With a 35mm prime lens on a full-frame camera, you’ll capture a field of view a little broader than what you see. This is what makes 35mm street photography so attractive.
Street photography is most impactful when it is realistic – but with a twist. That twist is the photographer’s creative influence. Rather than relying on tricky post-processing, extra long or wide lenses, or any other gear to make an image stand out, a good street photographer will aim to capture life on the highways and byways as they experience it.
In this article, I’ll take a look at some of the pros and cons of 35mm street photography and offer some easy-to-follow tips!
5 reasons to use a 35mm lens for street photography
Wondering whether a 35mm lens will work for your street shooting? In this section, I share five reasons to love the 35mm focal length, starting with:
1. It’s how we naturally see (almost)
A 35mm lens on a full-frame camera provides a field of view a little wider than the field of view offered by our eyes. So it takes photos with a natural look.
With wider lenses or longer lenses, distortion can creep into your compositions. Wider lenses tend to distance elements in a composition. Longer lenses have the effect of compressing whatever appears in the frame.
2. A 35mm lens is wide, but not too wide
For street photography, a 35mm lens is wide, but not too wide. It allows you to back away and capture a broader perspective. Generally, it does not introduce distortion.
The very popular 50mm prime can be too tight for a lot of street photography. It narrows your field of view, which can make it harder to capture the full scene.
My first camera, a Nikkormat FTN, came with a 50mm f/1.4 lens. It was a great lens, and I continued using it for 27 years until it would not focus anymore. Then I replaced it with a 35mm f/1.4. I loved the f/1.4 feature on my 50mm, but it never gave me a wide-enough perspective.
3. 35mm lenses are often physically compact
A 35mm prime can be a relatively small, compact lens. My 35mm f/1.4 is not so small, but it’s also not too big compared to many popular zoom lenses.
And using a less obvious camera and lens for street photography can often help. You and the people you’re photographing can feel more confident because bigger gear can be intimidating. For instance, you may not feel so comfortable with a full-frame body and a 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens.
With mirrorless cameras and pancake lenses, you have an even greater advantage. The gear is so much smaller and less conspicuous!
4. You have to “zoom with your feet”
Photographers who love their zoom lenses can scoff at the notion of having to zoom with your feet. But being forced to move often helps me see my subject in more creative ways than if my feet were to remain in one place. This is another positive aspect of using a 35mm prime lens for street photography.
When you have to move, you’ll see the world from different points of view. This will show you more angles, and you’ll see how the light plays differently off your subject depending on your position.
5. You can get gorgeous results at f/1.4
Did I already mention that I love my 35mm f/1.4? Using the widest aperture setting for street photography is not always practical. Focusing is more challenging. But when you want the loveliness of a very shallow depth of field, an f/1.4 lens is perfect.
Many street photographers prefer to work with a narrower aperture setting. I often do. But when I want that background blur, I open up my aperture and maybe get in a little closer.
5 reasons to avoid a 35mm lens for street photography
While 35mm lenses are great, there are some important drawbacks worth considering. For instance:
1. They’re too standard
As I pointed out earlier, a 35mm lens on a full-frame camera produces a very natural field of view.
But this may not be to your liking.
A wider lens will capture more of a scene. When you can’t back up any farther, it becomes necessary to attach a wider lens to your camera. And a longer lens will get you closer to the action (it may keep you safer, too).
2. You can’t zoom with a prime
Zooming in or out is often the quickest and easiest way to recompose a photo. With a prime 35mm lens, recomposing takes longer because you have to physically move.
A zoom lens is sometimes much more convenient because it lets you stay where you are and keep taking photos.
3. You can’t always get what you want
With a 35mm prime lens, you can’t always capture those perfect street photography moments. You may find yourself needing a longer lens to get you closer to the action or to remain inconspicuous.
4. The focal length is long on an APS-C camera
A 35mm lens on a crop-sensor camera is about 50mm. This is restrictive and not so flexible to work with – it’s often just too tight for street scenes.
5. f/1.4 is expensive
A 35mm f/1.4 lens is a serious commitment; it is not cheap.
When I needed to upgrade from my 50mm lens, the price difference between replacing it with another 50mm or buying the 35mm was significant. In the end, though, the 35mm f/1.4 was well worth the investment.
Tips for using a 35mm lens for street photography
Now that you’re familiar with the pros and cons of 35mm street photography, it’s time for some quick-and-easy street photography tips!
1. Know your lens characteristics well
If you work with a lens long enough, you’ll get used to its characteristics. You’ll become intimately familiar with its capabilities.
You’ll get to know intuitively how much depth of field you’ll have in a scene, given your f-stop and distance from the subject. This is a great advantage when capturing images that require a deep depth of field and you need to work quickly.
2. Get in close
Don’t be shy about getting close to your subject when using a 35mm lens for street photography. With a 35mm lens, street photography can be more personal. Getting in close allows you to produce photos with a greater sense of intimacy.
Here’s a fun little exercise to try:
Photograph the same scene with a 35mm lens and a 200mm lens. The photos taken with the 35mm lens will have a different, more intimate feel – simply because you’re closer to your subject when you hit the shutter button.
3. Make street portraits that connect
A 35mm lens helps you truly connect with your subjects. You can be close enough to have a natural conversation. If you are farther back with a long lens on your camera, you will not be conversing from a position that you’d naturally have a conversation in.
Also, a 35mm lens is lovely for street portraits and is not so wide that it produces distortion on your subject’s face.
35mm street photography: conclusion
Whatever style of street photography you love, if you haven’t yet tried a 35mm lens, I highly recommend it.
Even if you often work with a standard zoom, I suggest you go out a few times, set your zoom to 35mm, and don’t change it. You may even learn to appreciate this restriction.
35mm street photography may not suit everyone’s style, but I certainly love it.
Now over to you:
What’s your favorite street photography focal length? Do you use a 35mm lens for street shooting? Share your thoughts in the comments below!