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What is a pancake lens and why would you want one?

Olympus 14-42mm ‘EZ’ pancake lens

Pancake lenses get their name from their flat, thin profile. They’re designed to stick out as little as possible from the camera body so that you camera kit is small, portable and easy to pack away. They’re also a bit less obtrusive when you’re shooting and very handy for street and travel photography.

Most pancake lenses are fixed focal length prime lenses. This is because prime lenses have a simpler optical design that it’s easier to squash into a short barrel. 

You can get pancake lenses for most camera systems. Sony makes pancake 16mm f/2.8 and 20mm f/2.8 lenses for its E-mount mirrorless cameras.

Canon makes a really neat EF 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens for its DSLR cameras, and if you have a Fujifilm X-mount camera, there are slimline 18mm f/2.0 and 27mm f/2.8 lenses that are a fraction of the size of a regular zoom lens.

Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens

Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens

Pentax users have a choice of pancake lenses, including a 40mm f/2.8 ‘Limited’ lens and the remarkably thin 40mm f/2.8 XS lens. If you shoot with Micro Four Thirds cameras you can use the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens or, for a real retro feel, the insanely thin (and cheap) Olympus 15mm f/8 body cap lens (not great, admittedly) or 9mm f/8 fisheye body cap (which is terrific).

Can you get pancake zooms?

Panasonic Lumix G X Vario PZ 14-42mm pancake zoom

Panasonic Lumix G X Vario PZ 14-42mm pancake zoom

Yes and no. It is probably a case of how thick you like your pancakes! Zoom lenses are optically more complex and bulkier, so it’s harder to shrink them down into a very short lens barrel. Olympus and Panasonic use smaller Micro Four Thirds sensors (smaller sensors mean smaller lenses) so they been able to produce the terrific 14-42mm ‘EZ’ pancake lens bundled with many Olympus cameras and the handy Panasonic Lumix G X Vario PZ 14-42mm. Sony’s 16-50mm PZ kit lens for its APS-C mirrorless cameras is just about pancake-sized too.

Otherwise, makers go half way with ‘retracting’ or power-zoom lenses like the 15-45mm kit lenses for Canon EOS M and newer Fujifilm X-series cameras. 

Nikon makes an AF-P 18-55mm retracting kit lens for its entry-level DSLRs, but this is a long way from any pancake we’ve ever seen, so now we’re in a much greyer area.

So with a couple of exceptions, if you want a pancake lens, that means you need to go with a prime.

More lens buying guides:
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The best 70-200mm lenses
The best budget telephoto lenses
The best 150-600mm lenses
Best macro lenses
The best Canon lenses in 2019
The best Nikon lenses in 2019
The best Fujifilm lenses in 2019
The best Sony lenses in 2019
The best Micro Four Thirds lenses for Olympus or Panasonic cameras