In Defense of Telephoto Lenses for Street Photography

What is street photography? The question is controversial, that’s for sure. The first problem arises when trying to define it. According to Wikipedia:

Street photography is a type of photography that features subjects in candid situations within public places such as streets, parks, beaches, malls, political conventions and other settings.

This seems to be something everyone can agree on… but it’s incomplete; it’s ambiguous. What, then, makes street photography different from simple candid photography or voyeurism?

The article goes on to say:

Street photography uses the techniques of straight photography in that it shows a pure vision of something, like holding up a mirror to society. Street photography often tends to be ironic and can be distanced from its subject matter, and often concentrates on a single human moment, caught at a decisive or poignant moment. On the other hand, much street photography takes the opposite approach and provides a very literal and extremely personal rendering of the subject matter, giving the audience a more visceral experience of walks of life they might only be passingly familiar with.

Now we’re getting more specific, although still incomplete. Unlike basic candid photography, such as the mindless shots of people a tourist might take, street photography is meant to communicate something. As this second quote also suggests, however, how to best communicate is a contentious matter.

Old School

Much of the debate is over the “proper” or “best” aesthetic for street photography. Many photographers swear by greyscale and a wide depth of field, for instance. But I want to challenge the most basic tenet most serious street photographers will tell you: that you need a wide-ish or normal lens in order to do the genre properly, and that you need to get close.

Lenses of focal lengths about 28mm-55mm (35mm and 50mm in particular) are the most popular and ideal for a reason. These focal lengths present what are generally deemed “natural” perspectives to our eyes and can easily capture the subjects’ environment. More importantly, street photographers tend to talk about a sense of intimacy that you get with a wider lens because it forces you to get closer to your subject. It means you are sharing their environment, partaking in their human condition, and are thus more prepared to communicate something about them.

Across the bridge. Shot within the typical street photography range at 40mm.

For a long time, so it was. But recently I’ve find myself more and more drawn to my short teles instead. At the moment, my 90mm lens gets more keepers than my 40mm does. It got me wondering, what am I seeing now that I didn’t before? Why am I enjoying the results of my teles on the street more than my normal lens? What has caused me to commit behavior so heinously blasphemous to the art of street photography that it most likely got Henri Cartier-Bresson rolling in his grave?

Simply, I started to use the limitations of a tele lens to my advantage.

So, I asked myself, are we really limiting ourselves so much that anything over 55mm or so can no longer count as a street photo? Portrait photographers have started to break from their 85mm-135mm mold, why can’t we? Pics taken with a tele lens may not necessarily look the same as traditional street photography, but they can certainly carry the same spirit.

Incognito Mode

The most common argument for telephoto lenses you will hear is that they allow you to keep yourself distant from your subject(s) in order to be inconspicuous. Most experienced street shooters will call this lazy and/or cowardly. And usually, it is! But to me, both of these instances are lazy thinking. Let me be clear: if you dare call yourself a street photographer, you should never let fear stop you from approaching your subject if there is no real danger. Nevertheless, physical distance can be an extremely valuable asset for capturing that decisive moment . While you can surreptitiously get closer to your subjects using techniques such as shooting from the hip and zone focusing, there’s only so close you can get before your being there somehow alters a scene, generally speaking.

Case in point, this shot:

Observing the Manhattan skyline. 90mm

I originally tried to be sneaky and properly frame this with my 40mm lens from the hip, but the man in the middle looked back to me, so I retreated before their symmetrical arrangement was disbanded. I then took 3 or 4 shots with my 90mm with no worry at all. Obviously this is only one case, but I can describe a hundred others. When talking about averages, you’re simply less likely to interfere with your subjects if you’re further away.

Just as importantly, this distance also allows you to relax and compose more freely with a viewfinder or LCD instead of hoping for the best and losing detail by perhaps cropping later. While a grand appeal of street photography is capturing an instant, in an instant, I like being able to better compose that moment if I get the chance.

A Painterly Quality

The above shot also demonstrates another tool provided by longer focal lengths: compression. For those of you who are unaware, the longer a focal length, the more the background of a photo is magnified relative to the foreground. In other words, you lose some of the surrounding environment when shooting on a tele, at the expense of magnifying what’s left. It’s generally described as making the image appear flatter. Normally, this is seen as detrimental to the street photographer. But normally, it isn’t used to the advantage of the image.

It turns out I was later able to get this skyline shot with my normal lens, but I just didn’t like it as much. The magnification here enlarged a small part of the New York skyline to make it more imposing, more grand. It helps tell you more than just “here are some people looking at the skyline”. Rather, It communicates something about the skyline as well, and could even say something about what the subjects feel about it too. This is similar to how a landscape photographer may use a telephoto lens to add a feeling of power and overwhelming size to a mountain that wouldn’t be possible with a wide-angle. This perspective flattening allows pictures to take a painting-like quality I tend to appreciate.

Painting the finishing touches. 100mm.

Another example:

Who cares about weather-sealing? 40mm, but so heavily cropped it’s basically tele.

In the above shot, the perspective creates a sense of crowding that would have been more difficult without it without it. Note that this was shot with my normal lens, but it was cropped so heavily that it was basically a telephoto equivalent.

On a briefer note, one thing to consider is the nature of depth of field on so-called crop-sensor formats (anything smaller than full frame). We have wider depth of field than full frame cameras, inherently. Sure, you don’t ´╗┐need to use shallow DoF, but I’d say it’s usually good to have the option for it. There are times it can help you isolate your subject, and the longer the focal length, the more of the background blurred a background can appear.

The Z-Axis

People generally think of telephoto lenses as capturing less space than a wide angle lens for a given framing, but this isn’t totally true. If you’re framing your subject similarly, the compositional space you lose on the 2D plane, you can essentially regain on the Z axis. Meaning, since you have to stand further from your subject for equivalent framing, you get more space in between the camera and your subject to work with, space that so often goes unused. Although photography is a 2 dimensional medium (usually), that doesn’t mean the option to express yourself through the third dimension isn’t there. It just takes a little more work.

The milk carton golfer. 90mm

I couldn’t have gotten this one had I not been shooting from afar. The milk-carton golfer would have noticed me, and the subjects were too far from each other. The distant perspective allowed me to frame the lady in the shot so you could make the immediate connection that she is observing the golfer, without making her appear much larger than the golfer (as she would be if I were closer due to perspective distortion) and therefore taking attention away from him. More interesting, perhaps, was how I didn’t notice the pair of legs that sprouted from the phone booth!


NYC can be tough sometimes. 100mm

In this shot cropped from 100mm, the perspective allowed me to take my time, bring the telephone closer to the subject, and minimize the appearance of the bench. I do not think I would have been able to achieve this mood with a wide angle or normal lens.

Of course, there are just as many shots I couldn’t get because I was shooting so long, but my suggestion is that using longer focal lengths isn’t inherently worse than using wide or normal lenses. It’s different.

Sharing the Human Condition

I still haven’t addressed how a tele lens can relate to that crucial tenet of street photography I introduced earlier: that getting closer to your subject allows you to present a more intimate and raw vision of your subject’s world. I haven’t responded to this popularly held idea that minimizing the distance between you and your subject allows you to share more of the same human condition, prevents detachment, prevents beautifying something that might not meant to be beautiful.

Well, truth is, I never fully agreed with it. Photojournalism and war photography come to mind — two overlapping genres where you are often forced to shoot from a distance for the sake of your own safety. To me, it seems rather cynical to say one necessarily becomes detached from his or her subject by shooting telephoto, that one isn’t sharing the human condition. Although many war photos have been shot with 35mm or 50mm primes, sometimes longer focal lengths are necessity. And this line of thought seems to imply that some of the most powerful, horrific war photos shot from tele lenses would somehow be rendered more impactful if they were only shot wider and closer.

Still, the advantages inherent to the traditional focal lengths remain clear. Most prominently, the natural perspective helps the viewer feel present in a scene, since it’s similar to how our own eyes might’ve seen things. This is something I can’t really argue against, nor want to. But this is distinct from the photographer making a connection; a connection can happen with our without this perspective. In other words, locking a 50mm lens onto your camera and getting close to your subjects doesn’t automatically make you a street shooter or make your shots any good. It goes a long way towards helping, and is probably still the best way of crafting street photos, but I don’t think it’s the only way. Communicating this connection is the essential part, and how you choose to do so needn’t be so limited.

As someone who’s into fitness and nutrition, I often remind people that being vegetarian isn’t necessarily healthier than eating meat; it just makes it harder to be unhealthy. This is a subtle but important distinction. Similarly, using a wide or normal focal length doesn’t automatically make the picture more intimate and impactful than one with a tele lens. Rather, it just makes it harder for you to be detached, since it forces you to get closer to your subject. But so long as you are making the right choices, and don’t forget you’re photographing an actual human being, you can craft images just as intimate with a tele lens.

Fisherman and Mule. 90mm

On a related note, I want to briefly address ethics. I won’t argue about the morality of street photography; that’s a matter deserving its own post. But if you’re feeling guilty, here are some suggestions to make things better next time you’re shooting. Try not to be sneaky the whole time. You’re a photographer, not a spy. Personally, if a person’s face is identifiable in the photo, I try to make sure they see I’ve photographed them. A little bit of eye contact is all you need. 95% of the time, they will ignore or forget about you. Sometimes, if you’re not trying to capture a specific instant, you can even communicate with your subjects beforehand, let them know you’re a photographer, and that you aren’t simply trying to stalk them. In either case, after enough snapping, they will usually forget you’re even taking pictures, as was the case in the photo above.

Another great approach I learned from another photographer. Basically, it relies on the idea that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission. What he does is snap his pictures first, and approach his subjects later. He explains to them he is a fine art photographer. Almost always, his subjects are okay with it. A touch of transparency can go a long way.

TL;DR: A New Point of View

To summarize, it doesn’t matter what type of lens you are using; the important thing is to try to consciously and emotionally connect with your subject. If you can afford it, give yourself some time to analyze the scene, and use this to try to anticipate and effectively express that decisive moment. You might find you have more flexibility to do that with a telephoto lens, so long as you realize that you need to use its unique properties to your advantage.

Street photographers are right to say that fear of detection shouldn’t stop you from getting close, but likewise, not every photo has to be close in order to paint an intimate picture. To me, street photography is not just about capturing a random moment; it’s about communicating it through your own expression. Whether that expression means transparently presenting the world as you see it, or adding your own interpretation to this world, the key to a powerful street photo is simply to speak. If you can do that using a longer focal length too, I don’t see why anything is lost.

Not to posit that any of my shots as particularly great — heck, they might suck to you! — but I do hope they illustrate some of the points I’m making. To reiterate, this is not at all to take away from the tradition. If someone were to get into street photography for the first time, I’d still point them to a 35mm or 50mm prime and tell them to get up close and personal. But if you’ve already done the basics, my goal is simply to expand horizons.

Let me know if you agree or disagree! I am curious as to what street photography means to you, individually.

Just some food for thought. 90mm

Note: For the sake of convenience and comprehension, focal lengths will be stated as their equivalents on a 35mm camera. i.e. A 20mm lens on my Lumix G3 gives the same angle of view as a 40mm lens on a full frame camera. Speaking of crops, some of these images are cropped, but for all intents and purposes the arguments about them remain the same.

About the author: Napier Lopez is a recent philosophy graduate from Columbia University. He’s interested in all things tech, physics, and photography related.

Image credits: Brian with new telephoto lens by brewbooks, all other photos by Napier Lopez

  • kangaroo in pandalanda.

    Agree with you “napilopez”. a few of us have been trawling ShangHai avidly for a couple of years. honestly – telephoto is much more versatile (we’ve found). changing primes can be a pain. you can loose the ‘moment’. miss the shot or are ‘outed’ by the subject. (They have warp-speed, extra-sensory perception in ShangHai).

  • keewa

    The problem is walking around town with a massive telephoto lens makes you look like a pervert.

  • casadresden

    EXCEPTIONALLY well written! Thank you. Here’s my story: I sold my long lens in 2006 and started getting obsessed with street shooting. I have a long list of cameras and lenses and research to back up why a long lens is sacrilege to this genre. I’ve used a 17mm on my micro four-thirds digital and a 50mm on my Nikon FE2 film camera.

    Today, I stumbled upon a 105mm fixed lens for my film camera. I have no idea why I bought it – other than it was a good deal and I liked looking through it. YES, I feel guilty. YES, I’m afraid of the scorn that is about to befall me amongst the community. However, I think I found this article for a reason – and that is, to stretch beyond convention and reach for something creative and communicative.

    Thank you for confirming my next step!

  • flightofbooks

    Prescriptivism is a barrier to creativity. People telling you “it must be done in THIS way” are authoritarians who seek to discipline creative discourse for their own purposes, usually egotistical ones. Most of them produce bland and derivative work themselves because their insistence on doing it “THIS way” usually means copying how others were doing it 50 years ago. Always about children following in the father’s footsteps, isn’t it. Good luck finding a personal vision of the world that way.

  • flightofbooks

    And yes, I am talking about those “hardcore” street photographers. Fight me.

  • flightofbooks

    This is exactly the kind of dumb prescriptivism I was just describing. “It has to be done THIS way!” *stops foot, breaths hard*

    You should go look at Fred Leavitt’s Chicago: A Photographic Essay
    and then stop pretending like you know what you’re talking about.

  • flightofbooks

    the idea of defining street photography by equipment is absurd. I doubt anyone would say a portrait photo isn’t a portrait because it was taken with a 28mm lens instead of a 90mm.

    Street photography is more than a genre. It is a visual discourse of people within public space. Physical space is something that can be illustrated by the photographer in a number of different ways, one of them being through telephotography (using the techniques this article discusses, among others). Telephotographic images that deal with this intersection of people and public space are every bit as much “street photographs” as those shot close and wide at 28mm.

    Up thread I mentioned Fred Leavitt’s Chicago: A Photographic Essay as an example of a body of work that effectively (and rather seamlessly) incorporates telephoto street images along with ‘conventional’ wide and standard angle photographs. In my opinion, many of the telephotos are among the most remarkable images in the book. The wide angle photos, seen in isolation would be clearly identified as ‘street photography’. Should the images of the book, interspersed with one another, be cleaved into two separate bodies of work due to some prescriptivism puritanism? Or is street photography something more than the sum of the lens that made it?

  • Tomasz Kulbowski

    It’s not just about the numbers on our lens, it’s about the effect/result certain lens will give you. There’s nothing wrong with tele lens itself – it’s a great tool in many situations! But I don’t believe street photography is one of them, as you simply can’t replicate the sense of being close, or even “inside” of the scene, which to me is in the essence of SP. Tele will always give you this “safari” feel of peeping from the distance, being separate from your subject, being “outside”, etc.

    This is not my own theory, I’m not trying to define anything. Just look at all the photos of masters, all those photographers who’s work defined street photography for us – it’s all about “being close”. The real definition it is already there, created over 50 years ago, still works fine to me ;)

  • flightofbooks

    then use a small telephoto lens, geez.

  • flightofbooks

    Of course it’s about effect/result of the lens. I just said as much a moment ago. I’ll repeat myself:

    “Physical space is something that can be illustrated by the photographer in a number of different ways, one of them being through telephotography (using the techniques this article discusses, among others).”

    And I cited an accomplished street photographer who used telephotography to do just that (unfortunately not many of his images are available online, which for the sake of this discussion is really a pity). That idea that telephoto will always give the “safari” feel is simply absurd. Leavitt’s work, in which telephoto compression is used to contextualize individuals place within public space, conclusively disproves that. I could further cite any number of contemporary photographers, both professional and amateur who’s work illustrates the same point.

    I don’t really care about how “old masters” defined street photography. My claim is about what their work shows, not the tools it was produced by. Your theory is particularly suspect, since it ignores the fact that in many if not most cases, the “old masters” were using wide lenses because they were they were the fastest and best quality glass available at a reasonable price. If there had been fast 35-120 zooms available the history in the 1930s, perhaps the canon of ‘golden age’ of street photography would be very different. It’s impossible to say, but it’s facile to make any claims about the essential ‘nature’ of street photography based on then technological reality. Your theory is nothing more than a crass traditionalism: “this is how it’s always been done”. Well okay. Good luck with that. Reminds me of Robert Frank’s comments in the 70s on why he quit making photographs and mostly quit looking at them; that all he saw were people trying to do the same thing that same way it had always been done.

    Basically, shoot how you want, but don’t try to authorize other people’s work in a field based on a facile traditionalism that was explicitly rejected by at least one of the “old masters”.

  • Tomasz Kulbowski

    Come on, it’s not “my theory”! Look at the albums, or even work published online – most of it, and I mean MOST, was done with non-tele photo lens. Give me names of respected street photographers working with tele and for each one I will give you 20 of those using wider angles (not necessarily 24mm, which I personally find too wide). And I don’t only mean “old masters” – look at In-Public, Un-Posed, Momentum, Burn My Eye, and many others.

    All I’m saying is since SP became so popular (especially last 5 years) a lot of people tries to stretch it’s borders according to their own preferences. If you want to use tele – be my guest! If you want to shoot posed scenes, tight portraits of people looking into camera, or urban landscapes, or architecture, or empty streets at night at long exposure – feel free to do it! But do you REALLY have to call it SP? If so, why?

    I’m all but traditional – I’m a big fan of “Street Photography Now” album (do you know it?), In-Public collective, and all the SP-related experiments, if they are justified by the authors vision and purpose. I’ve got an impression, that in most cases the use of tele is simply a result of laziness and looking for excuse not to go closer. And this to me, is a waste. Of course there are examples of a great, intentional and effective use of tele in SP, and there is a room for any focal length, aperture, process and format – from mobile phone to large format. As long as it’s justified by the photographer and his vision, or certain circumstances. But I don’t think it’s enough to make a general rule and define SP on base of it.

    Regarding the historical circumstances – actually tele lenses were available since 1920-30’s, so looks like it was an intentional choice of wider angles. Which is no surprise and I know it from my own practice: tele is much less practical in public spaces, that’s it.

    I’m not interested in discussing “what would happen IF”, because it’s pointless. And I honestly don’t want to go to war with tele users, so don’t feel offended. Tele is great!!! ;). Neither I want to “authorize” anything. Just want to make a note under this article, that there is another way of street photography work, it wasn’t invented by me, it’s not owned by me, it is older than last decade and justified by hundreds of great names and thousands of photos, both old and new.

    By the way – are you a practicing street photographer, or are you speaking form a theoretical/viewer point of view? Just curious…

  • Paul Donohoe

    A long lens is really just a lens. Nothing cowardly about using it at all…physical “closeness” is not the only kind of closeness. it is absurd to think that it is not valid “street photography” if one uses a long lens. And if you think that people don’t see you with a short lens up close, then sorry but you’re an idiot. If you think you are completely invisible with a long lens or any other kind of lens on the street, then sorry you are also an idiot. Not meaning to be harsh here, just let’s get over ourselves shall we? Let’s ask ourselves WHY do we do street photography. If it’s to boost your ego, great, use a lens in people’s faces. You might even get punched. And then you’re a hero. Or you can record the daily lives of the so called ordinary people in the best and most compassionate, understading and sensitive way you can. And that means with whatever lens you think works for wht it is you are trying to do

  • Paul Donohoe

    getting up CLOSE with a WIDE lens always gives you context? sorry but that is meaningless waffle. It MIGHT give you context, but if you use a long lens from afar, then yes you can lose context..but not always.

  • Paul Donohoe

    so Vlad…what you are saying is “I am a stupid human being and I don’t care”…what a sad thing to say about yourself

  • Paul Donohoe

    I agree!!! a voice of reason and sanity!!! I also think SP Is about the people we photograph, They seem to get forgotten in these ego mostly male macho discussions about “close” or not close.

  • Paul Donohoe

    That’s why some do it..and wait till Everbody street or whatever the crap is called comes out…everyone will want a bloody nose to be called a “real” street photographer…

  • Paul Donohoe

    exactly! time for some decency..empathy with other people, respect for them and their rights and love for the art. No more BS macho stuff!!

  • Johncarnell

    your comments have zero merit.

  • DG

    Is it not macho of you to flip out as well?
    All these perspectives of photography are lame. Too much thinking, not enough feeling and shooting.

  • Frank Larsen

    cowardly,? how bout expand your horizon a little and go for a 14mm instead, seems like you need it.

  • mjfab

    Massive ….they’re talking about short tele… 90-100mm equivalent in fullframe. Get a micro four thirds camera and any nifty 50 film lens and you get 100mm. Compared to a 35mm lens it is small!

  • mjfab

    Love the article…..i started learning street photography and understood the basic principles of said genre. I’m a m4/3 user and use old nifty fifty’s and i enjoy shooting everthing with it.
    For photographers to go as far as to bad mouth and tag other photographers bec. of the difference in opinion is just plain sad. For arguement sake, i’ m now a travel photographer from now on, just to keep those purist at bay. I enjoy photography too much to be ploticised.

    Isn’t photography in essence a form of voyeurism in itself.

  • Eolake Stobblehouse

    Wonderful article, brave and articulate.