Since the EF mount began over 30 years ago Canon has made over 160 million EF mount lenses. That is a lot of lenses! Admittedly, a large proportion of those are going to be the consumer level non “L” lenses, but I would guess that at least half of those are L lenses if not more.
Naturally with that many EF lenses in circulation made by Canon alone it makes sense to consider if an EF mount lens could be a good price/performance lens for your money. That does not mean that these lenses are better than RF equivalents, it just means they do a good job at a lower (sometimes much lower) price than RF lenses currently command. In this article I will talk about some of my favorite EF lenses and what makes them a good value.
Some of the earliest EF lenses were some of the most legendary in their day. Lenses like the EF 80-200mm f/2.8 earned the moniker the “Magic Drainpipe” because it seemed to take pictures with virtually no hit to image quality regardless of aperture or focal length. Early accomplishments like this are what helped build Canon’s reputation for quality lens designs. Even today the EF 80-200mm is sharp when stopped down and used on a modern mirrorless camera. While it is a good lens optically, the AF is a big letdown on this lens. It is accurate but only reliable in One Shot mode and it is very noisy when focusing! Plus, there is no built-in stabilization. That said it is an interesting lens for its unique rendering, especially when shot into the light. The performance is not up to modern standards wide open, but if you think of it more like an f/4 lens with the option of f/2.8 when you need it, it is a decent performer. What makes it an interesting option is the price, around $300 on eBay.
Another excellent early performer was the EF 28-70mm f/2.8. Optically you would have a hard time telling the difference between this and a modern standard zoom. Plus, it has the still used USM AF motor so focusing is relatively quiet and fast. Stop this lens down to f/8 and you would not know it was a zoom based on the images it makes. Of course, there are downfalls with all these lenses in that they are old and this one is no exception. Unfortunately, this lens tends to suffer element separation. This is a problem that occurs when a group of glass elements that are glued together become unglued, resulting in issues like extreme amounts of flare in even moderately bright light. I tried to acquire one of these lenses and gave up after several copies had issues with the USM motors. Optically, one of them was near perfect and it sucked to send it back but send it back I did because it just would not acquire focus, even manually (it is focus by wire), past a certain focal length of about 65mm. I could almost live with not using the last few millimeters of reach, but I figured it would annoy me and there was no point in keeping it when I have other lenses that are just as good and work properly.
Both versions of the EF 24-105mm f/4 L are also really good. I have the EF 24-105mm L mk II and I think it is a quality lens to adapt to RF mount cameras. Not surprisingly, as it is a useful range of focal lengths to have at a constant f/4 aperture, the 24-105’s are some of Canon’s most popular lenses. The mark II version has modern image stabilization built in and is a great option for videographers looking for a run-and-gun package to use with something like the R5 or R6. The combination of IBIS and lens IS makes shooting high quality hand-held video a breeze.
Other zooms like the EF 70-200mm f/2.8 series are good but a little expensive. Once the price starts going way over the $1,000 price point, I start thinking I might as well get the RF version of that lens for my R cameras. But having said that the EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L mk II is a good lens, albeit a little pricey, but still a good option if you can find it for a good price.
An oldie but a goodie is the EF 135mm f/2 L. Yes, it is an old design. It was released in 1996 which makes it about 21 years older than the Sigma 135 f/1.8 Art. Being newer the Sigma 135 Art is sharper wide open especially in the corners of the frame. But for most portraits corner sharpness is going to be irrelevant at 135mm. While the Canon 135 f/2 L is $999 new, it can be had for around $500 used. It is a great buy at that price. It is a classic Canon lens if that matters to you. It is not optically perfect wide open like the Sigma almost is, but the vignette it has wide open at f/2 will add something nice to a lot of images. Stopped down to f/4 the Sigma and Canon 135mm lenses are similar in sharpness. And stopped down further to f/8 they are virtually identical; both are ridiculously sharp to the last pixel in the corner of the frame with no meaningful vignetting. The Sigma is relatively pricey at $1,399 but is also weather sealed while the Canon oddly enough is not. It would be tough to pass on the Sigma if it were a little cheaper, say, $1,099 brand new. At its current price I keep thinking about how 3rd party lenses tend to be sketchy when new cameras are released with new features. For that reason, I think the Sigma is a little overpriced and I would hesitate to recommend it. If price is no object it is a toss up as to which is better. Some people will favor the “look” the Canon has while some people will favor the sharpness of the Sigma. Bang for your buck though I think the Canon 135 wins, which is why it continues to sell after 24 years on the market.
Of course, a conversation about which EF lenses to get would not be complete without mentioning Canon’s line of super telephotos. While they are all really good, the price/performance sweet spot is with used copies of the 500mm mk II and the 600mm mk II. Many people will suggest buying the 500mm over the 600mm as the 500 is a pound lighter and easier to handle in addition to generally being cheaper. But if you want the better optic, the EF 600mm f/4 L mk II is probably the best choice. Either way pros have used both to capture countless stunning images. The lenses also work great with the teleconverters that can take the 600mm all the way to 1200mm. The mk III version of Canon’s super telephotos are also really great but are generally said to have similar image quality to the mk II lenses, the main difference is they are substantially lighter and have improved stabilization and AF. While I would technically prefer the mk III versions, I think you would be better off buying the mk II used and waiting for the new RF super telephotos to hit the market. Canon has big shoes to fill with the RF super telephotos and with the price they are likely to fetch there will not be any wiggle room with regards to image quality and performance. They will need to be the best Canon has ever made, noticeably so.
My last EF lens I would buy for my RF cameras is the EF 100mm f/2.8 L Macro. It is a great lens with great colors and excellent IS. It is also not too expensive. Since it is a full 1 to 1 macro there is currently no RF mount lens that can match it for macro capability which almost makes it a must have if you are serious about shooting macros and have an RF mount camera.
Well, that just about wraps up my list. I hope you found it informative and interesting. There are a lot of EF lenses out there and the truth is most of them are pretty darn good still even excellent. So consider your options wisely. When you start adding up the total cost of owning a bunch of RF lenses the dollars add up quick. Right now I have the RF 28-70mm and RF 70-200mm which are both great lenses but the cost to own them is almost $6,000 when you factor in taxes. Now if I want to add an ultrawide and a super telephoto in RF mount, I would guess that is another $5,000 – $6,000. All well and good but factor in the camera bodies and the total cost is pushing $20,000. When you start throwing around that kind of money I feel like you need to justify it with actual work and not “oh, I just like messing around with this $12,000 camera and lens combo”. But that is all assuming money matters to you, if you have deep pockets I would say do not hesitate, get the RF glass and stop worrying about EF lenses altogether…