The right lens for street photography ?

 

lens for street photography
600mm, New York City

Long or short ? Fast or slow ? Manual or autofocus ?

Lets make it clear from the outset…there is no “best” lens for street photography and I’d be nuts to try and tell you what sorts of lenses you should be using. There are however some useful things to think about when considering a good lens for street photography

Long lenses can be good for street photography

A lot of purist (also known as snobs) think that using anything longer than a 35mm lens on your cameras means that you’re not a true street photographer.

I completely disagree. When you’re starting out and considering the best type of lens for street photography people usually need time to become comfortable photographing strangers.

I’ve touched upon this in a previous post here but as your confidence grows you will get closer and closer to people but longer lenses are an ideal starter.

Even for the more experienced, longer lenses allow uncluttered backgrounds to be picked out from busy streets leading to simpler and more powerful compositions. They also compress compositional layers giving a painterly quality.

The mantra of never using a long lens also ignores the rather obvious point that you can simply get pictures with these lenses that you couldn’t with a wide angle.  The photograph above would have been quite impossible with anything other then the monstrous Nikon 600mm f4 lens (sitting on an equally monstrous tripod).

Long lenses can be bad for street photography

200mm lens for street photography
Nikon 200mm f2.0

The Nikon 200mm f2 is undoubtedly one of the very nicest lenses I have ever used – the picture quality is stunning. But on a full frame camera it’s not the best lens for street style photography. It’s huge, heavy and the front element is large enough to cook pizzas on.

Also remember that generally your creepiness factor is in proportion to the length of your lens.

 

But…long lenses don’t have to be huge and heavy

Panasonic Four-Thirds 300m lens
Beach / Street Life using a Panasonic 300mm = 600mm full frame equivalent

These longer lenses do, however, become a much more realistic proposition on smaller frame cameras. Micro Four thirds comes into it’s own here. A relatively small 300mm lens on one of these cameras magically becomes 600mm.

Flattening and air in street photographs

Panasonic 300mm
Tree / Street Life using a Panasonic 300mm = 600mm full frame equivalent

What becomes very noticeable when using long lenses is the field of view they offer (or don’t) and when you switch regularly between very long and very wide lenses you become aware of how narrow and claustrophobic the former are.

Long lenses also flatten perspectives of the scene whereas wider angle lenses separate planes more, giving more “air” in the picture. Wider lenses also have a deeper depth of field so much more is in focus and you can play more confidently with adding layers and depth. The quality of street photographs increases dramatically when they have both foreground, middle and background interest. This is extremely hard to achieve with lenses longer than 50mm.

All 50mm of thereabout lenses have a characteristic that is flattering for people shots giving accurate body proportions. As you go wider from here, bodies and faces become more distorted.

What lenses do the famous use for street photography ?

Saul Leiter: “I liked different lenses for different times. I am fond of the telephoto lens, as I am of the normal 50 mm lens. I had at one point a 150 mm lens and I was very fond it.”

Notwithstanding the above, conventional street photographers tend to use lenses in the 28mm to 50mm region.

For what it’s worth famous street photographers often (but not always) used the following (all are Full Frame equivalents):

  • Cartier-Bresson – 50mm
  • Irwitt – 50mm and occasionally 90mm
  • Winogrand – 28mm
  • Vivian Mayer – c. 50mm (on a Rolleiflex)
  • Josef Koudelka – 35mm / 50mm
  • Robert Doisneau- c. 50mm (on a Rolleiflex)
  • Jill Freedman – 35mm

The environment is also an important  factor- if you’re on really busy streets you may want to go wider – Bresson would ditch his 50mm and use a 35mm on the packed streets of India. Indeed, it may be argued that as streets have (generally) become busier over the years, street photographers have (generally) used wider and wider lenses.

You have to get close and fill the frame with these wider lenses.You can also zone focus these cameras – the most crucial need for street photographers from their equipment is speed, and you can comfortably zone focus these lenses which neatly sidesteps the lag that autofocus introduces.

Wide angle street photography

tamron wide angle for street photography
Tamron ultra wide angle at the beach

At 28mm and below lenses have an additional benefit in that you can point the camera lens away from a subject and still capture them.

The picture above was taken at 15mm and the camera was pointed at the silver viewing stand in the middle. I was, in street terms, almost invisible to the four subjects.

Very wide angle lenses also allow for context – your subject can be seen in their environment. This works exceedingly well in crowds and parades and helps tell a story.

Best fuji x lens for street photography

I find now that I gravitate to a 24-70 equivalent on a Fuji x-t2 body. I tend to set it to 24mm and then, unless something really interesting is developing, leave it there.

Zooms or primes for street photography ?

The mindsets of using zoom and fixed focal length is very different. If you slap a 35mm fixed lens on the camera you may find that your pictures get better as you can’t keep looking in the far distance for photographic opportunities and you’re forced to use your eyes more rigorously. Your composition will almost certainly improve improve.

The quality difference between zooms and fixed lenses is, for street photography irrelevant. Your pictures will be slightly blurred and sometimes fractionally out of focus but it doesn’t matter.

Manual or autofocus for street photography ?

If you’re using 35mm lenses and below, it’s best to get into the mindset early on to use a manual lens (or an AF lens switched to manual). Use it at f8 and focus at c. 6 feet (a body length) and you should be good to capture most things at a reasonable distance in front of you. If you’re using autofocus lenses, responsiveness is paramount – it’s far more important than vignetting, distortion and resolution testing.

Fast and slow lenses

(Yet) another factor is the speed of the lens. One of the traps many street photographers fall into is using a wide open f1.8 lens on the street. While this may of course be appropriate some times – it has benefit of being able to blur out busy and distracting backgrounds – it’s too easy to fall into the mindset of taking street portraits. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s difficult to capture the essence of the environment this way.

Final thoughts

After a while, you realise that it’s too easy to get caught up with the technical specifications of lenses. From a quality point of view any kit lens today would have made Bob Cappa go weak a the knees.

I’d suggest only ever going out with one lens. This will always be your best lens. and if you want to cover as many bases as possible take the widest zoom range lens you can find – Jay Maisel is very happy walking the streets with a 28mm-300mm on the front on his Nikon.

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