Shooting With the Cheap and Small Canon RF Primes

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 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.

The RF L lenses are amazing. The prices of these lenses are also amazing. What about the cheaper versions? I borrowed this set from Canon for my Iceland trip in 2021.

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.

The cheap RF lenses that I took with me on my trip to the south of France.

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.

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. Small and light, but fun to use.

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.

Inside the Sainte-Cecile Cathedral in Albi. Shot with the RF 16mm.

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.

Castelnou de Montrimal, a typical Bastide village. Shot with the RF 35mm lens.

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.

The village of Campagnac, shot with the RF 85mm.

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.

The macro capabilities of the RF 35mm and RF 85mm are very convenient. I took this one with the RF 85mm 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.

I took a backpack with me, but I should have chosen a simple shoulder bag. The camera and three lenses fit inside this small bag. It makes changing lenses much easier and quicker.

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.

One of the beautiful caves we found, hidden somewhere in the landscape. Shot with the RF 16mm lens.

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.

It took half an hour climbing down on a steep hiking trail to find this river. It was worth it. Shot with the RF 16mm lens.

In the end, for the use of the images, mainly websites and a maximum 20x30 cm print for an album, the quality was more than perfect.

The Conclusion

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 red dunes of Maraval, an amazing landscape. Shot with the RF 16mm lens.

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.

Benefits

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

Downsides

  • 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.

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16 Comments
winzehnt gates's picture

16mm, 35mm and 85mm are the focal length I'd like to see in a tripple camera smartphone.

Nando Harmsen's picture

The latest Sony smartphones have 16mm, 24, and somewhere around 70mm equivalent. As if they listened to your wish
;)

winzehnt gates's picture

Almost there, but especially the most important main canera is still way to wide. I could accept 28mm.

David Anderson's picture

Thanks for the review, Nando. The 85 is the only of these i have, and it's great. It's crazy sharp, but the bokeh isn't quite as smooth as my Samyang XP 85. Still, i find myself using the RF lens a lot more because it's just so light and handy. I use an M5 and a bag of small fast primes for travel, but your article makes me think of just grabbing the RF 16 and 35. That would be cheaper than upgrading to the M6ii I've been wanting. Hmmm.

Richard Kralicek's picture

Well, it depends on the software you're using for post processing. I had the RF 16 on the EOS R, but it was Jpeg-only for me, as the distortion wasn't correctable manually with CaptureOne, as there's no lens profile up to now for that software. Pretty disappointing. Sold it, now I have the normal sized = huge 16-35/4, second hand, which is very good, but ... huge. Wouldn't take it on such a trip.
The 35 really is the most versatile prime they ever made. One needs to stop it down compared to expensive macro lenses for better sharpness/DoF, but even then it delivers not too busy backgrounds which is nice.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I don't understand why you sold it. After all, it's just a matter of time before software manufacturers add the lens profiles for these lenses. It works great for Lightroom Classic. I would guess it should also work for Capture One

Richard Kralicek's picture

Well, it had a lot of distortion, and one that wasn't correctable manually in CaptureOne (not even the next version of it will have a profile for that lens), a kind of moustache distortion. Not as extreme as the Samyang 14mm f2.8, the first version (where I had a lens profile to correct it, not for RAW, but at least as plugin resulting in TIFF images), but still not usable for architecture. I bought it as fun lens for city trips and for hikes. So instead of using two small lenses I'm gonna use the 16-35/4 for such trips. That one is sharp, versatile, correctable ... and huge, but hey, so be it. Bought it second hand.

The standard correction profiles of Capture one, the generic ones, are for pincushion and barrel distortion, not for waveform (moustache). I tried Canons RAW developer, but it isn't compatible with CaptureOne so I would have had to export as TIFF and work with huge TIFF files, and that program isn't fun to use. I tried to mimic the correction many times, with forest images, with architecture, but gave up and sold it.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Ah wel, you got the EF 16-35/4 as I understand. It's not that big. Just compare it to the EF 16-35/2.8 or RF 15-35/2.8. But the EF adapter makes it big. Perhaps you should think about the RF 14-35/4. That's a nice one.

Richard Kralicek's picture

Sorry for the late reply, but that 14-35/4 suffers from the same problems. Lens profiles for CaptureOne exist for the 15-35/2.8. Too expensive for my rare usage of such a lens.
Anyway, thanks for trying to help, as always much appreciated.

John Herzel's picture

Nice pictures, I love the 3 primes approach. I wish they would make an RF 20mm and RF28mm. f2.8 for the 20 and f1.8 for the 28. Keeping the same body as the RF 16/50 would be awesome for a perfect weekend travel kit. I'm on the fence about the RF85 because I have the EF version and the adapter. Same for the RF35. But I'm not sure Canon will do anything like this for a while. Small and light are so nice. Big zooms aren't always the best approach. But they make big money for the camera companies. Maybe TT Artisans can help!

Nando Harmsen's picture

Finally the gallery is working for some more pictures.
I have replaced my EF 85 f/1,4 for an RF version, just as my other lenses. Although the RF adapter for EF is working great, it makes the lenses too long for my liking.

Paul Gerrard's picture

I've been using the RF 35/50/85mm non-L prime set on my EOS R for photoshoots when travelling light and I've been very happy with them. I tend to favour the 85mm as it's the best of the bunch and my preferred focal length for portraits - if I'm shooting outdoors I'll just bring the 85 and 35 as they both fit perfectly with the camera in a very small Lowepro bag I have. The 50 is the weakest of the set but when shooting indoors in tight spaces I've been glad to have it available - it's tiny and weighs almost nothing so there's really no penalty to bringing it along! I'm still hoping for an RF 50mm 1.4 though...

Nando Harmsen's picture

The RF 50mm f/1,4 would be a nice inbetween lens. Not as large and heavy as the f/1,2 but better compared to the f/1,8

Sam Sims's picture

Why are Canon still selling lens hoods for these non-L lenses as expensive optional extras?

Nando Harmsen's picture

Because they like to earn a lot of money, just like every other company
;)

Milind Rao's picture

I have the 16, 50 and 85 RF lenses with the RP. Love them all. Extremely light. I also have the 100-400 RF lens and the 24-240 RF. I haven't touched the EF 135/2L lens for ages and used the EF 50 with the adapter for a long time and then finally just broke down and got the RF version. The only lens I wish I hadn't bought was the 24-240. Hardly ever use it. Theoretically that would be my one walk around lens. But in practice I find it too heavy and far slower than I'd like for anything other than landscapes and for that I have the 100-400 which I find to have much better image quality and ironically lighter than the 24-240.

I have never liked 35mm. It's the anti Goldilocks focal length for me.