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Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 VC G2 (A025) Review

Dustin Abbott

April 3rd, 2017

 

There are few lenses more indispensable to photographers as a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. Though large, heavy, and expensive, these lenses can be found in the bags of many, many photographers, both professional and amateur. They are just so versatile! They can do everything, from events to sports to portraits to landscapes to everyday capture. Look at the sidelines of any sporting event and you will see them. Ditto for most weddings. Tamron’s previous generation 70-200mm f/2.8 VC USD lens (internal code A009) was an excellent, underrated lens. Canon’s own 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II has long been considered one of the best lenses out there, period, and the fact that Tamron’s A009 was a bit sharper at many focal lengths (until about 140mm or so) and had an overall nicer rendering was met with some disbelief. While that lens has done reasonably well, it has never been a sales leader when compared to the first party lenses.  It was mostly purchased by those that felt they couldn’t afford the more expensive Nikon and Canon versions. I suspect that Tamron’s newest offering, the SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 (the A025), will make a bigger splash for a few important reasons: Build, Image Quality, Focus, and Price. Of those four, Tamron had claim already to price and was competitive on image quality, but the first party lens had the advantage in build and focus quality. Has Tamron eliminated the first party advantages with the A025 (G2) lens?

Prefer to watch your reviews? I’ve got you covered! Check out my full video review of the new Tamron 70-200 G2 lens!

Build Quality

Tamron has really been impressing with their recent lens releases. There has been a shift away from budget “shells” around pretty good optics to now housing those optics in premium bodies. The new A025 is a great case in point, as the build grade is as good as the first party alternatives but in a sleeker, more modern finish.

I watched with interest as Matt Granger did his unboxing of the lens on YouTube (I hadn’t yet received one), and noted that his initial reaction to the lens was that it was smaller than the previous generation lens when in fact it is actually a bit larger. It is heavier (3.31 lb/1500g vs. 3.24 lb/1470g) and longer (7.6”/193.04mm vs. 7.41”/188.3mm), though both increases are minimal and the lens is still a hair shorter than the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L II (7.8”/198mm). But the sleek, modern design of the new lens makes it seem much smaller than what it is. I understand completely how Matt feels, as I had the same initial impression when unboxing the lens. It seemed smaller than expected, and that speaks to the sleekness of the new design. For practical purposes both increases are so incremental as to be unnoticeable, but for that very slight increase in length and weight we get major improvements in build and operation.

There wasn’t anything wrong with the build of the previous generation 70-200 VC lens (A009). It was mostly metal with a polycarbonate (engineered plastics) shell and I used one professionally for about 3 ½ years and just recently sold it. The lens still looked like new. But it did feel a step back from the heavier grade construction of the Canon version. The new lens (A025) is a nice step forwards, with a far more modern design and a fully metal body (a lightweight aluminum). I’ve been really impressed with the build of Tamron’s recent SP line, and this lens is no exception. It feels very nicely made, and the weather sealing has all been upgraded over the previous generation. There was a gasket near the lens mount on the A009 lens and a nod towards weather resistance, but the A025 takes weather resistance to a new level with the addition of internal seals throughout the lens along with an expensive fluorine coating on the front element to protect against water and fingerprints.

Lenses with this coating are much easier to clean and it provides some extra protection. The lens feels great in the hand, and looks much, much more modern than the four year development cycle between the two lenses indicates.

When compared side by side, the Canon 70-200L II definitely looks somewhat dated, with the Tamron looking far sleeker and more modern. The “Image Stabilization” gold badge on the Canon lens strikes me as garish and dated in particular( the 100-400L II in my collection looks similar at a glance but more modernized when viewed more carefully). Some people prefer the higher visibility of Canon’s white lenses, but I personally prefer the lower profile look of black lenses. The 70-200L II is a very well built lens, but in terms of pure appearance it “looks” cheaper” compared to the sleek, metal good looks of the A025. Design sensibilities across the board have changed and the 70-200 G2 reflects these changes.

The A025 has metal filter threads in the a very common 77mm size (shared with the previous gen lens and the Canon). Internally there 9 rounder aperture blades that retain a nicely circular shape when stopped down.

The zoom ring is located toward the front of the lens, and my preference is for the zoom ring to be the closer to the lens mount. This is unchanged from the A009, however, as is the fact that the lens the focus and zoom rings move in the “Nikon” rather than “Canon” direction. This latter fact is an issue for some, but not really one for me. I just don’t personally notice it in the field, so my mind must subconsciously make the adjustment. Perhaps using so many different lenses makes this a non-issue for me. The action on both rings is fine, with the zoom ring showing the nice smoothness common to internally zooming lenses. The damping is even and there are no sticking points, with the weight on the medium rather than light side (not really a “one-finger” operation). The zoom ring is slightly more narrow than the previous generation lens (though still nice and easy to find) and has a single ribbed design rather than the more complex pattern on the previous lens. The tactile feel is a little nicer, too. The manual focus ring moves smoothly, though as is usual with autofocusing lenses the feel is less precise and rewarding than that of a good manual focus lens.

I do prefer the feel of both of the zoom and focus rings on the Canon; both of them are nice and wide and move extremely nicely. So, while I prefer the look of the Tamron lens, I do prefer the basic ergonomics of the Canon. It is tried and true…and it shows.

The A025 has four switches rather than the two on the A009. The A009 had only the basics: AF/MF and On/Off for the VC. The A025 adds a focus limiter (always welcome) that allows you to choose between the full range of focus or to limit the focus from 3 meters to infinity (though this figure can be customized in Tamron’s Tap In Console Utility if you have the Tap-In Console).

On that note, let me say that I highly recommend picking up the Tap In even if you only use it apply firmware updates to the lens. This saves time (never have to send the lens in to Tamron to have the firmware updated, as I had to do twice with the previous generation lens) and also helps future-proof your lens. Beyond this, however, the Tap In opens the door to a good deal of customization of your lens, including tweaking the focus, setting the position of the focus limiter, changing the sensitivity of the manual focus override, and even selecting an additional VC mode. Beyond this you also have the ability to further tweak focus with either the new Tamron 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters attached (completely separate values for either combination).

Using the focus limiter can help give you a little extra speed when you don’t need to focus more closely than 3 meters (roughly ten feet). The A025 can focus down quite closely (only 3.12’/0.95m), so you are eliminating a number of focus points between this and 3 meters.

The fourth switch on the lens gives you a choice of VC (Vibration Compensation/Image Stabilization) modes. Position 1 is the standard, balanced mode that you will most often use. Position 2 is for panning and limits the compensation to one axis allowing you to smoothly pan without interruption from the VC. Mode 3 (by default) is what Tamron calls “Capture Priority”. It does little to stabilize the image in the viewfinder and instead prioritizes stabilizing the captured image. Tamron claims an industry leading 5 stops of stability in this mode (and in my tests it is the most effective mode), which is great, though those with shaky hands may find that stabilizing the viewfinder is worth too much to them to use this mode. By using the Tap In you can program this third mode to another option, which is “Viewfinder Priority”. This mode is really designed for video, and changes the behavior of the VC to prioritize smooth transitions for the VC coming on and off along with keeping the VC on a little longer to help produce smooth video footage.

The tripod collar has also received a redesign. It now has a different texture with a somewhat “matte” finish. As before it can be rotated (with markings for the four points of the compass)) but is also fully removable. This latter point is a big one to me, as I primarily use a lens like this handheld and often remove the tripod collar to save a little weight. A major improvement is to the foot itself, which is now Arca-Swiss compatible, meaning that on many tripods you can just mount it right onto the tripod without having to mess with a Quick Release plate or adapter. It’s one of those common sense touches that I’m always happy to see. I tested four lenses during this review cycles (two copies of the A025, one of the A009, and the Canon) and was reminded on multiple occasions on how much I preferred the tripod foot of the A025, which made going on and off tripods for tests a breeze, while I had to take the time to thread on a quick release plate for the A009 or the Canon (which if you leave on, makes everything that much more bulky and often means the lens won’t “sit” right.)

Like other recent Tamron releases the lens is designed in Japan but produced in Tamron’s plant in China. My copy of their 85mm f/1.8 VC was made in that same plant, and I’ve had good results with it, so my fears over moving the production out of Japan have abated somewhat. There’s no question that the new lens is beautifully built and has a gorgeous design. 70-200 lenses are workhorses, but there’s no reason why they have to be ugly! The new Tamron 70-200 G2 gives the Canon L lens a run for its money in overall construction and definitely trumps it in the looks department.

A025 Autofocus Observations

There’s no question that using Tamron’s Tap In Console allows one to produce a custom tuned focus result on your camera body, but be forewarned that it is also a fairly time consuming process. You have the option to calibrate the lens at three different focus distances (minimum focus, medium distance, and infinity) and at four different focal lengths (70, 100, 135, and 200mm). That is twelve different calibration points, so not something I would want to do all the time. It was a time consuming process to fully calibrate the lens, which I did.

Fortunately I found the lens’ behavior during calibrating very comforting, as it gave me repeatable results in multiple tests in Reikan FoCal (my calibration software of choice) and also showed a linear pattern In adjustments as I moved from 70mm to 200mm. That consistently bodes well for those without a Tap In console, as you should be able to get a good result even when just calibrating the lens at the two focal lengths (70 and 200mm) that most modern camera bodies allow for. The payoff for that laborious process was the lens has been exceptionally accurate for me in all lighting situations. I’ve used two different copies of the lens during this review period, and both copies focused very well for me.

Tamron has redesigned its USD motors with an additional microprocessor for added speed and accuracy (starting with the 85 VC). It shows in the increased performance of the newer lenses, which are now almost as fast as first party competitors. Almost…

Much like the 85 VC, I find the 70-200 G2 arrives quickly at the focus destination but then hesitates for a split second before locking focus. The Canon focuses at about the same speed, but without the final hesitation at lock, making focus acquisition that split second faster. The 70-200L II is well known as one of Canon’s better focusing lenses, so the fact that the Tamron stays close in both speed and accuracy is great to see for a third party lens. I tested the lens on a Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon 6D, Canon 80D, and then via a Metabones IV adapter on a Sony A7R II. Unsurprisingly the best focus system (5D Mark IV) gave the best results, with the increased voltage for focus making an obvious difference in “spool-up” speed compared to the 6D, for example. Focus was unsurprisingly the slowest on the Sony/Metabones combination, though, for what it is worth, I actually got faster results with the Tamron vs the Canon in that situation. On the DSLRs, however, I give the overall focus speed win to the 70-200L II, though the advantage is now very slight.

I used the lens on several different occasions in AF Servo mode and found the the lens had no problem making the continual minor focus changes necessary to track action. We are stuck here between seasons (March) with it too cold (and still too much snow on the ground) for fair weather sports, but with conditions deteriorating for winter sports, so finding a lot of good action to track has been a challenge. I do have a very active new kitten, though, and so I spent some time tracking his play (which is a definitely a challenge due to the tight quarters). Still, I felt like results were very favorable.

Focus isn’t as whisper quiet as Canon’s new Nano USM, but is quiet in a USM kind-of-way. There is a faint sliding sound on big focus changes, but everything is pretty quiet overall – about the same as the 70-200L II.

Over my review period I was extremely pleased with the focus accuracy of the 70-200 G2. This is one area that Tamron seems to have figured things out, and my focus consistency with the 35 VC, 45 VC, 85 VC, and now the 70-200 G2 is on par with the equivalent Canon lenses. I shot in a wide variety of situations and lighting conditions and was very pleased with the results that I got.

Teleconverter Performance

One of the shortcomings of the A009 lens was that it was (according to Tamron) not designed for compatibility with teleconverters. This was a competitive disadvantage, as Canon’s own lens is a very strong performer when used with teleconverters. Tamron has rectified that error here and designed this lens from the ground up with compatibility with its new line of SP Teleconverters. I had both the 1.4x and 2x converters on hand, and they, like the rest of the new lineup, are very sleek with metal construction and a weather sealing gasket near the lens mount. They seem just as nice as the Canon 1.4x III version that I personally own. You can view my detailed video review on the new teleconverters here.

In my internal conversations with Tamron representatives they stressed that Canon TCs should be paired with Canon lenses, and Tamron TCs with Tamron lenses. This proved true in a number of different ways. The A025 focused fine with the Canon 1.4x III that I have, for example, but the combination for some reason allows only a maximum aperture of [reported] f/5.6 rather than f/4 (using it on the Canon lens allows f/4). Ditto in the opposite direction when I mounted the Tamron 1.4x TC on the Canon lens. The maximum aperture will show as f/5.6, but the effective aperture is actually f/4. It’s a reporting issue. You will also get a few other reporting quirks: the Tamron 1.4x extender is recognized as the Canon 1.4x III on the camera body (and in software), while the 2.0x extender will almost never register correctly in terms of aperture (and perhaps focal length) when paired with Canon lenses. On a separate note, you will get a few quirks when pairing the TCs with the Tamron 150-600 G2 lens, but the behavior on the 70-200 G2 is pretty civilized.

I will deal more with the image quality in that section, but I will note that my Canon bodies registered the maximum aperture value correction with both TCs (f/4 with the 1.4x, and f/5.6 with the 2.0x) when paired with the 70-200 G2. What doesn’t always properly register is the new maximum focal length with the 2.0x; sometimes it will show 400mm, but other times it will still show the maximum focal length as 280mm. The reason for this is that the camera doesn’t always recognize that it is a 2.0x extender, and will often register the 2.0x as the Canon 1.4x III. Occasionally it will show 2x III and 400mm, but not consistently and I can’t see a pattern as to when it decides to record correctly or not. You are still going to get 400mm of reach (that doesn’t change), but that information may not register correctly in the camera body or the EXIF date.

In good light I saw little impairment with either TC, with focus speed and confidence seeming to be pretty much like with the bare lens. In extremely dim light I saw just a little pulsing where there was little contrast to grab, but it did lock focus accurately in the end. That’s a definite improvement over the A009. The focus on the A009 didn’t respond well to TCs at all. Mounting on the Tamron 1.4x extender on the Canon slowed it down a bit (particularly with big focus changes), but was usable. Mounting the Tamron 2.0x on the Canon 70-200L II didn’t produce a useable result. It mostly pulsed, and only after several seconds of pulsing did it decide to lock focus…even on higher contrast subjects. Switching back to the Tamron on Tamron combination was a night and day improvement.

I’m not a big fan of 2.0x converters, myself, as I feel they introduce too many compromises, but Tamron’s 2.0x does seem to produce very good optical results. 200mm is the weakest point optically in the 70-200 G2’s focus range, so unfortunately that is going to be reflected in use with TC’s (where you are often going for the greatest reach). Final results are good, but not as good as the Canon with it’s TCs (see more in the image quality section). It is worth noting the Tamron Tap In Console allows you to enter separate values for a lens with either the 1.4x or 2.0x attached, so if you plan to use a certain combination extensively you can invest the time to assure maximum focus accuracy and the best results.

It is worth noting that adding extenders definitely improves the maximum magnification figure of the 70-200 G2. The bare lens gives a magnification of right under 0.17x. Adding the 1.4x changes that figure to 0.25, while the 2.0x extender brings the magnification up to around 0.33x. That final figure is pretty close to the native magnification of the original Tamron 70-200mm, which tells me that it must have strongly breathed in the opposite direction (like the 70-200L II except more so!)

One final tip if you plan to use Tamron’s extenders with the 70-200 G2: I found stopping down one stop with the extenders attached gave a very nice boost in image quality.  It is worth noting that a lot of early buyers are giving negative reviews to the Tamron teleconverters.  It’s not because they aren’t good (they are actually excellent), but rather because Tamron’s promotional material has given some the false impression that people are going to get quality autofocus with the converters + the Tamron 150-600mm G2 lens…which isn’t true.  This lens, yes, but not the 150-600 G2. Watch my video on the teleconverters to get the whole story on them!

Improved Image Stabilization

Tamron’s new VC works beautifully. It operates more smoothly than the A009’s VC, with smoother transitions on and off. I tested it using both Mode 1 (Standard) and Mode 3 (Capture Priority) at 1/25th second, 1/15th second, and 1/8th second. I also compared the Canon EF 70-200L II on its Mode 1 (it has only two modes and no equivalent Capture Priority mode). To make things more fair (considering the focus breathing of the Tamron and the target distance of about 10.5 feet), I tried to match framing and thus shot the Canon at about 168mm.

Lens (Mode) 1/25th (out of 5) 1/15th (out of 5) 1/8th (out of 5)
Tamron (1) 4.5 (1 slight blur) 5 2 (ish)
Tamron (3) 5 5 3 (Perfect)
Canon 4.5 (1 slight blur) 2.5-3 (ish) 2 Perfect – 3 close

Overall I was impressed with the performance of both lenses. In Mode 1 the Tamron does the best job of keeping the viewfinder steady, so if this is a big deal to you then the Tamron has an excellent performance. The value of Tamron’s Mode 3 (though it does nothing for the viewfinder) was seen as the shutter speed dropped. It delivered the most consistent results overall, though I will note than in the last sequence its worse blur was a bit worse than the Canon’s worse blur. I was surprised by the near identical performance of the Canon at 1/15th and 1/8th. It delivered pretty much the same results, which lagged behind the Tamron at 1/15th but pretty much matched it at 1/8th second. Both of these lenses have fantastic image stabilization, but just know that there are very, very few situations where I would recommend shooting at even 1/15th second shutter speed with a telephoto lens; the chance of subject movement is too high. For everyday shooting and typical shutter speeds neither of these lenses will disappoint.

Here are a few examples of the 70-200 G2 at 1/8th second in Mode 3:

In a quiet room with my ear near the barrel I can hear faint whirring with both lenses, with the Tamron registering as a bit quieter. Neither lens’ image stabilization produces enough noise to really be noticeable behind the camera.

70-200 G2 Image Quality

This is always an area of priority for a new generation of lens. As we have seen, Tamron has done a great job of refining the autofocus, build, handing, and image stabilization of the lens, but have they had equal success with the image quality? Let’s look at a number of different metrics to make that determination.  I recommend that you visit the Lens Image Gallery to see many more photos than what will fit in the review.  I’ve got photos with extenders, on APS-C, on full frame, and even via adapter on a Sony A7R II.

Sharpness and Resolution

Many don’t know this, but Tamron’s previous generation A009 actually had a minor optical edge from 70-135mm over the Canon 70-200L II, with the Canon 70-200 giving the better performance in the latter part of the range. What we are going to find is largely an expansion on that theme, where Tamron has built upon their existing strengths but not fully addressed their weaknesses. I used four lenses as a part of this test: two copies of the A025, the A009, and the Canon.  You can watch my detailed analysis of the image quality in this video:

When comparing the two copies of the A025 I found that they performed pretty similarly, though one was a bit better centered than the other and gave a more even performance on both sides of the frame.

At 70mm the 70-200 G2 is the clear winner. It is crisp and detailed from corner to corner with very little resolution loss right out the very edges. There is no hint of haziness from a lack of contrast and no chromatic aberration at all. The Canon is fairly good in the center (though not as good as the A025). Sharpness is good but there is both more softness visible along with a hint of some purple fringing. Towards the edges of the frame is a different story, however, with details becoming blurred somewhat by both a lack of contrast and more pronounced purple fringing. Stopping down to f/4 allows the center of the Canon to almost catch up with the Tamron, but the Tamron edges are better at f/2.8 than the Canon is even at f/5.6. The A009 center at 70mm (f/2.8) is close to the A025, but the edges lag behind the 70-200 G2 in an apparent way.

A025 vs Canon, 70mm f/2.8 (left, center, right)

A025 vs A009, 70mm f/2.8 (left, center, right)

The situation is virtually the same at 100mm, with the Tamron 70-200 G2 show a strong win on the edges but clearly better towards the center, too. The Canon still suffers from some CA towards the edges. At f/4 the centers are pretty close but there is still an obvious edge for the A025 towards the edges. The same pattern from 70mm is true for the A009; it is fairly close in the center but lags towards the edges, so it is clear that on the wider end of the focal range Tamron has worked most at extending resolution towards the edges.

A025 vs Canon, 100mm f/2.8 (left, center, right)

At 135mm the race tightens a bit. Both the Tamron and the Canon show a near identical center performance. Towards the edges the Canon has managed to lose the chromatic aberrations that held it back at wider focal lengths, and while the Tamron still has a small advantage nearer the edges, it isn’t nearly as pronounced anymore. With both lenses at f/4 there is no real advantage to be seen for either one.  Here’s a look at both sides:

I was also reviewing another (secret) lens at the same time, so I had an opportunity to compare both the A025 and the 70-200L II on the Sony a7R II via the Metabones IV adapter. I shot an outdoors comparison with the very high resolution a7RII at 135mm (or, in the case of the Canon, 140mm, as it is very hard to use the Canon’s focal length markers in the middle of the range to accurately set a focal length…they are always off by a fair margin). In this test (shots from about 90 feet away) there was some minor give and take across the frame but the Tamron was a slight winner overall showing greater contrast and texture resolution in more areas of the frame. The Tamron maintained its edge even with the lenses stopped down. I find it encouraging that the Tamron seems to shine when paired with a higher resolution sensor.

A025 vs Canon, 135mm f/2.8 (samples from across the frame)

The situation reverses at 200mm, however, and it is clear that the Canon is optimized for the long end; a decision that is hard to argue with. The edge advantage is minimal but apparent, with the Canon have showing more precision on the fine engraved numbers on my vintage lenses that I use for these tests. The chromatic aberrations are long gone, and contrast is strong. In the center the difference is roughly the same. The Tamron is good, but the Canon is better. The lenses are closest on the right side, but I still slightly prefer the Canon’s performance. This isn’t taking anything away from the Tamron, as it is delivering a great performance, but when you compare head to head (as I did) you will find that the 200mm results show a slightly softer result for the 70-200 G2.   There’s a bit of “haze” due to reduced contrast and slightly less resolution. Through f/5.6 the Tamron never really “catches up”, either, as the lenses are really closest wide open. When I compared the A025 at f/2.8 and f/5.6 I found that the results were pretty much the same with perhaps a slight edge for the f/2.8 result. The A009 was about as good in the center at f/2.8 (as the A025), but the edge results showed a slight advantage for the A025.

A025 vs Canon, 200mm f/2.8 (left, center, right)

A025 vs A009, 200mm f/2.8 (left, center, right – bottom third of the frame)

If you are interested in seeing a resolution comparison on a high resolution 5DsR, I recommend looking at Bryan Carnathan’s Lens Image Quality tool.

Here’s a look at a few other comparisons at 200mm shot on the Sony a7R II.  The infinity shot strongly favored the Canon, but a medium distance shot (tree trunk) seems to slightly favor the Tamron, which shows that out in the real world there are a number of factors that ultimately impact resolution.  The final shot is from the infinity shot at 200mm stopped down to f/5.6, which shows parity between the lenses.

When the stars align, however, you can get stunningly sharp results from the 70-200 G2 even at it’s weakest point:  200mm, f/2.8.  This is a crop from a much larger image.

I did a similar series on APS-C (Canon EOS 80D). While the trend was similar (Tamron delivered a stronger performance through 135mm with the Canon the better at 200mm) I noticed two significant differences. First was the fact that the Canon almost always matched the performance of the A025 in the center of the frame but not the edges. The center performance of the Canon was surprisingly good through the focal range even in the focal lengths where its edge performance waned. I also noted that the chromatic aberrations were less pronounced on APS-C, which isn’t always the case. I’ve tested some lenses that showed little CA on full frame but a lot on APS-C, so you just never know how a lens will handle that transition. The 70-200 G2 shows no chromatic aberrations on either full frame or APS-C. Both lenses perform well on APS-C, but relatively I think the Canon does better. Its optical weaknesses on the wider end are mitigated somewhat on APS-C, while its strengths (center of the frame and on the telephoto end) remain strong. If you are an APS-C shooter I think the Canon is the better choice optically.  But if you are buying the 70-200 G2, there’s no reason to not use it on APS-C.  Here’s an example:

You can see other APS-C results in this Image Gallery.

Canon and Tamron have two different points of emphasis in their optical design. The Tamron provides a more even performance across the frame and throughout the focal range, but the Canon is optimized for the telephoto end. Which approach is better will really depend on your shooting priorities. I find it very hard to call either lens the winner in this category, as they both have clear wins at different ends of the focal range. Neither will disappoint optically.

The Canon being optimized for the 200mm focal length also means that it performs better with extenders attached. 200mm becomes 280 and 400mm, respectively. The Canon remains impressively sharp with either a 1.4x or 2.0x extender attached. The Tamron 70-200 G2 also does well with either extender, but the edge sticks with the lens that has the stronger 200mm performance (since the point is more reach), which is the Canon. The Canon has a second advantage with the extenders at short to medium distances, which leads us to…

The Focus Breathing/Maximum Magnification Issue

Tamron’s first 70-200 lens set the bar very, very high in the magnification and focus breathing metrics. They had Macro in the name, and while that was a little ambitious, it did achieve a very impressive 1:3 (0.32x) maximum magnification ratio at the minimum focus distance of 3.12′ (95 cm). It was extremely useful for closeup shots, and could obviously completely blur backgrounds at those kinds of distances. The A009 was a much better lens in almost every way (MUCH faster autofocus, better build, and the inclusion of VC), but it also took a major step backwards in this department to a disappointing 1:8 (0.125x) maximum magnification ratio at a minimum focus distance of 51.2” (1.3 m). The problem? Tamron jammed a LOT more complexity (5 more glass elements in 4 more groups, a true ring-type USM motor, plus a brand new Vibration Compensation system) into a lens that was actually both shorter and narrower. Close focus is achieved with space (the elements moving away from the sensor), but with less space available something had to give. I had owned the older Tamron 70-200 lens briefly and appreciated the “macro” qualities, so it is this area that I was most disappointed in the newer VC lens (A009). When I heard the rumor of A025’s announcement I stated that this was one of the primary areas that I was looking for improvement in.

Consider this a good news/bad news report. The good news is that pretty much everything is improved relative to the A009, but nowhere near the level of the old 70-200. The minimum focus distance is definitely improved, and is now identical to that of the first generation lens at 3.12’ (95 cm). Wow! We should be back to that great magnification figure, right?

Not so fast. The old lens didn’t negatively “focus breathe”. Focus breathing occurs when the lens uses some of the focal length space to achieve closer focus. It’s a compromise to cram more optical performance into a similarly sized lens. So while the A025 can focus down as closely as the old lens, it is still a more complex optical machine with even more features crammed into a lens of similar length (it gains 5mm over the A009). While the lens is a true 200mm at medium focus distance to infinity, near minimum focus it behaves more like a 165-170mm lens, so the maximum magnification ratio is 1:6.1 (0.163x). Definitely a more useful figure than the previous generation lens (0.125x), but nowhere near the 0.32x of the old 70-200 nor even as good as the Canon’s 0.21x (achieved at a minimum focus distance of 3.94’/1.2m).  Here’s a visual comparison with the Canon and with the A009

Some improvement, yes, but not as much as I’d hoped. The good news is that the lens gives an exceptional performance at minimum focus and the ability to focus down closely is very helpful not only for tight headshots but also shooting details at weddings or events. The Canon can’t focus as closely, but it also doesn’t focus breathe (at least negatively), so it is even better in these types of situations.

You can see my video on the focus breathing issue here:

At distances short of infinity the framing between the A009 and the A025 is virtually identical (see the sharpness comparisons above), so Tamron’s focus breathing problem hasn’t gotten worse, and it is competitive with most lenses, but it doesn’t fare well compared to the Canon.  

I set up a test with a tape measure to compare focus breathing at 6 feet, 12 feet, and 18 feet. I shot with the Tamron and 200mm first, setting up my test subjects to almost touch the edge of the frame at both sides. I then zoomed the Canon out until I get near identical framing with it. At six feet I needed to zoom back to 146mm before I got equal framing, which indicates a significant amount of focus breathing at six feet (relative to the Canon).. At 12 feet the Canon was zoomed to 168mm. At 18 feet the Canon was at 182mm to achieve the same framing. Space limited my moving further in my studio space, but you can extrapolate that by 24 feet framing should be pretty close. When I shot at infinity I found the framing to be the same with both lenses.

When I released a video on this topic there were a number of people that directed me to tests that show that the Canon is actually longer than 200mm at close range (it breathes in the opposite direction and is more like 220-230mm), which exaggerates this difference. At close distance the Tamron probably behaves more like a 165-170mm lens in an absolute sense (considering that the Canon breathes in the opposite direction). That being said, however, the Canon is the primary competitor (at least for Canon shooters), and so that remains an area of strength for it when compared to the Tamron.

What does this mean? It means that at close focus distances you produce a tighter head shot, for example.  This comparison was shot at the same difference and both lenses set at 200mm:

It means that backgrounds will be more blurred because of great focal range compression. The only potential upside that I can see is that if you are situation where you are trying to fit more in the frame (and have no room to back up), you can actually get more in the frame with the Tamron than the Canon, as the Canon “breathes” in the opposite direction and frames tighter than 70mm at closer focus distances – as this photo shows.

Some have recently intimated that this was a “third party” problem, but that’s not true at all. Every new Canon telephoto zoom that I have reviewed recently has exhibited focus breathing, including the EF-S 55-250 STM, EF-M 55-200 STM, EF 70-300 IS II, the 70-300L, and the otherwise incredible 100-400L II. In fact, when I compare the 70-200 G2 + 2.0x @ 400mm to the 100-400L II @ 400mm I find that they frame very similarly (the Tamron is a couple of millimetres wider).  Note that due to a reporting quirk it shows 280mm rather than 400mm for the for the 70-200 lenses + 2.0x combo.

The Canon 70-200L II with the same 2.0x converter (400mm) frames noticeably tighter (see the second photo above). Among the newer Canon offerings the older 70-200L II is actually the exception to the rule. The trade off with the 100-400L II is that it focuses down incredibly close (3.5’/0.98m) and has an incredibly useful 0.29x. It focuses down much closer than the lens it replaces (5.9’/1.8m) to achieve a near 50% increase in reproduction (0.20x for the older 100-400L).

I’m afraid that this is a part of modern lens design that tries to pack ever more complexity into similarly sized lens bodies. Photographers have complained in the past about not being able to focus closely enough, so many modern lenses work to solve that problem by reducing minimum focus distance (and allowing for great performance at minimum focus). The downside is that the focal range at shorter distances (from six to twenty feet) often gets compromised by some focus breathing. This seems to be the new norm for many modern lenses. That being said, Nikon received so much flack over a focus breathing on their 70-200mm VR II lens that this was one of the primary areas they addressed with their new 70-200mm FL ED lens…though they also set a new price floor for the lens of $2800, which is a $700 premium over the older lens!  

In summation, while focus breathing has become a hot topic, the reality is that Tamron has lost nothing here over their previous generation lens (one that I got next to no comments about over focus breathing!) but has added the ability to focus much closer and improve the maximum magnification figure by almost 25%. If you have decided that focus breathing is a big issue for you, then spend the extra money on the Canon or a LOT more money for the Nikon 70-200 FL ED lens if you are a Nikon shooter. If you don’t want to spend the money, then just enjoy the lens and the amazing images it can produce.

A025 Vignette

Using the A009 and the Canon as benchmarks, I found some give and take across the zoom range. At 70mm (and f/2.8) the two Tamron lenses look fairly similar, with a little less vignette on the A025. One trend that I did notice is that I don’t think that the vignette extends as far into the frame and seems to be slightly more linear. It’s subtle, though, and I don’t see any radical improvement. The Canon essentially only has shading in the extreme corners. The extreme corners are a hair darker than the Tamron, but the vignette intrudes further into the frame on the Tamron. Light transmission in the center of frame very, very slightly favors the Tamron.

At 100mm the A025 is the clear winner, with only the mildest of vignette in the extreme corners. The Canon has taken a step backwards with noticeably darker corners and a vignette that extends further into the frame. The light transmission in the center of the frame more noticeably favors the Tamron. The A009 was also strong at 100mm, though the A025 is slightly better. Light transmission seems a hair betteron the A025.

At 135mm things shift again, with the Tamron 70-200 G2 (A025) showing darker extreme corners than the Canon. The vignette on the Canon (though mild) does extend a little further into the frame. Light transmission is better on the Tamron. The A009 is a bit worse, with a shade darker corners and the vignette comes a little further into the frame. Light transmission is similar with perhaps a slight edge to the A025.

At 200mm the story is similar to 135mm. All three lenses vignette a bit more heavily at 200mm than 135mm, but the pattern is similar. The Canon shows less vignette overall in the corners, but the vignette on the A025 doesn’t extend as far into the frame and is nicely linear. Light transmission in the center definitely favours the Tamron. If you are shooting JPEGs with the Tamrons you won’t have the option of using the “Peripheral Illumination Correction” in camera, so the JPEG end result will favor the Canon, but this doesn’t impact RAW shooters.  At 200mm I definitely see better light transmission for the Tamron and its modern design (see sample below).

All in all, while there is some give and take, there is some mild improvements for the 70-200 G2. It exhibits a bit less vignette overall, the vignette doesn’t creep as far into the frame, and light transmission seems to be improved and is the best in the group that I compared.

Bokeh Quality

Bokeh rendering is always a subjective evaluation, and while I always evaluate lenses with a Christmas light type test (bright bokeh “balls”), I do want to stress that there are some lenses that I don’t love in this type of situation that I think are great in the field. There are usually three major things I evaluate when doing the Christmas light test. 1) Examine the busyness within the bokeh circle 2) Evaluate how soft the transition is (inner line) and 3) Examine how circular the bokeh circles remain across the frame. Here’s what I found when comparing the Canon 70-200L II, the 70-200 G2 (A025), and the Tamron A009.

The Canon has slightly less busyness in the bokeh circle, with the two Tamrons showing about equal amounts. The 70-200 G2 has the softest inner line and transition out of the circle (a big metric, as this often determines how soft defocused areas will be and if hard edges will show). The Canon and the A009 are roughly equal in this metric. None of the lenses maintain a circular shape of bokeh highlights across the frame. The A025 maintains a larger area where circular highlights remain round, but also produces more pronounced “lemon” shapes around the edge.

I’ve been very pleased with real world bokeh from the 70-200 G2. I’ve not seen any ugly bokeh in transition zones, and I feel like the lens would work well for events and portraits. I don’t find that 70-200mm lenses are quite as exceptional in this area as the better prime lenses, but the A025 is as good as any I’ve used.

Flare and Ghosting

Any lens that will be used as a portrait lens will most likely face some backlighting. One of the great weaknesses of the otherwise exceptional Canon 135mm f/2L is that it would completely lose contrast and wash out when the sun was either in the frame or right outside it. I compared the Canon and the Tamron 70-200 G2 with bright, directional evening sun, and discovered that the Canon definitely washes out a lot. Veiling fills a good part of frame with some loss of contrast, and I also got a ghosting pattern. Not great.  This comparison represents worst case scenario.

The Tamron retained contrast better, and has less veiling, though when stopped down I found the ghosting pattern fairly pronounced. I would say that the more modern coatings of the Tamron do better, but I would still encourage caution of where you place the sun in the frame with any of the lenses.

Chromatic Aberrations

This is one area where the 70-200 G2 really, really shines. I shot hundreds and hundreds of photos in a wide variety of situations and don’t recall seeing a hint of chromatic aberrations anywhere. The Canon also gives a strong performance at 200mm, but up to about 150mm it definitely suffers from chromatic aberrations. The overall clear win in this area goes to the Tamron, which, so far as I can tell, has eliminated chromatic aberrations fairly completely for field work.  Here’s a photo where CA should show up but doesn’t!

Color Rendering

When I compare the two generations of Tamron lenses I’m reminded of the difference between the 150-600 VC and the 150-600 VC G2 lenses; the color rendition has completely changed. I set a custom white balance to eliminate that from the equation and shot JPEGs to get equal processing. The end result clearly shows a warmer result for the G2 lens with a slight tendency towards a green hue rather than blue one. In this shot the background is actually a light grey color, so I would be hard pressed to say which is the more accurate color rendition.

For what it is worth the A009 lens and the Canon look more similar in color, while the color rendering of the 70-200 G2 and the Canon 100-400L II look more similar to each other. In real world shooting I’ve been very pleased with the color rendition of the 70-200 G2…but I also shot for years with the A009 and was happy with the color rendition from it. I suspect that the differences will mostly only be realized when placing the lenses side by side. I recommend that you take a take at my extensive image gallery and judge for yourself whether or not you like you like the color rendition.  This looks pretty good to me!

Conclusion

There’s a good reason why Tamron has far more buzz over this G2 lens than they did over the previous generation lens. It was a very good lens, but the A025 is basically better in every way than the A009, which, shockingly, includes price (in most markets). In the US, for example, the A009 retailed for $1499 a few months ago, but the A025 (with all of these improvements) actually comes to market at $1299. While that isn’t “cheap” in an absolute sense, when you compare it to the essentially $2000 price tag for the Canon 70-200L II and the nearly $2800 for the Nikon 70-200 FL ED it becomes one of the great bargains of the year. Autofocus accuracy is exceptional, though the slight edge on focus lock speed goes to the Canon. The image quality is improved across the board from the original and is clearly competitive with the first party offerings.

The new generation of Tamron’s Vibration Compensation is smoother and even more effective, and now comes with multiple options of how you can tweak the behavior. The build quality is first rate, and full compatibility with Tamron’s new extenders helps add versatility to the lens. I appreciate the improvement in minimum focus distance and magnification, but the breathing at close distances still limits that metric and stands as one of my disappointments. The second is that I feel like Tamron could have done a better job at optimizing the arguably most important focal length of 200mm. There are still reasons to choose the first party options, but no longer can you call those lenses the clear winner. The Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 VC USD G2 lens has closed the gap on many fronts and is yet another reminder that the third-party lens makers are now a force to be reckoned with.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Tamron Canada for providing retail samples of the 70-200 G2, 70-200 VC (A009), lens, and the extenders for this review, and to Simons Camera for providing the Canon 70-200L II to compare them too.  B&H Photo provided the Sony A7r II and Metabones adapter.  Shopping with these great people is a way to reward them for their kindness.

Gear Used:
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV (5D4): B&H Photo | Amazon.com | Amazon Canada 
Canon EOS 6D DSLR Camera (Body Only)
Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 VC G2: B&H Photo: | Amazon: | Amplis Foto (use code AMPLIS52016DA  to get 5% off) | Simons Canada (use code TAM70200 for special gift)
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM: B&H Photo | Amazon | Amazon.ca | Simons Camera (use code TAM70200 for special gift)
Tamron 1.4x and 2.0x Teleconverters: B&H Photo | Amazon | Amplis Foto  (use code AMPLIS52016DA  to get 5% off)
Adobe Lightroom CC Software for Mac and Windows (Boxed Version)
Adobe Photoshop Creative Cloud 1-Year Subscription
Alien Skin Exposure X2 (Use Code “dustinabbott” to get 10% anything and everything)

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