Pancake lenses, those small, fixed focal length lenses that barely protrude from your camera’s lens mount, are becoming increasingly common. Based on a simple Zeiss Tessar lens design that dates back more than a hundred years, pancake lenses are popular again due to their size—they extend an inch or less from the camera body—and weight, which is usually about 3 ounces. When they're mounted on a compact DSLR, Four Thirds, Micro Four Thirds or mirrorless camera body, they maintain that one distinct benefit of these types of cameras: their portability. Nothing defeats the purpose of a new compact, interchangeable-lens camera faster than putting a long, heavy lens on it.
Until recent years, most pancake lenses fell into the normal to moderate, wide-angle lens category, which for most casual photographers was fine and dandy. The newest crop of pancake lenses, however, has greatly expanded on the limitations of earlier lens designs. Depending on the manufacturer, pancake lenses are now available in wide angle and short-telephoto variations, making it easier than ever to configure a camera kit that’s easy on your back and shoulder. Also, earlier pancake lenses were only able to focus as close as a not-very-close 18 inches from the subject, but many of the newer models can focus down to less than half that distance, making them much more versatile.
Pentax offers the widest selection of pancake lenses to go along with its various compact, APS-C format DSLRs, the latest being the Pentax DA 40mm f/2.8 XS Lens. Designed by industrial designer Marc Newsom as a companion lens for Pentax’s K-01 mirrorless camera (also designed by Newsom), the Pentax DA 40mm f/2.8 XS has the equivalent angle of view of a 61mm lens on a full-frame 35mm camera. At 0.36” (9.1 mm), it isn’t much thicker than a body cap. Of all the pancake lenses we’re going to discuss, this Pentax lens is the least obtrusive, though "obtrusive" isn’t a word one would normally use to describe these low-profile optics.
Pentax also manufactures the Pentax SMCP-DA 40mm f/2.8 Limited Series AF Lens, which sports a more retro look and accepts a dedicated, inverted-style lens hood. Both of Pentax’s 40mm pancake lenses focus down to about 15.7 inches (40 cm) and open up to a maximum aperture of f/2.8.
In addition to the duo of 40mm lenses, Pentax offers wide angle and short-telephoto options in their pancake collection. The Pentax SMCP-DA 21mm f/3.2 AL Limited Series AF Lens is Pentax’s wide-angle entry. With the equivalent angle of view of a 31.5mm lens on a full-frame camera (approximately 68°) and a close-focusing distance of 7.92 inches (20 cm), the SMCP-DA 21mm f/3.2 AL Limited is well suited for shooting in semi-tight quarters as well as being an excellent choice for environmental portraits and outdoor landscapes.
For capturing distant subjects, Pentax offers the Pentax SMCP-DA 70mm f/2.4 Limited Series AF Lens, which in addition to being the fastest of Pentax’s pancake-lens offerings, is also the longest focal length pancake lens in our roundup. When mounted on any of Pentax’s compact DSLRs, the Pentax SMCP-DA 70mm f/2.4 Limited AF has the equivalent angle of view as a 105mm lens (approx 23°) and a minimum focusing distance of 27.6 inches (70 cm) and a fast-for-its-class maximum aperture, making it ideal for portraiture and other mid-range telephoto applications. All of Pentax’s pancake lenses are autofocus and they all offer full manual override.
If you own a Samsung NX-series mirrorless camera you also have a choice of pancake-style wide and normal lenses to complement your system. The wide-angle option is the Samsung 16mm f/2.4 Ultra Wide Pancake Lens, which along with a relatively fast f/2.4 maximum aperture and two aspheric lens elements, has the same angle of view as a 24mm lens in the 35mm format. Its close minimum focusing distance of about 7.3 inches (18.5 cm) makes it a natural for the details of street shooting and landscape artistry.
Slightly longer, but still on the wide-angle side is the Samsung 20mm f/2.8 Pancake Lens, which features Samsung’s iFunction technology, enabling you to control camera settings by turning a ring on the lens barrel. With the 35mm equivalency of a 30.8mm lens (approximately 70.2˚ angle of view), the Samsung 20mm f/2.8 is a compact companion to go with any of Samsung’s equally compact APS-C format mirrorless cameras.
With a maximum aperture of f/2.0, Samsung’s EX-S30NB 30mm f/2.0 Standard Pancake Lens is among the fastest of the available pancake lenses. Matched to the NX-system’s APS-C imaging format, the Samsung 30mm f/2.0 has the equivalent angle of view of a 46.2mm lens (50.2°) and a minimum focusing distance of 9.8 inches (25 cm). All three of Samsung’s pancake lenses feature autofocus with full manual override.
Sony manufactures the Silver 16mm f/2.8 Wide-Angle Alpha E-Mount Lens, designed specifically for use with its NEX series, APS-C format mirrorless cameras. Like Samsung’s 16mm pancake lens, Sony’s E 16mm f/2.8 captures about the same angle of view as a 24mm lens on a full-frame camera. Sony’s 16mm E-mount lens, which is contained in a 0.89” (2.25 cm), brushed-aluminum housing, focuses down to 9.4 inches (24 cm) and features autofocus with full manual override.
Canon’s one pancake lens is the EF 40mm f/2.8 STM Pancake Lens. Its 40mm focal length categorizes it as a normal lens on full-frame DSLR cameras, but on APS-C sized cameras such as the EOS 60D and 7D, its 35mm focal length equivalency is 64mm. Its bright f/2.8 maximum aperture allows for sharp shooting in low light and shallow depth of field photography. STM technology allows the lens to focus smoothly and silently when shooting video on cameras with the compatible technology. Like most of the lenses in this article, it too is less than one inch long.
To add an extra measure of svelte to its already svelte lineup of Micro Four Thirds cameras, Panasonic offers a choice of two traditional pancake lenses and a 3D capture lens. The widest focal length of the lot is the Panasonic Lumix G 14mm f/2.5 ASPH,a 28mm equivalent lens (approximately 75°) that boasts a total of three image-optimizing aspheric elements and a minimum focusing distance of 7.1”(18 cm). That places it among the closest-focusing pancake lenses in this roundup, and it weighs only 1.94 oz!
Slightly less wide is the Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 ASPH, which approximates the field of view of a closer to normal 40mm lens (about 57°). This Micro Four Thirds mount lens opens up to a very bright maximum aperture of f/1.7 and focuses as close as 7” (18 cm). Because its focal length is longer than the Panasonic Lumix G 14mm f/2.5 ASPH, the 20mm lens has a higher magnification ratio (0.10x vs. 0.13x), which brings subjects closer when shooting at the lens’s closest focusing point. As its name suggests, the Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 ASPH contains two aspheric elements for sharper imagery, especially toward the edges of the frame.
Due to its low-profile design, the Panasonic 3D Lumix G 12.5mm f/12 Lens qualifies as a pancake lens, albeit a special-purpose one. But pancake or otherwise, the Panasonic 3D Lumix G 12.5mm f/12 is a most unusual lens. This fixed-aperture (f/12 only) optic contains two small lenses situated 10mm apart on a horizontal plane. The separation of the lenses creates a stereo image used to produce 3D images (photos and video) that can be played back on 3D-capable VIERA televisions. The dual fixed-diaphragm lenses in Panasonic’s 3D Lumix G 12.5mm f/12 have a 35mm format equivalent focal length of 65mm (37°) and focus down to 23.6" (60 cm).
Olympus offers a choice of two pancake lenses: one for Four Thirds cameras and another for Micro Four Thirds cameras. The Olympus 25mm f/2.8 ED ZUIKO Lens is the one compatible for use with any Four Thirds mount camera. Featuring a focal length roughly equivalent to a 50mm lens (47°), the Olympus 25mm f/2.8 ED Zuiko has a double-sided aspheric element and provides a minimum focusing distance of 7.9 inches (20 cm).
For owners of Olympus’s PEN Micro Four Thirds cameras, we have the Olympus M.ZUIKO Digital 17mm f/2.8 Lens, available in a choice of silver or black. The Olympus M.ZUIKO 17mm f/2.8 is a 34mm equivalent lens that contains an aspherical lens and focuses down to the same 7.9” (20 cm) from your subject as its Four Thirds stablemate, both of which feature autofocus with full manual override.
Voigtlander’s VM-mount pancake lenses, which are compatible with Leica M-mount cameras including Voigtlander’s Bessa T and Bessa R2, cover full-frame 35mm cameras. Although they are among the largest and heaviest in the category, the cameras they are designed for are comparably larger than the average compact DSLR or Four Thirds mirrorless camera.
The Voigtlander Color-Skopar 25mm f/4.0P Pancake Lens makes use of an 82-degree field of view and features 10 aperture blades for smooth bokeh. Though modest in speed at f/4, the Color-Skopar 25mm f/4.0P is ideal for landscapes and general outdoor photography.
If your needs run wider, the Voigtlander Color-Skopar 21mm f/4.0P Pancake Lens can capture a 91-degree field of view, making it the widest-angle lens in the group. It only juts out about an inch (25.4mm) from the camera body and in less than a 90-degree rotation can focus from infinity down to 18” (45 cm). Like the other Voigtlander lenses, it is a manual-focus lens and has a click-stop manual aperture ring.
Voigtlander also features a slightly longer and twice as fast Wide Angle Color-Skopar Pan 35mm f/2.5-M (PII) Manual Focus Lens. The additional 1.3 stops, compared to Voigtlander’s other offerings, make this lens a better choice for low-light situations or fast-paced image making. It features a 63˚ angle of view and is the smallest of the three lenses, at 0.9” (23mm) in length. An all-metal lens, its aperture is adjusted with click stops at half-stop intervals.
Voigtlander also makes a 28mm pancake lens specifically designed for Canon and Nikon mounts. The 28mm f/2.8 Color Skopar SL II Lens is a fast, 28mm prime lens for full frame and APS-C-sensor cameras. A smooth focusing manual focus lens, it can handle low-light situations and with auto metering, provides sharp imagery in both photo and video modes.
It should be noted that while Voigtlander’s lenses are primarily designed for use on film and full-frame cameras, Voigtlander produces lens adapters for attaching VM/M-mount lenses to Micro Four Thirds and Sony E cameras.
The size and weight advantages of pancake lenses are obvious, but there’s a secondary advantage of shooting with a pancake lens, and it has to do with the fact that they don’t zoom. While zooms certainly make life easier for pros, photo enthusiasts and beginners alike, there is something to be said for limiting one’s optical portfolio to a single focal length.
Zooms can make you lazy, which is not to diminish their inherent value. Sometimes not having the ability to step back or step closer without having to move your feet works against you by eliminating the discovery factor. A fixed focal length lens forces you to reposition yourself (thereby changing your angle of view) and as soon as you start moving in and around your subject, you start seeing your subject from a perspective you most likely would have missed had you merely zoomed a bit closer or wider from the same point of view.