135mm to 200mm Lens Test
As part of preparing for my trip to Iceland, Zurich, and Italy, I wanted to evaluate my current lens lineup to see which to put in my everyday carry bag.
My primary motivation was to evaluate if it would at all be possible to not carry the giant and heavy Tamron 70-200mm F2.8 lens with me when I need the extra telephoto reach.
One of my favorite ways to shoot landscapes is to stitch together multiple shots of the same scene in order to produce a very high-resolution photo. A telephoto lens with some reach is the ideal lens for this type of photography. While this will only work for very static scenes, it’s an easy way to avoid using fancy algorithms to scale up photos for large prints. Since a fast aperture is not typically critical for this sort of work which usually involves a tripod I have hopes that a smaller lighter lens with less speed might work.
Tamron 70-200mm F2.8
Like all the 70-200 2.8 lenses offered by the large lens makers (Sony, Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Tokina, and Tamron) this is a large heavy lens designed to offer both speed and reach. If it weren’t for the size, it would be a very versatile lens for both portraits and event shooting. It’s no surprise that it’s considered one of two (24-70mm 2.8 being the other) critical essential lenses for wedding and event photographers. The problem with the lens isn’t image quality but the practically of fielding a lens that weighs well over a kilogram and comes with a tripod collar. Its giant 77mm front element and extended length make it the first and only thing everyone will see including thieves and candid moments.
Tamron 70-300mm F4-F5.6
A very inexpensive long zoom lens respected for fielding decent image quality and available across all the major platforms. Its very likely it has plastic molded elements in the optical path and doubly so for VC versions that are stabilized. The version being evaluated here is the prior version without any of the VC elements.
Pentax Super – Takumar 200mm F4
Offered in M42 mount, this lens is manual focus only and can be adapted to most of the major platforms. I’m using it in a chipped mount in order to be able to use image stabilization built into the camera. This lens can usually be found at affordable prices as well. The all-metal build quality is very good, its one of the best lenses I’ve handled in terms of build quality especially considering the prices this can be found. The focus throw however is very long albeit well damped and smooth. I picked up this lens for under $100 at Keh.
Minolta 100-200mm F4.5
A compact lens considering the range. It has a miniscule front element that only needs a 49mm filter. Built very similar to the “beer can” line of Minolta lenses. It is very light and perhaps not the nicest build quality but it is mostly metal and feels more solid than most budget modern compact zooms.
Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC 135mm F3.5
An East German made lens back when the Carl Zeiss company was split in two. My copy of this lens has a somewhat stiff focus ring although reports seem to indicate that is not always the case for this lens. Being another M42 lens, the lens is again compact and uses a miniscule 49mm filter. The lens comes with a built in hood which has a tendency to slide back easily. It is the smallest lens being tested here today.
All shots were taken on a tripod with a Sony A850 24 megapixel full frame camera. Image stabilization was turned off. Two or three shots were taken for each lens at each tested focal length and the sharpest of those were chosen. Mirror lockup was used on all shots. All lenses at all focal length were tested shot at the same exposure at F8 1/500s. Infinity focus was used on all lenses. All shots were taken in the shade with no lens hood used.
All comments are based off viewing on a 27” iMac 2011 that has been color calibrated. All photos were set to “Daylight” white balance in Lightroom 3.4 with the same amount of standard sharpening applied. No other editing was performed.
Please contact me if you would like the original RAW files used for this comparison.
Image Comparison at 135mm
Minolta 100-200mm vs. Zeiss Jena MC 135mm DDR vs. Tamron 70-300mm vs. Tamron 70-300mm
To note, the Minolta was set at 130mm because that was about as close as I could get it with this framing.
The clear winner here is the Tamron 70-200mm F2.8. It has the most detail, contrast, clarity, and sharpness by a large margin compared to all the other lenses tested here today.
In second place we have a extremely tight matchup between the Tamron 70-300mm and the Minolta 100-200mm at 130-135mm. However at 135mm, I have to give it to the Minolta. The Minolta seems to pickup more fine detail despite the 5mm disadvantage. The clock number borders are a bit less fuzzy and you can pickup the detail of the stair case rails on the middle window in the top row. The brick work also contains a bit more detail than the Tamron 70-300.
The Tamron 70-300mm comes in a close third here, it seems to be a bit more contrasty than the Minolta but doesn’t seem to have the overall clarity of the Minolta at this focal length. The shutter grates on the shuttered windows seem to have more detail on the Tamron but overall the image is slightly softer.
Surprisingly, the only prime tested here, the Zeiss Jena 135mm is by far the softest tested at this focal length and softest of the test overall. At F8 it should be near or at peak sharpness but infinity distance seems to be a big disadvantage of the Zeiss Jena. My suspicion is that this lens has true infinity backed off a bit from the stop or it’s highly optimized for medium to close distance shooting. The poor performance shown really warrants a retest and I will soon do a macro face off with this lens as the minimum focus distance is actually quite good.
Image Comparison at 200mm
Minolta 100-200mm vs. Pentax Super Takumar 200mm vs. Tamron 70-300mm vs. Tamron 70-300mm
The clear winner again is the Tamron 70-200mm F2.8. It again reigns supreme even at its max focal length beating all comers. This lens has been well reviewed by slrgear.com, photozone.de, and lenstip.com matching or exceeding the performance of the Canon L and Nikon VR equivalents. Tamron lenses have a reputation for excellent optical quality and lackluster build quality. It is noticeable here when compared to the Canon or Nikon equivalents or really even the Sigma. It comes in at less than half the price for the Canon or Nikon so something had to give. It does easily exceed the sharpness performance of the Sigma though. One reason for this excellent performance would be because the lens itself lacks stabilization elements found in its competitors. Fewer elements equal fewer areas where things could go wrong such as parking errors. The build quality is one of the best Tamron makes today but it just doesn’t match up to OEM lenses from the big camera companies. It is still tremendous value though considering its performance.
The performance of the other lenses at 200mm is very close. The Tamron 70-300mm barely edges out the other two lenses primarily because it has low chromatic aberrations while still maintaining decent sharpness and detail. It falls way behind its big brother the Tamron 70-200mm in all regards however.
The Pentax prime shows perhaps the second greatest amount of fine detail but a veiling haze hampers the image and this lens would be benefit from the contrast enhancing properties of a circular polarizer. Of course that comes at the price of 1-1.5 stops of light loss.
At a close last place, the Minolta is at its maximum focal range and it shows up in form of chromatic aberrations around the clock numbers. Its picking up perhaps slightly more details and has more contrast than the Tamron 70-300mm at this focal length but the chromatic aberrations knocks it to last place.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that a lens that costs and weighs several factors more than the other lenses would beat its smaller competitors. What was surprising was the degree to which it dominated. It has convinced me that there is no getting around the weight and size if I want the best image quality for my trip. Another option here could have been the well regarded Minolta 200mm F2.8 APO. I am curious how it stacks up against the Tamron 70-200mm but ultimately I have not considered it because the weight and size savings aren’t enough to make up for the loss of 70-199mm in versatility.
After the Tamron 70-200mm, perhaps the next winner here is the very inexpensive and light Tamron 70-300mm. It’s the next biggest lens here but it’s still dwarfed by its bigger brother. The extra 100mm of range would probably come in very handy in certain situations and it is also surprisingly capable of being a 1:2 macro lens in macro mode at 180mm and up. If you’re looking to purchase this lens and you shoot Sony or Pentax where image stabilization is provided in camera, I would advise you to buy the version of this lens that is just before this generation that has VC.
My next set of tests could be either a macro comparison of the lenses tested today or another landscape shootout between the Tamron 70-200mm F2.8 and Tamron 70-300mm with the latter being shot at 300mm and comparing overall image quality at pixel peeping levels. I’m curious to see if you can extract more detail out of the 70-300mm set at 300mm vs the Tamron 70-200mm set at 200mm. Let me know what you would rather see.