When Canon announced its release of the new 40 mm f/2.8 STM Pancake lens, the photographic community sat up and noticed. A lens that was flatter than a Canon 1.4 x Extender? And only $199? This I gotta see. I am very interested in high quality equipment and when that equipment is simplified and lightened in weight for my travels, I am even more interested. I was able to use the lens while shooting a short piece on a friend of mine who has recently started participating in the XTERRA events, a type of mountain triathlon where the road biking and street running are replaced by mountain biking and trailrunning. In addition, I had the new Canon T4i in addition to my larger cameras, and so I was able to try out the new stepping motor and continuous video focusing, which I found very interesting. For Pictureline's first review of the 40 mm STM Pancake lens, follow the Roger Newbold article. This is meant only to add a few images from it and talk more about the video capabilities of the lens.
THE 40 MM PANCAKE IN THE LANDSCAPE
My friend and I hit up Arches National Park near Moab, Utah after the mountain triathlon, but I broke out the Pancake lens on some favorite spots near Turret Arch, North Window, and Balanced Rock. These are all roadside photographs or short hikes. For landscape work, I actually try to use prime lenses (fixed focal lengths) because they often feel sharper and have a touch more contrast in them. For a relatively inexpensive lens, I was surprised by the image quality of the 40 mm Pancake. I was expecting a softer image and one that started to blur a bit on the edges, but this was not the case, even on the full frame sensor. When I viewed my images below on the big screen, I was very happy with the sharpness of the images front to back at small apertures (which is often the case with landscape images: f/11 - f/16) and the sharpness even in the corners. There was good contrast in the images, perhaps not quite as much as say the 85 mm f/1.2, but for most part, even professionals will be happy with the images that come off the 40 mm Pancake.
SPEED OF THE LENS
When talking about lenses, "speed" can mean two different things. First, a "fast" lens often refers to how wide the largest aperture is. A widest aperture of f/1.4 (very wide) is said to be "faster" than a lens with a widest aperture of f/4. Remember that the larger the number of the f-stop, the smaller the opening, or aperture. Professional lenses usually have a wider apertures, and hence they will often be f/1.8, f/2.0, and usually as a minimum be f/2.8. This is fairly wide and will give a good bokeh (blurry background) when a picture is taken at f/2.8. A lens, then, like the 40 mm f/2.8 STM Pancake would be considered fairly "fast" in the sense that it has a wide minimum aperture. (You can also note that on most lenses that are packaged with prosumer cameras, the lenses will often be pretty "slow," such as having a widest aperture of f/4 or f/5.6. These are cheaper to build, and the manufacturers assume that you will want the better lenses later on.)
The other "speed" we refer to when we talk about lenses is the speed it takes the lens to focus on the subject. This does not always correlate with price, by the way. The Canon 50 mm f/1.2 (and many other prime lenses), focus rather slowly. They are not built to be sports lens with rapid focusing. They take an enormous amount of time to move focus, and if it can't find the contrast it needs to lock onto the subject, sometimes they painfully goes through their automatic focusing process again. For this XTERRA event, I wanted something very fast, so I used the Canon 70-200 mm f/2.8 II, the new cadillac of zoom lenses from Canon. Although it was a beast, it was awesome on these fast riders. The 40 mm Pancake, fortunately, held its own when focusing. I was totally pleased with its rapid focusing ability when shooting stills on both the Canon T4i and the Canon 5D Mark II. The image above is one section of Beaver Creek where the athletes are whizzing by on the mountain bike portion. I would estimate their speeds here to be around 40 mph. The new Rebel's 5 fps and the 40 mm Pancake were an awesome combination of rapid fire, much better than my old 5D Mark II's 3.1 frames per second.
Finally, the video focusing which is continuous with the 40 mm STM Pancake on the Canon T4i Rebel is very interesting. This is the first time this technology has been employed in a DSLR setup like this, so I wasn't expecting it to work as well as say the XF300 camcorder or other professional camcorders. It did not. It took quite a bit of time to focus, even when the focusing area was selected on the new Rebel's touch screen and the motor is not silent. That said, I am not a "glass half empty" kind of guy, and the technology that exists here is awesome. The facial recognition on the Rebel and through the 40 mm Pancake was a lot of fun to watch and it does work. When it locks on, it locks on. It will follow your kids around the soccer field, and perform the video functions that you need at your daughter's wedding. (I will post a video from the XTERRA event shortly with this camera/lens combo). For the amateur and advanced amateur who want great video with the ease that comes with more continual focusing, this is a very affordable combination and a great value! ($849 + $199). I may also suggest the other kit with the Rebel, however, if you are only going to buy one lens. The other STM (Stepping Motor) lens for continual autofocus is the Canon 18-135 mm STM and will cover more wide angle and close ups, and is packaged quite reasonably as well.
On a simple field test of two situation: stills in landscape work at Arches National Park, Utah and a high-speed XTERRA event in Colorado, I thought the Canon 40 mm f/2.8 STM Pancake Lens performed in the excellent range. The features that mattered to me (sharpness, fast focusing, wide aperture) were all top notch and I was able to capture great video with the T4i/40 mm Pancake combination, as well as rapid still shots on the triathlon. The landscape shots were also winners, and I appreciated the sharpness of the lens, and the edge to edge good quality of the images produced. Especially when coupled with an APS-C sensor, (the new Canon Rebel T4i in particular), this lens outperforms its little size and little price ($199).