Do You Need It and Can You Afford It? Canon’s f/2 Holy Trinity Might Be a Little Bit Too Crazy

Do You Need It and Can You Afford It? Canon’s f/2 Holy Trinity Might Be a Little Bit Too Crazy

Just as Tamron has been asking us to reconsider the accepted focal range of an ultra-wide angle zoom, up steps Canon with the rumored 16-28mm f/2. You can be sure it will be huge and costly, but do we need it? And do photographers really want a holy trinity that is so heavy and expensive?

Tamron recently announced the launch of the 17-28mm f/2.8 lens for Sony full-frame cameras, continuing its pattern of asking customers to compromise on focal range in order to keep down price, size, and weight. At the same time, Canon, it seems, has been hard at work trying to change our perception of what qualifies as the holy trinity of zoom lenses. Traditionally, this is a trio of f/2.8 zooms that every jobbing events shooter and paparazzo has in his or her bag: 16-35mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm — or thereabouts. If you’ve got them with you, you’re covered, whether it’s the mayor proudly opening a new supermarket, some celebrity humiliating themselves by drunkenly falling out of a taxi, or the local zoo proudly revealing its brood of newborn eaglets. These are fast, heavy tanks designed to get the job done.

In its desire to innovate and shake things up — and produce extremely expensive glass — Canon last year unveiled the RF 28-70mm f/2, creating a monster of a lens that is almost twice the price of its DSLR predecessor, not to mention being almost twice the weight. 4mm were shaved off its widest angle in order to allow an extra stop of light, but at the added cost of size, weight, and pawning your least favorite child.

Canon RF 28-70mm f/2L USM Lens

The Canon RF 28-70mm f/2L USM Lens. Yes, that's a 95mm thread. It's a little chunky.

Bigger, Faster, Heavier — and More Expensive

Continuing this trend, it appears that Canon is about to unveil the RF 16-28mm f/2, garnering an extra smidge of aperture while losing 7mm of reach. Contrast this with what Tamron is doing with its recently-announced 17-28mm f/2.8, wider angles mean bigger optics, so by opting for 17mm over 16mm, there’s a lot of space and weight to be saved. Canon, on the other hand, looks to be sticking with 16mm, and if the rumors are accurate, you can be sure that this lens will be huge; if Canon had not shed 7mm at the longer end, this lens would have been enormous in order to maintain f/2 throughout its range. Those smarter than me will tell us whether that would even have been possible according to the laws of physics.

Tamron 17-28mm f/2.8 Di III RXD Lens for Sony E

The Tamron 17-28mm f/2.8 Di III RXD Lens for Sony E. Definitely not as pretty as the Canon but cheaper, lighter, and significantly smaller.

This is two manufacturers deploying similar approaches to achieve very different ends: while Tamron shaved some focal range to save size, weight, and price, Canon has trimmed some reach in order to achieve the exact opposite. Both are bold moves.

A New Trinity?

It's possible that an aperture of f/2 is what Canon is trying to convince the world is the new standard for the holy trinity. If that's the case, what is the future of those countless Canon photographers who shoot news and events and rely on their trio of fast zoom lenses to put food on the table? Moving to mirrorless will not be an option for years to come. Right now, the lens lineup isn’t there, and when it arrives, it will be twice as expensive and twice as heavy. Many will be shooting for agencies who are heavily invested in DSLRs, and this is another reason for them not to make that transition: it’s a massive and perhaps unnecessary investment, and their photographers out in the field might well hate them for it.

Another question that news and events snappers will be asking themselves is whether they want to trade the flexibility of overlapping focal ranges for that extra stop of light. Having the 16-35mm and 24-70mm combo in the bag means less lens swapping than 16-28mm and 28-70mm.

The Holy Trinity

A Holy Trinity of sorts. This is what happens when you start scouring stock image libraries for photos to make a nerdy article about lenses a little more entertaining. Thank you, StockPhotoSecrets.com.

The other question I’m keen to pose to readers is this: do we need f/2 in a wide angle zoom? I’m currently weighing up whether I should ditch f/2.8 and opt for f/4 in order to save some money and weight. Extending from f/2.8 to f/2 definitely was not on my radar, and I’m not sure it was on anyone else’s. For the standard zoom, it makes much more sense — but for an ultra-wide zoom? Low-light performance is always useful and bokeh is always nice, but an extra stop isn’t a huge difference and creamy separation in a wide angle isn’t something I crave. Helpful, yes, but twice the price helpful?

Consider this: the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 Mark III is $1899 and weighs 2.41 lb (1093 g). The EF to R adapter with the control ring is $199 and weighs 4.59 oz (130 g) — and there's a cheaper version that weighs even less. Going on the specifications of the RF 28-70mm f/2, the 16-28mm f/2 will weigh well over 3 lb and cost significantly more than $3,000, perhaps even pushing towards $4,000.

If we scale this up across the trio of holy trinity lenses, there's almost certainly going to be a dramatic saving of weight, space, and cost if you keep your EF glass — even if you were to have an adapter for each of your three lenses. There will be many photographers excited to ditch a couple of primes in favor of an f/2 zoom, but is this going to generate the sales that Canon needs to make this evolution worthwhile?

More Proof That DSLRs Have a Future?

I love the innovation and I’m sure these lenses will be incredible, but I wonder whether Canon is telling events shooters and photojournalists everywhere that its mirrorless system is not for them. They're too big, too heavy, are less functional thanks to their more limited and less overlapping focal ranges, and EF with an adapter — or even a DSLR — makes much more sense.

My initial reaction was that it's a giant misstep on the part of Canon, and then I reminded myself to stop drinking the mirrorless Kool-Aid and take a step back. DSLRs are perfect for events and photojournalism (though not always), and Canon isn't in a hurry to change this. Perhaps, instead of rushing to accommodate everything in a new mirrorless future, it realizes that — at least for the foreseeable future — it should be creating specialist products that may give way to becoming the new standard once production lines are better established, more diversity appears, and prices start to drop.

On the other hand, manufacturers rely heavily on lens sales for their revenue, and it will be fascinating to see if this new generation of glass has the level of demand out there to allow Canon to counter a camera market that is proven to be shrinking.

If you have any thoughts, be sure to leave a comment below.

[Edit: I was reminded in the comments that Canon announced that they will be releasing the RF 15-35mm f/2.8 L later this year. Thanks!]

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27 Comments

Andrew Morse's picture

It's definitely not going to be for everyone, much like the 28-70 f/2, but frankly I'm not opposed to camera companies creating lenses that do not yet exist even if it is a niche product. Every lens has its market, and Canon already announced the RF 15-35 f/2.8L, so it's not like this is the only option.

I don't know if I'd buy into it, but I could see some value in it as a landscape lens which doubles as an astrophotography lens. One stop could make a difference in that respect. I'd need to know the filter thread (if there was one) and size/weight to make a decision there.

Alternative possibility - maybe their next camera body is indeed a high resolution body, but will also be low-light and ISO limited, much like the previous 5DS. Maybe releasing faster lenses is some of their solution to low light difficulties elsewhere?

Andrew Morse's picture

Thanks for that - is that the filter thread of the 28-70 f/2 or the mathematical minimum for a 16-28 f/2? Obviously it's a rumoured lens and not yet announced so I'm assuming there's some guess work going into it.

Andy Day's picture

Argh. I'd forgotten about the 15-35 f/2.8 L. There goes my entire argument. 😂

Andrew Morse's picture

I think the really interesting question in all of this is if we truly believe that Canon is going to release a trio of f/2 zooms, and they've already announced their trio of f/2.8 zooms, will they even bother with the trio of f/4s? I'm not sure that I've seen patents for f/4 RF trio lenses, but definitely a lot of ultra-fast zoom patents. Are they trying to move the base trinity to f/2.8 from f/4? I guess we'll know soon!

Andy Day's picture

Weirdly, I only just spotted this last comment, Andrew. That's a really interesting question!

user-128252's picture

I do not get it at all. I was seriously hoping that mirrorless will bring the size of lenses to what Leica has, but what I see is a bit shocking. I only hope there will be 5D MKV or 5Ds MKII. Then I am fine.

michaeljin's picture

Leica's L-Mount lenses are not exactly what I would consider to be small (or cheap) despite their rather unimpressive aperture either... High quality, well-corrected optics seem to universally require lots of glass and the size that it brings with it.

That's not to say that you can't make small lenses that produce beautiful results, but doing so involves accepting optical flaw or trying to design around them to turn them into a positive attribute which is something Leica has largely done with their rangefinder lenses.

That said, Fuji has some nice and small lenses and their X-Pro series isn't huge so they can be a "Leica-lite" if you're looking for that.

I think he is referring to Leica M lenses. They are small but lack things like auto focus.

But I do wonder why Leica M lenses are that small for a 35mm sensor and the others can't get close to it in size. AF shouldn't take that much space.

michaeljin's picture

Leica's M lenses are not as optically corrected as modern DSLR and MILC lenses are. There are still lens makers such as Voigtlander who create smaller optics (albeit, manual focus), but those lenses generally are not as sharp and have a lot more "character" (AKA: optical flaws). They are not lenses that would perform well on test charts and any major manufacturer releasing such lenses today would sadly be panned despite the fact that optical flaws can help in rendering some beautiful images.

Undoubtedly some of it is also just the "WOW" factor of presenting huge lenses. For example, take a look at Zeiss's Classic series vs. their Milvus series. Several of those lenses use the same exact optical formula, but the Milvus versions became curiously larger.

Leica L lenses don't ha e autofocus, don't have zoom, and don't (afaik) even have auto aperture. How could you possibly expect a lens with all those features be as small as a lens with none of those features?

michaeljin's picture

I'm sure that they'll release a lesser f/2.8 and possibly a f/4 trio. Canon is clearly going big from the outset with their lenses to try to drum up some interest as well as to pave the way for their professional body to have top-tier glass upon its release. I think it's an odd strategy, but we're still going to have to wait a few years before we really get the full picture of what their range of lenses for their mirrorless system will look like. Keep in mind that you're talking about a company that actively manufactures multiple versions of the same exact focal length with small differences between them. Just because there's one version of the trinity doesn't mean there won't be one or three more by the end of it.

Tony Northrup's picture

I love that Canon is creating unique lenses. I'm so bored of "this new 24-70 f/2.8 is very slightly sharper"... but basically looks the same. An f/2 lens will give you about a full stop cleaner images in low light, a bigger improvement than even if you went to the Fuji or Hassy medium format cameras (and were able to shoot at the same ISO). Low-light Canon images with these lenses will be FAR cleaner than you'd get from Sony and Nikon cameras, even though they have better sensors. They also give photographers *the option* of blurring the background more than they could with any other zoom.

Our experience with the 28-70 f2 was that it was also noticeably sharper than f/2.8 zooms at all f/stops, so it would also be a dream landscape lens even when not shooting wide open.

They're halo lenses, no doubt, like the old Canon 85mm f/1.2... but they're the type of lenses that people talk about and lust after. Now we just wait for the pro Canon RF bodies...

michaeljin's picture

I'm not sure that they'll be "far cleaner" given that Canon's low light performance has pretty much been a stop or so behind Sony (and by extension, Nikon). Without a change in that trend, it just levels the playing field in terms of low light results.

Will Murray's picture

Given that I have to haul it, a "dream" landscape lens is one that is small, light, weather sealed, and has great IQ; especially given that I amost never shoot wide open.

David Pavlich's picture

Thanks, Tony. I'm in the 'I'm waiting for the pro body' parade. There is no way that Canon is producing these lights out lenses without a very good pro body(s) to go with them...no way.

Hey Tony, which famous photographer are you going to defame for your clickbait next? Or did you tell enough lies about Steve McCurry to hold you over for a while?

Nikon is jumping on Canon's bandwagon with 1.2 mirrorless primes instead of 1.4.
In addition to the 50mm, they're working on a wide and an 85 1.2.

An f2 ultra wide would be a wonderful landscape/astro lens assuming it's sharpness and coma are comparable with the v3 of the 16-35 2.8. Sure, it's going to be heavier, but most fast lenses are.

Stuart Carver's picture

Just seems like a massive length measuring contest with these camera companies at the moment, who can pack the most MP, fastest aperture, fanciest autofocus etc. Suppose people are lapping it up so guess they are on the right track.

Stuart Carver's picture

Focusing less on beating competitors with stats and more on making the best quality image making equipment, for example do we really need a Fujifilm 33mm f1.0, or some huge f2 zoom lens lineup or should these companies be focusing on say making a better version of the 35mm f1.4 or creating a normally set of trinity lenses (f2.8) that offer absolute image quality in the smallest package possible. Just my own opinion of course, i dont want to upset the gear nerds.

Ryan Stone's picture

Literally double the light gathering, a unique rendering in a versatile lens, albeit expensive and large. Exotic options are nice. Pros and enthusiasts with cash to spare are the remaining market, why not give them the very best on the market?

As a concert photographer who shoots mostly in poor light, if this was available for a Nikon I would be figuring out what to get rid rid of in order to buy it!!! I am aware the the depth of field would be narrow , but working with a lens like that would give me unprecedented options!!!! I wouldn't care about the weight, I use heavy gear now. If I used Canon gear I would be all over it!!

They could be useful provided the cost comes 25% cheaper and I have an idea to make that happen, but require all of your cooperation (also the magazine networks and influencers you guys have).

Trash them with words for next 1 year. 1 article per month. Then no one will buy and after a year and half the lenses will start selling 25% cheaper. Then start praising them (include 'for the price point' to justify your previous articles). This will make the lens affordable and teach these companies a lesson ;-)

Don't trash em too long or else they will go bankrupt, we don't want that to happen (maybe the lenses will be 50% discounted if that happens!!? But you will have shortage of stock).

How does my plan sound?

Motti Bembaron's picture

Since most of my jobs involve more than one person, f/4.0 is plenty enough for me.

John MacLean's picture

Everyone is always looking for low light performance, but what about lower ISO (say down to 6) in the bodies to do long exposures without having to resort to ND filters? Using fast glass nearly or at wide open in daylight would be another use for the reduced sensitivity. Thoughts?

Since Canon has announced and will soon release an f2.8 trinity (and seemingly much smaller, lighter than their EF counterparts), I say go all out on speciality lenses. Those who really need them will snag them, and there are the f2.8 and f4 lenses for everyone else.

I think Tamron has it right though - I don't mind sacrificing a mm in focal length here and there if you're going to deliver f2.8 zooms around 500-600 grams. That's impressive.