Pancake lenses, those small fixed focal length lenses that barely protrude from your camera’s lens mount, are becoming increasingly common, and for several reasons. Most commonly based on a simple Zeiss Tessar lens design that dates back more than a hundred years, pancake lenses have come back into vogue mostly due to size—they extend an inch or less from the camera body—and weight, which on average is about three-plus ounces. When they're mounted on a compact DSLR, Four Thirds or Micro Four Thirds camera body, you may find yourself questioning the convenience factor of point-and-shoot cameras.
Until recent years, most pancake lenses fell into the normal to slightly wide-angle range, 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 shoulder. They also facilitate carrying a well-stocked camera bag aboard an aircraft. Although earlier pancake lenses were only able to focus down to a less-than-intimate 18 inches from the subject, many of the newer ones can focus down to less than half that distance, making them that 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. Designed by industrial designer Marc Newsom, the Pentax DA 40mm f/2.8 XS , which has the equivalent angle of view of a 61mm lens (approximately 39°) on a full-frame 35mm camera, isn’t much thicker than a body cap. Of all the pancake lenses discussed in this roundup, the Pentax DA 40mm f/2.8 XS is the least obtrusive of them all, though "obtrusive" isn’t a word one would use to describe any of these low-profile optics.
Pentax also manufactures the Pentax HD DA 40mm/f2.8 Limited, which is available in a choice of black or silver, 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 a duo of 40mm lenses, Pentax also offers wide-angle and short-telephoto options in its pancake collection. The Pentax HD DA 21mm/f3.2 AL Limited, available in black or silver, is Pentax’s wide-angle entry. With the equivalent angle of view of 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.
Designed to cover a full frame, the Pentax smc Pentax-FA 43mm f/1.9 Limited is available in a choice of silver or black, and delivers a truly normal FoV.
For capturing distant subjects, Pentax offers the Pentax HD DA 70mm/f2.4 Limited, available in black or silver, 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 HD DA 70mm f/2.4 Limited lens has the equivalent angle of view to a 105mm lens (approximately 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.
Sony manufactures the Sony E 16mm f/2.8, which is designed specifically for use with its A5000 and A6000-series, APS-C format (1.5x) 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 (approximately 83°). Sony’s 16mm E-mount lens, which is contained in a solidly built brushed-aluminum housing, focuses down to 9.4 inches (24 cm) and features autofocus with full manual override.
If you prefer a wider-angle lens with a narrower field-of-view the Sony 20mm/f2.8 Alpha E-mount lens, which focus’s down to a mighty close 7.8" (0.2m), features an internal stepping motor that facilitates autofocus and Direct Manual Focus for smooth, quiet operation when shooting video, and a trio of aspherical lens elements for edge-to-edge image sharpness.
Sony also offers a pancake zoom lens that retracts to 1.18" from the lens mount when not in use. The Sony 16-50mm/f3.5-5.6 OSS Alpha E-mount Retractable Zoom lens (24-75mm equivalent) has a stepping motor for smooth, quiet video capture, close-focusing down to 9.8", a dual-function control ring for manual focusing and zooming, and optical image stabilization.
Panasonic’s pancake offerings include the Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 ASPH, a 35mm equivalent lens that’s available in a choice of black or silver. For those seeking a pancake zoom for their MFT camera, Panasonic also offers the Lumix G X Vario PZ 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH Power O.I.S. zoom, which is a compact 28-84mm equivalent wide-to-short telephoto zoom.
Perhaps the flattest pancake lens out there is the Olympus Fisheye Body Cap 9mm f/8 lens, which boasts a 140-degree, super-wide AoV.
Prefer a compact Olympus zoom lens? The Olympus M.ZUIKO Digital ED 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 EZ Lens, which is available in silver or black, is a 28 to 84mm equivalent zoom that focuses down to 7.9" (at 14mm) and collapses down to 0.9" when not in use.
Fujifilm offers a choice of pancake lenses in two focal lengths for its X-mount cameras. The widest is the Fujifilm XF 18mm f/2 R, which is a 27mm equivalent lens. The second lens is the Fujifilm XF 27mm f/2.8, a 41mm equivalent normal lens that’s available in silver or black.
The VM-mount pancake lenses, which are compatible with Leica M-mount cameras, are the only pancake optics in this roundup designed to 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.
If your needs run wider, the Voigtländer Color-Skopar 21mm f/4.0P can capture a 91˚ field of view, making it the widest-angle lens in the group. Voigtländer’s Color-Skopar 21mm f/4.0P only juts out about an inch (25.4mm) from the camera body, and like its compeer, the Color-Skopar 21mm f/4.0P, focuses down to about 19.7 inches (50 cm).
Voigtländer also features a slightly longer and twice as fast Color-Skopar 35mm f/2.5 PII. The additional 1.3 stops, compared to Voigtländer’s other offerings, make this lens a better choice for low-light situations or fast-paced image making. It features a 63-degree angle of view and is the smallest of the three lenses, at 0.9 inch (23mm) in length.
If you have a penchant for oddball lenses, take a look at the Voigtländer VM 40mm/f2.8 Heliar lens for Sony E-mount, a collapsible, compact slightly wide normal lens which, lacking a focusing helicoid, must be used with a Voigtländer VM-E lens adapter. Oddball as the arrangement seems, the photos this lens captures have a sharp, uniquely wonderful character of their own.
It should also be noted that while Voigtländer’s lenses are primarily designed for use on film and full-frame cameras, Voigtländer also produces a line of lens adapters for attaching VM/M-mount lenses to Micro Four Thirds and Sony E cameras.
One Additional Thought about Pancake Lenses
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.
Have we left out your favorite pancake lens? Sound off in the Comments section.
Would it be worth it to use a lens adaptor so that you could use another manufacturers pancake lens, or would that negate the benefits of the size and portability or the lens?
How about the Canon 40mm and 24mm (for APS-C)? I've had good results with both of these.
All those Voigtländers and none of their SLR lenses? Ultron 40/2, Color-Skopar 28/2.8, Color-Skopar 20/3.5?
And as much as I love Pentax (the FA 43/1.9 Ltd doesn't count as a pancake?), it would be remiss not to mention Canon with their outstanding 40/2.8 pancake and its two EF-S and EF-M stablemates.
Got to admit it - I missed them!
What's really gets me is I've owned and enjoyed using the Color-Skopar 20mm/f3.5.
Good catch Scintilla and thanks for the heads-up!
Hey! What about the excellent Fujifilm XF 27/2.8?! Put that on any X-A or X-M body with a Voigtlander 40mm finder and you've got a SUPER compact camera with a full APS-C sensor for short money that rivals the 'point & shoot' cameras in size.
Another fine addition to the club!
The Pentax DA 40mm f/2.8 XS was designed as a kit lens for the mirrorless Pentax K-01, not the Q-S1.
Actually, pancake lenses were popular long ago. If not counting autofocus, the manual focus lenses have several that you've missed.
Russian Industar 50-2/3.5
While Pentax has it's own 40mm.. Actually at older time, they also had the original 40mm was in the Pentax-M.
Ricoh also had one.
If counting Leica, old Leica collapsible lenses are also consider as pancake size if not smaller.
Long ago, as the article says: " Most commonly based on a simple Zeiss Tessar lens design that dates back more than a hundred years, pancake lenses have come back into vogue ... " And no claim was made of a complete lisitng.
All true but the article was about lenses that are currently available.
Used is a story - or a book, for another day.
Any Nikon compatible offers in this range? What do you suggest? I love the Canon 40mm.
Nikon's 1 Nikkor 10mm f/2.8 Lens is a fast f/2.8 fixed focal length lens designed for use with the Nikon 1 CX format mirror-less cameras. Its 27mm (equivalent in 35mm format) focal length is a versatile choice, equally able to handle family snapshots, landscapes, party pictures and portraits. This is a lens you can carry all day and not even notice--it comes in at less than 1" in length, and only weighs 2.8oz (77 g).
Only one, manual focus, and available only used at B&H, occasionally:
Nikon Normal 45mm f/2.8 P AIS.
In fact, here's one:
Then,there were some older, cheaper E-series lenses -- or at least one of those (maybe a 40mm one, not quite sure).
This is a fantastic lens. One of the problems I used to have was that when I would show up with a F-5 with a reasonable zoom on it, people would "fear the pro." I bought an FM-3a with this lens. While it is a good bit harder to shoot with the shorter lens, it doesn't scare people.
Also, it is very sharp, and reasonable fast at f/2.8.
While I have moved on to digital, and now shoot D-3 cameras (with a D1x for special uses like time lapse) I do sometimes shoot a Nikon 1 V1 as it shoots good quality pictures and still doesn't scare anyone.
Of course, with seasoned politicians (much of my work), I want to step up with the D-3 and the 70-200 MM f/2.8 or the 80-400 MM variable apature lens in order to indicate to the pol' or candidate that they should take me seriously and give me "the shot." Seasoned pro pol's do, nubies, not so much, but a brief conversation after the even will likely fix it for the future.
Put a nice pancake lens on a small camera and you can really blend in. This especially true for concerts and plays.
The Voigtlanders in Nikon mount are all excellent although manual focus. They have a 40mm plus a number of other focal lengths.
Quite right and an oversight on my part.
Good catch - thank you!
You missed the Pentax DA 15 ltd & DA35 macro ltd
Thanks for your comment, and while they are indeed small, prime lenses, we felt they didn't fit into the true "pancake" classification. Also, we recently covered the 15mm lens you mentioned in the below linked article, "Wide and Extreme Wide-Angle Lens Roundup" and the 35mm macro in "Holiday 2012: Using Macro Lenses".
It shoots pics, it's a lens.
the last paragraph is for photographers. Well stated.