15 minutes with the Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM

by Callan

Last Friday, we were invited to the Canon product launch event for the new entry-lvel 650D DSLR. The camera is a logical evolution for Canon’s very successful xxxD line of cameras, and remains a nifty choice for everyone looking for a camera at that price-performance level. The addition of a capacitive touchscreen LCD was a nice, uh, touch. But that wasn’t what caught our attention.

No, it was this little lens. And I do mean little.

Canon EF 40mm f2.8 STM

Canon's first EF pancake lens

The 40/2.8 is about half the size of the EF 50/1.8, aka Plastic Fantastic, which makes it quite tiny by comparison. We had about 15 minutes with it, so this isn’t a review, just a quick 15-minute impression of a pre-production model of the lens, and because it isn’t a production model, we cannot share the photos we took with it.

Although it is small compared to other EF and EF-S lenses, the build is decent. It’s not L-quality, “take me to war and I’ll keep up”, built-like-a-tank grade, but it feels solid and has a nice weight to it, accentuated by a metal lens mount. The filter size is 52mm, which makes it easy to get filters of any sort.

When rumours of this lens started floating around the web, I wondered how Canon could fit in a Ultrasonic Motor (USM) into such a small lens; their answer is that they didn’t. Instead of USM, they used a Stepping Motor for focusing, hence the STM designation. We were rather impressed by how quickly it locked focus, even on a 5D Mark II, and even more impressed by how quiet the focusing was.

None of that bee-in-a-bonnet buzzing, so frequently associated with lenses without a proper ultrasonic motor. We hear it was designed for video, which might explain the use of the STM, but it is quite the piece of engineering.

We also did the usual inspect-by-LCD and gratuitous bokeh tests. I managed a few candid snaps (what did you expect from a street photographer?) of people at the event, and we didn’t spot any egregious distortion, CA, or lack of sharpness, even wide-open at f/2.8. There were plenty of detail on the plane of focus, enough for me anyway. This looked like a very well-corrected lens. Judging saturation and other characteristics on an LCD screen is a fool’s errand, so we’ll skip that. Bokeh-wise, it looked pretty smooth, without disturbing double-edges.

So who would want this lens? Anyone who wants a small, easy-to-handle, decently-fast, quiet, and quick-to-focus lens. It really reduces the bulk and profile of a DSLR, and I suspect I will use my 5D Mark II on the streets more often if I had this. A 40mm field-of-view is a very versatile one for most casual shooting, and since I’m used to the 35mm and 50mm perspectives, this is a good combination of both.

It would also make a good companion lens to any of your existing zooms; most “pro-grade” zooms top out at f/2.8 anyway, so for folks used to it, this really isn’t an issue. Given the high-ISO performance of most cameras these days, f/2.8 is usually fast enough anyway. One stop in exchange for a less bulky and weighty setup is well worth it. I was pleasantly surprised by how compact a 5D Mark II looked with the 40/2.8 mounted.

The only caveat is the uncommon 64mm-equivalent FOV if the lens is used on an APS-C sensor. I suspect that will not be unsimilar to the 58mm FOV, and there were plenty of old lenses with that focal length. I even own one, a Helios-44-2, and I love it. It’s definitely wider than if you mount a 50mm lens on an APS-C camera.

Both B&H and Adorama are taking pre-orders at US$199, and at that price, I’ll definitely want one.

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