Why the 40mm Pancake Lens is my Favorite Travel Lens
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When I was starting out as a photographer, a friend of mine that was further along would constantly say that “the camera doesn’t matter”. This was the direct opposite approach of everyone that got heart eyes after reading a PetaPixel gear review. The best approach, I’ve realized, is somewhere in the middle.
Gear can make a difference but it depends on the situation. I remember when I got my first lens that wasn’t a kit lens (the sigma 35mm), the gap between how I imagined an image and the final image suddenly wasn’t so daunting anymore. That said a $2,000 lens won’t turn a bad photo into something magical and magical moments look great even if they’re captured on a cheap lens.
Anyway, the super cheap and insanely light 40mm pancake lens is the perfect lens for travel photography if you’re just shooting for fun. On weekend trips, family trips and the last day of a long trip, you’ll always find the the 40mm on my camera. The pancake lens isn’t right for everyone situation but there’s a lot to love. Every single photo I recently shared from my trip to Southern California was shot on the 40mm.
A lot of the high end lenses include a painfully high price tag because of build quality. Durable metal components and weather seals are expensive. While I wouldn’t recommend fumbling the 40mm onto the concrete, it is a solid, little lens that will take regular wear and tear situations like a champ.
Perhaps part of the solidness of the 40mm is that it’s so small that it can slide into a side pocket and feel secure. Unlike my larger lenses, I never worry about bundling this thing up in a camera wrap.
I have the 40mm in my back pack all the time. It is the absolute perfect “oh shit” lens. I always think about the things that could fail on a shoot and how to avoid catastrophe. For quick shoots close to home, I keep my kit pretty simple. My main camera body, preferred lens and a few back up batteries. For travel projects or multi-day projects, I have to have back ups. I usually have a back up camera body, multiple lenses for specific purposes and the 40mm tucked away in a side pocket. If everything goes to shit, my main lenses glitches and say I fumble my back up lens, I’ll still have the 40mm. It’s definitely not what I want to lead with on a project but it gives me a sense of peace to know I have it in case everything goes wrong.
Also, I hate, hate, hate checking gear. I will do anything and everything to avoid checking gear. Baggage gets lost. Stuff gets manhandled. Sometimes though, it’s impossible to avoid. In those situations, I still keep my main camera body, the 40mm, back up batteries and extra memory cards on me and check the remaining gear. This combo of stuff is so small that it easily fit into a tote bag so I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had to hand it off and check it.
There are a lot of logistical reasons to love the 40mm. It’s solid (I mean it’s plastic but I’ve had it bopping around in a side pocket for about 2 years now without a single issue). It’s tiny. It’s portable. It’s great but my absolute favorite thing about this lens is the subtlety.
I have never had someone stop talking mid-sentence and suddenly notice me taking a photo with this thing on my camera. With the 24-70 and the distinctive L series red ring, I get looks, questions and side eye regularly. With the 200-400 telephoto lens, I basically have a giant blinking “photographer” sign above my head.
With the 40mm, I feel loose whenever I shoot. It doesn’t draw attention and it’s so light that I can move easily with it.
Don’t sell all your lenses just yet
The 40mm does have limitations. If I’m shooting a project, this is not the lens I show up with. The photo quality is great considering the price point but the light fall off isn’t as nice, details (especially around the edges) get soft and it can be a bit noisy.
When I look at the images from a trip that I shot entirely on the 40mm, the quality isn’t so much worse that I’m instantly tempted to lament about the images being not usable. The difference is slight and mostly just noticeable if I compare sets of 40mm images against images shots on the 24-70mm. The above example is imperfect but you can see a bit of the quality difference.
Anyway, I think the 40mm is a lens that everyone should have in their back pocket because it’s so cheap and small but it’s not for every single situation. Lastly, I’m sure part of the reason I love it so much is that I use on relaxing trips and easy days. When I put this on my camera, I know the day is just for me, just for fun.