Final Verdict – Tamron 100-400mm F/4.5-6.3 Di VC USD

I’ve been analyzing the Tamron 100-400mm F/4.5-6.3 Di VC USD which I recently acquired. I purchased the lens used on eBay at about half the current full retail price.

If you’ve been following my blog recently, you’ll know that I’ve already tested this lens on the Nikon D500. Yesterday, I returned to Rocky Mountain Arsenal with the lens mounted on the full frame Nikon D850. It was a mostly sunny afternoon with generally good light up until an hour before sunset when clouds rolled over the prairie. Here are a few sample shots at major focal length intervals, taken with apertures ranging from f/6.3 to f/8, which is the aperture range I normally work in doing wildlife photography in good light.

Overall, I was satisfied that this budget lens is suitable on the full frame camera at any focal length, generating sharp images, but I did discover a few caveats for using this lens which you may find interesting if considering purchasing one for your kit.

My intention is to use this lens in my backup kit, giving me a suitable, light weight day kit that will not break the bank budget wise. My original considerations for a telephoto zoom were the AF-P NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E ED VR costing about $600 new on Adorama. I’ve always had a gripe with the 70-300mm lenses made by Canon and Nikon for their DSLR’s. It always seemed to me that both companies never really designed a lens that had good optical quality across the focal range. Everything always felt like consumer bait, ultimately leaving you with something less than desirable.  The Canon 70-300mm L was a major disappointment. Though well built, one paid a premium for a lens that was optically an underperformer between 200-300mm. Ultimately, not worth the money. Nikons best offering until just a couple of years ago was the AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED, which was optically similar to the Canon L lens but still left much to be desired between 200-300mm. In July of 2017 Nikon released the AF-P NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E ED VR, which was well received by the web review sites. I haven’t used this lens, so I can’t tell you how it stacks up to previous versions, but from what I’m seeing with the tests that are available, it still suffers from loss of sharpness in the zoom range as it approaches 300mm. Though notably better than previous versions, it still suffers from the consumer bait syndrome and I don’t really want to pay for a 300mm focal length lens that is really a better lens at 200mm than it is at 300mm. This brings my reasoning back to the 100-400mm offerings for the Nikon mount. As for Canon, they seemed to have solved the quality issue with the original 100-400mm L, a lens I used for years and found to be sub standard as well, however, the newer Canon 100-400mm L II is a very nice lens at a much steeper price point. Since I’m no longer shooting Canon, it isn’t an option. That leaves me with Tamron, Sigma and Nikon. The Nikon 80-400mm II lens has enjoyed a mixed reputation, again losing image sharpness between 300-400mm and at a premium price. The Sigma and Tamron 100-400mm lenses are showing similar test results to the Nikon at a much lower cost. I’ve used both of the third party lenses now and I can say that it’s a wash. Both lenses have their strong points and weak points, so it’s more a question of price than anything else. Finding a used Tamron on eBay at half the retail price of a new copy, well, it’s a no brainer.

The verdict. Is the Tamron 100-400 at $450 used, worth considering for a working wildlife photography kit?

The short answer, yes. But not without limitations. As the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. If you are lucky. With the Tamron, I got more than I paid for. I’ll hang on to it until it dies or I find something better. It will do the job in most circumstances. And it didn’t break my budget.

Here are a few sample shots from the Tamron 100-400mm on my Nikon D850. If there was a camera that would show you the weaknesses of a lens, the 45mp D850 is the one camera that will do it. Perhaps, the best overall DSLR ever made to this point in time.

Tamron 100-400 VC @ 1/1000 sec, f/8, ISO 320, 100mm.

The above photo of a group of mule deer is well exposed, with good contrast and the sharpness is excellent with the settings listed. I shot at f/8 as this is the sweet aperture of the lens, so I wanted to see it at its best.

Next photo.

Tamron 100-400 VC @ 1/1000 sec, f/8, ISO 400, 220mm

Again, good result. Nice and sharp. I meant to shoot this at 200mm, but I think I tweaked the zoom a little bit trying to frame the mule deer buck. He was only 15-20 feet away.

Next photo.

Tamron 100-400 VC @ 1/1000 sec, f/8, ISO 560, 300mm

Still at f/8, mixed shadow and highlight. This young mule deer doe is sharp and well exposed with good contrast. The lens autofocus was quiet, quick and accurate. VR was steady and useful. I used 3D tracking to focus on her eyes and a burst of about 10 shots all came out looking good. At 300mm, this lens is sharper than any 70-300mm lens I’ve ever used at 300mm. This solidifies my thinking that a 70-300mm lens isn’t the answer I’m looking for.

Next photo.

Tamron 100-400 VC @ 1/1000 sec, f/6.3, ISO 100, 400mm.

This white-tailed doe was in good light about 20 yards away. I shot this photo at f/6.3, which is the widest aperture the lens is capable of at 400mm. Not the sweet spot aperture wise and focal length wise. The image is sharp and well exposed. This seals the deal for me. At maximum focal length with a wide open aperture, the lens still out performs any 70-300mm lens I’ve ever used.

Next photo.

Tamron 100-400 VC @ 1/1000 sec, f/8, ISO 2500, 400mm

I found the weak spot of this lens. This bison was about 30 yards from me with the sun shining in from the front-right. This lens begins to lose sharpness on subjects that are more than 30 yards away. On closer subjects, it’s great, but it doesn’t have the reach of a longer super-telephoto. A problem not uncommon with super-telephoto lenses. Keep your subjects close and you’ll do fine with it. If you’re shooting from too far a distance and hoping to crop, you’re going to hit a wall. This leads me to believe, though I haven’t tested it, that this lens is not going to be a stellar performer for birds in flight. It’s better suited for closer subjects that aren’t moving fast.

Another problem which this photo shows quite clearly is that this lens doesn’t behave well with bright sources of light just outside of the frame. Check the lower left portion of the photo, notice the ghosting extending up into the bison’s head. This shot was taken through the passenger window from the drivers seat of my SUV. The car’s mirror is below and to the left of the frame, but the light reflecting from the mirror at an oblique angle to the front of the lens was creating ghosting. I had a number of test shots with this phenomena evident in the image. All were a result of getting too much stray light into the frame from a strong light source in front of me but at an angle. Other shots with the animals backlit would produce this same effect. The lens doesn’t handle flare and ghosting very well in some situations. The bottom line is that I’ll have to be more selective with my compositions and stay diligent to keep the sun at least 90 degrees or more to my back. A typical situation for a consumer grade budget lens. If you want to minimize this problem area, you’ll have to drop a lot more money or learn to shoot smarter with the cheaper lens. There is no free lunch in photography.

From my view of the road, the bottom line on this lens is that it’s a keeper. It fills out my second kit with a capable and inexpensive set of lenses and camera bodies that I can pack lightly and still get good usable, high quality results in most situations. Where I’ll run into problems is in low light and distant subjects. So long as I stay aware of the limitations, I should have plenty of good shots to come with this lens on a crop body or full frame sensor body. And, I didn’t spend a ton of money on it.

Your mileage may vary.