6 Reasons Why You Should Use a Standard Lens for Street Photography

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Henri-Cartier Bresson is well-known for his use of a 50mm lens, a standard lens on a 35mm film camera. If it’s good enough for Henri, then I guess it’s good enough for most modern street and travel photographers. When I worked at EOS magazine (Canon) we published an article about a photographer who traveled to India with nothing but a standard 50mm f/1.2 lens. His photos were beautiful.

But what is it about the standard lens that’s so appealing to street and travel photographers? I’m glad you asked! Let’s take a look.

Why You Should Use a Standard Lens for Street Photography

What is a standard lens?

A standard lens is a prime lens with a focal length roughly equivalent to the length of the diagonal measurement of the sensor (or film). A standard lens on a full-frame camera would have a focal length of 42mm. It is a lens that produces a field of view that is similar to the human eye or appears natural. 

In practice, the 50mm lens is considered the standard for full-frame cameras (although Pentax makes a 42mm lens). A 35mm or 28mm lens is standard for an APS-C camera, and a 25mm lens is standard for a Micro Four-Thirds camera.

I made all the photos in this article with a Fujinon 35mm f1.4 lens, a standard lens on my Fujifilm X-T1 camera. Standard lenses have lots of benefits. Here are some of them:

My Fuji 35mm f/1.4 standard lens.

1. Standard lenses are easy to design and make

Standard lenses are easy to design and make. The optical quality is superb. They are not big lenses and don’t require as many raw materials as larger lenses. They are inexpensive to manufacturer and the savings are passed onto the buyer.

But that doesn’t mean you should buy the cheapest standard lens you can find. You also need to take build quality, autofocus performance and weatherproofing into account when buying a standard lens. That $100 standard lens may look like a bargain, but you could easily end up wishing you had bought something better.

2. Standard lenses are relatively small

The small size of standard lenses is good news if you are going to be walking around for hours at a time taking photos. The lighter your kit the more energy you will have for photography.

Smaller lenses are also more unobtrusive when taking photos of people in the street. If you use a telephoto lens and point it towards somebody it’s obvious that you are taking a photo of them. But use a standard lens and you could be taking a photo of a building, the street, or the scene in general. You can take a photo of somebody without pointing the camera directly at them (as long as you’re not too close). You are much more likely to be ignored.

Why You Should Use a Standard Lens for Street Photography

I made this photo in Hangzhou, China with a standard lens. The girls didn’t notice me. It helped that they were totally engrossed in what they were doing.

3. Standard lenses have wide apertures

This is good news if you work in low light or like to use wide apertures for creative effect. If you like bokeh you’ll love using a standard lens. I used a wide aperture on my standard lens to make this photo. I deliberately focused on the dragon’s head and blurred the background.

Why You Should Use a Standard Lens for Street Photography

4. You can focus close to the subject

Most standard lenses are capable of focusing quite closely to the subject. That means you can take close-up photos without having to change lenses or use an extension tube or close-up lens. This ability, combined with the wide aperture, make standard lenses incredibly versatile.

You can step back from the subject and take a photo that includes plenty of the scene. Likewise, you can move in close and take a close-up. You can open up the aperture and create bokeh, or stop it down and get much more of the scene in focus.

The close focusing ability of a standard lens helps you create a variety of images that show both the entire scene to small details and everything in-between. It’s a great tool for building a body of work around your subject. I used my standard lens to create both these images below, taken in the same building in Beijing, China.

Why You Should Use a Standard Lens for Street Photography

5. Standard lenses teach you to see

When you use the same lens for an extended period of time you get to know it really well. You’ll understand how it sees the scene. You’ll know what to expect in terms of perspective and depth of field, and how that changes as you get closer to the subject.

There is nothing wrong with zoom lenses, but they add an extra element to the photo taking process as you have to decide what focal length to use. An 18-55mm kit lens, for example, can be very useful. But there’s also a dramatic difference between the 18mm and 55mm focal lengths in terms of composition and angle of view. Deciding which focal length to use wastes precious time, especially in a situation where something interesting is happening.

For example, in China, I often didn’t have much time to think. Something happened in front of me, like this boy posing for a photo, and I had to react quickly. A prime lens helped me do that as I didn’t have to think about focal length.

Why You Should Use a Standard Lens for Street Photography

With a standard lens (or any prime) you are committed to that focal length. You don’t have the option to zoom in or out. You can only change the framing by moving closer to or farther away from your subject. It simplifies the photo taking process and helps you create photos with simpler, stronger compositions.

6. Standard lenses occupy the middle ground

Telephoto lenses are great for taking photos of people from a distance, but photos taken with them can lack a feeling of intimacy as they are shot from a distance. It’s also harder to stop down and get the background in focus as well.

Wide-angle lenses are a real challenge as they tend to include too much of the background. It’s hard to create a simplified composition with a wide-angle lens, especially in the street where lots of things happen that are outside your control. You also need to get much closer to your subject, and may need to invade their personal space. It’s hard to do this and not have the subject react to you in some way.

Standard lenses occupy a good middle ground between these two extremes. You can get close to your subject without getting too close. You can create simpler and stronger compositions than you can with a wide-angle lens, but can still stop down and keep the background sharp.

This photo is a good example. I was fairly close to this couple. But, I if had been using a wide-angle lens I would have had to get even closer, invading their personal space and changing the dynamic. A photo taken with a telephoto lens would have a greater sense of distance and separation from the couple. In either case, I wouldn’t have made a photo capturing a candid expression like this.

Why You Should Use a Standard Lens for Street Photography

Your turn

What lenses do you like to use for street and travel photography? Are standard lenses part of your kit or do you prefer something else? Let us know in the comments – it will be interesting to see which lenses DPS readers prefer to use.


Andrew is the author of the ebook The Candid Portrait.

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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer and traveler. He is the author of over twenty photography ebooks and runs The Creative Photographer photography blog. Join his monthly newsletter to receive complimentary copies of The Creative Image, What's New in Lightroom CC? and Use Lightroom Better!

  • 1. Standard lenses are relatively small: 50/0.95 is not so small
    2. missing
    3. Standard lenses have wide apertures: true
    4. You can focus close to the subject: so can others, depends on the lens
    5. Standard lenses teach you to see: inaccurate. More accurate statement: Same prime lens (any one of them) teaches you to see
    6. Standard lenses occupy the middle ground: true

    Total: 5 reasons, not 6

  • Cathy Halligan

    Just switched to a full frame 6D camera. Having trouble figuring out which lens works best. I have the nifty 50, also have the 70-300 . I did like the 18-55 on the crop sensor. I kind of miss that.The camera came with a beautiful 24-105 L lens, but it is very heavy.

  • Enoch Saintjohn

    You missed a step

  • David Blacker

    i shoot with an APS-C 600D, and used a 50/1.8 for awhile for street photography, but it was just too long in the focals. now it’s my potrait and food lens, while i switched to a 24/2.8 pancake lens for street work like this: https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/0b569b6943c2dfcd464f149c5ea7bcc1def13df0d65d3a6b0afaa763cb75a004.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/db34bb6f903ffecd6a3c8735694a81a8bd476462e763955ebf38d1b4dd92e24a.jpg
    the street musician is with the 24/2.8, the other is with the 50/1.8

  • tom rose

    “What lenses do you like to use for street and travel photography? Are standard lenses part of your kit or do you prefer something else? Let us know in the comments”

    Do not like the 50mm focal length at all

    “– it will be interesting to see which lenses DPS readers prefer to use.”

    35mm f/2 and 135mm f/2 on “full frame”

  • Rick Tanner

    I recently have been experimenting with using a old Nikkor 50mm f1.4 with a uv filter shooting in monochrome for my most recent street photography shoot. It has been a lot of fun trying to work with this old manual focus lens on a digital camera.

  • Ken Kemp

    Contradiction in step 5: Reacting quickly is not possible, if one has to move, rather than just zoom, to get nearer the subject.

  • Janice Noyes

    All lens are wonderful given their special event. I shoot with the original old Canon 5D and have a variety of lenses. My fav for a long day (10-12 hrs) in the streets is my 50–it takes me from dawn to sunset–indoors & out, little to no fatigue. IF–I am at an event where there are tight crowds and thousands of people I will often resort to a 17. When shooting my backyard birds and nature–my zoom lens are my friends. There is no perfect lens–only perfect situations that require you to be ready!

  • Cathy Halligan

    thank you so much for responding I’m just wondering if I should invest in an 85 millimeter. I don’t do a lot of portrait photography because I don’t think I have a lens for it but maybe I should try the 50 now that I have a full frame camera….. I do more Landscapes and Wildlife.

  • Michael

    Hi Cathy! Why do you want to buy 85mm lens? I own Canon 6D as you do and use the included beautiful 24-105 L high quality lens for all my portrait photography in 85-105mm range using the f/4 maximum aperture. Personally, I do not justify shooting portraits with larger aperture than f/4 or even f/5.6 because you end up with something being out of focus due to very short depth of field.

  • Cathy Halligan

    For no other reason than I just started reading about what the best lense for portrait photography was…. I just haven’t been as impressed with the sharpness on that lens ….. maybe I’m doing something wrong it’s very heavy though

  • RainGt3

    This article is weak. Somebody should have to approve these before they are posted.

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  • Enoch Saintjohn

    I have to agree, RainGt3. Beginning to get a little fed up with the weakness of the articles on DPS. Been a long time user of DPS but I’m just about ready to delete the RSS feed. The bloggers and owners here seem to promote quantity, selling eBooks and clicks over quality.

    Enoch Saintjohn

  • Ron Olivier

    What lenses do you like to use for street and travel photography?
    – With my Pentax APS-C camera, I use a 50mm, (equivalent to 75mm). Why? Because Its the only prime lens I have, As my dad used to say, a good artist could paint a masterpiece using a broom.

  • Thank you for your comment. As the managing editor I take it very seriously I a select and edit all the articles here. If you have something of value you’d like to contribute please contact me here: https://digital-photography-school.com/contact-digital-photography-school/

  • I urge you as well to submit an article that you feel is of a higher quality. You can reach me, the Managing Editor here: https://digital-photography-school.com/contact-digital-photography-school/

  • Was an oversight. Working on fixing it now thanks.

  • I’am freelancing from the web, completing simple responsibilities which only requires from you computer system or simply laptop computer and also internet accessibility and I couldn’t be thrilled… 6 months have passed when i started off this and also i cashed in till now in total 36,000 bucks… Basically i make profit almost 80 dollars/h and work for 3 to 4 h each day.And fantastic thing about this job is that you can actually decide when to do the job by yourself and for how long and you get paid in the end of each week.>>>> http://vzturl.com/bni13

  • I’am freelancing over the web, executing basic responsibilities that only needs from you computer desktop or simply laptop computer as well as internet accessibility and so I couldn’t be more satisfied… Six months have surpassed when i started out this and also i cashed in up till now in whole $36k… Basically i gain about 80 bucks/hour and work for three to 4 h each day.And spectacular point about this job is that you are able to decide when to work yourself and also for how long and you get compensated after the end of each week.>>>> http://vzturl.com/bni13

  • Ron

    Perhaps we should all just lighten up a little. Lens selection preference, like composition and many other aspects of photography, is subjective. As long as we are all enjoying our photography pursuits, that’s all that really matters

  • has been fixed

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