Kit lens comparison: Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM vs Tamron AF 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 XR Di LD VC

08 May 2014

Further to our first post in this series, in which we compared the Nikon Nikkor 14-24mm vs the Canon 16-35mm L II, we continue with a comparison of our kit lenses. That is the general purpose lenses we have for day to day usage. Some prefer the term “holiday lens”, however if you’re anything like us then you take half a ton of photographic equipment on your average holiday!

To recap we are shooting with a Nikon D610 and a Canon 5D mk iii, and throughout all of these tests we must keep in mind that these cameras are not intended as direct competitors, and we aren’t seeking to compare all their capabilities. However we do find the comparisons interesting, and although they might not be totally scientific, we still felt that sharing our results is worthwhile and hopefully will provide you with some insights if you’re looking for new kit.

Our two kit lenses are:

The main thing these lenses have in common is their size and portability. Their capabilities and cost are quite different. The Canon, at nearly twice the price and one third of the zoom, should win hands-down on image quality however the Tamron’s versatility is a clear winner. The question is just how high is the cost to the image quality of this versatility?

Lens specifications:

Feature Canon Tamron
Focal length 24 - 105mm 28 - 300mm
Aperture Maximum: f/4
Minimum: f/22
Maximum: f/3.5 - 6.3
Minimum: f/22 - 40
Mount Canon EF Nikon FX
Format 35mm Film / Full-Frame Digital Sensor
Canon (APS-C)
Nikon FX/35mm Film
Nikon DX
Minimum focus distance 1.48' (45 cm) 1.61' (49 cm)
Maximum reproduction ratio 01:04 01:03
Elements / Groups 18/13 18/13
Diaphragm blades 8 9

Tests

As with the wide angle tests we start with (the same) well lit mountain scene, at Jade Lake, California.

FullimageWeb

We have taken images at f8, then tested them at the widest and narrowest apertures available to both lenses at the same focal lengths. Finally a couple of different shots demonstrate the difference the zoom can make.

Kit zoom lens tests at 28mm

At f8 and 28mm the lenses performed equitably, however the Canon (right) produced a darker image. This is particularly interesting as it is the opposite outcome to the first test, where the Nikon consistently produced darker images, again with identical settings. We will investigate this further in future tests.

Lens comparison at 28mm at f8

The image below shows 3:1 zoom on the same image to show the similarities at fine grained detail. It’s clear that there is very little to choose between the two lenses.

Lens comparison at 28mm at f8 zoomed to 3:1

At f4.5 the lenses continue to be very hard to distinguish between, except for the apparent difference in lightness.

Lens comparison at 28mm at f4.5

Finally at f22 we still see very little to choose between the lenses.

Lens comparison at 28mm at f22

Kit zoom lens tests at 105mm

The same tests at 105mm start to show some differences between the lenses. The Canon (right) continues to be a little darker, but also noticeably sharper.

Lens comparison at 105mm at f8

The first test at f8 demonstrates a notable difference at 1:1 zoom, then the second image below, at 3:1 zoom highlights these differences further.

105Mmf8 Z3

At 105mm the widest common aperture is f5.6. In this comparison, for the first time, we see very little difference in lighting between the two pictures. The detail is, as at f8, notably better on the Canon (right).

Lens comparison at 28mm at f5.6

Finally at f22 we still see better fidelity from the Canon (right).

Lens comparison at 105mm at f22

Zoom capability comparison

It would seem unfair to finish this comparison without looking at the other purpose of these lenses in the field – providing useful zoom capabilities. This last test is even less scientific but seemed a worthwhile comparison. This uses the full zoom of each lens while being hand held, to take pictures of the same subject from the same distance. Although there are many factors that could affect this comparison I believe it is an interesting ''real world" example of the lens's respective capabilities. This image has the Nikon / Tamron combination on the left - hand held at 300mm zoom while the right is the Canon with post-production zoom being used to attempt to match the results from the Tamron.

Bird zoomed in with both lenses

The Canon makes a good show here. The clarity of the image is excellent, however there's no way, under any conditions, that you can get closer in on the subject. The limiting factor here is the resolution of the sensor. Conversely the Tamron's image stabilisation has worked well enough to produce a usable image, certainly with better end result than the Canon. Clearly, not using a tripod at this focal length is ambitious, but at least you have the option to try - using some more tricks to improve the image. For instance you could be much more aggressive with ISO for improved shutter speeds, or use a rest, to improve the image quality. With the Canon setup your only option is to get closer!

Summary

The Canon lens can’t really be faulted. The image quality was consistent and excellent throughout the range. Although not strictly demonstrated in the test, it is true to say that it focuses quietly and well and is of an excellent build quality. Both lenses have excellent image stabilisation, though the Tamron is notably noisier both in stabilising and focussing, but this is only noticeable in very quiet environments.

The key for me is what you need the lens for. If the 24-105mm gives you everything you need from a kit lens and you rarely want to zoom further, then it’s an excellent choice. If, like me, you want a kit lens to provide versatility for everything from a day out with friends through to taking photos of wildlife (and not always knowing at the start of the day what it may hold!), then the clear winner is the Tamron. Add in the price tag as well and the case is even stronger. As for weather photos, the only time I really want the kit lens is when I need to zoom in on a distant feature, again in which case the Tamron’s capabilities make it the clear winner.

As I say, I cannot fault the Canon lens, it does exactly what it says on the tin, and does it well. I feel I made an error when choosing my kit lens, however, as I think the Tamron is a much better solution for me - especially with the new model, the A010, was recently announced with weather proofing included. Anyone for a second hand Canon 24-105mm L series lens?

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