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Quick Sharpness Comparison

Sharpest tool in the shed

September 20th, 2013

I was recently asked by a reader if I could do a comparison between the Canon kit lens (EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II), the Canon 50mm "Plastic Fantastic" (EF 50mm 1:1.8 II) and the Canon 40mm pancake (EF 40mm f/2.8) with respect of sharpness. I was a bit curious myself, so I went out and took a few shots. I also included the Tamron 18-270 DI II. Read on for more.

The contestants

From the left: Tamron 18-270 3.5-6.3 DI II VC, 
Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II (kit lens), Canon EF 50mm 1:1.8 II and the Canon EF 40mm f/2.8. The Tamron and the kit lens are both zoom lenses, while the 40mm and the 50mm are primes.
From the left: Tamron 18-270 3.5-6.3 DI II VC, Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II (kit lens), Canon EF 50mm 1:1.8 II and the Canon EF 40mm f/2.8. The Tamron and the kit lens are both zoom lenses, while the 40mm and the 50mm are primes.

Fully open

The first shot is with the aperture fully open, which means different things for the different lenses - from f/1.8 of the 50mm all the way to f/5 on the kit lens. The focal lengths also differ slightly, from 40mm to 50mm, with the zoom lenses set to around 42mm.

Whole picture, resized

Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II @f/5
Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II @f/5
Canon EF 50mm 1:1.8 II @f/1.8
Canon EF 50mm 1:1.8 II @f/1.8
Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 @f/2.8
Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 @f/2.8
Tamron 18-270 3.5-6.3 DI II VC @f/4
Tamron 18-270 3.5-6.3 DI II VC @f/4

Crop, middle

Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II @f/5
Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II @f/5
Canon EF 50mm 1:1.8 II @f/1.8
Canon EF 50mm 1:1.8 II @f/1.8
Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 @f/2.8
Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 @f/2.8
Tamron 18-270 3.5-6.3 DI II VC @f/4
Tamron 18-270 3.5-6.3 DI II VC @f/4

Crop, closer to edge

Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II @f/5
Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II @f/5
Canon EF 50mm 1:1.8 II @f/1.8
Canon EF 50mm 1:1.8 II @f/1.8
Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 @f/2.8
Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 @f/2.8
Tamron 18-270 3.5-6.3 DI II VC @f/4
Tamron 18-270 3.5-6.3 DI II VC @f/4

A bit of cheating

As you might have noticed above, the 50mm has a very "interesting" look fully open, so here are a few shots at f/2.8 aperture.

Canon EF 50mm 1:1.8 II @f/2.8
Canon EF 50mm 1:1.8 II @f/2.8
Canon EF 50mm 1:1.8 II @f/2.8
Canon EF 50mm 1:1.8 II @f/2.8
Canon EF 50mm 1:1.8 II @f/2.8
Canon EF 50mm 1:1.8 II @f/2.8

At f/5.6

Stopped down to f/5.6, all lenses should be sharper. It also comes closer to comparing apples to apples since all lenses use the same aperture.

Whole picture, resized

Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II @f/5.6
Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II @f/5.6
Canon EF 50mm 1:1.8 II @f/5.6
Canon EF 50mm 1:1.8 II @f/5.6
Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 @f/5.6
Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 @f/5.6
Tamron 18-270 3.5-6.3 DI II VC @f/5.6
Tamron 18-270 3.5-6.3 DI II VC @f/5.6

Crop, middle

Canon EF 50mm 1:1.8 II @f/5.6
Canon EF 50mm 1:1.8 II @f/5.6
Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 @f/5.6
Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 @f/5.6
Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II @f/5.6
Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II @f/5.6
Tamron 18-270 3.5-6.3 DI II VC @f/5.6
Tamron 18-270 3.5-6.3 DI II VC @f/5.6

Crop, closer to edge

Canon EF 50mm 1:1.8 II @f/5.6
Canon EF 50mm 1:1.8 II @f/5.6
Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 @f/5.6
Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 @f/5.6
Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II @f/5.6
Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II @f/5.6
Tamron 18-270 3.5-6.3 DI II VC @f/5.6
Tamron 18-270 3.5-6.3 DI II VC @f/5.6

Conclusion

To sum it up, the prime lenses here have shown to be noticeable sharper (and also faster) than the zoom lenses. Which was exactly what you might have expected. :) Anyway, here are my personal, more specific conclusions:

  • The 40mm is razor sharp. Period.
  • The 50mm has a very strange glow to it fully open. It almost looks like a Photoshop filter. At f/2.8 the glow is gone and the lens is really sharp. Strangely, at f/5.6, the lens is less sharp - I would assume it did just not focus properly in this case.
  • The Canon kit lens is slow and is also the least sharp of the bunch.
  • Stopped down to f/5.6, the Tamron is actually reasonably sharp. With it's massive zoom range and optical image stabilization, it might not be the worst lens after all.
October 13th, 2013 04:05
oliveR

Wow. This is quite a comparison. Thanks for sharing, great help to make a good decision.

October 18th, 2013 15:12
Hashim

Thanks a lot for your comparsion Erik.

So as i see it the 50mm will not do good photos on f/1.8 if handheld,
so its better to go for the 40mm pancake.

and i read in your comparsion between the 40mm and 50mm that the 40mm pancake does not have stabilizer, how important is the stabilizer, for this lens?

Thanks

October 18th, 2013 15:20
Hashim

and one more question,
I have the 650D with 18-135 STM lens and the aperture goes to f/3.5,
will i see i different with the 50mm and 40mm when i take picture in indoor low light situation.

Thanks

October 19th, 2013 00:39
Erik

Hi Hashim,

thank you for you comment. The reason why the 50mm is so blurry wide open is not because it's handheld in this case, but simply because it's not sharp at a fully open aperture (ie. not because of slow shutter speeds).

Regarding image stabilization, I blogged about that quite a while ago. I used the kit lens at 55mm and shot with and without IS at different shutter speeds. In conclusion, IS helps quite a bit (but of course, only if the scene is static). Read here:

http://www.erikmoberg.net/article/canon_image_stabilizer_is_test

For indoor low light shooting, if you stay at 18mm, you will not notice much difference to the 40mm. The 50mm is quite a bit faster and could suit better, if you can live with (or prefer) that fuzzy look it produces wide open. Still, it may not be able to freeze action (like kids moving around), so if that's your thing, hold on to that lens and get an external flash instead.

Happy shooting!

November 29th, 2013 19:41
ChrisC

That was Exactly the comparison I was looking for between the 50 and 40mm prime lens. Thank you!

January 4th, 2014 11:12
ClaesP

Hi Erik!

Thanks for your articles! They are very helpful!

I have a 550 D with a Canon EFS 18-135. I thinking of getting a 40 mm to reduce size and weight. Have you done any comparision between these two lenses in terms of sharpness?

January 4th, 2014 12:03
Erik

Hi ClaesP,

thank you! :)

I do not own both lenses so I cannot make a comparison myself. However, both lenses have good enough quality, so maybe just skip the IQ question for now. The 40mm is very compact and much lighter, which is what you are actually looking for - if you are willing to sacrifice the zoom, of course.

January 4th, 2014 14:25
ClaesP

Hi again!

Have you looked into a comparision of 40mm vs the new 35mm IS?

January 4th, 2014 22:37
Erik

Hi again ClaesP,

I'm afraid I haven't! I read some reviews of the 35mm and while it seems a tad more usable - having IS, larger aperture, and a visible focal scale - it's also larger, heavier and several times more expensive than the 40 mm. Sharpness should be about the same, possibly with the 35mm stopped down some.

February 10th, 2014 10:39
ibler

Great comparison! Thank you!!!

I've been scouring the net for a couple of weeks now trying to get as much information about theses lenses as possible. Now I'm getting the 40mm thanks to you!

I'm a newbie to photography and my greatest frustration is that I can't capture on camera what I see with my eyes. Impossible demand? Yes. That's the reason why I'm shopping around for a new lens but something that does not break my wallet. (I also am aware of the "you get what you pay for" adage so lets not go there. :) )

So now I'm honing my technical skills on the kit lens and composition skills on the 40mm.

Thank you again for this wonderful comparison!

February 10th, 2014 20:44
Erik

Hi ibler,

that sounds great, glad I could help!

March 9th, 2014 01:29
David

Thans for your reviews, very useful.

Could you comment on the landscape shots? The water and sky don't pick up the blues on th 40 like the other lenses.

March 9th, 2014 10:01
Nathanation

Cheers for this comparison, I'm getting the 40mm for sure now, looks so much sharper in your comparison shots with a more pleasing amount of contrast!

March 9th, 2014 19:50
Erik

@David: For some reason, seems like the camera underexposed that shot by one stop. That would probably explain why the shade of the sky is different. I used aperture priority with auto ISO for all shots, so blame the 600D. ;)

@Nathanation: Sounds great, have fund with the lens!

May 4th, 2014 17:58
Anastasia Roupakioti (Absinthia Stacy)

Very interesting comparison!

May 5th, 2014 14:27
blaze

no more thinking. I am going to get a 40mm 2.8 STM and sell my 50mm 1.8. I could not really get friends with the 50mm 1.8.

August 23rd, 2014 19:54
Andy

I've been interested in the 40mm since I started last year. I ended up getting the 50mm as I needed a fast prime for an event, I do like the 50 but understand the issue with softness at 1.8.

The lowest I ever go is f2.8, I also find the 50mm is way too tight for me and not compact enough considering the 50mm is my lightweight travel setup. The noise from the AF motor is pretty silly aswell.

Decided I'm going to sell my 50mm and get the 40mm. Good job I slapped a cheap uv filter on it when I bought it and have babied it for the few months i've owned it so it's still in mint condition, should get my money back and invest some more into the 40mm and get what I wanted in the first place.

Thanks for helping me confirm my decision. :)

September 15th, 2014 20:58
abhishek

Hi erik
I own a canon 1100d with the standard kit lens...I've purchased a 55-250 mm recently....its doing its wonders....feeling apprehensive about my next lens purchase bwn 40mm/50mm...I'm more into closeup shots, portraits and landscape..please advice

September 15th, 2014 21:08
Erik

@Andy: Glad to help!

@abhishek: Neither of these are very good landscape or macro lenses, but great for portraits. The 50mm is a bit cheaper and faster, while the 40mm is more compact, has superior build quality and costs a little more. You can read more here:

http://www.erikmoberg.net/article/canon-ef-50mm-11-8-ii-vs-canon-ef-40mm-f-2.8-stm-which-to-get

October 30th, 2014 17:49
Amin

Thanks for the very nice article! My pancake is coming soon! Anyway, do you know how's the effect of lens filter on the 40mm? Should it be covered (hood or filter) or let it be free? What is the best filter which will not ruined the image quality?

Regards

October 30th, 2014 22:45
Erik

Hi Amin,

Happy you liked it!

I don't use any filters or lens hoods on any of my lenses and I have never had any problems. I feel that lens hoods mostly add bulk (especially with this small lens it would), and even a high quality filter does degrade the quality some. The front element of the 40mm is not very exposed anyway so it's not really in need of protection.

October 30th, 2014 23:42
Amin

That's true. Thanks Erik!

January 6th, 2015 08:38
Vaibhav

Hello Erik,
Truely well done comparison. I am going to go on a cruise around sunset. the photos will be both landscape and portrait. I expect the lighting to be low for portraits. What would you recommend, 18-55 MM kits lens or the 50mm prime

March 5th, 2015 12:07
satish

HI Erik,
It seems like 40mm pancake lens is much superior than canon 1.8, but would u tell me which one will be better for low light and concert photography.

Regards

March 15th, 2015 10:55
Erik

Better late reply than never, I guess...

@Vaibhav: I think you should bring both! The 50mm is great for portraits and low-light photography, but with the kit lens you will be being able to get wide sunset shots as well.

@satish: The 50mm is definitely faster so it's better on many low-light situations. But 50mm seems a bit short for concerts, no? You might want to look into a fast tele lens with image stabilizer. The Tamron mentioned in the post is OK, but probably too slow.

March 23rd, 2015 17:49
Uttam

I have a Canon DSLR 1200D. I intend to buy an inexpensive prime lens. I have been told that Canon 24mm 2.8f STM works better in such cropped body camera. My prime interest is in street photography and portrait. Please advise.

March 23rd, 2015 19:46
Erik

Hi Uttam,

The 24 mm is said to be a great lens too - compact, sharp and good build quality. It should also be well suited as a street photo lens, where the 40 mm might be a bit tight at times (depending on situation and shooting style). However, the shorter focal length will lead to less background blur, and also distortion - expect large noses on subject when doing close portraits.

March 24th, 2015 07:44
Uttam

Thanks Erik. Will it be reasonably ok in low lights too. I am still undecided if I should go for 50mm 1.8f or the 24mm 2.8f STM one. Would appreciate your views.

March 28th, 2015 00:00
Erik

Hi Uttam,

tough one! I do find myself shooting more with the 40mm, also in low light - and I usually find it fast enough. Of course, the 50mm is a bit faster, and makes for nice artsy late night street shots. If you are specifically going for low-light without flash, then the 50mm might be the better choice.

June 26th, 2015 19:39
ks

Congratulations for doing a nice comparative review. I often wonder why many online journals and forums can't do such easy-to-understand reviews despite having some of best technical people around and a lot of money to spend.

I own 50 1.8 and 18-55 lenses. My own take is that 50mm is much sharper at 4.0 than 5.6 so perhaps a comparative analysis of photos at 4.0 might have brought the sharpness of 50mm ahead of other lenses. This in any case does not undermine your review and its findings. Just my two cents.

June 26th, 2015 19:49
Erik

Hi ks,

Glad you liked it, and thanks for the input! I might look into finding the sharpest aperture for the 50mm, it should make for an interesting article.

June 27th, 2015 16:44
ks

Yes, kindly explore that setting and share your findings.

If I may suggest, kindly you also add Canon 24mm in your next review. That would be really interesting to a lot of people as I doubt any one has done a comparative image-by-image review of 4 lenses.

June 27th, 2015 23:16
Erik

That's a great idea and I'm quite interested in the 24mm. However, I can only review lenses that I own and I currently don't have any plans to pick up this lens. If any representative from canon reads this: Please send me the 24mm for free, I'm sure it will be worthwhile for you. ;)

July 6th, 2015 11:58
Prasun

hello Erik,

your blog is the deciding factor for choosing the 40mm 2.8 stm.
i have a canon 60D with 18-135 IS and sigma 70-300. i do stock photography and was unhappy with the performance of the 18-135mm. overall it was soft. i shoot everything from macro , landscape . portrait.

the canon 50mm 1.8 seems soft wide open and unusable for stock photography.
i think i will go with the 40mm , hope i made the right choice.
thanks.

July 6th, 2015 19:18
Erik

Hi Prasun,

the 40mm is really quite sharp, I hope you will be happy with it. :)

November 14th, 2015 05:58
Heather

I've been a little confused about which lens to get (I'm upgrading to a canon 700d from a 1000d that I've owned for about 5yrs, previously only having my 2 kit lenses that came with the 1000d I'm ready to step my photography up a bit and get a bit more adventurous with shots!). I just also read your other article on the 40mm v 50mm. Thanks for putting everything in an easy to understand language and the side by side photos which is exactly what I've been searching for for a few days to make up my mind, technical specs don't phase me I needed to see in photos what the difference was. 40mm lens it is! Thanks again :)

December 6th, 2016 18:27
Ankur

Thank you Erik. Out of so many blogs on net, your explaination is superb. I have been using Canon SX-20 (super Zoom) with 1:2.8 to 5.7 USM lens. Now I have bought 750d with 18-55 STM lens. I am not very happy with 750d. Reason could be either I need more time to adjust to new gear or the Kit lens is not that great as compaired to lens in SX-20. I am more in to portrait, closeups and landscape. As per your recomendation, 40mm STM seams to be a good choice. Can you suggest any good Zoom lens which is as sharp as 40 mm but with a range of 18- 50 and also not expensive than 40 mm STM.

December 6th, 2016 18:36
Ankur

Also I would like to add that I used to click photos at high Zoom (with Canon SX20) without my subject knowing that I am taking their photo, thus not making them consious and gettting natural shots. So should I Opt for 55-250 mm IS II? But I want my photos to be sharp as well. Please advice. 55-250 mm IS II or 40 mm STM.

December 6th, 2016 20:06
Erik

Hi Ankur,

happy you like my blog!

For the price of the 40mm, your choice of lenses is very limited. And especially if you are looking for a tack-sharp zoom lens! That said, the Tamron 17-50mm zoom lens is similar to the kit lens, but offers better optical quality and a faster f/2.8 aperture. It costs twice as much as the 40mm though.

The Canon 55-250 (or maybe the 70-300) could be a good choice since you get a lot of bang for the buck, but it will still not provide the optical quality you are looking for.

Try getting used to the kit lens first to try to figure out what you need. It's actually not such a bad lens at all. Or, just get the 40mm now and get used to a different kind of shooting - you will need to get closer, but sometimes getting up close and personal with your subjects can make for more interesting shots.

December 14th, 2016 09:53
Ankur

Hi Erik,

Another question. There are two versions of 40 mm STM lens. One is aspherical lens (model no. 6310B005, 132 gms, 2012) and there is another Normal lens (model no. CNN_40mm F/2.8_CanonDSLR, 249 gms). I have mentioned weight to clarify that they are different with different price. Which one is better and what is the difference?

December 14th, 2016 19:59
Erik

Hi Ankur,

I was not aware that canon had another 40mm lens out. This post is about the lighter one. Do you have a link?

December 15th, 2016 03:16
Ankur

Hi Erik,

I saw this on amazon.in when i searched for EF 40 mm. I have posted a query on amazon also as the discription given for heaver one does not seems correct.

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