The Anti-movement movement is finally in full throttle as independent lens makers have embraced image stabilization. It took them a few years to catch up to Canon and Nikon, but now Sigma, Tamron, and (soon) Tokina, are producing a torrent of favorably priced, image-stabilized zooms — with more on the way. Who benefits? Every photographer who wants sharp pictures in low light and who is living on a budget. Ring a bell?
The technology goes by different names. Tamron calls it Vibration Compensation (VC); Sigma, Optical Stabilizer (OS). Whatever you call it, it’s similar from maker to maker: Extremely sensitive lens barrel gyro sensors detect the tiny lens movements that result from a photographer’s shaking hands. An internal lens element then shifts to compensate for those movements. The result: Sharper pictures in situations that otherwise would have shown the blurring effect of camera shake. With these lenses, you generally get up to 3 extra stops of handholdability, depending on the focal length and weight of the lens and how steady you are ” to begin with.
Sigma started the flood last spring, stunning the photo world by simultaneously introducing three ambitious new optically stabilized lenses spanning a wide range from 18mm out to a supertele 500mm. Two — the 120-400mm f/4.5-5.6 and the 150-500mm f/5-6.3 — are full-frame format. These extra-long zooms reach out to the equivalent of 620mm and 750mm, respectively, on most DSLRs. Well-built and pro-caliber, these OS lenses clearly play for pro sports and wildlife shooters, who previously had to turn to Canon and Nikon for in-lens stabilization in a super long tele. (These new Sigmas are available in most lensmounts, but versions for Pentax and Sony DSLRs lack the OS, as those bodies provide sensor-based shake control.) And more OS lenses from Sigma are on the way.
Equally exciting, Tamron recently announced its latest superzoom, a 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 digital-only optic that boasts the longest zoom range of any such lens (15X), and built-in stabilization.
Meanwhile Tokina, the third major independent lens maker, so far without a stabilized offering, is making its move. Sources within Tokina confirm that the company is developing several vibration-controlled mid-to-long tele zooms. (We’re guessing an f/2.8 for pros and a more favorably priced f/4-5.6 for the rest of us.) Release dates haven’t been set as we go to press, but formal announcements are expected sometime after this fall’s Photokina trade show in Germany.
While the latest generation of shake-reducing lenses from the independent lens makers share certain characteristics, many of these zooms also bring something new to the table. The pages that follow showcase the highlights of four that we’ve tested in the Pop Photo Lab; the not-yet-out Tamron 18-270mm is at right. (All descriptions are from our own tests and observations, except for that 18-270mm, whose specs were provided by Tamron.)
This summer, Tamron announced that it’s extending its Vibration Compensation technology to APS-sensored DSLRs by coming out with an 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 VC digital-only zoom — the broadest zoom range of any current DSLR optic.
TAMRON 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC LD Aspherical (IF) Macro
• STREET PRICE: n.a. • FORMAT: Digital-only. • 35MM EQUIVALENT: Approx. 28-419mm. • CLOSE-FOCUS DISTANCE: 19.3 in. • MAX. MAGNIFICATION RATIO: 1:3.5. • FILTER SIZE: 72mm. • LENGTH: 3.8 in. (at 18mm). • WEIGHT: 1.21 lb. • MOUNTS: Canon, Nikon. • COMMENTS: This will be the first digital-only lens in its class with a huge 15X zoom range, making it more useful in more situations. It also uses a unique tri-axial system that Tamron says controls not only vertical and horizontal shake (like other stabilized lenses), but also diagonal movement. This lens should be ready for testing as you read this, and we will run a full test report as soon as we can. • COMPETITIVE SET: Nikon’s 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR is the only lens we’ve tested that delivers 4 extra stops of sharpness, but it doesn’t deliver the 15X range of the Tamron. Neither does Sigma’s 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OS, though its Excellent SQF performance and total lack of vignetting at two of four tested focal lengths is hard to beat optically.
SIGMA 18-125mm f/3.8-5.6 DC OS HSM
• STREET PRICE: $400. • FORMAT: Digital-only. • 35MM EQUIVALENT: Approx. 29-200mm. • HANDHOLDING BENEFIT: 2-3 stops. • CLOSE-FOCUS DISTANCE: 11.5 in. at 125mm. • MAX MAGNIFIATION RATIO: 1:3.10 at 125mm. • FILTER SIZE: 67mm. • LENGTH: 3.47-5.40 in. • WEIGHT: 1.12 lb. • AF MOUNTS: Canon, Nikon, Sigma. (Pentax, Sony coming soon.) • TEST RESULTS: This light, compact lens is the first to turn stabilization on automatically when you fire up the camera. It recognizes when you pan, disabling OS on the horizontal axis for smoother panning blur. Our SQF tests were in the Excellent range at all three tested focal lengths, indicating superb sharpness and contrast. It showed Visible barrel distortion at 18mm (0.45%) in DxO Analyzer 3.0.1 tests, but pincushioning at longer focal lengths was only in the Slight range at 50mm and 125mm (0.27% and 0.20%), above-average performance. • COMPETITIVE SET: The Sigma is much longer than Canon’s 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS, a bit faster, and $115 less costly. It also controls distortion dramatically better at the wide end. The Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-4.5 VR has much more reach, better shake control, and (at $680, street), a much higher price; the Sigma is visibly sharper at the longest setting.
BLOOM ZOOM: Blur due to camera shake is magnified at close-focusing distances, making an optical stabilizer crucial for handheld floral studies. Both shots taken at 1/60 sec and ISO 400. Right: Without OS.
SIGMA 120-400mm f/4.5-5.6 DG APO OS HSM AF
• STREET PRICE: $850.• FORMAT: Full-frame. • 35MM EQUIVALENTt: Approx. 186-620mm (on APS-sized sensors). • HANDHOLDING BENEFIT: 2-2.5 stops. • CLOSE-FOCUS DISTANCE: 56.2 in. at 400mm. • MAX. MAGNIFICATION RATIO: 1:3.59 at 400mm. • FILTER****SIZE: 77mm. • LENGTH: 8.12-10.55 in. • WEIGHT: 3.77 lb. • AF MOUNTS: Canon, Nikon, Sigma (Pentax, Sony coming soon). • TEST RESULTS: This near-silent tele allows manual focusing in AF mode and works with Sigma teleconverters. In field tests, the AF easily tracked cars, bicyclists, even pigeons. In our tests, it delivered Excellent-range SQF numbers at 120- and 250mm, for superior sharpness and contrast, but, typical of long tele zooms, it dipped to Very Good at 400mm. DxO Analyzer 3.0.1 tests detected only Imperceptible barrel distortion at 120mm (0.04%) and Slight pincushion distortion at 250mm (0.12%) and 400mm (0.17%) — almost flawless numbers. • COMPETITIVE SET: Canon’s 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO IS isn’t as long, yet has a bigger zoom range. Far heavier on the wallet ($1,190, street), it’s far lighter in the hands. The Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR also has a wider zoom range, but it sells at a much lower price ($480, street). Test results? About equal.
DELICATE DETAIL: Intricate designs in New York’s Manhattan Bridge are rendered crisp and sharp thanks to Sigma’s optical stabilizer. Both photos shot at 1/50 sec at ISO 400. Right: Without OS.
SIGMA 150-500mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM APO AF
• STREET PRICE: $980. • FORMAT: Full-frame. • 35MM EQUIVALENT: Approx. 232-775mm (on APS-sized sensors). • HANDHOLDING BENEFIT: 1-2.5 stops. • CLOSE-FOCUS DISTANCE: 74.25 in. at 500mm. • MAX. MAGNIFICATION RATIO: 1:4.46 at 500mm. • FILTER SIZE: 86mm.• LENGTH: 9.97-12.40 in. • WEIGHT: 4.06 lb.• AF MOUNTS: Canon, Nikon, Sigma (Pentax, Sony coming soon). • TEST RESULTS: Compatible (in manual-focus only) with Sigma 1.4X and 2.0X teleconverters, this huge and silent tele logged sharpness and contrast in the Excellent SQF range at 150-, 200-, and 250mm. Unfortunately, it’s too big for our equipment to measure SQF at longer focal lengths. In our DxO Analyzer 3.0.1 tests, pincushion distortion was Imperceptible at 150mm (0.10%); pincushioning was Very Slight (0.13%) at 250mm and 300mm, and even at 500mm (0.16%). • COMPETITIVE SET: The Sigma has a longer focal length, but the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS has a broader zoom range. Weighing a pound less, the Canon also costs some $600 more. As for Nikon’s 200-400mm f/4 VR, with a price tag about $4,200 higher, a weight about 3 pounds heavier, and a much shorter zoom range, the tripod-only Nikon is a hard sell compared with the slower but still handholdable Sigma.
SHARPNESS, AHOY! An optical stabilizer delivers crisp images even when relatively large lenses (such as Sigma’s 150-500mm) are used handheld. Both taken at 1/125 sec and f/11 at ISO 400. Right: Without OS.
TAMRON 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 XR Di VC AF
• STREET PRICE: $600. • FORMAT: Full-frame. • 35MM EQUIVALENT: Approx. 43-465mm (on APS-sized sensors). • HANDHOLDING BENEFIT: 2-3 stops. • CLOSE-FOCUS ISTANCE: 16 in. at 300mm. • MAX. MAGNIFICATION RATIO: 1:2.33 at 300mm. • FILTER SIZE: 67mm. nLength: 4-7.17 in. • WEIGHT: 1.31 lb. • AF MOUNTS: Canon, Nikon. • TEST RESULTS: This 10.7X superzoom did better on an APS-sensor DSLR than on a full-framer. In APS format, our SQF tests found Excellent-range sharpness and contrast at all tested focal lengths. Full-frame SQFs: Excellent at 28mm and 70mm, Very Good at 200mm, and Good at 300mm. In DxO Analyzer 2.0 tests, distortion was amazingly well controlled in APS format: Visible barrel at 28mm (0.35%) and Slight pincushioning at 70mm (0.12%), 200mm, and 300mm (both 0.11%). • COMPETITIVE SET: The Canon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 IS has a faster, quieter AF, plus O-rings and gaskets against dust and damp. Is it worth an extra $1,700? Nikon’s closest lens is the 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 VR — while it costs slightly less than the Tamron, its 5X zoom range isn’t close at all.
DARK VICTORY: Tamron’s Vibration Compensation gives you acceptable sharpness in unacceptably dim light. Both shot at 1/2 0 sec and f/6.3 at ISO 800. Right: Without VC.