Do you ever buy weird lenses, test them and really like them?

Will van Overbeek and I met this afternoon so I could return his X-100.  I'm proud to say I didn't put a scratch on the camera.  But Will needed more hand's on time with the camera so we decided to take a stroll around downtown.  Couldn't be a better day for it,  temperatures in the mid-90's and a healthy dose of humidity to boot.  I agreed to walk because I had something else I wanted to shoot and test out.  

It all started when I left a part out of a consignment package.  The lighting unit sold and the buyer wanted to know if I could supply the missing part.  Silly me, it was right there on the shelf.  I headed over to Precision Camera to drop off the piece.  I lingered a bit and browsed.  Always a dangerous thing in an "adult candy shop."  And wouldn't you know it, right there in the consignment case, nestled in with a comfortable group of Canon zoom lenses was a lonely Tamron wide angle zoom.  I asked to see it on a camera and I decided to take it home.

What is it?  It's a Tamron 11-18mm SP AF Aspherical DX2 UD IF.  It's a wide angle zoom that was released in 2005 and superseded some time between then and now by a 10-24mm with even more initials behind it's name.  The DX in the name indicates that it was designed for cropped sensor cameras; in this case, the Canon APS-C frames.  Unlike the Canon EFS lenses it will mount on a full frame camera or (my favorite= the APS-H frame with a 1.3X crop factor).  Mounting it on anything other than an APS-C camera almost guarantees that you'll get some vignetting when you shoot at the widest focal lengths.  I expect that.  But I learned when I owned the Nikon 12-24mm DX zoom that as you zoom to longer focal lengths on some of the zoom lens you increase the image circle and it's entirely possible to use the lens as a superwide for bigger formats.  Really!

Here's what I've found to be true.  At 11mm, when used on my Canon 1dmk2 I get vignetting in the corners.  To see how much go straight to the bottom two images in the stack below.  One is shot at 18 and the other at 11mm.  See how much vignetting there is at f8?  Not nearly as much as I thought there'd be.  And my goodness, that's a wide angle of view.  See the one shot at 18mm?  No vignetting at all.  And I didn't remove anything in post.  Initial tests are making me happy because all of a sudden I've got a very wide angle lens for my two APS-H 1dmk2 cameras.  And for the 7D and the 60D Yippee.  More after this next photo......

Recently I've been testing the very sharp and very expensive Zeiss 21mm ZE lens for Canon full frame. It's a very sharp lens and it's very well corrected, geometrically, but it does have one little fault.....I found that it has more flare than I'd want.  Especially if there's a light source in the frame or near any one of the corners.  To be fair, I was doing the worst case scenario= an interior with lots of dark accents and light thru the windows.  But it was still worse than I expected and I ended up doing some remedial repair in PhotoShop.  I didn't expect a used, $350, third party wide angle zoom to do any better but today I was pleasantly surprised.  I shot this image (just above), including the shadow side of the building, with my camera pointed up to include direct sun.  And while the lack of flare was impressive even more impressive was the lack of ghosting in the image.  That's some pretty remarkable resistance to flare for a wide angle zoom lens. 
But in the back of my mind I kept thinking that, when my evaluation of the Zeiss 21mm was over I should probably go ahead and purchase it because it did show high sharpness when I shot it on a job last week.  So I almost resigned myself to the expense but figured I'd shoot a few more things downtown and see if the Tamrom was anywhere near as sharp.  I had my doubts.....

Nice sharpness for a handheld at 1/20th of a second....

Definitely a bit of geometric distortion but most of it was simple barrel distortion that could be corrected with Photoshop's Lens Correction filter...  That's my reflection in the middle window.  

Tacit approval?  No, active approval.  I smiled, pointed at my camera and he gave me the "thumbs up" sign.  I shot and then smiled again and waved "goodbye"

It's always hard to tell things from small jpegs on the screen but when I looked at this raw file at 100% I was happy with the sharpness at infinity.

But all those doubts evaporated for me when I leaned into this shot.  The Fuji X-100 is my target and when I blow up the file the engraving around the lens is rendered with a high degree of sharpness.  This was shot both handheld and wide open and the lens acquitted itself well.  What is of interest to me is the pleasant bokeh of the out of focus areas in the background.  Common wisdom has it that ultra wide angles don't have good bokeh.  But I venture to say that this one is pleasant.  And sharp.

If you've read my blog for very long you probably know that I'm not typically a wide angle lens shooter.  So what drove me to buy this lens?  It all started when I got a call to shoot interior images for an electronics company.  The interiors were in a very posh and very private club somewhere in central Texas.  (NDA signed).  I wanted to do a good job and, while I shot with a four by five view camera and Schneider Super Angulons for years I'd basically sent all of my "would be" architectural clients to my friend, Paul Bardagjy, who is a wonderful architectural photographer with a feel for design and a head for detail and quality.  I decided to do this job because the client and I go way back, and there would be interesting technical shots that I thought I could do a good job on.  My only reservations were about optics.  I'd be shooting the job with a Canon 5dmk2 and the widest lens I had on hand was a 20mm Canon EF lens that is a bit less than sharp on the corners and tends to have some chromatic aberrations even when stopped down.  It's not a bad lens, it's just not as good as it should be for straight lines and images that require across the frame sharpness.  For most of the stuff I shoot with it I'm happy but straight lines in rooms is another thing.  

I'd been invited to borrow a new 21mm  Zeiss so I did and I enjoyed the shoot.  Far easier, in a way, than the old days of view cameras but I was reminded by Paul that the rules are the same:  Watch for the details, flag the flare, use the polarizers, bring grad filters, style, style style.  The job went well and the client has two more projects in the chute.  Hence my search for a lens that I like, that works, that won't break my budgets.

Have I found it in the old used Tamron? Maybe.  It's pretty darn good. But I'll go on looking and see what's out there.  Next on my list is the new Canon 24 T/S lens.  I'll try that one on for size as well.
But I will hang on to the Tamron, it's a very usable set of focal lengths, especially for the format it was originally designed for.  And I'm impressed with the center area sharpness.  I also want to try out its replacement, the 10 to 24mm.  But that's another day.

This is the lens on a 1dmk2 (1.3x crop) used at 11mm.  You can see the vignetting in the corners.  But the rest of the image is very well behaved.  I love giant window posters.  

What did I learn from my latest experiment?  That some older lenses can be bargain gems.  That the common wisdom that Di, DX or other lenses designed for APS-C are unusable on bigger sensors is wrong.  That cheaper lenses can have better flare characteristics than some of their pricier competitors.  That zooming can be fun.   That's about it.  Thanks.



Rodney said...

Absolutely I shoot with some weird lenses (thanks Kirk) and I'm loving it. I found a couple of old Asahi Takumar lenses, 35 and 50 f2, and they pretty much are married to my EPL1's. All I want now is an 85 f2, just haven't found the right deal yet.

Daniel said...

Kirk, I am a huge fan of the Tamron Lenses. I own both the 28-75 and the 17-50 (both 2.8) These two are wonderful! Another plus that Tamron has over Canon lenses (in addition to price) is the length of warranty! Six years is nothing to dismiss without giving them a try.

I ordered and returned the 10-24 (variable aperture) because it wasn't up to par with my other good lenses..I don't own any L lenses, but these workhorses are just up my alley, so I figure I am not missing anything, especially since they are out of my price range...outta sight outta mind type of thing.

I find that the 28-75 is my favorite of the two...and the 17-50 is a triple jump above and beyond the kit 18-55 (variable).. Both of these are under 500 each brand new!

But, what I am really excited to see is you (the man) giving some love to Tamron! You tend to say stuff LIKE: you may save yourself a little money if you rarely shoot at 1.4 so buy the 2.0 and most of the time you will stop down anyhow.(not Kirk's exact words) And Tamron really fits into this line of thinking..

Just saying,


Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

It's strange. You use a lens for a while, convince yourself that there's something better out there, upgrade and you think you made the right choice, then a month or a year later you find a slide or a digital file that's just incredible and you realize it came from the lens you discarded. And....wow....it's a weird feeling.

I had a very old Tamron SP manual focus lens back in the old, old Canon FD days and I took an image of Belinda at the Clarksville Cafe. I sold the lens to buy a "name brand" lens (Canon) and then I found the slide and the look was incredible. And I've regretted losing that lens ever since...

Eric said...

How come the guy in the top photo is looking through the viewfinder with his left eye? I thought the purpose of the VF being on the extreme left of a range finder was so you could look through the VF with your right and also keep your left eye open.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Eric, He's left-eyed. Happens. And that old saw about keeping one eye open mostly only pertained to the M3 Leica with it's life size finder magnification. With a 50mm (often referred to here as "God's Lens") that particular camera would give you the same basic magnification as your regular eyesight. Hence you could keep both eyes open without having to make any accomodations. All the other rangefinders fail this test.

Now, I guess it's all urban legend stuff and all rangefinders get lumped into the same bucket.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

By the way, the "guy" with the camera is famous advertising and editorial photographer, Will van Overbeek, who was recently profiled by National Geographic Traveler for his work. He's worked for NGT for over a decade. Also done ad campaigns for McDonalds, Quaker, Canon, ESPN, and dozens more big multinationals. He's the real deal. He gets to hold his camera any way he likes.... :-)

Bill Millios said...

Just a gentle word of warning ... sometimes the lenses designed for crop sensor cameras extend back into the camera body ... so a full-frame sensor's mirror will slap into it.

Check your clearances carefully. Just because a lens fits on the camera doesn't mean it's going to successfully take a photo.

Michael Ferron said...

Like your wide angle shots Kirk. Don't know if you allow links or not but I was happy with this wide angle shot taken from about the same place you shot yours.


yansen said...

There's something cool about superwide lens. I suppose a lot of my best photos are taken with my superwide lens

John said...

I have a Tamron 28-75 too. It's a workhorse for me. On the megawide end I use a Canon 10-22 and love it. Give one a spin if you have a chance.

Jean-Yves said...

Does the screw-mount Voigtlander 12mm f/5.6 Ultra-Wide Heliar count as weird? Because I loved that one so much that I bought it a Leica MDa on which to live.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Jean-Yves, Absolutely. And the MDa confers additional "weird" brownie points. Interesting combo.

Jeff Kott said...


You are the BEST – your lens reviews are the antidote for overly technical reviews done by people who I expect have more engineering than photographic experience.

Just yesterday, I read a review of one of my favorite lenses, the Pentax 43/1.9, by a Polish website. Based on the review, you would never buy the Pentax 43 – they thought the Voigtlander 40/2, another lens I own, is a better lens. The obvious problem with the review is that I have both lenses and prefer the photos I take with the Pentax 43 to those with the Voigtlander 40.

Major criticisms of the Pentax 43 included it being unsharp at the corners wide open and “monstrous coma.”

First of all, they failed to explain why I need sharp corners on the kind of photos I would take with the lens wide open, especially taking into account that the Pentax K-5 they tested the lens on has image stabilization and a clean ISO 1600.

I feel the same way about the “monstrous coma” as the teenager who was asked by his teacher if he knew the difference between ignorance and apathy. His response …”I don’t know and I don’t care.”

Keep up the good work – you’re one of the few voices of reason on the internet when it comes to evaluating lenses and camera.


Jeff Kott
San Francisco

Craig Yuill said...

I'm happy to see someone praising a Tamron SP lens. I own 3 of them and found them produce wonderful images. Perhaps my best purchase was a beat-up old 300mm f/2.8 lens that I got for $375. For a number of years, when I did a lot of bird and wildlife photography, it was my most-used lens.

The wierdest lens I ever purchased was a used 28mm f/1.9 Vivitar Series 1 lens, which focused by moving just the rear elements. It received good reviews, but I found my copy suffered from a lot of light falloff (much worse than your 11mm shot) and flared up like crazy when the front lens elements were struck by sunlight. My 28-85 Kiron lens was much better at 28mm than the 28mm lens. Zooms are not always lesser performers to primes.

Please keep us informed of any other wierd lens successes.