Believe it or not, the humble pancake lens is the first item I recommend to photographers who ask me for lens buying advice.
Small, lightweight and affordable, attaching a pancake lens to your bulky DSLR or mirrorless camera can make photography fun again.
Whether you’re a beginner, an amateur or even a professional photographer, I believe everyone should have one stashed in your camera bag or jacket pocket.
Let’s have a closer look at the best pancake lens for each of the camera manufacturers here in 2023, but first, a definition.
Table of Contents
What is a Pancake Lens?
A pancake lens is a colloquial term for a lens that’s shorter than it is wide – hence looking like a ‘pancake’. Due to their compacted dimensions, pancake lenses are usually fixed focal length (‘prime’) lenses. They’re also much smaller and lighter than a regular lens.
What is a Pancake Lens Used For?
You can use a pancake lens for pretty much any kind of photography. Personally, I’ve used mine for everything from shooting weddings professionally to taking photos of my kids on holiday.
Aside from being small and light, there are several advantages of using a pancake lens over a regular camera lens.
Pancake Lens Advantages
This is top of the list for most photographers – pancake lenses are usually made from relatively cheap materials and contain less glass than larger lenses. This makes them much more affordable, and a particularly attractive purchase when you’ve just spent a lot on a camera body!
A pancake lens attached to a camera sometimes looks just like a camera body with no lens attached at all. When you purchase a DSLR, it usually comes with a ‘body cap’ – a pancake lens can sometimes look like this! As such, your camera+lens set up is far more inconspicuous, allowing you to get candid images. Subjects tend to relax more when you don’t have a huge lens pointed at their face!
A pancake lens can be an affordable way to get a fast-ish aperture – usually around f/2.8, which should be ‘faster’ than your kit lens that came with your camera. Even if you’ve invested in a fancy zoom lens, chances are, it won’t be faster than f/2.8 either.
While the pancake lens itself is usually plastic, it doesn’t protrude much from the camera body, and the lens itself is usually set back from the front of the lens. This means that it’s much more ‘protected than a regular lens from knocks and drops.
For me, this is the biggest advantage of using a pancake lens. No matter what lens you’re used to shooting with, attaching a pancake lens will make your camera feel great. It’s truly liberating to not feel any weight at the end of your camera. This alone can make you want to pick up your camera and shoot every day.
Pancake Lens Disadvantages
Truth be told, there isn’t a whole lot to complain about pancake lenses. Sure, they’re not as sharp edge-to-edge as some lenses, and build quality could be better, but at this price, it’s hard to argue that pancake lenses are excellent value for money.
Most people buy a pancake lens for the size/weight benefits, but soon they realise that the drawbacks in image quality aren’t as apparent as they may have first thought.
In short, buying a pancake lens is something I recommend to all photographers. They really do make photography fun, especially if you’re used to bulkier lenses.
Best Canon Pancake Lens
Canon 40mm f/2.8 STM
Weight: 130 g (0.29 lb)
Diameter: 68 mm (2.68″)
Length: 22 mm (0.87″)
Minimum focus 0.30 m (11.81″)
Canon lenses have always been the envy of every other brand shooter – their line-up offers everything you could ever need, including a few decent pancake lens options.
If you’ve got a full frame Canon DSLR, the Canon 40mm f/2.8 STM should be at the top of your shopping list… no matter what genre of photography you intend to shoot. DPReview awarded it a Gold award for imaging excellence.
(If you own an APS-C sensor Canon DSLR like the Rebel series, 50D, 60D, 70D or 7D, I’d recommend the Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM – also a great pancake lens, equivalent to 38mm.)
Attaching either of these lenses to your Canon DSLR will make it feel like a point-and-shoot! Depending on the size of your camera body, you may even be able to slip your camera into your jacket pocket now, or at least, throw it into a bag without much thought.
If you’re used to shooting fast Canon L-series lenses, f/2.8 might not seem like much, but you’re still able to blur the background with some creamy bokeh with the Canon 40mm f/2.8 STM. 40mm (or 38mm with the EF-S 24mm) is also a really versatile focal length – perfect for everything from portraits to landscapes.
The ‘STM’ on both these lenses refers to Canon’s Stepper Motor technology, designed to be quieter and smoother when focusing – particularly useful for video shooters.
Finally, if you own the Canon EOS M50 (reviewed here), I recommend the excellent Canon EF-M 22mm f/2 – be sure to read the customer reviews to find out why its such a popular little Canon pancake lens.
Best Nikon Pancake Lens
Nikon 50mm f/1.8 D
Weight: 155 g (0.34 lb)
Diameter: 64 mm (2.5″)
Length: 39 mm (1.54″)
Minimum focus: 0.45 m (17.72″)
If you’re looking for a Nikon pancake lens, prepare to be sorely disappointed. As of 2023, Nikon doesn’t make one!
(If you use the Nikon 1-mount, there are several pancakes available, best of which is the Nikon 10mm f/2.8.)
However, if you’re looking for a lens that’s pocketable, lightweight and as affordable as a pancake lens for Nikon, I’d highly recommend the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D – its weight of only 155 g (0.34 lb) definitely puts it in pancake lens territory.
The Nikon 50mm f/1.8D is a sharp, fast-focusing lens with great optics for the price. f/1.8 will allow you to blur the background to separate your subject and allow you to shoot in lower light than f/2.8 too.
I’ve shot professionally with this lens on numerous occasions, for product photography, wedding photography, event photography, and more – it really is that versatile… not to mention cheap too.
If you absolutely must have a Nikon pancake lens, there’s the Yongnuo 40mm f/2.8, which is designed for the Nikon mount (fitting both full-frame, and APS-C sensor cameras at a 60mm equivalent focal length).
I wouldn’t recommend this lens for professionals, who really should be spending a lot more than $100 on high-quality glass.
However, if you don’t earn a living taking photos, the Yongnuo 40mm f/2.8 is actually great value for money. It also happens to be the cheapest way to blur the background in your photos, but you’ll need to get quite close to your subject to take full advantage of the bokeh.
Again though, despite the bargain-basement price of this lens, I’d highly recommend you spend a little more and buy the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D.
Best Sony Pancake Lens
Sony 35mm f/2.8
Weight: 120 g (0.26 lb)
Diameter: 62 mm (2.44″)
Length: 37 mm (1.46″)
Minimum focus: 0.35 m (13.78″)
If you’ve got a full-frame Sony Alpha mirrorless camera, there’s really only one Sony pancake lens option for you – the Sony 35mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss Sonnar. Fortunately, it happens to be an amazing lens!
Although not quite as ‘pancake-like’ in its dimensions as some of the Canon offerings, it’s the smallest, lightest Sony lens by far, and also one of the lowest-priced Sony FE-mount lenses.
This isn’t to say that the Sony 35mm f/2.8 is cheap – not by any means. It’s definitely an investment, but you’re getting excellent Carl Zeiss quality optics and a fast-focusing, lightweight, compact lens that makes any Sony camera an absolute joy to shoot.
On an APS-C sensor Sony camera, the lens gives a 52.5mm focal length – perfect for portraits, and versatile enough for landscapes, travel, or whatever else.
I’ve shot entire weddings on this lens alone, and the typical wedding involves a lot of different styles of photo.
If you own an APS-C sensor Sony and don’t fancy spending this much on a lens, there are a few other Sony pancake lens options – most notably the Sony 20mm f/2.8 or the Sony 16mm f/2.8. My pick would be the 20mm since it’s much sharper.
You’ve also got the option of a zoom pancake lens in the surprisingly good Sony 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 – this is a convenient all-in-one option if you don’t need the fastest aperture (you’re shooting in decent light or with a flash). This is a popular Sony a6000 lens for its size and versatility.
Best Fujifilm Pancake Lens
Fujifilm 27mm f/2.8
Weight: 78 g (0.17 lb)
Diameter: 61 mm (2.41″)
Length: 23 mm (0.91″)
Minimum focus: 0.34 m (13.39″)
As of 2023, Fujifilm produces two pancake lenses – the Fujinon 27mm f/2.8 and the Fujinon 18mm f/2. Fortunately, both of them happen to be very good indeed, much like all the other Fujifilm lenses, in fact.
Both lenses are able to produce impressively sharp results and image quality is excellent. You will notice some distortion on the 18mm f/2 though, which is the main reason I recommend the 27mm f/2.8 over it.
If you absolutely need the widest possible Fuji pancake lens in the smallest package and you’re willing to do some distortion correction in post production, the 18mm f/2 is a lot of fund – it also has an aperture ring, which is a great way to change your aperture with the hand you usually hold the camera with.
However, my recommendation is still the excellent little Fujinon 27mm f/2.8, despite the lack of aperture ring. It’s great for travel and street photography, in particular, making your X-Pro II, X-T100 or whatever other Fuji X camera you own, feel like a point and shoot.
The optics are decent at f/2.8 (and if you’re close enough to your subject, bokeh looks good too), but the lens is at its sharpest at f/5.6.
Available in either black or silver, this is the Fujifilm pancake lens that makes your lightweight MILC body feel like a fixed lens camera.
Best Panasonic Pancake Lens
Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 II
Weight: 87 g (0.19 lb)
Diameter: 63 mm (2.48″)
Length: 26 mm (1″)
Minimum focus: 0.20 m (7.87″)
If you’re looking for a micro four thirds pancake lens, then this Panasonic number takes the biscuit! Whether you’ve got an Olympus OM-D EM-10 Mark III, a Panasonic GH5, or any of the other micro 4/3 cameras, the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 II is a joy to use.
Build quality is surprisingly good for a pancake lens, made from metal with a solid feeling. Focusing speed is excellent – this will obviously depend on the camera body you attach it to, but in general, this is one fast Panasonic pancake lens.
Image quality is decent too, with good sharpness and contrast, and the f/1.7 maximum aperture allows you to blur background/foreground out-of-focus elements well. On a micro 4/3 camera, f/1.7 actually equates to f/3.7.
The Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 II may be the best Panasonic pancake lens, but it’s definitely not the sharpest in the lens line-up, nor is it the best quality. However, at this price and size, it’s a fun lens that will bring a smile to your face whenever you see it attached to your MFT camera.
Frequently Asked Questions
What does pancake lens mean?
A pancake lens is a colloquial term for a lens that’s shorter than it is wide – hence looking like a ‘pancake’. Due to their compacted dimensions, pancake lenses are always fixed focal length (‘prime’) lenses. They’re also much smaller and lighter than a regular lens.
Are pancake lenses good?
Yes, pancake lenses are great! Due to their compactness, they make any camera body (no matter how large) feel much more comfortable and pleasurable to shoot. They are also usually much cheaper than other prime lenses, whilst still offering a relatively fast maximum aperture.
What is a 40mm lens good for?
A 40mm lens offers in between a traditional wide-angle lens and a standard portraiture lens field of view. This makes it versatile enough to shoot a wide range of subjects – wide enough for landscapes, whilst being ‘tight’ enough for portraits, with no distortion.
Buying a Pancake Lens | Final Words
Pancake lenses are intriguing little things for photographers – how can something this small and light-weight manage to take a good quality photo? How can an f/2.8 prime lens be this cheap?!
They’re also something of a secret-weapon for professionals – compact, un-assuming, perfectly-balanced on any camera body, and the perfect backup lens to keep stashed in a jacket pocket.
However you decide to use your pancake lens, just be sure to use it. Mine’s attached to my Sony 90% of the time when I’m at home – having such a lightweight, compact camera set up makes photography a lot more fun.