ARTICLE

Canon RF vs EF lenses: which should you choose and why?

A rice farmer holds a basket across his shoulders in paddy fields in Indonesia. Taken by Joel Santos.
This shot of a rice farmer was taken in paddy fields in Indonesia by travel photographer and Canon Ambassador Joel Santos, using one of the three lenses that make up Canon's 'f/2.8 trinity' of RF zooms. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 27mm, 1/400 sec, f/2.8 and ISO100. © Joel Santos

The steadily growing Canon RF lens range, alongside the established, proven Canon EF lenses, gives photographers more options than ever before – and with the announcement of the thrilling Canon EOS R5, there's even more reason to switch to full-frame mirrorless. But how do you choose? Which type of lens is right for your photography? We talk to a pro photographer who uses both RF and EF lenses, and to a Canon product expert, to find out.

At the heart of Canon's groundbreaking full-frame mirrorless EOS R System, the innovative RF mount is designed to enable a new generation of optical technology, giving users new creative possibilities. For example, the range of Canon RF lenses now includes the RF 85mm F1.2L USM DS, the first lens with Canon's unique Defocus Smoothing coating, which delivers unprecedented smooth bokeh in out-of-focus areas.

But if you already have a tried-and-tested favourite EF or EF-S lens – or there isn't yet an RF lens with the particular spec you need for the job – you can use EF or EF-S lenses with your EOS R System camera with a choice of EF-EOS R mount adapters with absolutely no loss of quality or functionality.

Butterfly net fishermen at sunset on Lake Pátzcuaro in Michoacán, Mexico. Taken by Joel Santos.
You don't have to pick just one lens type for your full-frame mirrorless Canon EOS R System camera. This shot of butterfly net fishermen on Lake Pátzcuaro in Michoacán, Mexico, was taken with an EF lens attached to a Canon EOS R using a Canon EF-EOS R mount adapter. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 70mm, 1/1600 sec, f/8 and ISO125. © Joel Santos
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RF lens benefits

"The Canon RF lens range is not designed to replicate what's available in EF, but to bring something new to the table," says John Maurice, European Product Marketing Manager at Canon Europe. "Take, for example, Canon's 'f/2.8 trinity' of RF zooms" – three RF lenses covering ultra-wide, standard and telephoto zoom ranges, which together deliver the entire focal length range that working photographers need to shoot in practically any situation. All three have Image Stabilization, including the Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM and Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM, where the corresponding EF lenses do not.

"And the third lens in the trinity, the Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM, in particular, is much smaller and lighter than its EF counterpart," John notes. "Photographers expect a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens to be heavy, but it’s really not, and the sharpness of this lens is amazing.”

The Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM lens is in fact almost a third lighter and significantly shorter than its EF counterpart, and is packed with technical innovations. Combined with the more compact Canon EOS R body, this means RF lenses are a great choice for travel photography, as well as wildlife, street photography and other genres where light weight and portability are critical.

A man in a red padded coat stands at the mouth of an ice cave looking out at a bleak landscape with a snow-capped mountain in the distance.
The view from an ice cave in a glacier in Iceland, photographed using an EF lens with a Mount Adapter EF-EOS R. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens at 1/1600 sec, f/8 and ISO320. © Joel Santos
A man in flowing clothing and a cap walks barefoot through a dark room in Niger, the only light being from the doorway he's approaching.
Joel captured this environmental portrait in Niger, taking advantage of the exceptional low-light performance and dynamic range of the EOS R System with RF lenses. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 28mm, 1/160 sec, f/4 and ISO6400. © Joel Santos

Canon Ambassador, documentary filmmaker and 2016 Travel Photographer of the Year winner Joel Santos says adopting the lighter Canon EOS R System with RF lenses has made a big difference to his work. "I had invested a lot of money in EF lenses, and the design of the EF lenses released in the past few years has really been superb. But there are two reasons why I switched to the Canon EOS R: better performance and the unique qualities of the RF lenses. The biggest improvements for me are in Image Stabilization, control of chromatic aberration, sharpness, micro contrast, colour rendering, and – of course – the added features I didn't have before."

Joel adds: "My main concern when travelling – especially with airline restrictions – is how to reduce weight and bulk without compromising performance or a goal I need to accomplish. On a trip to cover the Voodoo Festival in Benin, for example, I could only take my main lenses – a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM, a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM and a Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM. But the fact that these lenses are so compact meant I could have two bodies with lenses mounted inside my bag, ready to go.

"The Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM is a game-changing lens for me. I see it as a pack of f/2 primes – a 28mm, a 35mm, a 50mm and a 70mm – in a single zoom. If you add up the weight of all these separate prime lenses, and the time you'd spend swapping between them – not to mention the money you'd have to spend – you can see what a practical option it is. It's about a third lighter than the equivalent EF lens. It's very short when it's retracted, so it's very practical for packing, plus it attracts less attention when you are walking around, which is important for my style of photography.

"I was shooting a documentary in Niger during a sandstorm, so I couldn't risk swapping lenses – and one lens did it all. I ended up doing all my photography and video work almost exclusively on the Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM. For me, this lens alone justifies swapping to the new system."

A close-up of a red-eyed tree frog in Costa Rica. Taken by Joel Santos.
A red-eyed tree frog photographed in Costa Rica with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens. Joel rates this lens for its effective Image Stabilization and compact size. Taken on a Canon EOS R at 1/320 sec, f/4.5 and ISO1250. © Joel Santos
A crew of four women row a coxless four boat along a wide river at dawn. Photo by Matthew Joseph.

Photographing rowers with Canon trinity RF lenses

Photographer Matthew Joseph on using Canon's f/2.8 trinity RF lenses, covering ultra-wide, standard and telephoto zoom ranges, to shoot action.

Why use EF lenses?

When it comes to using his older lens system on his Canon EOS R, Joel finds that mixing and matching RF lenses and EF lenses has widened his creative horizons. "The RF lenses perform superbly well, but the lineup isn't as comprehensive and there are some specialist lenses that are currently available only in EF mount. This is why I still use EF lenses – well, that and the fact that I don't need to double up on some focal lengths because I already have them in an EF lens.

"The Canon EF lenses that I use most are the EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM, the EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM and the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM. I also use the 'nifty fifty' – the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM – when I need a lightweight alternative to the Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM."

Smoke clouds and lava erupting from the Fuego volcano in Guatemala. Taken by Joel Santos.
Joel was about 1km from Guatemala's erupting Fuego volcano, and used his lens wide open to capture as much light as possible. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 50mm, 30 sec, f/2 and ISO160. © Joel Santos

Using EF-EOS R mount adapters

When using EF lenses with a Canon EOS R, the standard Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and two further mount adapters bring additional functionality. The Control Ring Mount Adapter EF-EOS R adds a customisable lens control ring like the one on RF lenses, which can be programmed to adjust various settings such as aperture, shutter speed, ISO sensitivity and exposure compensation. In this sense, it gives you the potential to get even more out of your existing lenses.

The Drop-In Filter Mount Adapter EF-EOS R adds the ability to use drop-in filters, removing the need to fit filters on the front of a lens, which is especially useful for wide-angles with a large front lens element. It’s available with either a variable neutral density filter or a circular polarising filter.

"When you put an EF lens onto the adapter, the EOS R understands that an EF lens is attached," says John. "So there's no need for translation between one lens protocol and another – it speaks to the EF lens in its native language, meaning no lag in communication speed for AF, real-time Digital Lens Optimisation, and accurate real-time focus distance information, which is displayed in the viewfinder.”

A woman stands with her back to a wall in Niger; four other women stand behind the wall, with just their heads visible. Taken by Joel Santos.
This colourful portrait was shot in Niger, where Joel was working in a sandstorm for much of the time and was rarely able to change lenses. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 56mm, 1/125 sec, f/5.6 and ISO6400. © Joel Santos
A man wearing an indigo robe and headscarf stands in front of a tower in Niger. Taken by Joel Santos.
A Tuareg man pictured in Niger in traditional indigo robe and headscarf. The Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM is Joel's go-to lens, although airline weight restrictions mean he isn't always able to carry it. Taken on a Canon EOS R at 28mm, 1/1250 sec, f/2 and ISO100. © Joel Santos

All of this means you don't have to choose between lens types for your Canon EOS R System camera, but mix and match them to suit each situation. You can continue to use your existing Canon EF and EF-S lenses, and even enhance their performance and functionality with additional options such as the lens control ring and drop-in filters.

"I mainly use the Canon Drop-In Filter Mount Adapter EF-EOS R," says Joel. "The variable ND filter is fantastic when you're shooting video, but I have the polariser in place 90% of the time – even for portraits. It means I now have one polariser that fits all my lenses, and it's very easy to rotate because it's so close to the camera body.

"I often shoot in dusty environments, and standard filters can end up clogged with dust so they don't move any more. I'm always having to clean them, and this means they can get scratched, but with the adapter's drop-in filter I don't need to worry. I still fit a UV filter to the front element for protection when I know there will be a lot of dust or debris being tossed around by the wind, but I really don't like using them at all!

"Ergonomically, shooting with the adapter has been absolutely fine. Obviously it adds a little extra length – it makes my Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM about 50% longer, which means it's not always as discreet. But in terms of balance there's no problem. There are some real benefits to using these adapters: I can save money, with the drop-in filter or control ring adapter I add new features to my existing lenses, and there's no drop in performance at all."

Yazar Marcus Hawkins


Stay up-to-date with the latest RF lens news and range updates on the RF lens updates page.

Joel Santos's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Joel Santos's kitbag

Camera

Canon EOS R

A pioneering full-frame mirrorless camera that sets new standards for photographers and filmmakers. "It's a dream come true: lightweight and feature-packed, allowing me to capture stills, video and time-lapses that live up to the highest standards," says Joel.

Lenses

Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM

Advanced L-series zoom featuring a very fast f/2 aperture and delivering exceptional image quality. "My all-time favourite lens," says Joel. "Excels in portraits, daily life and landscapes, whatever the available light. Super sharp at all apertures, corner to corner."

Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM

The RF lens that sets new standards in photographic performance, delivering supreme sharpness, extra creative control and low-light performance that's simply remarkable. "When any other lens might struggle, this one saves the day," says Joel. "AF works amazingly in pitch dark situations, and it has the best background blur rendition I've ever seen."

Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM

A high performance L-series ultra wide-angle lens with integrated Image Stabilizer technology. "This lens encompasses the greatness of the remote landscapes and, at the same time, allows me to get close and personal while shooting daily life," says Joel.

Accessory

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