Pancake Lens: The Compact Camera Lens For the On-the-Go Photographer

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Pancake lenses are small and compact camera lenses that have become increasingly popular due to their superior image quality and portability.

Whether you’re an amateur photographer looking to explore the world of photography or an experienced photographer looking for a way to travel light, a pancake lens could be the perfect addition to your gear bag.

In this article, we’ll explore what makes a pancake lens so special, why you should consider using one, and any drawbacks it might have.

Read on.

What Is a Pancake Lens

A pancake lens is a thin, flat camera lens usually measuring 0.9″ in length and with a 35mm equivalent focal length, usually around 40 degrees.

It is usually a prime lens that goes by the name ‘pancake lens’ due to its shape resembling a short stack of pancakes.

It is noted for its short barrel length and is considered an excellent choice for those looking for a compact design that still produces sharp and clear images.

pancake lens

Here’s a table of the most popular pancake lenses:

ModelFormat35mm Equivalent Focal LengthOptical DesignDimensions (ø x L)Weight
Canon EF-S 24mm F2.8 STMAPS-C38.46 Elements in 5 Groups2.69 x 0.9″ / 68.2 x 22.8 mm4.41 oz / 125 g
Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STMFull-Frame406 Elements in 4 Groups2.69 x 0.9″ / 68.2 x 22.8 mm4.59 oz / 130 g
Nikon NIKKOR Z 26mm f/2.8Full-Frame268 Elements in 6 Groups2.8 x 0.9″ / 70 x 23.5mm4.4 oz / 125 g
Sony Sonnar T* FE 35mm f/2.8 ZAFull-Frame357 Elements in 5 Groups2.42 x 1.44″ / 61.47 x 36.58 mm4.23 oz / 120 g
FUJIFILM XF 27mm f/2.8 R WRAPS-C417 Elements in 5 Groups2.4 x 0.9″ / 62 x 23 mm3 oz / 84 g
Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 II ASPH.MTF407 Elements in 5 Groups2.48 x 1″ / 63 x 25.5 mm3.07 oz / 87 g

Why Are Pancake Lenses So Compact

Pancake lenses are designed for simplicity, having a fixed focal length that eliminates the need for extra moving parts like zoom lenses.

This makes pancake lenses much smaller than zoom lenses and less prone to diffraction problems associated with those lenses.

Additionally, compared to high-end prime lenses with maximum apertures of f/1.2, pancake lenses don’t require as many lens elements for optical correction and have smaller apertures.

To illustrate this point, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 Lens has 8 lens elements in 6 groups, roughly the same amount of lens elements as most pancake lenses.

However, its dimension (ø x L) is 3.38 x 2.58″ / 85.8 x 65.5 mm, making it significantly bigger than a typical pancake lens like Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 with a size of 1.39 x 0.87″ / 35.3 x 22.1 mm.

As such, pancake lenses are much smaller and easier to carry than zoom or prime lenses.

[image: Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM vs Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM]

What Is the Purpose of Pancake Lens

Pancake lenses are highly valued for their ability to provide quality optics in a convenient and lightweight package.

While maximum aperture may be sacrificed for the sake of compactness, this trade-off may be desirable for photographers who want to store their camera out of sight, either under a jacket or in a pocket. Pancake lenses are a great choice for travel or street photography due to their compact size and high-quality optics.

5 Reasons Why You Should Use a Pancake Lens

Great Image Quality

Pancake lenses have fewer optical elements inside that cause diffraction and aberrations.

With a big maximum aperture like f/2.8, they tend to be better at capturing light, which also helps to make the image sharper, especially in low-light conditions.

Let’s take the Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 as an example.

The lens is incredibly sharp, even at the widest aperture of f/2.8, providing excellent sharpness across the entire full frame.

Its distortion level is almost nonexistent, with no visible color fringing or barrel distortion, resulting in a clear and impressive performance.

Its out-of-focus background looks great too, featuring a pleasant smoothness with no ugly transitions and minimal chromatic aberration.

It even surpasses the Canon 50mm f/1.8 in all these categories, making it an overall exceptional lens.

Traveling Light

As a photographer, carrying a bulky camera is often necessary to get the best quality images. But traveling light is often a requirement as well. That’s why the pancake lens is such a beneficial tool; it eliminates the weight of bringing multiple lenses and accessories while still enabling us to capture stunning photos.

Not only can it help reduce back and shoulder pain from lugging around too much gear, but it also makes us more agile and creative by allowing us to focus more on lighting and composition. It’s perfect for photojournalism and street and documentary photography.

Ultimately, the pancake lens is essential for any photographer who values image quality and traveling light.

pancake lens travel light

Great Handling

Many photographers appreciate the handling of the popular pancake lens. The weight of the lens is low enough that it does not significantly contribute to the overall weight of the camera, providing for a balanced setup. This is in contrast to the handling of a heavy telephoto lens which can be hard to steady and difficult to keep balanced.

With the pancake lens, its lightweight design helps to shift the center of gravity of the camera closer to the body, making it easier to hold the camera still in a comfortable position.

The pancake lens provides a comfortable and natural handling experience.

Perfect for Learning

Pancake lenses are perfect for learning photography because they have a fixed focal length, teaching you to think more about composition rather than relying on zooming.

With a pancake lens, photographers can challenge themselves to use their existing resources to generate creative and intentional shots.

By moving around with the camera, one can become more aware of their environment and identify angles that maximize the impact of the photo.

Furthermore, having a limited field of view forces the photographer to consider what they want to include or exclude in their frame before snapping the shot.

Keeping a Low Profile

Pancake lenses are great for those trying to take photos without drawing attention.

Due to their small size and lack of large lenses, compact cameras with pancake lenses can easily pass as just another phone in someone’s hands.

This is invaluable for candid shots and street photography when one needs to blend into the background.

These lenses also make it easier to shoot from the hip and capture photos without pointing the camera directly at your subject.

As a result, you can take photos of people in the streets without them being aware as long as you are not too close.

Therefore, Pancake lenses offer a great deal of subtlety, portability, and versatility when taking photos without drawing attention.

pancake lens with street photographer

2 Drawbacks

Sacrifice in Aperture

A big aperture like f/1.4 can be very helpful in many different scenarios.

It helps to separate the subject significantly from its background, as well as allowing for beautiful, buttery bokeh effects.

In low-light situations, a big f/1.4 aperture can help capture much more light and reduce the need for extended exposure times.

Pancake lenses, unfortunately, can’t provide these kinds of benefits since they have a maximum aperture of only f/2.8.

However, they are usually still good enough for basic low-light shots and bokeh effects.

No Distance Scale

One of the drawbacks of pancake lenses is that they don’t have any distance scales.

It can be a little daunting when you want to use the hyperfocal distance technique to get the best depth of field.

However, this doesn’t have to be a big problem because most modern mirrorless cameras feature a distance focal scale in the viewfinder, which makes it easier to tell exactly where your lens is focused. DSLRs in Live View often also have this feature, so you can make sure your photos are perfectly focused.

Common Questions about Pancake Lens

Is Pancake Lens Good for Portraits?

Yes, pancake lenses have the advantage of being small, lightweight, and easy to carry, which makes them ideal for portrait photography.

This is especially useful when photographing inexperienced models, as they can feel more comfortable with a smaller lens.

However, it is important to be aware that they can lack in tight crops and may introduce some distortion, so it is wise to be mindful of these limitations when using a pancake lens. And they may not be the best choice if you want a very shallow depth of field, high image quality or more flattering compression.

Additionally, using a smaller lens can bring a sense of freedom and playfulness that can make your portrait sessions more enjoyable and spontaneous.

Do You Need a Hood on a Pancake Lens?

A hood on a pancake lens can help reduce stray light from getting into the lens and causing flare or loss of contrast. It can also protect the lens from dust, scratches, or impact.

However, a hood on a pancake lens may be ineffective because it is usually tiny and thin. It may also add some bulk to the otherwise compact lens.

Final Words

With an impressive combination of portability, versatility, and image quality, it’s easy to see why pancake lenses have become so popular.

They are a great choice for photographers who want to travel light, those who are just starting out in photography, and even experienced photographers who seek to keep a low profile when shooting.

If you’re considering upgrading your lens collection, a pancake lens is a must-have addition!

Meet the Author

Wei Mao

Wei was a cruise photographer who worked at Disney Cruise Line. He is a lucky traveler who has been to more than 20 countries with his camera while working on an around-the-world cruise. Photography has changed his view of the world forever. Now he wants more people to benefit from photography through his blog.

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