A fresh perspective: shooting ultra-wide with the Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM

Travel photographer and documentary filmmaker Joel Santos sees the Faroe Islands in a new light with a pioneering ultra-wide-angle lens.
Joel Santos holds a Canon camera with a Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM lens while looking out the window of a helicopter.

Joel Santos flew in a helicopter across the Faroe Islands' vast landscapes, shooting stills and video from above with his Canon EOS R5 and the Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM lens. "I shot inside and out of the window, and a helicopter is not a stabilised vehicle, it shakes quite a bit," he explains. "The footage is very nice, which just goes to show that the stabilisation in the lens is working really nicely, together with the IBIS. Distortion is much more controlled." He's happy to add the lens to his kitbag, saying, "What made me switch to the EOS R System was the lenses."

Travel photographer and Canon Ambassador Joel Santos is no stranger to capturing dramatic landscapes. In Joel's work – which has seen him document communities across the world, from eagle hunters in Mongolia to salt miners in Ethiopia – he often uses wide angles to capture environmental portraits which place his subjects in the centre of their worlds, giving documentary context to their stories.

On a late summer filming trip to the Faroe Islands, a self-governing archipelago of 18 rocky, volcanic islands between Iceland and Norway, Joel took something special with him – a Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM lens, the widest AF zoom lens for full-frame cameras in the world1. With a focal length that starts at an overwhelming ultra-wide-angle 10mm, the lens meant Joel was able to capture completely new perspectives of this stunning landscape, getting close to his subjects while also fitting their surroundings into the frame.

Less than half the weight of its EF predecessor and with new market-leading Image Stabilisation providing sharper edges on stills and stable borders on video, this lens is built for the remote environments Joel has made his career photographing. Here, Joel explains what this ground-breaking lens adds to the RF range, and why it has earned a place in his kitbag.

The spiral staircase at Poço Iniciático, or Initiation Well, Portugal, descends in a photo shot from above. Taken with a Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM lens by Joel Santos.

Joel tested the Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM lens photographing the Poço Iniciático, or Initiation Well, at the grand villa of Quinta da Regaleira in Portugal's Sintra. The ultra-wide-angle enabled Joel to capture a unique perspective of the spiral staircase descending into the darkness. "Usually, even with a 16mm, it's really hard to encompass all of the structure," he says. "You have to handhold the camera, and with it being dark, you lower your shutter speed, and then you get the problem of camera shake. This lens, being so wide and also stabilised, with the help of the EOS R5's In-Body Image Stabilisation (IBIS), made it possible to take this shot." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM lens at 10mm, 1/15 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 400. © Joel Santos

A cotton flower in a meadow blows in the wind, blurred hills visible in the background. Taken with a Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM lens by Joel Santos.

"The wind was blowing hard, so I had to put my hand on the cotton flower so it didn't swing so abruptly," says Joel. "I was able to focus on it, and at the same time, you can see the whole mountain range behind it." This adds vital extra detail from a documentary perspective. "I don't want to show just how beautiful the cotton flower is, because that I could do anywhere else in the world, I want people to understand that this cotton flower is in the Faroe Islands. This lens allows you to put context into your photos and videos." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM lens at 20mm, 1/500 sec, f/6.3 and ISO 125. © Joel Santos

A new perspective on the Faroe Islands

After taking some initial test shots at a famous spiral staircase in Sintra, Portugal, close to his home in Lisbon, Joel headed to the Faroe Islands to truly put the Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM lens to work on their boundless horizons. Its portability – weighing just 570g – was an immediate draw. "The Faroe Islands aren't the North Pole but they're windy, not the easiest place to shoot," he says. "Weight is very important to me. Most of the time I had to trek to locations, so it was nice to be able to bring that lens along with my usual setup, knowing I could do something absolutely different with it than I could with the other lenses."

His kitbag included his Canon EOS R5, drones, and a range of lenses, including his formerly widest-angle Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM, his favourite Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM and his Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM. "This lens is much wider than the RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM, which is my most used wide-angle lens," says Joel. "It doesn't look much on paper when you look at 15mm and 10mm, but 5mm at the wide end is really a lot." So much so that at the lens' ultra-wide-angle 10mm, you achieve a shooting area more than twice that of the 16mm focal length that was Joel's first wide-angle lens.

"Usually people think about ultra-wide-angles as a means to put a lot of things inside the frame," says Joel, who often sees people using them in Portugal to fit churches into their shots while shooting in narrow streets. "I don't use the lens that way." Instead, he primarily experimented with the RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM's short minimal focus distance. "You can be almost on top of something, and still be able to focus it," he adds. "If you do that with a telephoto lens, subjects need to be at least one to three metres away. But with the ultra-wide lens, it's almost like you're using a macro lens."

Taking a small cotton flower as a subject amid the vast expanse of the Faroe Islands landscape, Joel was able to handhold it in the wind, focus, and still capture the mountains behind it. "You can put something very near to you and make it appear huge," he explains. "At the same time, because the angle of view is so wide, you can have a whole landscape in your frame. With this kind of extreme angle, you can close focus and still have context behind it." Ranging from the extreme 10mm upwards also produces a range of perspectives. "You can have the standard 16mm, like you had before on your Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens, or you will have the option to go extreme and use it in all its power."

A person walks down a road towards a hut with a lake next to it as a waterfall flows down a hill in the Faroe Islands. Taken with a Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM lens by Joel Santos.

Joel sees the Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM lens as a perfect complement to his other EOS R System lenses, allowing photographers to learn something new by shooting a little wider and moving their point of view. "When you move physically, the relationships between the objects in your composition actually change. The relationship, the size, the distances, the proportions are completely different and this is what this kind of lens allows you to do." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM lens at 20mm, 1/125 sec, f/13 and ISO 125. © Joel Santos

Stabilised and free of distortion

Not only does the Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM lens offer the most extreme wide-angle view, it has up to 5-stops of Image Stabilisation and its optics minimise distortion. "It's a really mind-blowing lens, because it goes far beyond what is usually perceived as an ultra-wide-angle," says Joel. "It's a much lighter, more capable lens in every way you can imagine.

"Optically what's incredible is that usually these kinds of ultra-wide lenses have huge distortions," he says, comparing the RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM to those other extreme ultra-wide-angle lenses: fisheyes. "The problem with a fisheye is that if you have the horizon line centred in the frame, then of course it is horizontal. But if you tilt your camera up or down, then the horizon will become a curve. With this lens, it does not. It is still a horizontal line, and this is incredible, optically."

Joel also noticed that he could shoot in all kinds of light and avoid flares or ghosting. "I often shoot with lateral light, and in wide-angle lenses, light tends to bounce between the optical elements and create nasty flares and loss of contrast," he explains. "Here it was so incredibly well controlled, it was unbelievable." Under the hood, advanced lens coatings combine to reduce ghosting from light sources.

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Alongside his photography, Joel also shot video with the RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM lens, finding that the lens' 5-stops of Image Stabilisation compensates for wobble at the edges when shooting video, without impacting focal length. Its new Peripheral Coordinated Control IS compensates for perspective movement at the edge of the frame, while the lens' optical design reduces any sign of chromatic aberration which can arise in ultra-wide lenses.

"You might wonder why you'd put stabilisation in this lens, because it is so wide and the focal length is so low, so camera shake is less likely to be seen on the final file," says Joel. "But for me, it is a godsend, because most of my work is in remote locations and I sometimes have to trek a lot. Being able to take photos where I need to shoot handheld at half a second, one second, or more, without a tripod with this lens is just amazing."

A rocky outcrop overlooks a lake while hills are visible in the background and clouds cover the sky. Taken with a Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM lens by Joel Santos.

"When people start using this kind of lens, they might feel that everything is so tiny in the frame," says Joel, who places objects in the foreground of many of his wide-angle shots, such as this rocky outcrop looking over the Faroe fjords. "Because the angle of view is so extreme, something you see with your own eyes, for example, a rock, looks medium-sized, but when you look at it in the camera, it looks minimal, like a grain of sand, it's that extreme." It takes time to get used to the fact that you can fit so much more in the frame, he says. "Try it out and you will find incredible angles that you can explore." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM lens at 10mm, 1/160 sec, f/13 and ISO 100. © Joel Santos

Joel Santos takes a selfie with a Canon camera attached with a Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM lens, a lake and hills visible behind him.

"For me, for what I do and what I like, a lens being light, stabilised and well-built means everything," says Joel, pictured here demonstrating the ultra-wide-angle of the lightweight RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM lens in a selfie along the Faroe Islands' waters. Durable, dust and weather resistant, the lens is built for tough environments. "You have to get there to get the shots, so that's sometimes more important than having all the gear. Sometimes you have to choose what you bring or not. Where I shoot, I need to take water with me, so every 300g I save, is more water I can bring with me. Equipment that I can feel free to bring along without compromising the rest, is very important." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM lens at 10mm, 1/40 sec, f/13 and ISO 100. © Joel Santos

Experimentation and balancing composition

The unique focal length of the Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM lens shouldn't restrict you to shooting in certain environments, with Joel encouraging users to drop any preconceptions they have of wide-angle lenses. "People like to put lenses into categories – 'This lens is for portraits, this lens is for landscapes', and so on," he says. "I don't see it like that, and this lens shouldn't be seen like that. What we are talking about here is how much more you can put inside a frame and how much closer you can get to the subject. You can get closer and wider than you would before. It opens up new possibilities."

The expanded frame of ultra-wide-angle photography can feel daunting at first. "When I first tried my wide-angle, a 16mm around 18 years ago, I remember feeling a little bit lost that suddenly there was a lot inside the frame, because I was so used to shooting between 24-70mm and 70-200mm," says Joel. There can be a tendency to focus on simply packing more into a wider frame, but Joel takes the opposite approach. "With this lens, it's easy to put a lot inside your frame and make your composition messy. Most people think about composition as the things you can put inside the frame and how they play together, but for me, composition is usually about 'what can I take out of the frame to make it simpler, more striking and more compelling?'"

Fluffy clouds and a rocky mountain range, frozen in places, are bathed in an orange glow emanating from the setting sun in the distance.

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A low-angle shot of a horse standing in a meadow as grey clouds cover the sky. Taken with a Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM lens by Joel Santos.

"The Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM lens allows you to change perspective, to be more creative and have more solutions in every way you can imagine," says Joel, who captured a horse from a low angle, at an extreme 10mm focal length. "Like any new tool, it behaves differently to the ones you have, so the more you experiment with it, the better. This is an extreme angle, more than you would get with most action cameras, without getting the rounded distortion, and it's not corrected by software, it's just optical engineering, which is quite amazing." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM lens at 10mm, 1/200 sec, f/6.3 and ISO 125. © Joel Santos

"If you want to have a whole mountain range in frame, you can, and the Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM is made for that," says Joel. "But if you like foregrounds in your photos and if you want to create a sense of scale, or exaggerate scale, you can transform a small puddle of water into a huge lake, or a stone into a boulder. You just need to go closer and down with your angles." This presents a range of unique aesthetics. "This kind of lens opens up new opportunities even in ordinary locations. You just have to change perspective with it, and that would be my strongest tip.

"I believe people who love photography love a challenge and the opportunity to do something different. This is that kind of lens – there's a lot of room to create something new. I see myself using it a lot, both professionally and also for fun."

Lucy Fulford
  1. Based on Canon research of Full frame coverage lenses with Auto focus, excluding fisheye lenses , dated 11 October 2023

Joel Santos' kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

A hand lifts out a camera from a kitbag, which also includes two other lenses.


Canon EOS R5

A professional full-frame mirrorless flagship camera offering photographers and filmmakers high-resolution stills and 8K video. "Bodies are of course really important because this is where the sensor is," says Joel, who appreciates the 45MP stills, 8K recording and IBIS of his EOS R System body.


Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM

Joel's new ultra-wide-angle staple allows him to capture wide landscapes, but also get closer than ever to his subjects. "This lens allows you to change perspective to be more creative," says Joel.

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

Joel sees Canon's formerly widest-angle zoom as a complementary lens to the Canon RF 10-20mm F4L IS STM, offering different creative results with its f/2.8 aperture. "It means double the light, so it also means I can blur the background more for the same focal distance," says Joel. "Creatively it might mean a huge difference in the end."

Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM

An advanced L-series zoom with a super-fast f/2 aperture that delivers exceptional image quality. "My favourite lens ever," says Joel. "It is not the lightest, but for me it's incredible, because it's like having a pack of primes in one lens."

Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM

"With this lens, you can make magic, because it gathers light and separates subjects like nothing else," says Joel. Offering supreme sharpness and stunning low-light performance, it's perfect for his portraiture and when working in dark environments.

Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM

A super compact high performance f/2.8 telephoto zoom, with 5-stops of Image Stabilisation. "We are getting these legendary lenses from Canon, in the trinity of RF lenses," says Joel, noting the improved stabilisation with the RF mount. "Now we are getting the same kinds of benefits with the new ultra-wide-angle lens, which is incredible."

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