Q: I thought I knew a lot about photography, but I was completely taken by surprise when some photographers started talking about pancake lenses. What is a pancake lens? Jessica, Jeju Island.
A: Photographers are strange people. Sometimes photographers like big lenses, sometimes they like the smallest possible lenses. The smallest lenses available are commonly called pancake lenses because they’re flat, like a pancake.
For quite a while, pancake lenses had fallen out of favour in photographic circles. A little while ago Olympus released a pancake lens for its new DSLR cameras. That kicked off a surge in renewed interest in pancake type lenses.
Why are they so popular? Well, the biggest reason is that they’re small. One benefit of their size is that the lenses are light and easy to carry. However the biggest benefit is that the small, flat lens makes the camera much more discrete.
Pancake lenses are popular amongst street photographers for this very reason. A long lens is quite obtrusive. Pointing it at someone can attract their attention or make them aware of the camera. Since photographers want to capture people in natural situations, a big lens is too noticeable. A pancake lens makes the camera appear much smaller and less obvious. It allows a photographer to remain unnoticed while taking photos of people.
Pancake lenses are usually short range prime lenses. Most pancakes are between 35 and 50mm in length and around f1.8 to f2.8 maximum aperture. These apertures are important and one of the biggest benefits of prime lenses – because it means the lens is fast and sharp.
Often, pancake lenses will be manual focus, due to their small size – autofocus pancakes are rare indeed.
The other important aspect is image quality. Short prime lenses are a playground for bokeh; out of focus area. Bokeh is important to photographers because it determines the aesthetics of any area beyond the camera’s depth of field settings. If a lens is poorly designed, it will not render out of focus areas very well. The bokeh will look harsh and flat. A good prime lens will produce great bokeh, much better than most zoom lenses.
The resurgence in popularity has resulted in a number of companies developing pancake lenses. Nikon and Canon both have new pancake lenses hitting the market. Panasonic and Olympus have already released lenses with various mounts. There are also a number of third party lens makers who have pancakes; the two most popular being Zeiss and Voigtlander.
The only real downside to pancake lenses is their price. Usually, a pancake will be two or three times the price of a similar standard prime lens. The higher cost is due to the engineering required to make the technology work in a ‘flat’ lens.
With photography’s recent surge in popularity, camera makers have been outdoing each other to make newer and better equipment. This will probably result in companies also developing many more lens types. Nikon have already released tilt shift lenses to appeal to architect photographers. It’s likely that there will be more pancake lenses on the market in the next few years.
For now, it’s probably not worth owning a pancake lens, unless you want to practice your manual focusing. Save your money and invest in some good standard prime lenses, such as a 50mm f1.8.
Original article by David Smeaton at www.davidsmeaton.com on Saturday, November 1st, 2008