How to Choose the Best Lens for Travel and Street Photography

How to Choose the Best Lens for Travel and Street Photography

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If you were to ask me what the best lens for street and travel photography is, the first thing I would advise you to do, is to think about what you need from the lens. In my case, the following criteria are important to me –  your list, of course, may differ.

  • The lens should be small, lightweight, and unobtrusive.
  • The optical quality must be excellent.
  • Autofocus performance needs to be very good.
  • As I sometimes shoot in low light, a wide aperture is a must.

Best lens for street and travel photography

These criteria should point to several lenses that may be suitable for you. Perhaps you own these lenses already – in which case the next step is to take them out into the street, and take some photos with them. This is important, because you may find that in practice, the lens you prefer to use is different from the one you thought might be best.

For example, you may think that a zoom lens will come in useful because of the convenience of being able to quickly adjust focal length. But in reality, find that you prefer a prime lens with a wider aperture for shooting in low light, or using selective focus.

On the other hand, you may be approaching this exercise with the intent of choosing a lens to buy. It’s difficult to test a lens if you don’t already own it, although you may be able to borrow or rent it. If you can’t do that, the next best thing to do is to go online and do some research. Read some reviews of the lens. Look for articles written by photographers whose photos you like, who also use the lens you’re considering. Go onto Flickr and see if there is a group dedicated to the lens. Explore some good quality forums, ask the members if anybody owns the lens, and what they think of it.

My favorite lens

By now you are probably wondering what is my favorite lens for street and photography. The answer is – the Fujinon 35mm f/1.4 lens. To be honest, this has come as a surprise to me. When I first bought into the Fujifilm camera system, I thought that I would either prefer a short telephoto lens (such as the 56mm f/1.2) or a moderate wide-angle (like the 18mm f/2 pancake lens) for street and travel photography.

But in practice, I’ve found that I prefer the 35mm. It has received a lot of praise since it was released with the X-Pro-1 several years ago, and is a standard prime lens (for APS-C cameras). The angle-of-view is very similar to that of a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera, or a 25mm lens on a Micro four-thirds camera.

So, why has this lens worked so well for me? The short answer is that it is extremely versatile. I prefer to take the simple approach to street photography, and that means reducing the number of choices that I have to make. Using a prime means I don’t have to think about focal length, yet the versatility of this lens means I can use it a number of different ways.

For example, when photographing people I can keep my distance and frame the person in the context of their environment.

Best lens for street and travel photography

Or I can get closer and concentrate more on the person.

Best lens for street and travel photography

I can also get close to the subject for a tight detail shot, like this one.

Best lens for street and travel photography

Standard lenses for street photography

Working distance is a term used in macro and close-up photography to describe how far the lens is from the subject. You can apply this concept to street, and travel photography too. If you are using a telephoto lens, you will be farther away from the subject. That’s great for not being noticed, but it can also lead to a kind of detached feeling in the image. The viewer can tell you weren’t close to the action, and there may be a sense of lack of involvement in the scene.

A wide-angle lens forces you to get in closer to fill the frame. The closer you get to somebody on the street, the more likely they are to notice you, and react to the camera in some way. This is not necessarily a bad thing (Bruce Gilden has taken this confrontational style to an extreme) and using a wide-angle lens definitely shows involvement in the life of the street. It’s also an approach you can take if you like to go up to people, and ask permission to take their photo first.

The standard lens falls in-between these two extremes. It lets you get close enough to be involved in the scene, but not so close that people are overly bothered by what you are doing. It helps you blend in to what is a very common thing these days – people taking photos on the street (although most often with camera phones, not actual cameras).

Best lens for street and travel photography

By the way, all the photos in this article were taken in the Spanish city of Cadiz, and I wanted to show the people in context, with the historical buildings in the background, in at least some of the photos. The 35mm lens worked very well for this.

So, for me, the 35mm lens is a clear favorite for travel and street photography. But, what about you? What lenses do you prefer to use? Please let me know in the comments, I’d like to hear your thoughts.


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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer and photographer living in New Zealand. He is the author of over twenty photography ebooks – please join his monthly newsletter to receive complimentary copies of The Creative Image and Use Lightroom Better.

  • This is why the Sigma 30mm 1.4 for Sony E and MFT announced yesterday probably will be a favourite! Feel free to visit my webpage at http://tolka.nu

  • Carlos M.

    For me is the Canon 40mm STM. It is small, fast (relative, f2.8) and sharp.

  • Andrew, while I agree in general – my absolute favorite lens is Canon 35L, thank you for recommending it, – but it’s too wide for candid head shots and not wide enough for landscapes. I brought a 24-105mm kit zoom on my last Hawaiian vacation and took many photographs that would be impossible with a prime. Of course, they weren’t as great…

  • I have recently been trying out the Canon EF-S 24mm. Impressed with the results on both 450D and 60D.

  • Chris

    Just about to pull the trigger on a Canon 24-70L II f2.8 to cover these duties for me and my 6D.

  • Winfield

    Good post! If you have two minutes, check out my super fast suggestions for affordable photojournalism lenses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8tALNzQT3zk

  • my3sons

    I’m just packing for a trip to NZ. I packed a 35mm prime, a 50mm prime and a Tamron 15-300mm. I’ll be hiking and in cities and I hope I have most bases covered.

  • Bubba Jewford

    Just did 3 weeks in NZ/Oz, 95% of my shots were shorter than 70mm. Took 10-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-300mm. Rarely used the full zoom on the 24-70 and took only a few with the 70-300mm zoom, could have left it at home. If I did this trip again, I could take only my 24mm prime (DX) and have no regrets.

  • Bubba Jewford

    Great lens. A bit heavy for travel and intimidating for street. A 35 or 50mm prime will have you sorting fewer bad pics when you return.

  • Paul

    Somewhere between 35mm and 50mm is probably ideal to capture a ‘natural’ view (close to field of view for human eyes).
    I use a Canon 40mm f/2.8 pancake on a 6D body – probably as unobtrusive as a full frame DSLR can get.
    But I like the idea of 35mm on a nice Fuji XT1.

    More important than the lens choice of course is seeing the interesting…
    With a human field of view the danger is just walking around taking pictures at normal eye level of everyday sights that have minimal interest or uniqueness…

    Put a lens on you don’t need to think too much about then concentrate on seeing. Get high, get low, look for unusual light, introduce motion, whatever…
    Forget about the lens and see the picture. 🙂

  • my3sons

    You have convinced me to pack less. Thanks.

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  • Great advice, Paul. The 40mm pancake was one of my favourite lenses when I used Canon. Makes a full-frame camera as unobtrusive as possible.

  • Do you have a full-frame camera? New Zealand has some beautiful landscapes and you’ll probably want to go wider than 35mm at some point. I don’t want to confuse the issue but I’d hate for you to miss out on some good photos because of it.

  • Hi Jeremy, the 24mm looks like a great lens for APS-C cameras. Small and unobtrusive.

  • Hi Vladimir, glad you like the 35mm L. The 24-105mm is a great walkaround lens, I believe Gavin Gough uses one a lot and he’s a very good photographer. In fact on a full-frame camera the 24-105mm lens could possibly do anything you need except give you a wide aperture.

  • my3sons

    I have a crop sensor camera (Nikon D7200). I will bring the Tamron 15-300mm. My justification for buying the Tamron was this trip so I can’t leave it behind. Thanks for your input.

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  • os

    I took a 10-20mm and a 35mm for a seaside trip; was also using my wife’s superzoom from time to time. Most of my favourites are from the 35mm. The 35mm pics look much better put together.

  • pete guaron

    35mm/half frame is roughly the same as 50mm/full frame – or 50mm on a conventional 35mm film SLR. Worth saying out loud, to avoid confusing some people.

    Swinging across from film, I re-equipped over the past year, and thought long & hard about what I really wanted. Sad to part with my Zeiss Contarex and all the gear I had with it, after so many decades (just over 50 years, to be precise) and facing the awful prospect for a Zeiss junkie of not being able to afford a full range of their current lenses.

    So instead, I am using 50mm prime for my mainstay – a 24mm w/angle for “tight spots”, like architectural interiors – and since I do a lot of macro stuff, Zeiss’s 100mm Makro-Planar, because it also doubles as a 100mm tele lens.

    Read somewhere that Cartier Bresson used a 50mm lens on his Leica, for practically all of his life’s work. And he was one of the world’s best ever street photographers. And if it was good enough for him . . . . LOL

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  • Travelmad

    Hi, I am a complete novice, have only just started playing with my Nikon D5300 with its kit lens 18-55mm DX VR 1:3.5-5.6. I am also going travelling to NZ and Oz next spring and am desperate to get practicing so I can some great shots there, both of kids and landscape, any thoughts on lens choice gratefully received!

  • Richard H

    hi,
    I too have just gotten into the D5300 with the kit lens and after much deliberations and watching many a YouTube video (especially DigitalRevTV with Kai and Lok, Brilliant for learning stuff without the snobbery) I plumbed for the Nikon Nikkor AF-S 50mm F1.8 lens and its bloody brilliant. the shots I can get due to the automatic but still manual override focus is excellent, its really added a new feel and truly makes me want to take more and more pictures. its brilliant for the kids pictures especially and its awesome as long as you are willing to move to subjects due to it only being a 50mm. its made me want to get into the mix with things and really immerse myself in taking pictures. I truly think its making them better due to the fact I am playing so much more with manual and aperture modes now. I highly recommend it. but its still very much a personal choice so if you can get to try before buying in the shop I would definitely give it a go. good luck and enjoy the travelling.

  • Travelmad

    Thanks for the great tips Richard, I will look into it. Out of interest, is your 50mm F/1.8 lens the “g” or the “d” version?

  • Mi

    While reading all these review – I was a bit overwhelmed. I am truly a beginner and have started taking some classes. I took some awesome pictures in Fiji and AUS. However I know I could have done a better job. So My camera is way old SLR – I’m in pursuit of a new one before my travels to France. What will I be taking shots of? Street, people, flowers, museums, architecture. Please help.

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