The Good Life With IQ

Review: Tamron 18-400 mm f/3.5-6.3 zoom lens

The Tamron 18-400 mm zoom lens is a great all-in-one lens for mid-level photographers who like both close-ups and wide-angles; who don’t feel like burning a hole in their pocket; and who don’t like switching lenses all the time. And who don’t mind sacrificing a bit of image quality in the bargain.

I got this lens (whose entire designation is the mind-bending ‘Tamron 18-400 mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC HLD’) for my trusty Canon EOS 200D just before we went off on our motorcycle tour through southern Rajasthan. After two weeks of rough use on the road, here’s my take on this lens. I’m by no means a professional photographer, so sorry if I don’t use some of the more technical terms and skip a few aspects here and there.

Also read: Review: Moza AirCross three-axis gimbal camera stabilizer

Camera and filigree window - Tamron 18-400 review
Me and my lens in action in Jaipur

Basic features

Seemingly with the avid traveller in mind, Tamron’s tried to cram everything humanly possible into a single lens. It’s got an incredible range of 18 to 400 mm, which means that you can switch between taking close-ups and wide-angle pictures without having to switch lenses. And because it’s built for cameras with APS-C sensors, the company says, the effective maximum zoom is equivalent to 620mm on a full-frame camera. Hmmm.

It’s got image stabilization (which Tamron calls ‘vibration compensation’ or VC), and a moisture-resistant body. Lastly, it’s got a lock toggle that locks the lens in the zoomed-out position, probably to help keep it stable while being carried.

The standard box I received included a lens hood, which was a nice surprise. Just saying.

Lens, hood and box - Tamron 18-400 review
The lens, hood and box. The lens still shows some tell-tale remnants of Ranthambhore

My experiences

When we did our trip to Africa earlier in the year, I had borrowed a friend’s big 100-400 mm lens to take along. It took some great pictures, but I think I built some serious muscle carrying that monster around for three weeks. And switching to my standard 18-55 mm for landscapes—or when something was too close for the big lens—was a big pain in the neck.

When our Rajasthan motorcycle tour plan came up and I needed a good zoom lens—we were going tiger-seeking in Ranthambhore, after all—I went shopping around for a decent second-hand zoom lens. I knew from the Africa experience that I needed a good zoom, but I didn’t want to clean out my bank account. I wasn’t really looking forward to dragging a big lens around, though, and to constantly have to switch lenses.

That’s when the gent at my friendly neighborhood camera shop suggested the Tamron 18-400 mm. I didn’t actually believe him when he said I could get a brand new lens with such a range of focal lengths for half the price of a specialized 400 mm zoom lens. But some internet research confirmed it, and a bit of testing (and some consultation with pro photographer friends) later, I sealed the deal. I ended up paying around Rs. 49,000 (about USD 680). After a small ‘loyal customer’ discount, I might add.

Fully-extended lens - Tamron 18-400 review
The lens at maximum zoom, fully extended

Also read: Eight reasons why you should visit Rajasthan

On the road

We spent the better part of two weeks riding around Rajasthan. The lens—along with my GoPro Hero5 and other paraphernalia—spent most of that time in my camera bag, strapped to my bike’s luggage carrier. I’d wrapped everything in bubble wrap, and my LowePro camera bag had plenty of padding. Still, I didn’t know how it would take the hundreds of kilometers of potholed roads we rode over.

Our tiger safari in Ranthambhore made me a little jittery, too. Our open safari van kicked up thick clouds of dust, which settled between the telescopic layers (barrels?) of the lens. So my safari was split between feverishly taking shots, frantically blowing the dust off my camera, and coughing.

Surprisingly, the lens shrugged all of this rough treatment off, and just got on with it.

Motorcycle on bumpy road - Southern Rajasthan on two wheels
The lens survived being strapped to the back of my bike in that blue camera bag

Taking pictures

One of the first things I noticed when I started testing the lens was that the zoom ring turns the other way around from regular Canon lenses. This might mean that the lens was designed with Nikon cameras in mind, and then adapted to Canon cameras. It took some getting used to for me.

The next thing was that turning the zoom ring took a surprising amount of effort. I thought the thing was jammed! The ring is smoother in the new lens I bought, but still quite tight compared to the other lenses I’ve used. This might just be deliberate, to prevent the lens from deciding to telescope in or out on its own when it’s tilted (that had annoyed me with the borrowed 100-400 mm lens, which had a sliding zoom).

The zoom on this lens was brilliant, though. I’d been missing this kind of zoom ever since my old Nikon P100 point-and-shoot (which had a 26x optical zoom, about 470mm focal length). I managed to take nice close-ups of napping tigers in Ranthambhore, for example. For me, that’s one of the main plus points of this lens. That and the price.

Sleeping tiger - Tamron 18-400 review
This one obviously doesn’t like peeping Toms

The image quality of the Tamron 18-400 mm is decent, but not spectacular. I guess something had to give somewhere because they’ve crammed so much into the lens. I’m not saying that the image quality is horrible, far from it. It’s just not as good as with a specialized lens. You can make out, for example, that the sharpness is just a little off. It falls off a bit more towards the edges in wide-angle shots (though I wouldn’t have noticed if a pro hadn’t pointed it out to me). You might notice it more if you tend to crop your final image for more zoom, though. Like me. But if you’re not a professional photographer, you probably won’t mind that so much. Again, like me.

public library - Udaipur
A wide-angle shot of the public library in Gulab Bagh, Udaipur (slightly cropped)

Some more slight drawbacks I found in the lens were that the auto-focus and image stabilization are slower and clunkier than in other lenses. The auto-focus in particular, and especially in low light. The image stabilization (or VC, as they call it) also takes some time to kick in, and isn’t as fine as you’d like. That especially chafes when you’re at maximum zoom with no tripod, and you realize your minimum aperture value won’t go below 6.3. Not-so-fine image stabilization + hand-held camera + small aperture + longer-than-desired exposure = blurry image = annoyance. At least some of the time. So practice staying really still and not breathing.

Also read: In the shadow of elephants in Valparai

Sleeping tiger - Tamron 18-400 review
A decidedly blurry shot of the same chap from a different angle

Major pros and cons of the Tamron 18-400

I’ve found that there’s a trade-off to just about everything in photography equipment, and that’s evidently true with this lens, too. Here’s a quick look at the good and the bad. There’s no ugly.

Pros

  • A huge focal length range, so no fiddly lens changing between wide-angles and close-ups.
  • Economical compared to giving up an arm and a leg for a specialized zoom lens with the same zoom.
  • Reasonably light compared to muscle-building specialized zoom lenses.
  • Reasonably durable. To a certain degree. When taking precautions. Probably a good idea not to push it.
  • Versions available for both Canon and Nikon cameras.

Cons

  • Slightly reduced image quality, probably because of all the parts they managed to stuff into the lens.
  • ‘Meh’-level image stabilization and not-so-great minimum aperture of 6.3 at full zoom, so expect a few blurry shots.
  • Both image stabilization and auto-focus take a while to kick in, and make funny clunking sounds when they do.

The bottom line

The Tamron 18-400 mm lens is by no means perfect. Its image quality, stabilization and auto-focus aren’t as good as those of professional specialized lenses. On the other hand, it’s far cheaper and more convenient to use. And it’s one of the only lenses—if not the only lens—that has such a huge zoom range. For me, that makes it a great choice for any budget-conscious mid-level photographer who’s not looking to make fine-art prints.


Check out the Tamron 18-400 mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC HLD for Canon cameras or for Nikon cameras on Amazon.

Or check out the Canon EOS 200D DSLR camera; the GoPro Hero5 action camera; or the Lowepro Tahoe 150NE camera bag.

Disclosure:

  • These are affiliate links. That means if you decide to buy anything through these links, I might get paid a small commission. There’s absolutely no additional cost to you.
  • These are all products that I’ve used and liked. I would never recommend anything otherwise.

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