What Is a Pancake Lens? Understanding Its Definition and Uses

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When you hear the word “pancake,” the first thought that might come to mind is the flat, round cake you usually eat for breakfast. But in photography, pancake has a different meaning—it has nothing to do with food and refers to a type of lens. So, what is a pancake lens exactly?

A pancake lens is a compact camera lens with a thin profile that resembles a pancake. It usually offers a short focal length and lightweight design. This lens is popular for travel and other situations where portability is important.

This article will cover the multiple uses of a pancake lens. We will also share some popular examples from different lens manufacturers. But first, let us further explore the defining characteristics of a pancake lens below.

What Is a Pancake Lens?

A pancake Lens

A pancake lens is characterized by its compact and slim design. It resembles a stack of pancakes, hence the name. This lens lacks a specific definition, but it usually has a short focal length to give you a wide-angle perspective.

Pancake lenses are also thinner and more lightweight than standard lenses. These make them popular for travel and general shooting. 

Most pancake lenses are prime lenses, meaning they have a fixed focal length. While they lack zoom capabilities, they offer portability and other advantages.

What Are the Pros of Using a Pancake Lens?

You can enjoy several benefits when you use a pancake lens for photography.


A pancake lens has a slim design that takes up minimal space. It eliminates the need for a large camera bag to keep your camera gear safe.

It easily fits in a small pouch, purse, or even a pocket. But if you decide to carry it in your pocket, always keep the front lens cap attached to prevent damage.


Besides being compact, a pancake lens is also lightweight. It usually weighs a couple of hundred grams or less.

Hence, a pancake lens is convenient for traveling or shooting everyday subjects. It also puts less strain on your neck or shoulders, especially when using a strap to hang the camera.

Discreet Design

A pancake lens may appeal to self-conscious or introverted photographers because of its slim design. It lets you have a discreet and inconspicuous camera setup, so you can minimize unwanted attention from passersby.

It can also help you capture subjects without them noticing to avoid awkwardness. It is ideal for street and travel photography as well as candid portraiture. 

Large Maximum Aperture

Most pancake lenses have a bright aperture. It allows more light to hit the camera sensor, which is useful for low-light shooting or night photography. There is no need to use a high ISO setting, which introduces grain to the image, and slow shutter speeds that cause blurry shots.

Pancake lenses with a large maximum aperture (small f-number) also create a shallow depth of field. That refers to the area in an image that appears in focus. A shallow DoF is desirable for portraits because it isolates the subject from the background. It is also ideal for artistic photography, where bokeh (aesthetic blur) and selective focus add visual interest.

Fast Autofocus

Many pancake lenses also feature advanced autofocus technology to ensure fast, accurate focusing. They can help you capture candid moments and fast-moving subjects. 


Pancake lenses tend to be cheaper than larger, professional-grade lenses. They are a great option for beginners and those who are on a tight budget.

What Are the Cons of Using a Pancake Lens?

It may seem like pancake lenses almost have everything. However, they still have their fair share of downsides.

Fixed Focal Length

A pancake camera lens usually has a fixed focal length, meaning it lacks any zoom capability. So if you want to get near or further away from the subject, you need to move your body. 

However, sometimes, you may find it challenging to position yourself due to limited space or fear of safety. You may end up with a disappointing image because you cannot freely zoom in and out with a pancake lens.

Limited Abilities

Since a pancake lens is a prime lens, it can limit the type of photography that you do. Shooting from different angles or perspectives is challenging due to the lack of zoom capability.

The compact design of the pancake lens also has some compromises. This wide-angle lens tends to prioritize portability over specialized features like image stabilization.

Plus, most pancake camera lenses lack a distance scale on their exterior. That means you must set the focus distance on your own to maximize the depth of field.

Lower Quality Images

Pancake lenses are not the most exceptional lenses you can buy today. Sure, they help you capture bright images. But there are far better and larger lenses that give you extremely sharp and detailed photos. So if you shoot professionally or want the highest-quality results, consider other types of lenses instead.

What Is a Pancake Lens Used For?

A pancake lens can suit a wide range of situations, thanks to its compact design and bright aperture. Below are some common uses for a pancake camera lens.

Street and Travel Photography

The compact and lightweight design of pancake lenses makes them popular for street and travel photography. These wide-angle lenses are easy to carry and fit most bags without a problem. They also eliminate the burden of bulky camera gear. Trust us, your shoulders and back will thank you for handling a lightweight lens, especially while traveling.

Additionally, pancake lenses are discreet and unobtrusive. They allow street photographers to blend in with the crowd and capture candid moments. 

Everyday Photography

A pancake lens suits everyday photography needs. Whether you want to capture family moments, document daily life, or record events, this lens is versatile enough for general-purpose shoots. It is also easy and straightforward to use. There is no need to memorize multiple lens buttons or functions, especially if you want to photograph simple subjects.  

Landscape Photography

A pancake lens is also a great choice for capturing landscapes and vast sceneries. It usually has a short focal length to give you a wide-angle perspective. Plus, the bright aperture can ensure sharp images.

However, note that this lens lacks a distance scale. You may find it challenging to tell exactly where it is focused. Fortunately, you can rely on the distance focal scale in the viewfinder of your camera.

Portrait Photography

Pancake lenses with a 40mm focal length or longer are ideal for portraiture. They typically have a large maximum aperture that creates a shallow depth of field and background blur. They help isolate the subject from the background and highlight fine details.

Video and Vlogging

Another use of a pancake lens is to record videos or vlogs. Its compact and lightweight construction allows you to shoot high-quality footage without the hassle of a large lens. It also has a fast autofocus system to keep the subject in focus while you are moving.

What Are Some Popular Pancake Lenses?

Here are some popular, high-quality pancake lenses you can add to your photography and videography arsenal.

  • Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM: for APS-C sensors
  • Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM: for portraiture and general photography
  • Canon EF-M 22mm f/2 STM: for Canon mirrorless systems
  • Nikon Z 40mm f/2.0: for Nikon lens loyalists
  • Sony E 20mm f/2.8: for photographers with a Sony mirrorless camera
  • Sony E 16mm f/2.8: for those who want a wider field of view
  • Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 II ASPH: for micro four-thirds cameras
  • Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 EZ: for zoom flexibility
  • Olympus Fisheye Body Cap 9mm f/8: for a unique fisheye perspective
  • Fujifilm XF 18mm f/2 R: for Fujifilm enthusiasts

How to Use a Pancake Lens?

Using a pancake camera lens is relatively straightforward. However, it is still possible to capture less-than-stellar photos. So, we will share some tips on how to use a pancake lens below. 

First, play with different compositions. Pancake lenses often have a wider field of view that lets you capture most of the scene in front of you. Explore various shots by getting closer to the subject or including more elements within the frame. You may find that the compact shape of the lens enables you to shoot from tight spaces or unique angles.

You can also experiment with a wide aperture range. Set it accordingly to your needs and desired depth of field. For example, open up the aperture (small f-stop) to allow more light inside the sensor and create a bokeh effect. Use a smaller aperture (larger f-number) to keep the foreground and background in sharp detail.

It is also important to take advantage of the low-light capabilities of a pancake lens. Use it indoors where light is limited or outdoors to capture the night sky.

Finally, embrace the compactness of the lens. Feel free to carry it wherever you go to capture spontaneous moments during your travel. 

Are Pancake Lenses Worth Purchasing?

The answer to whether a pancake lens is worth buying or not depends on your photography needs and preferences.

It might be worth considering if you are always traveling and looking for a compact lens to bring anywhere. It is also a great choice for street photography, everyday subjects, vlogging, and even portraiture to some extent.

However, the pancake lens might not be the best choice if you want an extremely sharp or high-quality lens. It also usually lacks zoom and other advanced features, which limit your abilities as a photographer. So consider other types of lenses if you want flexibility and professional-looking results.


A pancake lens got its name from its flat and wide shape. It has a compact and lightweight build and a short focal length. It is best used for street, travel, and everyday photography. But with proper technique, it can also capture landscapes and portraits.

Do you have other questions about pancake lenses? Send them via our contact page on our website, and we will get back to you soon.