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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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.