Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC Review

The Tamron 45mm 1.8 is a tack sharp lens that renders beautiful bokeh. At $599 it's not only a bargain, but one of the most underrated lenses available

Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC Review

The Tamron 45mm 1.8 is a remarkable lens. It's a very sharp lens wide open, yet renders very smooth bokeh. And the way this lens transitions from tack sharp to creamy bokeh is unrivalled in my opinion.

Focal length
Some people have commented on the 45mm focal length, remarking that it's a somewhat odd focal length.
The 45mm is just a tad wider than a 50mm lens, but for all practical purposes this is a 50mm lens. I welcome the fact that it's just a bit wider than the standard 50mm lens, but as mentioned earlier, it really should be viewed as a 50mm lens as you won't see the difference in real life.

Close focus
The Tamron's closest focus distance is 11.4" (290mm), allowing you to focus really close and putting it in near macro lens territory. I love this feature of the lens as it allows me to get in really close and the bokeh you can get as a result of that is amazing, even stopped down at narrower apertures such as f2.8 or f4.

Sharpness and test method
I have found that the best test for lens sharpness, particularly if you mainly shoot people, is to take portraits and focus on the eyes. You can easily determine if the lens has front or back focus issues by determining if other areas on the face are sharp. If the eyes are in focus but somewhat soft, you know that the lens is soft wide open. Additionally, the level of detail in the skin further reveals the resolving power of the lens and how sharp the lens is.

For this review, I used the lens by taking portraits of people - more specifically my kids.

Pictures were taken on either a Nikon D810 or a Nikon D750. AF micro adjustment were performed on both camera and lens combinations using Reikan Focal Pro.

1/200 at f2.5, ISO 140. Nikon D750 - Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC Review
1/200 at f2.5, ISO 140. Nikon D750
Natural light, backlit with white California Sunbounce micro mini reflector for fill.
Download a high resolution JPG of the above picture here

1/500 at f1.8, ISO 64 - Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC Review
1/500 at f1.8, ISO 64. Nikon D810
Natural light. I used a white California Sunbounce micro mini reflector for some fill.

100% crop - Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC Review
100% crop

Very sharp, smooth bokeh and loads of character
Two characteristics in lenses that are not often found together in the same lens are critical sharpness and very smooth bokeh. An even rarer combination is critical sharpness, bokeh and character. The Tamron 45mm has all 3.

When it comes to bokeh, there are plenty of fast lenses out there that render beautiful bokeh.

The Canon 85mm 1.2L and Nikon 85mm 1.4G lenses are both renowned for their bokeh, yet neither one of these lens is what I would call particularly sharp wide open. I've owned both lenses and typically never shot with these lenses wider than f2, simply because I felt the lenses were too soft at wider apertures for my liking.

1/500 at f1.8, ISO 64 - Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC Review
1/500 at f1.8, ISO 64. Nikon D810
Natural light, indoors.

100% crop - Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC Review
100% crop

The curse of Canon and Nikon 50mm lenses
When it comes to the 50mm focal length, I've nearly given up. I've had and sold them all. None of them were sharp enough until they were stopped down till about f2.8, which is the reason I sold all my 50mm lenses, only to use Nikon's 24-70 and Canon's very sharp 24-70mm 2.8L II lenses for shooting at 50mm. I found these zooms are just as sharp as all the available 50mm primes on the market at comparable 2.8 apertures.

The list of 50mm lenses I have owned include :

Canon 50mm 1.2L
Beautiful bokeh, but terribly soft and unusable wide open. Suffers from bad focus shift. One of the worst and most unreliable lenses I have owned in my life when it comes to achieving acceptably sharp images. Only sharp from f2.8 onwards. A rubbish lens.

Canon 50mm 1.4
Soft wide open. Useable from f2.2 onwards, sharp at f2.8. Focus motors wear out very quickly, I've owned and sent too many of these in for repairs to keep track of. A known issue.

Canon 50mm 1.8
The "best" canon 50mm lens in my opinion. Soft wide open, but very usable stopped down closer to f2.8

Nikon 50mm 1.4g
Soft wide open, usable from f2.2 - f2.5 onwards

Nikon 50mm f1.8
Soft wide open, usable from f2.2 - f2.5 onwards. Comparable sharpness to the Nikon 1.4 and a better choice in my opinion.

Sigma 50mm f1.4 DG HSM Art
Fairly sharp lens wide open. Let down by inconsistent AF and inability to focus accurately at close and longer distances.

I've all but given up on the 50mm focal length until I read Martin Krolop's review of the new Tamron 45mm 1.8 and Tamron 35mm 1.8 lenses along with the full size sample images he provided. I was blown away by the sharpness shown in his raw images taken on a Canon EOS 5DSR (50.6 MP) that he provided on his site, proving that the Tamron 45mm can hold up to such a high resolution. I did however remain somewhat skeptical as a result of my experiences with 50mm lenses from Canon, Nikon and Sigma.

1/500 at f4, ISO 3200 - Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC Review
1/500 at f4, ISO 3200. Nikon D810
The Tamron 45mm 1.8 renders beautiful, soft bokeh even at f4. A white California Sunbounce micro mini reflector was used for some fill.

The Sigma and third party lens curse
I've owned a bunch of Sigma lenses, including a number of their older lenses and their newer 35mm 1.4 Art and 50mm 1.4 art lenses. I've always had auto focus issues on all my sigma lenses, including the newer art lenses. I was very disappointed in the art lenses. They were quite sharp - certainly sharper than most 35mm and 50mm equivalents offered by Nikon and Canon, but I simply couldn't get the lenses to acquire focus accurately and consistently, even when using the Sigma focus dock. I gave up and returned the Sigma art lenses when I managed to either calibrate the lenses at a close focus distance or infinity but not both. Even when calibrated at a close distance, pictures taken at a close distance were still out of focus - a classic Sigma problem whereby false autofocus is confirmed to the camera body.

Reviews and lens purchase
Despite my initial skepticism around 50mm lenses and third party lenses, the following reviews convinced me to at least have a closer look at the Tamron 45mm 1.8 :

Martin Krolop-Gerst's review of the Tamron 45mm 1.8

Dustin Abbott's review of the Tamron 45mm 1.8

First test, exceeded expectations
Right after purchasing the lens, I stopped by at a dimly lit coffee shop with my son and took this picture wide open at ISO 6400. No auto focus micro adjustments were made to my lens and camera combination at this stage.

First picture. 1/100 wide open at f1.8, ISO 6400 - Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC Review
First picture. 1/100 wide open at f1.8, ISO 6400. Nikon D810

100% crop - Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC Review
100% crop

The moment I zoomed in to 100% on my LCD, I knew that the Tamron 45mm 1.8 was a special lens. The eyes were sharp. The bokeh rendered smooth while the out of focus highlights were fantastic. It was clearly apparent from the start that this lens had character. The way the lens rendered bokeh with the busy background, the sharpness and the contrast at ISO 6400, the way the lens renders from sharp to out of focus - it's got character, it's very sharp and it has beautiful bokeh.

Those who are familiar with lenses will know how rare it is to find these 3 traits in a lens. (The Nikon 58mm 1.4 or Nikon 50mm 1.2 are known to have loads of character, but they are also known to be very soft wide open.)

1/250 at f2.2, ISO 64. - Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC Review
1/250 at f2.2, ISO 64. Nikon D810
I balanced natural light with flash to get a natural look by using a Profoto B1 and 2x3 OCF softbox.

100% crop - Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC Review
100% crop

In Dustin Abbott's review of the Tamron 45mm 1.8, he reported that the Japanese engineers prioritized focus accuracy over speed with this lens. I'm happy to report that my findings are in line with what he reported. I'm very happy with the focus accuracy of this lens. All the instances where focus was off was usually as a result of focusing on the eyelashes or due to subject or photographer movement.

The only drawback of this lens is the ability to acquire focus lock on in lower light situations. I've had 2 or 3 instances taking portraits of my son in lower light situations where the lens failed to acquire focus, which led to missed moments. We're not talking candle-light are darkness here - merely dimly lit daylight indoors. In one instance, the lens was unable to acquire focus while taking a portrait of him. Before I knew it, he got up and ran outside - the moment gone forever.

That being said, my experience has been that when the lens acquires AF it is deadly accurate. I certainly get more in focus shots than I do on say my Nikon 85mm 1.4G and 85mm 1.8G lenses. I will rather miss the shot as a result of the lens being unable to focus, than take an out of focus picture. Sigma, on the other hand, will gladly let you shoot away - only for you to get home and discover all your shots are out of focus.
Ideally Tamron should have had better low light focus abilities as equivalent Nikon and Canon lenses don't have focus issues in low light situations.

In 95% of situations, I find that the lens acquires focus quickly and without hassle. I've only had 2 or 3 instances where this has been an issue, and they were all in lower light situations. It's something I can live with. I now simply stick to areas where there is a bit more light indoors, and haven't had an issue since. If I was a wedding photographer who had to use this lens in a dimly lit venue, I would rather use a Canon or Nikon lens in those situations, and then revert to this lens in better light situations.

1/1000 at f2.8, ISO 100 - Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC Review
1/1000 at f2.8, ISO 100. Nikon D810
Medium format-like bokeh with a picture taken further aback at f2.8

1/250 at f2.0, ISO 100 - Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC Review
1/250 at f2.0, ISO 100
Natural light, indoors. No reflectors used

1/250 at f2.2, ISO 64 - Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC Review
1/250 at f2.2, ISO 64. Nikon D810

I can't rate this lens highly enough. It's really sharp wide open, renders beautiful bokeh, has character, VC (vibration control / image stabilization), and is very well priced - what's not to like?

My feeling is that the Tamron 45mm 1.8 is the sharpest lens in my bag. I've always rated the Nikon 105mm 2.8 Macro and Canon 100mm 2.8L IS Macro lenses as 2 of the sharpest lenses I have ever owned. I dare to say that the Tamron 45mm 1.8 either matches my Nikon 105mm Macro lens, or is slightly sharper than it. I've gone through my catalog and compared several pictures back to back. While I can't definitively say so, my overall feeling is that the Tamron 45mm 1.8 is slightly sharper than my Nikon 105mm 2.8 Macro.

Yes, I've had 2 or 3 low light issues with the lens, but these shortcomings are easily forgiven, considering just how sharp this lens is wide open, coupled with the beautiful bokeh it delivers with character. All lenses have drawbacks or flaws - this minor flaw is easy to work around with.

Given the amount of people singing praises over expensive, poorly performing brand name lenses such as the Canon 50mm 1.2L, the Nikon 58mm 1.4g and a host of other lenses that are terribly soft wide open, it's quite evident that this is possibly the most underrated lens on the market, and at $599 it's an absolute bargain too.