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Review and comparison of the Canon 40mm f/2.8 and the Voigtlander 40mm f/2.0 Ultron SLii

With mirrorless cameras starting to rival DSLR’s in speed and photo quality, users are starting to wonder if it’s worth it to lug a DSLR on short trips and outings. A Pancake lens is going to change that. They’re designated “pancake” for a reason. These lenses are very light, small and flat. (about the size of a few lens caps stacked on top of each other), DSLR users can avoid bringing a bulky camera lens that will weigh them down. This encourages the photographer to take the DSLR out more often, for leisurely use, not just professional. I know I have. I’ve practically left my bulky 50mm f1.4 at home after I got this lens. 40mm is a wider and a slightly more useable focal length for me, and many photographers say that on a full frame, 40mm is even better than 50mm for replicating the most natural “human eye” perspective. 40 is the new normal baby!

One of the newest lenses in Canon’s prime lens line up is the 40mm f2.8 STM pancake prime. This newly introduced glass is a very small and relatively fast prime lens. It weighs only 130grams. The last title holder for “lightest and most compact Canon lens” was the 28mm f2.8. It weighed 291 grams and that lens was considered light! With the new 40mm prime, it feels like there is nothing is attached to the camera. My Canon 5D easily fits into a small messenger bag now. STM is a new technology that allows for completely silent automatic focusing when filming video with Canon’s newer EOS camera. I’m not a video shooter, but I know this feature is important because you don’t want any noise coming out of the camera while filming is taking place. Despite its small size, Canon was able to fit 6 elements in 4 groups. It also includes an aspherical element usually reserved for more expensive lenses. This reduces aberrations. Focusing is fast and the barrel protrudes a mere 7mm at minimum focus. Photos from this lens are sharp, even wide open at 2.8. Very few prime lenses are tack sharp at their widest apertures. This is a feat on Canon’s part. Vignetting is kept to a minimum and the entire range sharpens up quickly at F3.5

But where is the fun of reviewing just one lens when we can bring in a retro/modern fusion at the same focal length for comparison? I introduce to you the Voigtlander 40mm F2 Ultron ASii made by Cosina. This is a thing of beauty and too bad it is only a manual focus lens, otherwise it would be on my camera 90% of the time. This lens is wonderfully crafted and feels like something from the 60’s, when all lenses were made with metal. Because of that, the lens is slightly heavier, weighing in at 200g. The focus ring is creamy smooth when rotated. It’s grippy and textured for an amazing feel. This lens is also tack sharp at its widest aperture and produces some amazing bokeh. An important note to mention is that Voigtlander was bought by a Japanese company named Cosina in 1999 and has since had their lenses manufactured by Cosina.

First of all, let’s get basic and just look at the boxes that the lenses come in.

The Canon comes in the standard white box, similar to its entire lens lineup.

The Voigtlander comes in a very chic slate gray box which i thought was really cool. This is the first time I’ve used a 3rd party lens so maybe that is why, but man, I really love that box!

The Canon 40mm (left) is well made. It consists of a plastic body, a metal mount, an aspherical element and a 7 blade diaphragm.  It’s much sturdier than the previous generations of consumer EF prime lenses (35mm f2, 50mm f1.8, 50mm f1.4) Instead of the smooth black plastic of the older primes, the 40mm has some textured plastic which gives lends it a more modern feel. The manual focus ring is rubberized, but due to the STM design, is only focusable when the camera is on. Overall, I like it a lot. Despite its size, it’s easy to handle. The af/mf switch is sturdy and the lens feels of good quality especially since it only costs $150.

The Voigtlander 40mm (right) is a completely different animal in the design and looks category. It is made of all metal, even the focus ring. It also includes an aspherical element and a 9 blade diaphragm.  It’s slightly more heavy by 70 grams, but for some reason feels a lot more substantial. It has an old school distant scale to aid in more accurate manual focusing. The focus ring rotates more smoothly than the Canon’s, and the focus ring surface alternates between a studded and flat area to provide a slip free grip.  This lens also includes an aspherical element.  Despite it being a manual focus lens, the camera can seamlessly communicate exposure and aperture information to the lens. When you change the aperture on the camera, the aperture changes on the lens too. All you have to do is focus on the subject (which is sort of a feat in itself but we’ll talk more about this later). And yes, there is an focus confirmation chip on this lens which also communicates with the camera.

The lenses are almost identical in profile so with either one, you’re going to have some serious weight savings on your camera. It also lowers the profile of the camera and make it less conspicuous at parties and gatherings. It’s also great for street photography because a smaller camera in general will make your subjects feel more at ease.

Instead of writing paragraphs of boring technical details about the lenses, I decided to let the pictures do the talking with of course, a bit of commentary.

The Canon is on the left and the Voigtlander right. Just remember that throughout the rest of the review as all the photos will be layed out this way.

In lower light and at extreme apertures, we can see the Voigtlander has the edge in realistic color reproduction. Being there when this photo was taken, the Voigtlander’s rendition definitely makes me feel like I am there again. The dynamic range is a little better with the Voigtlander as well, but it’s really nothing that a little post production can’t fix on the Canon. Both lenses are very sharp at their widest apertures. By 2.8, the Voigtlander is even more sharp.

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In very dark situations (ISO has been bumped up to 1600 for these two photos), we can start to see the heavy vignetting from the Voigtlander’s maximum aperture. Despite that, the Voigtlander seems to again render the scene a little closer to reality. The Canon seems to cause the camera overexpose by just a little bit to brighten the scene. The grays of the sidewalk, the greens of the grass, the blues of the sign and sky seem to be just a little closer to reality with the Voigtlander.

Let’s move onto some daytime shots. I spotted these two cool cats hanging out in the 4th Ward on a early Sunday afternoon. They were old friends, the gentleman on the left was extremely chatty and the gentleman on the left was very quiet but his outfit spoke for him. I thought he looked extremely cool, you don’t see people dressing with this much style nowadays. The Canon is on the left and Voigtlander is on the right. Both were shot at F3.5, and were incredibly sharp without any visual aberrations. The only tell tale sign of a competitive edge in these photos is the red suit jacket. The Voigtlander renders it again in a slightly more authentic tone. The Canon slightly over saturates the red. Both lenses performed beautifully and exhibit great dynamic range despite the contrasty environment.

I’ve always had an affinity for old turbo diesel Mercedes, I think they’re built like tanks, last forever and have beautiful lines. I was delighted to see this beautiful 300D in pristine condition and had to take a photo of it. A historic car in a historic district! The Canon is on the left and the Voigtlander is on the right. Both photos were shot at f2.8. They are both incredibly sharp and handle contrast very well. Even in a high contrast scene like this there is very little visual aberration with both lenses. But…once again, the Voigtlander has a slight edge rendering lights and darks closer to reality. Notice the entire car, it’s very reflective. The Canon 40mm seems to lose a bit of detail in the highlights, whilst the Voigtlander retains a good balance of detail in the shadow and highlights.

Both lenses were set at F2.8 for these photos. The Canon has 7 diaphragm blades which makes for a some pleasing bokeh. If you want a reference, the nifty fifty has only 5 which causes strange pentagonal bokeh. 7 blades give a more circular shape. The Voigtlander has a whopping 9 blades for some really nice and round bokeh. It’s almost dreamy looking and allows for a very pleasing and soft background. As you can see in the photos, the Voigtlander renders slightly more round bokeh which sort of melts together. I’m not sure what to think of that, I actually prefer the bokeh of the Canon just a little bit more because of it. These lenses can also function as psudeo macro lenses. The Voigtlander has a 1:4 ratio with the included macro screw on lens, and the Canon has a 1:6 ratio.

Now we’re getting some flare from the Canon. A lens hood does not come with the Canon 40mm f2.8. You’ll have to pay an extra $20 to get one. On the right, the Voigtlander handles flare much better because of its included lens hood.

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Both lenses are very good at color reproduction in ideal lighting conditions. Here the photos are almost identical with the exception of the smoother bokeh of the Voigtlander’s out of focus elements in the background of these runners.

So what can I say, these two lenses both perform spectacularly for the money. In the cheaper range of lenses, the Canon 40mm F2.8 performs wonderfully. It’s definitely better built than the older generation of EF lenses and it’s tack sharp wide open, which can’t be said for most lenses. In the higher end of the spectrum, the Voigtlander performs flawlessly as well. This lens definitely gives the Zeiss lenses a run for the money, especially the Zeiss 35mm f2 and Zeiss 50mm f1.4. It has a very slight edge in image reproduction over the Canon but it’s nothing that can’t be fixed in Photoshop for the Canon. So in a sense, you are paying for the difference in build quality (all metal designs), retro design and the extra 2.0 aperture of the Voigtlander. Personally, I don’t think 2.0 and 2.8 is such a big difference. With modern sensors, bumping up the ISO with no degradation to image quality can even the playing field in regards to speed. Personally, there isn’t that big of a difference between 2.0 and 2.8 in regards to background blur to me.

Keep in mind the Voigtlander has no autofocus. Focusing with the aid of the auto focus indicator on my camera was decent. The camera will beep when it thinks the scene is in focus, but there are times when the camera mis reads and I end up with a slightly out of focus shot. Often times it’s blurry enough for the photo to be unusable. Focusing with live view, if your camera has it, or using a split prism screen would be much more accurate. There was a reason why I didn’t put up any action shots for comparison, I just couldn’t get the Voigtlander to focus quickly and accurately enough on moving objects. If there is ever any doubt about focusing, it’s best to do the old school way of setting it at F8 and forgetting. With the aperture at F8, you’d get a wider length of distances where things will automatically be in focus. Either way, you’ll have to be more methodical in your approach with photography using a manual focus lens.

In the end, I would recommend the Canon 40mm if you’re tight on money and if you’re in need of a reliable and versatile lens. If you have a lot of discretionary cash lying around and don’t shoot much action, than no doubt go for the Voigtlander. The aesthetics and build quality of the lens will be enough to help you forget you spent an extra $300.

Canon 40mm f2.8 STM:

Pros

  • Lightweight
  • Silent autofocus
  • Accurate color reproduction
  • Very Sharp Wide Open
  • Sturdy
  • Very cheap (only $150 if you get it this year)

Cons

  • f2.8 may not be fast enough for some people
  • Not very resistant to flare
  • Manual focus only works when the camera is turned on

Voigtlander 40mm f2.0 Ultron AS ii

Pros

  • Wonderfully Built
  • Fast 2.0 aperture
  • Very, Very accurate image reproduction on all fronts
  • Very sharp wide open
  • Built like a tank
  • Cheap compared to other luxury lenses such as Zeiss

Cons

  • Only comes in Manual focus
  • Slow to focus if you’re not skilled with manual focus
  • Lower percentage of usable shots, especially at night time and at f2.0 if you’re focusing is even slightly off

Here are a couple more shots from these two wonderful lenses.

Canon

Voigtlander

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I hope this review was helpful and I hope you enjoyed it. Please leave any comments and questions below!
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