tamron lens adequate?”. In this article, I’ll examine the strengths and weaknesses of each lens, including build, image quality, focus motors, and overall feature package. Then I’ll compare the two and try to provide an answer to the above question. Let’s get started with the Sony 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 G SSM.
Sony 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 G SSM
The Sony 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 G SSM, or 70-300G for short, is one of several G (professional) lenses in Sony’s catalog. It is an A-mount lens, compatible with all current and discontinued Sony and Minolta SLRS, DSLRs and DSLTs supporting the Super Sonic wave Motor, or SSM. The 70-300G is the cheapest G lens in the line-up, with a price of $899 (as of April 1, 2012).
The low price requires some compromises in lens construction, including the liberal use of polycarbonate as opposed to the aluminum construction of the other G glass. The lens doesn’t feel rickety or have any unexpected creaks or rattles. The zoom ring is well damped and very smooth. It turns evenly throughout it’s rotation, and has no creep. The focus ring, on the other hand, turns smoothly until it reaches either infinity or minimum focus. At those points it becomes rather tight and difficult to turn. I feel that for a lens with FTMF, the focus ring should turn smoothly, with the same resistance, even after the focus stops are reached. The lens also includes a focus hold button on the left of the barrel, and a 2 setting, electronic focus limiter (full, or infinity-3m). Overall, the lens is very nice with a good finish and well constructed feel. The position of the focus & zoom rings, backwards compared to the more common configuration, works well from an ergonomic standpoint for a lens of this size. The lens hood is nice and deep, preventing flare in all but the most extreme lighting situations. The lens comes standard with a storage pouch lined with felt, takes 62mm filters, and has a stainless steel mount with 8 contacts.
The image quality of the G lens is exceptional. The copy I have is sharp wide open, and razor sharp between f/8 and f/10. Sample photos of my informal âcereal box test’ are at the end of the article. In the real world, the 70-300G produces images with rich, contrasty color, very little, if any, distortion, excellent flare control, and great detail. Flower stamens are sharp even at 12x magnification, down to the pixel level. This is on par with what I would expect at this price point, and for one of Sony’s G series. Overall, the image quality of this lens is amazing. It’s sharp wide open and tack sharp stopped down. It’s far better than either the Sony or Minolta 75-300 consumer lens. Minolta’s G lenses were known amongst their users for being some of the best lenses on the market, and the G series under Sony is just as awesome.
Focus Motor – SSM
The SuperSonic wave Motor, or SSM, is everything Sony says it is. It’s accurate, fast, buttery smooth, and deadly silent. The motor itself makes no sound; the only noise during focussing comes from the sound of the internal elements moving. It also provides the lens with full time manual focus (FTMF), allowing the photographer to correct focus with a twist of the focus ring, even after autofocus has locked a confirmation. The SSM motor is also super responsive, with negligible lag after half-pressing the shutter release.
My overall impression of the 70-300 G SSM is a positive one. The build quality sags a bit in order to get the cost below $1000, but the optical & mechanical aspects are truly that of a pro caliber lens. I know that if I was to buy this lens, I would certainly end up buying other G series lenses for their awesome image quality, if nothing else.
Tamron 70-300 f/4-5.6 SP USD
Introduced in 2011, the Tamron 70-300 f/4-5.6 SP USD is a pro level competitor to the vastly more expensive Sony lens. At half the cost ($449, BHphotovideo.com, April 1st) it seems like a no-brainer, but is it really a suitable replacement for pro photographers?
At this price point, compromises in build are to be expected. However, the Tamron feels very nice both mounted on the camera and held in the hand. Like the 70-300G, there’s plenty of polycarbonate, but there’s absolutely no rattles, creaks, or any other indication that the build is flaky. The zoom and focus rings are laid out “reverse” of the common configuration, but that’s actually a nice ergonomic improvement on a lens of this size. The zoom ring is tight and well damped, with no play. It’s actually just a tad too tight for my taste, though that definitely helps to prevent zoom creep. Smoothness could be improved on my copy. The focus ring is very smooth, well damped, with no play. Because this lens features Tamron’s USD motor, it is equipped with full-time manual focus (FTMF). The focus ring doesn’t turn in autofocus, but it does have a very long throw when being used to manually focus, which is useful for precisely dialing in focus. The large size of my hands keeps me from having to reposition my grip while turning the focus ring, but I can see it being a bit of a problem for someone with smaller hands than mine. The rear of the barrel has an AF/MF button, but since the lens has FTMF, I’ve never bothered to switch it from AF. Finally, the lens takes 62mm filters, comes with a deep, rigid lens hood, and has a stainless steel mount with 8 contacts.
The SP lens produces great images. It’s a little lacking wide open, but sharpens up nicely around f/8 or f/11. In the field, the lens produces great results. Images are contrasty, detailed, and very sharp. Performance could be improved wide open, but for $450, compromises are to be expected in order to keep the price low. The lens still performs quite well overall, and is deserving of it’s SP status. As an owner of three other SP series lenses, including the lauded 70-200 f/2.8, I can confidently say the image quality is superior to standard lenses, but it is below that of my 70-200 f/2.8 LD SP lens. (Which should be expected for a $450 lens versus a $700 one)
As with the G lens, cereal box test results are available at the end of the article.
Focus Motor – USD
The 70-300 SP is Tamron’s first lens to feature their Ultrasonic Silent Drive motor, or USD. Like Sony’s own SSM and Sigma’s HSM, USD promises to provide quiet, smooth, fast, and accurate autofocus. But does it deliver? The short answer to that question is yes. The USD motor on my copy of the lens is very smooth, very accurate, and quick to lock focus. It’s highly responsive with very little lag after pressing the shutter release halfway. It could, however, do with a bit more refinement in the noise area. It sometimes emits a quiet but noticeable buzzing while focusing, that, while not noticeable in the majority of situations, could be a bother in a very quiet shooting location, like a wedding or concert. That said, the USD motor is certainly impressive considering it’s Tamron’s first revision of the motor, and their SP line will surely benefit from it’s inclusion. It would certainly be a welcome addition on the 70-200 f/2.8 LD SP.
The Tamron 70-300 SP is definitely an excellent lens. It’s more than good enough to give a photographer pause when considering other 70-300 options. At such a low price point for a lens of this caliber, it will almost certainly eat away at sales of the 70-300 G. The build is quite good for a lens at this price point, and the optics are very competitive as well. I’d recommend any photographer looking for a lens in this range consider this lens, for any available mount.
Now that the major features of each lens have been dissected, a direct comparison between the two is in order.
The Sony lens has a few extra features, like it’s focus hold button and limiter, that the Tamron doesn’t have. That said, the build on the 70-300 SP feels just a bit more solid than the G lens. The zoom ring could do with a bit of smoothing out, but the focus ring is much smoother than the one on the G lens. Personally, I prefer the finish of the Tamron lens to that of the Sony…especially the rubber on the zoom/focus rings. The wider ribs are much easier to clean than the narrow ribs on the Sony. It’s also important to note here that the 70-300 SP has about â more light gathering power than the Sony. The maximum aperture at 70mm on the Tamron is f/4, while the Sony opens up to only f/4.5.
The image quality of the 70-300 G is superior to the 70-300 SP, plain and simple. It provides more resolution and detail at all apertures, and especially wide open. That said, between f/8 and f/11, there really isn’t THAT much difference between the two, and it becomes hard to justify the price of the G versus that of the SP. Unless you’re going to be shooting wide open for a majority of the time or need the absolute maximum in image quality, the SP is a viable replacement for Sony’s G offering. It’s also important to note that while the image quality of the SP is behind that of the G, the SP does offer an aperture of f/4, while the G only opens to f/4.5. As stated before though, results at f/4 are only usable, and will require some computer work, while the G results at f/4.5 are already plenty sharp.
Simply put, the SSM unit in the G lens far outclasses the USD unit in the Tamron. It’s more responsive, smoother, quieter, faster, and just all around better. For a shooter needing the absolute best in focus speed and accuracy, the G lens is the way to go. That said, the USD motor is no slouch. As I said earlier, it’s pretty impressive for Tamron’s first revision in their first lens to incorporate it. For those who do photography as a hobby, it’s more than adequate.
Tamron 70-300 f/4-5.6 SP USD
Sony 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 G SSM
This article has been very interesting to write. As an owner of the 70-300 SP, I have been impressed by it’s overall quality, both mechanically and optically. After using the 70-300 G, though, I can see where there is still plenty of room for improvement. So, if you’re looking at both of these lenses, which should you get? If you have the money lying around, go for the G lens. If you can afford the best, get the best. If you’re like me, though, and you have a limited budget, it’s important to consider your shooting environment. The SP lens is just about as good as the G in good light, stopped down to f/8 – f/11. Build quality is nearly equivalent, with an edge to the SP. So if you’re shooting birds in flight against a clear sky for example, it’s not going to matter as much which you choose, and you could easily get away with using the Tamron. As the conditions get more challenging though, the cards are definitely in favor of the 70-300 G, especially when you need to open the aperture wider than f/8. With the G, you can do so confidently, knowing you’re still going to capture excellent images, while with the SP, you’re going to get good shots, but will have to work in post to really get the optimum quality; the G will provide images much closer to that optimal point from the start, which means less work later.
“Cereal Box Test” Images
The following are 0.3MP crops of the side of a cereal box, showing the nutrition facts text. All will be labeled accordingly.
Sony 70-300 f/4-5.6 G SSM, (compare prices). From the Sony website: This superb 70-300mm zoom lens is an excellent choice for a wide range of medium to long-distance telephoto applications. (35mm equivalent when used with APS-C format cameras: 105-450mm.) Sony’s G-Series lenses are designed for maximum descriptive power, maintaining excellent peripheral light characteristics and maximizing contrast even at the edges of the frame.
Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6 SP Di for Sony, (compare prices) (review).From the Tamron website: The Tamron SP designation is reserved for lenses developed with special emphasis on extraordinary photographic performance. Engineers are free to innovate in an uncommon atmosphere where optical performance comes before price, resulting in lenses that satisfy the demands of discerning photographers. Fast becoming a benchmark for this category, the SP 70-300mm F/4-5.6 Di VC is an ideal choice for a two-zoom system complimenting a wide-to-moderate-tele zoom perfectly. Delivering class-leading sharpness, brilliant color and striking contrast, discriminative APS-C and full-frame digital SLR photographers alike are quick to laud its performance.