When Canon announced they were releasing a 40mm pancake lens I saw a lot of people raise cheers of joy and excitement. Finally! or Perfect street lens! were not uncommon sights online. But I was nonplussed. I get that it's ultra small and portable, but this isn't being made for a like-portable micro 4/3rds camera system. The full-frame compatible lens could be used on a 1DX if you wanted but, why would you want to? Therein lay my curiosity; what, if anything, makes this $150-200 lens worthwhile for a shooter?
Incredibly low profile (pancake lens because it's nearly flat get it?) negligible weight, and a relatively fast f/2.8 aperture are all working in this lens' favour. But an in-between focal length – 35mm & 50mm being accepted standards - including a higher price and smaller aperture disparity with Canon's 50mm f/1.8 make me wonder, specifically, why the 40 over the 50?
It's pretty small, so what build there is, is a very sturdy plastic resin shell, and a teeny tiny front optic (not even an inch across). The most obvious aesthetic feature of note is its appearance; it is truly diminutive, especially for a Canon lens. The lens runs about 1 ¼ inches long, put on a rear lens cap and you've increased it's size by another half. You could drop it in your pocket, for sure, and I wouldn't worry about it breaking (though if you didn't have the caps on I would worry about scratching the glass). There is a front focus ring that I found surprisingly smooth, but without an indicator as to how far that focus is, it's useless until you're actually looking through the viewfinder. AF speed is quick and silent, though, which is what I think you'd want, with a stealthy lens like this.
Surprisingly sharp. Why am I surprised? I don't really know I guess I kind of have it out for this lens but yeah, shooting wide-open yielded pleasing results. Heavily vignetted, but that's the case with many primes. Contrast and colour seem well retained for such an inexpensive lens too. Shooting directly into some light sources didn't seem to diminish the optical quality either. Very well suited for shooting in pretty much any situation.
I think more than the technical details, which I covered briefly above, this lens adds value from a usage standpoint. Where you can bring it, how you use it, and in what situations it fits best.
Street photography is obviously the first thing that comes to mind. While many shooters like to keep their distance, I often find a closer approach appealing. Wide-angles get you close, but will distort your subjects, and a 50mm is great for portraits, but you might miss your focus if shooting from the hip. 40mm hits a sweet spot for this, there's enough compression that if you choose to shoot a portrait you can, but it's also wide enough to take in enough of a scene if you wanted to guess the shot.
In fact any sort of casual shoot benefits from a discrete lens. Sure, my 24-70 f/2.8 L gets me a lot of zoom, it's also heavy and large enough to be intimidating to someone not used to having a lens mashed in their face. The 40mm may call attention to itself to other photographers, but potential subjects have no idea what the potential is behind such a tiny piece of glass. And once you've decided on stripping away the weight and bulk of the lens why stop there? Yes, I prefer using my 5DMK3 with it's grip, but it just felt silly with such a small lens. Take the grip off; now I've got a pretty portable rig. Perfect for long outings with the family or going out casually with friends. Drop on an even lighter camera frame like a Canon Rebel and I'm a step away from a compact.
I mentioned the vignetting present in the lens, a great way to eliminate the worries of the edges of a lens is to drop it onto a crop sensor camera. 40mm on a crop sensor camera give an apparent focal length of 64mm, which is absolutely a sweet spot for portraits. I could easily see this, maybe the new 24mm f/2.8 IS, and the 85mm f/1.8 in an incredibly versatile, affordable, and light photography kit with a rebel, 60D, or 7D.
Who's it for?
Small, unobtrusive, simple, these are prime traits for a portrait artist and photojournalist. While many of the pro's may only be able to work with the more durable and higher build of L glass, entry level photo J's have to start somewhere. You could fit the pancake lens easily in any sized bag (or your pockets) retrofit it with a few other primes, a telephoto zoom if you want, and you're ready to take on any assignment.
Photographers getting started in wedding work would be better off buying a few of these lower end primes than blowing their entire budget on one high-end zoom. Keeping you on your feet at a wedding with an aperture that is fast enough for most situations. Without the imposing size that could draw attention to you when trying to capture a more sincere, intimate moment. This is also an excellent portrait lens, a bit wide for my personal tastes, but back up a bit and there's no reason you can't take a solid image of a person or group.
As a backup, or even a fixed lens the 40mm could fit without much notice in the bag of a landscape photographer. It may not be a preferred focal length, but weight matters when hiking, and a need may arise for a lens with a f/2.8 aperture or just having any lens available should your primary landscape lens fail you. The lens also has some sort of macro mode that lets you focus just shy of 1 foot away, this isn't take-a-picture of a bug macro, but it could do well for flowers and other things of that size f/2.8 will also help blur out a lot of the background that close.
There's a huge consumer market out there and, let's be honest, it's bigger than the working pro market; many consumers want something light, that works, and takes great photos. I ended up using the 40mm lens mostly at home, at my kids' birthday party, during a trip to the Museum, or just walking down the street, and it was really nice casually using such a small lens and camera combo.
Let me also make a point about primes, I find they force a certain level of creativity. If you're shooting with a fixed focal length, you have two choices to change your composition: change the position, or the lens. It's pretty easy to move around and explore alternate angles, taking chances and finding images that you may have otherwise missed. Professionally I do shoot with a lot of zooms, but personally I truly enjoy the feel I get from working with a prime lens.
Will a pro shooter get something out of this lens that they don't on any of their other pieces of kit? Meh, probably not. But that's missing the point, this lens isn't FOR them. It's for people who want a light kit, it's for people who don't have over a thousand dollars for a zoom lens. It's for people who who just want to get started or to explore image making with something cheap, or help grow the small kit they already have. It's for people who, already having pretty much everything, just need something new and unobtrusive to take with them, to give them a slightly different view and inspire some new work.
I think, if spending $150 is your thing, that money is better spent first on a 50mm f/1.8 lens. It's a more flattering portrait lens, will get you over a stop extra of light gathering ability, and produce stronger bokeh, the blurred backgrounds so many new shooters miss out on with their kit lenses.
I've had this lens since it came out, and I haven't really been able to get a proper feel on it for my work. We all have different visions, though, and this could absolutely be someone's dream focal length. I wrote extensively about who this lens could suit, and again, I personally don't find it very appealing but that's me and my bias. It's not a bad lens, not at all, so if it interests you go for it: this is a lens for you there are far worse things in photography you can spend your money on.
- Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM: Adorama
- Very sharp
- Incredibly small and light
- fast 2.8 aperture
- I sometimes question its existence
- The 50mm 1.8 probably gets you more, for less
- Potential for inadequate phallic object jokes