Which Street Photography Lens is Right for You?

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The correct lens for the correct photo is a debate often heard among many photographers. In this article, you’ll see the various merits of three different street photography lenses. The 50mm lens is often thought of as the perfect lens for street photography, perhaps even the only one.

Using different focal lengths can dramatically change the type of photos you take, though. So let’s take a look at which street photography lens might be right for you!

Which Street Photography Lens is Right for You?

This photo was taken at 135mm. There is still plenty of context in this scene, even at the longer focal length.

Wide-angle to get in close

This class of lens is usually thought of as a landscape, or architecture photography lens. That may be true, though using it for street photography is equally valid. So why might you use a wide-angle lens in your street photography work?

  • Get close – That famous Robert Capa quote that I’m sure you’ve seen, “If your pictures are not good enough, you’re not close enough.” Well, when you use a wide-angle lens for street photography you’ll have to get close. This will get you closer to the action and will lead to the following.
  • Tell more story – Capturing a wider scene will allow more context to come into your photo. If you can avoid the photograph becoming too cluttered, and you retain a clear focus on the main subject you will likely have a great photo.
  • Interaction – Getting close to your subject means interacting with your subject, most likely a person. They’ll now know you’re taking their photo. How you use this to your advantage depends on you. Building a positive relationship with your subject will enhance your photo, even if that relationship is short.
Which Street Photography Lens is Right for You?

This photo required a wide-angle lens to capture the whole scene. It was photographed at 17mm, and I was close to the people I captured in the image.

The nifty fifty, the classic street photography lens

The icon of street photography, it really is one of the best lenses out there. There are several different options for this lens along with the more expensive variety having a larger aperture. What makes the 50mm lens such a good choice for street photography then?

  • Normal field of view – This lens gives you a field of view that’s close to what your eyes see, a trait desirable for street photos. So you’re not dealing with a distorted view when using this type of lens. This assumes you’re using a full frame camera, crop sensors will give you a longer focal length of around 75mm on a 50mm lens.
  • The Depth of Field – As a prime lens with a fixed focal length these lenses have a large aperture of at least f/1.8. This allows you to create a shallow depth of field, and to blur out the background. This control can really help you take better street photos when it is applied well.
  • Comfortable distance – With this lens you’ll be close to your subject, but not in their face. A 50mm will also include enough of the surrounding scene to allow context in your photo.
  • Fast lens – This lens can be used in low light conditions. The combination of a wide aperture and mid-range focal length make this a fast lens and a good option to use at night.
Which Street Photography Lens is Right for You?

There’s no getting away from it, the 50mm lens is GREAT for street photography.

Long focal length for the unobtrusive photographer

At the longer focal lengths, you’ll be positioned farther from your subject, far enough that they may not spot you taking their photo. This type of lens is the choice of the paparazzi, although it’s unlikely you’ll be using a lens with the same kind of focal lengths (really long!).

So what are the advantages of standing a bit further back?

  • Capture the moment – When the person you’re photographing is oblivious to your presence, the chance of the moment being natural is a lot higher.
  • Compress the scene – This allows you to focus much more on the subject, but the risk is that you don’t include the area around them so you lose some of the story. It’s still possible to provide context at longer focal lengths, you will just have to stand even farther back.
  • Avoid confrontation – Not everyone wants their photo taken, and photos taken without permission can cause a confrontation if you’re caught. While it’s better to build a relationship with the person you want to photograph, sometimes what they don’t know won’t hurt them. In this case, using a longer telephoto lens allows you to get the photo, without causing a scene.
Which Street Photography Lens is Right for You?

This photo was taken using a 135mm lens. You can see the street vendor preparing food, the outside scene isn’t visible though.

Extra tip

When taking street photos with a long focal length you can sometimes take advantage of a shard of light. This will typically happen when there is a gap in the roof, perhaps in a market. Underexpose your photo at -2 or even -3 EV, with just enough exposure to give detail to your subject, but make the rest of the photo black. This will give some minimalism to your photo, which is a nice effect.

Which Street Photography Lens is Right for You?

This image was photographed at 180mm, on a camera with a crop factor of 1.6x. The shard of light was used to make the background black, as it is underexposed.

What’s your preferred street photography lens?

Many people will stick to the 50mm lens as their street photography lens of choice, but there are alternatives available. To this day, my favorite street photo was taken at full zoom with a 70-300mm lens.

How about you, do you have a favored lens for street photography? How about trying a different lens, and see how that changes the types of photos you get?

Here at dPS, we love to hear your opinions, so let us know what you think. We’d also love to see your examples of street photos, together with the lens you used to take that photo. Please share in the comments section below.

Which Street Photography Lens is Right for You?

Here is a selection of lenses that could be used for street photography.

Which Street Photography Lens is Right for You?

This is a scene captured using a wide-angle lens, photographed at 17mm.

Which Street Photography Lens is Right for You?

The scene was photographed at night. The 50mm lens is fast, and ideal for this type of scene.

Which Street Photography Lens is Right for You?

This scene also shows the 50mm lens in action.

Which Street Photography Lens is Right for You?

Even a fish-eye lens can be used for street photography. Though admittedly this photo is also architectural.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Simon Bond is a specialist in creative photography techniques and is well known for his work with a crystal ball. His work has featured in national newspapers and magazines including National Geographic Traveler. With over 8 years of experience in crystal ball photography Simon is the leading figure in this field, get some great tips by downloading his free e-book! Do you want to learn more about crystal ball photography? He has a video course just for you! Use this code to get 20% off: DPS20.

  • sdreamer

    I find myself using my 17mm m4/3 prime (34mm equiv), because when I was using the 25mm I found myself having to always take a few steps back then find my back against a wall or something being way too close. I also like the smaller nature of my 17mm compared to the 25mm. My 25mm pretty much stays put away now. I may have to give it another shot after reading this since I’ve being using my camera a bit longer.

  • Simon Bond

    It’s always worth trying something again, I know I’ve had a process like the one you describe in the past. A certain lens that didn’t quite work for me at first, that then later became an important part of my setup. I hope you have a similar experience, and get some great photos.

  • Terrythrostle

    I’m so glad that you mentioned that the “Nifty Fifty” lens refers to the focal length on a “Full Frame” camera, and will extend the focal length on “Crop Sensor” cameras! This was very confusing for me when I first took up Digital Photography seriously about four years ago! I’m sure other photographers were or are in the same boat too. It’s probably the first article that emphasises this. Well done. Personally I use 17, 19 and 25mm lenses, for my Crop factor cameras. That way I get different perspectives, depending on the scene I want to capture.

  • Terence McKenna

    I shoot in NYC where I work. A 35 mm prime lens on a full frame camera is best to get close to people in the real streets of NYC.

  • Corwyn Frost

    The 35mm is a great street photography lense…..I surprised this was not mentioned in your article….

  • Simon Bond

    Thanks Terry, yes learning about crop factors was interesting. It always made me smile when someone would say they had a wide angle lens like a 17-40, and have it on a crop sensored camera…. The lenses you use are pretty wide, mind you I think in a lot of cases having wider lenses is better.

  • Simon Bond

    Hi Terrence, the 35mm is also a great lens. As you say you’ll get close into your subject with that.

  • Simon Bond

    Hi Corwyn, you’re correct. I could have mentioned this lens as well. The aim of the article was to compare wide, normal and long focal distance lenses. Perhaps the title of the article could have been better from that point of view. Anyway thanks for commenting, and yes 35mm is also great for street photography.

  • Terrythrostle

    They do me Simon! I don’t think it’s entirely their fault though. Not enough is published about the “Nifty Fifty” in regards to the focal length on crop sensor cameras! Which does confuse matters.

  • Paul

    Canon 40mm f2.8 pancake:
    Almost no magnification (Close to human vision – WYSIWYG)
    Reasonably fast (good enough for low light with modern sensors)
    Unobtrusive (even on my 6D full frame)

    Tip: Use on a camera with swivel screen (I use 200D) so you can look down while shooting.
    Looks like you’re not taking a picture and more likely to get candid shots.

  • Ana N Richard Barthelemy

    Hi there; i really enjoyed this article thanks;
    ; i’ll be going to barcelona in may and I have a canon 5dmark4; i have 50mm f1.4; also have 16-35f2.8 IIIL series; which one would be best for street photography?

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