Tamron recently announced the development of a new 18-300 mm zoom lens which is notable for two claimed firsts: its first X-mount model and the first APS-C model produced as a superzoom. Why is this an important development for Fuji?
Tamron isn't known for producing lenses with simple designations and this new model is a prime (no pun intended!) example: 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di III-A VC VXD (Model B061). What it is known for is producing high quality, good value, lenses and has followed a similar path to Sigma in targeting enthusiasts and professional photographers who may find own-brand prices just a little unpalatable. It also has a reputation in the manufacture of zoom lenses for a range of different target markets.
It wasn't always this way... with own-brand products you expect a full product lineup that has all bases covered for top, mid, and budget ranges but with a premium being charged by the manufacturer. Third-party lenses claim to offer similar specifications at a lower price, however, the entry into the market usually comes at the bottom end where it is easier to design and manufacture products and so compete on price. These have typically been prime lenses (with simple optical designs) that often start out as manual focus, particularly at focal lengths where this isn't an issue. The problem for Tamron (and Sigma) is that it is no longer the budget brand. Manufacturers in South Korea and China — such as Samyang and Viltrox — now fill that bracket. For example, the Viltrox AF 23mm f/1.4 XF costs just $329, in comparison to the Fuji XF 23mm f/1.4 R which retails at $899.
Third-Party Lens Options
So what options does Tamron have? High specification prime lenses are an obvious choice and this is something that Sigma — in particular — has pursued with great success directly competing with high-end manufacturers such as Zeiss and Leica. However, more than that, zoom lenses have proved a particularly popular choice of product development for two reasons. Firstly, they are optically complex and therefore potentially expensive, meaning that potentially greater cost savings to be made. For example, think of the wedding photographers dual choice of an f/2.8 24-70mm and 70-200mm; for the 70-200mm, the Nikon AF-S version will set you back $2,346 whereas the Tamron SP is a more respectable $1,299. Secondly, photographers want zoom lenses! While the previous example points to the professional photographer, remember back to the first time you used a superzoom such as a 55-300mm. I know I was excited to use it and it was glued to my camera for a long time. There is a large market for them with amateur photographers as a result. Finally, it's worth pointing out that Tamron doesn't need to build lenses that aren't going to sell well; this might sound obvious, but it's something that own-brand manufacturers have less choice about as there is an expectation from professionals that a wide range of lens options are available.
Building lenses photographers want is one aspect of the premium third-party lens market, however, you are (at least partially) captive to the camera systems you support and for this reason, the Nikon F-mount and Canon EF-mount have long been the lens mounts of choice. Just look at DSLR camera sales and Nikon and Canon walk away with 97% of the market; there's no point in supporting anything else as each extra mount incurs a marginal cost. However, the industry pivot to mirrorless has created something of a dilemma — and opportunity — for the likes of Tamron. For the first time, there is an opportunity to sell into a burgeoning market before the own brand manufacturers, however, the risk revolves around which lens mounts to support.
At this point, it's helpful to see what mounts Tamron actually supports. So here goes... Canon EF and Nikon F get 30 apiece. Remarkably, the Sony A gets 19, with the Sony E on 12 and Pentax K on 3. The Canon EF-M gets 1, as does Micro Four Thirds. More than anything, this lineup reflects the amount of time it takes to design, manufacture, and support a range of lenses as they are complex optical devices. The extensive lineup for Nikon and Canon DSLRs is unsurprising, but likely allows cross lens mount support for Pentax and the Sony A-mount with limited marginal costs. That the A-mount still has so many lenses available is surprising but perhaps historic as it's possible that they are no longer in production and supplied from stock. The growing range of Sony E-mount lenses is testament to the near ten years since the a7 was released and its subsequent success. The limited support for the Canon EF-M and Micro Four Thirds likely reflects the late decision to begin supporting APS-C (and smaller) sensor sizes, likely as part of the expansion in E-mount support. What is clear from the likes of Viltrox, is that designing for both APS-C Sony E-mount and Fuji X-mount makes a lot of sense.
Tamron and the APS-C Mirrorless Future
All of which brings us back to the 18-300 mm lens that Tamron has recently announced — the specification is designed for APS-C with a 35mm equivalent focal length range of 27mm to 450mm, apparently a 16.6x magnification and the first designed for APS-C mirrorless. The designations are for the Voice-coil eXtreme-torque Drive (VXD) linear focus system and Vibration Compensation (VC). The lens itself isn't specifically important, but rather the intention of releasing an X-mount model. This is the first of a number of lenses intended to support Fuji shooters (Fuji Rumors reports on a recent interview with Tamron directly on this point) and increases the desirability of the system, particularly for amateur photographers.
Viltrox has been targeting a range of good quality prime lenses at E-mount and X-mount shooters, so Tamron's entry into the ecosystem is exciting to see because it seems it will see the introduction of a range of interesting zoom lenses of which the 18-300 is the first.
However, the ramifications of the move could potentially go much further. Sony's lead in mirrorless is undeniable and the focus has unsurprisingly been on the full-frame models. But could the ASP-C (and Micro Four Thirds) market be being shaped as we speak? Nikon has already introduced two APS-C Z-mount models, even if the APS-C specific lenses are lacking. That leaves Canon staring forlornly at the EOS M system and EF-M mount. It has stubbornly refused to kill it off and is yet to release an APS-C R-mount model. Tamron must be unwilling to invest further in the EF-M simply because of the ambiguity surrounding its future. Canon has unusually created a strategic vacuum that has left consumers and third-party manufacturers wondering what it will do. Nikon is quite unequivocal here: the 1 System is gone and the Z-mount will be its sole future. If Tamron is unifying around the APS-C mirrorless format for its super zooms then that could also kill off any potential support for Micro Four Thirds. All of which leaves Sony and Fuji to benefit, because they've got cameras that consumers can actually buy today along with glass for them.
If 2020-2021 was focused around full-frame mirrorless, then 2021-2022 could well be about the future of ASP-C.