If you have a Canon DSLR, congratulations! You have access to quite possibly the greatest collection of lenses on Earth. While it’s more than possible to find some remarkable lenses for any DSLR — and I personally recommend checking out Sigma’s excellent Art line for any camera brand — Canon lenses are generally considered the best in the world. Sure, Leica and Zeiss offer some truly astounding glass, such as the Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95, that arguably outperform the very best from Canon. But if you want a huge selection of dozens of lenses with focal lengths ranging from 8mm to 800mm, look no further than Canon EF lenses.
But with such a massive selection to choose from, picking the lenses that are right for you can be a daunting task. If you’re into a specialized form of photography that requires a specific kind of lens, such as a fisheye, macro, tilt-shift, or super telephoto, then you likely already know what you need. However, if you’re just starting out with your Canon camera, a narrowed down selection of the best Canon has to offer may be helpful.
There are three noteworthy nuances to the Canon lineup we should go through before we begin:
#1 The first thing to note is if your camera is full-frame or APS-C, already assuming it is an EF mount camera. This will determine what lenses are available to you, and you should always triple check that you’re buying a full-frame lens if you have a full-frame camera. If you have an APS-C camera, you can use any EF-mount lens, but be sure to note that the “equivalent focal length” of a full frame lens on a crop-sensor Canon is 1.6x the listed focal length. So if a full-frame lens is 35mm, on APS-C it would be 35mm x 1.6, or 56mm. APS-C only lenses are denoted as EF-S and shouldn’t be purchased for use with a full-frame camera.
#2 Another important element of the Canon lens system is the division of quality into three distinct tiers:
Silver: These are the everyday lenses that come in camera kits and are generally not the best Canon can make, with a flimsy, plastic build. Though they work fine, these lenses should generally be avoided if you want good image quality, though there are a few exceptions noted on this list. I almost always recommend buying a camera body only and choosing your lenses for yourself, since a kit lens won’t give you results that are much better than a point-and-shoot. These budget lenses have silver rings or no rings at all painted on the barrel.
Gold: The middle tier is essentially just a nicer version of the Silver series, often sporting similar optical design with higher quality glass or coating and a metal construction. some of these lenses are actually pretty good, and you can spot them by their gold ring on the barrel.
Luxury: Then, there is the L series. These are expensive, amazing lenses that pretty much every photographer lusts after. They are easily recognizable by the red ring painted at the end of the barrel, and by their high price tags. Though they have top-end optical and build quality, they are usually big and heavy regardless of the focal length. But if you’re going to take your Canon system seriously, you should save up and focus mostly on L lenses.
#3 There are a few acronyms that get tacked onto the beginning or end of a lens’s name (which is made up of the focal length and minimum selectable aperture, like 50mm f/1.8). Each denotes a special feature of that lens, which is helpful for quick comparisons. While there are a number of more obscure acronyms that are only found on a few lenses, all you really need to know are the common ones listed below:
EF: Canon’s designation for full-frame lenses, placed before the lens name
EF-S: Canon’s designation for APS-C lenses, placed before the lens name
IS: Image Stabilization, especially important in telephoto lenses
L: Luxury, this simply tells you it’s a top-of-the-line L series lens
STM: Stepper Motor, a low-vibration focusing motor that’s good for video, with non-mechanical manual focus. It’s generally not as fast or accurate as an UltraSonic Motor and comes in cheaper lenses.
USM/Micro USM: UltraSonic Motor, a fast, quiet, accurate autofocusing motor
I, II, III: These numerals denote if the lens is Mark I, Mark II, or Mark III, or how recent the design is. If a lens is updated it will usually receive a newer Mark in its name. No Mark designation means the lens is a Mark I, which is the case for most of the lenses in the list below. While newer mark lenses are typically a bit better, the improvement isn’t always worth the higher price.
My advice to any new photographer is to allocate about 2/3 of your total photography budget on getting two or three quality lenses. The lens you use will have a far greater impact on your images than the camera you use, and your lenses can stay with you your entire life while you will likely replace your camera every five years or so. If you want proof that the lens is far more important than the camera body, check out this great comparison video by the venerable DigitalRev TV. So if you can, save up and get one L lens instead of two or three non-L lenses and thank me later.
Okay, let’s dive into the list of the best Canon lenses out there. Since this is aimed at photographers who are new to the Canon lens lineup, we’ll go in order from the least expensive to the most expensive. But if you get multiple lenses, make sure they actually serve different purposes by having different focal lengths, physical sizes, or minimum apertures.
So there you have it, all the lenses you need to consider. Okay, it probably won’t hurt to look at just about every lens in Canon’s lineup if you’re so inclined, but when you get totally lost in your selection just come back here and know any of these lenses is an excellent choice.
Be sure to plan your lens purchases for the long term, not to patch a focal length range you need right now. For example, if you have no lenses at all, it may be tempting to fill out your bag right now with the EF 50mm f/1.8 STM, the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM and the EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM for a total of about $1,225. However, if you eventually purchase an L lens you will likely make one or two of these lenses useless. Instead, it would be wise to perhaps choose the EF 135mm f/2L USM and the EF 50mm f/1.8 STM for about $1,125, then fill in the range with the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM whenever you get the chance.
Whatever you choose, make sure to plan for a diverse and quality set of lenses that can last you a lifetime. Once you have the right lenses for your Canon, the rest of your gear will fall into place.