Tamron 35mm f/1.8 VC Lens Review

What is it?

The 35mm f/1.8 SP Di VC is one of two prime lenses recently introduced by Tamron that feature VC (vibration control) in a focal length where we don’t normally see it. The second of the lenses is the 45mm f/1.8 VC. 

We don’t often see vibration reduction in a lens in the 35-70mm range because most of those lenses all use classic optical designs, and adding any form of stabilization tends to change the way you design the optics.

In the case of the Tamron 35mm f/1.8 the optical characteristics are a bit different. 10 elements in 9 groups, but the really interesting aspect is the molded glass aspherical element at the back of the lens. This isn’t typically the place you find a highly complex element, and it’s a thin, large one. You can actually take the rear lens cap off and see the big bulge in the middle of the element that tapers to a different rounding at the edges. 

This 35mm f/1.8 is a bit large and heavy for the focal length: 3.1” (78.3mm) in length, 3.2” (80.4mm) in maximum diameter, and 15.9 ounces (450g) in weight. That compares to 2.8”, 2.8”, and 305g for the Nikkor 35mm f/1.8. The Tamron is larger physically and heavier by nearly 50%.

For what it’s worth, the Tamron focuses closer: 8” (.2m) compared to the Nikkor’s 10” (.25m), netting a 1:2.5 maximum magnification ratio. That’s pretty near a macro capability for a wide angle lens. 

Focus markings are at 0.66, 0.75, 1, 1.5, 3 feet, and 0.2, 0.25, 0.3, 0.5, 1m, plus infinity.

Like most fast primes, the smallest aperture is f/16, and that’s handled by a nine-blade circular aperture diaphragm. The lens comes with a petal-shaped HF012 lens hood that can reverse onto the lens body. Filter thread is 67mm.

Tamron’s Web page for the 35mm f/1.8. The lens is manufactured in Japan, and lists for US$600.

Source of the review lens: loaner from B&H. Only a single sample looked at.


How’s it Handle?

The size and weight of this lens feels excellent on the D810 and D5 bodies, but it also isn’t bad on the D610 or D750, either. In fact, I’d say that the Tamron 35mm  is just about perfectly balanced on the D750; anything heavier or larger would start to make the camera body feel front heavy.

The focus ring is wide and easy to find, and goes from minimum to maximum in about a half turn, which is a bit more than most people would expect for an autofocus lens. Fortunately, most of that turn is weighted towards the macro side, so if you’re just changing focus between a few feet and infinity, it’s a very short twist.

Overall, the focus ring is somewhere between what I’d call smooth and rough, with it being closer to the smooth side than the rough side. But there’s a fair amount of low-pitched noise during a focus change, though. 


How’s it Perform?

Autofocus: I’d call the autofocus performance more sliding than snapping. By that I mean that the lens tends to visibly slide from one focus point to another rather than move instantaneously. The slide is rapid, but you’ll see the lens move from point to point, whereas on some autofocus lenses you never see the intermediary steps, you just see a snap from point to point. 

As long as you stay within, say 3 feet to 20 feet, I don’t see any autofocus speed issues to be worried about. But on long distance transitions from near to far or vice versa, I’d call the autofocus performance slightly on the slow side. If you trigger hunting in low light and contrast, be prepared for a very slow focus attempt as the lens goes from minimum to maximum and back.

Central sharpness is very good wide open. By f/2.8 it’s easy to call it excellent.

When used on a DX body the sharpness of the lens is quite good, even out to the edges, though they’re clearly a bit softer than the center. It’s on FX bodies that you’ll see a fairly dramatic drop-off in the corners wide open, and this doesn’t ever seem to improve enough at any aperture for me to call it excellent. That said, there’s an FX corner improvement up through about f/4 where it is very good, then once we get to f/8 we’re beginning to head back the other way due to diffraction. I should also note that there’s a bit of field curvature, too, so how you view the corners may depend upon what you’re shooting.

That said, compared to the 35mm Nikkor f/1.8, the center of the Tamron is sharper, and the corners initially better wide open (not by much, though). At f/2.8 and f/4 there’s still a small distance between the Tamron and Nikkor, and they have slightly different weaknesses, with the Nikkor showing more coma in the corners than the Tamron, which was surprising to me. 

Lateral chromatic aberration is clearly present and more than two pixels wide on 36mp bodies. There’s also clear longitudinal chromatic aberration at f/1.8 through about f/4. By f/5.6 it’s mostly gone. 

Vignetting is pretty high on the FX frame, nearly two stops worth wide open in the extreme corners. This drops by about half at f/2.8, but never gets below about two-thirds of a stop on the full frame. The DX frame does better, with maybe two-thirds of a stop wide open, and a negligible amount past f/2.8 that can be ignored.

Linear distortion is well controlled, with a very negligible barrel distortion not quite into the visibility range.

Flare is also well controlled with light sources in frame, but be careful of light sources just outside the edge of frame, where the flare can suddenly become more visible.

Bokeh was a bit busier than either 35mm Nikkor (f/1.8 or f/1.4). A lot of onion skinning, plus some edging to the circle itself. Some people like that look. I don’t. I like fully smooth bokeh, almost what I’d call dreamy. The Tamron’s bokeh is decent, but a bit on the edgy side for me. 


Final Words

I think this boils down to whether you really want that VC or not. Because other than that the Tamron is a series of “just a tiny bit better” than the equivalent Nikkor, but with a size and weight penalty. 

So how does the VC do? It’s not a game changer, but it’s useful. My impression is that the VC on this lens is not pushing things hard. It’s quiet and modest. I see an easy two stop gain, maybe a three stop gain in some circumstances (Tamron curiously doesn’t seem to post a CIPA spec). So it depends upon how much you need 35mm with stabilization. For me, not so much, as I mostly use 35mm at events, and then subject blur is the real issue to me. 

Overall, this is a very nice lens. I write about recent Nikkor primes being well-behaved. This Tamron is a bit better behaved, but only a bit. I’d say the Tamron 35mm's biggest downside is the bokeh, which isn’t even close to what you’ll see with the Nikkor f/1.4 wide open, but also doesn’t quite do as well as the Nikkor f/1.8 wide open. 

So it’s a contest: which do you think you need more, stabilization or bokeh?  If the former, pick the Tamron. If the latter, there may be a better choice available (haven’t yet looked at the Sigma 35mm ART yet). 

Still, at US$600, this is a very nice prime. The close focus and stabilization are nice extra touches, the sharpness quite good and where we’d expect. The focus speed may be a tiny bit better than the equivalent Nikkor, too. So good job, Tamron. A full set of lenses like this would give us a nice choice against the Nikkor primes. 

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