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Tamron 90mm f2.8 Di VC USD Macro

by Bob Atkins, February 2013 (updated March 2013)


Introduced in late 2012, the Tamron SP 90mm f2.8 Di VC USD Macro, (compare prices) (review) is Tamron’s latest macro lens. Numerous changes have been made to earlier version of the lens and these include the addition of optical stabilization (VC = vibration control), an ultrasonic drive motor (USD), full time manual focusing, internal focusing and four additional elements including two XLD (extra low dispersion) and one LD (low dispersion) elements. In addition the new lens is better sealed against dust and moisture, has a rounded 9 blade aperture for smoother out of focus rendition and has eBAND coatings to reduce flare and increase contrast.

As the name suggests, the SP 90MM F/2.8 Di VC USD 1:1 Macro is one of Tamron’s Di series lenses, which means it’s designed for coverage of the full 35mm sized frame, though it can also be used very effectively on APS-C crop sensor cameras where it provides a similar angle of view to that of a 135mm lens on full frame.

The SP 90MM F/2.8 Di VC USD 1:1 Macro is available in Canon, Nikon and Sony lens mounts, but the Sony version does not have optical stabilization since Sony DSLRs have stabilization in the camera body (via a sensor shift mechanism) rather than in the lens.

SP 90MM F/2.8 Di VC USD 1:1 Macro Brief Specifications

Model F004
Lens Construction (Groups/Elements) 11/14
Angle of View (diagonal) 27°02’ (full frame)
17°37’ (APS-C)
Aperture Range f2.8 – f32
Minimum Focus Distance 0.3m (11.8 in)
Macro Magnification Ratio 1:1
Working Distance at 1:1 139mm (5.5 in)
Filter Diameter 58mm
Weight 550g (19.4 oz)
Diameter 76.4mm
Length 114.5mm (4.5 in)
Diaphragm Blades 9 (rounded diaphragm)
Accessory Lens hood
Mount Canon
Nikon
Sony (No VC)

Operation and Controls

The SP 90MM F/2.8 Di VC USD 1:1 Macro has the typical semi-matte plastic finish which characterizes Tamron lenses. The focusing ring is wide and found towards the front of the lens. Full time manual focus is available, though the lens can be switched to manual focus if desired.

There are three selectable focus ranges, infinity to 0.3m, infinity to 0.5m and 0.5 to 0.3m. Focus range limitation can be useful in speeding up AF if the lens has to search for focus and you know the likely distance of your subject. The difference between 0.5m and 0.3 m may not sound much, but in fact more focus ring rotation is required to go from 0.3m to 0.5m than is required to go from 0.5m to infinity.

Vibration control (VC) can be turned on or off. There are no modes to disable one or other axis for use when panning. Since this is a macro lens, just a word about optical stabilization in teh macro range is in order. The higher the magnification, the less effective optical stabilization is. This is because VC compensates for angular rotation of the lens (pitch and yaw in aeronautical terminology). However it doesn’t compensate for vertical and horizontal translation (i.e. moving the camera from side to side or up and down while keeping it straight and level). Vertical and horizontal translation become important factors at high magnification. In fact Tamron themselves note that “From 3m, the benefits of VC gradually decrease as the focus distance becomes closer.”

Whether this matters or not depends on how the user intends to use the lens. Macro work should be done using a tripod. It’s virtually impossible to hand hold any lens steady at 1:1 magnification. In fact DOF is often so small that you can’t even keep a subject in focus with a handheld lens. So while optical stabilization works well when the lens is being used outside the macro range (e.g. a 90mm f2.8 lens makes a nice portrait lens), it’s of limited use for macro work.

I should mention here that Canon’s EF 100/2.8 macro USM has what Canon refer to as a hybrid IS system, which does try to compensate for both vertical and horizontal translation as well as the usual “pitch and yaw” and so is somewhat more effective for macro use. However a tripod is still really the recommended way to go at high magnification.

As with most (all?) Tamron lenses, closest focus is at the left of the distance scale and infinity is at the right, which is the opposite of Canon lenses, but the same as Nikon.

Tamron supply a (round) lens hood with the SP 90MM F/2.8 Di VC USD 1:1 Macro, and the lens takes 58mm filters. The lens barrel neither extends nor rotates during focusing.

Performance

Focus

Focus time from infinity to 0.3m (or 0.3m to infinity) was around 0.55s in good light using and EOS 7D. Focus from 0.5m to infinity (or infinity to 0.5m) was around 0.22s, so you can see that by limiting focus range if you know your subject won’t be closer than 0.5m you can significantly speed up AF if the lens has to hunt for focus.

Under normal conditions, focus is fast and positive (no hunting at all). Focus is only driven between the range limits when the subject has no features (e.g. a blank wall or the blue sky). Unless you put your ear on the lens barrel, focus is essentially silent.

AF works well at macro distances and you can AF accurately even at 1:1 magnification. However with the limited DOF at 1:1 magnification you have to be very careful exactly what part of your subject you focus on, so manual focus (and a tripod) may be a better option. But if you need AF, it’s there.

Vibration Control

As mentioned earlier, Vibration Control gets less and less effective as you move more into the macro range. Testing it at normal focus distance (around 10ft) it seemed to be good for around 3 stops of added stability, meaning that you’d have a fairly good chance of getting sharp shots with shutter speeds in the 1/10s range and unless you have shaky hands, most shots at 1/20s should be pretty sharp.

Sharpness

Wide open at non-macro shooting distances the Tamron SP 90MM F/2.8 Di VC USD 1:1 Macro is sharp in the center of the (full) frame but slightly softer in the extreme corners of the full (35mm) frame. Stopping down to f4 sharpens up both center and corners and peak sharpness is reached by f5.6 in the center and f8 in the corners. Overall performance is excellent.

Macro Sharpness at 1:1

In the center of the frame the image is slightly very soft wide open at f2.8, but you’d rarely want to shoot wide open since the DOF is so small at f2.8 (total DOF is around 0.34mm). Even at f16 DOF is only 1.92mm.

Stopping down from f2.8 to f4 shows an improvement in center sharpness and going down another stop to f5.6 gives a further slight improvement. f8 is pretty similar to f5.6 with maybe just a slight hint of diffraction softening setting in.,Stopping down to f11 you can see softening due to diffraction effects, which get even stronger at f16 and smaller apertures. So for optimum sharpness an aperture in the f5.6 to f8 range is best, assuming that gives you sufficient depth of field. If you need more DOF you have to stop down further and take the sharpness hit that diffraction causes. This is the same with any macro lens.

The image on the right shows a series of 100% crops from the center of an image of a bank note shot at 1x magnification at apertures from f2.8 to f16.

Using an EOS 7D and looking at a high resolution chrome on glass USAF 1951 target in the center of the frame imaged at 1:1 I measured around 72 lp/mm at f2.8, 80 lp/mm at f4 and f5.6, 72 lp/mm at f8, 64 lp/mm at f11 and 51 lp/mm at f16. These are approximate numbers since the target patterns were at 51, 58, 64, 72 and 80 lp/mm so measurements between these numbers wasn’t really possible. Again excellent performance. For those who think of resolution in terms of lines per picture height, 80 lp/mm on a 7D corresponds to 2384 LPPH. The lower resolution at f8 and smaller apertures is due to diffraction softening, something which is experienced by all lenses.

The edges of the image follow a similar trend with maximum sharpness being reached at around f8 and diffraction increasingly softening the image from f11 through f32.

At f8 edge sharpness is comparable to center sharpness.

Distortion

As you’d expect from a prime macro lens, distortion is very low. If fact I couldn’t actually measure any. If it’s there it can’t be much more than 0.1%.

Bokeh

The character of the out of focus areas in an image are hard to characterize, but the Tamron 90.2,8 VC Macro didn’t exhibit any tendency to produce harsh bokeh. In general out of focus areas were smooth as can be seen in a number of the sample images.

Chromatic Aberration

There detectable CA visible in the corners of the image (both full frame and APS-C), though it’s well controlled and shouldn’t really be a problem for most users. The image on the right shows the extent of the CA under the worst possible conditions, a dark line on a bright background at the extreme corner of the full frame image.

If the slight amount of CA is an issue, Tamron supply a licence for a limited edition of the Silkypix RAW converter which has aberration corrections for the Tamron SP 90MM F/2.8 Di VC USD 1:1 Macro built into it. It can correct CA, distortion and vignetting. Most image editors (e.g. Photoshop) also allow for CA correction.

Vignetting

Like most fast lenses, the Tamron SP 90MM F/2.8 Di VC USD shows some vignetting at wider apertures.

First on an APS-C format camera with the lens focused at infinity I measured about 2/3 stop darkening in the corners of the image at f2.8. However stopping down to f4 pretty much completely eliminated vignetting. At the closest focus distance (1:1) macro, the frame was essentially uniform.

Using a full frame camera, vignetting at f2.8 with infinity focus was about 1 2/3 stops (see image on right). At f4 this dropped to about 1 stop and at f5.6 about 1/2 stop. At 1:1 macro, vignetting at f2.8 was about 2/3 stop and at f4 about 1/3 stop.

These are typical numbers for a lens of this type.

Lens Speed

The Tamron SP 90MM F/2.8 Di VC USD is an f2.8 lens and maximum aperture on a Canon EOS body always reads out as f2.8. However, like most macro lenses, the effective speed of the lens decreases in the macro range. For example if the shutter speed for correct exposure is 1/1000s @ f2.8 when the lens is focused at infinity, if you shift the focus to give 1:1 macro magnification, the exposure will become 1/250s @ f2.8, i.e. there’s about a 2 stop loss of light when working at 1:1 macro. The camera automatically corrects for this of course, so the user need not be concerned about getting the right exposure.

Conclusions

The Tamron SP 90mm f2.8 Di VC USD Macro, (compare prices) (review) is a sharp lens that’s a good performer both as a macro lens and as a general purpose/portrait lens. Distortion is pretty much non-existent and chromatic aberration is well controlled. Sharpness is very good, even wide open, though stopping down a little results in some improvement. The addition of optical stabilization (VC) is a very useful feature when the lens is used outside the macro range, but the effectiveness of the stabilization decreases as magnification increases.

The Tamron SP 90MM F/2.8 Di VC USD 1:1 Macro comes with a lens hood and a 6 year warranty, longer than any of its competitors (Canon offer only 1 year) and certainly nice to have.

Though somewhat more expensive,($900 vs. $750), the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro, (compare prices) offers a hybrid optical stabilization with the promise of better optical stabilization in the macro range, so if you are thinking of doing a lot of handheld macro work, that’s something to consider. Even the hybrid IS system performance decreases at close focus distances though. Canon claim up to 2 stops of stabilization at 1:1 (vs. up to 4 stops at non-macro distances).

Where to Buy

The Tamron SP 90MM F/2.8 Di VC USD 1:1 Macro
Price as low as $749.00 from 2 retailers
$749.00
$749.00

Tamron SP 90mm f2.8 Di VC USD Macro, (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. Extraordinary 1:1 (life-size) close up capacity, combined with what many consider an ideal portraiture focal length ….


Text and photos © 2013 Bob Atkins.

Article revised March 2013.

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