When it comes to choosing a new lens to shoot with, the choices can be overwhelming — prime, zoom, wide-angle, telephoto, fisheye, and pancake lenses.

This guide will take an in-depth look at pancake lenses. And, no, we’re not talking about everyone’s favorite breakfast food! We’ll explain what a pancake lens is used for, go over the pros and cons, and describe the different ways you can use a pancake lens.

pancake lens
Photo by Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash

What is a pancake lens?

A pancake lens is named for its size — thin, flat, and wide just like a pancake. In its simplest definition, it’s a lens that’s shorter than it is wide, but there’s no specific size that defines exactly how short a lens must be for it to be considered a pancake lens.

They are almost always prime lenses, very lightweight, and usually inexpensive. They are typically wide-angle or standard focal lengths, like 40mm, and often have fairly wide maximum apertures, like f/2.8. You can find one to fit most brands of DSLR, mirrorless, or Micro Four Thirds camera.


The benefits of a pancake lens

Besides its obvious compact size, there are several benefits of shooting with a pancake lens:

  • Virtually no camera shake: The longer your focal length, the more susceptible you are to the problems associated with camera shake. With a lens so short, this problem is all but eliminated.
  • They are discreet: Many street photographers and photojournalists like to shoot their photographs unnoticed. The small size, wide aperture, and wide-angle of a pancake lens make them perfect for this application.
  • Lightweight: Pancake lenses are not front-heavy like most systems, making them extremely easy to handle. In fact, with a pancake lens on your camera body, it will feel like you’re not carrying a lens at all.
  • Price: Due to their small size and fewer internal components, pancake lenses are less expensive than their larger counterparts.
  • Quality for the price: While they are cheaper, the quality of most pancake lenses is acceptable to most people who use them.
  • Short minimum focusing distance: Pancake lenses let you get close to your subject, often focusing much closer than you could with a longer lens.

The disadvantages

While there are many advantages to using a pancake lens, they aren’t without a few pitfalls that you should be aware of:

  • No zoom: Almost all pancake lenses are prime lenses only. If you’re a fan of primes, this obviously won’t be an issue to you, but many photographers prefer zooms for their versatility.
  • Not available in a wide range of focal lengths: Most pancake lenses range from 18mm to 40mm, so you’ll still need to invest in other lenses if you want more focal lengths.
  • Not the highest quality: The compact design on pancake lenses means some quality has to be compromised. Also, many pancake lenses are made of cheaper materials, like plastic, to keep costs lower. They take good images, but you’ll find better quality with more expensive lenses.
  • No distance scale on lens barrel: Because the lens’s barrel is so short, there’s no room for a distance scale. This could be problematic for landscape photographers who rely on the distance scale to maximize their depth of field.

You can find a pancake lens for every major camera system. Some of the most popular pancake lenses on the market include the Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM, Sony E 20mm f/2.8, and the Fujifilm XF 18mm f/2 R.


When to use a pancake lens

Pancake lenses are most popular with street and travel photographers due to their lightweight and compact size. That said, they are found in many photographer’s camera bags so that they can switch to a lighter lens when their other lenses start to feel too heavy or when they want to just “grab and go” without lugging around heavy equipment, such as when vacationing.

Here are several ways to use a pancake lens:

  • Landscape photography

Pancake lenses are ultra-portable, making them a great option for landscape photographers, especially those who have to hike a long way with their gear. However, since they’re so short, they don’t have a distance scale on the lens’s barrel. So, if you use the distance scale for focusing, consider that.

landscape
Photo by Mateusz Sałaciak from Pexels
  • Street and travel photography

Pancake lenses lend themselves perfectly to street photography and travel photography because they are lightweight and easy to travel with.

street photography
Photo by Nancy Bourque from Pexels
  • Portrait photography

The focal length of most pancake lenses is not the most typical focal length used for portraits, but you might find that you love the look you achieve with a wider crop.

portrait
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
  • Close-up photography

Since pancake lenses have such a short minimum focusing distance, they lend themselves well to up-close photography. While your photos won’t be true macro shots, you’ll be able to achieve impressive up-close photographs.

rose
Photo by Jovana Nesic from Pexels

Final thoughts

Whether you’ll use it to photograph landscapes, portraits, street photography, or just use it when you’re vacationing, a pancake lens is a great addition to any photographer’s camera bag. Depending on what you shoot, it may end up being your favorite lens in your kit.