In this guide, I’ll be covering everything you need to know about pancake lenses including the definition, how to use them, who should use them, and lots more.
Let’s dive in!
Table of Contents
What Is A Pancake Lens?
Their name may remind you of a delicious breakfast food, but in photography, a pancake lens refers to a type of lens that is compact, lightweight, and flat – like a pancake.
It’s like swapping out a hefty hardback book for a slim paperbac, the essence remains but there’s less weight to carry.
Imagine you’re preparing to embark on a backpacking trip. You’re excited to capture stunning photos, but dread carrying heavy, cumbersome camera gear. That’s where pancake lenses come into the picture.
Now, a pancake lens is a prime lens. You may be pondering, “doesn’t prime mean the very best?” In a sense, you’re correct.
But in lens terminology, prime means a fixed-focal length.
Picture sitting in an IMAX theater – the massive screen doesn’t shift sizes, but it still offers an impressive viewing experience. That’s how a pancake lens operates.
One of the compelling features of pancake lenses is their luminous aperture. Reminiscent of an owl’s eyes that catch even minuscule amounts of light at night, these lenses can perform remarkably well in low-light conditions.
Not only that, their compact size and balanced weight can reduce camera shake, making your pictures crisp and clear – the way holding a well-balanced tennis racquet can improve your game.
With your pancake lens in hand, you’re less likely to draw attention from the surrounding crowd.
This makes these lenses an ally in street or portrait photography, much like a stealthy cat, unnoticed yet always ready to pounce on the perfect photo opportunity.
It’s also worth mentioning that a wide variety of camera brands, ranging from Canon to Olympus, offer pancake lens options.
Just as you would have a wardrobe with a variety of clothing to suit different occasions, it’s beneficial to have an array of lenses to cover different photographic needs.
That being said, remember every tool has its limitations. Pancake lenses might not be ideal for landscape or macros shots, just like a Swiss Army knife may not perform as well as a specific tool.
But despite these constraints, pancake lenses continue to be versatile all-rounders that can produce good quality images without breaking the bank.
So next time you’re out for a photo shoot or traveling, remember the lightweight, convenient pancake lens.
Sure, it might not help with a pancake breakfast, but it’ll certainly lift the weight off your shoulders and bring life into your images.
Why Are Pancake Lenses Popular?
Why are pancake lenses popular? Well, that’s a great question and let me take you on a little journey to explore the many reasons.
1. Compact and Light
Firstly, imagine you’re planning a trip and you need to pack light. What’s the first thing you would reach for?
Yes, a compact travel companion! Pancake lenses are just that for photographers.
They’re small and lightweight, making them the ideal travel companions for street photography, kind of like pocket travel guides that easily fit in your backpack but still offer a wealth of information.
Now, imagine you’re at a bustling city center or a quiet alley, ready to capture the world in its raw form.
With pancake lenses, it’s like you have your own invisible cloak!
Their tiny size makes you less noticeable to passers-by, causing minimal intrusion.
It’s like being able to mingle at a party without drawing attention to yourself – you get to capture the candid moments effortlessly.
3. Wide Aperture
Speaking of parties, ever tried to take pictures in a dimly lit room? Pancake lenses are the shining stars here, literally!
Despite their small stature, these lenses come with a bright aperture, similar to how you might carry a handy little flashlight in a darkened room.
They let in plenty of light, allowing you to capture clear, sharp images even in low-light situations.
Now, consider this: the pancake lens is to a camera what a smaller engine is to a car.
Much like how a smaller engine can provide a well-balanced drive and improve fuel efficiency, a pancake lens contributes to a balanced camera system and reduces the risk of camera shake.
So, if a smoother drive is what you’re after in a car, a pancake lens is what you’d want for your camera.
Lastly, let’s talk about the value-for-money factor.
Pancake lenses are an excellent example of not needing to break the bank to enjoy good quality, like finding a hidden gem in a thrift store that offers excellent value at an affordable cost.
Despite some limitations, they’re versatile all-rounders delivering great results at a pocket-friendly price.
So, there you have it. Pancake lenses offer benefits galore, from their convenient size and weight to their versatility, low-light performance, and value for money.
No wonder they’re a crowd favorite among photography enthusiasts!
How Do Pancake Lenses Work?
How do pancake lenses work? Pancake lenses function similarly to other camera lenses but there are some unique features due to their compact design and fixed focal length.
“Pancake” is just a nickname for these small, flat lenses that look a bit like, well, pancakes.
Now, let’s break down what makes them special.
Pancake lenses work in a similar way to other camera lenses, utilizing principles of optics to capture and focus light onto the camera’s image sensor. Here’s a general overview of how they work:
1. Light Gathering and Aperture
Just like any other lens, a pancake lens gathers light through its front element.
The lens aperture, which is the opening that controls the amount of light entering the lens, is an important component.
A pancake lens typically has a fixed or limited maximum aperture size due to its compact design.
This might affect the lens’s ability to capture images in low-light conditions or to achieve a shallow depth of field.
Pancake lenses can feature different focusing mechanisms, including autofocus and manual focus.
Some pancake lenses might have limitations in terms of focus speed and accuracy compared to larger lenses with more advanced focusing systems.
3. Lens Elements
Pancake lenses use a combination of lens elements (glass pieces) to bend and focus light onto the camera’s image sensor.
While the exact number and arrangement of lens elements can vary, pancake lenses often use fewer elements than larger lenses to maintain their compact form factor.
4. Image Quality
The design and arrangement of lens elements can impact the image quality produced by a pancake lens.
Manufacturers strive to balance image quality, distortion, chromatic aberration, and other optical characteristics while keeping the lens small and lightweight.
5. Lens Mount
Pancake lenses are typically designed to be compatible with specific camera mounts, such as Micro Four Thirds, Sony E-mount, or Fujifilm X-mount.
This means they can be easily attached to and removed from cameras that use the corresponding mount.
The primary advantage of a pancake lens is its compactness, which contributes to a lightweight and portable camera setup.
This makes pancake lenses popular choices for street photography, travel photography, and other situations where a compact camera system is desired.
Who Uses Pancake Lenses?
You’ll find that pancake lenses are versatile tools suitable for a wide array of photographers.
From travel enthusiasts packing light for their next adventure to street photographers who don’t want their gear getting in the way of that candid shot, pancake lenses offer a compact and convenient tool that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Think of pancake lenses as the pocketknives of the photography world – compact, versatile, and always handy to have around.
They typically provide wide-angle to standard focal lengths, which are prime real estate for many shot types.
They are like a dependable old friend who might not necessarily possess all the bells and whistles but always gets the job done.
However, like every tool, it has its limitations. Landscape photographers who want wide sweeping vistas or macro photographers who require close details might find pancake lenses a bit restricting.
It’s like trying to paint a vast sunset with a fine-tip brush- it won’t give you the scale or depth you need.
But remember, one size doesn’t fit all in photography. The successful photographer often has a mix of lenses in their bag, each suited to different requirements.
Thus, having a pancake lens alongside larger counterparts provides balance and flexibility in shooting scenarios.
So, whether you’re a travel enthusiast looking to explore the narrow streets of a busy city, a street photographer waiting for that decisive moment, or a portrait photographer eager to make your clients feel at ease, the handy pancake lens might just be your new best friend.
After all, big things often come in small packages!
When Were Pancake Lenses First Introduced?
Now, the pancake lens is a bit of an ‘old gold’. It came into the limelight in the 1960s when the need for compact, lightweight lenses was rising.
Compared to the bulky, old school camera attachments, they were as refreshing as morning coffee with the daily newspaper.
Think of it this way – If the bulky lenses were like carrying a hardbound book all day, pancake lenses were like having an e-book. Just easier, right?
Their emergence was synonymous with the advent of rangefinder and mirrorless cameras, which aimed to reduce the weight and size without compromising the image quality. It’s just like how technology advanced from heavy desktop computers to the lightweight yet powerful laptops we use today.
Though decades have passed since their introduction, the charm and usefulness of pancake lenses remain as relevant as ever, especially in street, travel, and portrait photography.
Even with limitations like lacking some features or not being the best for landscape and macro photography, there’s no denying, pancake lenses are like those swiss-knives – versatile, efficient, and affordable.
Where Can Pancake Lenses Be Purchased?
You can typically turn to various well-known camera brands to acquire a pancake lens.
Brands like Canon, Sony, Fujifilm, Olympus, and Panasonic all provide this type of lens, making the purchase process relatively straightforward.
You could also consider purchasing pancake lenses online from trusted retailers such as Amazon, B&H Photo, or even directly from the manufacturers themselves.
Remember to take into account your photography style and needs when making your selection. Pancake lenses are fantastic all-rounders, similar to a Swiss army knife in the world of lenses.
They’re compact for easy travel, offer impressive low-light performance, and can help you achieve well-balanced, stable shots.
FAQ About Pancake Lenses
What are the downsides of pancake lenses?
Pancake lenses often have limited maximum aperture sizes and might exhibit optical compromises due to their compact design.
Are pancake lenses expensive?
Pancake lenses can vary in price, but they are often more affordable compared to larger and more specialized lenses due to their simplified design and smaller size.
Nate Torres is a portrait photographer servicing the Orange County and Los Angeles areas. He specializes in portraits of individuals, couples, groups and headshots. Nate Torres is also a photography writer and content creator and educates other photographers on portrait photography, composition, editing, gear, and business. You can find his content on his personal website, social media, and YouTube Channel, as well as on blogs such as Fstoppers, Photofocus, and Imaginated. Being a former SEO consultant, Nate also teaches other photographers how to use SEO to grow their own photography business on his educational blog, Shutter SEO.