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Tamron SP AF300mm f/2.8 LD(IF)

by Bruce Leventhal, 1998

Tamron 300 2.8: Who needs this Lens?

It is my belief that every piece of photographic equipment purchased, should be obtained with a predetermined purpose. It is all too easy to become wrapped up in the mindless pursuit of gear, in which the user pays homage to a new lens or camera that sits idly in a closet or bag. My current philosophy forces me to sell or give away anything that I don't use, because an unused piece of gear is simply non-productive and takes up space.

With this in mind, the following are reasons not to buy the Tamron 300 f/2.8 lens:

  • To look like a professional photographer: The ownership of a long lens does not make a novice who has little knowledge about photography look like a pro!
  • To look cool: There is nothing cool about carrying a 6 lb lens bolted to a tripod through the desert, up a mountain, or into a snowy field.
  • To obtain the sharpest image technically feasible: This review is based on an honest assessment of a quality lens. If you want optical perfection, you will not be happy with anything short of a Zeiss Apo-Tessar 300 f/2.8 for around $15,000.

It is unfortunate, but there are times when your camera gear does limit your potential for producing images of specific organisms or events. When your gear limits your success, it is time to seek a solution. For the average nature photography enthusiast, a 300 f/4.0 &/or 400 f/5.6 will meet 80% of their long lens needs. For some, 80% is great, while for others 80% is a compromise that they are unwilling to accept. Unfortunately, the way to meet 100% of your photographic needs are extremely expensive, if not impossible. One solution is to purchase Canon or Nikkor super tele lenses that range between 300 & 600mm. While these lenses are beautifully made, and optically outstanding (see other photo.net and photo.net nature reviews), they can be frightfully expensive and impractical to purchase or use.

So, who needs the Tamron 300 f/2.8 lens?

  • Professional or advanced amateur photographers that specialize in natural light/available light photography.
  • Professional or advanced amateur photographers that try to isolate plants and animals while minimizing depth of field.
  • Professional or advanced amateur photographers that can not afford to spend $4000+ to buy a 400mm, 500mm or 600mm lens, but are willing to use tele-converters to meet their focal length needs.
  • Professional or advanced amateur photographers searching for high quality optics in a "small package" with an "affordable" price tag.

General Mechanical Characteristics of the Lens

According to the Tamron literature, SP lenses are designed to meet both the optical expectations and physical abuse that a professional photographer might demand from their gear. With two large LD ("Low Dispersion") glass elements at the front of the lens, the Tamron SP 300 f/2.8LD(IF) is 2.247 Kg (about 5 pounds) and 217mm (8.5 inches) long. The lens is a redesign from an older "Adaptall" model, and now has 9 aperture blades (as opposed to 6) that produce soft, circular out of focus highlights. With an MFD of 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) a magnification ratio of 1:7 can be achieved without extension tubes or converters.

In the 6+ months that I have owned this lens, I have photographed a variety of subjects under varying conditions. This lens has been hauled through Europe via Eurail, carried through the Alps on my back, used in canoes at Voyagers national park, and experienced routine use at my local nature center. In that time, I've used the lens to isolate mountain ranges, photograph dewy spider webs, capture nesting green herons, and photograph black bears. While not as light as the Nikkor 300 f4.0 AF, the Tamron lens is significantly lighter than Nikon and Canon models with an equivalent aperture. The lens is built very nicely, well balanced, constructed of metal and thoughtfully designed. The Tripod collar is strong, rotates smoothly, and is fairly broad in size. I am using an oversized Kirk designed (Arca Swiss type) Q.R. plate in order to distribute the weight of the lens over the whole tripod. Manual focusing is smooth and easy to use as I often find myself fine tuning the focus with a single finger. The lens has a unique focusing ring cover so that your fingers will not interfere with the focusing ring during autofocus. Finally, the lens comes with a large, well baffled lens shade that attaches to the lens with two screws.

While the general design is more than adequate to meet my needs, I have a few criticisms about the structure and function of the lens. These criticisms are based on my comparison of this lens to a Nikon f/2.8 AFI that I have rented in the past.

  • Rather than incorporating a focusing ring cover, Tamron should have included an AF/MF switch. As has happened when I am in a hurry, I either forget to cover the focusing ring in AF, or neglect to uncover it in MF.
  • The focusing ring is very narrow and smooth. Although the focusing ring is covered with rubber, the rubber is not knurled with bumps and can be difficult to grip while wearing gloves. Furthermore, the focusing ring is a narrow 4cm. This is wide enough to barely accommodate two fingers. These design flaws occasionally force me think about a process that should be intuitive.
  • My final criticism, cuts to the heart of the lens. As with the original Nikkor AF 300 f2.8, the autofocus speed on the Tamron lens is slow. While the AutoFocus is accurate, the lens lacks an internal motor. If you are hoping to use autofocus to capture finches, warblers, chickadees... it will not meet your needs. On the other hand, if you plan to use autofocus to photograph deer, bears, herons, low light subjects... then the Tamron's af speed will be fast an accurate enough while using modern Nikon bodies (F5, F100, N90s).

Optical Performance

While I have not used a resolution chart to determine the actual sharpness of the lens, I have found it to be an outstanding performer in the field. All of photographs were shot using either a Manfrotto (Bogen) 3001 or 3221 tripod with a Foba Miniball or NPC Prohead. In my photography, I exclusively use Fuji Velvia or Kodak Elite II 100. Because I have been doing a lot of photography in forests, I have had to shoot most of my images at f2.8 or f4.0. I found the lens to yield images that were contrasty and sharp. When I first used the lens, I was looking for something wrong or inadequate. I was pleased to discover that the lens performed similar to my old (now sold) Nikkor AF 300 f/4.0. I found the detail in and around the eyes of birds and mammals to be brilliant when examining slides with a 4X and 8X loupe. As I reflect on the image making process, I can recall (with pleasure) how easy it was to see the image come to life in the viewfinder... details clearly snapped in and out of focus... this was well reflected on the film. When examining bird photos, I found that feathers, eyes, and beaks were focused clean with detail, and no color fringing. As for color, the images were predictable. I did not notice any deviation of color from what I would have expected from my Nikon lenses. There was not an unusual color cast, as has been reported to be visible with other 3rd party lenses. Finally, flare was virtually non existent. I really pushed this lens while photographing black bears this summer. I shot in subdued light and was rewarded with beautiful tones. I shot it in poor light with high contrast, and while the images were lousy due to a 7 stop range between the black of bear fur and the white of birch trees, the lens remained sharp and free of flare. As I tried to push the limitations of the lens, I took a number of photographs of a severely back lit sow bear in a tree. Of the 8 photos in these conditions, only one exhibited a flare highlight. All of the other images held the detail of the bear fur and eye, while there was a glowing halo of light surrounding the body of the animal (wow!).

Performance with Tele-Converters

In the 6 months that I have owned this lens, I have purchased and tried four 1.4x converters. After what seems like endless testing, I have settled on one and returned the rest. What follows is a summary of my 1.4x converter experiences:

  • Tamron AF 1.4X Converter: This is a 4 element converter that maintains AF, matrix metering, & all other mechano-electric functions of an N90s & F100. Unlike the 300 2.8, it was constructed from plastic and felt cheap. AF speed was reduced dramatically, and AF noise increased to an unacceptably loud level for the nature photographer. After shooting a number of rolls of film, I found the image quality to be acceptable in spite of the additional softness in sharpness. (sold)
  • Nikon AF 1.6X Converter: This is a 5 element converter that was designed in the late '80s to provide limited AF to non AF lenses. The marriage of this converter maintained AF functions, but eliminated lens to body communication. While I enjoyed having a 480 4.5, the performance of the pair was unpredictable. AF function of the 1.6X converter was maintained by the movement of a lens group within the barrel of the converter. It appears, that the quality of my images were hostage to the location of the elements within the converter. Some days, I would get beautifully sharp pictures, & other days I wouldn't. Furthermore, there would be times when I would get "donut" shaped-highlights (ie. mirror lens) while in similar shooting situations, I wouldn't get donut shaped highlights. Unpredictable! (sold)
  • Nikon TC 1.4b: This is a 5 element converter designed to match Nikkor super-teles. This converter does not mate to the Tamron because the exposed elements of the teleconverter will not fit into the lens barrel of the Tamron 300 2.8. (returned)
  • Nikon TC 1.4a: This is a 5 element converter designed to match Nikkor lenses with a focal length of 300mm or less. This converter does not maintain AF or electro-mechanical connections. I picked this up for under $200 in NY over Thanksgiving. Before I left the city, I shot 3 rolls of film at Jamaica Bay. The majority of the pictures were of snow geese. Fortunately, the light was shifting throughout the day. As a result, I was able to test the converter in both sunny and overcast light. Alas I have found a converter that maintains the sharpness I expect from my lens without a converter. All images were contrasty, clean, and without vignetting. Now that I have shot >10 rolls with the lens & converter, I am happy to report that the combination of the TC 1.4a + 300 2.8 will produce reliably sharp images. (retained)

Closing Comments

In closing, my experience with the Tamron AF300 2.8 has lead me to believe that this is a "pro" quality lens capable of producing "pro" quality images. For those looking to buy a 3rd party 300, I urge you to look closely at this lens. I purchased mine used from National Camera's Shutterbug Ad for $1700 in Ex++ condition with a box, case (a neat soft pouch for transport with body), cap & straps. The lens can be bought new in Nikon/Minolta mounts for about $2600 and in Canon mount for $2800.

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Bruce & Tamy Leventhal   bt_photo@sprynet.com

Image at top of page: Black Bear, photographed in Orr, MN. Tamron AF 300 2.8 in Nikon Mount. Ektachrome Elite 100 @ 125 f/2.8 (estimate).
Copyright 1998, Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All Rights Reserved


Article created 1998