Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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I'm planning on giving my college age daughter my Canon 40D sometime soon. (Not Christmas, but the Christmas sales are getting me thinking).

She has a point and shoot and turn out pretty amazing work for her age. I'd like to see what she can do when I get her some "real" equipment. My crop body 40D is sitting gathering dust but I don't have any lenses to spare for it.

There seem to be three choices, the Canon 18-55mm kit lens (which is pretty good from what I read), the new 40mm f2.8 pancake lens, and the classic and venerated nifty-fifty, the 50mm f1.8.

One problem I have sometimes when shooting is going too fast, I know I need to slow down, so I don't want to get the kit lens, shooting with a prime will slow you down, make you think more about the shot.

Now, if she had a full frame camera I'd go with the 50 no questions asked. But the 40D is a crop body with a 1.6 factor, so the 40 will act like a 64mm, and the 50 will act like a an 80mm (which is close to perfect for portraits.)

The 1.8 will, of course, give her a narrower depth of field.

So, what does she shoot? That's the classic question when someone asks about lenses. How would I know what she'll be shooting years from now. She's just learning it all, started with film in high school and now is off to college. Her point and shoot will be great for snaps, but I hope the 40D will help her become who she can become in the future.

So, if you had only one lens on a crop body Canon, would you recommend a 40mm f2.8 or a 50mm f1.8?


Update: I got the 50mm, gave her the whole kit and she was ecstactic!

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I think you are mistaken in assuming that the f/1.8 lens will give better bokeh. The 40mm pancake has 7 rounded aperture blades and is generally designed for pleasing bokeh, and it has a closer minimum focusing distance too. –  mattdm Dec 17 '12 at 14:16
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You want to see what she can do with "real" equipment. Does she want to see what she can do with it? –  Dan Wolfgang Dec 17 '12 at 14:24
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@Matt Even that depends on the situation. The 40mm at f/2.8 focused at 11 inches will have shallower DOF than the 50mm at f/1.8 focused at 18 inches. –  mattdm Dec 17 '12 at 15:50
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I agree with @mattdm here. The term "bokeh" does not mean depth of field, which so many people "mean" when they say it. Although bokeh is subjective, really, it means the type of blur, not "how much is in focus" which is DoF. –  BBking Dec 17 '12 at 22:32
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@DanWolfgang, when you can figure out what a teenage girl wants, let me know, I'll buy your book!!!! :- ) –  Paul Cezanne Dec 17 '12 at 23:42

6 Answers 6

up vote 17 down vote accepted

I own the 40D, and I have all three lenses that you are considering.

The 40mm f/2.8 is fun, but f/2.8 isn't nearly as "eye opening"(literally and figuratively) on a crop sensor APS-C body. The 40D really can only go as low as ISO 1250 or so before it becomes unusable(opinion). Indoors without a flash, ISO 1250, f/2.8, and no image stabilizer isn't going to work all that well. It is a great indoors low light lens on a full frame camera that is also capable of great high ISO performance well beyond ISO 1250. I enjoy it a great deal on my 6D full frame Canon, but I am very comfortable even at ISO 6400 with that.

The 50mm f/1.8 is cheaply built, but has very good IQ and is still very small. It is the lens that opens up the eyes of many shooters coming from point and shoot cameras. Why? Mostly because of the f/1.8 low light options and beautiful bokeh(comparatively speaking). The IQ of the 50mm f/1.8 is good, not excellent, but stopped down a bit it is still considerably better then people are used to with a cheap kit lens or old point and shoot. The focal length is challenging for indoors, as many times you don't have enough room to move back. But it is very possible to shoot indoors on a 40D without a flash with this lens.

The kit lens? I would caution against this. Many people purchase their first DSLR and only a kit lens, to find the IQ and maximum aperture not to be much better then the previous point and shoot that they owned. I would worry that your daughter could get stuck in this rut if this is the only lens she uses for a significant amount of time. She may never fully come to realize the capabilities of the 40D if she starts and continues to use something like this for a time.

As others have suggested, the Canon 35mm f/2 would be a great option. It does cost close to $300, but I think the focal length is better suited for indoors with the 40D. If indoor low light photography is not the main interest or the price is too high for you, I think that the 50mm f/1.8 is still great - and well worth investing in.

You don't provide us any details on what your daughter likes to shoot, her style - her main subjects. Does she shoot landscape, street, portrait, macro? We don't know. That makes it tough to recommend anything but what we would get.

Back to your original question - "If you had only one lens on a crop body Canon, would you recommend a 40mm f2.8 or a 50mm f1.8?" I would buy the 50mm f/1.8.

Samples

Just to prove the haters wrong, here are some indoor portrait examples, straight from a 40D and a 50mm f/1.8 lens. I also added in one other example, just showing the versatility. It is possible to take portraits indoors with this lens, and very good ones. You just might have to back up! If you live in a 200sq ft flat, then yes it might be a challenge, but you can do it!

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

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That's the thing: you put a fixed 50mm on your camera and then you make the best use of that - choose great compositions through that lens. And you will end up with great images. Different than if you had the 35mm on the camera. But you wouldn't get the same great images with if you really had that lens on the camera. Getting closer with the 35mm would not help, because then you introduce distortions you don't get with the 50mm. And with the zoom you get lazy like with a shotgun, as the OP suggested. –  Michael Nielsen Dec 18 '12 at 0:59
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Is the 50 f/1.8 the only lens you have for your 40D though? There's a difference between choosing to shoot with a 50mm on APS-C indoors and that being your only option. I've shot with a 135mm lens indoors, but would never advise someone I didn't know to try a 50mm only. If you look at fixed prime lens cameras available today, they have equivalent focal lengths of 35mm, 28mm and 45mm, an awful lot wider than the equivalent focal length of the 50, which is 80mm! Zooms may make you lazy, but being constantly unable frame shot the way you want is not going to get anyone into serious photography! –  Matt Grum Dec 18 '12 at 15:19
    
@MattGrum - No not at all, I did have many options. I also have the 135L, and have shot indoors with the 40D. I chose the 50mm f/1.8 for those shots even though I had the 17-55mm f/2.8 IS in my bag, a very capable indoor low light lens. I understand what you are saying, but I stand by my recommendation. I also don't think the 35mm f/2 is a bad idea, but it does cost significantly more - and was not part of the original question. As I noted, I'm not even sure if indoors low light is the goal here - it was not defined clearly. If it is the goal, then the 35mm f2 might be best. –  dpollitt Dec 18 '12 at 15:24

I imagine most people would find a 50mm lens on an APS-C body to be too long most of the time. When I was in University I photographed events with a 50 f/1.4 on APS-C, whilst I appreciated the speed I always found the focal length to be a little long for full length shots and I was forever walking backwards...

If I absolutely had to pick between them I would choose 40mm but only because I feel 50mm risks a very frustrating experience if your daughter is used to shooting with a compact that zooms out to 35mm equiv. But a better choice would be the Canon 35 f/2.0, which is a stop faster and can be had fairly cheap (especially as the IS version starts hitting the stores). Whilst not at tiny as the pancake, it's hardly big or heavy. Another option is the Sigma 30 f/1.4, which is a fine lens, wider and faster, but about 50% more expensive. It terms of cost it looks something like this:

  • Canon 50mm f/1.8 £80
  • Canon 40mm f/2.8 £159
  • Canon 35mm f/2.0 £189 recommended
  • Sigma 30mm f/1.4 £299
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+1. My wife got a 50mm f/1.8 for her Canon 600D and it's too narrow to use indoors, especially trying to snap pictures of a toddler running towards you as soon as she sees the camera. :) She just bought a 17-70mm zoom for more practical indoor shooting, however the 50 mm is cool for portraits, when you can use it. –  Macke Dec 17 '12 at 19:37

I'd recommend something close to a "normal prime", although for crop, between 25 and 35mm.

Sigma spotted the market and sells a 30mm f1.4, Canon has a 28mm f1.8 and an old 35mm f2, and there's a Samyang 35mm F1.4 too. I'd recommend the Sigma. Some people are prone to criticize that lens (They'll tell you to go with a Zeiss 35mm, manual focussing love!), but it's a really good lens to have.

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Ive got a 50mm F1.4 (a nicer lens than the F1.8 for not that much more money). Its long for a "normal" lens with the APS-C sensor. For a Canon, the 50mm equiv is more like 31mm. The 40mm STM is closer to what you'd expect. Its one of Canon's newest lenses and its inexpensive. I'd go 40mm –  Pat Farrell Dec 17 '12 at 15:37
    
those all seem to be $300 to $400 lenses, not $100 lenses. –  Paul Cezanne Dec 17 '12 at 15:58
    
True. You may however find that $100 for a lens is rock-bottom. There hardly is anything worthwhile for a few notable exceptions (canon's fifty being one). –  Berzemus Jan 18 '13 at 10:27

As an owner of two of the common lenses mentioned in the answers here (six-seven months shooting with both) and having shot about 500-600 images with the 18-55mm IS II and about 1500-1600 images with the 40mm STM, I can weigh in that if you are only considering the 40 or 50mm, in my experience the 40mm is excellent and has little barrier-to-entry for a beginner: extremely sharp, feels excellent despite a small focusing ring (weight makes a DSLR similar to a point-and-shoot, barely bigger than a body cap) on a crop body, and with proper steadying, takes very sharp images in low light/flash situations, as well. I would recommend it over the 50mm, as I did not even consider that cheaper lens (40 dollar difference from most sellers right now) given a friend's account of the 50mm 'cracking in half when removed' from his body, and the other generally 'poor build quality' reviews you will find pretty much anywhere online. Yes, you lose 1.5 stops as noted in the comments by moving to the 40mm from 1.8 to 2.8, but as a photographer acclimated to a point and shoot, 2.8 is probably the 'fastest' or faster than she has experienced with her current camera. Additionally, and I cannot speak on this as I have not used the 50mm, most of the more 'technical' sites reviewing the 40mm over the summer generally found comparable, if not in most cases better sharpness in the 40 when put next to the 50.

As is the 'norm' and unfortunately, typical online from what I've seen, the 'kit' 18-55mm is being discounted here, but the 18-55mm IS II (very important, the II w/ image stabilization) is a stellar lens for the price. As a 'used' lens being sold by people who are breaking up their 'kit', I have seen it in the low 100s, from $100-120 but new in the 'white box' from Canon, it costs around $200 brand new, comparable to the 40mm when it was introduced, and twice the cost of the 50mm. So the posts speaking of it being 'cheap' are actually skewed, as this lens new and standalone is the most expensive of the three. You are knocked back to all-plastic construction (versus a more solid 'engineer plastic' 40mm w/ a metal mount), but the price is worth it, as I cannot stress enough, though, how important IS can be for a beginner. In a day with a few hundred shots between my 18-55mm and 40mm framing roughly the same scenes with decent indoor lighting or sunny to overcast outdoor lighting, well stabilized shots (but not tripod mounted) from the 40 tend to have decent overall sharpness with a fair number of keepers, but the 18-55 is consistently sharper with IS turned on, producing the most usable shots for actual prints, including some of the sharpest pictures I have taken with any lens, handheld. What people counting out the 'kit' lens are missing is that this is what you gain with IS - the ability to regain sharpness handheld, even as a beginner, and I don't know any newcomer to shooting with a DSLR that was accustomed to using a tripod with his or her point-and-shoot. More than any other factor, your daughter will probably thank you when she does not come back from shooting and wonder why half her shots with the 40 or 50 are 'smeared' or unusable from low-light or 'forgotten flash' situations. Additionally, the ability to use down to an 18mm focal range should not be understated, as well. There are many more creative possibilities opened up in this range as the wider end of shooting possibilities is introduced. I believe the major 'notches' noted on the barrel of the 18-55mm are 18, 24, 35, and 55 mm (with the intermittent lengths usable, of course), and as a beginner experimenting, each focal length has given me different perspectives on the same scene, as well as helping me from becoming locked-in to a generic 'feel' to my shots. It becomes very easy to see where I was shooting with my 40mm, as a range of photos, even in different scenes, begin to look the same. This is the classic signal vs noise argument (I was probably overshooting this lens early on to get a good baseline of test shots and situations, vs aiming for amazing shots every time...) but still, it doesn't hurt to have the full range, including the 40 and 50mm focal lengths of the other two lenses. Your daughter may not eventually go wider than 18mm once she gets the hang of your 40D, but she may want to experiment well past the 40-55mm range (I found this true for myself, at least), and this is a great lens to have at the shorter end of things if she ever decides to sink some money into mid-telephotos or something with more reach.

So again, if you are only considering the 40mm or 50mm, go 40mm for build quality and overall, it's a great lens. However, if you are a bit open-minded (and I see you mentioned this lens anyway) definitely buy a broken-up kit 18-55mm or purchase it separately - the IS and general sharpness of the lens is great and much more flexible than either prime.

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IS only helps with static scenes. And it is a waste of money to first buy a slow 18-55 lens only to replace it with a fixed aperture 2.8 in 6 months - 1 year. Tamrons F/2.8 gets good reviews, though I don't like the feel of a Tamron in my hands, there's also the Sigma at a good price. The AF on my Sigma is more accurate than some of my Canons. –  Michael Nielsen Dec 17 '12 at 20:21
    
It really depends on the person receiving the lens. As a beginner, the IS helped me get better 'foolproof' shots in certain conditions. And of course, in more expensive zooms with dual IS functionality, the IS can be set for use with pan/zoom scenarios. Also, I don't believe the OP or myself mentioned buying, then replacing with a prime? My comments toward the end of my answer were about adding to a lens collection with longer focal lengths, not replacing the zoom. –  restlake Dec 17 '12 at 20:28
    
You needed the IS because the kit lens is too slow. And with 3.5 max aperture, your AF and the ability to MF is hindered, as AF needs at least F/2.8 to work with high precision. So if the goal is to really get into the field (as OP said), it is a waste to first get a lens that will get replaced asap. Go straight for primes and F/2.8 standard zooms and F/4 telezooms (unless you are rich and can get 2.8 tele, too, haha). –  Michael Nielsen Dec 17 '12 at 20:39
    
Ha 2.8 tele...yea, rich is right (not me!). Probably need the OP to weigh-in so it's not misconstrued, but it seems like it's a well-meaning gift for someone new to digital, who may get more serious. That aside, I agree that in anything but daylight or a well-lit interior, the 18-55mm is/was slow for me. Again, what tradeoff does a beginner want - faster fixed-length with a concentrated approach, or ability to experiment with some run-and-gun shots that can be taken a bit more hastily? With flexibility in the focal length range available. I leaned toward the latter. –  restlake Dec 17 '12 at 20:47

I myself is a sucker for primes - I have a set of primes 28,50,85, and 135mm instead of a zoom on a 40D, too. I use 28mm and 50mm mostly. 28mm for buildings/nature and 50mm for people.

Since 40D cannot do movies, and the STM in the 40mm is wired (ie. artificial decoupling from the hand to the focus), I think she will get a better feel for using a real photography lens with the 50mm 1.8.

40mm versus 50mm is a small single step with the feet (in close-quarter situations), so I think you'd need to go for the 28mm F/1.8 to make a difference in that department, but the price tag is very different on that one (if that's a factor), and portraits are not that nice with it.

The 50mm 1.8 and a short macro tube (without the electric contacts) will give her a lot to play and learn by and then she can save up for a 17/18-50/55 F/2.8 lens while learning to get the most out of the gear.

This is the FOV difference between 40mm and 50mm, which is most significant when snapping things that are far away (the inner square show how much a 50mm would see in an image taken at 40mm):

40 vs 50mm

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"small single step with the feet" - not if you're shooting landscapes! –  Matt Grum Dec 17 '12 at 14:32
    
Well, the 40mm would get 20% more than the 50mm of the landscape. That's why you want more lenses, one doesn't fit all situations. My take is that the OP asked for a good classic DSLR experience for the daughter to practice with - and as lens with a "weird" new focus system doesn't fit the purpose. –  Michael Nielsen Dec 17 '12 at 14:42

The 18-55 kit is only acceptable given its low costs. You can buy new copies for about $110. There are two key problems with it for my usage:

1) its autofocus is really slow and becomes unusable in low light. 2) it stops down very quickly as you zoom out from 18mm, becoming a F5.6 much sooner than you'd expect.

I assume that the slow autofocus speed is in part due to the slow aperture, which gives more depth of field than you want for easy focusing.

The 40D body is fairly old, and newer bodies have better computers (Moore's law) that allow better focusing. Canon is still selling new T3i, even though the T4i is the current entry point. You might want to consider the T3i since its a lot more recent.

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Ahhh, I replaced my 40D with a 5d2, so I already have the 40D sitting in a box... –  Paul Cezanne Dec 17 '12 at 15:56
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The OP is not looking to buy a camera, and he wants the daughter to get serious about the DSLR world, with a semipro body with the available manual controls, which the rebel series does not offer. –  Michael Nielsen Dec 17 '12 at 18:27
    
@MichaelNielsen: As much as I love my 30D, I'd argue that the current xxxD Rebels are a big step up from the 30 or 40D. As far as I can see, having recently shot with a T3i/600D, the only things that are worse than my 30D are continuous shooting and the lack of dual control dials. Pretty much everything else is substantially better. The only reason I haven't moved is because I really love the dual control dials! –  Chinmay Kanchi Dec 17 '12 at 20:43
    
@michael, I don't know what you are arguing. The Rebels, even the ancient Rebel XT has manual controls. They are not as easy to use as on my 50D, but they exist. The T3i and T4i are much nicer cameras than the 40D. All IMHO, YMMV, etc. –  Pat Farrell Dec 17 '12 at 21:54
    
I'm arguing that the easier access to manual functions is more important than a newer sensor technology, unless you use the camera as a glorified point and shoot, and also the small black hole they call a viewfinder and having to balance it with three fingers because it is so small makes the rebel a toy in comparison. –  Michael Nielsen Dec 17 '12 at 22:35

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