Saturday, June 23, 2012

Canon 40mm F/2.8 Pancake

Stripped down
The new Canon EF 40mm F/2.8 STM
I've been waiting a long time for Canon to produce this lens. Finally it arrived and it's better and more affordable than I expected.

I quipped with a friend a few weeks back that Canon would never put out something like this for less than a couple of hundred dollars (I figured it would have to be $399, which apparently for the UK is not that far off). But sure enough Canon delightfully proved me wrong.

The first question that comes to mind for some is what's the purpose of a pancake lens? Those that don't understand the inherent value of a pancake lens are generally getting confused by it's small size. However, the convenience of size not only makes it compact and discrete, but functionality wise, a very versatile lens without needing to resort to a compact interchangeable lens system like an Olympus Pen or Fuji X-Pro 1 system.

Relative Comparison
Ultra-compact and thin design
Having gone through the exercise of owning a mirroless systems (Olympus EP-3 and a half dozen lenses), I'm not saying this replaces them at all. For me, I loved using a compact system, specifically with one lens, but I didn't want to have a point and shoot camera (which, ironically this lens is priced in the same range). There's no denying that this makes the larger dSLR format more compact which isn't a bad thing, but it certainly goes well beyond those reasons.

Build wise, this lens is sleek and nothing like the build quality of many older EF non-L based lenses. Excluding the mount, it's about the same height as a body and end cap together. What is a little unexpected in a lens of this price range ($199 USD) is the metal mount. A welcome addition compared to the economical EF 50mm F/1.8 lens which always felt like it would break if you looked at it too hard (and often that's all it seems to take). It's refreshing to see such a well built lens for this price point.

Little T
Great for close up and personal photos
It has a new STM (Stepper) AF motor, single aspherical element in 6 elements (based loosely on the classic Carl Zeiss Tessar designs), wide F/2.8 aperture. I'm not sure what the coatings are on this, but from my short experience with it, I've not seen any flare issues with it and can only guess that it's at least multi-coated. A screw on hood (ES-52 - $24 USD) is available for this which is not included with the lens as typical of Canon with their more economical lenses (Boo canon).

If you're comparing this to the EF 50mm F1/8, some stand out specs are the 7 circular bladed aperture (for buttery smooth bokeh vs the 5 non-rounded blades of the nifty fifty), and lovely close up minimum focus distance of .98 ft or 30 cm vs the 1.48 ft or 45cm. The close up distance of many 50mm lenses have always been a bit of sore point for me. I love doing personal and close up portraits, but found most 50mm lenses fell just short of what I needed because of the close up distance (with exception of 50mm macro lenses).

The New STM Motor and AF
Fast enough for silly children.
More about the new stepper motor, unlike the traditional micro motors that have been used in many of the budget but optically good lenses of Canon's economical line of lenses (often referred to as the Ugly Duckling Lenses). The first noticeable thing is this motor is much quieter than the old dentist drill sound of the older technology. It's not as quiet as a USM lens, which is to be expected, but it's much smoother at focus (including USM equipped lenses) than all the lenses I tested with the recently released Canon Rebel T4i/EOS 650D. This lens appears to be designed for video in mind, with the focus that is much smoother and less ratchet-like of all the other lenses. I suspect Canon deliberately created this new motor design just so they could make a more consumer friendly video lens. What is most interesting about this design is that it's full time manual - sort of.
On my 5DmkIII I needed to update the firmware before I could take full advantage of the new 40mm (there are reports that it's not optimized for anything but the Rebel T4i/650D at the moment so I'm not sure if the firmware update is what some are referring to as 'optimized'). At first thought it didin't have full time manual until I updated the firmware. The focusing, like the more expensive EF 85mm F/1.2L and the EF 300mm F2.8L lenses, use a focus by wire system. This means that the lens needs to have power before it can focus and when it does, the STM does all the work. For some this might feel weird, but I can assure you it didn't take long for me to adjust to it. However the focusing is relatively fast. I'd even put it at par with my Sigma 85mm F/1.4 lens which isn't slow (much faster than the 85 F/1.2 lens) but not that zippy either. It's certainly not as fast as USM but fast enough to catch candid action like my active 4 year old boy. I should point out that it's also important when decoupling the lens to turn the focus ring to park the lens. Although unlike the 50mm F/1.8 which is very sensitive to small bumps to the front of the lens, it's probably a good idea to do that before taking the lens off the body.

Close Up
Just enough room for basic functions
The focus ring is pretty small and at first I thought it would be totally useless. After testing the much smaller profile Pentax 40mm pancake on a Pentax K-01, the Canon 40mm is slightly easier to use. Cradling the camera's base, I was able to just use my index finger to run lightly against that focus ring. It's surprisingly comfortable in my hand.

The fly by wire system is a bit of on oddball in my opinion. Although I no longer do videography, In my past experience, I think that it won't work well with some follow focus systems. Although it only takes about 90 degrees to cover the focus range it's still a bit inaccurate. I can't help but think that there's other plans for the STM line of lenses that Canon is cooking up here (maybe more menu driven like the touch screen of the EOS 650D).

Regardless, I found that focusing with this lens pretty easy. However what is lacking is a distance scale, which makes it very difficult to do any real hyperfocal distance shooting which is kind of a staple feature among street photographer. But it's not hard to figure out what your optimal distance is going to be, set it with your AF, then lock it with the AF/MF switch. Another option is to use backbutton AF focus and removing the AF from the shutter button (a feature that has been a part of EOS since it's inception). Focus on a preset distance with the back AF button, and then leave it set. I was hoping that I could set a focal distance in custom modes, but appears that it does not work that way. Maybe the next firmware upgrade will bring a feature like this (which I doubt will be much supported in anything but the latest EOS systems so this functionality might be wishful thinking). An associate of mine pointed out that it wouldn't be hard to put some small distance marking on the barrel of the extending element. Something I think that Canon could have easily have done. Turns out it's easier than I had anticipated. A small piece of masking tape was all I needed and focused on specific points marking the barrel position so I got an approximation of distance and marked them with a pen. Works great, but pretty much everything from 6 feet and out is in focus so most street photographers will likely keep this lens in the infinity position). 

Mods...
If you've followed my blog for a while, you know I add/modify everything I own. I tinker, modify, or customize. It didn't take me long to add a few things to try it out with the new 40mm. My favourite is still the very inexpensive ($29 $75) Raynox DCR-250 snap on macro filter. A triplet design that rivals most macro filter in image quality. The size of the 40mm was perfect for the filter and hardly noticeable but something that easily slips into a pocket and snaps on when I need it. The close up range of the 40mm is already impressive, but snap on this filter and it becomes a very inexpensive macro lens.

Secret Rose Garden
Macro with the Raynox DCR-250 Filter
One of the things that I really loved about the Olympus Pen system was just how compact it was and easy to slip into a bag with a bunch of accessories and other lenses. However, I also realized that I had my favourite specific combinations and as my bag got heavier and heavier, it felt more like I was replicating my larger system in a smaller format but carrying around lenses I still didn't use often. I questioned why I had to have a like system. This reason is why appreciate this lens which isn't related to the size of it, but it is about the versatility of it. It feels like I have a lens that covers the same bag of lenses my Pen used to. I can cover most things from landscape, portrait, street lens, and general purpose. The only thing I can't really do with this lens is zoom (something I didn't really use on my Pen ever). My feet work pretty well, but sometimes you just can't get close enough to wildlife, or can I?

Goslings

Adding lightweight accessories of a macro filter and others that all fit in my pocket is a bonus. The other exciting accessory is something I've always adored. The Cokin A system! That's right, the A system not the P, Z or X, but the smallest of all the Cokin filter systems, the A.

It's dear to me because it was my favourite accessory when I started out on my Nikon system in my early days of film. This is a remnant of my youth, and it's always fun to take it out and use it again.

The nice thing about the Cokin A system is that it's small and compact but also the fact that I can slide in and out filters with ease. This makes using a grad filter a charm. Sadly though, Cokin A filters are very difficult to find. Most used camera shops don't have much in stock, and they don't wear well over the years because they are made from resins that scratch easily. However if you can find them on craigslist, you'll usually end up with a bargin. In a previous post, I went on about how nice it is to use with the Olympus Pen system and the 12mm lens. I actually find that this suits this combination better.
Sunset Selkirk
High contrast scenes benefit well from the Cokin filter and a grad filter.
Dare I say it, but I might be over the whole mirrorless fad. As much as I will admit to it, I still love the look and feel of a full 135 format over the crops in both APS-C and in the mFT. The 40mm brings back a lot of discrete portability in the 5DmkIII, a welcome function for sure. Although it's not completely perfect, I do think that for the sharpness of this lens, the versatility of function, and the cost, this is one hard lens to beat. Pair it with the fact that you can use this on a full sized sensor really makes it all a very sexy package.

In the field this is one gorgeous lens to use. I don't even consider it a starter lens at all. Would I recommend it over a 50mm F/1.8 as a starter, absolutely. Would I recommend this lens to a pro, definitely. The background blur and the 14 point flare stars are gorgeous. Again comparing this to the 50mm F/1.8 which always had hard edged and jittery bokeh, this lens is a big improvement over that. Is this an alternative to the 50m F/1.8? That's a tougher question to answer, but for my style of shooting, I prefer this over the 50mm F/1.8.

Wet Coast Weather
Even with busy foliage in the background, the bokeh is buttery smooth.
14 Points to Ponder
Gorgeous 14 point specular highlights.
Although this lens isn't weather sealed, I did brave the elements to get some shots in this weekend. If Canon makes an L version of a pancake one day, I would wish that it was weather sealed, a slightly faster aperture of F/2, Super Spectra Coatings, a distance scale on it, maybe USM and maybe even closer focus. Price it at $699 and it will be an immediate winner like this one. In the meantime, this little gem of a lens will certainly always live in my camera bag.

Click below to view a slide show of images from this lens

Wet Coast WeatherWet Coast WeatherWet Coast WeatherWet Coast WeatherLittle TLittle TLittle T14 Points to PonderSunset SelkirkPort of CallOutreaching HandFan-Ta-Sea-IsleBokeh BudSecret Rose Garden...Up The TreeRainbow over the Inner HarbourGoslingsCorner Detail

There is so much speculation out there whether or not this is a precursor to a mirrorless system for Canon. I for one don't read too much into that based on this lens alone. If anything I believe this lens kind of negates the idea of a mirrorless system soon because as a mirrorless system owner, I actually gravitate back to this as my everyday walk around system. Based on the popularity of this lens, I can only hope that more pancake lenses are in the future. Maybe an EF-S 21mm Pancake is the next one in the works.... 

16 comments:

  1. Great review! I'm looking to buy this lens for my T2i.

    Being a crop sensor camera, when used on the T2i, it will have an equivalent focal length of about 64mm. How do you think this will fare as an everyday street lens?

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    Replies
    1. 64mm is a little tighter to use, however not impossible. It really becomes a great portrait lens in this case so expect to get tighter framing with that combination. You might need to stand back to make enough room too.

      Delete
    2. Thanks for the reply!

      So because this lens would provide a 64mm focal length on my camera, would you suggest that I get something along the lines of a 35mm or 28mm lens for everyday, walk around photography?

      Because at this quality with such a reasonable price, this pancake is really appealing! I'm really loving the photos you shot with this lens.

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    3. Thanks. I do recommend a 35mm on a crop sensor or a 28. But for the price and the image quality the 40mm is hard to beat. Just be aware its a little tighter framing with a 40 over a traditional 50mm on a full frame is all.

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    4. Oh, I see. Yeah, this little 40mm costs less that most other 35s or 28s I can find. I think this may be a winner!

      Another quick question if you don't mind. The only lens I have right now is the 18-55mm kit lens that came with my T2i. Will setting the focal length to about 40mm on this lens be a close representation of what I will see on the 40mm pancake?

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    5. That's a good way to get a feel of any lens. Just be aware the image quality will be quite different between the two and obviously because of the F/2.8, will have a much different background rendering.

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  2. Where did you find the raynox for $25? Everywhere I look it's $75

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for pointing that out. I originally purchased mine about 6 years back for $25 on eBay. I didn't know the price was so high now. I'll correct that and apolagize for the confusion.

      Delete
  3. Nice review, thanks.
    Price in Europe is much higher.

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  4. Went in and bought mine, what a great lens!

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  5. Great review. I love the new 40mm.
    I have noticed some occasional (rare) blow out quirkiness that a firmware update should take care of on my 60D primarily noticeable example - beach midday full sun & bright sand.
    For $200.00 usd its a great lens & a very great value.

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  6. Spot on with this write-up, I truly feel this site needs far more attention.
    I'll probably be returning to read more, thanks for the info!
    Here is my webpage nikon D3200 cyber monday

    ReplyDelete
  7. A very good review. I own a T3i with the 18-55 kit lens and want to add another lens which will work better for indoor photography (my first newborn - low light situations, fast shutter speed, etc.). However, I think this lens might get too tight for that and does not open wide enough to give me fast shutter speeds. But I am tempted to buy this lens for its quality and price combination.

    ReplyDelete

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