Pros and Cons of a Telephoto Lens for Street Photography?


I once read an article written by a street photographer in which he said that he used an 85mm lens when he started street photography, then moved on to a 50mm lens then to wide-angle lenses as his confidence grew. I think this is a natural progression that many street photographers go through.

Street photo taken with telephoto lens

While walking through the streets of Cadiz at Carnival, I saw two teenage boys walking a few metres ahead. They both had SLR cameras fitted with long lenses. One of them behaved in an interesting way. Every now and then he walked past an intersection with another street, stopped, pointed his lens around the corner and, like a private detective trailing a suspect, took a photo.

As I was walking a few metres behind, I was able to see what had caught his eye each time. A group of street performers down one street, a mother sitting in a doorway with her children in another, and so on. Little slices of life in Cadiz.

This is one way to use a telephoto lens for street photography. Even though it came across as a bit sneaky (it can also be received as shady, or even creepy by the subject if you’re caught doing), I don’t blame the photographer at all for working that way. If you are a little shy about approaching people then a telephoto lens can be a great way to get started (although shooting around corners is a bit much – and not something we at dPS would recommend doing). Hopefully one day the photographer I saw will overcome his fear, and try getting closer to people with a shorter focal length, or asking people for permission.

Street photo telephoto lens

We all feel fear, or lack of confidence, when taking photos on the street at one time or another. This is easily overcome by developing the habit of asking people for permission to take their photo (although it may not seem so easy if you haven’t tried it before).

Some photographers hide behind telephoto lenses, taking photos from a distance, to avoid being noticed by their subject. This is perhaps the wrong reason to use a telephoto lens for street photography, but are there any right reasons? Yes, I believe there are, as are there pros and cons – let’s take a look at a few.

PRO: You can photograph without being noticed

This happened to me in Bolivia. The indigenous people often dress in bright, colorful clothing. It’s a wonderful place to be a photographer – except that the local people are shy to have their photos taken (all the photos in this article were taken in Bolivia, using a Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 telephoto zoom).

Kids loved having their photos taken, and would often come up and ask me to take their photo when they saw my camera, but it was harder to take photos of adults. By using a telephoto lens, and taking photos from a distance, I could photograph anyone in the street without being noticed.

PRO: Compressed perspective

Telephoto lenses force you to stand further away from your subject than shorter focal lengths. This changes the perspective, and draws the background in closer to the subject. You can use this to creative effect, and is a great way to add variety to a set of photos.

street photography telephoto lens

PRO: You can shoot in tight spots

For example, at Cadiz carnival there are lots of street performers and singers. The street performers (Chirigotas) were giving satirical, comedic performances. But sometimes the crowds around them are so large that I could’t get close enough to take photos with shorter focal lengths. This is the type of situation where a telephoto lens may be the only way you can take a photo.

PRO: Framing

It is easier to frame the subject precisely with a telephoto zoom lens. Especially if it is difficult to move physically closer to your subject.

PRO: Details

Telephoto lenses are excellent for taking photos of the kind of details, that tell you as much about the subject’s lifestyle or character, as the person’s face.

The next photo is a good example. I was in a village called Tarabuco which holds a market every Sunday. Local people came from the nearby mountain villages. Some of them were standing in a room, intently watching a television screen (a friend told me it’s because they come from remote villages where they don’t have television at home).

Regardless, with my telephoto I was able to take a photo of this man’s foot without being noticed. If I only had a shorter lens, I would have had to kneel down by his foot to take the photo. Great comedy value perhaps, but not very practical.

Street photo taken with telephoto lens

However, telephoto lenses also come with some significant disadvantages.

CON: Size and weight

Yes, these lenses are heavy. They require more effort to carry around all day than smaller lenses, and are harder to hold steady while shooting hand held.

CON: Faster shutter speeds required

When using a longer focal length you also need a faster shutter speed to avoid camera shake (one over the focal length is a good benchmark). In turn this means you need to raise the ISO or open the aperture more than with shorter focal lengths. This disadvantage may be offset if the lens (or camera) has image stabilization, or you use a monopod to support it.

street photography telephoto lens

CON: Shorter focal lengths are more versatile

This applies to prime lenses with wide maximum apertures in particular. Something like a 50mm f/1.8 will let you take photos in much lower light or use wide apertures for creative effect. In this sense, they are more versatile than telephoto zooms.

CON: It’s harder to blend into the background with a telephoto lens

Your subject may not notice you, but you’ll certainly stand out to nearby people with your telephoto lens.

CON: You don’t engage with your subject

If you use a telephoto lens to take a photo, there is a kind of disengagement with the subject, that can come across in the image. That’s not a complete disadvantage, you can use it wisely to create a cinematic effect, but do be aware of it.

Shorter focal lengths take you in closer to the subject. You are in the scene, participating, rather than outside it, observing.

street photography telephoto lens

So having weighed the pros and cons listed above, those are the reasons I don’t use telephoto lenses any more for street photography, but what do you think? What lenses do you use for street photography and why? Please let us know in the comments.

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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!

  • PRO: You don’t engage with your subject. Helps avoid awkward poses and fake smiles :))

  • me

    I am looking forward to using my 45mm prime (90ff eqiv) when I return to Georgia in a few months. ( ) I will also use my 14-150 travel lens as well as it will allow natural captures and Vladimir just mentioned

  • Maria R

    I have yet to try my nikkor 40mm f2.8 out in the streets. I’m used to using my nikkor 18-55mm kit lens and zoom in/out when needed. Using a prime lens will be interesting.

  • Maria R

    I have yet to try my nikkor 40mm f2.8 out in the streets. I’m used to using my nikkor 18-55mm kit lens and zoom in/out when needed. Using a prime lens will be interesting.

  • There’s another reason to use a telephoto lens for street photography, one that’s seldom discussed. As a foreigner living in Mumbai and making a living off photography, I’m often drawing looks from the subjects I wish to photo candidly before I even get close enough with a less conspicuous lens. I’ve written about this phenomenon before – it’s sort of like in quantum physics, when the Observer changes the behavior of the Observed. Forget about shyness — it isn’t always about one’s comfort when shooting in the street. It can simply be a desire not to disturb the scene to capture the “decisive moment.”

    And even shooting with a 250mm lens — which I often do, contrary to the advice offered by most street photography pundits — sometimes is a requirement, not a crutch. I’ve used a telephoto for social documentary work in Kolkata, where observing an impoverished railway colony would have been near impossible to accomplish, that is, if you’re a white guy walking around with a camera! This is not to say you can’t get great candid shots — because I do with smaller lenses and even with point-and-shoots. But I do lose a lot of photo opps the closer I get despite being bold or cautious and “sneaky”. While I do shoot a lot with my 18-55mm in India quite a bit on the street (if only to spite the 250mm!), there’s definitely a time and place for telephoto lenses for the sole purpose of street photography. I invite all doubters to come on a photo-walk with me if you want to explore the streets of Mumbai…the experience is one-of-a-kind no matter what lens you bring!

  • James Brown

    I totally agree. I am always puzzled when ppl imply that using a telephoto is because one is shy. I am not. Also, if everyone is using the same paintbrush and canvas, TRUE creativity is greatly compromised, as now you are limiting the number of ways a person can paint.
    Also I don’t see anything wrong with shooting around corners. If I am on my way to catch a certain event / performance, why should I miss a shot 100 ft away if I can pull it off. What if I’m on the second or third level? Much of street photography is being a fast gun in the west. Some may choose to post up somewhere and wait for someone to come along to complete their scene, but at that point they’re not asking permission. For me I rarely ask. I like capturing life undisturbed. I do engage ppl and frequently shoot with every lens I carry (3). I always have my backpack on. Personally I think it’s creepier for a person with ONLY a camera on them asking to take my photo as opposed to someone who I can clearly see is a photographer.
    I think in the end it’s a matter of do I accomplish my goal without disrespecting anyone and / or breaking laws. If you’re a true candid shooter you can never be sure how each individual would have felt. You operate in a straightforward manner, obeying the laws set, and being courteous to ppl. Side note, I prefer zooms (love my simple 18-105). They allow for a quick change in framing and dof choices. I am a creative type and ideas come faster than opportunities sometimes and I need to be ready. Still, if another prefers to strictly use a 50mm from 6 feet away, I say more power to them. It’d be a very boring and problematic world if we were all attracted to the same lady 😉 Great article and great comment!

  • na9a studio

    mueehehehe, i am always bring two body, one with 70-200 and another with 30mm f1.8, yes i am flexible like slenderman, creepy to the core… wait senorita, here. please look.. “showing my slr display lcd” you look amazing, may i save your picture ? hohoho gracias.. asking permission after shot. by doing this, i will become less creepy and more handsome 😀

  • Very true Vladimir. How do you get on with the 85mm lens on a crop sensor camera? I find it a very awkward focal length to work with.

  • You should get some good photos with the 45mm lens.

  • pete guaron

    My first shoot of street photos was taken using a 135mm lens, in a poorly illuminated area, and everyone knew I was doing it – they just ignored me, because there was no flash and they didn’t believe any of the photos would work – you have to be careful what you photograph if you do things like that, because people can be very resentful if you don’t respect their space, their lives.

    These days, I like to work with a 50 or 55 mm prime on my full frame. Heaps of people prefer a w/angle, but I work with what suits me. I appreciate what other people do, but that’s THEIR photos and not mine.

    Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly evil, I use one of the smaller cams – a half frame or a compact – held “loosely” in one hand and pointing “nowhere in particular” – while I make eye contact with the subject. You can get wonderful candid shots that way, if you play the role well enough. People have a tendency to freeze for the camera, if they KNOW you’re taking them. Not holding the camera up to your eye, and letting it dangle casually by your side, often overcomes this.

    Not much of this really says what lens – I don’t think there’s a rule for that.

  • It was my favorite crop sensor portrait and “people” street lens. Keeps you far enough from your subjects to not make them uncomfortable. Some examples here:

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  • Matt Dean

    I bought the Sony 24-240mm lens for my a7Rii. There is very little I can’t accomplish with this set up. I rarely have to change the lens when travelling. And it is surprisingly sharp at all focal lengths.

  • nYcKo

    I have and use the same sigma 50-150mm f/2.8, but OS and I do think, that this is the best lens, because you have at least 3 prime lenses in one body, the results from this lens is even better, than from most prime lenses, I had before 50, 85, 100mm, but I don’t need only this guy and and lower light situation, there is the optical stabilisation, so I strongly think, that this for DX users and 70-200mm VR, OS, IS for DX users is the best possible lens!

  • David Blacker

    i shoot with a crop-sensor DSLR, and i’ve used an 18-200mm, a 50/1.8, and a 24/2.8 on the street. the 18-200 was my only lens for about a year, so i was forced to use it for street work too. now, though it isn’t my specialist street lens, i still use the 18-200 when travelling, because it’s my general purpose lens, and is often useful where a normal or wide prime isn’t.

    i generally try to take one of two types of street photograph — totally candid, or portrait. i dislike the awkward strained shots taken of people who’ve noticed the photographer, and are being shot without permission. i’d rather not be noticed at all, and a telephoto’s great for that.

    i did try the 50/1.8 for awhile, but i find it less useful. not enough focal length even on a crop camera for real telephoto use, and not wide enough at other times. so i bought the 24/2.8 pancake which is what i now use most of the time on planned street shoots (often it’s unplanned).

    i think you can use whatever focal length suits your style and goal, as long as you’re capturing what you intend to, and one shouldn’t worry about looking amateurish or shy. Here’s a shot from each:

    The overhead view of the street in Andernach, Germany, is with the 18-200 at 200mm. the guy eating breakfast in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, is with the 50/1.8. the guy with the guitar in Koblenz, Germany, is with the 24/2.8.

  • Scott Carey

    Though the last two thirds of this article more than justify its title (i.e, the pros and cons of using a telephoto lens for this kind of subject), one thing that I find rather disconcerting in it, is that you only point out to shiness alone as the apparent sole reason why one would use telephotos for shooting street scenes, instead of saying, for instance, that it may as well be one’s own photographic style.

    And it is thanks to the world “style” alone, that I beg to differ from your initial assessment, as I can certainly attest that, in my own case, and without abandoning shooting with wide angle lenses for good (therefore having no qualms or reservations about approaching people on the streets) that I choose using telephotos 9 out of 10 times during my trips downtown, as my own way of perhaps making my shots stand out from the crowd (the pun is unintended), developing therefore my very own style – perhaps even not out of shyness!

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  • Andy Miller

    If you use telephoto lenses for street photography it avoids confrontation which I hate.

  • Bernie

    When discussing the conspicuousness of a telephoto lens in street photography, it is important to differentiate between the size/ weight of say a 200mm full frame lens compared to one designed for a crop sensor and then again for smaller sensor cameras. It is the main thing that will have me upgrade to another Canon crop sensor eg 80D from my 550D instead of a full frame 5 or 6D.
    A 200 or 300mm EF lens is substantially bigger, heavier, more expensive & more obvious than an EF-S lens.
    Given I don’t shoot professionally, a few large prints for home each year, with most pics needing to be compressed for social media, the extra quality of full frame brings too many disadvantages for someone like me who carries their camera nearly every time they go out socially.

  • Scott Carey

    Ha, ha. Loved the ‘same lady’ analogy.

    But seriously, with a few exceptions, most who claim telephoto use for street photography as being a thing of heathen’s keep repeating themselves not only in terms of focal lenght (usually) but also their own photographs:

    In their desperate purism most end up taking cliché photographs that are nothing but immitations of the ones the great masters used to take – just look at their instagram feeds!

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