Does This Budget Friendly Telephoto Lens Deliver Quality Results?

Tips & Techniques

This Common Loon was photographed with my new Tamron 100-400mm lens.

Since late November, I’ve been shooting with a new Tamron 100-400mm f/4.5-6.3 Di VC USD lens. I bought this lens to replace my Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens (the old version with the push-pull zoom) I’ve been using for wildlife photography since 2012.

I’ve loved my Canon ever since the day I unboxed it. This lens has everything I wanted, long reach, fast autofocus, reasonably lightweight, and since I bought it after the Mark II version came out the price was much more affordable. I’ve taken thousands of images with this lens and it served me well over the years. Any images shot with this lens I wasn’t happy with certainly were not the fault of the lens. I planned to keep using this lens for as long as possible as I was completely satisfied with my investment.

Cedar Waxwing photographed with the Tamron 100-400mm f/4.5-6.3 Di VC USD lens. Camera settings: 1/1600 ISO 1000 f/8 at 312mm.

If I love my Canon so much why am I replacing it? In late summer 2020 on a hike in Algonquin Park, the autofocus stopped working. I checked the switches on the side of the camera, tried turning the camera off and on, and even removed and remounted the lens. Still nothing. I used the lens in manual focus for the remainder of the day and upon returning to my trailer I once again removed the lens and cleaned the contacts on both the camera and the lens. Still no autofocus.

Achieving focus quickly on small songbirds is no problem with the Tamron 100-400mm.

I contacted Canon and they recommended sending it to their repair centre and they would give me an estimate to fix it. Not having $3000 for the new Canon 100-400mm and unsure about having mine repaired I began to explore my options.

At roughly 1/3 the price of the Canon equivalent the image quality and focus speed of the Tamron is quite impressive.

Looking at reviews on YouTube from other photographers I follow, I saw good things about both the Sigma 100-400mm and Tamron 100-400mm. These two alternatives cost roughly 1/3 of what the new Canon 100-400mm does. I was a bit sceptical about these lenses as I’ve never owned a third-party lens and, to be honest, the low price point scared me too. After watching several videos and looking at images taken with both the Sigma and the Tamron I had made up my mind I was going to get one of these to replace my beloved Canon but which one?

I flip-flopped back and forth I don’t know how many times but ultimately decided on the Tamron for two reasons. First, the Tamron is constructed of a magnesium alloy including a metal mount versus the Sigma’s composite material which I liked better. Second, from the reviews I watched, the focus speed was reported as a bit faster on the Tamron.

Quickly obtaining focus on a small nuthatch proved no problem for the Tamron 100-400mm.

A few days after placing my order, my new Tamron 100-400mm arrived at the door. After removing and discarding the outer packaging, sanitizing the box with a Lysol wipe, and washing my hands (we are in the middle of a pandemic after all) I placed it on the kitchen table for unboxing. As I removed it from the box it felt heavier than I expected as this lens only weighs 2.5 lbs but the build quality felt nice.

I rushed downstairs and grabbed my Canon 100-400mm for comparison. The Tamron is slightly smaller in length, diameter, and weight although holding one in each hand the weight difference wasn’t really noticeable. As it was after dinner and dark outside I had to wait until the following day to put my new lens through its paces.

My biggest concern when purchasing the Tamron was focus speed. Having used it now for several months I am very impressed.

The next day I was treated to sunny skies and was excited to try out my new lens. I headed down to one of my favourite locations as I knew there would be plenty of birds present to photograph. My biggest concern with this lens was focus speed as I was used to the lightning-fast instantaneous focus of my Canon. After locating a few birds and firing some shots I was impressed with the focus speed. Does the Tamron focus as fast as my Canon?

It is a hair slower, but honestly, the difference is marginal and night and day faster than a Canon 55-250mm kit lens. The Tamron focuses very fast. I did find on a few occasions the Tamron hunted for focus which did concern me. This was on account of the difference in close focusing distance between the Tamron and Canon and me getting used to the focus limiter switch. Now that I have grown accustomed to this I have no issues with the lens hunting.

American Black Duck 1/1000 f/8 ISO 800 at 400 mm.

I watched several Bald Eagles fly overhead presenting great opportunities to see how the Tamron performed with flight shots. Raising my camera I could not get the lens to focus on or even find the bird in the viewfinder. I found this odd as I was so used to the Canon grabbing focus so fast. It was as if the lens was not focussing far enough to find the eagles. I tried zooming out to 100mm and was able to locate the birds in the viewfinder. I then zoomed in to 400mmm and tried to achieve focus. I fired off multiple shots of the eagles using this approach and looking at my LCD screen on the back of the camera it appeared I wasn’t achieving focus. I was getting better results with static birds but the results seemed inconsistent.

Common Loon photographed in Algonquin Park with the Tamron 100-400mm

When I got home I uploaded the images to my computer to see how they looked as trusting your LCD screen is never a good idea. Inspecting the images I took of the eagles in flight guess how many were sharp? Zero! That’s right not one. With my Canon (with working autofocus) I would have missed only a handful. To say I was disappointed was a huge understatement. As far as the static birds, I got some sharp photos but again the results were inconsistent. It seemed the lens was front focusing or focussing short of the subject which would explain why I could not reach the eagles and the inconsistency in the case of some static birds.

This Downy Woodpecker was photographed early on a cloudy morning. Camera settings 1/500 f/8 ISO 800 at 400mm.

There is an optional tap-in console available for the Tamron 100-400mm that allows you to connect the lens to a computer and fine-tune the focus and I was wondering if I needed this accessory. Not being very techie, nor wanting to spend the extra money on the console I contacted the seller and explained my situation. I asked if I needed to buy the tap-in console or if performing the focus adjustments in-camera, an option on my Canon 7D would fix the problem. The gentleman I spoke to said to try the adjustments in-camera as using the tap-in console was tricky and I could make things worse. He said if the adjustments in-camera did not work to send the lens back for calibration.

Portrait of a Common Raven

I did some Googling and researched how to perform the focus adjustments. I felt overwhelmed as again I am not at all techie. Surprisingly, this was easier than I expected. All that was required was pressing a few buttons on the camera and taking some test shots and to be honest less of a hassle than repackaging the lens and taking it to the post office.

Despite all the branches I was still able to obtain focus on this Merlin’s eye quite quickly.

The next day I headed back out to see how the Tamron performed after making the adjustments. Instantly I noticed a huge difference as the lens focussed faster and more accurately than the day before. Once again a few eagles passed by overhead. Raising the lens I achieved focus quickly. Looking at the LCD screen I could see a difference in image quality from the previous day and was feeling better about my purchase.

When I bought this lens, I wanted to be sure I could still photograph birds in flight. I am very happy with the speed and accuracy of the autofocus of the Tamron.

Curious how this lens would perform and focus on another camera body, I tried the Tamron on my Canon Rebel T3i. I am happy to report the lens focussed quickly and flawlessly. The focusing issues I had the first day seemed to be more with my Canon 7D than the lens.

Photographing Bald Eagles along the Thames River is something I enjoy very much and this lens performs very well for this.

I have been using this lens for a few months now and can tell you I have no regrets. I’m more than happy with the focus speed and accuracy. After carrying the Tamron around all day I now notice the one 1 lb weight difference between it and my Canon.

Americal Kestrel photographed during the golden hour wide open at f/6.3.

Something else I am pleased with is the Tamron is sharper wide open than my Canon. The maximum aperture of my Canon is f5.6 and I never shoot it wide open as I’ve never been happy with the results. The Tamron’s maximum aperture is f/6.3 and I can say I am happy to shoot at this aperture. Like all lenses, the Tamron is sharper when stopped down a bit so I do prefer to shoot at f/8 or f/9 when light permits but in low light conditions I am confident shooting wide open at f/6.3. I am finding I can shoot at slower shutter speeds with the Tamron than the Canon and I think this may be due to the fact the lens is smaller and lighter; therefore, easier to hold steady. We’ve had a significant shortage of sunshine so far in 2021 and with my new Tamron, I am getting more keeper images in low light than I do with my Canon.

A small flock of robins has been overwintering near my home. In low light, early on a cloudy morning shooting wide open at aperture f/6.3, I am very pleased with the performance of the Tamron 100-400mm.

So what are the pros and cons of this lens? Let me start with the pros. Obviously, the price. At roughly 1/3 the price of the equivalent Canon or Nikon counterparts the Tamron is truly impressive. Is it as good as the first-party competitors? I can’t say as I have never used any of them (again, I own the old version of the Canon, not the Mark II) but for their price, I would hope they have something more to offer. Are they worth $2000 more? Maybe for a full-time professional photographer but me, I’d rather have the Tamron and not worry about putting food on the table for the next several months.

Photographing a Northern Cardinal at 1/250 is not something I would normally do. However, with the compact size and lightweight of the Tamron 100-400mm I can hold my camera and lens steady. 1/250 f/9 ISO 800 at 400mm.

The weight of this lens is another checkmark in the pro column. At only 2.5 lbs this lens is incredibly lightweight and a pleasure to carry around all day. If you are looking for a lightweight, easy to carry lens with a versatile zoom range and decent reach this is it. Tamron’s magnesium alloy construction is high-quality and this lens is very well made. Image quality, focus speed, image stabilization, and weather-sealing to protect the lens from the elements are more pros for this lens. Finally, the Tamron is available for either Canon or Nikon camera bodies depending on which manufacturer you shoot with.

If you are in the market for a telephoto zoom lens I highly recommend the Tamron 100-400mm.

Now for the cons. Clearly, the issue I had with the focussing is a con. That being said, fixing the issue was easier than I expected, and the issue was only with my Canon 7D and not my Canon T3i so perhaps the camera is more to blame than the lens. The only other con I can come up with is the lack of a tripod collar. This comes standard with the Canon and Nikon equivalents. For me, this is not an issue as I never use a tripod or monopod with this focal length lens plus the Tamron is so light it’s easy to shoot handheld. If you do prefer to shoot with a tripod or monopod a tripod collar is available as an option.

I am impressed in so many ways with the Tamron 100-400mm lens.

I am truly impressed with the Tamron 100-400mm f/4.5-6.3 Di VC USD lens. Focus speed, image quality, and build quality far exceed my expectations. Its compact size and lightweight are other things I absolutely love about this lens. It is a pleasure to carry around all day. For me, this is the perfect lens for my run and gun style of shooting. The Tamron’s 100-400mm range is incredibly versatile and can be used for a variety of wildlife. If you are in the market for an amazing lens for taking on hikes and capturing wildlife in the 100-400mm range and you don’t have or don’t want to spend $3000, I definitely recommend the Tamron. After a few months with this lens, I have no regrets about my purchase and look forward to using the Tamron 100-400mm for years to come.

About the Author

Paul Roedding is a nature and wildlife photographer based in Ontario, Canada. You can find more of his work on his website, Facebook and Instagram. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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