On Portability and Pancake Lenses - Jason Doss

On Portability and Pancake Lenses


I recently spent some time exploring the possibility of replacing most of my lens collection in favor of modern Pentax zooms.  I have the latest flagship Pentax DSLR, the full-frame 36MP K-1 mII, but all of my lenses were purchased used and were designed and introduced in the 70s and 80s.  Most of the functions available on the camera cannot be used with these lenses since, due to their age, they do not speak electronically to the camera. Therefore things like matrix metering, TTL flash, and autofocus are not available. I have spent a lot of time wondering whether I am making a mistake sticking to technology from the middle 80's or earlier, when my cameras are 30 years younger.

The best glass available for Pentax right now are the five D-FA zooms. I am interested in four:  The DFA 15-30 f2.8, the DFA 24-70 f/2.8, the DFA 70-200 f/2.8, and the DFA 150-450 f/4.5-5.6.  These four zooms could replace everything I have, except for some macro lenses which I would keep.  A switch would necessitate the sale of 25 vintage primes, some of which have had maintenance work done and one has had custom finishing.  Decisional paralysis would go away, but other than that, how would this affect what I do?


Long long ago, I used to have Nikon stuff, namely, a D200 and a collection of fast aperture zooms.  Then, one day, I just got sick and tired of hauling them around.  The camera and each lens was heavy and large.  Some lenses were very large.  Carrying them around became work, and because of this, I fell off the photography wagon for about 12-18 months.  I kept my gear, looked at it a lot, but when it came time to decide whether to take or leave it, the answer was almost always, leave it.


That was an important lesson to me... portability is very important, perhaps most important.  As they say, the best camera on the market is the one you have with you.  The size, the weight, and sometimes the size and the weight was keeping me out of action, and I needed to downsize somehow.            


So that's what I did.  I sold all my Nikon gear and picked up a Sony NEX-6 and a few Pentax primes and started shooting again. Suddenly, I was shooting photos again.  Not only that, but the lenses themselves became little masterworks of art to me, and the collector gene got turned on.  When I got curious about how the lenses would do on a full-frame, I picked up a Pentax  film SLR.  Finally, Pentax rolled out the K-1, and I got one, and after a while, found myself in the situation of which I now write.


Although I have examined and to some extent, even coveted those zoom lenses I mentioned, I could never get over the idea that the size/weight of those lenses would negate just about every other positive feature they had to offer.  These are lenses which are even larger than the Nikon collection I had ten years ago.  Image quality, flexibility of using a zoom, weather sealing, autofocus... all wasted if you don't want to carry around a 3-4 pound lens.


The best camera is the one you carry with you always and at all times.  There is no better solution to this than a good camera (mirrorless or DSLR) and a pancake lens.


So what is a pancake lens anyway?  One unofficial definition of a pancake is a lens with length equal or less than one half width.  These are the smallest and lightest and therefore most portable lenses available, and some are still in production.  I have four, although only one was "officially" marketed as a pancake lens.  At any rate, these lenses are as small as they get, and using them allows me to carry two DSLRs in a small bag.  Even carrying extra lenses would be off the table for any of the DFA zooms, but with these small M-series lenses, carrying two cameras plus a couple more lenses in a medium sized sling is possible, and even something I do regularly.

A portrait of Kawai, a three year old border collie

So, I with to celebrate pancake lenses, and these four pancakes in particular.  These are the M-series 20mm f/4, 28mm f/3.5, 40mm f/2.8, and 50mm f/1.7.  I'll be writing reviews on all of these sooner or later, and will update with new links when they are ready.  And finally,since this is a celebration of adoptees, I've highlighted other adoptees in our family, all of whom are class acts.  All adoptee photos shown here were taken with one of these four pancake lenses.


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