If you have never come across the term ‘pancake lenses’, you may be thinking of some kind of culinary optimized optics or similar. But, sorry to say there’s nothing food-related about them. In this case, the term refers to the extremely small and lightweight camera lens design. In many cases they’re so lightweight, you will hardly feel any lens attached to the camera at all.
Featherweight design may be the main selling point, but what are the other advantages? Price is another factor, with these lenses being relatively cheaper than their full-sized counterparts. They are also convenient, making even a regular-sized DSLR more pocket-sized.
The apertures are also relatively wide and fast, plus the lenses are simple to use. However, due to the compact nature, they may not have the same optical quality as high-end glass. But considering all the plus factors, they make for great walkabout lenses and an ideal step into the world of prime lenses.
1. Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM (Overall Winner)
When it comes to thin and compact lenses, you can’t do better than the Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM for price and features. This lens is ridiculously lightweight at 130g and at only 22mm in length, the accompanying lens caps in reality take up more length than the lens itself. This lens can be used on both full-frame and crop sensor cameras (64mm equivalent), boasts a fast aperture of f/2.8, and comes with a regular 52mm filter thread.
A Stepper-type motor is used for autofocusing, with an ‘AF/MF’ switch, which may not be the quietest version around, but is still quick to hit focus. The aperture of f/2.8 is wide enough to produce respectable bokeh effects, while the 40mm focal length is a nice happy medium for everyday use.
It’s also quite amazing that Canon has packed worthy 40mm workings into such a small design, while still producing respectable images. Basically, this is a very affordable and convenient way to capture discreet street photography or for travel.
For the Sony Alpha users out there, the most obvious choice on this platform is the Sony Sonnar T* FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA. The clear stamp of quality is shown with the ZEISS logo, featuring a ZEISS T* anti-reflective coating and three double-sided aspherical lens to reduce flaring and ghosting.
A linear autofocus motor is quick to lock into focus, while also being very quiet in operation, which will ideally suit video recordings. The lens barrel is dust- and moisture-sealed and weighing in at only 120g, it makes for an extremely light overall package with a Sony Alpha camera body. The lens is also quite pricey for this format, but in return you do get excellent optics, a versatile focal length, and of course the Carl Zeiss stamp of approval. Overall, this lens provides great image quality in a lightweight form.
Fujifilm likes the pancake design as the company has two offerings in the form of the FUJINON XF 18mm f/2 and the FUJINON XF 27mm f/2.8. These two lenses offer a more wide-angle view of the world, with the 27mm version being more versatile than the 18mm offering. On the APS-C-format X-mount cameras, the focal length comes in at an equivalent 41mm, with a bright f/2.8 aperture, one aspherical element, and Super EBC coating.
This lens is super lightweight at only 78g. With such a compact form factor, you will easily think that your camera is now a compact solution. The price point isn’t exactly budget level, but this is reflected in the optics, providing great image quality for the price, along with creamy backgrounds blur when the aperture is wide open. Images are the sharpest in the middle of the aperture range, but apart from a little edge distortion, are still very sharp in the center at f/2.8.
This lens ultimately provides respectable image quality, while also being the lightest offering on the list.
For Panasonic’s Micro Four Thirds system, you have the option of the 14mm or the Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 II ASPH. The 20mm version has an equivalent focal length of 40mm, making it more useful as a general walkabout lens. This lens is ultra-lightweight at 87g, with seven elements arranged in five groups, a seven-blade rounded diaphragm, and very wide and bright f/1.7 aperture.
The 20mm f/1.7 II is also built well, with a metal construction and a fast autofocus motor, which is more adept than its compact form would indicate. Sharpness levels in the center and edges may not be the same quality levels as the rest on this list, but for Panasonic people, this lens is extremely fun to use and makes for a reasonable walkabout lens.
5. Nikon AF NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8D (Budget Winner)
A lens roundup wouldn’t be the same if there wasn’t a Nikon inclusion, but the problem here is that Nikon does not produce a dedicated pancake lens. For the purists, a pancake lens only has size and weight advantages, but for Nikon owners, there is the option of the Nikon AF NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8D.
Built to the dimensions of a regular old school 50mm lens, the AF NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8D weighs in at only 155g, has a healthy f/1.8 aperture and the optics are fantastic for the price. This lens has fully manual workings if the camera in question doesn’t have a built-in autofocus motor, which is no bad thing for practice purposes.
An aspherical lens and a Super Integrated coating handled the majority of lens anomalies, while the wide f/1.8 aperture can produce some very good bokeh. This lens has lots of potential for landscapes to portraits, or as a general walkabout lens, at a price that is affordable to most. It may not be a true pancake lens, but at least it’s an offering from Nikon as a lightweight solution and costs the least on this list.
Summing up the Best Pancake Lenses
An extensive list of the best pancake lenses on the market may not result in a huge amount of offerings, but there are at least solutions for the most popular camera bodies. As mentioned above, for the ultimate image quality in a prime lens you will have to part with more money. But if a reasonable price and compact form are your priorities, then a pancake lens could be a good option.
Travel photography and any scenario where you need to travel light are possible applications or even where discretion is a primary focus. Pancake lenses offer simple workings with point-and-shoot functionality in one of the lightest packages you can find in the lens world. From this point alone, the best pancake lenses on the market are worth investigating when compact form matters.