Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8 L IS Review | The Workhorse Mirrorless Wide-Angle Zoom
When Canon first entered the full-frame mirrorless realm with their new RF mount, they sent a clear message to the competition: “We are going to do full-frame mirrorless lenses like you’ve never seen before!”
Indeed, less than two years after the EOS R’s debut in September 2018, Canon already has made FOUR lenses that offer something no other full-frame mirrorless system has: two (or three) f/1.2 primes, a 28-70mm f/2 zoom, and now,a wide-angle zoom that covers from 15mm to 35mm: The RF 15-35mm f/2.8 L IS.
Oh, and let’s not forget the highly unique design of the new RF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS, which we’re almost done reviewing as well.
At first glance, the Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8 L IS may not seem like much of an accomplishment, because indeed we already have numerous f/2.8 wide-angle zooms that go to 15mm and even 14mm. However, this new Canon mirrorless lens doesn’t just hit 15mm, it actually does so in the form factor that the previous 16-35mm and 17-35mm f/2.8 lenses did. That is, it isn’t a monster of a lens with a bulbous front element and a fixed hood, it’s a traditional design that accepts 82mm threaded filters.
For some photographers, this is unprecedented and exciting, while for others, it may not be a very big deal at all. So, which types of photographers should get excited about this lens, and which should maybe keep saving up for something else, or just using their DSLR ultra-wide lens on an adapter?
In this review, we’ll dive into not just the pros and cons of the Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8 L, we’ll also detail the different types of photography that this lens might be perfect for, and which it might be overkill for. Lastly, we’ll compare it against the rest of the competition, including options you might want to use on an adapter from your DSLR days.
One thing is for sure- if you already like what you see, and if you think you might be able to come up with $2300 someday, then you won’t be disappointed; this lens is basically perfect. (Spoiler!)
Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8 L IS | Specifications
FOCAL LENGHT & ANGLE OF VIEW: 15-35mm, 110° – 63°
LENS MOUNT(S): Canon RF full-frame mirrorless
APERTURE & RANGE: f/2.8-22, 9 blades, rounded
OPTICAL CONSTRUCTION: 16 elements in 12 groups, Air-Sphere Coating, fluorine coating, 3 spherical, 2 ultra-low dispersion elements
STABILIZATION: Yes, optical, up to 5 stops
AUTOFOCUS: Nano USM, both ring-type and STM, nearly silent
MECHANICAL CONSTRUCTION: Metal, weather-sealed, additional “control ring”
MAGNIFICATION & FOCUS DISTANCE: 0.21x magnification, 0.92 ft (0.28m) focus distance
SIZE: 3.48 x 4.99″ (88.5 x 126.8mm)
WEIGHT: 1.85 lbs (840g)
FILTER THREADS & HOOD: 82mm, detachable lock-able hood
Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8 L IS | Who Should Buy It?
Whether you’re a full-time professional photographer or a casual hobbyist, if you’ve owned a Canon “L” lens in the past, then you know what you’re getting: flagship build quality, high-performance functionality, and the absolute best images possible.
So, when it comes to “who should buy it”, it’s almost as simple as answering the question, “how much do you really need/want the best?” Because quite frankly, although it sounds like we’re just heaping excessive praise by calling anything “the best”, the reality is, “the absolute best” is overkill for a lot of photographers.
So, let’s be realistic, and break down who might want the Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8 L IS, and who might be totally happy with an alternative…
Wedding photographers don’t necessarily need perfection in a wide-angle lens, because they’re unlikely to ever place an important subject at the edges or corners of their frame. Also, they’re more likely to enjoy the artistic effect of things like natural vignetting, soft and unique flare, etc.
So, you might argue that the Canon 15-35 L is overkill for a wedding photographer. However, there are at least three main things that wedding photographers DO require, which all Canon lenses excel at: great autofocus performance, beautiful colors & bokeh etc, and of course, long-term durability. Oh, plus, it’s great if it’s not a heavy beast of a lens, because you might find yourself hand-holding it for 8+ hours a day.
Of course, the only other lens that offers all of these things on the same level as the RF 15-35 is the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L III, which costs almost the same as the RF. If you already have the EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L mk3, then, do you really need this RF mirrorless lens? Aside from the annoyance of mixing adapted lenses with native mirrorless lenses, not really. (Having said that, if you own the older, mk2 or even the mk1 generation of the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L’s, now is indeed the time to upgrade!)
In short, if you’re a wedding photographer, and you like the up-close-in-your face style of photojournalism, then this could be your new favorite low-light journalism & portraiture lens, and it would serve you well as a workhorse lens.
However, if you barely use wide-angle focal lengths, and your own creative style means you’re likely to use a 24-70mm, 70-200mm, or prime lenses for all your favorite wedding moments, then you might be better off saving your money and investing in a more affordable, portable wide-angle lens instead. We’ll talk about some of the options later.
We could mention that not all wide-angle f/2.8 zooms are stabilized, and if you’re using this on the un-stabilized EOS R at weddings, that could be a plus. Personally, though, I’d rather do weddings with the EOS R5, which allegedly has IBIS and of course dual card slots.
Portrait, Fashion, Street, & Action Sports Photographers
Let’s lump all of these other types of photography into one category, because, quite simply, you might not want to spend $2300 on a wide-angle lens. It’s a professional workhorse for those who need the unprecedented zoom range, stabilization in low light, and the rugged quality. But, how much do you shoot at 15mm, or 16mm, or any focal length wider than 35mm or 24mm? Answer that question, and you’ll know where/how to best spend your investment in RF mirrorless.
For the most part, though, I’d wager that depending on your personal style, you once again should probably be prioritizing a good 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom before thinking about this exotic wide-angle zoom.
Vloggers & Videographers
If you’re a vlogger, this 15-35mm f2.8 zoom might be a bit on the “overkill” side. To be blunt: wouldn’t you rather wait for Canon to announce an RF 20mm f/1.8 IS, (non-L) or an RF 24mm f/1.4 L? Personally, I’d rather have either of those lenses for vlogging.
Or, if Canon doesn’t make such a lens, maybe Rokinon, Tamron, Tokina, or Sigma will have a 20mm f/2.8 or f/1.8 for Canon RF in the next year or two! Tamron already has a dinky little 20mm f/2.8 which they just released for Sony E-mount; hopefully, with a slight mount adaptation, they could suit it to RF, albeit without the Canon command ring.
For serious cinematography, however, the 15-35mm certainly makes an attractive offer: things like virtually silent autofocus for cleaner audio, and near-zero focus breathing means that it’s a great choice. (Also, if you’re shooting 4K in the EOS R or RP’s APS-C cropped mode, then you’ll need 15mm just to get to 24mm, although for dedicated 4K shooting on either of those cameras, maybe an EF-S lens on an RF adapter would be a better choice if that is even possible.)
Architecture & Real Estate Photographers
Unlike other professional lines of work where important subjects hardly ever stray from the central region of an image, real estate photographers care about having great image quality edge-to-edge. Specifically, it’s important to have minimal distortion and low vignetting, both of which are areas where the Canon 15-35 excels. Once again, this could be the lens that literally pays your bills.
Now, we get to what is likely the happiest category of photographers when it comes to loving what a 15-35mm zoom has to offer. In short, no other wide-angle zoom goes to 15mm, hits f/2.8, and yet still accepts 82mm filters.
So, you can toss the giant, 150mm filter system for the DSLR 15-30mm or 14-24mm lenses that you were previously using, and switch back to just a couple “tiny” 82mm circular threaded filters, and maybe a simpler square filter system if you still need graduated neutral density filters.
All in all, this lens is indeed a landscape photographer’s dream- it’s essentially flawlessly sharp, both wide-open and stopped-down, and it’s rock-solid and weather-sealed, yet it is decently portable compared to some of the competition. Oh, and did I mention that it provides the greatest zoom range of any wide-angle lens that I know of?
Of course, if you always shoot at f/8-16, and don’t care about filters, then maybe you could wait and see if Canon has something even crazier up their sleeves, like an RF 11-24mm f/4 L, or who knows, maybe an RF10-24mm f/4 L! Last but not least, you might “settle” for an RF 15-35mm f/4 L IS. But, again, no such lenses have been even hinted at, yet, not even in the current rumors. Just save up for this incredible optic, landscape photographers, you won’t regret it!
Nightscape & Astrophotographers
Indeed, if you shoot both landscapes and nightscapes, then f/2.8 becomes highly desirable, and good image quality even at f/2.8 and even in the extreme corners becomes a must. This is the genre of photography where the 15-35mm will offer photographers the most impressive performance.
We’ll get more into the image quality next, but, suffice it to say, not only is this lens extremely sharp at f/2.8, but it also has very low vignetting, virtually no color fringing or aberration, and virtually no coma/astigmatism. That’s just incredible, considering that Canon also added a little bit wider angle, too.
Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8 L IS Review | Pros
Let’s speak plainly: this lens is incredible, with nearly perfect image quality, flagship-grade durability, and impressive overall performance. IF you’re skeptical, we’ll include as many comparisons as we can come up with, and hopefully, things will be clear: it’s essentially all good news.
There’s no debate: it’s ridiculously sharp. I would say it’s “flawlessly sharp”, but unfortunately we haven’t seen Canon’s “landscape monster” mirrorless camera body yet, with 40, 50, or …80 megapixels? Therefore, we can only say that on the 26-30 megapixel RF-mount camera bodies, the Canon EOS R and Canon EOS RP, …this lens is virtually flawless in terms of image quality, especially sharpness.
Bokeh is not always a deal-breaker for an ultra-wide lens, but it’s also surprisingly easy to achieve on any full-frame lenses, especially at 35mm and f/2.8. So, if you’re wondering whether or not you could use this lens at 24-35mm and f/2.8 and get smooth enough bokeh, (and shallow enough DOF) …then the answer is YES, the background blur is beautiful. It’s more than enough for most types of in-your-face journalism and portraiture. Of course, it’s no substitute for a 35mm f/1.4 lens, let alone a possible (imminent?) Canon RF 35mm f/1.2 L.
Colors & Contrast
Colors, clarity, and that overall “wow” factor are one area where Canon L lenses always seem to deliver. Simply put, when shooting with a lens like this, you edit your photos less, because they look more clear and crisp right out of the box. It’s a subtle difference between a Canon L and any third-party or competing brand, but it’s something you have to try for yourself to understand.
Vignetting & Distortion
Vignetting and distortion are both very low, even with the in-camera, baked-into-the-raw-file correction profiles turned off. With these embedded raw correction profiles turned on, the results are even more impressive. Virtually no distortion to speak of at any focal length, and vignetting is almost perfectly corrected.
NOTE: Unlike Nikon, Sony, and most other lens makers which are essentially forcing lens profiles to be applied under-the-hood, with the in-camera corrections being the only major way to control them, Canon’s RF lens profiles don’t “grey out” the Lightroom profile correction; in other words, you can still turn the correction profile off or on during raw processing. THANK YOU, Canon!
Sunstars & Flare
If you love sunstars, then you’re always in for a treat with Canon’s wide-angle zooms. Ever since the original Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L, dagger-like starburst points have been one thing that Canon does well, and this lens is no exception.
Having said that, with each new modern generation of lens, Canon, like their competitors, tend to focus more on perfectly rounded aperture blades, for bokeh optimization, and less on starburst characteristics, so if you want ridiculously pin-point sunstars, the mk2 and mk3 Canon 16-35’s are still the all-time champion wide-angle zooms. See below for an example of what the EF 16-35 2.8 mk3 can do:
Flare is also just what we’ve come to expect from such a high-end lens, with all its advanced (and pricey) optical elements and coatings. That is, flare is a beautiful warm wash of haze when shooting wide-open and controlling light just right. Then, when stopping down and working in the harshest conditions, flare “dots” are kept to a minimum, and in many instances, there are zero flare dots! Again, that makes this a highly desirable landscape photography lens…
Color Fringing, Aberration, Coma & Astigmatism
Here’s where nightscape or astro-landscape photographers will get excited: For a lens that doesn’t have a fixed hood and an enormous, bulbous front element, the Canon 15-35 delivers stunning results in terms of all these aberrations that plague photographers in such challenging conditions.
Coma and astigmatism, in particular, are virtually nonexistent, and any color fringing or chromatic aberration is also barely present, and completely eliminated with the default Adobe Lightroom correction settings.
Macro & Close-Up Photography
Close-up, the 15-35mm doesn’t lose any sharpness, and renders that beautiful bokeh that we already talked about. You probably wouldn’t buy this lens as a dedicated macro optic, of course, but for various types of creative photography, you can trust that you’ll get great results.
Design & Durability
Okay, let’s move on to the physical performance of this lens, and talk about the things that really matter to serious photographers who are looking to get the most out of their investment. How heavy-duty is it? How are the overall ergonomics?
Canon’s L-class weather sealing is famous for keeping gear working even when nasty weather is making the human behind the camera miserable and ready to quit. (Hey, it’s type 2 fun, right? That’s what I keep telling myself…)
When paired with a weather-sealed UV filter, you can expect trouble-free shooting in even the worst weather with the RF 15-35. Keep a dry cloth handy to wipe it down after you’re done shooting, or to gently brush sand off it, and you’ll probably get a decade-plus out of a lens like this.
Metal & Plastic Construction
Although there seems to be some question as to whether these modern lenses are built as rock-solid as the “old-school” optics that were visibly all-metal, and had no externally zooming parts, I think it’s safe to say that the overall physical construction of the Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8 L IS is flagship-grade.
We’re getting into “we won’t REALLY know until someone drops it on concrete, though” territory, which is a test we’re going to “hard pass” on if you don’t mind. Having said that, as a full-time photographer for 15+ years now, I’ve lost count of how many L lenses I’ve seen take a tumble onto rocks, pavement, etc, and let me tell you- even the most all-metal lenses can break sometimes, and yet, even the “plastic fantastic” lenses can be perfectly fine, sometimes; it is largely up to fate. Just try not to drop your gear, folks!
Stellar autofocus might not be as crucial as on, say, a 70-200mm lens, but it’s still nice to have great, reliable AF when you’re doing journalistic portraits and candids at a wedding reception, for example.
Suffice it to say, Canon’s EOS R and EOS RP bodies have been progressing regularly in terms of firmware updates that improve the autofocus over the last ~1 year, and we can only expect even better AF performance in the future. For now, all we can say is that autofocus with the 15-35mm is impressively quick, accurate, and virtually silent.
Manual Focus Performance
Manual focus is smooth, both in terms of the physical ring, and the electronic response that actually controls the glass in the lens.
When zooming in to ~10x during live view, and trying to focus on various subjects at f/2.8, it can seem like focus is “jumping”, or in other words, the increments at which focus is performed are not infinitely fine. You would think this might be a major drawback, but in all my experience, there is always a perfect focus for any subject at any distance. So, if there are any “focusing increments”, they’re small enough.
Overall, manually focusing is a wonderful practice for things like landscape photography, and this lens delivers professional performance, despite the lack of any physical focus distance markings.
The Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8 L IS costs $2,300, so, can we really call it a good value? Yes, it is a value to hard-working professionals who actually require the full measure of performance this lens offers.
Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8 L IS Review | Cons
Simply put, the only major drawback of this lens is that it’s pretty expensive. As a modern full-frame mirrorless lens, though, it delivers on its promise, so it’s hard to criticize it for “value”, when there’s no lens in existence that directly competes with it. The Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM comes close if you’re willing to totally switch systems, but it gives up 1mm on the wide end and is outclassed in terms of optical performance, despite costing only $100 less. ($2200)
So, that’s really it. The value itself is there, but the price point means that it may simply be out of reach of many photographers.
Aside from that, we’d have to nit-pick more than ever to find other cons. Many of them are par for the course on mirrorless
The Similarity Of The Rings
One thing about this lens that takes some getting used to, (just like the Canon RF 24-70mm f/2.8 L) is the proximity and similarity of the three rings on the lens: zoom, focus, and the “command ring” are all virtually touching each other, and although their operation and physical feel is easy to tell apart, you still do a fair amount of accidentally turning the wrong ring at first while getting used to the lens. Even after it’s become second-nature, from time to time in active shooting conditions where your eye is to the viewfinder you might find yourself spending an extra split second feeling for the right ring to turn…
The Similarity To The Canon RF 24-70mm f/2.8 L IS
Talk about minor complaints, this one is a stretch; feel free to roll your eyes at this minor complaint: When you put the RF 15-35mm and 24-70mm f/2.8’s side-by-side, they look extremely similar. If your line of work requires that you own both of them, just make sure you’re reaching for the right one!
De-Clicking Of The Command Ring
Canon’s on-lens command ring/dial is the most useful of any system, and it really is awesome to have a dial/ring dedicated to either ISO control or EV compensation. Most Nikon Z-mount lenses only have a focus ring that can be reconfigured, although the flagship zooms (such as the Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S) do have a third control ring that can be used for aperture control. Sony, on the other hand, only has a few primes with an aperture ring, and that ring can’t be reconfigured to do other things. (Many GM lenses do have a Fn button, though, which most Canon RF L lenses don’t have, so far.)
Either way, for video shooters who would like to use Canon’s command ring to smoothly adjust aperture with finer increments, then unlike Sony lenses which have a simple de-click switch, all Canon RF lenses require actual service (that costs something like $100) in order to be de-clicked.
I don’t think this is something that Canon can change, though, because the control/command ring is at the very front of the lens(es), and there’s nowhere to put a switch.
15mm still isn’t 14mm
Of course, last but not least, even though Canon’s wide-angle legacy has progressively improved from 17mm to 16mm, and now to 15mm, …Canon still does not have a 14-xxmm f/2.8 ultra-wide full-frame zoom. They also don’t have a modern 14mm f/2.8 prime, either, while third parties (namely Sigma and Rokinon) have produced some truly incredible fast-aperture primes and zooms in this range.
Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8 L IS Review | Compared To The Competition
At present, this is the only native Canon RF wide-angle zoom lens. We’ll probably see some other Canon options soon, and some third-party options eventually, but for now, here are your choices:
Canon Wide-Angle Alternatives
If you don’t want to wait and see if we eventually get a Canon RF 15-35mm f/4 L IS, or a third-party option, then right now your only “native” alternatives are Canon EF-mount lenses on a Canon EF-RF adapter. Since the lens, adapter, and body are all Canon, the performance is incredible.
Currently, the EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L III is a champ, and if you already own one, you probably don’t desperately need to upgrade. If you’re happy with f/4 lenses, then the existing Canon EF 16-35mm f/4 L IS is no slouch, though it’s certainly not on par with the new RF.
Alternately, if you’re still using any of the older Canon EF lenses, then as you jump to the Canon RF mount, it’s time to upgrade! The 15-35 is a whole new level of performance, compared to the Canon zooms of yesteryear.
Third-Party RF-Mount Alternatives
There aren’t any third-party wide-angle zooms yet for Canon RF, and it might be a year (or three) before we see any. In the meantime, there are just three or so different primes to consider.
Rokinon/Samyang have their AF and MF 14mm f/2.8 lenses both already available in native RF mount, and Venus Optics has already adapted their downright tiny 15mm f/2 mirrorless to RF, since it’s an all-manual lens.
Adapted EF-Mount Third-Party Alternatives
If we’re being honest, many people probably already a third-party lens from their Canon DSLR. There are some great zooms, such as the two Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 VC’s, and the Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 DG HSM Art. These are incredible optics, but they’re enormous and front-heavy, something that only gets worse when mounted on an adapter.
There are tons of great primes, both autofocus and manual focus, including some that hit 12mm, 14mm, and 15mm at f/2.8 or even f/2.4. Simply put, all of these lenses are incredible, but all of them are still in a very different realm compared to the Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8, of course, since none of them are zooms, none of them are stabilized, and most of them can’t match the image quality of the Canon RF.
Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8 L IS Review | Conclusion
So, is it one of the best wide-angle zooms on the market today? YES, it most certainly is. However, it also costs $2300, and there are numerous options out there that are more than “good enough”, and a few that are truly stellar, too.
You could find a half-dozen other options costing hundreds less, or more than a thousand dollars less. But, in each case, you’ll have to make a compromise (or three) in terms of sharpness, zoom range, image quality. Also, in most cases, you’ll have to put up with the front-heavy, off-balance feel of a DSLR optic on an EF-to-RF adapter, which to some people will defeat the purpose of going mirrorless.
All in all, Canon has hit a home run, but it’s still the first inning, and you might not want to spend $2.3K just yet. (Then again, third-parties might not even join the game until the bottom of the 9th!)
If you’re a casual photographer looking for a wide-angle lens, there are better ways to spend your money, but if you’re a serious landscape or nightscape photographer who has already begun enjoying the EOS R, and/or is likely looking forward to the EOS R5, then this is the dream lens you’ve been waiting for.