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Tamron's 70-200mm f/2.8 helps you see the light

Tamron's 70-200mm f/2.8 telephoto zoom lens has been a long time coming — rumors of its arrival started popping up a couple of years ago. Now it's finally here, and I snagged one for a weekend to put it through its paces.

The lens comes with a petal-shaped hood, a removable tripod mount, and a padded case. One small detail is worth noting: the Tamron lens cap is the "pinch style" cap where you grab its tabs in the middle of the cap, rather than on the outside. This means you can leave the hood on all day and still get the cap on and off easily. The normal style of lens cap makes that impossible because there is no clearance between your fingers and the sides of the lens hood. Smooth move, Tamron!.

The lens is a big one, much bigger (and better built) than entry-level zooms. Focusing is done internally, so the lens does not extend while zooming or focusing. The large front element does not rotate — good if you're using filters.

Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 with hood
The Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lens with its included hood.

The main thing (other than the size and build) that distinguishes the Tamron from its entry-level brethren is its large maximum aperture. Most "beginner" zoom lenses in the 70-200mm ballpark can open up only to f/4-5.6 or so, meaning they let in less light than the Tamron's constant f/2.8.

Where this can hurt you is at 200mm when you're shooting without a tripod or a monopod — less light hitting the sensor means the shutter has to stay open longer, and at 200mm camera shake is visible through the viewfinder. So in order to get a sharp picture, you'd have to pump up the ISO setting to achieve a faster shutter speed and minimize blur. But doing so comes at the expense of picture quality, since the appearance of grain increases with your ISO setting.

Handheld at ISO 3200
Since the lens has a wide max aperture of f/2.8 across the entire
zoom range, it is possible to use it indoors using available light.

The Tamron opens up to f/2.8 across the zoom range, so you can get some great hand-held shots that are impossible with slower zooms, including lower-light or indoor shots. I found myself shooting without my monopod more and more as the weekend progressed. It's a workout to shoot with this lens hand-held for an entire afternoon, but the results are worth it.

Focusing on my Canon 40D was accurate and reasonably fast. I was able to get some good action shots at a youth baseball game where nobody's ever standing still.

Safe at third
Safe at third! The throw went into left field, but this handheld sports shot is nice & crisp.

It's worth noting a couple of mechanical differences between Tamron zoom lenses and Canon zoom lenses. I find that there is no perfect piece of camera gear, that any piece of equipment requires some user adjustment. So that's why these differences seem pretty minor. But here they are:

  • First, Tamron uses a "clutch mechanism" to change from auto to manual focus. You just grab the focus ring and pull it toward you. You can feel it slide into place, much like changing gears in a car, and you're free to focus manually. Manual focus on the 70-200mm is touchy — a quarter turn covers the whole range, so when you're honing in on a flower or something, very slight twists are required to achieve perfect focus. It's no big deal to me, because I use autofocus 99% of the time, anyway.
  • Second, the zoom ring twists in the opposite direction as Canon zooms. I got used to this in 20 seconds. 

The lens is sharp, too. Stopping down (or closing) the aperture makes it even sharper — by f/4 it's extremely sharp. But the reason I like an f/2.8 zoom is because I can shoot it wide open without a tripod in fading light, and it's plenty sharp enough at f/2.8. Sharpness has more to do with your technique than your lens, anyway.

Graveyard flowers
The lens' large maximum aperture is great at the end of the day when light begins to fade.

Another nice thing about f/2.8 on a zoom lens is that you can achieve a shallower depth of field, blurring out distracting background elements and making your subject stand out. The Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 is well-constructed, and renders the bokeh (blurry background) very well.

Statues
Blurring the background lets you bring your subject into focus.

This is an excellent step-up for the photographer who is looking for sharper telephoto shots, and it's great for someone interested in shooting sports or wildlife. It works well, is built with durability in mind, and most importantly, will help you take great photographs.

Moon
A tripod was necessary for this tightly-cropped moon shot.

snake
Good thing I was able to step back from this one.

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