Fstoppers Reviews the Canon 40mm f/2.8 Pancake Lens

When the Canon 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens was announced a couple weeks ago, Canon fans all over were squealing with joy- myself included. This tiny lens would be great for life on the go, had a brand new AF engine called the Stepping Motor (or STM), and looked to be extremely versatile. But does it live up to the expectations?

I had serious high hopes for this lens. It is small, lightweight, opens wide to f/2.8, and inexpensive at a budget-friendly $200. Add to that the promise of quiet, smooth auto focus with its brand new STM (stepping motor) focusing mechanism and the ability for full time auto focus, and I was so ready to love this lens.

Pros:

The Canon 40mm f/2.8 pancake excels in the lightweight and user-friendly category of Canon lenses. I can definitely confirm that the promise of great image quality from center to edge of lens is fulfilled. Sharpness is not only consistent, but can be downright beautiful (Note: Can be. More on that later). The aspherical element Canon included into the lens configuration gives the 40mm pancake fantastic sharpness and color balance. Even wide open, this lens is sharp from the center focus point all the way out to the corners of the frame.

 



On the left, the Canon T4i. On the right, the Canon 5D MKIII. Lens was sharp on both, so long as I stayed under f/10.

 

The lens has a sharpness sweet spot at about f/7.1. That said, from f/2.8 all the way through f/9, it is nicely sharp and more than acceptable. This is great news for those of you looking for a lens that is sharp wide open. I noticed no vignette at all on the crop sensor cameras (Canon T4i and 7D), but did notice a little vignette on the 5D at f/2.8 and f/3.2.

 



If used under the ideal set of circumstances, this lens excels.
But the world is rarely ideal (click for high res).

 

Cons:

The Canon 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens struggles with sharpness the further you close it down, has a noisy focus ring, and let me down time and again with slow and inaccurate focusing. Oh and the STM motor does not really work well in full time auto focus, which is a real bummer.

For those not reading the full product description, you might get excited about would be the first bullet point on the product’s highlights: “STM – Continuous Autofocus for Shooting Video.” Sweet! I mean, I don’t ever use auto focus when I’m shooting video because it looks like poop, but maybe this will change everything!

Nope.

Sadly, the promise of continuous auto focus is only fulfilled if you own a new Canon T4i. It is the only Canon body out there that supports the new focus engine to the fullest, and it’s the only one with which you can use full time auto focus.

“Newly developed STM technology for smooth and quiet continuous AF while shooting video.”

This is kind of true. It’s quieter on the T4i, but it’s not quiet at all on any other Canon body.

When not on the T4i or using manual focus on any body, the focus motor on this lens is loud. I mean really loud. I like to compare it to the sound the Millennium Falcon makes when its hyper drive motivator malfunctions in The Empire Strikes Back.

You don’t notice noisy focus rings all that often unless you are listening for it, or shooting alone in a quiet room. I probably wouldn’t care so much about this if Canon didn’t sing it as a major selling point of the product.

If you have a Canon T4i, you can put the nifty full time auto focus feature to use. Well, kind of nifty. It’s not 100% accurate all of the time. It does a decent job, but the tech in the body of the camera seems to outpace the abilities of the lens. While the body recognizes where focus points are set, and where faces are, the lens struggles to keep up. It often loses the subject, focuses on the background, or just seems to give up and stop focusing altogether. Sometimes, if it can’t recognize a subject, it will focus and refocus rapidly, desperately trying to figure out what to dial in on, which results in jumpy, unusable footage.

Bummer, but not the end of the world, right? It still has all those other features that make this thing easily worth the $200, right? Right?

Well, no. Not really.

I mentioned earlier that the sharpness was consistent and “could be downright beautiful.” At certain apertures, the other side of “could be” rears its ugly head. I was shocked at how bad images looked when I shot at anything past f/9. This lens has a very steep falloff in sharpness between f/9 and f/10. It is a little worse on the edges, but that same consistency that I was initially impressed with has carried through when the quality of the image worsened. By the time I got to f/16, I was seeing crummy, blurry, muddy crap. F/18 through f/22 are nigh unusable.

 



It goes from good, to great, to crap (click for high res).

 

The nail in the coffin for me was the aforementioned slow auto focus. It’s not terrible on the T4i, and might be manageable after getting used to it. However, it was extremely frustrating on the 5D. I like to use auto focus when I’m in the studio shooting portraits (which I only did with this particular lens for the sake of testing) because I would rather focus on working with my model than determining if my image is sharp. This is, of course, a personal preference. But if I’ve got the model in just the right pose, but she had to lean an inch forward to get that perfect look, I don’t want to have to worry about checking if my image is sharp. I just want to grab that image before it disappears. My eyes aren’t perfect, so I like to leave those situations up to the camera.

If the 40mm pancake it is not on the T4i, the focus is slow, sloppy, and irritating. Often times, even if I have the focus perfect, as I press my finger down to capture the image the auto focus will change its mind and try and refocus. This can take anywhere between three and five seconds each time. After five or six instances of this happening, I just shut the auto focus off so I could finish my session in peace.

The slow auto focus coupled with the normal focal length doesn’t really make this an ideal studio portrait lens. I’ll stick with the EF 85mm f/1.8 or my Tokina 35mm f/2.8 macro.

The Verdict:

So should you get this lens? Well that depends. If you have a Canon body already and it is not a T4i, I can’t recommend it. It has too many glaring issues. I know the $200 price tag is tempting, but the lens just is not worth it. The slow and noisy auto focus, disdainfully blurry images past f/9, and the fact that you can’t take advantage of the full time auto focus makes this a pretty useless lens. Save your money and put it towards a lens that costs a bit more (like the 85mm f/1.8).

If you do have a T4i or are planning to get one, this might actually be an ok purchase. It’s not expensive, keeps the whole DSLR package small, and is lightweight. If you’re planning on doing some backpacking or travel, the T4i/40mm combo is a darn good alternative to a mirrorless camera. Since Canon does not yet have a mirrorless option, this is a good solution for those of you who don’t want two different sets of lenses cluttering up your home office. The T4i/pancake combo will be good for general-purpose landscape and street photography (the latter especially since it’s so small and inconspicuous). Just don’t plan to stop it down past f/9.

You can pick up the Canon 40mm f/2.8 Pancake (if you really want one) from B&H Photo.
Video shot on a Canon 7D and Canon 60D with a 24-105mm f/4 L and the EF 85mm f/1.8 (I highly recommend both camera bodies and both lenses). Lens close up b-roll was shot with my Tokina 35mm f/2.8 macro.

Canon 5d and T4i rented from BorrowLenses.com

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20 Comments

.....By the time I got to f/16, I was seeing crummy, blurry, muddy crap.....

well other reviews don´t come to the same nonsense result.
it is true that sharpness decreases from f/10 onwards.. but ist still usable at f16.

in the end i don´t give much about your test here... sorry. fstoppers is a good news website for photographer but let others do the reviews!

John James's picture

I've been really disappointed with this lens. I have the Canon 50mm 1.4 but still though this would be worth getting after seeing the marketing being done regarding the follow focus and silent auto-focus, neither of which, as you say, is really usable.

Don't take this as a "troll" post...

but...
How many copies did you test?  
Mine does pretty well with focusing (5d3), and doesn't display the drastic sharpness drop off you speak of past f/9.   
It does lose a little sharpness at the higher apertures, but so does every lens..(technically its losing resolving power).

I do agree that the motor is louder than expected...and was a little disappointed that my 5d3 couldn't take advantage of the AF...but that's the cameras problem, not the lens.

I personally think, for a street shooter, or a casual hobbyist...it is a great lens, and performs admirably for the price.  My sister (has an 11 yr old) loves this lens because she can now take her rebel easily in her purse and use it much like a Point and Shoot, and have more control over her images if she needs it.
It may not be a great lens for a commercial shooter, but it's not designed for them...imo.

Hi Rich,

For the T4i, it's a fine lens- and I say that. For those of us not using a T4i, less so. 

I would think that most of the problems above f/9 were due to diffraction. Particularly with the sensors you were using.

I found issues above f/9 on all three sensors, so if it doesn't do well on any of the most common DSLRs out there... that's a problem.

Ok...3 sensors...

Pls see... http://www.the-digital-picture.com/Reviews/ISO-12233-Sample-Crops.aspx?L...

40mm does not seem to be significantly different from 50 f/1.4 at higher f-stops. Not sure what you are doing...or expecting.

Patrick Hall's picture

why is anyone even shooting beyond f9?  

Yeah, I can't totally concur with this review either.  The primary selling point for me for the 40mm was its size, which makes it an awesome lens to have on hand when I want to bring my dSLR to a family outing without quite so much bulk and weight (or a big lens whacking my daughters in the head in close quarters).  Once I read that it tested at higher MTF numbers than Canon's 50mm f/1.8 and f/1.4, I was sold and have been pleased as punch with it.

I'm using it primarily with my 7D, and so far I've found the focus to be pretty snappy and decisive, at least when in decent light.  Yes, there's a bit of motor whir noise with the AF, but I wouldn't call it loud--makes me wonder if you didn't get your hands on a bad copy.  I don't shoot a lot of video or use servo-AF, so I can't really speak to the lens' performance in those circumstances. Similarly, I've not tried stopping it down past f/8 or so because I don't typically shoot at small apertures, but I am now curious to see what happens as I stop it down.  I'll give that a try.

My one gripe about the lens so far, which you didn't mention, is how the manual focus ring works: rather than directly driving the focus mechanism, the ring instead actuates the STM AF motor, which to me isn't as confident or finely adjustable as a 'normal' direct manual focus.  Again, only a concern when not using AF, which isn't often for me.

Finally, comparing this lens to a Canon L lens or even the Sigma 35mm isn't really fair, I think.  The 40mm seems to have been designed primarily for size (and low price), which obviously involved some compromises.  For its size (unmatched in any EF lens, Canon or third-party) and price, I think it's a win.

I did a very quick, high-level review on my own site, feel free to take a look: http://www.kellyverdeck.com/2012/photo-friday-toy/

Great review! Was already wondering how it would go with 40mm. My old 50mm works great on my XSI and is small and light. Albeit it does not do video but even on my 7D it's compact enough to me with video!

Why 40mm? People on a budget would buy the Canon 50mm / 1.8 and then consider buying a wider lens which would need to be at least 30mm.

www.photoshoot.com.mx

First of all, thanks for a review.
I bought the lens two weeks back and it is attached to my 5D mkII 90% of time. I really like it and enjoy shooting with this lens.

My comments / my user feedback:
1. AF noise: it is not so loud as you explain it. It is slightly louder thank USM motors but much less then the basic micro motors (like the one in 50 f/1,8 II). I believe the lens will be loud for video shooting without the external microphone, but otherwise it is really OK. I use several L lenses and therefore have comparison.
2. AF in still shooting - I don't have any problems as explained by you. It is slower than L lenses with USM motor, but hey it is OK. I get quite fast focusing and important: very good and reliable focus.
3. I would select this lens for portrait shooting in very specific situations, I do not shoot in studio but I guess I would use different lenses in studio. Comparing it to 85 f/1,8 is strange ... Different lens for different purposes.
4. This pancake makes a very good companion for travelling and for street shooting.
5. Vignetting - on a FF it has much higher fall off than indicated by you, but I believe DxO will add a lens module soon and therefore I do not worry so much. Some people might consider it as creative advantage :).

I have some trouble with your results. I wonder whether you had a good copy.

Just my 2c

For me, I use it now as a full time lens cap on my 5D III.  Best lens cap I own - hands down.

I think this is one of those lenses that will gain popularity with street photographers - its size will a lot less intimidating than others, especially one one of the smaller Canons (along with the crop factor, which will mean you won't have to get as close).

As for this review, it does seem to fly in the face of a few others I have read (not that I have read that many or really in-depth reviews). Maybe it was a bad copy, or maybe this one was more objective?

However, it does seem to be a capable lens, perhaps just not as good as initial hype promised?

Love mine, VERY sharp at 5.6 and colors match my 24-70L. Not an ideal FL on a 1.6 but I bought it mainly for my Elan 7 and portability. It does make a decent portrait length on a crop for torso shots.

Thanks for the review. I tried the lens myself and was largely unimpressed, but to be fair it costs $200. For stills I rarely shoot smaller than 5.6 unless it's studio work or something that requires lot's of DOF. Didn't see the huge sharpness degradation until about F16. It's there but not enough to crow about. Basically it's just the latest new thing...nothing spectacular.

I must say, that i disagree with the performance of the pancake sharpness from f/9 and up.

On FotoTV we did a test, and have laid out a series of identical pictures running from f/2.8 all the way to f/20 at 1/3 increments.

Feel free to take a look at them. Direct link for download of full res images can be found on the shows site at http://studieb.dk/fototv-18

fStoppers must have recieved a monday-make of the glass.

The only downfall we have encountered is a really bad vignette from f/2.8 to f/5.0. As of f/5.6 the vignette is gone.

I don't shoot Canon, but I have seen several excellent reviews of the 40 2.8 including Lenstip's review, who used their usual Imatest optical bench. Even by f11 and 16 the lens is well above their decency level. At f4 and f5.6 it's right up their at 46 lp/mm with the best of the other Canon FF lenses.

150 USD for such a sharp, small lens? I've even though about picking up a used 600D just so I could use this lens. A can't see it as anything but a "recommended" especially for that price. Pentax makes a 40 2.8 APS-C lens that's around 400 USD. This EF lens seems like a no-brainer for price/performance.

What do you think about pairing this with a Canon 70D?

I've had the 40 2.8 for a couple days, took it outside today and shot it at f11 for DOF. I was indeed seeing crummy, blurry, muddy crap. But most testers and users are reporting great results. Only conclusion that makes sense is that quality control isn't up to snuff on these and that bad copies are around. I suppose I'll try another.