How a Pancake Lens Will Change the Way You Take Photographs

How a Pancake Lens Will Change the Way You Take Photographs

As a minimalist (read, "simpleton"), there's something that appeals to me about prime lenses. Unfortunately, the other side of being a minimalist (read, "cheapskate") means that I tend to avoid using gear that doesn't offer flexibility. When I randomly treated myself to Canon's budget, plastic 40mm f/2.8 pancake, little did I realize how much joy it would bring me.

My kit is seriously sparse. I spend around six months of the year on the road and I've lived in four (some would argue six) different countries in the last two years. The less I have to carry, the lighter the gear, the happier I feel. I'm not quite on a par with my friend Thomas (when packing a bag, he cuts the handle from his toothbrush), but I'm close. One body, two lenses. And now three.

What I didn't anticipate is how much more I would use my DSLR as a result of attaching this lens. Previously this always had an L-series lens attached and consequently felt like a lump that was trying to twist itself out of my hand. Suddenly, it now feels almost like a compact point-and-shoot camera. It gets thrown into a bag or a coat pocket when I'm out and about, has proven to be great for photographing friends and family, and replaces my phone's camera for chance encounters. Plus, I get all the benefits of shooting a full-frame DSLR at f/2.8: decent dynamic range, immediate control over exposure, and some lovely shallow depth of field.

40mm is a bit of an odd length that initially put me off. I assumed that it wouldn't quite feel wide enough for street photography and not quite narrow enough for portraiture. As it turns out, I've found that this betwixt-and-between length to be quite useful, making it a handy all-rounder. It's far from perfect for either, but still workable, which is what you want when out and about with nothing but a prime lens.

The two biggest impacts for me are a new love of portraiture (something I've not done much of before), and a new means of documenting the people that are close to me. The dramatic difference in size (compared to my EF 24-70mm) affects both me and my subjects. For the subject, they don't have this huge, potentially intimidating lens being thrust in their faces, allowing them to relax a bit more or, to a degree, forget that I'm there. And for me, I feel less conscious of myself as a photographer, allowing me to relax further and either create an atmosphere that's more laid back, or respond more fluidly and naturally to what my subjects are doing. With the bigger lenses, it can feel like I'm switching from being, say, a friend or an uncle to "a photographer," waving this huge, pretentious piece of equipment around, and then trying to switch back again. With the 40mm attached, I could almost as easily be picking up my iPhone, avoiding this shift in mindset, maintaining a level of intimacy, and reducing this sense of a physical and mental barrier between myself and the people in front of me.

Photographers more knowledgeable than me have written extensively about shooting with prime lenses and how it gives you a stripped-down, authentic feel to how you work. "Authentic" is always one of those words that I'm wary of using; it suggests different things to different people, and it's one of these slippery, almost meaningless words that's often used without any real thought. In this context, to me it means that, while I feel less of a separation from my subject, the limitations of shooting with a prime lens also force me to work a bit harder, triggering an extra, often physical degree of creativity in my approach that then leaks over into other aspects of the image-making process. Perhaps it's this extra physical effort and consequent boost in creativity that makes a prime lens feel like a more "authentic" tool.

Whatever it is, this comparatively cheap lump of plastic certainly makes me pick up my camera more than I would, and to shoot things that I otherwise wouldn't. 

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21 Comments

Hans Rosemond's picture

It’s a great lens! Some of my favorite portraits from my 5D Mark II days were taken with that lens.

Andy Day's picture

I love it. Surprisingly sharp for such a cheap lens, I thought.

Andy Day's picture

Yep, I agree - the best camera in the world is no good if it never comes out of its bag. That Sony looks nice but if I were to splash out, I think I'd go for something more in line with the Fuji XE2S. However, sadly I'm not buying any new kit any time soon..!

Andy Day's picture

Forgot to add - well worth checking out BandH's list of pancakes: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/search?sts=ma&ci=15492&cp=15293%2b15492&N...

jonas y's picture

I have felt the same thing after I bought a 35 1.8DX for my Nikon FF camera. I found using it to be not only relaxing when I am out having fun, but also quite a joy when I am working with it.

I've thought about getting the 35 1.8 DX for my D5100 - but hesitated as I plan to upgrade to a FF in the next couple of years. How well does it work on a FF? Thanks.

jonas y's picture

Yes, if you use f numbers below 5.6 there is no black out at all.

Gabrielle Colton's picture

I used to have one of these, I was surprised how fun it was to use and it is surprisingly sharp indeed! I got mine used for around $40 lol

Terry Poe's picture

It's one of my favorite lenses, one of true Canon's gems, along with its Ef-s analogue 24mm.

My favorite travel combinations (I favor wide angle):
Canon 760d: ef-s 10-18mm, ef-s 24mm f/2.8.
Canon 6d: ef 24mm f/2.8, ef 28mm f/1.8, ef 35mm f/2.0, ef 40mm f/2.8, ef 50mm f/1.8
https://www.photostudio.org/?p=3730

Jonathan Schwind's picture

Thanks for this. For a couple of years I've been on the fence about picking one of these up for the very reasons you have listed. I'll be getting myself one for my birthday.

Andy Day's picture

Awesome. If you don't like it, I'll buy it from you and keep it as a spare. 😂

Dave Melges's picture

In other words, get an Olympus. Get a Sony. Get something more the size of the rangefinders and SLRs street photographers and photojournalists carried for years.

It always sounds so strange when someone shoots a uselessly huge DSLR and acts like they discovered small and light by putting a different lens on it.

Want that shallow depth of field, even better dynamic range, add in STABILIZATION for your prime....get a Sony...it's everything you're talking about done correctly.

Andy Day's picture

You want to buy me a Sony? That's awesome! I was just using the 40mm because I can't justify the cost of changing/adding systems. I'll send you my address. THANKY YOU! 😂

Joel Cleare's picture

Change system because a Canon user wants a smaller lens to his exsisting kit ? Sounds easy. You must speak from experience.

Excellent review. The Canon 40mm f/2.8 STM has been a favorite of mine since I bought one in 2012 - for all the reasons outlined in the article. I actually prefer 40mm to the more ubiquitous 50mm focal length, it seems more like what I see with my eyes. If I had only one Canon lens, this would be a good candidate.

Anonymous's picture

"I actually prefer 40mm to the more ubiquitous 50mm focal length" Agreed. 40mm or equivalent is a fine focal length for most scenarios, as it is closer to the "normal" angle of view (43mm) of a full frame sensor.

Alexis Paoli's picture

I absolutely love this lens, perfect for street photography and travel. At first, I thought that 40 mm was an odd length, but I found that it was perfect for many different kind of photo, portrait, street views, details . I appreciate that you can point your camera without warning your subject, almost absolute discretion.
In my dreams, Canon will release an upgrade pro version of this pancake.

I really love this lens and I really miss it since I made the switch to Nikon. I wish Nikon would produce something like this lens.

Ryan Bishop's picture

This makes me want to dig out my 40mm and 24mm pancakes. I haven't used them for quite a while. Looks like I have a weekend challenge ahead of me!

Pentax is the king of the pancake lenses, still offering several in different focal lengths. The major advantage of all pancakes is size and weight. The obvious disadvantages are mediocre speed and corner sharpness (not a lot of glass). Pancakes offer a lot a bang for the buck and are usually sharp enough. I always travel with one or two of them.