Should you buy the Nikon or Tamron 24-70 mm lens?

I am looking for a Nikon full frame “walking” lens. Currently my choices are Nikon 24 - 70 mm or Tamron 24 - 70 mm. If you find any info about the comparison to these lenses, or any new lenses around that range, please let me know.

Thank you so much!

— Youchun Y.

Here is a decision many photographers face. Do I buy the lens from my camera manufacturer, or do I save some extra money and purchase from a third party?

Tamron and Sigma are the more popular alternatives for Canon and Nikon owners. Either will save you several hundred dollars, but is it worth it?

Youchun made it easy to research this issue, since he provided a specific example. When it comes to the popular 24-70 f/2.8, which should you choose? I posed his question at both booths.

What Tamron said:

“With us it comes down to geometry,” said my cheerful Tamron representative.

When you use the Tamron version, your lines are straighter at the corners, he said. It’s particularly noticeable when you have something round like a bicycle tire near one of the corners. You might notice that it looks oblong.

“It is also brighter all the way to the corners.”

“Try it!” he urges. I took at photo of the ceiling, at his request. I didn’t see much of what he described, but this was hardly the best setting to judge lens performance.

Other differences he noted:

Tamron 24-70 mm, at the PhotoPlus Expo booth.

Stabilization is built into the lens, unlike the Nikon alternative. I know Nikon users have complained for years that they wanted a vibration reduction option on the 24-70, to which Nikon has constantly resisted.

Price. The Tamron 24-70 mm suggested retail is $1,299 with a manufacturer’s rebate of $125. Nikon's version will cost about $1,800.

“If you save $600, you can buy another lens.

"Negotiate your best price with the retailers, because our rebate is on top of that,” he said.

So can we conclude that the Tamron is a better deal?

“They’re both great lenses. I would put them both on my camera, so you can see what I’m talking about. It’s not necessarily that one is a bad thing, it’s just different,” he said.

What Nikon said:

At Nikon’s booth, I waited a pretty long time to talk with one particular product manger who seemed to know everything about everything. 

‘I’m wondering if you can explain the difference between your 24-70 mm and Tamron’s? Why would I buy one from Nikon rather than them?” I began.

He furrowed his brow for a second and said “Not. Even. Close!”

“What’s not close? Help me understand the differences,” I pressed him.

“We make lenses to work with our cameras. In things like scene recognition, TTL metering, in the mechanics and optics, you will see differences,” he said.

Here is his argument:

Nikon 24-70 mm, at the PhotoPlus Expo booth.

Because much of the way the camera and lenses talk to each other is proprietary, you will get better performance because Nikon designs them that way.

Nikon has premium glass. That’s why professionals have chosen this lens for years, without complaints.

“Here’s what will happen if you decide to buy a Tamron lens. Within six months, you will decide that you are not happy with it. When you try to sell it, you will find that it has lost half of it’s value. 

“Now you’ve lost money on the resale, and you still have to purchase the Nikon. Better to save your money longer and buy the one you’ll stick with. I see that over and over. I can’t tell you how many times,” he said.

At this point, a photographer to my right chimes in.

“Buy this lens. You don’t want the other one. Believe me, I’ve been shooting with this one for years.”

Someone behind me echoes the advice. 

“I had that lens forever, and I was never disappointed.”

The Nikon rep gives me the “See, I told you so” expression.

Of course we were at the Nikon booth, so it’s not like this was an unbiased audience. I did take note of the intensity of their opinions, offered unsolicited.

What I think

The last time I purchased Tamron lenses was about 2007ish, and I had the same experience the Nikon rep described. I bought that 18-200 mm lens to go on my then Nikon D200. I was very disappointed. At 18 mm, the horizon would bow so much, it looked like a frownie face. There were so many little trade offs, it annoyed me. 

I decided to sell, and lo and behold, I could only get about half of what I’d invested. I purchased the Nikon 18-200 and was thrilled with the results.

His story instantly resonated with me.

That was a long time ago, and Tamron has made lots of improvements. The reviews on the 18-270 mm lens, which replaced the model I purchased, suggested that they had fixed the problems I experienced.

I see lots of clients with the 18-270 mm, and they all say they are happy with the purchase. I’m glad to hear that.

However...

When you are ready to invest more than $1,000 on a professional lens, I think it deserves an extra level of scrutiny. I wouldn’t have any problems recommending the 18 - 270 mm if someone wanted to save cash.

Why do most people move up to the 24-70 mm? Either you are now a working professional or trying to earn some money with your camera. If not, you are a very serious enthusiast.

At either option, you will be more demanding of your camera and lens performance. You will want the demonstrated performance of a Nikon. It will cost more, but I’ve never met a Nikon owner who didn’t think it was worth the extra investment. That’s been my experience with the Nikon 24-70 mm, as well.

Rent first

Before you make that level of investment, I always suggest renting first. Spend $100 to shoot with the lens for a week. There is no substitute for actually using it in a real-world setting. Sometimes it takes me only a couple days to realize the lens I swooned for online wouldn’t be right for me.

Rent until

If the Nikon 24-70 mm is out of your budget, you might consider renting it for your paid gigs until you can afford to buy. The rental fee is inexpensive enough that you can build it into your price quote.

By the time you are ready to purchase, you will be familiar enough with it to be comfortable that this is the right decision for you.

Buy used

Here’s how you also know the Nikon story holds up; start shopping for used lenses. The Nikon 24-70 mm doesn’t last long when it is offered used and tends to hold much more of its value. Buying used will still save you a few hundred dollars when the budget is a major driver, however.

Because Youchun’s question was so specific, I didn’t evaluate Sigma. If you do find yourself in the market for a third party lens, Sigma is also another good alternative.

 

So what’s the bottom line?

It depends. Nikon relies on their reputation and endorsements primarily, but both seem to be well earned. Tamron’s 24-70 m lens is much newer, so they don't have the track record yet. They claim better optics in specific situations. You can’t ignore the added benefit of the image stabilizer.

Here is a side-by-side comparison of from dprview.com. You'll see the specs are comparable. 

In photography, everything is a trade off. You’ll have to decide what is most important for you. It always depends.