I’ve made this page as a means to collect information about various pancake lenses made for 35mm photography. It is an ongoing little project and your contributions are encouraged. It is not meant to be a review listing, or a buying guide, but rather to just provide general information. Where possible, links to sample images taken with respective lenses will do the speaking for themselves. I am gear agnostic and don’t have a particular loyalty to any brand. Many companies are represented here, each one capable of making high quality optics.
I stumbled into the pancake world when I was asked to repair a Nikkor 45mm f/2.8 lens as a favor for a friend. It had a sticky aperture diaphragm, and in the end after taking it apart a few times, I found myself quite charmed and utterly taken by the potential of this lens design.
Impressed by its sharpness and compact size, I decided to learn more about the history of the design and its contemporaries. I ended up getting a used one for myself to start with, and found I was really in for a treat.
What is a pancake lens?
These lenses took the name “pancake” as a flattering nickname because of their typically narrow and flat size. Unlike other names such as “fisheye” or “tilt-shift” lenses, the name “pancake” only implies the small size of the lens, and not some optical distortion or effect. They are otherwise normal lenses in every respect.
Compared to their typically more stout siblings, the name definitely holds true and is quite endearing. In my opinion they should have been called “hockey pucks” because that’s more in line to what the actual size of the complete lens. But “pancake” is an awesome name in any event. They were designed by Paul Rudolph of Zeiss in 1902 and were branded as “Zeiss Tessar” lenses on their initial release.
The original lenses had four elements (τέσσερα – Tessera, which is Greek for four) had an aperture of f/6.3 but by 1930 variants were available at faster f/3.5 and f/2.8 speeds. Contemporary pancake lenses may or may not employ the Tessar design, but being able to fit into a volume roughly the size of a hockey puck earns them pancake status.
In the words of Yoda, “size matters not”.
Don’t dismiss these lenses because they are small. Some of them are in league with the sharpest lenses ever made. In the words of Yoda, “size matters not”. If you’re a shooter that likes to carry fast optics (like I do) the drawback is that fast lenses tend to be heavier. If you’re a Canon shooter (like I am) you’ll realize that they have developed a reputation for releasing large, heavy monsters much like American cars were in the 1970′s. They are built like tanks and weigh as much as one too. Pancake lenses don’t solve everything of course, but they present another option for walkaround shooters like myself.
On a technical level, the purist expects a pancake lens needs to have a retrofocus design, and its focal length cannot exceed its registration length. In layman’s speak, it means that on most 35mm cameras the focal length is in the neighborhood between the 40 and 45mm.
While many pancake sized lenses don’t actually employ the Tessar design, they do typically have a focal length in this range, and it tends to be really useful. It slots neatly between the ‘standard’ focal lengths of 35mm and 50mm, offering more options in cropping images during shots and post-processing.
For the purposes of gross simplification, my definition of a pancake lens is any lens, regardless of design, which fits into the volume typically occupied by a hockey puck (25 x 76mm)- give or take a little bit in either direction.
Why use a pancake?
Aside from their excellent properties as rich, filling breakfast food, and fashionable headgear for rabbits, pancakes are supremely compact and wonderful times when high image quality and portability are required- which can be almost ALL the time for people who like to shoot candid scenes or travel lightly.
Super portability – Up until I discovered pancake lenses I was lugging around two boat anchors on a daily basis- the Canon EF85mm f/1.2L and the Canon EF35mm f/1.4. It’s not meant to be a knock on the Canon kit as I still love these lenses dearly. However when faced with an option that gives me the focal length AND aperture that I can live with in a lens that is no larger than a lens cap- it’s very hard to resist. I can save the big guns when I know I’m shooting something specific, and use the pancakes on the daily basis.
Super harmless, stealthy perception – Being on the receiving end of a fat lens like the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 is like staring down the barrel of a howitzer. It has unbelievable optical qualities, but I have to exercise some care in using it. I almost need to setup a blind in order to not get seen. It’s intimidating, draws attention, and can spoil the mood of a candid shot.
When I use pancake lenses, my opinion is that a lot of that apprehension dissipates- for both me as a shooter and the subject(s). Perhaps the sight of such a harmless looking lens goes a long way in making a candid shooter look more approachable.
When I shoot candid shots using a pancake lens, I feel that I have a lot more time to compose and make a shot. Onlookers who catch me using an ‘antiquated’ manual focus ring seem bemused, or at least defused enough by the lens action. When using a larger lens, I feel as I have to slam the camera against my face and pull the shutter as soon as possible before being noticed. That’s just me of course. There are plenty of other photographers who have better skills and are able to blend in despite wielding such a large lens.
Manual focus is Cool -It really is. If you have a full-frame DSLR you have nothing to lose by trying out a pancake lens. The classic models were built before autofocus lens became mainstream, and have better focusing ergonomics even compared to their giant, fat, newer cousins. It’s as if on newer lenses the focusing ring is there just as an afterthought. Not so with these slick little gems.
On a crop frame DSLR the viewfinder might not be as bright or easy to focus with, but it still can be done really easily. Try it and you’ll realize how nice it is to not be totally dependent on the shackles of laziness-inducing technology.
There are times when the Mark 1 Eyeball is simply better for the job. Going manual focus for me has lessened my dependence on electronic auto focus especially under low lighting situations. It also presents the opportunity to slow down a bit and think about framing and subject matter. It’s all too easy to forget about that in the day of modern machine-gun DSLR cameras.
It is also possible to get autofocus confirmation adapters for your camera (depending on the manufacturer), which fool the camera into thinking a ‘native’ lens is attached. On a Canon, this means the focus point in the viewfinder will flash or light up when the camera thinks focus has been achieved. This is just another tool that helps make it easier if your eyesight is weaker, or if you are manually focusing under low lighting conditions.
Give It A Try!
Pancakes can be had for a song most of the time on eBay or in the used realm of camera stores. Give it a try! They may not be the sharpest, fastest, and definitely biggest lenses in the arsenal, but they present a variety of options for blending in with candid photography. Plainly put, their small size opens up new possibilities for travel, and ease of use.
I hope you find this index useful or at the very least entertaining. I welcome any and all corrections for the information posted here. Pictures of your gear and taken by your pancake lenses are always welcome too. Thanks for reading!