January 3, 2013

Review: Canon 40mm f/2.8 STM Pancake Lens

When the Canon 40mm f/2.8 STM Pancake lens was announced in June 2012, I immediately reached out to my friends at B&H Photo in New York to get my hands on one.  The lens was such an oddball in the DSLR market, I had to see if I could make it fit my needs during a two week, multi-city, assignment in Las Vegas, NV, and Denver, CO.

The budget price ($199), super-compact size, and excellent build quality are all reasons to consider adding the Canon 40mm f/2.8 STM to your arsenal of lenses.  Add in the relatively large aperture (f/2.8) and the normal focal length and this lens is looking like a true gem.

Do these considerations hold true?  Find out after the break:

The 40mm f/2.8 STM Pancake Role:
The Canon 40mm f/2.8 STM Pancake lens lives in a niche but very useful market in the DSLR industry – the budget travel market.  Most DSLR photographers love their DSLR image quality and shooting experience but dislike the bulk when traveling with family and friends.  Even Canon's lightest and cheapest 50mm f/1.8 is bulky during a graduation party or a trip to the beach in comparison to your fiance's point and shoot.

Enter the 40mm f/2.8 STM Pancake lens.

The 40mm focal length is perfect on a full frame sensor for the wide-to-normal images of people, details, landscapes, and architecture.  On a 1.6x crop sensor, the lens has the field of view of a 64mm lens, just in between that of the normal 50mm and the great portrait 85mm (the difference between these three longer focal lengths is a step forward or backward).

The Pancake's f/2.8 aperture lets in enough light that the lens is usable indoors without flash.  Still want more?  The Pancake weighs the same as Canon's plastic 50mm f/1.8, but measures just half the size.

The Canon 40mm f/2.8 STM is so small, there is barely space for the AF/MF switch.

Size comparison of the Canon 40mm f/2.8 STM, 50mm f/1.4, and 1.4x II Extender.

The Canon 40mm f/2.8 STM compared to the 50mm f/1.4 with the lens hood, my usual go-light lens.

Front element size comparison of the Canon 40mm f/2.8 STM and 50mm f/1.4.

Two weeks worth of findings:
I found the Canon 40mm f/2.8 STM Pancake to be a delicious lens during my brief two-week period with it.  For personal shooting, the little lens stayed glued to my 5D Mark III the whole time.  For paid assignments, it left me wanting more.

The superb build quality Canon stuffed in this tiny lens amazes me.  The body feels far more robust than that of my 50mm f/1.4.  There is a metal lens mount, which is 15 steps above that of the $100 50mm f/1.8, and the STM autofocus motor is ninja-like.  It is quiet, smooth, and extremely accurate.

But wait, there's more.  The Pancake produces superb images on both a full frame and crop sensor.  The corner-to-corner sharpness is leaps and bounds better than my 50mm f/1.4 wide open and stopped down.  The 20 year difference in glass design is amazing.

Lightning strikes on Highway 15 near Las Vegas, Nevada, on Aug 11, 2012.  Photo by Stan Olszewski/SOSKIphoto.

Pulled pork sandwich with apple slaw and onion rings at the Interstate Kitchen & Bar, Denver, Colorado.  Photo by Stan Olszewski/SOSKIphoto.

Visitors gamble in the casino at South Point Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, on July 14, 2012.  Photo by Stan Olszewski/SOSKIphoto.

Final thoughts:
I loved my brief time with the Canon 40mm f/2.8 STM Pancake lens.  Team this lens up with a wide-angle zoom like Canon's 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 or a 17-40mm f/4L and you'd be extremely happy during your days off.

For paid assignments, I felt the Pancake stack was too short.  I wanted it to have more light-gathering aperture.  I wish it was at least an f/2 (collecting twice as much light as f/2.8).  Then again, the laws of physics would mean Canon would have to make the lens larger to accommodate more glass, thus making this lens less pancake-like.  For paid assignments, my 24-70mm f/2.8L is doing just fine at 40mm.  If I needed more aperture, the 50mm f/1.4 has my back.

In the end, as much as I loved the size and performance of the Pancake, I could not bring myself to make the purchase.  I did not feel spending the extra money was the best decision on my part, though the current $50 rebate at B&H is making me think twice for the third time.  At $150, this little gem is hard to pass up (offer ends January 5, 2013).

Have you used the Canon 40mm f/2.8 STM Pancake lens?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

A bartender pours drinks at My Brother's Bar in Denver, Colorado, on July 18, 2012.  Photo by Stan Olszewski/SOSKIphoto.

The sun shines down on the Millennium Bridge in Lower Downtown in Denver, Colorado, on July 18, 2012.  Photo by Stan Olszewski/SOSKIphoto.

A local band performs at a bar in Downtown Denver, Colorado, on July 17, 2012.  Photo by Stan Olszewski/SOSKIphoto.

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