It’s Time for More Pancake Lenses

Companies like Nikon, Canon, and Sony put a lot of effort into making lightweight cameras. Why not do the same for lenses?

Camera manufacturers have gone all-in on the idea of lightweight cameras. That’s almost entirely how mirrorless got its start, and it remains a major reason why photographers switch from their bulky DSLRs today. So, why haven’t lighter lenses caught on, too?

In an earlier article, I analyzed every lens released since the year 2000 and showed that median lens weights have been steadily increasing since 2013:

Running median weight of all camera lenses released since the year 2000. Lenses have increased in weight since the year 2013.

Today, the median newly released lens weighs about 650 grams. In 2013, that number was less than 350 grams. Depending on the camera system you use, that’s more than enough to erase the weight savings from switching to mirrorless in the first place.

Granted, the graph above is a large-scale look at things rather than a specific analysis of mirrorless vs DSLR lens weights, or of certain weight classes (like supertelephotos, which have gone down in weight over time). But even the dedicated mirrorless companies haven’t exactly been trending in the direction of pancake lenses:

Running Average Weight Micro Four Thirds Lens
Running Average Weight Fuji X Lenses

I am, in theory, a prime lens shooter at heart. I like light weight and high quality, and I don’t mind changing lenses. Yet my current kit consists of three zooms – a 14-30mm f/4, 24-70mm f/4, and 70-200mm f/4.

That’s because, amazingly, this kit is among the lightest possible ways to cover the focal lengths from 14mm to 200mm without any huge gaps in between. The zooms weigh less than the primes.

Where are the f/4 prime lenses? Frankly, where are the f/2.8 prime lenses?

Taken with the Nikon 105mm f/2.8 macro lens - one of the few f/2.8 primes in Nikon's lineup, but not lightweight at all because of its macro capabilities.
NIKON D800E + 105mm f/2.8 @ 105mm, ISO 100, 1/6, f/16.0
Other than specialty lenses like macro and supertelephoto options, very few lenses from major companies are f/2.8 primes, let alone f/4 or smaller.

Prime lenses have two major advantages over zooms, at least in theory: wider apertures and lighter weights. Lens manufactures have almost entirely ignored the second benefit in favor of the first.

The closest we’ve gotten are f/1.8 primes rather than f/1.4 or f/1.2. And although those are nowhere near pancakes, they still have some pretty awesome benefits. For example, the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G FX is at least as sharp as the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G, yet weighs half as much (305 grams vs 600 grams). And that’s the difference between f/1.4 and f/1.8 – not even a full stop of light.

What would a 35mm f/2.8 lens look like? One of the few 35mm f/2.8 lenses on the market right now is a Samyang autofocus lens for the Sony E mount. It weighs 85.6 grams (literally three ounces), costs $270, and gets very good reviews.

So: extremely light weight, good reviews, and a very reasonable price. This is also an f/2.8 lens we’re talking about – letting in just as much light as the most expensive 24-70mm f/2.8 zooms.

Why are there not dozens of lenses like this, from more prominent manufacturers?

One of the few modern pancake lenses is the ultralight Samyang 35mm f/2.8 for Sony E mirrorless cameras.
Samyang 35mm f/2.8 autofocus lens for Sony full-frame mirrorless

If you’re wondering what a 35mm f/4 lens would look like, unfortunately you’ll need to keep guessing. There currently is not such a lens offered by any manufacturer. However, I suspect that such a lens would be able to match the weight of the Samyang 35mm f/2.8 with even better image quality – a true high-quality pancake prime.

I know that a lot of photographers need a wider maximum aperture than f/4, or wider than f/2.8. But the proliferation of f/4 zooms suggests that many photographers just don’t. 

Personally, as someone who almost entirely shoots landscapes, I wouldn’t mind if my lenses had a maximum aperture of f/5.6! Pretty much the only time I need anything wider than that is for Milky Way work.

I’d jump at the chance to buy a kit that looks something like this for landscape photography: 16mm f/2.8, 24mm f/4, 35mm f/4, 50mm f/4, 70-200mm f/5.6. (The last one is a zoom because, with telephotos, you can only go so “pancake,” and zooms definitely do save weight.) Based on existing lenses, my estimate is that this combo would weigh about 1150 grams, or 2.5 pounds.

By comparison, the current zoom kit that I use – 14-30mm f/4, 24-70mm f/4, 70-200mm f/4 (adapted) – weighs 1970 grams (4.3 pounds). And that’s a light kit. It doesn’t even go to f/2.8 at the wide end. Many photographers use a 14-24mm f/2.8 instead of an f/4 zoom, or even a 70-200mm f/2.8 for their telephoto. That easily puts you in backbreaking territory.

This photo was taken with the Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8, one of the heaviest wide-angle lenses on the market.
NIKON D810 + TAMRON 15-30mm F2.8 @ 15mm, ISO 64, 1/60, f/16.0
The Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 weighs a whopping 1100 grams (2.4 pounds)

At the moment, the only company that’s doing even a halfhearted effort at releasing pancake lenses is Samyang, unless you count all the old Leica lenses designed with a lightweight philosophy in mind. You might think Fuji is doing well in lens weight, but their running average weight of new lenses has actually increased more quickly than any other camera company (about 300 grams in 2014 to about 700 grams today).

The worst offender in total weight, though, is one of the rising stars of lens design: Sigma. Their new 40mm f/1.4 Art lens is, I’m sure, an absolute image quality beast. It also weighs 1200 grams – more than the entire hypothetical kit of pancake lenses that I listed above.

The Sigma 40mm f1.4 Art is the opposite of a pancake prime. It weighs a whopping 1200 grams.
The Sigma 40mm f/1.4 Art – a very sharp, high-quality lens, but is it worth the weight?

Surely I’m wrong about the potential of pancake lenses to take over the market, even for mirrorless users. There’s no way so many different companies have had such a large blindspot in their lens lineups for so long – and, beyond that, are doubling down on the strategy of increasing weight. Right?

Yet… you have to wonder. By using a smaller maximum aperture, lens manufactures could cut weight (and price) without losing image quality. Would you rather pay $1400 for a 28mm f/1.4 that weighs 900 grams, or $400 for a 28mm f/2.8 that weighs 250 grams – same image quality?

I know my answer. The first lens company to release a comprehensive line of high-quality pancake primes will also be the next one to get my money. But that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen any time soon.

Lens manufacturers don’t want their gear to fall behind what other companies release, so their designs get more complex over time. Online reviews perpetuate the cycle, because sites like ours want each lens to be sharper and brighter than the one before. And thus, weight increases.

These days, it’s not even that zooms weigh less than a comparable set of lightweight primes. It’s that there is no set of comparable lightweight primes, period. To me, that seems very much at odds with the lightweight mirrorless strategies being pushed at full speed by so many camera companies today. But it certainly appears to be the direction we are headed.

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