Most professional photographers, myself included, tend to steer clear of superzoom or “megazoom” lenses, and for good reason. Generally speaking, it’s difficult if not impossible to serve the competing masters of affordability, compact size and image quality.
I first encountered the Tamron 18-400mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC HLD when the Tamron signed on to sponsor a series of landscape videos for Outdoor Photographer, and I volunteered to host the series. (Who can resist shooting in Joshua Tree?)
While a megazoom like this 18-400mm won’t replace a professional’s specified arsenal of pro-grade prime and zoom lenses, it does make a compelling addition to a camera bag and a nice go-to lens for travel and for shoots where unexpected subjects might pop up.
Place the lens on an APS-C camera, like the Nikon D500 I used for some of my shooting, and suddenly you’ve got a focal length equivalent of 600mm in a package that’s a fraction the size of pro 600mm lens.
Out In The Desert
For the Joshua Tree landscape shoot, I brought a panoply of lenses but gave myself the goal of showing with the 18-400mm as much as possible. I’d rarely reach for an all-in-one lens in the desert, but it turned out that having a lens that could go from super-wide to super-long was incredibly handy.
While heading to our lodging on the first leg of our trip, a nearly full moon rose slowly over the desert floor. My assistant, Byron, and I pulled over and I reached for the 18-400mm lens. With darkening skies and without time to get a tripod out, I was able to capture the moon handheld thanks to the image stabilization inside the lens. At just 710 grams, the lens isn’t overly heavy, even when fully racked to the longest position.
Over the next few days, I reached for the Tamron 18-400mm quite a bit, especially when capturing our sunset shots from a mountain overlooking the edge of Palm Springs. I could go from a wide, sweeping panorama of the valley to a super-long pinpoint look at distant landmarks. The minimum focal distance of about 18 inches allowed me to swing the lens back around and use it to capture close-up images of objects along the desert floor, too.
By coupling the lens to an APS-C Nikon D500, I was able to get an equivalent 600mm focal length and used that to, again, handhold for a shot of the moon during a sunrise shoot. As the moon slowly moved toward a distant mountain range, I was able to shoot with the desert floor and mountains framing the shot.
The only time I reached for a different lens is when I needed something with a wider aperture for a blurred background. The minimum ƒ-stop of ƒ/3.5 at the wide end is less than a stop from an ƒ/2.8 lens, but that wide aperture is only available at the widest end where the blurred aperture isn’t helpful for things like portraits, and by the time you get to the middle of the zoom range, the aperture approaches the minimum ƒ/6.3.
Image quality is good on the 100- 400mm, though it’s naturally not as sharp as you’d find in a dedicated prime at these focal lengths. The images tend to be a bit low contrast, though that’s easy to adjust in post-processing.
Few pros would opt for a megazoom as a first choice, but as lens design becomes more sophisticated, these all around lenses become more useful. For a travel solution, this lens seems pretty ideal as well, able to cover a wide range of subjects without needing to switch glass.
I wouldn’t have previously traveled with a megazoom lens in my pack, but the Tamron 18-400mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC HLD is making me rethink that.