My interest in bird photography took a decided turn earlier this year. Over the past few years, I’d been photographing deer, mostly with a Tamron 70-300mm on my Nikon D610. However, aside from the occasional waterfowl, birds were largely out of the question. Then I wrote a column for Shutterbug Magazine on the amazingly talented bird photographer Alan Murphy and I’d found the impetus I needed.
Alan’s bird photography is largely reminiscent of the paintings of John James Audubon. His images have this clean, uncluttered look, with a unique depth to them. I could only hope to achieve a modicum of his success. Anyway, you really should check out Alan Murphy's bird artistry on his website.
Alan conducts workshops on bird photography, and I had asked him what lens focal length he recommends to workshop attendees. He answered, 600mm. Numerous factors come into play that may affect that choice (species, time of day, situation, for example), but that 600mm is normally the go-to workshop lens for many scenarios.
And that got me thinking. My longest focal length until recently was 300mm (in a 70-300mm zoom for my Nikons, as well as a Canon 300mm f/4 fixed-focal lens when I was shooting Canon). Not nearly enough for those birds I wanted to photograph. Even attached to my Nikon D300, that only gave me 450mm – respectable reach, but not ideal, keeping in mind that birds in the wild keep a buffer zone between you and them – and that buffer zone translates to: I need a longer lens!
So I explored my options, namely, the cost of a long lens, its size and weight, and how I’d primarily be using it. I usually shoot handheld with most lenses, and largely by available light, resorting to flash only occasionally. When I’d finished crunching the numbers, the choice was obvious.
I bought the Tamron 150-600mm G2.
Poor AF with fast-moving subjects on the cameras I then owned, namely the Nikon D610 and D300, also meant I needed to update to a more responsive DSLR, and one that could easily work with the maximum f/6.3 aperture on this Tamron zoom. That soon resulted in the purchase of the Nikon D500 (look for a test report on this camera soon). Attached to a DX camera - specifically the D500 (APS-C format with a cropped sensor factor of 1.5x), this lens would give me 900mm out of the gate, and 1170mm when I applied the additional in-camera 1.3x crop factor without adding any converters. That gave me considerable reach, although I’d discover that capturing flighty subjects at nearly 1200mm would prove to be largely a frustrating task.
The Tamron 150-600mm G2: Overall
This lens picks up where the original Tamron 150-600 (introduced December 2013) leaves off. According to Tamron, the new version (G2 = second generation) adds better optical and AF performance, image stabilization enhancements, fluorine coating, and a Flex Zoom Lock, with optional matched teleconverters.
While I only checked it out once and have yet to actually use it (haven't found a need for it), the Flex Zoom Lock lets you lock in any zoom setting with the aid of a clutch-type mechanism. And it works easily enough. There is, of course, the more traditional zoom lock at the minimum zoom setting, although I didn’t experience any lens creep with the lens left in a ready (unlocked) state.
How much is it?
$1399 (Canon/Nikon/Sony A mount)
Tamron 150-600mm G2
A Note About the TAP-in Console
This accessory lets you update the lens's firmware and customize the lens. I bought it but haven't found a need for it yet. There were no firmware updates at this time. The link is obscure, so here it is, for your convenience: TAP-IN CONSOLE.
Optically the lens features low-dispersion glass to deliver crisp images, with proprietary coatings to counter flare and ghosting. Whereas both old and new versions of this lens feature moisture-resistant construction, only the new G2 can boast fluorine coating.
While not new in a Tamron lens, and certainly not exclusive to Tamron, fluorine coating, according to the company, makes the lens surface “easier to wipe clean and less vulnerable to the damaging effects of dirt, dust, moisture, and fingerprints.” I try desperately to avoid anything coming in contact with the surfaces of my lenses, so thankfully I didn't have to test for this feature.
The one question I have for Tamron is: Why fluorine-coat only the front element? Why not also the rear element? A lens can easily get smudged at either end. (A question I’ve asked before with regard to Tamron’s 15-30mm f/2.8.)
Tamron also improved close-focusing on this lens. The original 150-600 focused down to just over 106 inches for a 1:5 reproduction ratio. The new G2 version takes that down to under 87 inches (1:3.9), which is a considerable difference that you may not fully appreciate just from the numbers. Not a true macro lens, but very respectable – and it would prove to come in handy. I managed to capture some fairly tight shots simply by zooming all the way out to the 600mm setting and bringing the lens in as close as possible.
This Tamron lens does have the option of a matched converter. The available converters are 1.4x (TC-X14) and 2x (TC-X20). Keep in mind that adding a converter effectively slows down the lens, by one and two stops, respectively, leading to slower AF response times.
I held off adding the converter because I was buying the D500 primarily for its AF responsiveness and didn’t want to hamper the camera in any way. One day I might yet entertain buying the Tamron converter. But not today.
In combination with the 1.5x and 1.3x crop factors built into the D500, a 1.4x converter would take this lens to over 1600mm. On top of that crop factor combo, the 2x converter would effectively give me a 2340mm lens. Either would also require a bright, sunny day and birds that remained fairly stationary for less than optimum shutter speeds or which I could photograph in flight, while I panned with the camera. And don’t get me started on handholding limitations. Suffice to say, a sturdy tripod with a gimbal head would be a practical addition to your field outfit at this point.
While this lens does employ Tamron’s proprietary Vibration Compensation (VC) technology, image stabilization only takes a lens so far. Although, it often comes to the fore in situations where neither a tripod nor monopod is a practical solution.
I own a Canon 300mm f/4 IS lens. I used to complain about handholding that lens. No more. This Tamron lens makes that one feel like a featherweight. Okay, I exaggerate. Still, the Tamron is about 2 lb. heavier, and when held for long periods, that literally begins to weigh on you.
I’ve taken to doing curls with a 10-lb. dumbbell to build up endurance and resistance in my left arm, the one supporting the lens – and I’m happy to say, it’s worked, though I don’t feel I’m quite there yet. Still, I’ve been able to reduce shutter speeds at maximum focal length and still achieve sharp results.
After all that handholding, I’d decided to make things easy for myself and bring a monopod into the picture. What a difference that made! Granted, it slows me down somewhat and now I have to be careful when moving about, unless I collapse the leg or, better yet, detach the monopod from the camera entirely – two steps guaranteed to slow me down further.
The lens offers three VC (Vibration Compensation) image stabilization modes. Mode 1 stabilizes the image when the shutter is released, but also maintains a stable viewfinder image while the shutter button is pressed halfway, or the AF button is activated. Mode 2 is used when panning. And Mode 3 foregoes the stable viewfinder image to deliver more certain stabilization of the image (which means, you’ll have to hold really steady to keep critical areas in focus). FYI – according to the official number crunchers, Tamron’s VC will deliver 4.5 stops of optimized shutter speed performance against camera shake when set to Mode 3.
In practice, I largely kept the lens in Mode 1. If you have trouble holding the lens steady, your compositions and focusing may be thrown off in Mode 3. Mode 1 at least gives me a good shot at controlling both.
One thing I’ve discovered is that I do much better getting sharp shots with the lens tilted downward to some degree, rather than straight on or upward. Apparently, there’s less tension exerted on the supporting arm this way. I did manage to get a camera-shake-free picture of a flower with the lens at 600mm (= 900mm/full frame) at 1/60 second, which translates to roughly a 4-stop gain for a handheld exposure – in Mode 3. The optimum for a handheld exposure at this focal length would be 1/1000 second.
When I was testing the Tamron 70-300mm some years back, I was able to go 5 stops slower than the recommended shutter speed to prevent camera shake, though not consistently. I really don’t like to rely on any image stabilization technology if I can avoid it, but I will resort to it in a crunch. When shooting with the 150-600mm, especially at the longest zoom setting, I often kept to fast shutter speeds, at most stretching to one stop slower. But these settings were also based largely on the fidgetiness and movement of my subjects, which mandated fast shutter speeds to begin with.
The lens comes with a removable tripod mount. Do not remove the tripod mount. You know what will happen if you do: you won’t find it when you need it. More to the point, I use the tripod mount as a grab handle when carrying the lens. And I’ve attached a sling strap to the mount.
Also, for better balance, at least with my D610 and D500 (without battery grip), I’ve used the rear screw thread on the tripod mount for this purpose. The lens's tripod mount comes with a built-in Arca-Swiss-style quick-release (QR) plate. There are two tiny screws (provided) that you should attach at the base for added security (hex wrench included). Periodically check them and tighten if required. (A little bit of clear nail polish should keep the screws in. A trick I learned from one of the nicest people in the industry, the camera repair maven, Marty Forscher.)
So, why do I carry the camera by the lens’s tripod mount if I’m using a sling? Whenever I use a sling, I always grab hold of the camera as I’m moving about so I can more quickly bring it to my eye. I usually grab the camera by the grip, but that’s not a prudent step with a long, heavy lens such as this. Hence my use of the tripod mount as a handle. (I strongly recommend that you steer clear of picking the rig up by the camera body, and especially in sudden, jerky movements, which may exert sufficient torque force to damage the camera.)
Zooming, while smooth, is not as fast as I might like. You have to grab the lens’s zooming ring with your whole hand when zooming from one extreme to the other, and it takes several turns or one or two really good twists if you’re a contortionist. When I’m running around, I often prefer to retract the lens so it doesn’t protrude as much and bump into things. But I’ve gotten used to it. A push-pull mechanism option would have proved handy, although I’m not sure that might not play havoc with the lens’s mechanics and long-term durability.
For minor focal-length adjustments, by cradling the lens in the palm of your hand and then using both your thumb and index or middle finger, you can easily zoom. The way you position the tripod mount will affect how you zoom. Without it, you may find zooming goes more smoothly.
Manual focusing or manual focus override with AF is more to my liking, and quite smooth. I can manage that operation with a finger or two on the focusing ring.
Autofocus operation in and of itself is reasonably good. That is, of course, due in large measure to the D500 that I’m primarily using with this lens now. It was not nearly as good with the D610.
The old and new 150-600 feature Tamron’s USD (Ultrasonic Silent Drive) ring-type motor, but Tamron does claim better AF performance with this lens. How much of that is a function of the lens itself is difficult to measure, but I’ll take Tamron’s word for it that it’s improved over the previous iteration of this lens, since I can’t compare them side by side. Either way, the G2 is fast but sometimes doesn't seem fast enough with flighty subjects. But I could also be to blame for not responding as quickly as I should in these situations.
Who Should Use This?
Wildlife photographers, bird photographers, nature photographers, sports photographers – from amateur to seasoned pro.
A beautifully crafted lens with weatherproofing and protective coating on the front element; takes a bit of getting used to; may be easier to handhold for some than for others; not as fast as I’d like, but the price is right; delivers crisp results.
I made the right decision buying this lens. Granted, knowing I was getting a heavy, bulky lens didn’t entirely clue me into how to manage working with the lens, and that’s something I’m still working on. In the interim, I’ve stared using a monopod to ease the burden. The removable tripod mount is a great asset, both for improved balance when mounted on a monopod (or tripod) and while carrying with the aid of a sling strap.
One of my early concerns was finding the photo backpack to use with this lens, but, as it turned out, I had numerous options. I've carried the lens attached to the camera in Think Tank Photo’s StreetWalker Pro V2.0 backpack, and in Mindshift Gear packs, namely, TrailScape 18L, Moose Peterson MP-3 V2.0 pack, and even the new PhotoCross 13 sling pack (a snug fit, but manageable - see photo below).
Weight and size aside, the quality of images this lens delivers makes me as happy as the proverbial clam.
I just wish it were a faster lens so I wouldn’t find myself resorting to ISO 6400 as often as I do.
Still, the close-focusing capabilities and the amazing reach of 900mm on my Nikon D500 combine to give me a very versatile lens. Not only have I used it for birds, deer, and small mammals, but I found it works well when photographing flowers and other plant life that would have been out of reach, as well as with more intimate landscape views, all with nice, soft backgrounds when shot at or near maximum aperture.
So what it all comes down to is this: This lens was a great buy. I highly recommend the Tamron 150-600mm G2 to anyone interested in bird photography and wildlife photography in general. Just take the time to get to know the lens and especially the various image stabilization modes before venturing out on that once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
SELECTED PRODUCT SPECIFICATIONS (per Tamron)
Focal Length: 150-600mm
Maximum Aperture: F/5-6.3
Angle of View (diagonal): 16°25' - 4°8' (for full-frame format) : 10°38' - 2°40' (for APS-C format)
Optical Construction: 21 elements in 13 groups
Minimum Object Distance (min. focusing distance): 86.6"
Maximum Magnification Ratio: 1:3.9
Filter Size: Ø95mm
Maximum Diameter: Ø108.4mm
Length: for Canon 10.2 in / for Nikon 10.1 in
Weight: for Canon 70.9 oz / for Nikon 70.2 oz (incl. tripod mount)
Aperture Blades: 9 (circular diaphragm up to 2 stops down from maximum aperture)
Minimum Aperture: F/32-40
Image Stabilization Performance: 4.5 stops (using VC Mode 3) CIPA Standards Compliant (For Canon : EOS-5D Mark III is used / For Nikon : D810 is used)
Standard Accessories: Lens hood, lens caps, soft lens case
Compatible Mounts: Canon (w/VC), Nikon (w/VC), Sony A-mount (w/o VC)
Specifications, appearance, functionality, etc. are subject to change without prior notice.