Trent Chau | Instructor and Photographer

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A Review of Canon’s 40mm 2.8 STM Pancake Lens

No doubt by now you have heard of Canon’s new interesting 40mm 2.8, or the Pancake lens.  I  really can’t tell if the lens was met with great fanfare, or just a big resounded meh.  The cool thing is there really hasn’t been anything negative about it.  It’s hard to say exactly where this lens fits in the Canon system right now.  On a crop camera its the equivalent of a 64mm lens, which is an odd focal length meant more for portraits waist up but not exactly head shots.  On a full frame camera it’s a very reasonable 40mm which surprisingly makes a very nice environmental portraiture lens that used to be dominated by the 35mm focal length.  Well oddness aside I picked up the lens today and decided to throw it through some usage.  As with all reviews on this site this is a real world usage review.  What does that mean?  It means no technical test, no software algorithms saying corner 3 is this level of sharpness…it’s just a guy, his camera, subjects, and the results of the click of the button.

If you like this review and want to try the lens out, be sure to check Aperturent and tell them I sent you.

Help support this blog by purchasing this lens at Amazon- Canon 40mm 2.8 @ Amazon

Right now this is the de facto review of the 40mm that people on the net are referring to.  They’ve come to the conclusion that for the price the lens really is something.  Something I appreciate about the review is that it using measuring tools to reach the conclusion, but this is the opposite of what a real world review does.  I wanted to show you this link though because the lens rental guys are awesome and deliver very good and important information, they just don’t really show example images which could be a great motivator when it comes to lens purchases.

Are you a little bit more tech savvy, or just love the technology side of lenses?  Please read my friend Terrance’s review of this lens at – http://frontallobbings.blogspot.ca/2012/06/canon-40mm-f28-pancake.html.  He is someone who’s advice I listen too intently as he delivery is exception, his fact checking is superb, and his insight is amazing.

Day one – Initial feelings

Unboxing this lens sadly isn’t anything spectacular.  You don’t get a lens bag like with L series lens, you don’t get a lens hood, you just get a box, some plastic and if you are not careful a lens that falls out because you don’t expect it to be so small.  This thing is seriously tiny.  It pretty much feels like a 1.4 extender or a 25mm extension tube.  The quality of the build is nice, the finish is good, and it feels a lot better than the 50 1.8 II that most people will compare it too.  Where the 50 1.8 II feels like a toy, this lens feels more like a well made accessory.  Take that as you will.

Mounted on the Canon 5d Mark II (sigh, can’t afford a Mark III just yet) the lens is surprisingly light and very ergonomic  It was very very easy to hold the camera steady using only one hand, and it really felt like point and shoot mode on the camera. My “portable” setup with the 5d has traditionally been the 35mm 1.4L or the 50 1.2L.  While it was lower profile and weight than using something like the 24-70 2.8L (Ugh) those two lenses still proved bulky.  The 50 1.4 Canon has always been a good go too lens, but at $400 I found the quality and design of it dated for the price.  At $200 I’m actually very happy with the sharpness and results of this lens from the photographs I’ve taken compared to those L series mentioned.  The 40mm isn’t a 100% match to those lens, but it still has a high passing grade.

The camera was so light and usable I want to share this shot.  It’s not a 100% techinically correct shot, but it has something very important to me going for it, it has the emotional factor of a important photograph (which is part of the reason why we are photographers) mixed with using a camera in a situation that shows how useful the lens is.  First of here’s the photo:


So once again, the shot isn’t perfectly in focus, and really it’s not out of this world spectacular.  So why use it as an example?  Well I’m driving.  No there’s no danger other than not having both hands on the wheel.  I’m not looking back at all, the composition is totally guestimated.  My right arm is in a weird position, the cameras roughly 2 feet away from my daughter, I have it on AV mode and took this photo.  It felt very natural to just lift the lens to this position, it didn’t weight anything at all, and the camera was light as a feather.  In a moving car you notice the weight of a l series lens on a camera, on this shot I didn’t notice the camera at all.  Obviously this is easily recreated (and probably done better) on many other lenses, the thing that really stood out was how organic the whole experience was and how unobtrusive the lens was to the experience.

Not all things are wonderful

I did have some issues getting a lock on focus with fast moving objects. This is something that will be tested the next few days.

At $200 the price is killer, the optical performance was amazing.  The only thing I’ve found to be icky about the lens is it seemed to really hunt for focus on a fast moving object.  My little 4 year old girl moves around a lot and when she was moving back and forth in the office the lens sometimes had trouble focusing.  It isn’t a fast prime (sub 2.0) so it doesn’t get other primes benefit of being able to auto-focus using all available light, and the auto focus motor is smooth and slow rather than snappy (like the 85 1.8).  This is something I want to explore more rather than jump to a full conclusion with.

So here’s the initial pro’s and cons of the lens.

Pros :
Portable
Fast in comparison to a kit lens
Great image quality throughout the lens
Sharp
Cheap!

Cons:
Sometimes slow focusing on fast moving objects
Slow for a prime
Kinda long on a crop Camera (64mm)
Slightly high pitch auto focus motor

Day 2 Impression

Amazingly light and portable still, very easy to use.  I didn’t shoot too much today other than a few snaps of my daughter, and also of my best friend for my 365 project.  Check that out.

Some other assessments of the lens.

Sharpness is very nice, even at wide open.  Color rendition is good for a lens of it’s price, but not L series good (for obvious reason).

Here are some pictures I took today.

I have some pretty major stuff to test the lens out with the next 2 days, including a shoot with my muses Marissa and Bree, and also some awesome splash water shots.

Day 3 – Fashion and Glamor

Today the 40mm was used for some fashion type shooting and glamor type shooting.  Something I wanted to really put in my head was “What if there wasn’t the L series lenses, but instead this is what I can afford”.  The 35mm F2 canon is a little old in the tooth, the 30mm sigma is a crop only, so the 40mm is a interesting focal length.  Lets say it was paired on a classic 5d.  Would it make a good fashion or glamor lens.

Here’s some sample images:

Fahiony type shoot with the 40mm

40MM at iso 1600

Well I liked the lens.  The images from it were sharp.  It was easy to use.  Post production for color was accurate though not as vibrance and punchy as L series lens.  Compared to the kit lens the 40mm STM is VERY GOOD.

It’s safe to say now that the 40mm 2.8 STM is probably a better lens to tell people to get over the 50 1.8II.

The conclusion from today’s shoot: This lens shines in the image quality factor.  It’s very sharp, and the color rendition is remarkable for it’s price.  It’s a killer lens to have for more environmental portraiture, and I think it’s a great middle range fashion lens to have.  2.8 isn’t slow…it’s not prime fast, but it’s still faster than a lot of zooms.

Taking the above line “What if there wasn’t the L series lenses, but instead this is what I can afford” into consideration, what options do a general Canon shooter have compared to the 40mm 2.8.

Well first of all lets get this out of the way, the 40 2.8 STM is extremely small and the closest lens to it (the 35mm 2.0) is nearly twice as big.  So no lens will compare to it size wise.

There’s 3 stand out options one can purchase instead of the 40 2.8 STM

Canon 35mm 2.0 – This lens is a good one but it’s getting OLD.  I believe it’s design is from 1991 and it has a auto-focus motor noise that can raise the dead.  The background blur from it is so so, and the build quality is decent.  At $120 more than the 40mm 2.8 I don’t think the stop increase you get from 2.8 to 2.0 is worth it.  The 40 2.8 STM seems a better deal.

Sigma 30mm 1.4 – When this lens first came out people loved it, until there was a lot of quality control problems.  I don’t know if it’s recovered, but when it’s working the 30 1.4 sigma is out of this world beautiful.  At $500 it’s a lot more expensive than the 40mm 2.8 but you get 4 times the amount of light possibly coming in.  What you do lose is a lot of the portability factor.  Oh also the 30 1.4 is CROP camera only, so it’s a nice 48mm equivalent on a crop camera, where the 40 is a 64mm equivalent.

Canon 50 1.8 II – This is the lens that most people will compare the 40mm 2.8 STM too.  The 1.8 has a stop and 1/3 faster performance, but has an atrocious build quality and a pretty awful auto-focus motor (slow).  It’s extremely affordable at $120.  On a crop camera it becomes a very good 80mm portrait type lens.  Something I will hit on day 4 of this review is a factor that makes the 40mm 2.8 STM a lens potentially a lot better to use.

So conclusion from the above post.  The 40 2.8 STM is a STEAL at $199.  There are some decent alternatives, but not great alternatives.

Day 3 – Marrissa in Downtown Athens.

Day 3 was more real world shooting with the 40mm 2.8 STM.  I brought Marissa to downtown Athens, GA and tried some basic environmental shooting, which should be ideal with the focal length.  I took a few shots initially and it seemed the contrast and punch of the lens was off.  Seemingly yesterday while shooting on the water the front element got some splashes on it and there was a water stain on the front element.  After a little clean up the lens was just like new and got some really surprising results…like this next one.
The comparison – 40mm 2.8 STM vs. Canon 50 1.2L

The Canon 50 1.2L is about $1600 new right now, so about 8 times the price of the 40mm 2.8 STM.  This test compares the 2 lenses both at the same settings, same camera, same time.  The Camera was on manual, the white balance on cloudy, the settings were ISO 400, 1/200 second, at F 5.0 on both lenses.  Here are the results.

Canon 40 2.8 STM

Canon 50 1.2L

Don’t know about you guys, but the image quality almost looks the same to me.  Both lenses looked to do great in the middle, and pretty good on the edges.  For $200 that’s awesome.  Now mind you the 40mm 2.8 will NEVER do 1.2, but still I was really impressed by this.  It should be noted that the Canon 50mm 1.2 is known to be absolutely stunning as a 1.2~2.0 lens.  I would of done this test with the 35mm but it was left in the bag at home.

Today we also did a few walking around shots, and also shots using a 580 ex II as fill.  Once again the camera was extremely light and almost unnoticeable, something very appreciated in this humid southern summer.  I’m tempted to always just have the lens on one of my 5d’s.  Just to always have a camera ready.

No flash, some contrast added in post.

In a great thai restaurant shot with a fill flash

No flash, available light.

I love the photo journalistic feel of the lens. This is right before I noticed it was dirty.

So the conclusion remains the same.  Sharp lens.  Amazing value for the price.  Fun to use.  Tomorrow is one last day for this review.  I have a couple special things planned including talking about something very important about this lens (Hint, it has to do with why this lens is a MUCH better purchase than the 50 1.8 II).

Day 4 – Walking around and the stunning conclusion

It’s all about…. MFD

Drove around with my mom today up in North Atlanta and threw the 40mm with a the 5d in the back.  We dropped by a little fruit stand and it was a perfect place to try out the 40mm.  This is what I consider your typical shooting situation maybe with the 40mm.  Ready to shoot, whatever the scene, and ready to go.  I hinted yesterday that today this review will show you why this lens is a better purchase than the 50 1.8 II that most people will compare it too, and the reason why comes down to one simple Acronym, MFD.

MFD stands for Minimum Focus Distance, or how close you can get to a subject and get focus.  The MFD on the 40mm is a very generous 11.8″ where as the 50 1.8 II is 18″.  Why does this matter?  Well as an instructor one of the main things that EVERYONE considers part of a professional photograph is how blurry your background is in comparison to your subject.  This is called Depth of field.  One of the main contributing factors to depth of field is how close you can focus on your subject (if you are interested the other factors are aperture of your lens, the focal length of your lens, and how far your subject is away from foreground or background objects).   At 11.8″ the MFD on the 40mm is extremely awesome.  It’s really easy to fill the frame with a subject, and get very beautiful background blur.  Here’s the kicker though, not only is the MFD nice but you always have a lens that wasn’t designed to cut corners.  Where the 50 1.8 II has really nasty hexagon shaped background blur and highlights, the 40mm 2.8 has a very smooth and circular rendition that rivals lenses that are $500+.  The 50mm 1.8 II is really minor leagues compared to the 40mm.

Short MFD allows for a very organic experience when shooting casual stuff.  This is a lens your mother, child, or grandparent can pick your camera up with and shoot a pretty shoot.  All you have to do is tell them to zoom with their feet.  None the less here are samples from today taking MFD into consideration.

Filling the frame with a subject, while getting great background blur

It’s super quick and easy to get a fast simple lifestyle shot with this lens. The color rendition is above average, sharpness is out of this world good for a lens in it’s price range.

I loved how quick and easy this lens is. It really is HIGH quality point and shoot.

Showing a little bit of the color this lens picks up.

My mother is absolutely awesome. Can’t trust a guy who doesn’t love his mother.

So guys, if you have $200 to burn and have a choice of either the 50 1.8 II or the 40mm 2.8 STM…Just get the STM.  The 50 1.8 II isn’t worth it anymore.  Only have $120…well save a few more weeks and buy the 40mm.

Here are the reasons why the 40mm is better.

  • Superior build quality.  Fisher Price Plastic for the 50 1.8 II or solid metal base/heavy duty plastic for the 40mm.
  • Massive MFD difference.  The 1.8 and 10mm extra you get on the 50mm does help it have good DOF blur sometimes, but most of the time the MFD of the 40mm will win.
  • 40mm image quality DESTROYS the 50 1.8 II.  We are talking BMW M5 vs. Hyundai Accent here.
  • Lower profile!  This thing is a glorified body cap for the camera.  It’s a body cap that takes pictures.
  • It won’t break.  The 50mm 1.8 II is notorious about breaking.  Hear that sound?  One just broke.

There you have it, that’s the reason why the 40mm is better than the 50 1.8 II.  It should be noted that 2.8 isn’t “Fast” when it comes to the world of primes, actually it’s quite slow. Yet 2.8 is a LOT faster than your standard kit lens which tends to be around 5.0~5.6 at the 40mm range.  This means that the 40mm 2.8 gets in about 4 times the amount of light in comparison to a 18-55 kit lens, or it means going from ISO 1600 to iso 400, that’s a huge difference.  For those looking for the really nice low light shooting abilities of a sub 2.0 lens I would avoid the 50 1.8 II anyways.  It is fast at 1.8 but the autofocus motor is painfully slow, and it’s just not a joy to use at night.  Go ahead and try renting a Canon 50 1.4 and you will thank me later.  That lens is a MUCH better low light shooting lens that does away with the “Built super cheap to be sold super cheap” feel of the 50 1.8 II.

A little extra

Here’s something a little fun just to see.  This is the perspective difference of shooting with a 35mm, 40mm, and 50mm lens from the same spot, with the same settings.  I was about 8 feet away from my SUV (Note: I’m a HUGE fan of the 3rd generation 4runner).  40mm on a Full frame camera is pretty useful.

Something else to note is how the $200 lens compared to the $1600 and $1700 lens….not bad Canon, not bad at all.  There’s a big difference between the 40~50mm.  I actually like the environmental feel of the 40mm lens.  Mixed with it’s MFD it’s probably going to be a very popular photo journalistic lens.

Conclusion

If you can’t tell, the 40mm 2.8 STM REALLY impressed me.  Canon’s history the last few years has been to release extremely expensive lenses that do look great, but they carry a massive premium in price.  When the 40mm 2.8 was announced I was expecting it to be about $350~$500.  When I found out it was $200 it was immediately preordered.  Guys, Canon did NOT hold back on this lens at all…it’s absolutely outstanding image quality wise.  The build quality is top notch for the price, and feel of the lens just makes it a joy to shoot with.

If you don’t have a prime lens the 40mm is a great first prime lens to get, mostly if your only other lenses are kit level zooms.  Primes lenses are traditionally sharper than Zoom lenses, and you would have to spend upwards close to $2k to get the same image quality from a zoom lens compared to a $400 prime.  Canon really made this $200 40mm just as sharp as those $400+ primes.  This is a lens very much capable of paying for itself off with work it produces.  The 50 1.8 II is more a toy in that regards, kinda like a lensbaby (ba dum tish).  Just be warned, you lose the versatility and ease of use of a zoom, but you get a lot of portability and sharpness.

So here’s the long pro-cons list.

Pros

  • Extremely portable and small, yet exceptionally well built for it’s price.  Metal base construction normally reserved for $350+ lenses
  • AMAZING image quality.  Sometimes rivaling lenses that are 4~10 times it’s price.
  • Very generous minimum focal distance allows for more versatility during street shooting.  Close up photography is a joy with this lens.
  • Can’t believe it’s that cheap price.  This lens could sell for $300~$400 and be worth it for the image quality.  It’s an absolute steal at $200.
  • It outperforms any lens within it’s price range.  No doubt or question about that.
  • 2.8 is very fast in comparison to a kit lens, this lens would be a great first prime to get.

Cons

  • Focusing on fast moving subjects was slightly troublesome.  This maybe the camera (5d Mark II).  Lens focuses pretty quick but not lightning fast.
  • Manual focus ring is small and has a lot of play, and focus by wire is strange.  Hard to focus manually in video mode.
  • 2.8 isn’t very fast in comparison to other primes, so there’s a lot of iso 400~1600 shooting as the lights go down.
  • 40mm is an odd 64mm on a crop camera.  I didn’t really use a crop for this review so this maybe a point that doesn’t matter.
  • STM motors making a little more noise than USM motors, but it’s a lot quieter than the cheap motors used in other primes this price range.

For a complete gallery, including very not safe for work images taken with this lens, check out this link – Trent Chau 40mm 2.8 STM Flickr Gallery

02.21.2013 Update – I used this lens exclusively for my cheap equipment challenge, click the link to read and see images

About trentchau

Photographer, videographer, and photography instructor in Atlanta. Born in New Orleans. I love food more than photography, but do love photography quite a bit.

3 comments on “A Review of Canon’s 40mm 2.8 STM Pancake Lens

  1. Jag
    December 11, 2012

    Just got a T4i and have been searching all over for a review like this. I’ve been up the air between 50mm f/1.8 vs 40mm f2.8. As my first non kit lens I shall be going with the 40mm. Thank you.

  2. Vinh
    February 17, 2013

    Nice review, which makes me decide I’ll sell my 50 1.8 for this baby.
    One thing, is it me or the SUV images from the 35L & the pancake look the same?

  3. Pingback: A new challenger appears! – Shooting on the Cheap « Trent Chau | Photography and More

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This entry was posted on July 6, 2012 by in Photography Equipment Reviews.
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