Canon has a lot of amazing but expensive RF lenses. If you can’t afford these L lenses or don’t want to spend that amount of money, you can also choose the more affordable versions. I took three primes on a trip to France to find out how they perform in real life.
With the Canon mirrorless cameras from the EOS R series, a new mount was introduced. The shorter flange distance offered a lot of improvements in image quality. This resulted in amazing lenses, like the excellent Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM, the compact Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, and many more. There is only one downside to these lenses. They cost a fortune.
Not everyone that chooses the Canon EOS R series mirrorless cameras can afford these lenses. And if they do, they may not be the best choice. Although it seems a good idea to invest in this expensive glass, chances are, you’re not getting the most out of these lenses.
The Cheaper RF Lenses
Fortunately, Canon offers a more friendly priced set of lenses for the RF mount. Although the quality of these lenses is not as good as their L series siblings, the image quality is still very good. Reviews and test of these less expensive RF lenses show how you need a direct comparison with the higher-end lenses to see the difference, often only after detailed scrutiny.
But there are downsides to the less expensive RF lenses. The stepping motors used in these lenses produce much more noise, and they’re not that fast compared to the USM system. The lens barrel often extends, and the materials used are of a lesser quality.
Perhaps it’s more interesting to look at the benefits these of lenses. While not up to par to their L series siblings, the build quality is still very good. The lenses are well designed and beautifully crafted, although that may also be subject to personal taste. More importantly, besides the price, the lenses are much smaller and lighter. Therefore, it can be much easier to carry an extra lens with you on a trip.
Three RF Primes
I was curious how these lenses would perform in a real-life situation. I asked Canon Netherlands to provide a set of three RF primes, which I would take with me on a scouting trip to the south of France. I choose the RF 16mm f/2.8 STM, the RF 35mm f/1.8 IS STM macro, and the RF 85mm f/2 IS STM macro, which I already reviewed some time ago.
There was a reason why I chose three primes. It would be easy to ask for two or three zoom lenses to cover a wider variety of focal lengths, but I wanted to carry a small set of primes because of the maximum aperture. This way, I could also use these lenses in less-than-ideal light circumstances without the need for a tripod.
With a 16mm, a 35mm, and a 85mm, I had a wide angle at my disposal, a standard lens, and a medium telephoto. Both the 35mm and 85mm also offered the ability to shoot macro with a 1:2 magnification. Together with the high megapixel count of my Canon EOS R5, I had the ability to crop if the 85mm focal length turned out to be a bit too short.
The Shooting Experience
The lens I used the most was the 35mm standard lens. It’s a focal length that works in most situations, no matter if it’s a landscape or a cityscape. The maximum aperture of f/1.8 made the lens perfect for shooting inside the Sainte-Cecile Cathedral in the city of Albi or in the caves we’ve visited.
During the hikes through the different landscapes, the 16mm wide angle was perfect for capturing the typical wider field of view landscapes. I found the focal length less ideal inside the ancient Bastide villages, although it proved its worth during a visit to the ruins of the fortress in the village of Penne.
The 85mm tele lens didn’t leave my bag that often. The lens was ideal for a few intimate landscape shots, especially when shooting the vineyards. The compressed view of the 85mm focal length proved to be perfect for this.
Both the 35mm and 85mm also offered 1:2 macro capability. It’s a great addition that made it very easy for shooting the occasional queen page butterfly, which is quite common in that part of France. It was also great for shooting flowers against the backdrop of the Bastide villages. The macro capability made shooting with these lenses very flexible, especially the RF 35mm f/1.8 IS STM lens.
Changing Lenses and the Camera Bag
Carrying three primes means you need to change lenses more often than with a zoom lens. Then again, it became clear you don’t need that much flexibility in focal range for this kind of photography. Most of the time, I chose the lens I thought fit for the occasion and left the other lenses in my bag.
I made a mistake when packing for this trip. I have a nice and compact Thinktank Retrospective Backpack 15, which seemed perfect for the job. It holds the three primes with a Canon EOS R5 easily, with room to spare for a lunch and a few water bottles. There is also space for my Gitzo travel tripod without problem.
The only downside of a backpack is the need to remove it from your back when changing lenses. Since you need to change lenses more often when using primes, the backpack is not ideal, no matter how convenient it may seem.
I should have taken a small shoulder bag with me. Since the primes I used are very small and lightweight, it would have been much more convenient and easy to use.
About Image Quality
As said, the image quality of these relatively cheap primes is not as good as its expensive siblings. There is a reason for it, of course. The simpler lens design can’t correct every optical flaw. But did I notice those flaws?
If you need perfect sharpness, a minimum of chromatic aberration and lens distortion, these lenses will not be for you. But often, these faults are only visible if you examine the image under a microscope, so to speak.
I did notice some lack of sharpness near the corner of the 16mm lens, but since I almost always crop into a 4:5 aspect ratio, it became almost nonexistent. The most image deterioration becomes visible if the lens is used wide open.
For a landscape, that is often not the case, since an aperture of f/8 or f/11 is preferred. The 35mm wide open was mostly used in the dark interiors of churches and the Cathedral of Albi. Any vignetting is often lost in the composition. On top of that, it was possible to prevent this by stopping down. The image stabilization made a longer shutter speed possible.
In the end, for the use of the images, mainly websites and a maximum 20×30 cm print for an album, the quality was more than perfect.
Using the primes during our stay in France was much fun. Just place one focal length onto the camera and never bother zooming in or out. The lenses are very small and light, making it easy to take them with me on every trip. The camera with one of these small lenses is also less conspicuous. It makes the Canon EOS R series cameras perfect for candid shots in villages and cities.
The quality is, in many cases, perfect for ordinary and semi-professional use. And more importantly, the lenses are affordable. You can buy this set of lenses twice for the price of one RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens.
- Small size and lightweight (easy to carry with you)
- Very good image quality (although not perfect)
- Macro capability (35mm and 85mm)
- Not the best possible image quality
- Lens barrel extends when focusing
- Lack of weather-sealing
- Small lens caps are easy to misplace or even lose
- Lens hoods are not included with these lenses
What do you think about using the cheap Canon RF lenses> Are you using these lenses, or do you prefer the more expensive L series? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.