I’ve been curious about the new Tamron SP lenses since I first heard about them last fall. When the Tamron SP 35mm and 45mm lenses were released, I saw some promising early reviews and found the retail price of $599 to be very budget friendly and enticing.

Still, I wasn’t ready to pull the trigger, and honestly, I was a little perplexed by the choice between the 35mm and the 45mm. Why a 45mm? I’ve got some experience in this approximate focal length range – one of my all time favorite lenses is the Canon 50mm f/1.2L, and I also love my little Canon 40mm pancake for outings, so the idea of splitting the difference with a 45 was intriguing. But I was technically looking to replace a 35mm, and what’s not to love about a 35? It’s super versatile, simply a classic. I couldn’t choose, and coupled with the fact that the only thing I knew about Tamron was that it’s not Canon or Sigma, I just wasn’t sure.

I got a chance to figure it out recently when I was asked to test-drive the Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC USD. I was determined to really get a feel for this lens – good, bad or ugly – and report back in the hopes of helping others out there in limbo like me.

Spoiler alert: this lens is amazing. Ah.maz.ing. I absolutely loved it!

The lens arrived on a rather gloomy, grey morning, but I didn’t mind the weather a bit. I grabbed it, attached it to my Canon 6d body and hit the road. I headed to the beach, found some seabirds and casually snapped a test shot (photo above). I zoomed into the image on the LCD screen and stood there with my mouth open. I was not expecting that level of crispness or clarity.

Unless otherwise noted, I’ve minimally post-processed the images in this review via Lightroom.

After a few shots of the horizon, I think I figured out why Tamron developed the unusual 45mm focal length: there appears to be no distortion whatsoever. Horizon lines were perfectly straight across, perfectly. And what I was seeing through my viewfinder felt like a real, human eye view – it wasn’t a wider view like a 35mm and it wasn’t tighter like the 50mm lens feels.

beach photo by Jamie Campfield Bates.jpg

1/250, f/9, ISO 200

sno cone shop on the beach by Jamie Campfield Bates.jpg

1/250, f/9, ISO 200

Two of the interesting things about the new Tamron SP lenses: both the 35mm and the 45mm feature very short minimum object focus distances of less than a foot, (the 35mm is under 8 inches) meaning they have near macro capabilities, and they also have “VC” (vibration compensation) which is Tamron’s version of image stabilization.

I tried both of these features out with some handheld close-ups of objects I found on the beach. I’m not steady handed, and I was pleasantly surprised at the sharpness and detail.

photo of hermit crabs by Jamie Campfield Bates

1/125, f/16, ISO 400
(wood plank width is 4 inches)

crab on a beach by Jamie Campfield Bates

1/160, f/11, ISO 400

close up of crab by Jamie Campfield Bates

100% crop

The detail is so clear that when I zoomed into a 100% crop, I saw two tiny insects on this approximately two inch crab shell that I never saw in real life!

Next, I picked up my four year old from preschool and we headed to the park, knowing I could get both action shots and some macro or (macro-ish) images there.

close up photo of a white flower by Jamie Campfield Bates

1/400, f/5.0, ISO 400

I also wanted to try it out wide-open. I’m not typically a wide-open shooter but I was definitely curious to see how it did at 1.8.

The Tamron SP 45mm had no trouble grabbing focus quickly and accurately on my busy preschooler, even when he was jumping or swinging. I definitely wouldn’t shoot this kind of movement at f/1.8 normally, but I was really happy with how the lens handled the situation. It’s fast to focus and quiet. I also never saw any issues with color fringing among the tree branches as I sometimes do in these situations.

boy jumping off a tree stump by Jamie Campfield Bates

1/1000, f/1.8, ISO 200

child swinging by Jamie Campfield Bates

1/4000, f/1.8, ISO 400

At the end of day 1 of shooting with the Tamron SP 45mm, I realized I hadn’t even thought about the first thing I usually notice on a new lens – weight. I guess because it just felt “right.” At about 19 oz it’s fairly light and feels solidly built – it’s even weather sealed.

It also looks good – I will admit I pay attention to aesthetics even in a lens. This one is really nice looking with a sleek, modern, high-end look and feel to it.

portrait of a woman in a white blouse by Jamie Campfield Bates

To finish off my test-drive, I wanted to explore a bit more about the vibration compensation to see what it could do for night shooting at slow shutter speeds.

Just to make it extra challenging, this is a free-floating object in my pool – gently moving in a light breeze – and this was taken hand-held at 1/25 sec, ISO 400, f/4.  Bam.

close up photo of blue pool ring and water drops by Jamie Campfield Bates

1/25, f/4, ISO 400 (exposure +1 in post processing)

The fact that there was any sharpness at all with my shaky hands at 1/25 sec was surprising; that the Tamron SP 45mm was able to grab focus on a single, very low contrast water droplet fairly easily in the dark was mind-blowing. Vibration compensation, I love you.

slow shutter photo of train by Jamie Campfield Bates

1/10, f/6.3, ISO 1600

I also took this hand-held at 1/10 sec, f/6.3, ISO 1600. I didn’t plan this shot, I was sitting at a railroad crossing at night as a train crossed and decided to jump out of the car and try slow shutter motion blur. I focused on the train itself and when I looked at the image was surprised at how sharp the street sign appeared, even though the sign just happened to fall somewhere near the focal plane and at the very edge of the image no less, and handheld at this ridiculously slow shutter speed of 1/10.

I probably wouldn’t make it a habit to shoot handheld at such slow shutter speeds, but the fact that you can get very acceptable images in conditions like this with vibration compensation just opens up your options tremendously, especially for those of us who often shoot in low light conditions or with less than steady hands who have tried to stick to the rule of not shooting at less than double the focal length of any given lens. It’s nice to have options.

photo of woman walking in front of stores by Jamie Campfield Bates

1/20, f/6.3, ISO 1600

Pros: the Tamron SP 45mm renders color beautifully, it’s super sharp throughout the image, it’s fast and performs very well in low light. Contrast, depth and clarity are gorgeous. It allows you to get in close and has lovely bokeh at wider apertures. I could not find any lens distortion or chromatic aberration in my testing. The vibration compensation is phenomenal and really icing on the cake for a prime lens. This lens held it’s own in a side-by-side comparison with a lens more than twice it’s price.

Cons: I looked and I didn’t find any. The only thing I didn’t like about this lens is that I had to return it to Tamron at the end of the test drive.

Bottom line: The Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC USD is an outstanding lens. The fact that it is priced at $599 is an added bonus. If you are considering a new lens in this focal distance range, the Tamron SP 45mm should definitely be on your radar.[/fusion_text]