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Canon 40mm Pancake – How Did They Do That??

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We got our first batch of the Canon 40mm f/2.8 pancake lenses in today and, as with all new lenses, I had to run them through Imatest to establish our acceptable standards for the lens. Let me start by saying I had low expectations. I don’t particularly like pancake lenses except on tiny cameras. They’re usually compromises between size and image quality and I’m an image quality guy, mostly. And, come on, it’s a $200 lens. But duty calls, so test them I must.

My first impression was the build quality was better than I expected. It has a metal mount, not plastic. The aperture blades appear more curved than most of the Canon 7 blade aperture rings, making a more circular opening. The little STM motor is not silent, but it’s pretty quiet. It’s also not lightning fast (as expected) but autofocus is certainly quicker than a Canon 85mm f/1.2 lens. And it’s amazingly tiny — the rear lens cap is about half as big as the lens. So far, so good, if the image quality doesn’t suck too bad.

Imatest Results

As always, these are Imatest MTF 50 results, so they reflect the performance at about 12 feet distance in our lab. Infinity and close-up results could be different to some degree. But the little 40mm has amazingly good numbers. To give some perspective, I’ve put it in a table with results for some other f/2.8 lenses. The higher number is MTF 50 at the center point, the lower number is average across the entire lens front measured at 20 points.


 Lens  Center  20 pt
Canon 40mm f/2.8 870 775
Canon 24-70 740 610
Canon 16-35 770 635
Canon 45 TS-E 785 660

 

You can see the average number is really excellent, which is especially surprising since pancakes often have poor corners. This is sooo not the case here that I’ll show you a graphed printout of a typical copy. Notice it retains excellent sharpness right out to the absolute corners on a 5D II.

 

One thing I have to note: the results were VERY consistent. We only had a dozen copies to test but there was  little lens-to-lens variation. As a rule pancake lenses don’t have lots of optical calibration adjustments inside, so they may depend on the manufacturing tolerances of the housing more than most lenses. Take this with a bit of a grain of salt, though, all the copies we tested were close in serial number, so there could be more variation when we get another dozen copies.

The 40mm f/2.8 lens is near peak sharpness wide open. The graph below shows 8 copies I tested at both f/2.8 and f/5.6. There’s only a slight increase in sharpness (I’m not certain that difference would be visible in a photograph, it’s within 5 SQF points.) That’s wonderful, but I want to point out that a lot of lenses that do improve stopped down (like the 3 in the table above) would ending up being sharper than the 40mm at f/4 or f/5.6.

The only other comment I have about the little lens is that manually focusing, while possible, is rather difficult: the focusing ring is really thin and I found a fingernail moves it better than my whole fingertip. Mostly, though, it has a small range so a tiny movement can move the focus a lot. But then, one of the main purposes of this lens was to provide smooth video autofocusing.

Overall, though, I’m extremely impressed. I’d be impressed if a lens this size and price was just decent, but this one is excellent. I might as well go ahead and get in trouble with the business manager: if you think you want this lens, just go ahead and buy it. At this price, unless some of the more thorough reviewers find something I missed on this quick overview, you can’t go wrong.

Roger Cicala

Lensrentals.com

June 2012

79 Responses to “Canon 40mm Pancake – How Did They Do That??”

Peter Thomas said:

Any thoughts on the viability of popping on a 2x teleconverter to further benefit from a light and mobile kit?

Brad Harris said:

Do you think it’s a better lens than 50mm 1.8 or 1.4 for pure sharpness, particularly for art reproduction, products or group photos?

Stefan said:

@Peter Thomas: A 2x teleconverter will turn the lens into a 80/5.6. Doesn’t make too much sense, does it?

Jeff Jolie said:

Thanks for the report. Just bought one, plan on using it in NYC this weekend!

confused said:

just purchased. why does the instruction manual only list EOS 1 series (+ EOS 3) under:
About the AF frame selection:
* High accuracy cross detection can be used in the center AF frame and horizontal line detection can be used in the frames other than the center AF frame for the following cameras (then goes on to only list 1D series cameras).

Many more canon cameras have fast lens support for AF. Why are the 1D cameras the only ones called out? I personally am not sure how many 1D owners will buy this lens, although it’s probably the closest to a normal prime on the 1.3 body.

Daniel said:

Focus already stopped working after one day.
Worked again after remounting the lens.
Not a good feeling though on the first day.
Even for manual focus the motor is needed.
Manual focus was disengaged as well?
Broken or just a small hickup?

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

Hi Daniel,

I haven’t taken one apart yet to see the insides, but that could be a gear with a broken tooth. I’d send it back to swap out if you can.

Roger

Vu said:

Daniel: I noticed the same thing. I was able to duplicate issue every time by doing the following: when it’s working, focus at infinity (and the inner tube will be at the maximum extension). Turn off the camera. Put the cap on, and continue to press (albeit gently), so the extended tube is now retracted all the way in. Turn the camera on. Viola! The focus mechanism does NOT engage, even if you press shutter button half-way down. Nothing will engage the focusing again until you re-mount the lens again.

Weird! And a bit discomforting, as you mentioned! It doesn’t take much effort to push that tube back in, and it’s been happening so often when I put the camera (with lens mounted) in my bag and run off to my next meeting, etc. I always have to re-mount the lens, and it takes away from having a camera ready at any moment.

I’ve read all of Canon’s current manual and instructions included with the lens, and how the STM goes to sleep when it’s not being used, and how it gets it’s power from the camera, and that’s why it can’t be focused manually when it’s off, etc.

I’m not sure if there’s a work-around at this point. This is a big issue for me, and I’m thinking of returning the lens because of it (unless there’s a workaround).

Besides the obvious: “don’t push the tube back in,” “re-mount the lens every time,” I’m hoping someone has a suggestion so I can keep this otherwise nice lens! :)

Dan said:

Thanks for the review. A usually forgotten factor is that cheap lenses use lower quality glass, and this affects color rendering very noticeably in some conditions. An example is the 50/1.8 vs 50/1.2. What about this lens ?

mrkgoo said:

I’m also getting some issue where the motor will not engage after a period of sleep and requires remounting.

Canon 7D.

Isaac said:

Exact same thing here. Lens arrived yesterday and in general am very pleased with it (super sharpness at f2.8), but it’s already three times had the “will not focus” thing (including not even focusing manually) requiring a remount each time. I don’t think I was pushing at anything… unless pushing gently while putting the lens cap on counts.

mrkgoo said:

I haven’t had the issue beyond the firs two, but admittedly, I ahven’t been out and using it all that much, jsut checking day to day. I wonder if it’s just a quirk, like it needs to be reset if bumped?

I know the Canon 7D doesn’t fully power down with power off (the viewfinder actually goes dark when fully powered down), so maybe a proper power cycle (ie remove battery) might reset the lens too. I’ll give that a go if and when the next time it happens.

It would help if we can get a consensus of when it’s happening, and what model camera people have.

Again, I have a 7D, and it happened when I was either powering the device on or waking it.

Airquotes said:

I’ve had the same focus problem with mine on a 5D MK II. It happened a couple times before I tried Vu’s method of pushing it in and was able to recreate the problem exactly. I think this is a quirk of the lens and not a problem with any one copy. With all the reports of this problem I’ve been reading I think exchanging it would make no difference as all copies of the lens have the problem. It’s really annoying but probably not a deal breaker for me. I’ve just been focusing at infinity so the lens is fully recessed before i put it back in my bag. I wonder if Canon will issue a recall if it truly affects all copies as I suspect it does.

mrkgoo said:

Airquotes: I’m suspecting it’s a weird quirk… that is, since the motor is not engaged with the focus ring, if the focus has shifted (by force for example) since the last time it stopped or was asleep or whatever, it requires a complete power down and reset (ie remount).

That said, if that were the case, it should be fixable in a firmware for the lens, I would imagine. Otherwise, I wonder if firmware for teh cameras can be adjusted to ‘fix’ it?

Joe said:

Hi Robert,

Do you think the 40mm pancake is better optically than the 50mm 1.8?

Thanks.

Sasham5 said:

In my totally “unscientific” tests, I found it much superior in sharpness to 50mm 1.8, especially wide open, but also at 2.8. No comparison…

but it’s got a tiny hole, so the amount of light is an issue.

bullmoon said:

I cannot repro the focus problem. I have had the lens for over 2 weeks and shot quite a bit with it – often “manually” retracting/pushing in the lens after powering off the camera – almost always in fact. Just tried it again following the steps Vu gave and no repro.

I like it – handy lens, pictures look fine, 40mm works well for casual shooting out and about for a compact setup.

Canon 5D MKII / latest firmware: 2.1.2

zemitch said:

Focus blocked after two shoots… Mounted on 5D2.

Ben said:

I sent Canon an email.

I thought about buying this lens then gave up after reading the comments about focus.

Tor-Arne said:

I own this lens myself. And I can verify the focus issue.
But now I know that Canon already has issued an FW update for the 7D to remedy this issue. And we’re already seeing FW updates rolling out to remedy the issue on other models as well.
But so far I found the only solution is to unmount and remount the lens again.
A minor niggle in the grand scheme of things.
Whenever I’ve used the lens in AF mode I always switch it to MF and roll it back before putting on the lens cap. This has kept the issue from reappearing for me.

bip said:

Great to read constructive comments and a v helpful review… Has to be said. Bip.

ernesto said:

I have a Panasonic AF 100 with a Kipon EOS-m4/3 Canon EOS to Micro Four Thirds Lens Adapter w/ Aperture Control
Does anyone know if this lens works with this adapter? It seems that I would need an adopter that would have to power the lens electronically.

Daryl McMullen said:

I bought this lens too – and placed it on my Canon 7D. Nothing happened… Didn’t act powered at all. Unmounted and remounted and nothing. My 7D read 00 for Aperture.

Wound up finding that there is a firmware update for the lens. This update can be applied when mounted on specific cameras (like the 5d MIII) but very unstable and not possible on a 7D.

So I sent it in to have the update applied for me.

Just got it back today – hoping all is well – still haven’t been home to test it.

Good luck all!

Daryl

James said:

I have read so many reviews on this lens, and am getting kinda confused.

I have the 50mm 1.8, and would be buying this lense for video and still work.

I am hearing a lot of people say that the STM motor is not as quiet as canon say and still produces noticable noise…

I am using a 650d, and I know the STM tech is optimised for this camera.

I suppose the question would be, am I really going to see a difference between the 40mm and the 50mm?!

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

James,

Both are good lenses and great values. Both make enough noise that you would hear it using on camera mic for video. Image quality is excellent. The 40mm will AF more accurately.

Roger

Andy said:

Thanks, am planning to buy one soon :P

Jeremy said:

The focus issue can be resolved by ensuring the lens is fully retracted before turning off the camera. You can do this by focusing to infinity and manually rotating the focus ring, if needed, until it is fully retracted. I read about this before purchasing the lens and have only had it not focus for me once or twice after forgetting to fully retract before turning off.

Hope that helps. Love the lens! Good intro to a prime. Not a walk around for me, I missed some good shots in Jamaica because I couldn’t walk back enough to fit everything I wanted in the shot.

I partially got it in the hopes that I would get better pics at night but the way I was shooting, I would have preferred to have the IS on my kit 18-55. When I got back from my trip, I bought a flash for those low light situations.

The compact size is great! I did not worry as much about smacking my camera into things while walking around with it hanging on a rapid strap. It also didn’t get in the way much when walking around with my fiancé.

Being a beginner photographer, I don’t know as much as some others on here and don’t have as good of an eye for quality I guess. When comparing shots taken with the 40mm and the 18-55 is kit at 40mm, I did not notice much difference. Yes, the 2.8 gives better focus control and bokeh but in terms of overall image quality, my eye couldn’t see much of a difference.

I am definitely going to keep playing with this lens. It will be used for certain situations and is easy to carry in my bag in case I want to use it but if I have to leave the house with one lens, I will choose the 18-55 over the 40mm. At least until I save up for a 17-55, 17-50, 15-85 or possibly an 18-125. I want to spend a good amount of time using the 18-55 and 40 before I buy another lens. You won’t really know what you value in a lens until you’ve spent some quality time taking and reviewing photos in various settings.

Do I recommend this? Absolutely! This over the 50/1.8? I haven’t used the 50 but I’m happy I chose the 40. Yes, it’s not 1.8 but 50mm on an crop sensor would be too limiting for my use, take away from the overall compact size and honestly, I wasn’t a fan of the 1.8 performance I saw of the 50 and the 40 seemed to be better at 2.8 and up.

jpsi said:

They probably have done it in the same way Pentax made their 40mm F2.8 XS for less than $200 :P .

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