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Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro: Real Wedding Review (Ring shots!)

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In looking at some of the search terms that bring people to this blog, I noticed a few searches for “Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Macro lens and wedding rings” and also the question, “Is the Tamron 90mm good enough for weddings?”  I’m pretty sure I googled those exact same phrases when doing research on this popular lens.

“Is it good enough?”  Short answer: Yes. It’s good enough.  It’s actually one of the best.

Optically, the Tamron performs as well, if not better in some respects, than name-brand Nikon ‘Micro’ lenses triple it’s price.

Also, as a wedding photographer, this lens only comes out of my bag once during the day, so I don’t feel like dropping over a thousand dollars for a lens that gets used for maybe ten shots.  If my main focus was small product photography, or insect photography, maybe I could justify spending more on a dedicated macro lens.

I thought I’d do a post with real-world examples from more than ten different weddings where I have used this lens to take shots of the wedding rings and earrings. I don’t do that test chart stuff to judge a lens. I make actual pictures. (Ohhh snap!)  If you’re deciding whether or not to buy this lens based on how many millimeter markings on a ruler are sharp in a test picture, that’s fine, but honestly, you’ll get a much better idea of what’s actually possible with any lens if you search for it on Flickr. Go through the pictures of a group dedicated to the lens you’re interested in, such as the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 macro Group Pool.

So without further ado, here’s some eye candy to show off the quality and versatility of the Tamron 90mm macro lens, along with some comparisons, thoughts, and general macro photography tips!

Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro vs Nikon Micro-Nikkor AF-S 60mm f/2.8G VR and Nikon Micro Nikkor AF-S DX 85mm f/3.5G VR:

I was going back and forth between these lenses for a while.  For about $150 more, you might also be considering the Nikon Micro-Nikkor 60mm f/2.8G VR, which has the same f/2.8 maximum aperture, does not extend on focus, and additionally, Nikon’s superb Vibration Reduction system.  However, the Nikkor is a shorter 60mm focal length, and in most compositions, I want to compress my subject against it’s background elements.  The longer 90mm focal length of the Tamron is great for this.

The Nikon choice in a similar focal length is the Nikon Micro Nikkor AF-S DX 85mm f/3.5G VR, and honestly, I would not mind having that lens at all.  In my tests, the results between the Tamron 90mm and Nikon 85mm were extremely similar at the same apertures.

Keep in mind though, the Nikon 85 Micro is branded “DX” meaning it was designed primarily for APS-C (or ‘DX’) size digital sensors.  If used on an FX (Full-Frame) camera, it would severely vignette.  If using an FX-camera in the future, I would need to buy an FX compatible lens.  Well, the Tamron 90mm just so happens to be FX compatible, and since I was able to find the Tamron lens for less than $400, I decided to save $100, and have future compatibility with FX cameras. Win win!

What about the Tamron’s lack of stabilization (VR)?

In pretty much every other lens category, VR makes a huge difference, letting you hand-hold at much slower speeds than without.  On a Macro lens, well, it doesn’t matter as much.  Rarely do even dedicated macro shooters shoot handheld.  If you want the best shots, you won’t either.  I bring a gorilla-pod to position the camera and activate the shutter release via a 2-second timer.  Or, I can stack some pillows or other items to create a stable base… or cradle the camera in the crook of my elbow while composing to hold it steady.  The other reason is because I often use flash, as we will describe below: See the section Use Flash! Wisely. 

What aperture do I use? Do I need a lens with f/2.8?

If you’re going to stay with DX cameras for a while and want the Nikon 85mm DX lens, you might be thinking, “Hey, this lens only opens up to f/3.5.  That’s almost a full stop less than the f/2.8 I see on other lenses. Do I need that?”

Again, in other lens categories, the answer would normally be yes.  A full stop difference effectively halves the light getting to your sensor, so you typically want those bigger f-stops when lens-shopping.  However!  On a macro lens with 1:1 reproduction, the depth of focus at f/2.8 or f/3.5 is going to be so ridiculously shallow, that it would be unusable.  Look at the picture above.  This was shot at f/5.6, a very average aperture.  On most lenses, you would choose f/5.6 to have mostly everything in the frame be in pretty good focus.  However, f/5.6 on a macro lens is barely enough to get even 3mm of focus.  In the picture above, nothing past the first row of diamonds is sharp.  If I had used f/2.8, only the PRONGS holding the diamond would be in focus, not even the diamond itself.

So in most cases, you’re going to need an aperture of f/8 and higher to get an acceptable focus field.  That a lens has the ability to open up to f/2.8 is nice, but negligible for actual macro photography.

Auto-Focus:

The Tamron has a nice switch on the side to designate if you want the Auto-Focus to be limited to a more normal range (subjects more than a foot away) or use the full range for auto-focus.  In practice, the Tamron focuses very accurately on subjects further than two feet away from the lens, although very slow.  But so what? You don’t buy a macro lens so you can take normal pictures; you want to get way up close!

Most macro lenses are going to be kinda iffy when it comes to focusing on such a small level.  The camera can’t decide what you want. Best practice is to switch into manual focus and eyeball it.  Even if you place your autofocus sensor exactly on the diamond, you will likely have the prongs in focus instead, unless you focus manually.

After any shot, always zoom in 100% and make sure you nailed the focus where you wanted it.

Tip:  With some dedicated software, or Photoshop CS4 and higher, you can combine multiple exposures with different focus planes into one picture with a larger depth of field.  This is known as Focus Stacking.  For me, it’s easier to just increase the aperture number to increase the DOF for a single shot.  Of course, raising the aperture number (stopping down) is going to cut the amount of light getting to the sensor, dramatically increase our shutter speed times and make it harder to get a clean shot.  So what can we do?

Use Flash!  Wisely.

First, you should know that almost every picture in this post was taken using on-camera flash, that is, a separate flash unit attached to the camera.  In most cases, for me this is the Nikon SB-900 Speedlight.  Just like when shooting people, I prefer never to point my on-camera flash directly at my subject unless shooting through an umbrella.  I like to bounce my on-camera flash up and away from my tiny subjects, so that it comes back down off the walls and ceilings nice and wide and soft.  This also lets me shoot at much higher shutter speeds to reduce the effects of hand-shake, and use smaller apertures to increase my depth of field.

How I do it:

Here’s my general modus operandi when it comes to shooting the rings:

  1. Kick it into Manual mode first.  As noted above, I also set my lens to manual focus.
  2. First, I set my shutter speed for a handheld shot.  Using a 90mm lens, the average speed I need to shoot at is around 1/200sec.
  3. I need a fairly high aperture to get enough depth of field for detail, so I’ll go to f/5.6 and stop down (usually going as far as f/11) to get the needed DOF.
  4. Start with ISO200.  This will likely need to go up, but it’s a good starting point, and we don’t want to increase the ISO more than needed to retain maximum detail.  On my Nikon D7000, I can still get pretty clean results up to ISO2000, just so you know what your working space is.
  5. I fire the on-camera flash at full power (1/1) bouncing up and behind me.  I also tilt it left or right to get directional light, which really is going to make the image more 3D-looking.
  6. Evaluate and adjust.  Too dark?  See if you can hand-hold a lower shutter speed first.  If not, then start bumping the ISO up.  If you don’t wanna go too high on ISO, you can start opening up the aperture, but because the DOF is already so shallow at f/5.6, I wouldn’t go any larger.  Typically, I just take the ISO up at this point to get what I want.

Flash Tip:  Especially on princess cut diamonds, make sure that the top face of the diamond is not directly reflecting any flash, as this will blow the sparkly detail, much like taking a picture of a person with glasses at the wrong angle will result in white lenses.  Simply tilting the ring or slightly changing your angle (easier) will fix this.

Do I really need a Macro Lens?  Can’t I just zoom or crop in really close with my other lenses?

Some lenses, especially primes, are going to render pretty extraordinary sharpness, and can be used for detail shots.  What you gain from using a macro lens is true-to-life 1:1 reproduction, and the ability to focus at extremely close distances.  Since you don’t need to crop your final picture (as much), you get more clarity and image flexibility with the extra pixels, especially if they ask that you print the ring picture as a double-spread in the album!

This is especially important if anything is engraved on the inside of the rings.  I always try to check if a couple has an engraving on the inside of their rings since they will typically not always be taking their rings off to show people that special detail.

For reference, this picture is as close as I can get to a ring with my normal zoom lens: (Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 zoomed to 50mm)

However, with a dedicated macro lens, you can get THIS close:

Josh’s Final Thoughts:

The Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro excels in value and operation, and most importantly optics.  It is a full-frame compatible lens, super sharp when used correctly, and a worthy addition to your gear bag for a wedding shoot or personal use.

Did you enjoy this post? Any questions on this lens or Macro Photography questions?  How do you like to use your macro lens? Hit me up in the comments below.  Thanks for reading!

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9 Comments Post a comment
  1. JayShep Photography #

    Nice breakdown of this lens! Macro photography has always been interesting to me. Right now Im in love with my Sigma 70mm f2.8 macro.! Im going to be posting some pics I took with it this past weekend at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Check them out and let me know what u think.

    -Jayshep

    August 9, 2011
    • That’s a nice one too, Jay! Cool, I’ll check out your shots! Thanks always for the comments.

      August 9, 2011
  2. Thanks for the tips! As always very well written and super useful! I currently don’t own a macro lens but was just thinking about it this past weekend when shooting an Anniversary Party. They had those adorable M&M’s where you get something personalized on it. Their daughter had Happy Anniversary on one side and their names on the back. I ended up having to use my Tamron 17-50 b/c the only other thing I had was my Canon 50mm 1.4 and the DOF was not right for the shot. It came out good, but could have been soo much better! I still have so much to learn, practice practice practice for me!

    August 9, 2011
    • Thanks Kim! The comments are much appreciated, as always. Oh, I love custom M&Ms, and yep, a macro lens is good for such a small thing! The Tammy 17-50 can be pretty crisp though, so I’m sure you got something good! 🙂 For candy, a macro lens can sweeten the shot a bit more (pun very intended)

      August 9, 2011
  3. Marina #

    Thanks so much for this post. I’ve had this lens for a while but I’ve yet to master it. I really appreciate your tips.

    August 25, 2011
    • Thanks for your comment! It’s one of those lenses that I didn’t really love at first either! After some searching and seeing what was possible, I was moved to give it another try. I’m glad you liked the post!

      August 25, 2011
  4. Mike Wallace #

    Thank you for this post. Your images are beautiful! Are you familiar with the Tamron 180mm macro? Is it too long to duplicated your results? What are the practical differences between the two, i.e. the 90mm macro vs the 180mm macro?

    October 7, 2011
    • Hi Mike! Thanks a lot! I don’t really have any experience with the 180mm Tamron Macro, but I do see that it is more than twice the price, and lets in just a bit less light at it’s closest focusing point when used wide open (Which doesn’t really make a difference, since I always shoot macro at f/11 or higher.) It’s also bigger and heavier. Heavy enough to warrant having a separate mount!

      That doesn’t mean it’s bad though. Users of that lens seem to really like it! I imagine you could get similar results using the techniques below, but hand holding a 90mm lens is already hard enough for me, I don’t know how well I would do if the focal range was doubled. The longer focal length will definitely compress the background and subject even more for VERY isolated shots, such as only PART of a fly, and not even the whole fly.

      I would purchase depending on the need! I’m a wedding photographer, so if I need to take a macro shot of an entire ring, I would go for the 90mm and save $400. If I needed to take a picture of just the diamond in the same ring, go for the 180mm!

      October 7, 2011
  5. I’m really inspired together with your writing talents and also with the format to your blog. Is that this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it’s uncommon to see a great blog like this one nowadays..

    November 16, 2011

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