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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.