Why 40mm Is the Perfect Lens Focal Length

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my love for Canon's 40mm pancake lens. Clearly, Kaiman Wong was reading and, it being Pancake Day recently (aka Shrove Tuesday aka Fat Tuesday aka Mardi Gras), he was inspired to dig out his 5D and take it for a walk through the streets of central London.

Wong's love for the 40mm is not too different to my own. It's not a perfect length for anything, making it fairly ideal for a bit of everything, all with this tiny profile that makes it incredibly convenient to carry around. As Wong said, if you want a special lens, it's not the 40mm, but that's not why you would buy it. We think of prime lenses as being quite restrictive, but this one turns out to be fairly flexible; wide enough to shoot reportage and everyday life, but narrow enough for the occasional portrait. And with such a snub-nosed lens, it's possible to shoot handheld at impressively slow shutter speeds, giving you opportunity to create some interesting motion blur when out photographing on the street.

Something I didn't pick up in my previous article is that if you're shooting on one of Canon's APS-C sensors, the equally delightful EF-S 24mm offers almost the same angle of view, giving the equivalent of 38.4mm. It has a similarly low profile, the same f/2.8 maximum aperture, and somehow weighs in even cheaper than the 40mm.

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6 Comments

Anonymous's picture

Couldn't agree more with this assessment (which is obviously a personal preference). I remember reading somewhere that Sally Mann thought the same on the 40mm. I've shot with a Canonet in the past, as well as a Rolleiflex 3.5–which both have the equivalent of 40mm–and I always felt comfortable composing within their framelines.

Thanks for sharing.

stir photos's picture

LOL, "... did he forget how to use his umbrella..."

Campbell Sinclair's picture

sexy time with canon ...ewwwww

Dariano Bisotnik's picture

9:19...."you can't get any more compact than this, can you?"
Really? ever heard of mirroless cameras?
Seriously, for street photography a pancake lens on a small body is so much less intimidating. At least I notice a difference when I use a compact system versus a bloated studio camera (DSLR)

Eric Robinson's picture

I enjoy dropping by fstoppers now and then, nearly always interesting stuff on offer. Really good site. However if I read another article on the perfect this or the perfect that...I might just......do something rash! There is no perfect anything. One may love the freedom that a small body and a tiny lens like the 40mm, gives but so what, let’s not get carried away. I think we need to establish there is no best or perfect bit of anything in photography. In my opinion, which is no great revelation, in photography your kit whatever it happens to be should be transparent and the most important thing is the ‘pre click of the button thought processes’ , the planning and then the choices made during processing. In other words your most important bit of kit is your head, learn how to use that. Like most photographers I’ve gone through that; if only I had that lens, camera, light, etc my photographs would be so much better stage, it’s a myth. I just wonder how many impressionable youngsters will be rushing out and buying a 40mm in the delusional belief that this will be the key to their success. My advice would be learn to get the most out of what you already have, and that applies to both head and kit.

J Bedford's picture

Very late to the comment party, but came across this post while searching for reason that (aside from Tamron) why 40mm lenses and their equivalents are either a) pancake in shape and/or b) a maximum aperture of 2.8.

Anyone know?