In this review, we test the Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di USD on the wildlife and landscapes of Alaska. One part review and two parts photo journal, this review offers a look at how shooting with a super telephoto lens shaped our perspective of the Alaskan wild.
It’s been a little while since I’ve written on Photon Collective. Most of my recent writings and photography projects have been all related to night photography and astrophotography so I’ve been spending more of my time over at Lonely Speck. Diana and I recently took the opportunity to travel to Alaska, a place that I’ve wanted to visit so many times as a child but had never been. While my first-order bucket list item was going to be to see the Northern Lights, I’ve always wanted to try out wildlife photography. Diana loves spotting animals in the wild and so we both thought Alaska a great opportunity to make a serious effort at wildlife photography.
I’ve never owned a lens longer than 200mm. My previous experiences with semi-long lenses have been with Canon’s excellent 200mm f/2.8L prime lens and their equally excellent 70-200mm f/4L IS zoom. While both highly regarded, I don’t think either of these 200m lenses are the best wildlife lenses. They can be used in a pinch but 200mm never really afforded enough reach to really capture wildlife from “safe” distances. I had the fantasy of photographing eagles in flight and I knew that 200mm would never be long enough. Enter the 150-600mm zoom.
Tamron and Sigma both introduced 150-600mm zoom lenses within the last year. Sigma has two different versions: their Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM “Sport” Version and a lower priced “Contemporary” version. Sigma’s 150-60mm lenses are available in Canon, Nikon and Sigma mounts.
Tamron offers a lens very similar to Sigma’s “Contemporary” lens. The Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di USD is available in Sony A, Canon EF and Nikon mount versions. The Canon EF and Nikon mount versions also offer the “Vibration Correction” (VC) image stabilization system. The Sony A mount version does not have the VC system but most of Sony’s A mount cameras already have SteadyShot image stabilization systems built into the camera body via sensor shift technology.
The introduction of 150-600mm lenses created a whole new level of accessibility to the realm of “Super Telephoto”. Previously, a 600mm focal length lens was typically very expensive. Most of the current offerings from Canon and Nikon are priced upwards of $9000. The Contemporary Sigma and Tamron 150-600mm lenses, by comparison, are priced at just around $1000.
Using the Tamron 150-600mm on a Sony a7II
I decided to go with the Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di USD in the Sony A mount version so that I could mount it to my Sony a7II (full review) mirrorless camera via the use of the LA-EA4 adapter. The LA-EA4 has a built-in transmissive mirror that reflects light on to an array of dedicated phase detection autofocus sensors. It’s the same style of autofocus system found in Sony’s A mount DSLR-like cameras like the Sony a99.
The LA-EA4 is not explicitly necessary as the a7II and a7RII both offer improved autofocus performance with adapted lenses via their on-chip phase detection systems. So the use of a simpler adapter like the LA-EA3 or Metabones Smart Adapter will still offer a relatively fast autofocus experience on those cameras. But the LA-EA4 adapter effectively boosts the autofocus speed capability of the a7II, especially for subject tracking. I wanted the fastest most “DSLR” like experience so I think the LA-EA4 was the best choice. For those on an a7 series camera that don’t need DSLR like autofocus, the cheaper LA-EA3 would be my recommendation.
I should note that I absolutely recommend only using the Sony mount lens on a Sony camera with SteadyShot in-body image stabilization. I tried a few off-hand shots with the lens mounted on the Sony a6000 (more on this later) and while autofocus was still quick, the lack of image stabilization made the lens extremely difficult to use. The versions of the lens for Canon and Nikon won’t have this problem because they include the Tamron VC image stabilization system in the lens.
The Tamron 150-600mm is significantly nicer in finish and build quality than I imagined. It’s also the heaviest lens I’ve ever used. Those who have used a ‘real’ super telephoto prime like the Canon EF 600mm f/4L would probably scoff at that statement. A full 1 and 1/3 stop slower, the Tamron 150-600mm is a mere 4.3 pounds (2 kg) and it’s significantly smaller than the Canon EF 600mm f/4L which weighs in at 8.6 pounds (3.9 kg). So it’s big in the realm of lenses but small for a super telephoto.
At nearly 9x cheaper than the faster, luxury super telephoto lenses offered from Canon and Nikon, I thought that the Tamron 150-600mm would feel toy-like and cheap but that is not the case at all. The zoom ring is smooth, the autofocus is very quiet, there’s no wobble in the mechanisms and everything is finished very nicely. Sure, its body is made of plastic and it has no weather sealing but it has a level of fit and finish that I did not expect. The lens seemed a whole lot more “serious” in my hands than I would have expected from the photos I saw of it online.
The Tamron 150-600mm comes with a metal tripod collar attached. It’s advisable to use it on a sturdy tripod or monopod to keep the setup balanced, but nearly all of the photos in this review were made without any real support.
There is also a lock switch that can keep the lens locked at its shortest zoom setting of 150mm. If unlocked, the zoom ring can “creep” if the lens is pointed to the ground. I would have liked to have seen additional lockable positions at the other focal length settings but that’s a minor gripe. The lens extends significantly when zooming and reaches its longest length when at 600mm, as expected.
There is an autofocus limiting switch that constrains the focus range to between 15m and infinity if desired. This is helpful when shooting through foliage or other foreground elements to prevent the lens from accidentally close focusing. On the Canon and Nikon mount versions of the lens, there is a single switch to turn on or off the VC image stabilization. I got the Sony mount version so there was no VC switch.
The manual focus ring is positioned aft of the zoom ring in a position that allows for quick adjustment when shooting. I did a lot of handheld shooting with this lens and I found it pretty easy to support the lens with my fingers and tune the focus ring with my thumb. The throw of the focus ring is rather short which has both benefits and downsides. It’s very easy to quickly rack focus but very fine tune adjustments require only the smallest of movements.
Maybe this trait is characteristic of all super telephotos since depth of field tends to be so short (I have no prior experience to compare), but I needed to practice a bit to get used to just how sensitive the focus ring is.
Diana and I booked a two week stay in Anchorage, Alaska in late October of 2015. We arrived after the busy tourist season but before winter had really set in. We were super excited to test out the Tamron 150-600mm as soon as we arrived so we promptly set out early in the morning to test the lens.
Turnagain Arm and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center with the Tamron 150-600mm
We decided to take a visit to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) on our first day. Only about an hour south of Anchorage, the AWCC is a rehabilitation center for injured and orphaned animals. All the animals are cared for in expansive outdoor spaces and many of the animals are released back in to the wild when their care is complete. Animals that are unable to be released are given a permanent home at the center.
The drive to the Conservation Center from Anchorage was our first view of Alaska and it’s an absolutely amazing drive. The route along the northern edge of the Turnagain Arm is breathtaking. The Turnagain Arm is a large waterway south of Anchorage that borders the northern edge of the Kenai Peninsula. It undergoes extreme tidal changes that fill and drain the waterway.
At low tide, it becomes a large mudflat area with numerous channels of water flowing through it. When the tide returns, water flows back into the Turnagain Arm, often creating a wave-like flow of water known as the Bore Tide. Around every bend of the road along the Turnagain Arm is another amazing view of rocky snowcapped mountains, mudflats and glaciers. We took our time and stopped a nearly ever turnout along the drive, snapping photos with the Tamron 150-600mm as often as possible.
The first thing that surprised me with the lens is just how difficult it was to handhold. My arms started to get fatigued after a few sessions of shooting. It’s a heavy lens that begs for a sturdy monopod at the very least.
A stout tripod and gimbal head would be ideal. Having only my measly little travel tripod, I resorted mostly to supporting the lens on various things like our rental car, fences, rocks, logs, my knee and even Diana’s shoulder on occasion.
More than just the weight of the lens, 600mm is just a tremendous amount of reach. So much so that even your own pulse provides enough vibration that it seems to quickly swing the view through the lens. That said, the image stabilization system on the a7II did an amazingly good job at keeping the image steady when properly supported. The only fault in the system seemed to be my novice-level experience at shooting with a super telephoto. That and my weak-ass arms.
There’s probably a few reviews out there that compare the Sigma to the Tamron in terms of sharpness etc., but I think the general consensus is that they’re both adequately sharp and in my experience, the Tamron 150-600mm lens is damn sharp. It should be considered that when shooting distant landscapes with such a long lens, the reach is great enough that just the temperature variation and disturbances in the air are enough to soften very distant details, a similar phenomenon to what is experienced when using any telescope.
We finally arrived at the AWCC around midday. At this latitude and time of year, the sun stayed relatively low in the sky and that offered some excellent conditions for photography. Our first opportunity to photograph an animal at the Conservation Center was a moose lounging in the midday sun. From the observation decks of the Conservation Center, and the relatively close proximity of the animals, it wasn’t at all necessary to use the full-reach of the lens’s zoom capability. Diana grabbed this shot of the moose at a modest setting of 250mm.
At 150mm, the lens still provides enough breathing room to include some of the background in the image. The 150-200mm range of the lens is probably going to be used less often for true wildlife photography but it was particularly good in this situation where we were able to get relatively close to the animals, like this Musk Ox. Even at 150mm and f/8 the lens still throws the background mildly out of focus.
At 600mm, the background becomes a creamy blur and focus becomes a much more fine-tuned operation. Straight away, I was very happy at how much fine detail the lens was able to capture at its full zoom setting.
Even after only about 20 minutes of walking around and shooting with the Tamron 150-600mm, my arms started to get tired. I wished I had brought a monopod with me, but I made due by finding various things to rest the lens on.
One of my favorite shots of the day was of a Grizzly Bear resting in the dry grass. I think this shot was a great example of just how much reach 600mm provides. I was several hundred feet away from the bear, a distance that I would have been comfortable with even if I wasn’t observing from behind the safety of the Conservation Center’s fence.
One of the unforeseen benefits that a lens this long can provide is the vastly increased capability for composition. With such a small frame, it’s very easy to isolate small or distant elements in the environment. I didn’t even need to move my body to be able to shoot the portrait of a bear in one minute, and then shoot a photo of some distant snow-capped mountains another minute.
The AWCC offered some amazingly varied and interesting views of the surrounding area and shooting exclusively with the Tamron 150-600mm became an interesting exercise in isolating so many little details in the distance. The AWCC is located at the southern tip of the Turnagain arm so its property is surrounded by mountains, meadows, shallow waterways and sand flats.
We were spoiled by the clear weather on our first day in Alaska and I couldn’t think of a better first place to visit to really test out the lens, especially for two people with limited experience shooting with telephoto lenses.
Diana and I both enjoyed using the lens for the first time in an “easy” environment like the AWCC. There was a lot to see and shoot and the lens performed a lot better than I initially expected. I’m not sure why I had initially low expectations of the lens. After the first day, I was blown away.
The lens’s reasonably large tripod collar and threaded mount made for a good handle with which to securely carry the lens but the kit was heavy enough to eventually tire your arms, even carried in this configuration. I do think, however, that the sheer “fun” factor of using a lens this long quickly made us forget about the extra exercise we got from wielding so much glass.
Spotting Our First “Real” Wildlife with the Tamron 150-600mm
After departing the AWCC, we were welcomed with soft afternoon light that lit up the snow covered mountains along our return drive. We were also lucky enough to encounter our first “real” wildlife as we drove back. Rounding one of the last major bends in the road, known as Beluga Point, we found a long string of parked cars stopped to catch a glimpse of a furry friend high up on the adjacent cliffs.
We pulled the car off the road and grabbed the a7II mounted with the 150-600mm and ran back along the road to find what everyone was looking at: a fluffy white mountain goat, perched about a couple hundred feet above road. The goat’s fluffy white coat rustled back and forth in the wind and he spent most of his time just looking down at the crowd of cars and photographers that gathered along the highway. Seeing the mountain goat marked a great close to our first day in Alaska.
Photographing Birds with the Tamron 150-600mm
We continued searching for wildlife during our two weeks in Anchorage. We made many day trips to the surrounding areas and spotted tons of wildlife, especially birds of all sorts. Having a lens long enough to photograph distant subjects quickly turned every drive into a fun hunt to spot animals. Trumpeter swans were a common sight in the numerous lakes and wetlands around the Kenai Peninsula area. My favorite shot of the swans was made by Diana from the window of our rental car, along the shore of Tern Lake.
I had the idea in my mind that the holy-grail shot to attempt with such a long lens is to capture birds in flight so I spent most of our time that afternoon in the town of Seward, trying to capture the numerous seabirds transiting the water of Resurrection Bay.
The first thing that occurred to me was that shooting birds in flight is fucking hard. I thought that focusing would be the biggest challenge when shooting the gulls and petrels that were constantly moving across the sky but as it turned out, the lens tracked the birds just fine. The difficult part was actually keeping the birds in frame. Trying to steadily track a fast moving bird across the sky while zoomed in to 600mm was much more of a challenge than I ever anticipated. Seeing my frame unconfidently wobbling up and down as I strained to keep the birds in view opened up a lot more respect for bird photography.
I found the best results by enabling all of the autofocus points on my camera and using the camera’s continuous focus (AF-C) mode. Turning on the rapid-fire continuous shutter was also very helpful, of course. As long as the birds were somewhere nearby the autofocus points in the frame, the lens kept them well-focused but it was a common occurrence for me to lose the bird in frame, upon which the lens would re-focus on something else like the background.
After some practice, my success rate improved and I started capturing better framed shots of the various birds flying around Seward. I shot until my arms couldn’t take any more.
Overall, my experience shooting birds in flight was definitely more limited by my own skill level than by the equipment. I felt that the Tamron 150-600mm did an excellent job in this difficult task.
Closeup Details with the Tamron 150-600mm
After visiting Seward, we continued on to visit Exit Glacier, only a few miles north of the town. A 30 minute hike from the parking lot brought us to the edge of the glacier. I made sure that we brought the 150-600mm with us on the hike, should we encounter any wildlife. We didn’t see any wildlife this time but instead found the lens a great tool to capture some of the smaller details in the landscape surrounding Exit Glacier.
Even in the overcast, flat light of the day, we managed to find some intensely saturated colors if we looked carefully. The lens’s close focus distance of 8.86 feet (2.7 m) allows for some “macro-like” shots with a magnification ratio of about 0.2x. It’s certainly no macro lens but I did feel that the lens did a decent job of being able to focus close and the images remained tack sharp at these distances.
The jagged and broken rocks surrounding Exit Glacier had the occasional patch of moss that seemed to glow with a chartreuse green and the ice of the glacier had an otherworldly blue, translucent hue. It’s hard to capture the scale of the ice in the photo below. A person would still be dwarfed by these features.
On the way back to our car, we spotted what I think are Hygrocybe miniata, or Vermilion Waxcap mushrooms growing on the trunk of a fallen tree. At 600mm, this was just about the limit of the lens’s close focus capability.
Photographing Bald Eagles with the Tamron 150-600mm
On our way back to Anchorage from Exit Glacier, as the light from the day started waning, we had our first bald eagle sightings. I was super excited to be able to spot some eagles, but most of the bald eagles we saw were perched high up in trees and I had more difficulty getting close enough to get satisfactory framing. In order to get some more reach, I thought it would be helpful to mount the Tamron 150-600mm to the cropped-sensor a6000 for a little bit more resolution on the long end.
The smaller sensor would give me a 1.5x crop factor for an equivalent field of view of about 900mm when zoomed all the way in. But it turned out to be very, very difficult to use a 900mm equivalent field of view without the image stabilization that I was enjoying with the a7II. Futhermore, the lighting conditions also made it very difficult for the camera to find accurate focus on the the eyes of the eagle. If the Tamron 150-600mm has a practical limit, it’s the f/6.3 aperture on the long end of its zoom range. Shooting with the lens after the sun goes down is quite difficult.
Overall, I found it too challenging to use the 150-600mm without image stabilization to really justify the use of it on the a6000, even if it did give me substantially more reach. That said, it’s a rare combination that I attempted. Most of Sony’s A-mount bodies have SteadyShot and the Canon and Nikon variants of the lens have optical image stabilization. If shooting with the Sony mount version, my recommendation is to only pair this lens with a Sony body that has SteadyShot.
After seeing our first bald eagle in Alaska, I was on a kick to try and find more and especially to photograph one in flight. The following days brought on a decent amount of snowfall as we further explored the area around Portage and Whittier, Alaska. The Portage Valley ended up being the highest concentration of bald eagles that we spotted during our time in Alaska. They were everywhere. We spied a whole lot of juvenile bald eagles, too young still to have developed the white colored crest and tail feathers with which we are so familiar.
We found ourselves using the full reach of the Tamron 150-600mm lens a whole lot more once we were trying to spot eagles. I thought that the super long reach shots were going to be few and far between just because of how tight the field of view was but while photographing eagles, the lens lived at 600mm almost all the time. I think it was after photographing these eagles that I really understood the value of a lens this long. It really opened up a window into a whole new world of photography.
It was really cool to see how stoic and still the eagles were, even in the excessively wet falling snow. I was surprised, however, at how few eagles we saw in flight. Most of the eagles in Portage Valley were perched on trees, and that actually made them a lot easier to photograph than I initially thought. We saw the occasional eagle flying but most were much too far away to photograph, even with a 600mm lens. I didn’t get the opportunity to photograph a bald eagle in flight until much later that day, from the Potter Marsh Boardwalk, our last stop of the afternoon.
The temperature was only just around freezing and wet snow was falling most of the day so I covered the Tamron 150-600mm lens with a waterproof dry bag to protect it from water intrusion. You can just see the green-colored dry bag on top the lens in the photo of me shooting the bald eagle below. I think these two photos are another good example of the reach of the 600mm focal length. I wish I could have captured this eagle against a more interesting background but the weather offered nothing but a plain grey overcast sky.
I wish the lens had weather sealing, but I suppose it’s OK at this price point. The lens hood is deep enough to keep pretty much any moisture off the front lens element, even while shooting in wet conditions like this, but the lack of sealing on the zoom mechanism and focusing ring could make it easy for water to get into the lens. If proper measures are taken to keep the lens dry, it should be fine. Just keep in mind that it’s not purpose built for harsh conditions.
Hiking Hatcher Pass with the Tamron 150-600mm
The next opportunity to use the Tamron 150-600mm lens was while we hiked up the snow-covered mountains surrounding Hatcher Pass, a popular backcountry skiing and winter recreation area just north of Anchorage. Some of our friends brought their skis and lent us some hiking poles to help climb up the pass with them. I lugged the a7II and the 150-600mm all the way up to the top of our hike, which terminated at a small, frozen alpine lake.
I shot most of the photos on that hike with a Sony a6000 and the Sony E 10-18mm but once we reached the top of our hike, I finally took the opportunity to pull out the a7II and the 150-600mm to capture some of the more distant details of the landscape.
Much of the valley below us was covered in an ever-changing layer of fog. One minute, the whole of the valley was obscured and in another minute it could be clear. Hatcher Pass is the site of a historical gold mining operation. Many of the old buildings are still standing in the valley and we could occasionally catch a glimpse of them whenever the clouds parted. The view from the top of our hike made for a good demonstration of the full reach of the 150-600mm. The first image below was shot at its shortest setting of 150mm.
And this second image was shot at 600mm. The reach of the lens is just tremendous. For reference, the cabins in these photos are over 3400 feet (1 km) away.
I think that I was actually quite happy carrying the Tamron 150-600mm on our hike but it did spend most of its time in my bag, too large to really pull out at any second. I think it’s a careful decision to decide whether or not to bring this heavy of a lens on a hike like this one. That said, the lens is only one pound (0.45 kg) heavier than most standard 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses and still offers substantially more reach. I did bring the lens hoping we may see some wildlife during the Hatcher Pass hike, and I think it would have been perfect if we had but the day offered only views of quiet, misty mountains. Here’s a snap made with a wide angle lens for some perspective on the conditions of our hike:
Sunset and Finches with the Tamron 150-600mm
During our two week stay in Anchorage, we witnessed only one colorful sunset, most other days were far too clouded at sunset for any of the sun’s light to get through. The sand flats and flowing water at the mouth of the Turnagain Arm offered a brilliant, reflective surface and the clouds lit up with a bright spike of light above the sun, a phenomenon called a false sunset that made it appear as if the sun was still sitting above the horizon and behind the clouds, even though it was actually fully set.
We made several stops along the road to photograph the setting sun. Still without a monopod, our rental car served as our camera support most of the time.
The Turnagain Arm’s mud flats made for a beautiful textured foreground at sunset. We may have gotten only one sunset during our stay but it was a good one.
Nearing our final days in Anchorage, we explored more of the area nearer the city. Earthquake Park is situated just south of downtown Anchorage and offers views of the Cook Inlet, the city skyline, distant mountains and an occasional bit of wildlife. We walked around the park one morning hoping to see some moose, which are known to roam the park but instead saw a lot of small birds, another great challenge for the 150-600mm.
I tried photographing tons of sparrows and titmice, all of which were way too fast for me. I landed my only successful shots that morning of a red colored finch that happened to stay still long enough on some nearby branches before moving on to the roots of a distant fallen tree.
Matanuska Glacier with the Tamron 150-600mm
Our last day in Alaska was spent traveling to and hiking on Matanuska Glacier. It’s about an hour north of Anchorage and is pretty much the strangest and most photogenic place I have ever been. This first shot of Diana sitting on the glacier was made on the a6000 and the E 10-18mm just for some perspective.
The landscape at the foot of the glacier is a barren black field of churned up rock and mud with frozen ponds scattered about. I used the 150-600mm before our hike, primarily from the comfort of our car at the base of the glacier. The next shot was made at 150mm while the following ones were shot at 600mm and 500mm, respectively.
Most of the ice formations here are at least a hundred feet tall. It’s really difficult to truly communicate the scale of the glacier. There were some people hiking on the ice way in the distance. If you look closely, you can see their figures in the following shot:
Conclusion and Recommendation
Using the Tamron 150-600mm was a game-changing experience for me. It’s one of the first truly long lenses that I have been able to afford and it performs well in all the right places. It’s well built, offers very good autofocus and is sharp throughout its zoom range. There’s not much more I would ask from any lens, the Tamron 150-600mm simply gets it right. I could say that I wish it had aperture that was a stop or two brighter or that it was weather sealed but I think that those omissions are completely acceptable given the type of lens and its price point.
There was only really one instance while shooting with the Tamron 150-600mm where I wish the lens had a lower minimum f/number. That was while shooting bald eagles, after the sun had set and the light of the day was quickly waning. At 600mm and f/6.3, the lens is certainly a daytime-use lens but instances where you’d even attempt to use this kind of lens in dark conditions are few and far between.
The lack of optical image stabilization on the Sony mount version of the lens may seem a little strange but all of the modern Sony A mount cameras already offer sensor-shift SteadyShot image stabilization. It was only in my rather unorthodox pairing of the lens with the mirrorless Sony a6000 and the LA-EA4 adapter that I really understood the necessity of image stabilization.
If you’re a Sony shooter and are considering this lens, I recommend it only with a camera body that offers stabilization. Paired with the a7II’s image stabilization system, the lens did an excellent job at keeping my shots blur free. I guess I just wish the Sony mount version was a little bit cheaper than the Canon and Nikon versions due to the lack of this feature.
The lens is heavy enough to warrant the use of some kind of support at almost all times but after two weeks of wielding the lens for many handheld shots, its weight became a little more bearable. I didn’t hesitate to keep the Tamron 150-600mm mounted to the a7II for nearly our entire stay in Alaska. It stayed at my side almost 100% of our time out and made for a unique experience that Diana and I would have otherwise missed.
If you’re looking for an affordable first foray into the world of super telephoto, the Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 is absolutely invaluable. 5/5 Stars. Highly Recommended.
Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di USD Pros:
- Sharp throughout the zoom range
- Very tight built quality
- Lightweight for a 600mm lens
Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di USD Cons:
- No weather sealing
- Sony mount version lacks image stabilization
- priced the same as the Canon and Nikon mount versions that feature stabilization
Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di USD
Verdict: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
- Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di USD for Sony A Mount
- Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD for Canon EF Mount
- Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD for Nikon Mount
Other gear used in this review:
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