Lens Review - Tamron 200-500 f5.6 SP

January 20, 2014  •  4 Comments

If you've been keeping up with my blog, my Facebook page or my Twitter feed, you know I'm a fan of old lenses and Tamron Adaptall lenses in particular. There weren't many great lenses made with Adaptall mounts but I have most of the lenses worth owning. One which I'd always wanted to try was the 200-500mm f/5.6 SP. This was the pro equivalent of their 200-500 variable aperture consumer lens and came in two versions before they stopped making them in 1992 after nearly a decade of production.

First Impressions

I found mine in mint condition at a local pawn shop for $300 including the stitched leather lens cap to cover the massive 95mm filter threads. While many of these lenses weren't worth much when they were new, this lens was worth thousands...enough that on a 1983 B&H Photo price list I dug up on the internet, it's the only lens that said "CALL" in the price column. There really was no lens like it when it was new and even today there aren't any modern equivalents even from the deep lens catalogs of Canon or Nikon.

My copy came with the lens cap and an internal Skylight filter but not the fancy case it would have come in when it was new. Despite that it's in fantastic shape and looks like it's rarely been used. I knew it was a good deal but when I got it home and had a chance to check the numbers, I learned that this was the second generation version of this lens which was an improvement over the original design which wasn't an 'SP' lens and only had a constant aperture of f6.9...bonus!

The lens itself is a beast and like all well built classic lenses it's all metal and glass. The zoom is completely internal and the focus spins and extends the whole front of the lens. It has huge 95mm filter ring surrounded by an integrated hood. With the hood and focus fully extended it's VERY long. One note about the filter size. I don't intend to use this with any kind of filter on the front. This lens has an internal filter which can be removed on a tray out the side of the lens. It's much easier to carry and buy 43mm filters than 95mm filters. The front element is recessed enough that I'm not all that worried about the need to protect the lens. It's going to be on a monopod or tripod nearly every time I use it so it should be fine. The lens has D-rings for it's own strap so if hand holding does ever happen, some additional security can easily be arranged.

The focus is smooth but not so tight that it won't creep slightly if you lower the lens straight down. The zoom ring is tight and everything works perfectly. It has a tripod foot which is pretty small and very close to the camera side. I immediately put a long Jobo lens foot on it so that it can be properly balanced on my tripod. with a camera such as my NEX-7, the pair is VERY front heavy.

The image quality of the lens is quite good. I wouldn't put it up against any of Canon's newest, biggest 300mm+ L primes but at $300 this lens is punching way way above it's weight. Stopped down the sharpness is pretty good and so far I haven't seen any big issues with flare, or vignetting. CA seems to be what you'd expect from a lens of this vintage and it's 30+ year old lens coatings. At larger apertures purple fringing is pretty bad but completely correctable in Lightroom so I don't consider it to be a big deal. Distortion isn't terrible and vignetting is only an issue at larger apertures.

The potential for a lens like this is pretty amazing when you factor the cost. With a crop sensor camera on it, the 500mm becomes 750mm and with a teleconverter (this lens was designed with teleconverters in mind like all long lenses) you can bring that up to 1050mm or 1500mm or even 2100mm full frame equivalent if you stack both of them on there and throw a crop sensor behind it!). There's loss of quality of course but it's always a compromise with devices like that. Tamron made a limited edition 2x teleconverter specifically for this lens. I'm always on the hunt for one but few were made and they are exceptionally rare. I have both of the regular 1.4x and 2x SP teleconverters...both were easy to find in good condition and dirt cheap. If shopping for a 2x Adaptall TC keep in mind that the element on one side protrudes and will actually touch down first when you set it down. I looked at 6 or 7 before I found one that didn't have scratching in the centre of the element. Look for one with caps at least. They're both common and unpopular enough that you can pick them up new in the box off eBay for very little money.

Performance

Despite having a constant aperture, this lens needs lots of light. Shooting hand held on an overcast day shutter speeds need to be in excess of 1/1000 to get a sharp image especially since you need to stop the lens down to at least f/8 to the best image quality out of it. In my testing on one day in particular I needed an ISO setting of 2000 to 3200 in the middle of the day to get the best quality images. For the tests I did below I really needed to wait for a clear sunny day so that I had as much light as possible to work with.

I took the lens out for a dry run with my Sony a99 and NEX-7 to see what it could do with both a full frame and crop frame sensor and with the teleconverters to see how far I could stretch things and how much they would impact quality. The above photos was taken with the a99 at 500mm hand held at Elk Island National Park of a lone wandering buffalo. The lens let me get a close shot without having to get TOO close. the overcast day forced ISO very high and the image had to be sharpened and adjusted in Photoshop before it looked passable. A monopod would have made things much easier but this guy came out of nowhere and it was this shot or nothing that day. This is certainly a lens that makes you plan your shots...especially with the lack of autofocus.

A quick side note in regards to the Metabones Speed booster. I tried mine with the NEX-7 and this big lens thinking that I'd be able to turn it into an f/4, 500mm powerhouse of a lens. It's a nice sentiment but unfortunately the speed booster doesn't work all that well with long lenses which have very wide rear exit diameters. Unfortunately with this lens there is some hard vignetting. It can be cured with a about a 1.1x digital zoom in camera but it's not really worth the hassle. Normally the crop factor you get with a crop sensor is a desirable trait with lenses this long as it makes a long lens very long.

The most common comment I get regarding my use of old manual focus lenses is the lack of autofocus. It's amazing to me how many people think that without autofocus, it's impossible to get things in focus...especially if they're moving. On a modern DSLR this can be true as the with most cameras the only focus assist comes in the form of a live view zoom. On both my Sony a99 and NEX-7 which have focus peaking and electronic view finders, getting focus is relatively easy. True capturing fast action isn't going to be nearly as easy but with practice it's not hard at all. With peaking AND the focus assist zoom, it's possible to be MORE accurate than the built in autofocus at the cost of speed.

Testing an old lens like this takes a bit more care and attention than a modern lens because of the lack of EXIF data. I actually have to take paper notes to remember my aperture and zoom settings for each frame so I can report them back here. For this reason I kept things fairly simple.

I took a series of boring photos from my living room of the HVAC unit on the roof of the building across the street from my condo. It's very uninteresting but has everything I need to test a lens. Dark and light areas, a strong contrast in front of the bright sky, and stickers with very fine print (especially from a couple of hundred feet away).

The lenses I used for these comparisons were:
Tokina AT-X Pro 80-200mm f2.8 zoom for Sony/Minolta
Tamron Adaptall 200mm f3.5
Nikon Nikkor 180mm f2.8 Ai-S ED (modified for Sony/Minolta mounting)
Tamron Adaptall 200-500mm f5.6
Tamron Adaptall 1.4x Teleconverter
Tamron Adaptall 2x Teleconverter
Vivitar 500mm f/8 Mirror lens

Photos were taken with all lenses at similar focal lengths and aperture ranging from wide open to f16. I won't post all of those boring photos but here are some interesting comparisons I made. The below photo is 4 lenses at 200mm (or close) and with apertures wide open.


These lenses all turned in an average performance. The 80-200 zoom was my least favourite but I've since created a correction profile for the lens which fixes the CA and vignetting very well. The 200mm Tamron prime lens showed poor contrast and some colour shifting which is easier to correct in post but left the images straight out of the camera very flat. The 180mm Nikon and Tamron 200-500mm lenses were my favourites despite some vignetting; both showed good results considering their age. Stopped down to around f8 or f11, all lenses performed as is to be expected with the primes looking sharper than the zooms. The Tamron 200mm prime still has contrast issues and the newest lens of the bunch, the 80-200mm Tokina is OK but not as good as the other lenses.

500mm mirror composite500mm mirror composite
Mirror lenses have been around for ever and the design hasn't changed much over the years. My copy is made by Vivitar and is a perfect example. For a 500mm lens it's very short and very light weight. As you can see from the image above, the image quality is typically poor, the aperture is fixed, and the bokeh looks wonky. Here you can see just how big a difference there is between a good mirror lens and a proper zoom with glass in it.on

DSC00001-2DSC00001-2
This above photos is not a crop but rather the combination the NEX-7, the 200-500mm lens and both teleconverters. This provides a 35mm equivalent of 2100mm!!! My experience with teleconverters in the past had me convinced that this image would be the worst of the day but I was pleasantly surprised. Of all the photos in this review this is the only one which has been edited just to show what's possible. No sharpening just some adjustments to boost the contrast a bit. I never expected to be able to read the fine text on the stickers of the HVAC unit. For some scope on how long this is, here's the view around 50mm...

Conclusion

The Tamron 200-500mm f5.6 SP lens is an excellent lens. Certainly there are better lenses but for the price that this lens can be found, you won't find anything else to compare it to. It's a bit soft wide open like many lenses but is much improved around f11. There is magenta fringing in the high contrast areas of an image but it's easily corrected in Lightroom. Manually focusing this lens is easy thanks to the focus assist feature of the Sony cameras and would make a fine wildlife lens. It's a pain to handhold but it can be done. This lens is also shows a good contrast...possibly better than any of the other lenses tested.


Comments

Dave Tameling
While this post is a bit old now, I wanted to throw up an update...I'm now shooting with an a6500 after accidentally smashing my a6000 on a shoot. The a6500 turns this monster into a 300-750mm lens WITH image stabilization thanks to the sensor shift image stabilization. This is nothing new for 4/3 users but for Sony it's a first. The only setback is that you have to manually tell the camera what focal length you're using. Fortunately you can assign that setting to the Fn hot bar to make switching on the fly not such a difficult process. This might make this lens hand holdable though I've gotten quite used to using it with a monopod. A compact travel monopod on a ball head, folded flat against the lens, is about as long as the lens is with the hood extended.
Dave Tameling
Thanks for your opinion Russ. All good information but I respectfully disagree that this article has misinformation. Nothing you stated contradicts which what is in the original post. I chose not to get into the engineering differences and wanted to focus on how the photos looked. Comparing specs means nothing to me. Further, Tamron's own definition of all 'SP' lenses is as following:

"Tamron SP (Super Performance) series is a line of ultra-high-performance lenses designed and manufactured to the exacting specifications demanded by professionals and others who require the highest possible image quality. In creating SP lenses Tamron’s optical designers put their foremost priority on achieving superior performance parameters—they are all designed to a higher standard with little regard for cost constraints. As a result, Tamron lenses bearing the SP designation feature impressive and innovative designs that have established an enviable reputation for excellence among those knowledgeable photographers that demand the very best."

If that's not a 'pro' lens, I don't know what is.
Dave Tameling
Thanks Marcus,

Fringing at f/5.6 can be pretty bad but it's not terrible stopped down to f/8 or f/11. I use Lightroom 5.5 and correcting the CA is pretty easy. I've also created a preset to correcting it when it's really bad.

I recently used mine to take some photos of the Supremes in concert (technically the ladies formerly of the Supremes) and the sequins on their outfits created a lot of CA but Lightroom was able to correct it handily.

http://davetameling.com/img/s5/v126/p265697085-5.jpg
MarcusBMG(non-registered)
Great review Dave, comprehensive, considered and informative (I've put a link to this on the review page on Pentax forums).
I've been enjoying using my 31A for some birding locally. I'm using LR3.6 - what sort of adjustments are you using to counter purple fringing?
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