Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 VC v.s. Non-VC Comparison

I’ve been considering buying a wider aperture zoom lens for my Nikon D90, but there are so many options available on the market. The Tamron 17-50mm is a nice cheap lens considering it has a constant 2.8 aperture through the whole zoom range (Sigma also makes a really nice 17-50mm, but much more expensive). The problem is that there are two versions of the Tamron lens – one with Vibration Correction (VC) and one without. I have heard and read that the non-VC version is much sharper, so I decided to put both of them against each other in a direct comparison. I also threw my Nikkor 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6 into the mix as a comparison to something I already own.

To compare the lenses I put my D90 on a tripod and shot in manual mode, using the same settings for each lens. This has resulted in a little bit of a difference in brightness as I didn’t let the camera compensate exposure for each lens, but it should be a decent comparison for sharpness which was my main aim. In all photos the focus point was set on the Mt Franklin label on the bottle. I also turned the VC off so that it didn’t conflict with being on a tripod (sometimes VC/IS/VR/OS/whatever else you want to call it can cause problems when used on a tripod, as it tries to correct vibrations that don’t exist). Click through on each photo to load the original version – I have not compressed or edited these in any way.

The first set of photos were taken at the widest angle; 17mm @ f/2.8 in the case of the two Tamron lenses, and 16mm @ f/3.5 in the case of the Nikkor lens (f/3.5 is the widest aperture on this lens).

Non-VC at 17mm f/2.8

VC at 17mm f/2.8

Nikkor 16-85mm at 16mm f/3.5

If you view the images at full size (just click on them) and zoom in to 100% on the Mt Franklin label, both the VC and non-VC seem fairly sharp. If I had to pick between the VC or non-VC versions, I’d say that the VC in fact seems sharper. Vignetting also seems a little more apparent on the non-VC version.

For the next test, I used the same focal length, but bumped the aperture to f/5.6 on all three lenses.

Non-VC at 17mm f/5.6

VC Version at 17mm f/5.6

Nikkor 16-85mm at 16mm f/5.6

All three shots are sharp at f/5.6 and vignetting is less apparent. So let’s test them at the other end of the focal length – 50mm, firstly at f/2.8 (I didn’t bother testing the 16-85 as its widest aperture at this length is f/5).

Non-VC at 50mm f/2.8

VC Version at 50mm f/2.8

At 50mm it becomes clear that there is a difference in sharpness. If you click through to the full size version at 100% you can see that the VC version is really lacking sharpness on the Mount Franklin text. The Non-VC version maintains a high level of sharpness. Let’s have a look at f/5.6 then.

Non-VC at 50mm f/5.6

VC Version at 50mm f/5.6

Nikkor 16-85mm at 50mm f/5.6

Even at f/5.6 the VC version of the Tamron lens is nowhere near as crisp as the non-VC edition.

In conclusion then, which of the two lenses is best? As with many Tamron lenses, I found the zoom action to be a little stiff on both of these models, especially when compared to Nikon or Sigma. It’s also worth noting that the VC version is a little larger and heavier than the non-VC version. At their widest angle of 17mm both lenses seem to perform quite well, being quite sharp. It’s a different story at 50mm where the non-VC version easily outperforms the more expensive VC version.

If you’re shooting in low light situations (which may be the reason you’re looking at f/2.8 lenses) then VC might be tempting, but for ultimate sharpness and value for money (approx $100 cheaper) I’d be going for the non-VC version. In fact, I think I’ll be ordering a non-VC version myself (about $399 AUD); while the focal length isn’t as useful as my 16-85mm Nikkor, the wider 2.8 aperture will allow a shallower depth of field especially at longer focal lengths like 50mm where my Nikkor lens will only achieve f/5. It’s also worth remembering that the VC version will allow you to use slower shutter speeds without blur, but the evidence above shows that the VC version isn’t particularly sharp anyway.

Hopefully the full size example shots will help you make your mind up one way or the other. I’ve seen plenty of opinions on both lenses, but nobody seems to have owned both or compare them side by side. Please leave your comments and feedback below :)

Update: Thanks to Jens in the comments below, here are some more sample shots from another VC version of the lens.

VC version at 17mm f/2.8

VC version at 17mm f/5.6

VC version at 50mm f/2.8

VC version at 50mm f/5.6

27 thoughts on “Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 VC v.s. Non-VC Comparison

  1. Thanks for the helpful comparrison. But I would have thought that you would have compared them handheld as well, to make use of the VC option, as that is a factor to buying these lenses. Its the overall result that is important. So I would like to know what gives the best results in low light and handheld?
    Cheers Ben

  2. The VC version will let you shoot about 2 stops slower, though I’d recommend the non-VC lens and just increase your ISO to compensate.

  3. i’ve ordered the vc version, i have read that if you dont allow the vc to settle down for a moment before taking the shot it can create a slight blur (best turn if off for fast shots), i’ve also read that the vc should be turned off for tripod work. i’ve spoken at length with my local camera shop and have been advised that the non-vc and vc are the same lens but the vc version is slightly larger to allow for the vc, got a great deal though £320.

  4. Increasing ISO will mean you can use a faster shutter speed, which will decrease the amount of blur from being handheld and shaking.

  5. I notice that the bf blur on the VC version seems to be stronger than on the non-VC. Does that mean there’s a small discrepancy in the focus? If so, that could explain the difference in the sharpness/contrast between the two lenses.

  6. Hmm yeah could be. I’m not sure if it was just the ones I tested, but I’ve heard lots of people commenting that the VC is not as sharp. Unfortunately I don’t have access to any more to test.

  7. Did you focus normally or using live view? The latter eliminates any front/backfocusing issues that a particular copy of a lens may have (and comparing the distance scale results of live view and normal AF is a good way to diagnose such problems).
    I have the VC version and it’s definitely sharper than the sample shot…when i got unsharp images during my tests, then it was basically always due to a slight misfocus and shallow depth of field, not actual sharpness issues of the lens.
    My copy seems to backfocus for a fraction of an inch at the wide end but it works nicely at the long end. Since i rarely take closeups with the wide end i don’t feel bothered by it, and for long distance shots it doesn’t matter.

    I may post some similar sample shots later when i’m back home.

  8. I didn’t use live view. Perhaps it was just the lens itself. Would be appreciated if you could post some example shots from yours too!

  9. I tried to reproduce your setup as closely as possible. I shot RAW and applied Lightroom’s normal 25 sharpening to compensate for RAW’s natural need for sharpening.

    17mm f/2.8 is very similar to yours, IMHO.
    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/17267323/Lightroom/fullsize/Tamron%20VC%20samples/DSC_4977.jpg

    17mm f/5.6:
    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/17267323/Lightroom/fullsize/Tamron%20VC%20samples/DSC_4978.jpg

    50mm f/2.8, the text on the label (i focused on the upper half) seems to be much sharper than what you got with your copy of the lens – i think it pretty much matches the non-VC sample in sharpness.
    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/17267323/Lightroom/fullsize/Tamron%20VC%20samples/DSC_4984.jpg

    50mm f/5.6
    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/17267323/Lightroom/fullsize/Tamron%20VC%20samples/DSC_4985.jpg

    Feel free to copy the samples and host them somewhere – i might not keep them on my dropbox account forever. Or i could send you the RAW files.

  10. Many thanks for one of the best lens comparisons I have read in a while.
    I have a Canon 600D and was going to get a Tamron VC model 17-50 but might just save $150 and get the non VC for now.
    Cheers,
    Russell Salter. (Australia)

  11. If you could get the VC version for a price very comparable to the non VC version would you do it then? Or would you still suggest purchasing the non VC version even if the prices were relatively equal?

  12. If they were the same price I’d probably get the VC version. I’ve heard other people have had no sharpness issues with the VC, so I don’t know… maybe it’s luck of the draw. But if they were the same price, yes I’d go VC. Couldn’t justify a $100 difference though.

  13. Am just about to get the canon mount vc version for my 60D and 550D.

    I’ve read that the “canon id issues” (reason for mis-focused shots) we present in the older serial numbered units (0050xx and below), and according to write-ups minimized/eliminated on newer serial numbered units (0090xx and above). Is this true?
    They also say that there’s a compatibility problem with the canon pro-sumers as compared to the rebels.

    Thank for any info.

    oh btw, it’s to be paired with the tamron 70-300vc… they will be my working pair together with the canon 50 1.8

  14. Hi. This was quite the difference, even in the “thumbnails” I can easily pick out the sharpest image at 50mm. Thought all the fuzz about the sharpness between these two was another “battle of the pixel peepers”, but this is actually quite severe. Would definitely impact a print. Can’t really imagine why they would bother selling a lens with such a poor quality at 50mm. But then again, a quick test like this can’t be trusted blindly either.

    If you already have the 16-85, why not get a fast wide prime instead of another zoom? Like the 35/1.8 or 35/2. Or one of the old 20-24-28 series with f/2.8. (know you’ve probably made the desicion a long time ago). The sharpness of the 35/1.8 is KILLER on a DX sensor. Probably my sharpest lens for the bucks. Too bad it has a crappy build quality, and isn’t made for full frame. The 35/2 is much better in any regard other than sharpness, compared to the 1.8 version. Too bad build quality isn’t appreciated by the consumer masses anymore. Image quality seems to be the only thing people care about these days. Lens shatters by bumping it into an edge? “No problem, just buy a new one, they’re so cheap” we say, as the piles of trash and wasted energy is building up in the world.

  15. Your advice to increase’ ISO’ in non vc version to avoid blur effect is good, but increasing ‘ISO’ hurt Image quality !
    The VC, i think will really help in low light condition, with the NON-VC version you just lost the 2.8 privilege in low light.
    Very hard to decide…..Sigma 17-50 is much better(Sharp) [ 50mm (f2.8 – f5.6)] than both Tamron.

  16. So I have to agree most of the posts that non-VC is slightly sharper than VC.

    For me, I’d go for VC. I like more shooting on lowlight situations. If they say non-VC is sharper, I do not have problem with. I have Lightroom for sharpening tools.

    But, in my personal choice, Nikkor 18-55 f2.8 is my first choice, that is if money don’t matter. If not, Sigma 18-50 f2.8 is my 2nd choice. But you ar in a hurry or badly needed those kind of f2.8 zoom lens, so Tamron VC is the choice

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