Editor's note: This month only – buy my latest ebook Up Close: A Guide to Macro & Close-Up Photography for just $10. Start making beautiful close-up photos today! Thanks for reading, Andrew.
If you’re looking for a versatile yet inexpensive lens that gives great image quality and doesn’t take up much space in your camera bag then a pancake lens is a great option to consider.
But what exactly is a pancake lens? Should you buy one? Let’s take a look and see…
What is a pancake lens?
A pancake lens is a camera lens that’s shorter than it is wide. This is unusual in lens design. As a result a pancake lens is smaller and lighter than a regular lens. This keeps production costs, and the price, down.
The photo below shows the size of a Canon 40mm f2.8 pancake lens. You can also see it mounted on an EOS 5D Mark II camera. The size of the lens element, not to mention the body of the lens, is small compared to regular prime lenses with similar focal lengths (such as a 35mm f2 or 50mm f1.8).
What are the benefits of using a pancake lens?
The unique design of pancake lenses makes them a fun lens to own and use. But they have several practical benefits as well that should be of interest to you.
Most pancake lenses are prime lenses. If you like prime lenses, you’ll love the idea of a pancake lens. A prime lens has a simple optical design. For example, the Canon 40mm pancake lens shown above has just six elements. As a result you get good image quality with fewer aberrations (plus the lower productions costs mentioned earlier).
The exception: both Panasonic and Olympus make 14-42mm pancake lenses for their Micro Four-thirds cameras. The smaller sensors of these cameras make this possible.
Price. Pancake lenses tend to be inexpensive. The Canon 50mm f1.8 lens is small enough to be considered a pancake lens and one of the cheapest lenses you can buy for an EOS camera. The 24mm f2.8 and 40mm f2.8 pancake lenses are not far behind in price. You get a lot of bang for your buck in terms of image quality.
Aperture. The maximum aperture of many pancake lenses is around f2 or f2.8. That’s not as good as most primes, but better than many zooms. Wider apertures mean you can make images with bokeh and use pancake lenses for portraits.
Note: For portrait photography the best focal lengths to work with are 40mm (or longer) for a full-frame camera, 27mm an APS-C camera or 20mm for Micro Four-thirds.
Short minimum focusing distance. Pancake lenses let you get close to the subject. You can get even closer using extension tubes. This makes your pancake lens surprisingly versatile. Just slip it into your camera bag with an extension tube for a truly portable close-up photography kit.
Note: Just like portraits you’ll get the best results with a focal length of 40mm (full-frame), 27mm (APS-C), 20mm (Micro Four-thirds) or longer.
Pancake lenses improve camera handling. Imagine that you have a small camera with a big lens on the front. The weight of the lens drags down making it harder to hold the camera steady. Pancake lenses do the opposite. They move the center of gravity backward, and make it easy to hold and balance your camera.
Pancake lenses are unobtrusive. That makes them great for street, travel and portrait photography.
A pancake lens makes your camera more portable. Are you thinking about buying a smaller camera to slip into your bag or handbag to take advantage of unexpected photo opportunities? Then how about using your current camera with a pancake lens instead? It’s cheaper than a new camera.
Small lens hoods. Some pancake lenses use small lens hoods that are no thicker than a filter. This helps make your lens / camera combination even more portable.
Pancake lenses are widely available. Pancake lenses are readily available for most cameras.
Small lenses that are not pancake lenses
Most of these advantages extend to other lenses, usually primes, that are small but not small enough to be called a pancake lens.
An example that comes to mind is the 23mm f2 I use on my Fujifilm cameras. It’s small and light, but definitely not a pancake lens!
Pancake lenses in the real world
Now it’s time to look at how pancake lenses work in real life. I’ve owned two pancake lenses (the Canon 40mm f2.8 and Fujinon 18mm f2) and enjoyed using them both. But there are some drawbacks to the design you need to be aware of. Let’s look at the details.
Pancake lenses and landscape photography
Pancake lenses (and similar small lenses) have two benefits for landscape photographers.
• They are ultra light and portable. You’ll appreciate this if you have to walk a long way with your gear!
• It’s easier for your tripod to hold your camera steady with a small lens mounted on it. This may make a difference in windy conditions or for long exposure photography.
There are a couple of disadvantages you need to be aware of though.
One is that pancake lenses don’t have a distance scale on the lens barrel. If you like to use the hyperfocal distance focusing technique to maximize depth of field in your landscapes you’re probably not going to be a fan of pancake lenses.
Having said that, many mirrorless cameras have a distance focal scale in the viewfinder that let you see exactly where your lens is focused, so this isn’t a problem. You may also have this feature on a digital SLR in Live View.
You might also find a prime lens restrictive for landscape photography. Many landscape photographers like to use wide-angle zooms to help with composition. Personally, I prefer to use primes, even for landscapes, so it’s not an issue for me.
Here are some landscape photos made with the Canon 40mm f2.8 lens.
Pancake lenses and portrait photography
It depends on the focal length of your particular pancake lens, but if it’s 40mm or longer (full-frame), 27mm or longer (APS-C) or 20mm or longer (Micro Four-thirds) then you might fall in love with it for making portraits.
The main reason for this is that smaller lenses are tremendously helpful when it comes to making portraits of inexperienced models. If somebody isn’t used to being photographed then they may be intimidated by a larger lens. That makes it harder to get natural expressions.
What you won’t get with a pancake lens is the tight crop that using a short telephoto or standard lens gives you. You’ll also have to watch the amount of distortion you get when using focal lengths around 40/27/20mm.
But if you can work within these restrictions you’ll find that there’s a tremendous sense of freedom and playfulness that comes from using a small lens. That can add spontaneity and a sense of fun to your photo shoots.
Pancake lenses in street and travel photography
One of the advantages of pancake lenses, as we’ve already seen, is that they are small, light and unobtrusive. This makes them perfect for street and travel photography, where you can use them to help you make photos unnoticed or ignored by the people in them. In fact, as long as you’re happy to use a prime lens, a pancake lens is perfect for this type of photography.
Pancake lenses for close-up photography
Here are some photos taken with a 40mm pancake lens used with an 12mm extension tube. There’s an impressive degree of magnification, perfect for taking photos of flowers and plants.
It’s true that a pancake lens / extension tube combination is not as powerful (in terms of magnification) as a macro lens. You’ll also struggle to take photos of insects because of how close you need to get (something like a 100mm macro lens is a better tool for this).
It’s also harder to focus a pancake lens manually as the focusing ring (if it has one at all) is so small. So you’ll need to get used to using autofocus if you don’t already when working up close.
But if these limitations don’t bother you, you’ll enjoy using a pancake lens for close-up photography.
While you’ll bump into their limitations if you use them for landscape or portrait photography, in general you’ll find pancake lenses are excellent and versatile all-rounders thanks to their small size and portability. You won’t be disappointed with the image quality or the sense of freedom and playfulness they can add to your photography. If you’re looking for a portable, inexpensive, high quality lens, then I recommend you consider a pancake lens. And don’t forget, most of these benefits extend to small, prime lenses.