I Was a Prime Lens Snob Until Discovering This Surprisingly Good Alternative

I Was a Prime Lens Snob Until Discovering This Surprisingly Good Alternative

My career as an elitist prime glass snob has come to an end after real-world professional work using an unexpected lens choice showed me the error of my ways. 

After years of reaching for only fast, fixed focal length lenses from my gear bag, last year I gambled on a pre-order for, of all things, Tamron’s 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3 superzoom for Fujifilm mirrorless cameras. Upon arrival, despite being impressed with its initial appearance and build, I wanted to reserve my judgement for real-world torture testing. Ultimately, I would forgo my usual two-body, two-prime lens solution for use on a commission to document a major local festival, and that choice opened my eyes to the wonderful utility of a modern superzoom lens.

The autofocus tracking on the Tamron 18-300mm f3.5-6.3 was confident and accurate shooting tumblers in the festival parade.

In the past, I had always looked down my nose on not only all-purpose superzoom lenses, but even some of the higher-end zooms on the market, thinking the purpose-built design of a quality fast prime elevated my ability as a photographer to do my job with a high level of polish.

What I came to realize is that the Tamron 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3 may have sacrificed some things that I was used to getting from lenses like my beloved Fujifilm XF 35mm f/1.4, but the outright flexibility, functionality, and even the image quality left me feeling like I was, in fact, better prepared for a pro event like festival documentation. 

Let's take a step back and look at what makes this lens a winner in my book. I would like to say that I am not the type to be overly dependent on reviews, preferring my own hands-on experience, so when I saw the lens announcement, I was curious. More than anything else, I was curious how well Tamron’s first Fuji lens would integrate in the Fuji system. I had been a Tamron fan in the past, loving their high-end primes like the epic Tamron SP 35mm f/1.4, and even though this was no prime, new entries into Fuji’s limited third-party lens support always excite some, so I rolled the dice and pre-ordered the lens, which would arrive about a month later.

I was skeptical on whether the new Tamron lens, which had been well-received as a Sony E-Mount lens when it was initially released, would appease me when I had been accustomed to the outrageous quality and character of my Fuji primes. My two biggest concerns were if I would suffer much from its slower aperture range and if the image quality would be up to my standards for professional work. 

Children soak participants in the festival's wife-carrying contest.

When I first started dipping my toes into digital photography, my aging legacy Canon crop bodies really needed sharp, fast glass to minimize the drawbacks of the platform, with high-ISO noise being high on the list of things that needed to be reduced to get good results from the sensor. Even after upgrading to a full frame Canon DSLR with chunkier EF glass, I always gravitated towards fast primes like the Sigma 50mm f/1.4, but the system upgrade was a lot heavier and more unwieldy, making me miss my smaller crop bodies. Discovering Fuji X System, with its excellent high-ISO noise handling, lineup of brilliant lenses, and smaller, more compact setup was a match made in heaven. Despite the excellent noise-handling capability, falling in love with some of Fuji’s killer f/1.4 primes, and the awesome in-body stabilization from my X-H1 and X-S10, I rarely tested its true limits. With the arrival of the Tamron 18-300mm, I tentatively had to boost my ISO in darker settings and was immediately relieved to find the sensor handled it in stride. With this new knowledge and increased confidence in the camera to make up for the lack of giant iris openings blasting light onto my sensor, my first major concern about using the lens in a professional setting was satiated. I was aware any extreme low-light shooting would require a switch to my fast lenses, but the built-in lens stabilization (branded Vibration Control, or VC, in Tamron-speak) was pretty effective, so the lens still had some increased capacity for shooting in the dark if your subject was fairly static. All in all, the lens was shaping up to be extremely well suited to my photojournalism and professional event coverage.

After doing some initial testing to confirm I didn’t have any big issues with my copy of the lens and that the image quality was usable, I was pleased to find out the lens was actually pretty sharp. Only at the very farthest reach of the lens was I seeing any real breakdown in image quality when shooting it with the f/8 aperture I so commonly used for daylight documentary work, and zooming back out to about 270mm or so seemed to fix this for me fine, leaving an insanely usable range of 18-270mm at my fingertips. That crazy zoom range combined with its VC tech, confident autofocus, and awesome 1:2 reproduction ratio at the 18mm end made this a potent tool as a single-lens solution. I found, much to my delight, that at 230mm, the Tamron actually outperformed my Fuji XC 50-230mm zoom, which many people praise for punching above its weight class. This testing had satisfied my second concern, confirming that the lens was indeed capable of producing professional images, and I decided my next paid event commission would be its first major testing grounds. 

The reach of the Tamron superzoom is a huge benefit for event photographers.

The day of the Scandinavian Festival in Ephraim City, Utah came, and as the official event photographer, I was eager to put the lens through its paces in this real-world setting, shooting alongside the second and third shooters I had contracted to assist me with the weekend-long job of capturing the festival for use by the city. With a non-stop schedule packed with events like concerts, games, races, and other fun stuff that attracted many thousands of attendees, the festival began, and the glut of subject material became a meal for my superzoom setup.

Shooting on my Fujifilm X-S10, I kept the camera locked on continuous autofocus the whole time and was immediately pleased by my ease of focus and tracking as the weekend went on. 

Children sit around a table playing traditional Scandinavian board games.

By the time the weekend was over, I had shot substantially more than 1,000 photos, and my keeper rate was extremely high. When culling photos after the job, I realized the incredible zoom range had truly allowed me to capture more great photos and utilize a widely varied range of compositions and scene arrangements. The essentially unmatched flexibility of the lens unlocked possibilities that would have been much rarer using my usual two-body combo with a 56mm f/1.4 and a 23mm f/1.4. I had no problem moving with the flow of the event as it happened thanks to that flexibility, and I found myself wondering if previous coverage could have been improved upon had I gave a superzoom a try for event jobs in good light like the Scandinavian Festival was.

Happily, the city was extremely pleased with the photos they hired me to capture, and I felt good about my newly discovered confidence when it comes to venturing into superzoom territory. Since then/ I have photographed several more well-suited jobs with the lens, and it continues to surprise me with its capable performance.

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23 Comments
Juan Isaias Perez's picture

A long time ago I had a kit made exclusively of prime lenses. Then my life changed and the space and time for my photography shrunk. So I started a journey trying various zooms. Contrary to 99% of the post I read I simply found no adequate performance from the 24-70 and 70-200. But found 2 zoom I absolutely love: the wide zoom (16-35) and the long telephoto (100-400/100-500). I still have a few primes. One of them happens to be the Tamron 35 1.4. I think epic is an appropriate adjective. A good balance can be achieve with a few primes and zooms. And by all means consider the 3rd party options.

Robert Stevens's picture

Keep in mind the use case I found this particular lens perfect for was daylight events, and for that it performs great, but I still love my primes. THat darn Tamron 35 1.4 is truly royal optics! You are correct, balance in all things, and the right tool for the right job.

winzehnt gates's picture

There's a reason why the saying goes:
"The only zoom worth having is a superzoom." :-)

J Barber's picture

Of course there are tradeoffs. But quick flexibility is very high in my list. Swapping lenses interferes with my process. The carnival type situation you describe really requires rapid and unpredictable changes.

Robert Stevens's picture

Nope, tumbler in the sky is in focus just fine, but thanks for looking out ;)

E Tographer's picture

It's hard to be certain because this is a low-res image, but I agree, it looks like the truck headlights are more in focus. Maybe the shutter speed was low, but for sure the truck grabs the eye and then you see the tumbler. Could be composition, not focus? In the local paper it would be fine, but if I were the float operator, this one is more of an "almost but not quite" shot.

Robert Stevens's picture

Its tough to tell, for sure, but if you look at the trampoline legs, which are right under, you can see the focus is identical to the truck headlights, if not perhaps a bit better. Its def possible some minor motion blur is in effect

kelly hofer's picture

I guess if you're happy with no subject isolation and crap performance in low light, this is the lens for you.

Robert Stevens's picture

Subject isolation and low light performance are not typically the main needs of daytime large event coverage. Flexibility to cover the event trumps them outright.

Mark Sawyer's picture

Prime lenses have important advantages. Their increase speed allows for much shallower depth of field. They are significantly smaller and lighter than their "super-zoom" counterparts. And they are much more reliable in harsh environments. Seems like the author has gone from "prime lens snob" to "super-zoom snob" without understanding either. Better to understand and use what's best for the work at hand, regardless of snobbery.

Robert Stevens's picture

I would argue that saying this single use case (aka daylight events) being well suited is far from snobbery, especially when I never spoke a critical word about primes at all, and they make up 90% of my lens bag, but thank you for your valued input.

Robert Stevens's picture

also, more reliable in harsh environments is only true with a weather sealed prime, and you can find many zooms that have better poor weather performance than many primes. Its all down to the specific lens, so perhaps your understanding could be expanded as well as mine :) I certainly have much to learn still

J Barber's picture

A zoom is heavier than a single prime lens, but NOT heavier than a range of lenses. But even more importantly, it can respond to changes far faster than swapping lenses. You do generally lose some performance on the pixel peeking level, but for a job like this, the ability to respond quickly seems more important.

(didn't mean to do likes or dislikes-- but somehow messed up with the mouse)

Robert Stevens's picture

that is how i feel too. Horses for courses, and this course seemed well suited to the event and light level

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I've waffled on this over the years. On one hand, covering protests and such in the daytime as a journalist, I've found the Panasonic 14-140 and Nikon 18-200 super zooms pretty useful, but one of the commenters was right about the complete inability of subject isolation with these lenses. But on the other hand, the weight and limited range of the 24-70 meant that it wasn't quite right either. I've settled on the middle ground these days of 24-105 f/4 but the 24-70 sticks around for low light. Still, I hear you on this - it's nice to have a super zoom around as an option.

Robert Stevens's picture

yeah 24-105 f4 is a good lens. I was happy with the tamron in the end because I have a giant lineup of primes from f0.95-f1.4 in many focal lengths so i knew i had whatever i needed in a pinch, and i dont lean on subject isolation in large event settings anyway, so the benefits of the zoom outway its drawbacks for this use case

ted partrick's picture

Great article. Until we can get truly fast supetzooms, it's just going to be a little scary taking out an 18-300, but i'd love to try one on a long hike in the woods on a sunny day.

William Salopek's picture

Another angle on the prime/zoom discussions is the ever increasing croppability of higher and higher megapixel cameras - which didn't exist to nearly the degree that it has in recent years.

My A7R2 images can be cropped a LOT with a sharp prime. Esp when the audience isn't super critical and will view the images online.

I can easily eliminate at least one "neighboring" prime for any one I'm shooting with. A 28 can be a 28-50 (or more) a 50 a 50-85, etc.

J Barber's picture

There is always more than one good way to do things, but with MP going down with the square of the crop factor, one can't push it too far. I would think 2:1 is a limit for many applications.

Captain Jack R's picture

I tend to call my Canon RF 28-70 f2.0 a zoomable prime. I'm not switching out my lenses in the field as often and for the paid work I get, f2 works well enough to get paid. That said, I still prefer primes (f1.2) for portrait work in the studio or in the field. But for events, I'm a big fan of my 28-70 and 70-200. It also helps me reduce my zooming with my feet as I'm a disabled veteran who uses a cane to walk around. For big events like weddings, I use a knee brace. So the use of zooms is a winner in my book.

Jon Osterman's picture

I recently purchased a copy of the Nikkor 16-35 f/4 that people seem to think is acceptable.

Maybe it was a bad copy (given modern manufacturing techniques, and tight tolerances, I have my doubts), but it was not even close to acceptable, and it went back 2 days later.

I remain a prime lens snob.

Gordon Hunter's picture

An f 3.5-6.3 may be great for shoots where there is plenty of light, or for a holiday lens, but it certaily won't cut the mustard for a wedding shoot in a dimly lit church! Someone else commented There's a reason why the saying goes: "The only zoom worth having is a superzoom." :-) NOT TRUE! "For a wedding photographer, the only zoom worth having is a FAST zoom!"

J Barber's picture

I am a superzoom fan.... but, every type of application is different. What's ideal for one application is not as good for another. Indoor weddings have a fairly standard range of distances and lighting, no need for some wild zoom. Outdoor events, though, and nature shooting (my thing) would of course be different.