Expert View: Prime vs zoom lenses in the RF era

Primes or zooms – which are best, and why might you pick one rather than the other? Canon Europe product specialist Mike Burnhill explores the range of lenses available for EOS R System cameras today.
A row of Canon EOS R System cameras displayed in front of a row of RF lenses.

Canon's RF lenses set new standards in quality, features and performance thanks to innovative optical technologies and design. But within the EOS R System, how do prime lenses compare to zooms? Does the conventional wisdom about primes vs zooms still apply?

One of the most common debates about lenses is: which are better, zooms or primes? The answer to this conundrum depends on many things and may even come down to personal preference. Zoom lenses have come a long way in image quality since their introduction, making this question even more relevant today.

Put simply, the difference between zoom lenses and prime lenses is that zooms offer greater flexibility, providing a range of focal lengths in one package and removing the need to continually switch lenses. Prime lenses, on the other hand, generally offer better optical performance, with faster aperture values, and closer focusing distances – not to mention their size and weight advantages. This may be a bit too simplistic, however, as lenses like the Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM – a zoom which rivals prime lenses for image quality – blur the distinction. Let's look at some of the most commonly used lenses in a bit more detail and consider their specific strengths.

Mike Burnhill, Senior Product Specialist at Canon Europe.
Mike Burnhill is Senior Product Specialist at Canon Europe. He has worked for many of the UK's biggest photo dealers and as a forensic photographer for the Metropolitan Police. He has looked after Canon's professional range of cameras and lenses since 2012, and has supported pro photographers with the Canon Professional Services team at many of the biggest sporting events around the globe.
A chart comparing the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM zoom lens with the Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM.

Historically, one of the biggest differences between primes and zooms was that zoom lenses were comparatively heavy and bulky, but RF zooms are much lighter and smaller than zooms used to be. As this comparison chart shows, the Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM is approximately 27% shorter and 28% lighter than its EF counterpart, the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM.

A Canon EOS R6 with Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM zoom lens alongside the same camera with the Canon RF 70-200mm F4L IS USM.

Another illustration of how much Canon's RF lens designers have reduced the size of zoom lenses, meaning there is now less difference in size between primes and zooms. These two Canon lenses have the same 70-200mm zoom range, same aperture (in this case, f/4) and same L-series build quality. On the left is the EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM zoom lens on a Canon EOS R6 (with an EF-EOS R Mount Adapter, which admittedly adds that little bit more length) compared with the RF 70-200mm F4L IS USM on the same camera.

What are the best prime lenses?

There are three focal lengths that would be considered a normal part of a photographer's prime lens kit: 35mm, 50mm and 85mm.

The Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM is Canon's 35mm prime lens for the RF system. This little gem offers a bright aperture of f/1.8 in a compact size, but one of its standout features is its ability to focus closely enough to produce half-life-size macro images. The 35mm focal length provides a wide view with natural perspective, making this a popular lens with many photographers such as photojournalists.

The RF lens range offers two Canon 50mm prime lenses. A 50mm focal length emulates the perspective of the human eye, making this one of the most used focal lengths. 50mm lenses always offer fast apertures, and lenses like the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM provide an amazing balance of performance, size, aperture and, maybe more importantly, price. If you have only ever used zooms, then this is the lens to try to see what primes can add to your photography.

For those wanting the pinnacle of what prime lenses can offer, the Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM offers a no-compromise approach to image quality – but at a much larger size and a substantially higher cost than the RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens.

There are three Canon 85mm prime lenses, meaning users have plenty of options. The Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM is ideal for portraits but also offers half-life-size macro, making it flexible for a wide range of photography. For the ultimate portrait lens, look no further than the Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM, which provides beautiful renditions of subjects and flattering skin tones, with stunning bokeh to make the subject "pop" out of a soft background. Canon's 85mm f/1.2L lenses have historically been the go-to lenses for portrait photographers, whether that be for the FD, the EF and now the RF mount.

But if the bokeh of the RF 85mm F1.2L USM is not silky enough for you, then try its sister, the Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM DS, which boasts a special optical coating to provide pillowy, soft bokeh for beautiful portraits unobtainable on other camera systems.

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An evening portrait of a young woman in a ruffled off-white wedding dress, with the background out of focus.

The Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM prime lens is a favourite among portrait photographers for both its optical quality and its wide f/1.2 aperture, which results in a shallow depth of field that helps subjects stand out against a very elegantly out-of-focus background. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/1200 sec, f/1.2 and ISO800. © Félicia Sisco

An evening portrait of a young woman in a ruffled off-white wedding dress, with softer background bokeh.

Canon produces a version of the lens, the RF 85mm F1.2L USM DS, with a special Defocus Smoothing optical coating that produces even creamier, softer bokeh in out-of-focus areas. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM DS lens at 1/125 sec, f/1.2 and ISO800. © Félicia Sisco

What are the best zoom lenses?

Now let's talk about zooms. There's only one place to start when comparing primes and zooms: the Canon 24-70mm zoom lenses.

The Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM is many photographers' standard lens. It offers great image quality and a wide range of focal lengths covering most situations, plus a fast aperture, built-in 5-stop optical IS, and Nano USM motors delivering smooth and silent focusing ideal for video – just about everything you could need. What it lacks compared to a prime lens is a faster aperture, which would be common on a fixed focal length lens. Mind you, f/2.8 is fast for a zoom lens. For many news, sports or wedding photographers, this is their go-to lens, with its sheer flexibility allowing them to adapt to any situation. The RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM is the standard zoom, setting new benchmarks.

On the subject of zooms, we have to talk about the zooms that have sidelined any prime alternatives, the Canon 70-200mm zoom lenses. One of the typical advantages of prime lenses is that they are smaller and lighter than zooms, but that's not necessarily true of telephoto primes. If you need multiple telephoto focal lengths, you have to carry several large prime lenses – but why do that when you could use just one 70-200mm zoom lens, with the flexibility of its range of focal lengths? As a result, telephoto prime lenses from 100mm to 200mm have almost disappeared from the market, and the 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom is now one of the most common lenses in any professional photographer's kitbag.

The RF range offers a choice of two Canon 70-200mm zoom lenses, the RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM and the RF 70-200mm F4L IS USM, each the smallest lens in its class. Both have also been optimised for video, so the choice is really down to whether you require an f/2.8 lens (for exceptional low-light performance and very shallow depth of field, for example) or if a less expensive f/4 lens will suit your needs and your budget.

Canon's three professional f/2.8 RF lenses: RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM, RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM and RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM.

Expert view: should you switch to RF lenses?

Why switch from EF to RF lenses? Canon expert Mike Burnhill explores some of the benefits and compares EF lenses and their RF counterparts.
Canon's trinity of RF zoom lenses: RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM, RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM and RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM.

Canon's trinity of f/2.8 RF zoom lenses – the RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM, RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM and RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM – together cover ultra-wide, standard and telephoto zoom ranges. A key advantage of zoom lenses over primes is flexibility. Together, these three high performance, fast aperture zoom lenses enable effective shooting in practically any situation.

A cut-away illustration of the weather sealing on the Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens.

Historically, with fewer moving parts than zoom lenses, prime lenses usually boasted better optical quality. Often, because the barrel had to extend and retract to accommodate moving lens elements, zoom lenses were also less weather-resistant than primes. However, RF zoom lenses incorporate the latest optical engineering and advanced technologies for image quality rivalling their prime counterparts, and lenses such as the Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM have the same high level of weather-sealing as other L-series lenses.

Which should you choose, prime or zoom lenses?

In the debate about zooms vs primes, we frequently get asked the following more specific questions:

Are prime or zoom lenses best for video?

There's no straightforward answer to this one. All RF lenses have been designed with some element of video usage in mind – most feature focus motors optimised for video, for example, and the aperture system is designed to operate in 1/8-stop increments (much finer than the 1/3-stop in previous systems) to prevent visible alterations in exposure when changing apertures during filming. RF lenses with Nano USM autofocus technology may provide slightly better performance for video because they are so silent. Some of the lenses featuring Nano USM have also been designed to offer minimised focus breathing, to reduce the effects of magnification when changing focus. Apart from these considerations, the choice of focal length and aperture needed is up to you.

But as to whether zoom or prime is better for video, it depends on what's being filmed. For drama, a prime lens is good, as you control all elements of filming such as your subject's position, and you have the ability to do multiple takes. However, for documentary work or live events, the flexibility of a zoom lens will make life significantly easier, as you may only have one chance to capture the moment. Find out more about the best RF lenses for shooting video.

A cutaway illustration of an RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens showing the workings of Nano USM focusing technology.

Many RF lenses, such as the RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens shown here in cutaway, contain Nano USM focusing motor technology, an innovation that delivers the focusing speed which photographers want for stills plus the smooth and silent adjustment required for video. The RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM is the first lens to feature Dual Nano USM technology – it has two Nano USM motors, each driving different lens groups, working together to produce faster, more efficient focusing.

A Canon RF 14-35mm F4L IS USM lens.

The compact, ultra-wide Canon RF 14-35mm F4L IS USM is well suited to landscape photography, with excellent optical performance and outstanding flexibility. Its Nano USM motor ensures fast, exceptionally smooth and silent autofocus, making it ideal for travel vlogging and videography as well as stills.

Are prime or zoom lenses best for landscape photography?

While this is a much more conventional question, again there are a myriad of answers. Traditionally, wide-angle lenses are used for landscapes. Fast apertures are typically not a priority, as a large depth of field is the most common requirement for landscape images and they are often taken using a tripod. This means many of the advantages of prime lenses do not come into play here. Therefore, zoom lenses like the Canon RF 14-35mm F4L IS USM are an ideal choice. With excellent image quality, compact size and close focusing, this lens provides great flexibility. If you're shooting low-light scenes such as starscapes, then the Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM may be a better option, its wider aperture giving you further scope to reduce shutter speeds and prevent light trails.

If you want the ultimate in compact walk-around landscape lenses, then consider the Canon RF 16mm F2.8 STM prime lens. But not all landscape lenses have to be wide-angle – take a look at our guide to lenses for landscape photography.

Are prime or zoom lenses best for wedding photography?

My answer to this question is that both have their place. Wedding photography requirements are wide-ranging. Things happen quickly, so a zoom providing a wide range of focal lengths would probably be the best option for most users in most situations. But there are more formal moments – posed portraits, speeches and so on – where prime lenses such as the Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM or RF 85mm F1.2L USM can capture images that are more striking than those a zoom would achieve. Take a look at our guide to the best lenses for different aspects of wedding photography.

If only one lens is possible then the Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM would be a great option. While relatively large, it offers the flexibility of a zoom with the image quality and fast aperture of primes. This is a zoom lens that will give many primes a run for their money.

The final word

Selecting a lens can be confusing, as there are so many options to choose from. The above lenses are my suggestions, but they may not suit everyone. The choice of lens can be very personal, and not everyone sees the world in the same way. That is what makes photography and videography fun, exciting and inspirational. It's probably the best part of our job at Canon: seeing the breathtaking images you produce with our cameras and lenses. So get out there and take some images to blow my mind!

Mike Burnhill

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