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50mm Street Photography: What Makes It Great (+ Tips)

50mm street photography: what makes it great

There’s a longstanding debate about whether 50mm street photography is the right way to go, or if wider lenses are a better choice. Most people who practice street photography prefer lenses with a broader field of view like 35m or 28mm, but that doesn’t mean 50mm is useless. Far from it, in fact.

There are many good reasons to choose this focal length when shooting photos out on the street. Shooting with a 50mm lens also unlocks lots of photographic possibilities – along with adding some creative constraints – and the results you get just might be among your all-time favorite pictures.

Reasons to use a 50mm lens for street photography

The first lens I ever purchased for my DSLR was a 50mm f/1.8, and I still use that same lens today. It’s kind of a jack of all trades option, and it lets me get great shots in a variety of situations, especially when shooting with a full-frame camera.

I have since picked up a variety of other lenses but find myself returning to the classic “nifty fifty” time and again, especially for street photography. It has a charm and sense of character to it that other lenses can’t match, and it’s a great option for beginner street photographers who want to step up from their kit zoom lenses.

In other words: There are plenty of reasons to use a 50mm lens for street photography. Not convinced yet? Here are some of my favorite reasons to stick with a 50mm lens when shooting on the street, starting with:

1. 50mm helps isolate your subject

Man Playing Guitar
Nikon D200 | 50mm f/1.8G | f/2.8 | 1/1250s | ISO 100

Streets are filled with activity: pedestrians, vehicles, tourists, animals, and much more. Shooting with a wide-angle lens makes it easy to capture an entire scene – but difficult to isolate a single subject.

On the other hand, when you use a 50mm lens, the field of view is constrained, so your subject is often isolated amidst the chaos, hustle, and bustle of daily life.

While you can get a similar effect with a wider lens simply by moving closer to your subject, you may feel like you are imposing on your subject’s personal space. Shooting with a 50mm lens is a great way to make your subject stand out while also maintaining a comfortable distance.

2. 50mm lenses have amazing depth of field

two students in conversation
Nikon D200 | 50mm f/1.8G | f/1.8 | 1/3200s | ISO 100

Every lens adjusts the depth of field, but it’s much easier to manipulate DoF on a 50mm lens compared to a wider lens. To get pleasing foreground or background blur on a 28mm or 35mm lens, you need to close the distance between you and your subject or shoot with a very wide aperture, which tends to get expensive.

Moving near to your subjects is fine if you are comfortable getting close to strangers, but lots of street photographers like to leave a bit of distance. Thankfully, the large f/1.8 or f/1.4 aperture on most 50mm lenses lets you get sharp subjects and beautiful background blur even while standing back a bit. This depth of field can be the difference between a decent photo and a great one, and it’s a great tool to have in your back pocket for when you really need it.

Of course, longer focal lengths like 85mm or 105mm give you even more control over depth of field, but these options can isolate your subject a little too much. Whereas 50mm hits the sweet spot; it lets you get enough in the frame while also offering fine control over depth of field.

3. 50mm helps you capture fast action

50mm Street Photography Skateboard

Some might cry foul on this one, since any lens can capture fast action as long as you can get a quick shutter speed – but once again we find that a 50mm lens hits the sweet spot. As long as you have plenty of light and good autofocus, you can freeze a moment in time with any lens, but if you want to do this in a street setting, 50mm is the way to go.

With a wide f/1.4 or f/1.8 aperture, you can easily get a shutter speed of 1/500s or 1/1000s in most lighting conditions, which is plenty for stopping movement and eliminating motion blur. And the midrange focal length is perfect for honing in on one subject while not interfering with the movement that you are trying to capture.

If you want a bit more reach, you can shoot with a 50mm lens on a crop-sensor camera, which will put you even closer to the action when photographing, say, musicians or street performers. The 50mm focal length is ideal for freezing motion on a single subject and focusing your viewers’ attention, which is tricky when shooting with wider focal lengths.

4. 50mm gets you close to your subject

50mm Street Photography Sorority Rush
Nikon D200 | 50mm f/1.8G | f/2.8 | 1/1250s | ISO 200

Here’s one of my favorite aspects of shooting with a 50mm lens:

It’s not really a wide-angle lens, but also not really a telephoto lens. It exists in the gray middle ground between those two extremes, and as such, lets you tap into the power of both. This means you can get up close and personal with subjects on the street without being too close, especially if you shoot with a crop-sensor camera. You can also stand back and give yourself some breathing room while getting near enough to make a personal image.

I’ve shot street photos with a variety of focal lengths and consistently found that 50mm strikes the best balance. Wider lenses capture entire scenes, while telephoto lenses are great for portraits. But 50mm lens lets you capture scenes that also feel personal by bringing you just close enough to your subject, and the results can be amazing.

5. 50mm gives you a unique perspective

Sidewalk Lamp
Nikon D200 | 50mm f/1.8 | f/4.8 | 1/640s | ISO 200

While some people think the 50mm focal length is boring, I have found the opposite to be true, especially for shooting street photos.

When capturing the image above, I was on top of a three-story parking garage and shooting straight down to get a shot of the pathway light. While I was framing the shot, a pedestrian happened to walk through the image, and I got a picture that wouldn’t work at all with a wider or longer lens.

I frequently come across situations like this with 50mm lenses, where a wider focal length would ruin the shot. It’s this unique perspective that makes 50mm so good for street photography. You get a perspective that takes ordinary scenes and turns them into interesting, creative photo opportunities that can ignite your curiosity and inspire your imagination.

50mm street photography tips

When venturing out with your 50mm lens, it’s important to keep a few tips in mind. While each individual photographer has to find their own style, methods, and approach to photography, here are some lessons I have learned that will help you get better photos, consistently:

1. Don’t always shoot wide open

50mm Street Photography Sunrise silhouette
Nikon D200 | 50mm f/1.8G | f/4 | 1/6000s | ISO 200

Wide-aperture lenses are outstanding photography tools, but when not used carefully, they can cause problems.

It’s tempting to shoot wide open at f/1.8, f/1.4, or even f/1.2 if your 50mm lens has that capability. But while the results can be sublime, there are a lot of reasons to stop down to f/2.8, f/4, or even smaller, especially when doing street photography.

For one, a smaller aperture gives you more wiggle room with depth of field, plus it results in better overall image sharpness. Street photographers often use zone focusing, which is extremely difficult when shooting at very wide apertures, especially on a 50mm lens.

Also, shooting wide open can occasionally give you too much background blur, to the point that it’s distracting or downright ugly. My rule of thumb is to use my 50mm lens one or two stops down from its widest aperture for most street shooting, then open it up all the way for those situations where you really need it.

2. Capture action through panning

bicycle panning
Nikon D200 | 50mm f/1.8G | f/13 | 1/15s | ISO 100

If you really want to take your street photography to the next level, try some panning shots. This is a great way to capture motion using long shutter speeds, especially with a 50mm lens.

Start with a small aperture – try f/8 – and a relatively slow shutter speed, such as 1/30s. Then put your camera in continuous high-speed shooting mode, set your autofocus to AF-C instead of AF-S, and fire away as a cyclist, pedestrian, or automobile zooms past.

It might take a few tries to get the shot you want, but with a little practice, you will soon create works of street art that you will be proud to print and hang on the wall or share on social media.

3. Look for light and shadow

50mm Street Photography Fountain
Nikon D200 | 50mm f/1.8G | f/4 | 1/800s | ISO 100

This tip isn’t specific to a 50mm lens, but in my experience, it’s easier with one. You see, the constrained field of view at 50mm makes situations of light and shadow easier to find, since it forces your eye to look at a smaller portion of the world compared to a wider lens.

When shooting on the street, look for unique photo opportunities that use light and shadow in creative ways. Try shooting silhouettes or using backlighting to create interesting photo opportunities. Pay attention to the time of day and adjust your shooting accordingly. I really like going out in the early morning or late evening when the sun casts long shadows over everything; you can create amazing photos that you just can’t get at other times.

4. Capture moments, not people

50mm Street Photography Free Hugs
Nikon D200 | 50mm f/1.8G | f/2.8 | 1/1250s | ISO 200

This is another tip that’s good for any street photography situation, but one that is often enhanced when shooting with a 50mm lens. Try to capture moments in time that display singular elements of humanity: purpose, decisiveness, intention, drive, and so on. Don’t just get shots of people standing around, wandering aimlessly, or sitting and staring at their phones. Look for emotions like love, caring, compassion, happiness, or fear.

Take pictures that tell a story, such as the one above, which I shot on a college campus on Valentine’s Day. A 50mm lens is ideal for these human moments – you can stand back a bit, get your subjects sharp and focused, and create a sense of three-dimensional space through careful use of aperture and depth of field. This elevates your street photos from flat, boring images of random passersby to slices of life that showcase the best of what humans have to offer in this world.

50mm street photography: conclusion

50mm Street Photography Bicycle
Nikon D200 | 50mm f/1.8G | f/16 | 1/20s | ISO 100

Street photography is all about personal choice and finding a style that works for you. While the 50mm street photography isn’t the first option for many people, it has some distinct advantages and unique qualities that can help you create impressive images and develop your own artistic vision.

If you have never tried shooting street photos with a 50mm lens, give it a try. I think you’ll like what you see!

Now over to you:

What do you think of 50mm street photography? Have you tried it? Do you have any images you’re proud of? Share your thoughts and photos in the comments below!

50mm Street Photography Conversation
Nikon D7100 | 50mm f/1.8G | f/2.8 | 1/8000s | ISO 1100

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Simon Ringsmuth
Simon Ringsmuth

is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

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