The day at gap intelligence began this morning with the highly-anticipated Waffle Potluck Breakfast.  With a belly full of scrumptious food from this epic event, and as gap’s resident digital camera analyst, I of course started pondering the photographic impact of other delicious breakfast foods, namely pancakes.

What I refer to are the accessory lenses dubbed “pancakes,” which are prime lenses used on interchangeable lens cameras, such as DSLRs and SLDs.  Pancake lenses are distinguished by their small size (mostly < 1” thick), lying almost flat against your camera’s lens mount, and are becoming increasingly common within today’s market.

For those who shoot with a DSLR or mirrorless SLD and have not explored lens options beyond the basic kit or standard telephoto counterpart, the variety of lenses available can often be overwhelming.  Chances are that we purchased these advanced interchangeable lens cameras for their add-on capabilities, so I recommend considering the addition of a pancake prime lens to your collection as a fun and somewhat inexpensive way to expand your system, as well as your picture possibilities.

What do they do, and why do I want them?

Along with their compact size, pancake lenses are also characterized by their fixed focal length (ie: “prime” lens), which means that they offer no zoom capabilities.  While this may immediately sound extremely limiting, without zoom, pancake lenses can produce very sharp images.  This is also where the fun comes in.  While zoom certainly makes picture-taking easier, by not having this luxury, shooters are forced to rethink composition.  Zooms make us lazy, and sometimes having them actually limits our own creativity.  Taking zoom away encourages shooters to change perspective by physically moving, which allows for subjects to be seen from an altered viewpoint that may have been missed if we simply zoomed closer from the same spot.  You may be surprised at how much your photographic skills grow when you actually take a feature like zoom away.

Pancake primes also tout impressively bright aperture capabilities.  Compared to most kit lenses that come bundled with DSLRs/SLDs (often max f3.5), pancake lenses will allow shooters to expand out to fast apertures such as f2.0.  This allows the camera to employ faster shutter speeds for freezing moving subjects, and also yields that attractive defocused background effect that we all love in portraits (technically called “bokeh”).  When attached to our digital cameras, many of the fixed focal lengths offered by pancake lenses fall within the portrait range (typically 50mm – 100mm equivalent), making them a great way to explore owning a dedicated portrait lens.  Some pancake lenses also boast close focusing distances, which allow them to snap macro-style photos that are made all the more dramatic by having that same defocused background.

Lastly, pancake lenses simply look cool.  Whether shooting with a compact mirrorless SLD or a full-blown DSLR, the tiny size of a pancake lens gives your camera a noticeably smaller footprint, as well as a reduced weight.  This leads to a totally different look and feel for your camera, which in some cases will allow your advanced gear to challenge the convenience of carrying a small point-and-shoot model.

Where do they come from, and what’s available for me?

The history of pancake lenses dates back to more than 100 years ago, when they were developed to provide quality optics in a compact form.  Most pancake lenses are still based around a simple four-element Zeiss Tessar lens design that was first patented in 1902, and companies like Sony still attach this “Tessar” branding to its products today.  The slim lenses gained traction in the 1960’s and 1970’s with Nikon and Pentax’s involvement, and were popular for all the same reasons that they are in our current camera market.

The growing popularity of mirrorless SLDs, which emphasize DSLR performance in a compact form factor, have led to a resurgence of the size-minded pancake lens.  Recently, Olympus unveiled perhaps the smallest and most unique pancake lens on the market with its simple 15mm f8.0 Body Cap lens, an optic that is literally as thin as the plastic retainer that protects a camera’s lens mount when nothing is attached, and also holds an appropriately minuscule price tag of just $49.  Responding to the growing awareness, Canon produced its first-ever pancake prime this year with the debut of a 40mm f2.8 STM lens.  Canon’s design not only ranks as the smallest lens produced by the company to date, but also leverages the new auto focus technology placed within its popular Rebel DSLRs, and is priced below $200.

With the sub-$500 price tags attached to the majority of today’s pancake choices, the fixed lenses are definitely within the reach of most consumers, and can jumpstart the diversification of a lens collection.  The most important thing is to select a focal length that you can be comfortable shooting at (remember no zoom), whether that be a wide 10mm or a portrait-friendly 40mm.  The focal lengths offered by pancake lenses are often contained within the kit lenses that we already own, but again think of what their added light-gathering abilities and shallow depth-of-field will bring to your pictures.

For my cameras, I enjoy using pancake lenses for all of the aforementioned reasons, and especially the challenge of composing shots with only my legs to zoom me in.  However, my collection of prime lenses are not the only pancake in my life.  I also have a lizard who shares his name with these specialty optics.  While Pancake’s name is a simultaneous nod toward both my photographic obsession and his Uromastyx defense mechanism (he flattens-out to evade predators), if I am caught naming new pets things like “Tessar,” “F-Stop,” or “Aperture,” please intervene.