Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD (F004) Lens

      Photo Review 9

      In summary

      Buy this lens if:
       – You want an affordable macro lens that delivers sharp images at mid-range aperture settings.
       – You require built-in image stabilisation.
       – You want a lens that requires no readjustment when you fit filters.
       – You’d like a lens that delivers attractive bokeh.

      Don’t buy this lens if:
       – You need a general-purpose lens.
       – You’re not prepared to use a tripod for critical macro work.

      Full review

      Tamron’s 90mm macro lenses have been held in high regard by photographers for many years and the company has updated them regularly, the most recent in September 2012. While the new lens has been designed primarily for ‘full frame’ DSLRs, as a ‘Di’  lens it is also usable on cameras with APS-C sized sensors, where it provides a focal length equivalent to 135mm on Nikon and Sony cameras or 144mm with Canon EOS bodies.


      Tamron’s new SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD lens, shown without the supplied lens hood. (Source: Tamron.)

      The new lens is an almost complete re-design of the lens we reviewed in August 2010, addressing the two key deficiencies of that lens: stabilisation and the AF drive mechanism. It also features improved anti-reflection coatings.

      Not unexpectedly, these enhancements have resulted in small increases in the size and weight of the lens.   The table below shows the similarities and differences between the lens we reviewed in 2010 (Model 272E) and the new lens.


      Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 lens


      VC USD (F004), 2012

      (Model 272E), 2010

      Lens construction

      14 elements in 11 groups

      10 elements in 9 groups

      Exotic elements

      two XDL and one LD elements


      Environmental sealing



      Diaphragm Blades

      9 (rounded aperture)



      Yes; up to four f-stops compensation


      Minimum aperture


      Focus drive

      Ultrasonic motor


      Minimum focus

      30 cm

      29 cm

      Maximum magnification

      1:1 (life size)

      Filter size

      58 mm

      55 mm

      Dimensions (Diameter x L)

      76.4 x 114.5 mm

      71.5 x 97 mm


      550 grams

      405 grams

      Lens mounts

      Canon, Nikon, Sony

      Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony

      The re-designed lens structure has 14 elements in 11 groups, with  two XLD  (Extra Low Dispersion) glass elements and one LD (Low Dispersion) element. A new eBAND (Extended Bandwidth & Angular-Dependency) coating is applied to minimise ghosting and flare.

      Tamron describes this coating as a hybrid between a nano-structured layer with an extremely low refractive index and conventional multiple-layer coatings. It improves anti-reflection performance across a wider range of visible light wavelengths at wider angles for the incident light.

      The stabilisation system in the Canon and Nikon versions is the latest version of Tamron’s proprietary VC (Vibration Compensation) technology. As before, it uses voice coil motors to activate the shake-compensating lens group electromagnetically via three ceramic balls.   The new system has a lighter moving coil attached to the VC element reducing the load on the drive system. (Lenses with Sony mounts lack stabilisation as it’s provided in the camera bodies.)

      The other significant change has been the replacement of the micro-motor AF drive mechanism with a new Ultrasonic Silent Drive, based upon piezoelectric elements which generate ultrasonic vibrations in a metallic ring stator, shown in the illustration below. The vibration energy is used to rotate a metallic ring rotor that focuses the lens.


      The illustration above shows the position of the Ultrasonic Silent Drive in the lens barrel. (Source: Tamron.)

      Compared with the micro-motor in the previous lens, the USD is quicker, quieter and more accurate. A three-stage focus limiter switch is provided

      Interestingly, the price of the new lens is the same as its predecessor’s was on release, although you can buy the older lens for AU$535 or US$499 (or less if you shop around). The new lens is supplied with front and end caps plus a deep cylindrical lens hood that provides excellent shielding of the front element against extraneous light. The soft carrying pouch supplied with the previous lens was not included in the box we received.

      Three multi-lingual instruction leaflets are provided. As before, the main instructions  are printed on a large sheet of paper, which is folded many times and difficult to open for reading.  We suspect many purchasers will bin it in frustration before discovering the critical aspects of using this lens.

      The other leaflets are smaller and consist of safety instructions and tips for avoiding camera shake and flash photography. There’s also a voucher containing a serial number and product key for downloading Silkypix Developer Studio 4.0 for Tamron, a raw file converter with built-in corrections specific to Tamron lenses.

      Build and Ergonomics
      Although slightly larger and heavier than its its predecessor, the new 90mm macro lens was a comfortable fit on both camera bodies we used for our tests: the EOS 5D Mark II and the EOS 1100D. As one of Tamron’s SP (Super Performance) lenses, it is well-constructed, with most of the barrel made from black polycarbonate fixed to a metal mounting plate.  The moisture- and dust-resistant   design includes a thin rubber gasket around the lens mount for additional sealing.

      The front element is only a millimetre of two back from the leading edge of the lens barrel. The barrel steps back through the bayonet mounting for the hood to the focusing ring, which is 45 mm wide and carries a 40 mm wide ridged rubber grip coating.

      This ring turns smoothly through a full circle and is well damped, making it easy to adjust focus precisely. Manual adjustments can be made to focusing at any time, regardless of whether the lens is in AF or MF mode. Internal focusing  means its length doesn’t change and the front element doesn’t rotate, regardless of how near or far it is focused, making it better suited to smaller DSLR bodies than the previous lens.

      Immediately behind the focusing ring is a 4 mm wide gold band with the name of the lens stamped on it. A distance scale in feet and metres is recessed into the outer barrel just aft of this ring.

      The remaining 45 mm of the barrel carries three slider switches, which are located on the left side and adjustable with the left hand thumb. The top one is a focus limiter with three settings: Full, 0.5m to infinity and 0.3 to 0.5 m. This switch is used to minimise hunting

      Further down is the AF/MF switch and below it is the switch for turning the VC stabilisation on and off. (This slider isn’t provided on lenses with a Sony mount.) The new lens doesn’t have the AF/MF clutch mechanism found in its predecessor so swapping between auto and manual focusing is simpler and faster.

      Like most macro lenses, this lens can be easier to operate when the camera is tripod-mounted because you have more flexibility with aperture setting and can shoot with slower shutter speed settings and maximise the depth-of-field in subjects. However, built-in stabilisation makes shooting with the camera hand-held a viable option and the generous working distance makes it possible to capture insects on the wing.

      Autofocusing was very quiet, as expected for an ultrasonic motor-driven lens and fast and accurate for a macro lens. In bright lighting, focus was usually quick to lock on. When the focus limiter switch was used correctly, hunting only occurred with low-contrast subjects in poor lighting.

      Imatest showed the review lens to be have similar performance to the previous lens, which we rated as ‘very good’. Overall contrast in test shots was relatively high, giving an impression of above-average sharpness.

      As with the previous lens, we obtained the highest resolution at f/5.6 in our Imatest tests. However, resolution at wider lens apertures was generally higher than the previous lens delivered. The graph below shows the results of our tests, based on JPEG files from the EOS 5D Mark II.


       As expected, the differences between centre and edge resolution were minimal, confirming the lens has the high flatness of field you would expect from a true macro lens. Diffraction reduced resolution from about f/11 on and it’s probably best to avoid apertures smaller than f/16.

      Lateral chromatic aberration was negligible, as you would expect from a true macro lens. In the graph below, the red line marks the boundary between ‘negligible’ and ‘low’ CA.


       Distortion was also negligible and this, again, is a characteristic of a good true macro lens. Vignetting at the widest apertures was barely detectable in shots taken with the EOS 5D Mark II and totally absent from shots taken with the EOS 1100D, another expected characteristic.

      Bokeh was as attractive as you would expect from a high-quality macro lens, both at wide apertures and with the aperture stopped down, as is evident in the sample images below.

      The VC stabilisation system enabled us to use the lens hand-held at shutter speeds as slow as 1/30 second for close-ups at between 30 cm and 40 cm from subjects and obtain roughly 50% of sharp images from a sequence of 20 shots. When subjects were a metre or more from the camera, it was possible to use shutter speeds or 1/10 second and obtain the same percentage of ‘keepers’. The VC system also provided a very steady viewfinder image, which made it easier to focus and frame shots.

      Buy this lens if:
       – You want an affordable macro lens that delivers sharp images at mid-range aperture settings.
       – You require built-in image stabilisation.
       – You want a lens that requires no readjustment when you fit filters.
       – You’d like a lens that delivers attractive bokeh.

      Don’t buy this lens if:
       – You need a general-purpose lens.
       – You’re not prepared to use a tripod for critical macro work.


       Picture angle: 27 degrees 2 minutes with ‘full frame’ DSLRs; 17 degrees, 37 minutes with APS-C DSLRs
       Minimum aperture: f/32
       Lens construction: 14 elements in 11 groups (includes two XDL and one LD elements)
       Lens mounts: Canon, Nikon, Sony
       Diaphragm Blades: 9 (rounded aperture)
       Focus drive: Ultrasonic motor
       Stabilisation: VC stabilisation; up to four f-stops compensation
       Minimum focus: 30 cm
       Working distance: 139 mm
       Maximum magnification: 1:1
       Filter size:   58 mm
       Dimensions (Diameter x L): 76.4 x 114.5 mm
       Weight:  550 grams

      RRP: AU$799; US$749
       Distributor: Maxwell International Australia; 1300 882 517; www.maxwell.com.au


       Based on JPEG files taken with the lens on the Canon EOS 5D Mark II body.




       Rectilinear distortion.


       Vignetting at f/2.8.


      Normal field of view with a ‘full frame’ camera; ISO 100, 1/320 second at f/5.6.


      Field of view with a Canon APS-C sensor camera; ISO 100, 1/500 second at f/5.6.


      Macro focus at f/2.8; ISO 100, 1/500 second.


      Macro focus at f/4; ISO 100, 1/250 second.


      Macro focus at f/8; ISO 100, 1/60 second.


      5mm long subject photographed at 30 cm distance; ISO 100, 1/125 second at f/2.8.


      Macro focus at f/5.6; ISO 100, 1/60 second. Hand held.


      Macro focus at f/3.5; ISO 100, 1/30 second. Hand held.


      Macro focus at f/5.6; ISO 100, 1/80 second. Hand held.


      Close-up at f/5.6; ISO 100, 1/640 second.


      Close-up at f/2.8; ISO 100, 1/1000 second.


      Strong backlighting; ISO 100, 1/250 second at f/4.5.


      Distant subject; ISO 100, 1/400 second at f/6.3.


      RRP: AU$799; US$749

      • Build: 8.8
      • Handling: 9.0
      • Image quality: 8.8
      • Versatility: 8.3