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How to Choose the Best Lens for Travel and Street Photography

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
Andrew S. Gibson

is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He’s an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

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