Lens Comparison: Tamron SP 70-200 f/2.8 Di VC USD vs Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L (PART 2)

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After running into resolution problems with the Canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS II lens in my first test, I re-tested using a different Canon lens. Unfortunately, I was not able to use the same Tamron SP 70-200 f/2.8 Di VC USD lens (it would have been ideal to only have one variable change in the second run through), but the results that I got were much more in line with what I expected the first time.

At the 70mm end of the zoom, the Canon was sharper in the center of the image until f/5.6, when the differences became negligible. Midway between the center and the border, the Tamron caught up to the Canon at about f/8, but out at the edge of the image, the Canon was simply better at all apertures.

At the 200mm end of the zoom, the images were virtually identical in the center from the outset at f/2.8. In the upper right edge of the frame, the Tamron was slightly sharper at f/4 and f/5.6, but the difference was mostly gone by f/8.

Unfortunately, I noticed that even when the Tamron was sharper than the Canon in the upper right, the Canon was sharper in the lower left. Again, this indicates a problem with the lens sample being tested, but this time, it was the Tamron. I believe this to be a “centering” problem; one or more of the elements in the lens was out of alignment.

Fulle Frame of Examples
Full frame of example shots; note that the Ferris wheel is near the center, and one tower is at the upper-right edge, the other the left edge.

This was frustrating; I’d already attempted the test with two different Canon IS II lenses that were faulty, and running into a faulty Tamron was about the last straw. Overall, this Tamron didn’t look as sharp as the first one that I tested. However, comparing the Tamron’s images to my older non-IS Canon, the Tamron still looked pretty good, and I was reminded that the degree of difference in detail that I was looking at in each case was very minor.

In the end, I’ve had to conclude that the resolution characteristics of the two lenses are about the same; it’s more important to get a good sample of the lens that you choose than it is to choose a particular brand.

Century Link Field, Seattle.
Full frame, Century Link Field Examples.

Download RAW Files

Press Buttons Below For Each Set
70mm Skyline 200mm Skyline 200mm Ferris Wheel 200mm CLINK

Focus Breathing

Testing the focus breathing was much more cut and dry, though it required some tedious work.

For a rough comparison, I began by shooting a few test images, comparing the field of view (apparent magnification) with the subjects at a few different distances, with both lenses zoomed to 200mm.  The results can be seen below.

With that done, I measured the actual focal length of the lenses at three distances:  7, 12, and 26 feet. The results can be seen below.

 7 Feet12 Feet26 Feet
Tamron SP 70-200 f/2.8 Di VC USD173mm182mm190mm
Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II USM229mm208mm201mm

[Update] I originally stated that both lenses are about 200mm when focused at infinity. Upon further examination, I’ve found that the Tamron is minimally wider. Though I did not measure the exact focal length of either lens at infinity, I can measure the difference in field of view of the images, and the difference is approximately 1.6%. If we assume that the Canon is a true 200mm at infinity, which seems to be the case, then the Tamron would be 196.8mm. Again, this is a very minor difference.

To make the measurements, I used the method  described by “Vivek” at Stack Exchange/Photography1. For the distance to subject, I measured from the lens mount to the subject, and added 44mm, which is the standard Canon flange focal distance (FFD), using a Bosch laser measuring device, which is accurate to 1mm. All measurements were made multiple times and averaged if there were any inconsistencies, though they were mostly stable. A measuring scale attached to the wall was used to determine the field of view for each lens from the center of the frame, which was found in Photoshop. I used Wolfram Alpha to calculate the actual geometry/trigonometry, and easycalculation.com to a lesser extent.

Wolfram Alpha interface

My findings conflicted with those provided by some other YouTube pundits who did not make actual measurements, but Matt Granger in particular. He rated Nikon as breathing the least, then Tamron, and then Canon the most2.

Perhaps my most important finding was the the Canon and Tamron lenses breath in different directions, with the Tamron losing magnification and the Canon gaining it. Because of this, the Tamron appears to provide much less magnification than the Canon, especially at very close distances, though this is because the Canon’s focal length is greater than 200mm at these distances, not because the Tamron is so much less than 200.

I found that the Canon breathes the least for most of its focal length, though it breathes more than the Tamron at the closest distances, less than 10 feet. If you consider the majority of the focal length to be the most important factor to judge on, then the Canon may be the better lens, but if you judge according to which lens jumps farthest away from 200mm at it’s most extreme variance, then the Tamron is the better lens, since it loses focal length at a fairly steady rate.

Either way, I can’t agree with Granger that the Canon has “by far” the most breathing, since it’s breathing is restricted to a pretty limited part of its focal range. On the other hand, the Nikon equivalent breathes down to 135mm3, and that drop-off is not limited to the nearest 10 feet of the focal distance; it remains heavy at 15-20 feet as well.

So, if I were ranking these lenses in terms of breathing, Nikon would be dead last, with the Tamron in the middle and Canon on top, unless you want to give the performance of the lenses at less than 2 meters much heavier weight, in which case the Tamron and Canon’s places might be switched.

Getting the Best Price, Support These Reviews!

If you’d like to support further lens reviews like these, please purchase your lens through one of the following links. These sites regularly offer the best prices on the internet and great customer service. It won’t cost you any extra, but it WILL help us make more videos / reviews like this one.

Amazon.com: Since Adorama also sells through Amazon, you know that if the vendor on Amazon isn’t them, you’re getting a better price. These are current prices:

Adorama: Great service, authorized dealers, and their prices are as good as B&H.

B&H Photo: I like B&H, but they don’t support us as well as the others. Buy there if you’d like:

  1. http://photo.stackexchange.com/questions/13603/how-to-test-actual-focal-length
  2. His video can be seen here, and it is otherwise very worth watching.
  3. Bob Atkins provides 135mm on this page, http://www.bobatkins.com/photography/technical/focus_breathing_focal_length_changes.html, as does Photozone.de, here: http://www.photozone.de/nikon_ff/511-nikkorafs7020028vr2ff?start=2 , SLRgear suggests 128mm, but I’m skeptical, and Thom Hogan gives us a calculated measurement of 134mm: http://www.bythom.com/nikkor-70-200-VR-II-lens.htm
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  • Great post about lens comparison in between Tamron and Canon Series. This is brilliant share with full of information in the aspect of resolution, focus breathing, price and reviews. We normally prefer to use Canon SLR cameras for wedding photography for clarity, brightness, functional and user friendly. Can you please suggest it is right to use Tamron series too. Thanks.

    • Hello Indranil,

      Yes, I recommend Tamron lenses for wedding photography, especially the new Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 G2, although the earlier model (in the video above) is excellent too.

  • Hi Mattew, you reviews are really good and very informative. Im weighing up between the canon 70-200 usm (non is) vs the Tamron you have reviewed here, buying both second hand. I was wondering what your suggestion is, I shoot surfing and landscapes and have done the occasional wedding.



    • I’d go with the Tamron. The image quality is better, and it’s stabilized. It’s a tough call, because the Canon L lens is also pretty awesome, and it’s really sturdy, but the Tamron is better where it counts.

  • Great review. The best I’ve seen or read…I have been researching these two lenses for several months and still wasn’t sure which direction to go. I won a Canon 70-200 which is 12 years old and needs some work (autofocus element I think). I want to use it as a backup. I shoot sports primarily so autofocus speed and accuracy are important… I have tried the Tamron on a 7D and liked what I saw from it, but the Canon keeps lurking in the back of my mind. I just don’t know if I should spend the extra money or go with the Tamron. Any thoughts?

    • Hi John,
      I don’t think that I have much more to say that I haven’t already said in my videos. I’ve shot sports with both lenses in pretty bad conditions, and the Tamron was just fine for me. The Tamron is very sharp, and I didn’t have any AF problems. However, the AF speed was the only place where the Tamron lagged behind; there was a slight lag when the VC activated. I got used to it pretty quickly and it wasn’t a problem. Ultimately, that’s where the Canon is a better lens; not with image quality. So, you’ll need to decide whether that’s worth the extra money, for you.
      Good luck!
      – Matthew

  • Hi Matthew,

    I have seen both the review videos of this lens. Very informative and you nicely explained the focus breathing. I am getting the tamron for $850 cheaper than the canon.

    I would mostly use the lens for weddings and in f2.8 – f4 region. Image sharpness, background bokeh and AF speed are most important factors for me. And canon wins in two of them. can you please suggest which one go with.

    • Hi Ritabrata,

      For most practical purposes, but especially for events, the difference in sharpness between these two lenses is negligible. The Tamron is wonderfully sharp, so don’t worry about that. I think that they both provide nice bokeh, though I’m not a huge bokeh nut. The Canon is faster when it comes to AF, though the Tamron is fine once you get used to it.

      So, the Canon is probably a slightly better lens… and it’s significantly more expensive. What it comes down to is your budget. If you’re shooting enough weddings and other work that spending a little more now is not going to make a big difference, then go for it. If you’re at a point in your career that the buying the Tamron will allow you to spend $850 on another lens that you could use, then I’d definitely go that direction… I don’t think that you’ll ever feel that your Tamron lens has let you down.

      Good luck!

      – Matthew

  • Mathew, your videos helped me make the decision to go with the Canon version. Currently with Rebates, the difference in “Street Price” from authorized Distributors is only $600. Figure I make that up with the re-sale value if I chose to get rid of it in the future. It should arrive this Wednesday.
    I’ll perform the test mentioned above. Fortunately for me, a Canon service is only 15 miles away from where I live so i would more than likely just take it there if I notice any issues.

  • What do these finding mean to those purchasing these lenses? How do we know if our copies are faulty? Do you think, perhaps, that this is more likely with rentals since the lens can be mis-handled by other rentals, or do you believe that these faults are quite likely with new lenses as well?

    • That’s a good question. First of all, if you’re buying a new lens, you should make sure that you buy it from a place that has a good return policy (though problems like these are covered by warranties, it’s easier to make a return to Amazon than wait for a warranty repair).

      But of course, first you have to know that there’s a problem. First, test for centering. That was almost certainly the problem on my initial Canon IS II, and certainly on the Tamron from this video. This post on the LensRentals.com blog shows how to do it without any special equipment. http://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2012/05/testing-for-a-decentered-lens-an-old-technique-gets-a-makeover

      Beyond that, it may help to simply take some tripod mounted test shots at f/5.6 or f/8 of a distant subject (landscape, cityscape, etc) that has plenty of fine detail, and look at the corners of the frame at 100% magnification. The corners will always be the worst image quality; check and see if one corner or pair of corners is any worse than the rest. If so, check your other shots and see if it’s consistent.

      As far as rental lenses… there are two things to keep in mind. Yes, they do spend a lot of time on airplanes (pressure changes, vibrations, etc do make a difference) and get some heavy use, so I’m sure they’re more prone to getting knocked out of alignment, but at any good rental house (LensRentals, Borrowlenses, etc), there are also techs that check the optics on a regular basis, so they’re also more likely to find and fix problems than normal users.

      I’d be interested to hear if any other readers have suggestions for how they check their new lenses.
      – Matthew

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