Monday, January 05, 2009

TAMRON AF 18-270mm F/3.5-5.6 Di II VC LD Aspherical [IF] MACRO Lens for Nikon F-Mount: Hands-on Review

TAMRON AF 18-270mm F/3.5-5.6 Di II VC LD Aspherical [IF] MACRO

TAMRON has been famous for being the superzoom experts. TAMRON is determined to put its name in front of every consumer DSLR by being the first in the world to produce a 15x superzoom with a highly efficient Vibration Compensation built into the lens. The AF 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC LD Aspherical (IF) MACRO (Model No.: B003, NII for Nikon F-mount with built-in motor) is a lens to reckoned with. It covers a long range from 18mm to 270mm, i.e. 28mm to 420mm (35mm equivalent), allowing users to reach further away than any other existing superzoom lenses. This range saves the hassle of swapping lens on-the-go, making the B003 an ideal lens for travelling, hence earning a name of "walkabout", "travel" or "all-in-one" lens. The minimum focusing distance of 0.49m makes this lens a pseudo-MACRO lens. Image stabilization is already becoming a new standard in photographic lenses, the B003 has TAMRON's newly developed "VC" Vibration Compensation technology which incorporates optical image stabilization into the lens. Currently, the B003 places itself in the "optically image stabilized superzoom" category along with the Canon EF-S 18-200mm F3.5-5.6 IS, Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED AF-S VR DX, and Sigma 18-200mm F3.5-6.3 DC OS. The B003 is made only available for Canon EF-mount and Nikon F-mount only. TAMRON calls this lens "The Ultimate All-In-One Zoom: Longest, Steadiest Lens On Earth", how does it stand against Nikon's version which has been phenomenal since its debut as the first of such lenses of its class?


Why do I still need this lens when I already have 17mm to 200mm covered by two fast f/2.8 optics?
Those professional fast lenses are intended for more serious work, but lugging them around on a casual day out or holiday, is not joke! Hence, I have always wanted an "all-in-one" lens for these occasions when I am not too particular about image quality and not miss a shot while changing lenses. Most importantly, with a superzoom, I can go 'light' and that strongly justify a superzoom lens in every photographer's dry cabinet! I have always been considering the Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED AF-S VR DX since its phenomenal debut which since then received remarkable popularity for its quality. Nevertheless, there are no perfect lenses and has its own share of flaws. Since the Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED AF-S VR DX is the first of such "optically image stabilized superzoom", the later Sigma and then Canon versions tend to be benchmarked against the Nikon version. Third-party lenses has been popular for being made similar to the 'originals' but at a cheaper price. Nevertheless, the prices of the Sigma and TAMRON versions are not exactly very far apart from the Nikon version (~S$1000). Nevertheless, the advantages of the TAMRON B003 edges over that of the Nikon version and is definitely worth giving it a thought. I did and I am sold!

Unboxing the B003NII
B003 is the model number for the AF 18-270mm F/3.5-5.6 Di II VC LD Aspherical [IF] MACRO, while NII refers to its Nikon F-mount with built-in lens motor. TAMRON has revamped its earlier duller packaging and introduced a fancier silver box.

The Lens
The unmistakable gold ring encircles the front of the 34mm rubberized zoom ring. On top of the zoom ring is the focusing ring. Since this lens has a built-in micro-motor (compatible with D40/D40x/D60), rotating the focusing ring manually produces a mechanical gear sound. The travel of the focusing ring is short and has a very loose feel when used manually. The lens is a double-barrel construction which extends an 89mm when zooming to maximum zoom (i.e. from 18mm to 270mm). This lens has internal focusing (IF) and the front element does not rotate during focusing. On one side of the lens has two switches: AF/MF and VC ON/OFF, which are easily accessible by the left thumb. The other side has a zoom lock which locks the barrel when fully retracted. The zoom lock is to prevent zoom creeping which commonly plagues lens with extending barrels. With 18 glass elements inside, zoom creeping is expected, as with the Nikon AF-S 18-200 VR. However, a mint piece of B003NII has no zoom creeping issues. In fact, the barrel extension is not entirely smooth as the middle range (~70-200mm) gets slightly stiffer. The mount is distinctly different from the usual non-VR lenses by having more contacts. The included AB003 accessory petal-shaped bayonet lens hood is small and does not hinder operation when reversed mounted. TAMRON has also seemed to shed its earlier font used to mark the numbers on the lens.

Among my Arsenal of Fast Optics
The TAMRON B003NII joins my arsenal of fast optics: TAMRON A16, Nikkor AF 50mm f/1.8D, Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8 VR. Those that have departed my collection are the Nikkor AF 80-200mm f/2.8D and Sigma 10-20mm f/3.5-4.

Additional Necessity
A Kenko Pro1 Digital Protector filter with ø72mm is essential to protect the front element of the lens from the time it leaves the retail shop. This filter is multi-coated and has a low-profile.

• Model: B003 NII Nikon Mount with Built-in Micro Motor
• Format: APS-C/DX
• Lens Construction (Groups/Elements): 13/18, 2 LD glass elements, 3 aspherical elements
• Angle of View (APS-C size equivalent): Diagonal 75°33' - 5°55', Horizontal 65°36' - 4°55', Vertical 46°21' - 3°10'
• Diaphragm Blade Number: 7 rounded blades
• Maximum Aperture: F/3.5 - F/6.3 (18mm-270mm)
• Minimum Aperture: F/22 - F/40 (18mm-270mm)
• Minimum Focus Distance: 0.49m (entire zoom range)
• Macro Magnification Ratio: 1:3.5 (at f=270mm, MFD=0.49m)
• Filter Diameter: ø72
• Weight: 550g
• Diameter x Length: (ø79.6 x 101.0mm)
• Accessory: AB003 Flower-shaped Lens hood, Front and Rear Lens caps


Zoom Range & Apertures
The B003NII has a variable aperture across the entire zoom range. These examples uses the maximum aperture of that range and the sharpest apertures of this lens. Geometric distortions are expected for superzooms, but relatively acceptable across all ranges in the B003NII. The image quality is impressive in the wide-middle range, but if one does not pixel-peep, the IQ is very good across all zoom range. In fact, comparison lab tests shows that the TAMRON B003NII is tad sharper than the Nikon AF-S 18-200mm VR across entire range and common aperture settings. Flare is impressively well-controlled but still suffer from slight CA. From 100mm onwards, the maximum aperture starts to show that this lens is 1/3 slower compared the Nikon version.






MACRO @ MFD 0.49m
Given the "MACRO" designation, the TAMRON B003NII is capable to doing some close-up work or 'pseudo-MACRO' (1:3.5 reproduction) but not the real MACRO work (1:1 reproduction). The highest magnification ratio can be achieved at 270mm since this lens focuses at an MFD=049mm across the entire zoom range. However, this pseudo-MACRO is not perfect. In these examples, the AF area is the alphabets "TION" and flash is used at 1/60s sync speed. It is not easy to obtain a sharp image at 270mm even with good light and VC activated. If one does not pixel-peep, the image is considerably sharp at maximum aperture but plagued by CA issues. However, when stopping down to F11, the focus shifts away from the AF area (back-focus). Nevertheless, very acceptable results at F6.3 amd F8. The VC is essential when doing MACRO work. The reported 3 to 4-stops advantage is essential to getting a sharp shot. I was entirely impressed by the capability of the VC over the VR in some Nikon lenses. The pseudo-MACRO capability and highly-effective VC are an edge over the Nikon version.


Test Images
In Good Light
In good light, this lens produces impressive results! Nevertheless, since this is a slow lens at the telephoto end, even with a highly-effective VC, it is still inevitable to shoot at ISO200 and sometimes at ISO400. This lens is no good for freezing fast actions unless under strong sunlight, otherwise, it can still capture a sharp image of a slow-moving subject and best for still sujects. Geometric distortions are evident no doubt, but won't kill the picture and can also be easily corrected in post-processing. The bokeh is nothing to shout about for a superzoom, hence this ain't a good lens for portraiture.

Indoors with VC
There is no better place than Buddha Tooth Relic Temple & Museum to try out the capability of the "VC" Vibration Compensation of this lens. The ambient lighting of the temple is low and constantly requires bumping the ISO beyond 400. TAMRON claims that the VC gives a 4-stops advantage, while reviews claim a 3 to 4-stops advantage. Since this lens is very slow in the telephoto range and being pampered with my fast lenses, the VC is almost permanently On. The effectiveness of the VC is immediately visible from the stabilized image in the viewfinder. When the VC kicks in, a soft whirring sound can be heard. Nevertheless, with VC in action and steady hands, a steady shot can still be achieved at 1/20s at 270mm. The B003NII comes with a built-in micro motor that drives focusing in D40/D40x/D60, but is driven by body's motor in other models. The disadvantage of such motor-driven focusing is that it is slower than the AF-S lenses which uses a ultrasonic silent wave motor (SWM). The focusing speed of the B003NII is definitely put to the test when shooting indoors. This lens tends to hunt on a few occasions. Despite finding the focus, this lens takes an obvious 2-4 seconds to give a focus lock confirmation.

Outdoors & Flowers
The roof the temple makes an excellent location to try out a few macro shots with the orchids. The pseudo-MACRO capability is not perfect and not necessary produce a sharp image when pixel-peeping. However, the results are comfortably acceptable when resized. Once again, nothing to cry about its bokeh. VC does come in handy when shooting close-up subjects at 270mm. At 270mm, I am able to see things that I have never seen at this location, for example the reflections in the glass spheres.

Into the Evening
Approaching evening, I climbed to a higher level to catch the evening glow of the city. Once again, a handy 18-270mm captures any shot conveniently and the VC helped in getting a steady shot in the dim evening light and not sacrifice on bumping up the ISO.

With TTL Flash
Back at home, I just decided to point at a few subjects with the lens at 270mm and a Nikon Speedlight set to TTL bounced off the ceiling. The lens easily picked up the dusts particles on my toys.


UPDATES on 5th June 2010

The TAMRON AF 18-270mm F/3.5-5.6 Di II VC LD Aspherical [IF] MACRO Lens (BOO3NII for Nikon-mount) needs no further introduction with many popular review sites recommending it. My verdict is almost identical:
1. Convenient 15x zoom range covering wide-angle to telephoto.
2. Better IQ (IMHO) than the Nikon AF-S 18-200mm VR.
3. Comfortable compact size.
4. Very effective VC and better (IMHO) than Nikon's VRII and definitely better that Nikon's VRI.
5. VC less power consuming than Nikon VR I.
6. Short MFD for close-up shooting.
7. 3 years local warranty (Singapore).
1. Slow aperture.
2. Slow 2-4 seconds AF lock confirmation in low light.
3. Pseudo-MACRO is acceptable when not pixel-peeping and focus-shifts when stopped down.
4. Sloppy and loose feel of the focus ring during MF.
5. Short travel on the focus ring makes MF difficult.
6. Long travel of the the zoom ring makes zooming from 18-270mm in one turn of the wrist difficult.
Though the number of PROS and CONS are on par, but IMO, the importance of the PROS outweighs the CONS. The CONS are the comprises that I can live with, for the sake of the PROS. Shooting has never been more convenient with the 15x zoom range. As long as one does not pixel-peep too much, the image quality is considered excellent. Remember that I have been pampered by fast and good optics. I must applaud TAMRON for developing its superbly-effective "VC" Vibration Compensation mechanism which is the best I have ever experienced. Did I mention that the TAMRON VC does not consumes as much power as the Nikon VR? Yes, since I am using D200 which is famous for being very power-hungry,power is very precious. Might not be a fair judgement, but the Nikon VR I (AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8 VR) saps much more energy out than the TAMRON VC (AF 18-270mm VC). I will usually finish a full capacity ENEL3e within a day with Nikon VR I (AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8 VR) , while the same capacity can last for at least 2 days with the TAMRON VC (AF 18-270mm VC). I apologize for the lack of figures to back my claim, since I observed this based on past shooting occasions. I wonder if anyone saw a difference between TAMRON VC and Nikon VR II (AF-S 18-200mm VR)? The short minimum focus distance makes this lens suitable for taking close subjects, such as food photography when sitting on a table. The local agent in Singapore provides a 3-years local warranty and a promotional $100 rebate (in Tangs voucher). Hence, I am actually paying around S$300 lesser than getting a brand new Nikon AF-S 18-200mm VR; about the same price as a second-hand Nikon AF-S 18-200mm VR. The Nikon lens is also reported to be plagued by severe zoom creeping. However, I did not experience zoom creeping with this TAMRON (yet). Hence, when compared to the Nikon AF-S 18-200mm VR, I get 70mm more range and IMO, a better image stabilization and IQ. The compromises I had to live with is the slower maximum aperture after 100mm, a more indecisive and slower AF lock. The lack of an ultrasonic motor is probably the biggest flaw of this lens. Hence, this lens is not suitable for sports or fast moving action but it does not mean it can't be used for those purposes. It can still be used for fast actions provided that you are using a higher ISO and when the sunlight is strong.
In summary, I feel that the TAMRON AF 18-270mm F/3.5-5.6 Di II VC LD Aspherical [IF] MACRO lens is the BEST image-stabilized superzoom lens in the market. It definitely upholds its title of "The Ultimate All-In-One Zoom: Longest, Steadiest Lens On Earth" with pride. In my opinion, if you have the Nikon AF-S 18-200mm VR, keep it; if not (like me), get this lens instead! This is definitely a good-to-have lens in for every photographer (amateur, hobbyist or professional); a must-have lens for me! It is also value-for-money. Highly recommend getting this lens and from the authorized dealers to benefit from the warranty and promotions (S$100 Tang voucher).


Photography & Editing by William Tan
Text & Review by William Tan
All Rights Reserved
©William Tan 2009

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Anonymous said...

The section "The Lens" contains an error on lens specs. The text says "The lens is a double-barrel construction which extends out 89cm when zooming to 270mm." The lens unextended is 101mm, when fully extended is 190mm, so when fully extended the lens is 89mm longer than its unextended (at 18mm f.l0. Please note the units are mm not cm.. For full details see




Shelby said...

Thank you for this very detailed and informative review!

Chris said...

Thanks for the detailed review. ESP. The extensive photo examples. I am torn between this and the 28-300. I wish that review was as detailed. But this has pushed me toward the 18-270. Thanks again.