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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 as a companion lens for the Pentax Q-S1 mirrorless camera, 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 and 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.
For capturing distant subjects, Pentax offers the Pentax HD DA 70mm/f2.4 Limited, available in black and 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.
To add an extra measure of svelte to its already svelte lineup of Micro Four Thirds cameras, Panasonic offers the wide-angle Panasonic Lumix G 14mm f/2.5 ASPH II, a 28mm equivalent lens (approximately 75°) that boasts a total of three image-optimizing aspheric elements and a minimum focusing distance of 7.1 inches (18 cm). That places it among the closest-focusing pancake lenses in this roundup.
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 is the one designed for use with Four Thirds cameras. Featuring a focal length roughly equivalent to a 50mm lens (47°), the Olympus 25mm f/2.8 ED Zuiko also packs two aspheric elements and focuses down to a not too shabby 7.9" (20 cm).
For owners of Olympus’s PEN Micro Four Thirds cameras, we have the Olympus M.ZUIKO 17mm f/2.8, available in a choice of silver or black. The Olympus M.ZUIKO 17mm f/2.8 is a 34mm equivalent lens (approximately 65° FOV) that contains an aspherical lens, and focuses down to the same 7.9 inches (20 cm) from your subject as its Four Thirds stablemate, both of which feature autofocus with full manual override.
Prefer a compact Olympus zoom lens? The Olympus M.ZUIKO Digital ED 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 EZ Lens 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.
The VM-mount pancake lenses, which are compatible with Leica M-mount cameras, including Voigtlander’s Bessa-R4M and Bessa-R3M, 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.
The Voigtlander Color-Skopar 25mm f/4.0P makes use of an 82˚ 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 can capture a 91˚ field of view, making it the widest-angle lens in the group. Voigtlander’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).
Voigtlander also features a slightly longer and twice as fast Color-Skopar 35mm f/2.5 PII. 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-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 Voigtlander 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 Voigtlander 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 Voigtlander’s lenses are primarily designed for use on film and full-frame cameras, Voigtlander also produces a line of 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.