with CLIPREVIEWED learn the articleThe Best Canon Lenses for 2021
Which Canon Camera Do You Own?
Before you buy a lens, you need to figure out which Canon lenses are compatible with your camera. The vast majority of consumers will be looking at EF-S and EF lenses, which are compatible with SLRs that use the APS-C sensor format. This includes the consumer-oriented Rebel series, as well as midrange bodies like the EOS 90D.
To confuse things a bit more, Canon doesn’t use the Rebel branding outside of North America. In Japan the series is called Kiss, and in Europe Canon uses model numbers with a three- or four-digit designation—the EOS 1500D and 800D are two examples. For the rest of this article, we’re going to be referring to these as APS-C SLRs, just to simplify things. These cameras can use EF-S and EF lenses.
Canon’s other consumer line is the EOS M mirrorless series. As with Rebel, it uses an APS-C sensor, but because its lens mount doesn’t allow room for a mirrorbox or optical viewfinder, it has to use different lenses. It’s compatible with EF-M glass, but can use EF-S and EF lenses via an adapter.
Although there’s nothing stopping an enthusiast from buying one, we still think of full-frame cameras as more geared toward professionals. Canon has two full-frame systems. Its long-established SLR system uses EF lenses only.
It also has a full-frame mirrorless system, introduced in 2018. In a surprising move, Canon opted to develop an entirely new lens mount, instead of sharing a design with its existing APS-C series. It offers the EOS RP to entry-level users and the EOS R5 and R6 for enthusiasts and pros.They can mount RF lenses natively and are compatible with both EF and EF-S lenses via an adapter, but they cannot use APS-C mirrorless (EF-M) lenses.
It should be noted that, while lenses aren’t entirely cross-compatible, many accessories are. If you have a modern Canon Speedlite flash, you can use it with any of the company’s current systems, assuming your camera has a hot shoe (and all but a few do).
What to Look for in a Lens
Now that you know what type of camera you have, the next step is to figure out what kind of lens you want. If you bought a consumer model you probably started with a very basic zoom, which just screams for an upgrade.
If you have an APS-C camera you’ll have to think about lenses in a slightly different way than full-frame customers. Because of the smaller sensor size, the 18mm wide-angle end of most kitted zooms isn’t nearly as wide as an 18mm full-frame lens. Instead, it’s closer to a 28mm—still wide, but not to the point where it shatters perspectives. With any system, a lower number means a wider angle of view.
You can put a full-frame lens on an APS-C camera and simply enjoy a tighter angle of view than you would when paired with a larger sensor. But the other way doesn’t work. Canon EF-S lenses cannot mount to full-frame EF SLRs, although they will work with an EOS R via an adapter. For stills you’ll need to shoot at reduced sensor size and resolution, but using EF-S glass on the EOS R makes sense for 4K video—it only uses the APS-C area of the sensor when recording footage at maximum resolution. But, for the most part, there are too many drawbacks to using a lens designed for APS-C systems with a full-frame model for anything but this scenario.
There are reasons to use full-frame lenses on smaller sensors, especially if you enjoy photographing distant subjects. You’ll get a little bit of extra reach due to the denser pixel designs of most APS-C sensors, which is a plus if you’re trying to lock in on the quarterback or achieve focus on a double-breasted cormorant popping its head out of the water to chow down on a fish.
Aside from the focal length, you’ll want to look at the f-stop. The lower the number, the more light the lens can capture. A lens can always be set dimmer—if you have an f/2.8 zoom, you can set it to shoot at f/4 or f/5.6 to get more depth of field in a shot, for example—but you can’t open up an f/4 zoom to f/2.8, it just doesn’t work that way.
Image stabilization (IS) is another thing to shop for. Canon doesn’t include in-body image stabilization (IBIS) in any of its SLRs, but has added it to the mirrorless EOS R system—at press time it’s included in the two latest models, the R5 and R6. That means, unless you’re using the newest gear, you’ll want to look for lenses with optical stabilization. Canon uses the IS designation in the names of its stabilized lenses.
Not every lens is stabilized—for some, like ultra-wide zooms and very bright prime lenses, it’s simply not practical or absolutely necessary. But if you’re shopping between a lens with IS and one without, the one with IS is typically a better choice, especially if you plan on using it for handheld video capture.
Finally, pay attention and make sure the lens you’re buying has autofocus—assuming you want it, and most consumers will. Pros will know when to use autofocus lenses and when to manual focus. The latter is popular for video productions where there’s a dedicated camera operator to pull focus, as well as for some ultra-wide and macro lens designs.
There are many ways to go when buying a lens, so we’ve broken them down by category.
Upgrade Your Kit Lens
A kit lens is a great way to get started with a camera. Kit lenses typically offer a very solid zoom range for family snapshots and portraits, and they don’t add a lot of cost to the camera. On the other hand, the latter means there are often some compromises.
The big one is usually the f-stop—the starter lens often has a narrow f/3.5-5.6 design, which means that it can’t gather as much light when zoomed in as it does when zoomed out. With f/5.6, you can expect to use the flash to compensate.
There are brighter options out there, and if you’re happy with the range your 18-55mm gives you, but want better images, a new standard zoom is the first lens you should think about. Canon SLR owners have a wealth of options, in both the APS-C and full-frame formats. For Rebel owners we like the Sigma 17-70mm F2.8-4, which sells for around $500 and is a big upgrade over an 18-55mm. But there are other ways to go, including zooms that don’t gather more light, but are better built and have a longer range. We’ve chosen some of our favorites and highlighted them below.
The Best EF-S Standard Zoom Lenses
If you’ve opted for Canon’s EF-M APS-C mirrorless system, you’ll find your choices are fewer. Sure, you can use SLR lenses with an adapter, but that adds some bulk—and you probably bought an EOS M camera because of its size, and the small size of its lenses. We’ve highlighted all of the standard zoom options for the EF-M mount below.
The Best EF-M Standard Zoom Lenses
Canon’s long-established full-frame system has a wealth of standard zoom options, from Canon and others. You probably didn’t start with a variable aperture zoom—although Canon does make one, the EF 24-105mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM, which is sometimes bundled with the entry-level EOS 6D Mark II full-frame camera.
So instead of mulling an upgrade, many full-frame buyers are going to be shopping for a first lens. Your best bet is to identify what kind of aperture and zoom range you want. You can opt for the true pro zoom, the 24-70mm f/2.8—if you’re shooting weddings and other events in difficult light, the f/2.8 aperture is a big plus. But for less than pro use, an f/4 zoom will do just fine, and you can get one with a longer 24-105mm range.
The Best EF Standard Zoom Lenses
The RF mirrorless system is relatively new, but there are native lens options available for photographers who want to avoid using an adapter. We’ve reviewed the handful below, and are working on coverage for the other options for the system: the pro-grade RF 24-70mm F2.8 L IS USM ($2,299) and the consumer-friendly RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM ($399).
The Best RF Standard Zoom Lenses
Go Wide, Really Wide
One of the reasons to opt for an interchangeable lens camera over, say, your smartphone, is the ability to change your perspective—really change it. One way is to go with a lens with an ultra-wide angle. For APS-C shooters that means one that can start as wide as 8mm, roughly equivalent to a 13mm full-frame lens.
There are more options available for EF-S cameras than for EF-M mirrorless models. Canon only sells one wide zoom for EF-M at this time, the EF-M 11-22mm f/4-5.6 IS STM. If you want to go wider, or get a zoom with a brighter f-stop, you’ll need to resort to an adapter.
The Best EF-S Wide-Angle Lenses
Full-frame owners can go wider—Canon has a zoom that starts at 11mm, wider than any other lens out there, discounting fish-eye designs. But there are also more moderate wide zooms, starting in the 16mm or 17mm range, and solid third-party options to fill in the gaps, or save some money, when compared with Canon’s offerings.
The Best EF Wide-Angle Lenses
Canon only sells one ultra-wide zoom for its full-frame RF system at this time. The RF 15-35mm F2.8 L IS USM ($2,299) includes image stabilization and an f/2.8 f-stop—a rare combination. We’re currently working on a review.
Get the Fish-Eye Look
What’s wider than wide? Fish-eye, of course. Canon doesn’t have a ton of native options—just one zoom, the EF 8-15mm. It’s a versatile lens as it can mount to any Canon SLR, and either mirrorless system using the appropriate adapter. But as part of the company’s premium L series, it’s not a budget option. We’ve highlighted it, as well as some other more affordable fish-eyes, below. The budget options are manual focus, but for the most part you can set a lens to infinity and snap away in manual mode and get crisp shots when capturing such a wide swath of the world.
Photograph Distant Subjects
Telephoto lenses are used to bring distant subjects into view. They are the bread and butter of many disciplines of photography, with longer lenses used for many types of sports and wildlife capture, and shorter telezooms, notably the iconic 70-200mm f/2.8 design, finding their way into the bag of practically every working photographer.
There are a few telezooms designed specifically for APS-C SLRs. Most are light, inexpensive designs, but occasionally you find an outlier. The Sigma 50-100mm F1.8 is an example of a premium, APS-C dedicated zoom with an aperture bright enough for use in very dim light. Most designs for Rebel and similar cameras are narrow aperture designs—great for use outdoors, but not in dimmer light.
The Best EF-S Telephoto Lenses
Again, Canon EOS M users are left with a rather scant selection—just the EF-M 55-200mm f/4.5-6.3 IS STM. To get a brighter long zoom, system owners will have to use a lens adapter.
There’s nothing stopping APS-C shoppers from buying a full-frame telezoom. You’ll benefit from some extra reach, courtesy of the smaller sensor, and you’ll have more choices if you want a lens with a large, bright aperture.
Full-frame telephoto lenses can cost as little as a few hundred dollars, and range up to over $10,000 for the really exotic glass the top sports shooters use. We’ve tested a bunch, ranging from inexpensive options like the 100-400mm from Tamron to the huge Sigma 500mm F4.
The Best EF Telephoto Lenses
The RF system’s telephoto library is still growing, but has some very intriguing options. Canon was quick to bring the RF 70-200mm F2.8 L IS USM to market, an essential lens for many system owners. It has more on the way very soon—the RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM, RF 600mm F11 IS STM, and RF 800mm F11 IS STM are on their way soon, along with 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters.
Work in Low Light
One of the reasons you buy a big camera is to capture photos in light where your smartphone just stares at you in the face and laughs. But the f/3.5-5.6 starter zoom isn’t going to get the job done. They also let you blur the background behind your subject, giving photos that SLR look. Of course, modern smartphones can mimic this, but the feature often falls apart in dim light—try getting your iPhone portrait mode to work in a dim room and you’ll find that the experience is much less than magical.
There aren’t a lot of dedicated, bright primes out there for APS-C systems. Canon just had to make a couple for its EOS M system—the 22mm f/2, which debuted with the first M, and the EF-M 32mm f/1.4 STM ($479). Thankfully, Sigma offers a trio of F1.4 primes in EF-M mount—they’re the lenses you’ll want to get for premium results with your EOS M6 Mark II.
The Best EF-M Prime Lenses
For Rebel SLR owners, the options are even fewer—it’s really just the EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM, which is quite small and inexpensive. Its f/2.8 aperture isn’t nearly as bright as an f/2 or f/1.4 lens, which captures twice or four times the light respectively. I like a third-party option, the Sigma 30mm F1.4 DC HSM Art, which pairs perfectly with an APS-C sensor, but it isn’t designed for full-frame.
This means that both APS-C and full-frame system owners will be shopping from the same pool of choices when it comes to a bright lens. I typically suggest a 28mm or 35mm prime to APS-C shooters, as affordable options are available in both focal lengths, and either can be a fine all-around lens for your camera.
The Best EF Standard Prime Lenses
The 50mm focal length has long been considered the standard angle for full-frame systems. It’s also the longest lens we’ll talk about here—when you move to tighter angles of view, we start to talk about tools more geared toward portraiture as the main use case. It’s also one of the reasons I don’t recommend APS-C owners buy Canon’s inexpensive 50mm f/1.8 as a go-to low-light lens. Nicknamed the Nifty Fifty, it’s a fine choice for portraits, but not as versatile an everyday prime when paired with an APS-C sensor.
System owners willing to pay pro prices can enjoy some glass that’s unique to the Canon system. It offers 50mm f/1.2 primes for its SLRs and RF mirrorless mounts, and goes as bright as f/1.4 for other popular focal lengths. Third-party options are plentiful, so you can get an excellent lens for hundreds less than what Canon charges.
Owners of the EOS R mirrorless system can use any of the EF lenses via an adapter, but also have more modern RF-mount options available, including the top-tier RF 50mm F1.2 L.
Capture Gorgeous Portraits
What makes a lens a portrait lens? We look at the focal length (longer than 50mm) and aperture (definitely f/2 or brighter). This gives you the ability to frame your subject tightly, but without standing too close. Anyone who has shot a close-up headshot will understand how a camera can distort faces at close distances.
For full-frame systems, the portrait range starts around 85mm and ranges through 135mm. Anything longer is a bit too long. Of course, rules are meant to be broken—you can capture stunning environmental portraits, showcasing the world around your subject, with a wider lens, and there is absolutely nothing stopping you from standing across the street and capturing a head-and-shoulders shot with a 500mm. Those just aren’t the typical use cases.
The Best EF Portrait Lenses
APS-C users can choose from these same lenses for their portrait needs, but really, the EF 50mm f/1.8 is a fine option for both Rebel and EOS M cameras, especially for budget shoppers.
We’ve not yet reviewed any of the portrait lens options for the RF mirrorless system. There are a pair of RF 85mm F1.2 L USM options, including a premium DS version with an apodization filter for smoother, feathered bokeh, for $2,699 and $2,999. A third, the affordable RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM, is set to serve double duty for portraits and macro when it ships in November for $599.
Don’t Forget the Small Stuff
Let’s talk macro. Close-up focus is a great tool to highlight the little things in the world. Whether it’s the textures on a rocky wall, or a cooperative insect, having a good macro lens in your gear bag lets you hone in on the small stuff.
There are a few APS-C macro lenses in the Canon library. Rebel SLR owners can use the EF-S 35mm f/2.8 Macro IS STM, which includes a built-in light to help you get better macros without an external flash, or the older, more basic EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM.
EOS M users have a single native macro option right now, the EF-M 28mm f/3.5 Macro IS STM. Despite a shorter focal length, it’s capable of greater-than-life-size magnification, and also sports an integrated light.
Likewise, there is only one macro for the RF shipping at this time, the RF 35mm f/1.8 Macro IS STM. It offers full-frame coverage, 1:2 life-size magnification, and image stabilization. But it doesn’t have an integrated light on the front, which seems like a missed opportunity.
The bulk of the macros available for the system are full-frame designs, with EF mounts. Our favorite is the Tamron SP 90mm Macro, as it offers incredible resolution and value, as well as image stabilization. We’ve highlighted it and some other very good options below.
The Best EF Macro Lenses
While some photographers approach the discipline with a purely artistic eye, others are more technically minded. Architectural photography, like architecture itself, is a melding of the two. Yes, a building can be beautiful, but if it doesn’t withstand high winds or an earthquake well, it’s not much of a building.
So, whether you’re making your way to Barcelona to capture the works of Gaudi, or are more of a Frank Lloyd Wright type, a lens with shift and tilt movements is a big plus. These specialty tools—all purely manual focus—allow you to shift the lens in any direction, so you don’t have to tilt your camera up to get all of a tall building in frame and introduce the keystone distortion effect into images.
They also allow you to tilt the plane of focus. Want to photograph a subject at an angle, but keep the subject entirely in focus? Applying a bit of tilt makes it possible. You can also use wider tilt lenses for artistic effect. The most popular technique is applying tilt to a wide scene, which blurs sides and makes the real world appear as if it is a diorama—many cameras mimic the look with a Miniature Effect art filter.
We haven’t reviewed all of Canon’s tilt-shift lenses, but have highlighted the handful we’ve tested below. Other focal length options from Canon include 17, 24, 45, and 50mm. The Samyang lens we’ve included is one of the few third-party tilt-shift options out there, and while I wouldn’t recommend it over the equivalent Canon for professional work, it’s a fine way for hobbyists to get their feet wet.
These lenses are only available in the EF mount, so you’ll need adapters to use them with a mirrorless camera.
The Best EF Tilt-Shift Lenses
For the Art School Crowd
If none of these lenses tickle your fancy, you’re probably someone who thinks outside the box—so maybe your lens should match your personality. I’m talking about lenses with imperfect optics, crazy-looking bokeh, and other quirks that will give your images a specific character.
In recent years there has been a movement to recreate vintage optics for modern systems. Lomography led the charge with its New Petzval series, but it isn’t alone. Rival Lensbaby, which has a long history of making all manual, tilting portrait lenses, has also jumped into the fray with the soft-focus Velvet series and other offerings, including the Omni Creative Filter system.
If you want a lens that stands out from the crowd, and captures images that do too, think about going off the beaten path. These are only available in EF, so you’ll need adapters for mirrorless.
The Best EF Art Lenses
Use Your Dollars Wisely
When you’re shopping for a lens for your Canon system, you can spend as little as a hundred dollars and change, or upwards of $10,000. It’s usually better to overspend a bit and get a lens that’s a little more than you need, as opposed to getting one that’s not up to your standards. Take time, read some reviews, and figure out what’s the right fit for your camera and your work.
You might find an external flash is a better next step, as it will illuminate subjects much more pleasingly than your camera’s built-in strobe. If you buy a Canon Speedlite you won’t have to worry about compatibility. If you opt for a third-party flash, make sure it’s for Canon and supports E-TTL—if it doesn’t you’ll need to adjust its power manually.
For more help on getting better photos from your camera, check out some tips aimed at beginners. We’ve also put together some for more advanced photographers, as well as guides to photographing fireworks, lightning, and instant photography.
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