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!
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.
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.
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.
This photo was taken using a 135mm lens. You can see the street vendor preparing food, the outside scene isn’t visible though.
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.
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.
Here is a selection of lenses that could be used for street photography.
This is a scene captured using a wide-angle lens, photographed at 17mm.
The scene was photographed at night. The 50mm lens is fast, and ideal for this type of scene.
This scene also shows the 50mm lens in action.
Even a fish-eye lens can be used for street photography. Though admittedly this photo is also architectural.