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Telephoto Street Photography: Pros and Cons

telephoto street photography: should you do it?

Most successful street photographers work with either a 50mm or a 35mm lens (including Henri Cartier-Bresson, who famously shot at 50mm) – but what about an 85mm lens? A 135mm lens? A 200mm lens? In other words, what about using a telephoto lens for street photography?

Telephoto street photography may not be common, but it’s not necessarily bad. And in certain cases and for certain photographers, it can be a great idea. In this article, I explore the pros and cons of shooting street photos with a telephoto lens; that way, the next time you want to capture street scenes with your 70-200mm glass, you’ll know whether it’s a good call.

Let’s get started!

4 reasons to do telephoto street photography

In this section, I share my top 4 reasons to do street photography with a telephoto lens, starting with:

1. You can photograph without being noticed

While traveling through the streets of Cadiz at Carnival, I saw two teenage boys walking a few feet 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, pointed his lens around the corner, and like a private detective trailing a suspect, took a photo.

This came across as a bit sneaky, but I don’t blame him for taking such an approach; capturing images of people on the street is hard, and if you’re shy, it can feel downright impossible.

That’s why many street photographers consider using telephoto lenses in the first place. With a telephoto lens, you can shoot from a significant distance, and you (generally) don’t need to worry about getting in your subject’s face or making them angry.

You stay invisible, your subject rarely notices you, and you can avoid the discomfort that comes from unwanted attention.

Therefore, if you’re reluctant to get close to your subject, it can make sense to start with a telephoto lens. I don’t recommend you photograph as the boy did in my story – shooting around corners is a bit much! – but you can mount a telephoto lens on your camera, take a few steps back, and work from afar.

telephoto street photography

2. Telephoto lenses offer a compressed perspective

Telephoto lenses force you to stand farther away from your subjects, which changes the perspective and causes compression.

Compression makes subjects look closer together, and it also improves the quality of the background blur.

Now, this compression look isn’t always ideal, but it can be artistic, and it’s a great way to add variety to a set of photos. This image has a compression effect (note how the different elements feel compressed, or closer together):

telephoto street photography

Compression can also be useful if you’re photographing people from a lower vantage point (e.g., if you’re on the ground and you’re shooting up toward a balcony). The farther you get from the subject using your telephoto lens, the less noticeable perspective distortion becomes, and the more you appear to be on a level with your subject.

3. You can shoot distant subjects

Sometimes, the city streets are busy and the sidewalk crowds are large.

When this happens, you may see images you want to capture, yet you’ll be unable to take a good shot using a 35mm or even a 50mm lens. For instance, you might come across a street performer surrounded by a group of people or a jogger surrounded by taxis.

In such cases, a telephoto lens may be the only way you can grab a good photo. Working at 85mm or 135mm, you can zoom in and capture a tight shot of your subject – but at 50mm, you’ll be stuck with dozens of distracting pedestrians or cars in the frame.

4. You can capture all the little details

Telephoto lenses are excellent for photographing the details: the lines on a person’s face, the bright color of a person’s shoes, the small interactions between a parent and their child.

To shoot little details with a 50mm lens, you’ll need to get up close and personal with your subject. This often isn’t feasible, and even when it is, you’re liable to make your subject feel very uncomfortable.

But with a 135mm lens, you can hang back, look through your viewfinder, and when the moment is right – bam! – you can capture the details.

This next photo is a good example of a telephoto lens’s ability to capture details. I was in a village called Tarabuco, which held a market every Sunday. Local people came from the nearby mountain villages, and some of them were standing in a room, intently watching a television screen.

I noticed a man’s sandal; it was worn, weathered, and beautiful. If I had a 35mm or 50mm lens, I would’ve had to kneel down to get the shot, attracting plenty of attention.

But because I had a telephoto lens, I was able to grab a shot of the man’s foot without being noticed!

telephoto street photography

5 reasons to avoid a telephoto lens for street photography

You know all about the value of telephoto street photography – but telephoto lenses don’t always perform well on the streets. Here’s why:

1. Telephoto lenses are big and heavy

Put a telephoto lens and a 50mm lens side by side, and you’ll instantly notice the difference: the telephoto lens will be big, while the 50mm lens (especially if it’s a 50mm f/1.8) will be tiny. Of course, the difference in size will depend on the telephoto focal length, the maximum aperture, and other factors, but in general, the longer the lens, the bigger the overall package.

It means that telephoto lenses are a lot more difficult to store, carry around your neck, and keep safe when out for the day.

Telephoto lenses are also a lot heavier than short prime lenses. This may not seem like a big deal when you’re first heading out, but trust me: After a few hours of carrying around a 135mm lens, your arms will feel tired.

Plus, a small, lightweight lens can be surprisingly freeing. You’ll be able to dart around with your camera, taking shots from all different angles, and you won’t feel like you’re carrying a brick.

2. You need a faster shutter speed

The longer the lens, the faster the shutter speed required to keep your images sharp.

Why? Longer focal lengths magnify the image, which also magnifies camera shake.

To calculate the minimum handheld shutter speed for a particular lens, simply take the reciprocal of the focal length. In other words, add a “1” over the length, so that 200mm becomes 1/200, 24mm becomes 1/24, etc.

Using this rule, while you can shoot a 50mm lens at around 1/60s and still get a sharp shot, a 135mm lens requires a 1/160s shutter speed, and a 200mm lens requires a 1/200s shutter speed.

Now, in good light, working at 1/200s won’t pose a problem. But as the light drops, or as you head indoors or step into the shade, you’ll be forced to crank up your ISO or widen your aperture to get a good exposure, neither of which is generally desirable.

Bottom line: Working with a telephoto lens comes with certain exposure sacrifices, especially if you’re shooting in weaker light.

telephoto street photography

3. Telephoto lenses offer wider maximum apertures

Check out 35mm and 50mm prime lenses, and you’ll notice a mix of f/1.8, f/1.4, and even f/1.2 maximum apertures.

The further you move into telephoto territory, however, the narrower the maximum apertures become. You can certainly find wide-apertured 85mm lenses, but 70-200mm lenses never drop below f/2.8. And cheaper telephoto zooms tend to max out at f/4 or f/5.6 (depending on where you are in the zoom range).

Now, you don’t need an ultra-wide aperture for street photography. But it can be useful; if you can widen your lens to f/1.8, for instance, you can create interesting bokeh effects. You can also shoot at night and indoors without needing to push your ISO way up.

4. It’s hard to blend in with a telephoto lens

Street photography is all about staying invisible. It’s about working quickly and quietly before vanishing into the crowd.

If you use a short prime lens, blending in is manageable. Your setup won’t attract attention; most folks won’t even notice that you have a camera.

telephoto street photography close-up of a woman's face

But if you use a telephoto lens…

People are bound to spot you from a mile off. Now, it’s true: Your subject may not notice a long lens being pointed in their direction from across the street.

But other people – the ones walking closer to you – will notice, and they may feel uncomfortable. They may also ask you what you’re doing, which can lead to additional attention and even hostility.

5. Telephoto street images are less intimate

If you use a short lens to photograph on the streets, you’ll feel close to your subject. You’ll feel like you’re a part of the scene, and that can lead to highly intimate, immersive images.

But when photographing with a long lens, you’ll be forced to step back. Suddenly, you won’t be a part of the scene; you’ll be watching the action unfold from a distance. This can result in a sort of detachment, where the viewer senses the space between you and your subject.

Note that this lack of intimacy isn’t necessarily bad – you can use it to create interesting effects – but it’s unorthodox, and it’ll prevent you from capturing a certain type of image.

street photography telephoto lens

Telephoto street photography: final words

Well, there you have it:

The benefits and drawbacks of telephoto street shooting.

As you should now realize, working with a telephoto lens on the streets offers plenty of advantages, but it comes with some serious disadvantages, too. Whether it’s worth heading out with a longer lens is ultimately up to you!

What do you think of the telephoto street approach? Do you plan to try it? Or do you prefer shorter lenses? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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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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