Earlier this year Tamron added an 85mm to their lineup of SP lenses, and its price point along with its image quality make it an outstanding choice for a classic portrait lens. Tamron had already impressed us with the rest of their SP lineup, including the outstanding 35mm & 45mm, and most recently with the 90mm macro, and the 85mm is no different. After using the lens for a month on a variety of wedding gigs, I can easily recommend it as the best sub-$1000 85mm on the market.
While the most important qualities of a lens are its image quality and speed (especially for wedding work), it’s important to speak about the price and construction because Tamron did a great job across the board. Retailing for $749, Tamron positioned the 85mm SP at about half the price of the flagship 85mm lenses from both Canon and Nikon. While a lot of people are huge fans of the Nikon 85mm f/1.8 at $476, the Tamron wins on image quality and speed for just a few hundred bones more. The construction of the lens is also a welcome surprise at the sub-$1000 mark, feeling solid and well-balanced in your hands, and the weather sealing around the mount and switches is something often left out at this price point.
Autofocus was quick to lock on, even in low light, and very accurate. Of course, choosing the right focus mode is an important part of the equation, but even in a darkly lit restaurant setting (see below) I was able to accurately focus throughout parent speeches without missing a beat. The image stabilization offered by the lens, called Vibration Compensation (VC) by Tamron, also helps shoot at lower shutter speeds required in these tricky situations.
The quality of the bokeh out of this lens is just insane. When you invest in a quality kit of professional lenses, having “pleasing” bokeh is something that you soon forget about because it’s almost a given. So while I usually don’t fawn over something as simple as bokeh, the quality produced by the Tamron 85mm is just different enough from other lenses that I’ve used at the same focal length that it requires special mention. If you’ve ever shot a Petzval lens, there’s a bit of a circular, swirling aspect to the defocused areas that almost draw you into the subject like a vortex. While some can be overwhelming and distracting, the Tamron had a beautifully subtle swirl to it that made me take notice.
This lens also delivers great image quality, being sharp as a tack when opened up just short of wide open while keeping chromatic aberration under control. I did notice some loss of sharpness when shooting wide open in harsher light, along with a hint of CA coming in while under the same conditions. However the CA is easily fixed in post, and I personally rarely shoot wide open so both minor issues were not enough to give me hesitation to love this lens.
At a classic portrait focal length of 85mm, the lens performed flawlessly for headshot-style portraits, rendering great sharpness and natural defocusing.
In short, this lens is a steal at $749. If you don’t already have a professional 85mm lens in your arsenal I would recommend picking it up immediately. And if you already have one of the flagship 85mm lenses from either Canon or Nikon (like I do), I would replace it with the Tamron 85mm SP as soon as it bites the dust. You’d probably spend more to get your on-brand lens fixed if it’s out of warranty anyways.