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).
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.
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).
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.
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.