Monday, November 26, 2012

The Final Chapter: Canon 40mm f/2.8 Pancake STM

Al Montazah Palace - Alexandria, Canon 40 STM
I travelled to Alexandria a short time ago, and I only took my 5D3 with a couple of lenses, the Canon 50 1.4 and - as you must have guessed by now - the Canon 40 pancake. How did This setup work out? Click through to find out.
I enjoy using a 50mm lens on a full frame camera (just like I enjoyed the 35mm on my crop sensor camera), I get lots of uses from this focal length, I can get a semi wide-angle shot, a full length portrait, a head and shoulders shot, or even some close-ups and detail shots.
Lamp, Canon 40 @ f/2.8
I previously tried my old 35mm f/2 on the 5D2, and it was too wide for my tastes, I don't shoot streets, and 90% of my shooting are close portraits, so I decided to sell it at the end.
When I saw the Canon 40 Pancake announcement, the price ($200) and Roger Cicala's first impressions, I was intrigued, and when I saw the nice sharpness and bokeh, I was sold, so I bought one. Mine shipped with the older firmware version, and I successfully updated it on the 5D3. First impressions showed a very sharp lens, a very weird focus-by-wire system and severe vignetting wide-open.
Anyway, I kept the lens for a while more and decided to do some more testing, in better conditions. I used the lens a couple of times, one in daylight and another indoors, and finally, I took it with me to Alexandria, along with the 50 1.4. I mostly used it when I visited Al Montazah palace in Alexandria (this was one of the places King Farouk lived when he ruled Egypt, see picture below), and took some shots inside my hotel room and shots outside the window.
Al Montazah Palace
Before I mention my experience with the lens, I was trying out a couple of new things on this trip, full auto-area auto-focus (all 61 points active, cross types and non cross types) in one shot mode, while the focus was linked to the shutter button (I didn't use my usual back button focusing), and the other new thing was a new B&W processing method, I'm not sure I fully appreciate it, but I'd like to hear your opinions, there are more darks and near-crushed blacks than I usually like.
The 5D3 performed admirably in auto-area AF with the 40mm wide-open, whenever I fully pressed the shutter button, the shot was instantly taken, and in focus, it was like magic, eerily instant and accurate, but I have yet to try it in more critical situations like a headshot with a 200mm @ f/2.8, I'm not sure if it will be able to pick the near eye, but that's what single AF is for. One more thing, the 5D3 seems to give me much better battery life than the 5D2 which uses the same battery (60D, 7D as well), the 5D2 gave me ~ 900 shots on average with my usage, with the 5D3, I am now on 611 shots with 60% battery remaining, and I am shooting RAW to dual memory cards, unlike the 5D2, kudos to Canon.
Out of the hotel room window, this is a crop from a larger image, it needed severe horizon leveling
100% crop from the image above,
Back to the 40mm, I have to say I was really enjoying the lens this time, it is very suitable for shooting .. stuff, you know, just general street, scene, whatever shooting, not portraits nor landscapes, just stuff, which is where this lens shines. It is very suitable for street shooting (did a little bit, but nothing worth posting here), and I understand why many street shooters prefer 35mm lenses, it is nice to get street shots with descriptive backgrounds. However, if you want to shoot heads and shoulders shots, it just isn't good. Such a focal length is not suitable for getting close to people without distorting their faces, and it doesn't blur backgrounds well because of the wide-angle and the not-so-fast aperture.
The 40mm is significantly wider than the 50mm, I'd say it is closer to the 35mm than it is to the 50mm in terms of viewing angle, and for that reason, the 40mm didn't get it's deserved attention from me. And for that reason alone, it goes to a new proud owner tomorrow.
Yes, I'm selling it, not because of any imperfection in the lens, but rather because each time I try to pick a lens I hesitate between the 40mm and the 50mm, they're very different lenses, the 50 is my favorite and goes to 1.4, while the 40 is tiny and has really nice smooth bokeh, but in the end I usually pick up the 50. The times I pick up the 40 so that I don't leave it collecting dust, I regret not taking the 50, and I don't like any lens to take the place of my 50 (unless it is an accurate focusing Sigma 50 1.4).
100% crop, sharp!
I have prime lenses at reasonably spaced focal lengths, I have the 50 1.4, 100L 2.8 Macro and the 200L 2.8, and I take them in turns for each of my outings. The 40 disrupted this balance, and in order to get back my peace of mind I'm selling it. On a crop sensor, that lens would be something else, I believe it would be a very useful lens, and I would take it over the 50 1.8 any day, which I don't trust to get correct focus until f/2.8 anyway.
The 50 1.4 this time, hotel corridor
Here's my quick evaluation summary of the 40mm over the couple of months that I happily owned it:
  • Really tiny, I love how it feels and looks on the 5D3, it certainly is a conversation initiator (worth $200 just for this?).
  • Reasonably cheap and well built, with a metal mount.
  • Wickedly sharp wide-open and gets better stopped down.
  • Heavy vignetting wide-open on full frame, can be auto corrected in camera or in RAW processors (DPP and LR).
  • Very smooth bokeh, not that you'd get a lot of it at such a wide angle.
  • Excellent flare resistance, I shot directly into the sun, and it refused to misbehave.
  • Good contrast and colors, but not as good as my 200L (it just happened I shot both back to back - same subject - and noticed the difference).
  • Reasonably fast and silent focusing, however it's not as fast as USM lenses, and it doesn't have hard stops at the end, nor a distance scale.
  • When the camera's meters are not active, the focusing ring won't do anything, you have to half-press the shutter button to get it to work. And it doesn't work of course when you've turned the camera off.
  • Did I mention tiny?

Handheld at 1/25 sec, ISO 3200
I enjoyed owning this lens, but since I don't usually shoot "stuff", I don't see a great benefit of owning this lens when I already have and love using the 50mm. If you're a full-frame street shooter, you have to try it, it is tiny, discreet and wide enough. If you're a crop sensor shooter and use a 50mm, give it a try, you'll be able to breath better with the wider viewing angle.
The Stanley Bridge, Alexandria, 40mm wide-open, ISO 3200, hand held
And just to give you a shock after all this black and white, here's an eye-jarring colored picture.
Sea view, hotel room window, 40mm @ f/8 I think
Canon 40mm Hands-On
That's Why I Love my 5D
Canon 50mm f/1.4 Review

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