Shooting With the Cheap and Small Canon RF Primes

Canon has a lot of amazing but expensive RF lenses. If you can’t afford these L lenses or don’t want to spend so much 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 Canon’s EOS R-series mirrorless cameras, a new mount has been introduced. The shorter flange distance offered many image quality improvements. This has resulted in some incredible 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 who chooses Canon EOS R series mirrorless cameras can afford these lenses. And if they do, they may not be the best choice. While it seems like a good idea to invest in that expensive glass, chances are you won’t get the most out of those lenses.

Cheaper RF lenses

Fortunately, Canon offers a more affordable set of lenses for the RF mount. While the quality of these lenses isn’t quite as good as their L-series siblings, the image quality is still very good. Reviews and tests of these cheaper RF lenses show how much you need a direct comparison to high-end lenses to see the difference, often only after careful examination.

But there are downsides to cheaper RF lenses. The stepper motors used in these lenses produce much more noise and are not as fast as the USM system. The lens barrel often gets longer and the materials used are of lower quality.

It is perhaps more interesting to examine the advantages of these lenses. Although not on par with their L-series siblings, the build quality is still very good. The lenses are well-crafted and beautifully crafted, although this can 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 take an extra lens with you on a trip.

Three first RF

I was curious how these lenses would work in a real situation. I asked Canon Netherlands to provide a set of three RF primes, which I would take with me on a reconnaissance trip to the south of France. I choose the RF 16mm f/2.8 STM macro, 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 I chose three prime numbers. It would be easy to ask for two or three zooms to cover a wider variety of focal lengths, but I wanted to pack a small set of focal lengths because of the maximum aperture. This way I could also use these lenses in less than ideal lighting conditions without needing a tripod.

With a 16 mm, a 35 mm and an 85 mm, I had at my disposal a wide angle, a standard lens and a medium telephoto lens. The 35mm and 85mm also offered the ability to take macro shots at 1:2 magnification. With the high megapixel count of my Canon EOS R5, I had the flexibility 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 standard 35mm lens. It’s a focal length that works in most situations, whether it’s a landscape or a cityscape. The maximum aperture of f/1.8 makes the lens perfect for shooting inside the Sainte-C├ęcile cathedral in the city of Albi or in the caves we visited.

When hiking through the various landscapes, the 16mm wide angle was perfect for capturing the typical landscapes with a wider field of view. I found the focus less than ideal inside the old bastide villages, although it proved its worth during a visit to the ruins of the fortress in the village of Penne.

The 85mm telephoto lens didn’t leave my bag often. The lens was ideal for some intimate landscape shots, especially when shooting vineyards. The compressed view of the 85mm focal length proved perfect for this.

The 35mm and 85mm also offered 1:2 macro capability. This was a great addition and made shooting the occasional queen page butterfly very easy, which is quite common in this part of France. It was also ideal for photographing flowers against the backdrop of the country houses. The macro capability made shooting with these lenses very flexible, especially the RF 35mm f/1.8 IS STM lens.

Change camera lenses and bag

Wearing three first means you have to change lenses more often than with a zoom. Again, it became clear that you don’t need as much flexibility in focal range for this type of photography. Most of the time, I picked the lens that I thought fit the occasion and left the other lenses in my bag.

I made a mistake while packing for this trip. I have a nice and compact Thinktank Retrospective Backpack 15, which seemed perfect for the job. It easily fits the top three with a Canon EOS R5, with room for a lunch and a few bottles of water. There is also room for my Gitzo travel tripod without problems.

The only downside to a backpack is the need to remove it from your back when changing glasses. Since you have to change lenses more often when using bounties, the backpack isn’t ideal, as convenient as 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 noted, the image quality of these relatively inexpensive premiums isn’t quite as good as its pricey siblings. There’s a reason for that, of course. The simpler lens design cannot correct all optical defects. But did I notice these flaws?

If you’re looking for pinpoint sharpness, minimal chromatic aberration and lens distortion, these lenses won’t be for you. But often these flaws are only visible if you examine the image under a microscope, so to speak.

I noticed a 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 non-existent. The greatest image deterioration becomes visible if the lens is used wide open.

For a landscape, this is often not the case, since an aperture of f/8 or f/11 is preferred. The 35 mm wide aperture was mainly used in the dark interiors of churches and Albi Cathedral. Any vignetting is often lost in the composition. On top of that, it was possible to prevent this by stopping. Image stabilization made possible a longer shutter speed.

In the end, for the use of images, mainly websites and a maximum print of 20×30 cm for an album, the quality was more than perfect.

The conclusion

Using the bonuses while we were in France was a lot of fun. Simply set a focal length on the camera and never worry about zooming in or out. The lenses are very small and lightweight, making it easy to take them with me on every trip. The camera with one of these small lenses is also less noticeable. This makes Canon EOS R series cameras perfect for candid shots in villages and towns.

The quality is in many cases perfect for ordinary and semi-professional use. And more importantly, the lenses are affordable. You can buy this lens set twice for the price of an RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens.

Advantages

  • Affordable
  • Small size and lightweight (easy to carry with you)
  • Very good image quality (but not perfect)
  • Discreet
  • Macro capability (35mm and 85mm)

Disadvantages

  • Not the best possible image quality
  • Lens barrel extends when focusing
  • Lack of tightness
  • 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 > Do you use these lenses or do you prefer the more expensive L-series? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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