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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
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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