So, is Canon's first pancake lens any good? The verdict is already out there all over the web, and the answer appears to be, unanimously, Yes! In fact, it’s “surprisingly good”, “awesome”, “super sharp”, depending on who you speak to and what you read. But I'd like to pose some slightly different questions: "how good?" and "how does it compare to unfair competition?”
Let’s face it, the Pancake is just $200 and there is very little else in the Canon prime line up that you can get for that sort of money, the 50 f1.8 being the only prime that's cheaper, and that’s built like a piece of… plastic. So I’ve decided to compare it to two lenses I use, the 50 f1.2 and the 85 f1.8. It better not beat my 50L, I’ll be most displeased…
So here’s the rub. I’m interested in a couple of things in this investigation: Built quality, autofocus, bokeh, colour, and sharpness. Let’s tick the easy ones off first.
The built quality is actually damn fine. Solid metal mount, solid construction and a focus ring that works surprisingly well for such a tiny lens. So no complaints. Slightly better build than the 85 1.8, but of course nothing on the 50L.
This seems to work, but not without some issues. On the one hand, it’s very quiet, but on the other it’s not that fast (bottom of the bunch here). Manual focus also works if you remember to half press the shutter first. This is frankly a little annoying though, I don’t see why you just can’t manual focus all the time the camera is switched on. Note, I don’t care much about the video capable AF feature that this lens offers because I can’t use this feature on my cameras.
I’ve also experienced the “I won’t focus at all” phantom menace that seems a lot of people have experienced with this lens, which is to say, at some point, the camera was switched on and the lens just refused to focus at all. Absolutely nothing happened until I removed and remounted the lens. Then Voila! all fine again… An annoying inconvenience but really nothing more.
So really, I don’t like the way the AF on the 40mm is implemented. 1 out of 5. Let’s give the 85mm 3 and the 50L 5 here because the 85mm focuses just fine but the 50L crushes both completely, and is especially impressive in low light!
I wasn’t going to include bokeh as a topic until I took a crazy picture in the park this past weekend where the bokeh is just terrible. Unfortunately I didn’t have any other lenses with me at the time so I couldn’t compare, and I've therefore got no idea if this was the fault of the lens or the tree in the background, but this bokeh is just horrible (look particularly at the 'smudging' on the left). Fortunately, it’s the only such example I’ve come across so I suspect it’s just unfortunate…
On the other hand, bokeh on the 85mm is great (4/5) and pretty good on the 50L as well (3/5). I’ll give the 40mm 2 out of 5 here, because of the above issue, and also, let’s face it, the 40mm is a slow prime and is never going to melt away backgrounds as well as faster primes.
OK, things are hotting up. Colour, contrast and sharpness are how I mainly judge my lenses. Build quality and AF is important, but this is where the rubber hits the tarmac for me…
I’m surprised. I wasn’t expecting much from a $200 lens in the colour and contrast world. Frankly, the number one reason I love L lenses is because of their colour and contrast, they just make pictures more vivid and appealing to look at. Yes I know, you can fix things in photoshop/lightroom these days, but I find fixing colour a pain in the behind and extremely time consuming, it’s the least enjoyable part of processing in my view – hence why I love it when a L lens gives me exactly the level of saturation and contrast I like straight out of the camera.
All of these pictures were taken at 8pm from my balcony in Brooklyn with the subset streaming up onto the neighbouring wall. The colours therefore are somewhat vivid to begin with and not really ideal for this sort of test (I'm mainly shot these for the sharpness test below). The 40mm fairs quite well in the 'colour' regard. This was shot wide open with no processing at all. What I like is that the colours are ‘right’ to my eye. I find usually my 40mm shots have needed a little tweak to increase saturation and contrast a smidge, but they are really perfectly fine straight out of camera. At f2.8 with no processing:
Compare this with the 50L. Here I really don’t feel I want to adjust anything colour wise, this is exactly how the evening looked, again at f2.8, no processing:
And then compare to the 85mm. Oh dear, how I hate this lens sometimes. These colours are just awful, the whites are too cool, the reds are too pink. Again, this is far from the best shot to emphasis my hatred for the colours from this lens, but it smacks of a 1990s cheap lens. Same reason why I switched from the 50mm 1.4 to the 50L (well, there were a few other reasons as well). Again f2.8, no processsing:
Scores? Out of ten this time as this is were things get important 40mm: 6 / 50L: 10 / 85mm: 1
Drum roll please… and the prize goes to… the 40mm, sort of! The story is a bit more complex though. Here’s some analysis based on full frame results. Note of course that there is always lens sample variation and these are results from my 3 lenses.
If you compare center resolution, all three lens can achieve amazing sharpness. The difference is when / how quickly you acheive that super sharpness. Here’s a quick summary based on my tests. 0 = awful, 5 = super sharp
|f stop||40mm f2.8||50mm f1.2||85mm f1.8|
|1.2 / 1.8||-||1||3|
So you can see that the 85mm is really the star of the show here, but the 50L is very sharp by 2.8 as well. The 40mm on the other hand takes a little while to warm up, it's not incredably sharp at f2.8, but bare in mind the shots below are 100% crops. View images at less than 100% and then the 40mm actually looks amazingly sharp wide open, much better than you would expect. Below are f2.8 and f8.0 center crop comparisons, these are near 100% crops...
And now at f8, 40mm
It's a different story when you compare the image as a whole though. I'm not going to put up lots of corner and border crops, there are plenty of review sites with far more accurate results than mine, but the bottom line is that the 40mm and 85mm have fantastic image-wide sharpness when stopped down, but sadly the 50L is hopeless. Here's a summary based on my tests:
|f stop||40mm f2.8||50mm f1.2||85mm f1.8|
|1.2 / 1.8||-||1||3|
Getting a little more specific about it, the 40mm has incredible sharpness across the whole image from 5.6 onwards. At 2.8 it’s a little soft in the corners and still room for improvement at 4.0, but by 5.6 it really shines. It blows the 50L out of the water for sharpness across the image (noting though that the 50L has the best center sharpness of all lenses up to f4) and also debatably equals or edges the 85mm which is frankly remarkable.
Scores? Out of ten this time again. 40mm: 8 / 50L: 5 / 85mm: 8
Here are a few examples of how the 40mm performs in real word conditions (i.e. not a sunset soaked brick wall). It's a really fun lens to use on both full frame and crop.
Full frame (5D3) at f2.8:
Full frame (5D3) at f5.6:
Crop camera (40D) f4.0:
Crop camera (40D) f2.8:
Crop camera (40D) f2.8:
Crop camera (40D) f3.5:
So this part of the test is purely subjective but is just as (if not more) important than everything above. It aims to answer the question of whether or not the lens is enjoyable to shoot with and whether or not I like the results. Put another way, should you buy one?
The 40mm is fantastic, no doubt about it. It’s incredibly useable. It’s so small and light that if you place it on either a crop or a full frame camera it makes a very light package. It's so light in fact that you don’t even really notice it's round your neck because it’s so much lighter than what you’re otherwise used to. On full frame, it is just about capable of getting good background separation, it's a great walk around and it's surprisingly sharp. On a crop, it’s terrific. I almost prefer it on a crop actually because I like shooting in the 50mm to 85mm range a lot (full frame equivalent). The 40mm Pancake is slap bang in the middle of this range (64mm equivalent) and therefore an ideal everyday lens for what I like to shoot. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone, it’s cheap, sharp, has great colour and contrast, and it's fun. It’s found a new home on my 40D and you really can take it anywhere. 8 out of 10.
The 50L is a completely different kettle of fish. It’s very heavy but actually not that large. It’s usually permanently planted on my 5D3 and there it shall remain. It is however a difficult lens to justify given it’s cost and apparent lack of sharpness. In another of my blogs I talk about this a lot and why frankly this doesn't matter. At the end of the day it’s still my favourite lens and therefore tops out the “Do I like it” test. 9 out of 10. I'd certainly recommend this lens as well, but with a whole bunch of caveats (people get stroppy otherwise...).
I kind of hate the 85mm. Yes it’s sharp, yes it’s light and yes it's great for portraits, but there are a couple of things that annoy me about this lens. Firstly, the colours and contrast are dreadful, which often prevents me from taking this lens out of the cupboard in the first place. Secondly, it’s dead boring to shoot with. It has zero X factor. At the end of the day, I’m really not sure why I still have it, perhaps I should sell it. For me, photography is about capturing great images whilst having fun whilst doing it, and this lens just doesn't do it for me. 1 out of 10.
So, where does that leave us after the somewhat subjective "do I like it" test:
|40mm f2.8||50mm f1.2||85mm f1.8|
|Colour & Contrast||6||10||1|
|The "Do I like it" test||8||9||1|
Big sigh of relief, the 50L takes the prize and runs away to fight another day, but the 40mm is an admirable $200 second place, leaving the technically good, but snore-boring 85mm at the back of the pack.
This is really about the 40mm though, the new star of the show, and when it comes down to it, the 40mm is so cheap, so sharp, so portable and so versatile, that it’s a no brainer. Try one, see what I mean…