Canon 40mm: Why I use a 40mm for street photography

August 28, 2019


tree indoors at restaurant in khan market in new delhi india


I keep getting asked why I use a Canon 40mm for street photography on my Canon 5D. My usual answer is, "Why not? It is a pretty good lens."

When I started out in photography, I stuck to the kit lens I got when I bought the camera. After a few years, as I upgraded my camera and started doing more paid work, I got used to having heavier equipment with different lenses. Beyond the scope of work that I do, one of my favorite things to do is to head out and do as much street photography as I can do. With the Canon 5D being my primary camera, I learnt how hard it was lugging around heavy lenses while I walk around for hours. I desperately was looking for an alternative that won't break the bank or involve a change of camera body.

I have in the past tried the "nifty fifty" - the Canon 50mm lens but I was never quite happy with it. I found it very plastic, it rattled and it still didn't lighten my gear to where I was comfortable lugging it around.

I had never considered the pancake lenses until a friend loaned me her Canon 40mm pancake lens. I immediately felt far more comfortable with the weight I was carrying around. The 40mm pancake lens on a 5D was super comfortable and I felt like I could walk hours with it. The best part though, was that it was so small and light that it could fit into a normal sling bag, without me carrying a camera bag around. I use the Lowepro with my 5D and the kit lens.

man riding bicycle among cars in the monsoon in khan market new delhi india
Street photography at Khan Market

The downside to the 40mm is that I find the pictures turn out darker than with my 24 - 105mm L lens. I've been researching and haven't found anyone else with the same issue so it might be an isolated issue with just my lens. But adjustments on Adobe Lightroom help to combat that issue. I also shoot RAW and I adjust my settings in case I face darker images. Otherwise, the 40mm is perfect for street photography, it is light, it is sharp, and it is a F2.8 which allows more light in than my F4 kit lens. If I need to zoom in, I use my feet.

I've also found that using a prime versus a zoom for street photography allows me to hone my skills more. I think more about how I can adjust where I am to get a better photo. It is almost like I'm learning more as I use a prime lens. I do admit that owning zoom lenses have made me a tad lazier as I just learn to stand in one place and zoom.

Owning the 40mm had made me realize that I love prime lenses far more than zoom ones. And as I try to build my gear, I find that I now purchase more prime lenses than zoom lenses. I've learnt that I need to adjust my shooting style to fit into the constraints of having a prime lens. And I am definitely a better photographer since owning primes.

black and white street photography at khan market inner lane in new delhi india
Street photography in Black and White

For anyone who is starting out in photography, if you need to purchase your first non-kit lens. The Canon 50mm and 40mm are very good buys. The reason I’d recommend a prime is that, before you go on to purchase more professional lens, buying a cheaper 50mm or 40mm prime will give you a feel of what shooting with primes is like. Some people hate it, whilst others love it. For a small investment, these two lenses allow you to try out what style you’ll eventually be getting into.

For street photographers, I find the 40mm pancake such a delight to own. I slap it onto my Canon 5D or even my Canon 100D and head out and I’m able to carry the camera for quite a bit and also be less conspicuous. I find that people look at you less with a small lens. My Canon 5D and the kit lens draw a lot of attention when I travel. The 40mm pancake is also surprisingly very sharp.

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