Review: Canon EF 40mm F2.8 STM “Pancake” Lens

I was researching camera shops in the USA for my upcoming trip when I stumbled across this little lens. I’d heard rumours of new Canon pancakes lenses and it turns out this one was released with little fanfare a few weeks back. So, without even double thinking, I went out on my lunch break and picked one up.

I’ve had almost a week to play with it now and I thought I’d share my initial thoughts and impressions. Disclaimer: I’m not going to get technical about it, you can get that from any proper review site. I tend to care less about technical spicks and specs and more about how it feels and works with my style of photography. So here we go:

First thing you notice is that it’s small. Well duh, it’s a pancake lens. The picture below shows my smallest lenses. From left to right: my plastic Holga lomo lens, the 40mm Pancake, the nifty fifty (EF 50mm f1.8) and my generic M42 28mm f2.8 lens (I blogged about it earlier).

When viewed from the top, you can see how small the lens opening actually is. Quite a surprise for me.

I paid $249 for this lens, which makes it one of the cheapest (and fastest) EF lenses made by Canon. With that in mind it was hard for me to mentally separate it from the nifty-fifty, the first lens I got (and the most-used/best value for money one I have).

Size-wise, it’s about half. Construction-wise, it’s much better built. You can see straight away that the connectors are metal, not plastic. If you pick up the lens it actually feels just a little bit heavier than nifty-fifty. But you expect that, especially since the pancake lens is full-time manual focus. And as far as I know, it’s the cheapest Canon lens that let’s you do that. In just a few days I’ve really used the crap out of the full-time manual, especially as the pancake seems to struggle a bit with close-up macro-style focus.

On the body the pancake lens looks almost…wrong. On my 60D the lens just sticks out from the little lump of the flash shoe mount. Only by a few millimetres. With my speedlite on as well it looked so imbalanced. Every time I put the camera down I thought it was going to fall down.

So how did it work for me? The first thing I photographed (as I’ve been doing for ages) is Lego. I just got a new Evil Knievel mini-fig. As mentioned earlier, it really struggled to auto-focus at this close range. But with a little tweak using the full-time manual, it was fine. The one thing that really surprised me though was the depth of field. I was expecting some at f2.8 but nothing as good as what I got. It’s not as crisp as the nifty-fifty but it gives you nice creamy blurred background. Check out a few photos.

I set up some more Lego with about 10 centimetres between them and compared shots by the 50 and 40, both at f2.8 on my 40D. In the 2 photos below, 40mm is on the left, 50mm on the right. Camera in the exact same position. You can see the difference in depth of field, especially the shape of the bokeh. Looking at the LED on my Speedlite in the background, you can see the 40mm has a round shape while the 50mm shows an almost pentagonal bokeh. (EDIT: Don has alerted me to the fact this is because I stepped it down. There you go. I told you there’d be nothing technical about it. I learnt my new thing for the day.)

When used in a bit more of a portraiture mode I noticed a little bit of vignetting around the edges of the photos, giving the pictures a very soft-focus feel.

The nifty-fifty is a heck of a lot sharper, especially around the edges. The pancake lens just kept feeling too soft for me. Not a bad thing for most photos using a high f-stop but it may not be the best for any landscape shots in semi-darkness with a low f-stop.

In my mind, this 40mm pancake lens is going to fulfill special roles. For starters it will become my new hiking lens. Attached to my camera body, it barely protrudes, meaning it takes up no extra room (and not much of a weight difference). In fact, combined with my M42 28mm, it will spend a week hiking and camping through Utah with me in a few weeks.

Another role will be street photography. It’s something I’ve wanted to try but my lenses are too big and bulky, making me stick out like a sore thumb. On my crop sensor cameras the 50mm always was just too long for street photography. However the 40mm seems to be fine for it, based on my little try on Sunday. The STM auto-focus is really quiet too, almost unnoticeable. The only gripe I have with it for street photography is the same one I have with the nifty-fifty: there’s no focal length markers. You can’t manually set and forget. It’s almost impossible to focus without using the auto-focus at some point.

For the price it’s quite a good lens. I’d still recommend the nifty-fifty as everyone’s cheap Canon lens, but this pancake lens will probably get way more use for me as an everyday lens. It’s size and weight just makes it perfect for carrying around with me, and it’s medium focal length allows me to frame most shots.

Here’s a few more pictures I took with the lens over the last few days:

2 Comments

  1. Posted August 27, 2012 at 12:19 pm | #

    Rokinon FE14M-C 14mm F2.8 Ultra Wide Lens for Canon (Black) (Electronics)I purchased this lens seavrel months ago to use on my Canon 5d mark 1 camera. This is by far the sharpest, most flare-and color fringing-resistant lens in its class. I owned the Nikon 14-24mm lens and this lowly lens beats the Nikon hands down on all counts, exept vignetting (easily correctable in Photoshop) and distortion but get a PT Lens software, which has this lens correction pre-programmed in its database and distortion becomes a non-issue. Advantages: Solidly built, operates smoothly, light (under 450 grams), much more compact than Nikon 14-24mm, incredible resolution, color balance and color fringing resistance simply crushes Nikon 14-24mm (my personal experience and comparison and also see independent reviews on the Net), no flare, even when shooting straight into the Sun. Disadvantages: Fully manual no auto anything, including the aperture (not an issue for this ultra-wide lens and actually is an advantge, since it greatly improves reliability). No depth-of-field scale not an issue for this ultra-wide lens; setting the focus to 1 meter and stopping down to f11 gives you the maximum depth-of-field (o.5 meters to infinity) at best optical performance. For wide-open shooting focus the lens manually. Vignetting, especially at wide apertures easily correctable in Photoshop, and gone by f11. Significant complex distortion (5%) get a PT Lens software, which has this lens’ complete correction pre-programmed in its database and distortion becomes a non-issue. Aperture blades may become sticky in temperatures below 32 degrees F (0 deg. C) no significant impact, because the aperture control is fully manual. If this occurs, rotate the aperture ring back and forth a few times to take care of this in the field; there is no need to even remove the lens from the camera. I highly recommend this lens.

    • Posted February 9, 2013 at 11:47 pm | #

      Newbie here, Newbie here,When you say 40mm and 20mm what dimension are you takilng about depth of the glass in the the lens or perhaps diameter? I want to get into underwater photography and the ports used to allow the manual focusing have dimension limits. The ports that allow manual focusing on the underwater housings are usually limited in availability.Thanks in advance,The Meltdownman

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  2. […] me he snuck his pancake lens in to Splendour in 2012, so I thought “why not?” I had acquired a pancake lens a while back so I was good to go! If you want to read my thoughts of the day itself, check out the […]

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