Writer’s Favorite Lens – the Canon 40mm Pancake Lens

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Like many beginning photographers, I’ve been a long-time fan of zoom lenses throughout much of my four year photography career. This past year, however, something in my brain shifted and I began to first accumulate and suddenly prefer using prime lenses. I began with the humble Canon 50mm f/1.8, eventually adding a 100mm f/2.8 macro lens. For many months, this combination of lenses paired with my Canon 6D became my preferred travel photography kit, replacing my beloved 16-35mm f/2.8. I loved the compact, significantly lighter kit that I was now able to tote around in my discrete Kata DSC 437 camera bag.

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Several weeks ago, I decided to pull the trigger on another prime lens: the Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM pancake lens. Announced by Canon in June 2012, this is a relatively new lens and is the smallest ever made by Canon. Intrigued by its smaller size and slightly wider focal length, I decided to use it in place of my nifty fifty lens on a two week trip to New York and Montreal. The resulting images I took and overall experience shooting with the 40mm have secured it as my favorite new all-around shooting lens. Here are some reasons why you too may want to consider adding the 40mm pancake lens to your collection.

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Makes DSLR cameras even more compact

At 22mm (0.86″) deep, the 40mm is significantly shorter than the 50mm f/1.8, which measures 41mm (1.6″) deep. The 40mm’s shortened length makes it easy to slip it into a relatively small camera bag, or even a medium sized purse.

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Allows for the “perfect normal” focal length for full-frame cameras at a reasonable price

While the 40mm will work on every Canon DSLR ever made, it is optimized for use on full-frame digital cameras. I always found 50mm to be slightly too long for most of the casual street photography or travel shots that I want to take, and Canon doesn’t make a 35mm for less than $500. Priced brand new at $199.99, the 40mm is the perfect balance in terms of focal length and cost, providing an incredibly natural perspective to images at a reasonable cost.

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Solidly built with instant manual focus override

Despite being drastically shorter than the 50mm f/1.8, the 40mm actually weighs about the same at 4.6 ounces (130 grams). This is likely due to the 40mm being constructed of both metal and plastic, giving it a very solid and secure feel, especially when compared to the mostly plastic 50mm f/1.8. Like the 50mm f/1.4, the 40mm also has an outer focus ring that can be adjusted at any time for instant manual-focus override when shooting in Canon’s One Shot focus mode.

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Ideal for street, architectural, and food photography

The 40mm’s compact build makes it very easy to stow in casual bags of nearly any size. Its size also makes it more inconspicuous, making it ideal for street or documentary photography, as opposed to the popular 24-70 f/2.8 lens, which always seems to stick out. My travels through New York and Montreal saw many tall buildings and skyscrapers which were admittedly harder to shoot with the 40mm, making me miss my wider 16-35mm.

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However, the 40mm was still wide enough to capture certain architectural scenes, and the benefit was the lack of distortion when captured at 40mm versus 16mm. This meant far less lens correction in post-processing. Another area of photography that is immensely easier with the 40mm is food and drink photography for the casual shooter.

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If you want to make less of a show of grabbing a few snaps of a dish while being seated at a restaurant, the 40mm’s wider focal length and minimum focusing distance of 0.3m (11.8″)  – compared to 0.45m (17.7″) on the 50mm f/1.8 – is perfect for capturing what is immediately in front of you without having to stand up and fuss with angles.

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The One Downside to Having a Pancake Lens

Throughout my three weeks of shooting with the 40mm, I had only one minor complaint that to me is the compromise of having a slimmer lens: lack of space to properly handle the lens during lens changes. It is much harder to attempt spur of the moment lens changes without accidentally getting fingerprints on one side of the lens or potentially dropping it.

Do you have a favorite lens? Have you tried this little gem? Share your thoughts in the comments.

More Favorite Lenses from our Writers

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Suzi Pratt is an internationally published Seattle event and food photographer. Her photos appear regularly in Eater and Getty Images. She is also a blogger who teaches others how to run a successful photography business.

  • Keith Starkey

    I shoot Nikon, but I’ve heard a lot about the Canon 40mm. If I shot Canon (and who knows, one day I might!), I’d definitely want this lens.

  • I’ve bought this lens after getting the 50mm f/1.4 because it wasn’t expensive and because it looked super tasty, and I absolutely did NOT regret it! I love how small and easy to carry around it is!

    By the way, what was your favorite place in Montreal? I actually live in Montreal and I’ve been wondering where to find inspiring places in my own city xD Was the first photo of the post taken at Basilique Notre-Dame?

  • franck76

    I Live near Montreal, of course Downtown with all it’s small alley and fire stairs. You probably already knew it, Montreal is a multi-ethnic city so go in chinatown, small italy… Côte-Des-Neiges. All the festivals are great idea for shots. Also take the 2 decker bus. It will make you a tourist in your own city. It all depends on what you like to photograph. An Idea, go in Longueuil and take a night scene! Here’s some shot I’ve taken when I started photography last year. What I’ve learn so far is : When I ask myself should I go there.. well go !

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  • I really like that first shot! Where did you get this?
    And you’re right, I should go take a night scene, but I’ll wait until I’ve got a few friends with me before doing that. It’s not the wisest thing to go around alone at night, being a young lady :/

  • franck76
  • Dave Pearce

    I’ve hhad this lens since it was released, and I agree with all that’s been said
    My only issue with it is it’s slow AF, compared to all my other lenses. It really struggles to keep up with AIServo and even one shot has a bit of lag.

  • Bryce Grant Foster

    This lens rules. Even on my T4i and SL1. Been using it over a year and a half. For almost every kind of shooting nearly. Sharp, quick, small, light, what more would you like?

  • Paul

    correct…the 40mm is slower to focus compared to most of the Canon lenses, but I still find it fast enough for my use. However, it is significantly faster than the 50mm 1.8 that Suzi said she replaced.

  • David Palmer

    I briefly owned the 40mm and found that the only difference between it and the nifty 50 was about one step backward. Taking one step back is easier than spending another $200.

  • David Blacker

    the flatness of this lens is what attracts me most for street work, but i was really unsure whether it was worth it, just for that, since i also have a 50mm 1.8. now i read that Canon’s coming out with another 2.8 pancake lens, this time in 28mm, which on my 600D will work out to 35mm, so i think i’ll wait for that.

  • Paul pack

    Really enjoy my 40mm. Usually have a 300mm in front if me for sports photography so taking the pancake out shooting is a relief both physically and creatively. Looking to add the new 28mm to the kit as well.

  • harold

    My favorite is my 50mm prime and close 2nd, 85mm prime. I use my 70-200 cannon zoom most of the time but it gets heavy and really can’t achieve what the 50 can.

  • Indeed, the flatness (and extra sharpness!) of this lens make it awesome for street and travel photography. I believe Canon’s upcoming pancake lens is only from crop sensor cameras, unfortunately, otherwise I definitely would have been investing in it too!

  • I switched from Nikon to Canon to get the 5D Mark III…I don’t know if switching for a $200 lens has quite the same justification, but it’s a possibility 😉

  • Yes! I love pairing this tiny lens with my larger telephotos. It’s small enough to slip into my pocket and switch it out when I need to shoot wider.

  • I’ll agree with you that 10mm maybe isn’t a huge difference; I do have to say that I like the more solid build that the 40mm has over the 50mm 1.8. I know the 50mm 1.4 is built more solidly, but the 1.8’s build feels less stable sometimes. Still, great image quality and overall performance for both.

  • The first shot was taken at the Notre Dame Basilicia in Old Montreal. Definitely one of the most iconic parts of the city. I recommend visiting if you have the chance!

  • Thanks for the ideas! I only had 2 days in Montreal and mostly hit up the markets (Jean-Talon, Atwater) and walked around Old Montreal. I’m definitely hoping to make it back to Montreal for a longer stretch of time to give it some proper exploration!

  • David Blacker

    that’s right. it’s so that those of us with cropped sensors can have a great street lens that’s more or less the equivalent of that 40mm pancake, which you guys have for your FFs. i read that it was being released mid-November, but there doesn’t seem to be any sign of it yet.

  • Tuanp

    Since I am using Canon 60D with crop factor of 1.6 therefore I find this pancake lens better than my old 50mm f/1.8. 50mm is a little bit long for crop camera to be walk around lens, whereas 40mm give significant improvement on this which is shorter enough. I own many other lenses including ultra wide zoom, normal zoom, telephoto zoom, fisheye, macro and even super telephoto zoom however I find this tiny lens big fun for photographing. Putting it on 60D and you have nearly compact camera that allow you to go anywhere, photo anything. Of course it should be better to fit with full frame models like 6D, however I am quite satisfied at this moment.

  • Edmund

    Panasonic M4/3 20mm pancake (40mm equiv) and 7-14mm (14-28mm equiv) zoom, really excellent quality both of them; on a tiny M4/3 body the pancake draws no attention and is super sharp even at f1.7.

  • lisa5295

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  • The 40mm is much faster on my 6D than on my old 550D!

  • I also love this lens! So incredibly sharp, clear colors, nice bokeh, and light!

  • Joe B

    Can you elaborate on that? I got the 40mm discussed in the article as a gift today. I have a t3i. Are you saying I should wait for a newer model?

  • bereninga

    This lens is the best bang for the buck! Wide open it’s still very sharp and the contrast is impressive. I agree that it’s not wide enough for skyscraper/building shots, but it’s great for most situations.

  • G Murali

    David, I got my 24mm 2.8 pancake early December 2014 from Amazon, India. This lens can be used only on APSC Cameras such as mine, a Canon 60D. I have used it for over a month and, I am delighted with the results. Captures sharp and true to colour pictures. No image stabilisation on the lens which perhaps would not be required for a 24mm lens.
    Murali

  • David Blacker

    Sounds good, Murali. It’s not yet available in shops here in Sri Lanka but hopefully it soon will be. I’m sure IS is unnecessary. Even the 40mm and 50mm don’t have it.

  • David Blacker

    Sorry for the delayed response, Joe. Didn’t see this. Well it all depends on what other lenses you have, doesn’t it? I’ve got a 50mm, so I’d rather get myself the 24mm than the 40mm, since it’ll also give me something close to a classic 35mm on my crop-sensor 600D.

  • Joe B

    I may not have phrased it properly. Your reply to Suzi-Pratt.com said a new lens was coming out in November, which has passed. Is that lens on the market? What focal length? Somewhat moot, I got the 40mm as a Christmas gift, but am interested to know. Thanks.

  • David Blacker

    That’s right. The new lens is the EF-S 24mm f/2.8 pancake lens. Very similar to your 40mm but for cropped sensor cameras, on which it’ll give a full frame equivalent of something close to 35mm. It’s available now and the reviews look good.

  • Joe B

    I received this lens as a gift. However, I have a crop sensor camera, so I may not find it as ideal for the type of shots in your samples. What length would I have been better off with to achieve the same results?

  • paula

    Hi Suzi!!
    I’m hesitating about buying the Canon 50mm 1.8 or this 40mm 2.8… The purpose is newborn photography on a cropped sensor camera.. It will be useful de 40mm which I found more versatile??
    Thanks a lot
    Paula

  • Jakob Thuemoes

    @davidblacker:disqus Sorry – is the last post not a mistake?
    I know you need to multiply any EF lens with 1.6 crop factor to get the equivalent focal length for APS-C cameras.
    But EF-S lenses are made specifically for APS-C cameras and should there for not be multiplied. Am I wrong? There seems to me to be a gap in Canons pancake series in which a lens between the 24mm and the 40mm would fit nicely.

  • No it’s still multiplied. The focal length is still 40mm (focal length is the distance from the middle of the lens to the point it focuses – that doesn’t change depending on which camera is it used with). EF lenses dedicated for APS-C just mean they cannot be fit on a full frame body – the mounts are different and it will not mount.

  • David Blacker

    @Jakob Thuemoes if one multiples the lens’ focal length (24mm in this case) by the crop factor of my APS-C camera (1.6), you will get the equivalent full-frame focal length (in this case, 38mm). this is just a theoretical exercise, of course; the technical focal length is still 24mm; but it helps those with APS-C cameras choose the right lenses for our needs. a 35mm, 40mm, or 50mm is normally fine for street photography, but if i put those on my 600D, i get focal lengths of 56mm, 64mm, and 80mm. so with this 24mm lens, i’m almost smack between the classic 35mm and the 40mm pancake.

  • mohawk51

    I own the Voigtlander 40mm/F2 aspherical lens shooting on film and absolutely love it. Wouldn’t sell that lens for anything. There’s something about the pics that come from a 40mm lens. It’s incredibly sharp and lightweight on the Nikon F3 & F2 It’s just right. The pics have a “Leica” look to them.

  • Ian

    I have two! One on my 5d 12.8 and the other on my EOS 1 film camera. I do not use any other lenses for my day to day work. Although if I’m travelling I’ll add a 28mm. Incredible lens.

  • Oskar

    My favourite lens is Minolta 24 2.8 on crop sensor. I’m using this lens almost everytime and I barerly use 35mm.

  • obscurity7

    I got this lens as a walkabout lens about a year ago, and while I will still pull out my beautiful 35mm f/1.4 when I want the good stuff, or at night, the 40mm pancake is incredibly versatile. Especially great as you noted for any kind of street photography because it’s inconspicuous. If you’re small like I am, it also has the advantage of not being quite as heavy, and therefore easier to carry around all day while walking.

  • CWT

    I also had the same experience with my 50mm. But, the Canon 28mm f1.8 will be much better at achieving these same results. It will equate to about 45mm on a crop sensor and retails new for $330 or much less factory refurbished.

  • CWT

    For crop sensors, it still needs to be multiplied so, think of focal length as actual and effective. For example, the new 24mm (actual) pancake is EF-S specifically designed for crops making the effective focal length 38mm.

  • David Burga

    I purchased mine used from Ebay in mint condition for $65 + shipping, I also purchased a Leica style metal lens hood for it and it works perfect, I love this lens when traveling light is the key.

  • David Burga

    Here’s a photo of the lens and metal lens hood.

  • Paul

    Whenever someone asks me have a I switched to mirrorless for travel/street I just reply that I haven’t needed to as I have a 6D and 40mm pancake…
    Anything smaller and my large hands wouldn’t be able to work the controls 🙂
    The lens is sharp, quiet to focus and easy for composition as it’s field of view pretty much matches the human field of view.
    Oh and it’s good value. What’s not to like?

  • Eleni Ledford

    I have this lens but never used it, but I will be taking it with me when travelling across the USA for 2 months. Only way to check it out is to use it.

  • rolandallen

    I just got this lens, which I’ve paired with the 6d. The 16-35mm was also my favorite lens. I’m seeing differently using this focal length and I think it’s making me a better photographer.

  • D.J. Chesley

    I think you are right about it forcing you to think outside of the box in order to get your composition. It is too easy to just think, “ill just zoom in to frame it how I want. ”

  • The 40mm pancake used to be my favourite lens for years. A couple of years ago I got my hands on the similar 24mm lens. I never leave the house without it. But, just a couple of days ago I took the 40mm with me and noticed what a wonderful piece of glass it is! Recommend the both!

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