Friday 23 May 2014

Tamron 150-600 Nikon Test Run

May 21 2014 Sunshine Valley to Princeton and Keremeos

The Tamron 150-600 F5-6.3 that I pre-ordered in January finally arrived just in time for a planned mini road trip to Princeton and Keremeos.
I had originally ordered it to go to the UK and was eager to finally test it out. As some of you know I have been using a Canon SX50HS point and shoot for long walks where the 500 F4 and tripod are just too cumbersome. The Tamron lens will hopefully give me more flexibility in the field and eventually less backache on long hikes.

The lens has been available in the Canon mount for months and for whatever reason the Nikon version has been slow to come to Canada. I felt Tamron owed us an explanation for the hold-up but none was ever forthcoming. PR obviously isn't their forte!
The first opportunity to use the lens was at Sunshine Valley just east of Hope where a mixed flock of Red Crossbill and Pine Siskin were feeding beside the road. This gave me the opportunity to shoot the lens in a low light and handheld. The sun was yet to flood the valley so I used the vibration control at 1/200 sec shutter speed.
Even with such reach, the birds are still quite small and it wasn't until they gained my confidence that I was able to fire off some close shots at 15-20 metres.

Male Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra)
The following four shots was all taken handheld at ISO 500 1/200 sec at 600mm (900mm 35mm equivalent)
I know that if I had had it mounted the lens on my gimbal head and tripod I might have had better shots but the whole idea of this first time use was to test the lens ability to be used handheld. Bearing in mind the sun had not yet set I think it performed well in a low light situation. I wouldn't normally recommend shooting at such low shutter speeds and there were a number of shots that were wasted but overall I was quite impressed by the vibration control. Rather than randomly shooting, I waited for the peak moment, it takes plenty of concentration but offers great rewards if everything comes together.
Female Red Crossbill
This crossbill (above) came as close as any and as you can see even handheld at 1/200 sec the VR control steadied the lens enough to capture what I feel are pleasant enough images. I also leant against a tree to steady myself, held my breath, squeezed the camera and fired the shutter. I am about five metres away for the first two shots. The two shots below are about twenty metres away.
These images have been cropped and edited in ©Lightroom 4.4. otherwise not too much tweaking has been done.
This flock perched on a tree until a passing semi-trailer spooked them. Shot from 25 metres away.
Red Crossbill and Pine Siskin flocking together.

Then it was on to Princeton's August Lake to try for better shots of the elusive Williamson's sapsucker. After last weeks effort I knew better shots could be found if given a little more time in the field. Raymond and I met up with Jim a local outdoorsman who was already at August Lake scouting for birds. Within minutes a white-breasted and pygmy nuthatch were photographed. A mountain bluebird and chipping sparrow showed themselves well and then we heard the drumming of a woodpecker. Was it a pileated or the Williamson's? They have different drum beats. After intensive searching we heard and eventually found a Williamson's drumming on a telephone pole near the Hydro right of way. Whether it was our presence or for whatever reason the bird flew to a nearby snag. Slowly the three of us approached where we managed a few long distance shots. Eventually we were able to approach close enough to get these images which were way better than last week. If at first you don't succeed! 
The Williamson's have been designated as endangered in Canada (COESWIC 205) and breeds only in British Columbia and is listed under Schedule 1 of the Species at Risk Act.
The Sapsucker was photographed with Nikon D300s/Nikon 500mm F4 and 1.4 converter. Even though I had the Tamron I needed the extra reach of the 500mm and converter.

Williamson's Sapsucker  (Sphyrapicus thyroideus)
 The sapsucker landed on several snags feeding as it went, it seemed to being doing a circuit, we eventually lost contact when it flew into a large stand of Ponderosa Pine.
For more information about the
Williamson's sapsucker
It was an amazing experience to spend time with this wonderfully coloured woodpecker.

It was beginning to be quite hot and the birding activity had slowed so we decided to make a dash for Keremeos. Entering the Lower Similkameen Valley the landscape changed one again with far fewer trees and a valley bottom where rows of cherry, peach and apple farms dotted the landscape.
Passing through Keremeos we made our way to Lindicoat Rd. Our first sighting was a California Quail.
California Quail (Callipepla gambelii) Tamron 150mm-600mm
We then made our way up the gravel road with a 4x4 to search for Brewer's sparrow. The gravel road up to the cel tower station is quite rough and had been partially washed away in places, just don't look down if you are afraid of heights!
Eventually we reached prime habitat for the Brewer's Sparrow. On the way we also saw an american kestrel and a rock wren and what looked like a golden eagle. Eventually we saw our first Brewer's.
Sage grassland country. Brewer's Sparrow and Sage Thrasher nest here.
Tamron 150mm-600mm at 150mm

Brewer's Sparrow (Spizella breweri)
D3s Tamron 150mm-600mm at 50mm F7.1 ISO 800
As we reached a flat area a bird flew up from the sagebrush. This is the situation I had envisioned the Tamron being most useful.
With the Tamron 150mm-600mm handheld I was able exit the truck quickly, crawl toward the skittish bird and fire off a dozen handheld shots with in a minute or two. If I had taken the time to set up a tripod for the big lens I am sure the bird would have been long gone. One up for the Tamron.

Returning down the trail a mountain bluebird perched upon a fence and again I was able to get a decent 'snapshot' and then the real test to see how fast the autofocus would work. Above me an American kestrel pursued a vaux's swift but after an amazing aerial display both birds parted ways. This was a good test as any for the new lens as I had to quickly find the bird and lock focus in a split second. After a few attempts I was able to catch on to the bird as it dive bombed the swift. The picture won't win any awards but it is a good ID shot that most birders would be happy with, photographers less so, but who's cares when you're having fun, life's way too short to worry about such minutia!
American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)
Nikon D3s Tamron 150-600 at 460mm and 800ISO 
As we made our way down the hill and back to the blacktop we spotted a Chukar perched on top of a pile of rocks. After the Brewer's this was my second 'Lifer' of the day.

Chukar (Alectoris chukar)
Introduced from the Middle East feral population have taken hold in the dryer and warmer part of British Columbia.
I think the lack of sharpness on these shots is a combination of haze and heat rising off the rock or most probably the camera operator being sloppy with technique. All these files are 92 DPI so that could have something to do with the lack of detail in blog form.

This was one of a pair nesting in an area that has been sectioned off for a new subdivision.
Photos above and below Nikon 500mm F4 1x4 converter.

As we watched the chukar a succession of Western meadowlark and then Bullock's oriole began to make come into roost for the night and for us the long journey home beckoned.
Bullock's Oriole (Icterus bullockii)
It had been another great day in Beautiful British Columbia added to which I had a new lens to play with.
My initial thoughts are positive but I'll need to do a few more tests before I make any final judgement.
The crossbill shots look pretty decent, the mobility issue is solved for me especially when shooting quickly from the car or stalking without a tripod. At the 150mm end of the lens I was able to take scenics to show where I was birding without removing the lens which avoids getting sand or dirt on the sensor. I might even dedicate one body to the lens and have it on the car seat as I bird. I can't tell you how many great shots I missed as I tried to poke the big nikon lens out the window. The Quail shot above took less than thirty seconds to shoot from the time the bird was first spotted. In and out without disturbing the bird. So, at the moment I am sold on the Tamron for certain applications and I think for anyone looking for a long lens the 150-600mm is the perfect solution.

It's never too late to start birding.

John Gordon

List of birds

Red-tailed Hawk
Savannah Sparrow
American Goldfinch
European Starling
Western Kingbird
Chipping Sparrow
Northern Flicker

August Lake/Princeton
Mountain Bluebird
Mountain Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Pygmy Nuthatch
Olive-sided flycatcher
Mystery gull all white
Williamson's Sapsucker
White-throated Sparrow
Yellow-rumped warbler
Lesser Scaup

Sunshine Valley
Red Crossbill
Pine Siskin 
Rufous Hummingbird
Yellow Warbler
Cedar Waxwing
Barn Swallow 
Tree Swallow
Canada Goose
American Robin
Bald Eagle

Brown-headed Cowbird
Common Raven
Barrow's Goldeneye
Clarke's Nutcracker

Brewer's Blackbird
Bullock's Oriole
Black-billed Magpie
Rock Wren
Golden Eagle
California Quail
Rough-winged Swallow
Western Meadowlark
American Kestrel

John Gordon


  1. Beautiful series of captures!

  2. Thanks Linda,
    I can't think of anything else I would want to be doing with my time right now. Can't wait to get out there again.

  3. Great post John! I really like the second Williamson's Sapsucker photo. They are one of my favorite woodpeckers I have ever seen, probably because of how beautiful and elusive they are. My lifer was an extremely backlit female about 400 metres away at August Lake in the Summer of 2012, but I managed some pretty good shots on Anarchist Mountain last weekend, the day before we did the Big Day.

  4. Hi Liron,
    Thanks for the kind comments. I really don't know the Okanagan that well having only spent a week there but I will be going again in the next few weeks. I camped at OK Falls Provincial campground which is close to so many good birding spots. I am simply amazed by the diversity of birds so close to Vancouver especially if one can car pool.

  5. Very interesting blog topic. If the Tamron had come out a year earlier I would never have bought the Sigma 150-500mm. The photos taken with the Tamron by competent hands seem to be infinitely better than the Sigma and I believe the price is very close. I eventually ended up with the Nikon 80-400mm and I have absolutely no complaints with it but it is twice the price. I always enjoy your Blog John, very entertaining reading and love the photos.
    Nick Balachanoff (nickinthegarden)

  6. Hi Nick,
    I have also enjoyed following your photo exploits on the web. As for the lens I haven't had it long enough to give a full appraisal. The build is very good, my only gripe so far is the rather sticky mount for adjusting the camera from horizontal to vertical while mounted on a tripod. I tried some shots at the bird feeder under low light but couldn't really summon up enough shutter speed, that is where the 500 F4 makes a huge difference. I still have to shoot at all apertures to see if there is a"sweet spot" somewhere but the crossbills shot really surprised me.The biggest plus is the mobility issue which as you know with your Nikon allows quick movement and greater access on long walks like Iona jetty. I will be making some more tests so keep posted. Thanks for feedback.

  7. Hi Gordon, i really like your Test with the Tamron, a beautiful collection of birds pictures you have there....I lived for two months in Vancouver so your article brought me Great memories.
    i like to photograph nature and wildlife and i´ve been following closely the tamrom for months because its versatilty and excelent price...
    How is your expirience in the field so far with the lens when using it with a tripod and a gimbal head? (mostly i like to photograph static animals and take my time but for birds using gimbal could be challenging)
    What system (vest, belt, backpack, holster) do you use for the tamron? (im considering the cotton carrier)

    Thanks, Cheers