The best Canon lenses for street photography

Travel photography specialist Joel Santos reveals his favourite professional lenses for stunning street photography and explains how and why he uses them.
A woman stands at the end of a narrow outdoor passageway, facing away from the camera and leaning against one wall while placing her hand and upper arm against the other.

Photographer Joel Santos has travelled all over the world documenting people going about their daily lives. The Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM is one of his favourite lenses for street photography because its fast maximum aperture makes it ideal for shooting in low light conditions. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 15mm, 1/40 sec, f/2.8 and ISO640. © Joel Santos

Street photography is not for the faint-hearted. After all, this is where you come face to face with real life in all its unpredictable glory. Unique, split-second dramas unfold without warning, and capturing them requires almost-psychic anticipation of what is about to happen – there are no retakes.

To be quick and creative requires deftness, intuition and an instinctive relationship with your kit, particularly your lenses. "What really makes a difference are lenses," says travel, street, landscape and portrait photographer Joel Santos, "because lenses shape the way you capture the world."

Joel's approach is to embrace the genre's unpredictability and respond accordingly. "Usually, street photography is more candid – you don't plan or ask people to pose. I try to feel what's around me and react to it. At the same time, the story starts to develop inside your mind. So, street photography is more free, where you just go with the flow."

So what are the best lenses for street photography? There is debate among photographers over whether to use zoom lenses, which are versatile and more affordable, or prime lenses, which may offer faster apertures and therefore perform better in low light. Street photographers, both professionals and those starting out, need to choose the kit that best suits their personal tastes and needs. Indeed, Joel's kitbag includes a mix of both lens types, for different reasons.

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Here, Joel talks us through his favourite Canon lenses for street photography and how he uses them, while Mike Burnhill, Senior Product Specialist at Canon Europe, provides expert insight into the features that make each lens ideal for the genre and suggests some other options to consider.

A woman stands at the end of a narrow passageway, facing to the side and away from the camera and leaning forward against one wall, her arm outstretched in front of her. The walls and floor are painted in bright green, blues and yellow.

With people sharing images more than ever thanks to social media, Joel is keen to emphasise the virtues of creating inimitable content. "It's about wielding your social skills to be in the best possible position to capture singular and candid moments and, consequently, take pictures that will be extremely hard to mimic in a copycat-plagued social media context," he explains. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 35mm, 1/20 sec, f/8 and ISO400. © Joel Santos

1. Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM

When it comes to street photography, Joel prefers the versatility of zooms because he can rarely take the time to change lenses. At the wide end, he values the RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens's f/2.8 maximum aperture, which makes it great in low light conditions and also produces a shallow depth of field, so that the focus rapidly falls away and subjects stand out from their surroundings. Joel adds that the lens's image stabilisation means he can use longer exposures and capture scenes where the street is completely sharp but there's motion blur from bikes or cars.

As Mike points out, when this L-series lens is paired with an EOS R System camera with In-Body Image Stabilisation (IBIS), the lens's five-stops of IS is just the tip of the iceberg. "The IBIS on EOS R System cameras is very good at correcting certain types of movements while the lens IS tackles other movements. They both have their own specialities. Consequently, the lens and the camera work in partnership to tackle a broader variety of vibrations and deliver super-steady images."

The Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens.

Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM

Canon's fastest ultra-wide-angle zoom, boasting a Nano USM motor, 5-stops of image stabilisation plus three Aspherical and two UD elements for stunning sharpness.

2. Canon RF 24-240mm F4-6.3 IS USM

The Canon RF 24-240mm F4-6.3 IS USM is also an ideal lens for street photographers – with a very versatile 10x zoom range, five-stop optical IS and weight of just 750g, it's perfect when you want to take only one lens with you.

"It's a super zoom, multipurpose lens that's not too big," Mike explains. "It's probably as long as an RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM, but obviously much narrower.

"This lens takes full advantage of one of the key benefits of the RF mount at the heart of the EOS R System, the fast communication between the camera and the lens. This means you can have Digital Lens Optimisation data contained in the lens and transmitted between the lens and the camera in real-time, so the camera can adjust any imaging imperfections instantly in software. Essentially, you get better quality images from a more affordable lens."

The Canon RF 24-240mm F4-6.3 IS USM lens.

Canon RF 24-240mm F4-6.3 IS USM

A portable, versatile 10x zoom lens for the EOS R System that's ideal for everything from wide-angle landscapes to frame-filling portraits, and even close-up sport and wildlife.
A group of people sit and stand at the edge of a square of earth arrayed with flowers, glasses with lit candles and a basket covered with a cloth. Behind them are other plots of earth, one with a cross at the edge of it.

Joel makes no secret of his favourite lens – the Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM. "You know the expression 'jack of all trades, master of none'? Well, for me, this lens is master of them all," he says. "It's always sharp at whatever focal length you use, and you can make landscapes at 28mm and portraits at 70mm." Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 28mm, 1/30 sec, f/2 and ISO25600. © Joel Santos

3. Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM

Joel's favourite zoom is the RF 28-70mm F2L USM, which he describes as like having "a pack of primes" in one lens. "It's a statement lens from Canon, and it's really, really good," he says. "It's big, but believe me, it's worth every penny. It's my all-time favourite lens.

"In street photography, you need a lens that can perform in most situations superbly, and this is the only lens I know that performs perfectly from wide angle through to a narrow view."

Because of this end-to-end performance, Joel says he never needs to swap lenses mid-shoot. He adds that the f/2 aperture means this holds true regardless of how poor the light conditions might become. "Comparing it to f/2.8," he says, "that is twice as much light. Double is a lot of light."

Mike agrees: "It's super sharp and super bright, and you have most of your standard focal lengths. To create a zoom lens that is as good as a prime comes down to how we built the EOS R System from scratch around the RF lens mount, with a wide throat and a shallow flange back from the mount to the sensor. This allowed us to put the large rear optics in an optimal position close to the sensor to allow better transmission of light from the lens into the sensor."

The Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens.

Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM

The RF 28-70mm F2L USM offers the kind of image quality you'd expect from a prime lens, and adds an f/2 maximum aperture for more creative control.
A man sits in a narrow boat with a large butterfly net stretching out either side of him. It is nighttime, and the boat is lit by a small fire at the front.

Joel's extensive travel experience means his definition of street photography extends far beyond the conventional understanding of the term. After all, as he points out, "the planet is far more diverse than that. Sometimes our office or doorstep is dry land or an ice cave. Sometimes our 'public garden' is a cattle field." Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/50 sec, f/1.2 and ISO6400. © Joel Santos

4. Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM

Fast 50mm lenses have always caught photographers' eyes. Clarity and sharpness are powerful partners, but Joel says the RF version goes further – right to the edge of the frame, in fact.

"With the RF 50mm F1.2L USM, you can make magic, because it gathers light and separates subjects like nothing else," he says. "With this, you have an f/1.2 lens you can use at f/1.2. You can shoot in extreme low-light situations and have extreme subject separation."

The ability of the RF 50mm F1.2L USM to achieve these results across the frame comes down to simple physics, Mike explains. "Because of the wide mount and the lens elements being closer to the sensor, there's less need for the light to bend to reach the corners," he says. "Sensors are quite fussy about how light hits them. If light has to bend towards the corners, you get fall-off. Having a large array of elements close to the centre means light comes from the lens to the sensor in a straight line. Therefore, aberrations are reduced."

The Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens.

Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM

A 50mm f/1.2 prime lens for supreme sharpness, plus remarkable low-light performance.

The RF 50mm F1.8 STM offers the same benefit in a compact, lightweight lens ideal for street photography, candid portraits and video. London-based photographer and creative director Ejiro Dafé says it's so light and inconspicuous, it enables him to get shots that would be more difficult with a bigger lens, and the 50mm focal length produces images with a natural-looking perspective. It's also one of the most affordable lenses in the RF lens lineup.

5. Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM

There's a lot to be said for 35mm lenses. Not only are they portable and lightweight, but they are much less intimidating than large lenses. "I use the RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM as an icebreaker because it doesn't shout 'I'm a professional photographer'," Joel reveals. "It makes you look like a simple guy who's just there to take a photograph.

"It's also very bright, very fast and very sharp. And it has image stabilisation, and can even take macro shots. That particular lens is technically excellent, but at the same time it opens doors."

Mike explains that the macro capability is made possible by the innovative design of the RF mount. "This enables the lens elements to be positioned closer to the sensor, which means adding macro functionality is more straightforward," he says. "Both the RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM and the RF 24mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM deliver half-size macro, which is a decent sort of macro for a wide-angle lens."

If you're considering wide-angle primes, don't overlook the affordable RF 16mm F2.8 STM. It's compact, lightweight and perfect for street scenes, vlogging and content creators. "You can get up close but with a beautiful wide angle," Mike says. "Normally a 16mm lens would give a lot of distortion, but this lens is rectilinear, so it's quite square and very compact. And it's also quite low-cost."

The Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens.

Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM

A wide-angle prime lens with a fast f/1.8 maximum aperture and macro capabilities.

6. Canon RF 600mm F11 IS STM and Canon RF 800mm F11 IS STM

Surprisingly, Joel also opts for a pair of super-telephoto lenses, although thanks to their advanced design and diffractive optics, the RF 600mm F11 IS STM and RF 800mm F11 IS STM are much lighter in weight than their EF counterparts and contract to much more compact lengths for storage, making them much easier to fit in a kitbag.

"My job requires me to carry lenses across long distances for long periods," says Joel. "So most of the time, I would never take my 100-400mm lens because it is too heavy. With less weight, I can now take two lenses that go far beyond 400mm and allow me to take photos that I would never normally get. For me, that's amazing."

Mike again notes the benefits of the fast communication between RF lenses and EOS R System cameras made possible by the RF mount. "It means you can transmit Digital Lens Optimisation data from the lens to the body in real time based on the focus position, zoom and aperture," he says. "The camera will then compensate for different aberrations in the lens. Being able to adjust imperfections electronically means you don't always have to make a lens that's super perfect. Therefore, you can reduce the cost of the lens and the output will still be superb."

The Canon RF 600mm F11 IS USM lens.

Canon RF 600mm F11 IS USM

A 600mm super-telephoto full-frame lens that is lightweight, powerful and perfect for capturing distant subjects in glorious detail.

Ultimately, street photography is fast-paced and demanding. It has its challenges but also presents unique opportunities to capture fleeting moments of human endeavour, pain and love. It's about reacting to the unfolding drama as it happens, and having the kit to do that. "You need to be quick," says Joel, "because the moment won't repeat itself."

Mark Alexander

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