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

  • Vlad Dusil

    If your goal is to expand your horizon, then don’t distance yourself from the subject and scene by means of using a tele lens. Get a <35mm equiv lens and get CLOSE. A wide lens will always place the subject in context with its surroundings, isn't that what street is all about?

    Using long focal lengths in street shooting is cowardly and somewhat voyeuristic. It may add a false sense of ease for the shy amateur, but with experience the shooter should aim to get closer and more intimate.

  • Marco

    I think a photographer should use any tool at their disposal to convey whatever idea or feeling they are trying to re create, whether its a different lens or colour/black and white choice.

  • OSAM

    Did you read the article? At all?

    To each their own, but to openly dismiss an entire, well-written article as WRONG because you don’t agree with it… that’s plain stupid.

  • Samuel

    I think these are the kinds of rules that serve only to limit creativity, if you can convey the raw scene as you see it with your eyed in a photo it shouldn’t matter what tools are used to create it.

  • Dane

    I think the main thing to take away from this article is this: 35mm and 50mm (essentially wide) focal lengths are common amongst street photographers for good reason. These allow you to better give the subject a place in the scene and a sense of intimacy to the viewer, since the photographer was right there with them. However, sometimes getting so close to get the shot can disrupt it and you might lose the moment and the intended photograph.

    So occasionally a telephoto lens can come in handy to grab those shots where you might have disrupted what you wanted to capture or, the common use for a telephoto lens, when you cannot physically get any closer to the subject to frame it as you want. It’s something you’re likely to use sparingly, but you’ll be glad you did if it’s the difference between getting the shot or not.

    Clearly it’s not something to use all the time, but it’s not something to rule out altogether.

  • Jason Boyd

    Art knows no rules. Create however you choose to create and share it with the world. Those who are known across the globe for their creativity and beautiful art are not known because they followed the rules, they are known for their work itself. And I’ll bet you a weeks pay that they weren’t worried about following all of the rules. Creativity knows no boundaries!

  • napilopez

    This is certainly a large part of it, but I do hope tio illustrate there can even be compositional advantages to using a telephoto lens, such as its different presentation of depth. It doesn’t suddenly render it better or more practical than a wide lens, but I certainly believe it can be different and useful in its own right. One just has to use these advantages to craft a story, rather than submitting to simple voyeurism or cowardice.

  • Streeter

    All these rules and sh*t. Shoot with what makes you comfortable, be it wide or tele. A tele is not gonna ‘remove you from the scene’ or a wide is gonna ‘pull you not a scene’. It all depends on the photographer and his choice or framing, composition and all the other factors that work together to create a scene.

  • Vlad Dusil

    Nope. Skimmed it, but apparently did a poor job at it. :D

    My feelings on street shooting still stand.

  • #payphoneography

    interesting read…. happy to see a couple payphones in there too

  • briscophoto

    Good advice. Closer is usually better but not always. iThere have been times when a scene occurred so fast and I was too close. I wish I had been further away.

  • Tzctplus -

    Photography is voyeuristic. That is the whole point of talking pictures.

    I don’t see why one has to be “brave” to take pictures, in many situations is pure bravado that has nothing to do with an aesthetic vision and more with how nacho some photographers feel.

  • eraserhead12

    Slightly unrelated, but I love how a still image of a person can be oh-so misconstrued–often as a depressing glimpse of the inherent sorrow of the human condition. Which street photogs seem to love.

    Like that guy on the subway. He’s probably just tired, looking down for a second, taking a quick semi-nap before his train comes. Not suicidal or perpetually weighed down by the burdens on his shoulders. But the photographer standing ten feet away from him sees an opportunity, and distorts the mood with high-contrast B&W to make the scene look ever-so desolate and raw.

    I see this a LOT with street photographers and old people. They snap a pic of an unsuspecting old person and HDR the hell out of them–BAM! those wrinkles = all the sadness of age and death.

  • eraserhead12

    I’ve had a few negative experiences with street photographers.

    One was walking opposite from me, and as soon as he was 3 feet from my face, he whipped out his dslr and fired rapidly as we were still walking.. and didn’t say a word after or acknowledge how obnoxious that was. I would have MUCH preferred him to be like, 10 feet away, instead of ‘up in my face’.

    Don’t confuse “cowardliness” with common decency and respect for personal space.

  • lidocaineus

    I mostly agree with the article (having shot street photography for more than a decade) though I think some of these comments are a little too aggressive on the “screw the rules” idea. Rules ARE meant to be broken… after you understand why the rules are in place to begin with. They’re there to give you a basic foundation of things like composition and light. Imagine giving a beginner a camera and no basis for anything, and wondering why their images don’t look good, except when they occasionally get lucky – they’ve be frustrated and probably stop shooting.

    As for the article, one thing it doesn’t mention is that when you crop down a wide angle to act like a telephoto like the 40mm crowd shot, you sometimes have to crop so much you destroy resolution. This may not be a big deal for shots you post on the web, but as soon as you want to make a nice sized print you’ll run into problems enlarging and losing details.

    Personal opinion: the Manhattan shot would’ve really lent itself to black and white, due to the often repeating patterns in the fence and the buildings, not to mention the colors are really washed out due to the lighting conditions.

  • napilopez

    You know, funny thing is, I’ve actually gotten this comment a couple of times on that very photo. Yet in that case the person was very visibly sad. Was sitting there like that for minutes, sobbing. I actually feel guilty for taking that picture. But I took it nevertheless.

    As I mentioned, unlike many street shooters I take my time to compose my images, and try to get an understanding of my subjects before the shot, which is actually something I think a tele can aid in, if used properly.

    While what you say is very true in many instances, much in the same way adding certain background music can completely alter the mood of a video, it’s also important to not be overly skeptical.

  • eraserhead12

    True. But part of my point is that the still image would have looked *exactly* the same whether he was sobbing or just putting his head down out of exhaustion/boredom–it’s the way you framed the image and added post-processing that dramatized the mood.

    I guess what I’m saying is, when it comes to street photography of ordinary people/events, often times the framing of the shot and the post-processing matter more than what actually took place. Even if that mood was present at the time, as it was for that man, the framing/PP help dramatize/isolate/distort/focus on it.

    And since the type of lens is integral to how an image is framed–especially with depth of field–naturally what you’re saying about telephoto lenses makes sense.

    (on the topic of ethics–eye contact certainly helps, but some sort of polite smile or head nod would really do wonders. otherwise, just staring at someone after you stuck a camera in their face could come off as rude).

  • eraserhead12

    Don’t confuse ‘cowardliness’ with basic decency.

    Sticking a camera RIGHT in front of someone’s face comes off as obnoxious and rude, not ‘intimate’. I’ve had this happen to me. A guy literally stuck a camera in my face and held the shutter down for like 20 frames. Them walked away, without any acknowledgement.

    That is more alarming/upsetting/voyeuristic than someone taking a photo from far away, who you probably won’t see. Most importantly, if they’re far away, you won’t really know if you’re the subject of the image. People know street photographers exist, they’re a mainstay in big cities.

  • napilopez

    Ahh I see what you mean bit more now. It certainly is a concern, but I guess the best we can do is try to portray things as honestly as we can, in such cases.

    I agree about the nod.

  • eraserhead12

    Like you said in your article, the topic of ethics really deserves its own discussion. One thing I struggle with defining is, when is it ok to take a photo? At what point does it become unnecessarily exploitative and intrusive? Certainly photojournalism is important because it helps spread awareness, like all those photographers snapping pics a yard away from that dead Haitian girl.

    You said you felt guilt after snapping a pic of that man sobbing. Since I personally don’t engage in street photography of individuals, I wouldn’t feel right taking that picture. I’m in no way against you taking that photo–and it does make for a great image–but where would you draw the line? I don’t at all mean this to be offensive, but would you take photos of someone heavily disfigured, or seriously wounded? Would you bother the homeless without really acknowledging them as people? Would you feel comfortable if you just found out terrible news, and noticed someone taking pics of you in your grief?

    I was on campus a year ago and saw paramedics putting someone on a stretcher–standing right next to them was a young student happily snapping away and buzzing like a vulture, exciting for the semi-rare photo op. I think that was a definite no-no, but for other situations I can’t say where the line draws.

  • napilopez

    I agree about the rules things. The rules are guidelines, and are important. It’s good to break them once in a while, but always with reverance for their significant.

    I also agree about cropping. I mean, I’d rather not crop. That case was one where I simply didn’t want to change my lens since, as you can probably tell, the situation was kind of messy XD I used it more because it still demonstrated the compression effect I wanted.

    As for the Manhattan shot, I have a B&W version, but actually preferred this one, I thought it was interesting how the person’s clothing colors seemed to coincide with the shades of the buildings, particularly the woman in yellow and cyan.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  • Neoracer Xox

    What about upskirt shots?!

  • phil

    i agree, rules are made to be least in photography :)

  • ceebee

    First, it is not smart to violate a rule that doesn’t exist.
    Second, the pictures prove that the author is not a particularly successful photographer.

  • keru

    My best friend for street photo is a 105mm macro :)

  • Kapil

    I liked the article ! Diff perspective. Earlier I was quite big on telephoto lenses, but after starting Street Photography, prime lenses or being in extm short distance with the subject came to the fore ( which I found little uncomfortable at first ) I slowly got used to it and now like going closer to the subject with 24 or 28 ( 50mm or more, I find it little constricted, maybe I am wrong ) since I prefer capturing more of human reactions in conjunction with street scenes.
    Having said that, if a particular shot requires a certain focal length, why not ? The only diff I see between a 24/28/50 mm etc and tele lens is different reactions ( not necc ) from your subjects. But depending on what shot/scene it is, if required, I wouldn’t mind using a tele lens.

  • napilopez

    It’s such a delicate issue that I don’t think will ever be resolved. That particular photo was early in my photographic journey, about 3 months after I had bought my first camera. It’s normally the type of street photo I wouldn’t take. I don’t like taking pictures of sad people. But there was something so harrowing about the way the person looked, the image was already ingrained in my mind. I figured I might as well capture it too.

    I think I wouldn’t mind being taken pictures of in my grief, but only post-photography. Before I’d at least feel a bit uncomfortable with it.

  • Tomasz Kulbowski

    Napier, I don’t agree that question “what is street photography?” is controversial, I think the definition or borders of this genre (or style/method…) are well known and was defined mainly by the thousands of photographs taken over the years. Nevertheless street photography is probably still the most misunderstood genre, and your article proves it, sorry. The main reason why you should avoid using tele lens is to get this sense of being close to the scene, witnessing the events, being within the crowd, etc. And that’s got nothing to do with being intrusive of course (photographer’s ethics is another subject!). You simply can’t do it with tele – it will always give a sense of isolation, safari-like safe distance observation or peeping. I actually find THIS intrusive and “not fair”!

    Nothing wrong about using tele lens of course, but there’s no point in calling this street photography. Also because none of the photos illustrating the article is really a street photography (maybe except for the golfer and the builder). I see there some nice travel photography, photo journalism, and photos taken on the street, which doesn’t automatically make them street photography! By the way, I find some of your framing a bit too tight, so wider lens could actually help ;)

    Napier, I appreciate your effort and time spent on this article and I don’t want to go on for a 1000th time on defining route, or proving anything and defending the “true SP”. Instead I say let the images do the talking and I highly recommend a detailed and insightful lecture of some classic photographs or at least “Street Photography Now” album by Sophie Howarth et Stephen MacLaren. This is not to define the genre, but to see where it starts! :) This could become a nice base to discuss how street photography evolves to reflect complex reality, changes depending on a space, new approaches, etc – isn’t it more more interesting then another exercise in “defining”?

  • ferhlopez

    Crap photos, sorry.

  • Charlie McNulty

    Agree 100% with Streeter. Some of the comments on this post remind me of why I seldom visit photography forums. I often use a zoom lens for the street. Horror of horrors!! But if thinks it beats shoving a camera with a flash going off right into the “subject’s” face. That to me is a real horror.

  • shashinka

    Good article. I agree with what most of your article said. Maybe, I come from a different background as I was a former combat photojournalist, and newspaper photographer with the school of thought, that the photographer is there to record the news and not become part of it. If one becomes to close to the action, they can either deliberate or inadvertently alter the scene.

    Over the years it feels like street photography has grown from just that, street photography in to urban portraiture, or street portraiture, to which I find sad. I have grown annoyed with the arrogance of the type of snobery I have seen in recent years with the notion of certain rules, and type of gear that has to be used to shoot. Old school rule of thumb was, the best gear you have is what you have at the moment.

    At the current moment, I use wides, and normal glass for street, if I had any tele for my RF cameras, I would use those too, but to state using tele’s as cowardly, I would gravely disagree. I would love to see the macho shooter out there walk up to some of the street gangs, rebels and thugs, both in the US, Japan and abroad, I’ve encountered with a 35mm lens and see how far you can make it before being mowed down.

    However, I do agree with the said statements about just being too in people’s faces with a lens, all in the name of art, People really do disregard personal space these days. (hence my preference to a 45/50mm range)

    Another commenter had stated using a tele (to create telecompression) is a lie because it alters the perspective is bunk, and if were true, ever media person who has ever zoomed a lens or had to shoot from a safe spot (war, fire, or any other hazardous situation) is a lie, is just plain laughable. This hold especially true, if we are only talking about a 90 or a 135mm lens.

    I could see some points of the no-zoom/tele argument if we were talking about a 200 or 300mm lens with a TC but short teles, mounted on a huge dSLR. But short teles have as much place in street photography as those who shoot with 20, 24, or 28mm glass.

    For all the wide angle only types out there, unless you’re just trying to impress other street “hobbyists” on Flickr or Bruce Gilden, then limit yourself to the wide angles and snarky comments. For everyone else, shoot with whatever gear you have at the time.

  • Kodachrome64

    I guess I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to street photography and I love the look of a wide lens used close up. I’m not going to be arrogant and say longer lenses absolutely can’t be used for street, but honestly I rarely see a shot taken with a telephoto lens that is as interesting. I even sold my 70-200mm 2.8L just because I find the focal range so boring. It was a great lens but I would take a 35mm any day over it no matter what I’m shooting.

  • Jared

    We like to think that photography is honest and truthful; That we are presenting an objective view of the world, as it was, when we shoot street. As the author stated, by being too close we often interfere with the scene, and truth is compromised. While I agree with the idea of “being in a moment” and getting intimate, it’s hard to deny that shooting wide angle involves getting close, and when people notice me shooting the moment becomes skewed.

    An 80mm or 90mm is a fair compromise. Being a few feet further has situational advantages, can produce results that are technically and aesthetically unique, and just may be more polite than the snap and run that many photogs employ.

  • Mansgame

    All I can say is that photographers already have a bad reputation and are getting banned from more and more places. This won’t help.

  • lidocaineus

    What does this comment even mean? The author of the article is advocating using longer focal length lenses to be more discreet. Or are you saying we should be more considerate when using shorter focal lengths? News flash: most street photographers ARE considerate – unless you’re Bruce Gilden, most photographers will gladly talk to people if asked what they’re doing and try to be unobtrusive and polite.

  • Nick

    Thanks for the article, Napier. I think you brought up some really valid points, particularly regarding using longer lenses to allow the scene to remain as you first saw it, rather than changing it by having your subject notice you before you shoot. I don’t think that there’s anything particularly ‘cowardly’ about this – it allows you to capture life on the street as it is, not as you have made it by your presence. I am personally a little tired of seeing street portraits that are a series of ‘old man looking surprised’, ‘middle-aged woman looking surprised’, ‘child looking surprised’ etcetera…I would like to capture a greater diversity of faces!

  • Gokhan Cukurova

    if the photo tells a story, it tells a story… 21mm or 90mm.

  • Scott Simpson

    The more nacho the photographer, the more cheesed the subject is likely to be.

  • Oliver

    If the images taken with a telephoto lens here were actually any good (there not!), I may have given this article some credence. However again we have someone who cannot create a good street image try and justify there crap by saying that they are taking a different path.
    I’m happy for people to try new things, its how we get artistic growth, but if you want to justify why your approach gives something unique and adds to the genre, you need to prove it. And prove it by showing a series of images that demonstrates the approach works. The images in this series are not street photography, nor do they have any artistic merit what-so-ever. They are simply happy snaps!
    It is clear that Napier Lopez is an amatuer at the very beginning of photography, that has not studied photography and does not understand what photography is beyond the happy snap. I’d suggest in future that Napier do his research and actually understand the Genre he wishes to write about, before posting another ridiculous article with absolutely zero merit again.

  • Tomasz Kulbowski

    Nick, I don’t thing using longer lenses is a recipe for a good candid and “as you first saw it” street photography. It’s absolutely possible to capture the scene without interrupting, changing or influencing it by your presence. It’s not the easiest way, but it’s possible. Look at all the classics and modern serious street photographers – I don’t think many of them would go above 50mm. I agree with what you said, this is my approach and my target too – to capture reality as it happens, not the one being the reaction to my presence or my camera. Most of my photos were taken with 24, 35 or 50mm or full frame – I’ve learned it over the years and wouldn’t go back (I mean to longer lenses), it works perfectly. And I don’t feel like I’m an intruder, all those “surprised-face” portraits are not the only way to do street photography. I would even say it’s marginal.

    Agreeing to use of tele in street photography, we might as well agree to shoot it in continues mode, or make videos and screen-shot the photos from it, or shoot hi-res and heavily crop it after… All this makes some things easier for some people, but is this still a street photography?

  • Tomasz Kulbowski

    I agree – there’s nothing wrong with using tele (or zoom) lenses on the street, or any other public space. Let’s just not call it street photography, not in the context of this article anyway.

    Also, there is a (huuuge) middle ground – you don’t need to go to extremes: close “in you face” Gilden-style vs safari-like shooting from a safe and distant point. I think both are inappropriate for street photography and luckily are marginal, if you look at serious street photography made over the past Century…

  • branimir

    this is a great article. thank you so much

  • napilopez

    Hi Tomasz, thank you for your well articulated thoughts.

    However, I fundamentally disagree with a couple of them. Mainly, that you don’t want to define the genre. I think in order to talk about it we need to start with at least a somewhat mutual understanding of what it is! Otherwise, we’re just talking about different things and our debate becomes one over semantics, not the subject itself. For example, if someone had an *extremely* strict definition of street photography, they might say it must be done at 50mm, in black and white, in a city environment. Anything in color is no longer a street photo. Most people allow for some flexibility here, but I know a few who use precisely that defition

    That’s certainly traditional, but I find it oh so limiting. You mention that some of my photos are travel photos rather than street, for example. Why is this? Those photos were taken in the Dominican Republic, where I lived half my life; they are photos from the daily life of my second home, not “travel” photography to me. I don’t see how that differs from photos taken in NYC, for example.

    I guess the thing for me is that I think of street photography more as carrying a certain “spirit” rather than aesthetic. I believe the original street photographers didn’t use the focal lengths they did because they necessarily thought they were the only ones they could use aesthetically. Rather, it was because these focal lengths were simply more practical(especially on rangefinders). I find it very hard to believe that if they had the technology and options available today, some of the greater street photographers wouldn’t experiment with longer(or wider) focal lengths as well.

    Again, are we really limiting ourselves so much that anything above 55mm or so can no longer be a street photo? Once more, portrait photographers now use wider focal lengths for their portraiture too, and we still call them portraits. Perhaps not traditional portraits, but portraits nevertheless, because they tell you something about the subject.

    That said, how do you define street photography?

  • napilopez

    It’s fine if you don’t like the photos! Some did, some didn’t. I did say you might think they suck, after all. Not much I can do about that.

    In that light, I’m curious as to why you think they are not street photography(what a photo needs to have in order to count as street photography), and why you think they don’t hold artistic merit(what you qualify as artistic)? I don’t ask in order to simply counter you and defend my ego, but rather because I take insightful criticism to heart for my own growth.

    I will say, however, that I’ve done more than my fair share of research, did some additional before posting, and continue to do afterwards. I still stand by my points, regardless of my images.

  • napilopez

    Thank you for your thoughts, I appreciate the knowledge coming from someone with so much experience. I agree with the comments about much street photography consisting of only urban portraiture nowadays(regardless of the focal length used). Despite using telephoto lenses, that’s precisely what I’m trying to avoid. Not that there is anything wrong with urban portraiture, but it seems to be different in spirit to what I normally think of as street photography.

  • Tomasz Kulbowski

    Hi Napier, thanks for your response!

    The only reason why I didn’t want to define the genre (if it is a genre – but that’s another subject), is that I believe street photography is already well defined by the years of practice of many photographers and their work. And I don’t only mean classics like Cartier-Bresson, excuse my French ;) Are you familiar with the “Street Photography Now” book? I can’t recommended enough – best collection of contemporary street photography I know! Or the work of photographers from In-Public collective? I guess it could be just easier to let the images do the talking ;)

    Regarding your photos – I find them much closer to travel photography or photojournalism because they are showing the everyday life, just as street photography does, and you have a certain mood captured as well as the surroundings, etc, which is cool. But otherwise it’s just a man walking on the bridge, man sitting, backs of people standing… Sorry, I can’t find any twist there, any anecdote or a story, that “decisive moment” which makes the captured scene unique and hard (or impossible) to repeat – and this, to me, makes street photography. I’m thinking about all those visual rhymes, unexpected symbols, mixed layers of perspective, new meanings that arise from within the ordinary (at first glance) scene.

    The man sitting – would be interesting as a part of reportage or a bigger story, if he was homeless, or hard working cowing back from work, etc. But as a standalone photo it doesn’t say much to me.

    Photo with the hands up (Holi Festival?), man with the horse, boy in the sea – these could be taken in France, Australia or New York, they would still be travel photographs to me. And by travel I don’t mean taken abroad or on holiday – the same way as street photography doesn’t have to be taken on the street at all. I find some of your photos a bit too tightly composed – especially man with the horse, golfer, group by the river – could use some more space, i.e. wider lens ;)

    I like the golfer actually – there’s a certain “weirdness” to that scene – makes you ask yourself what is going on there? And the three pairs of legs are a bonus :) This, to me, is the closest one to street photography. I’d love to see it in colour though! The builder is really cool too – I like how you played with the perspective and all the angular shapes, he seems like holding this massive structure… It takes a moment to read this photo, it somehow engages you… I like it!

    I really don’t think it’s all just down to numbers written on your lens, but I believe it’s crucial to witness the scene, to be somehow immersed in it, be a part of the moment you’re about to capture. Tele lens isolates you, makes you a hidden and distant “hunter”. The flattened and limited perspective of longer lenses doesn’t help either… Also focal lengths like 35 or 50mm are much closer to our eye’s natural field of view, put’s more context (surrounding) in the frame, which makes the photograph “less artificial” to our perception, if you know what I mean.

    Like I said in one of my earlier comments below – longer lens might seem to be “easier” to use on the street, especially at the beginning (I think it’s not as limits your field of view!), but photography is not about making things easier… I mean you can, of course, but in this case – it seriously affects the final result (a photo), up to the point where I simply wouldn’t call it a street photography anymore.

    You can find a lot of photos taken on the streets, wrongly described as street photography these days, we all know how misunderstood and mistaken this genre is (the name itself is misleading enough!). I’m not on a mission to correct or on a crusade to convert anyone, but I found your article insightful and I just thought It would be a good place to leave a little mark, a sign which says “there is another way of seeing and practicing street photography” ;)

  • Keenan ThePhotographer Adams

    Sure, but dont show your work to everyone.

  • WWWL

    Why talk about focal length so much when you are cropping the hell out every focallength you use.

    Basically what you are talking about is the compression that a tele gives.

    Which for a lot of people (but certainly not all) gives a sort of distance /distant feeling to the photograph while wideangle gives you a closer (more intimate) feel (When you dont crop the crap out of it of course).


    If you use a 28mm and crop the picture in PP so that it looks like it could have been made with a 35 – 50 or maybe even 85mm… why emphasize the discussion on focallength so much?

    I think focal length is much more important when you choose not to crop heavily.

    So I can only partially agree on your statement: “it doesn’t matter what type of lens you are using”. There is no right or wrong, I agree, but it gives a very different kind of image (when u dont crop). So it does matter imo.

    IMO wider lenses work better with street, but there are some exceptions.

  • WWWL

    “using longer lenses to allow the scene to remain as you first saw it”

    How are you able to see things with a tele FOV? Do you have eyes with different focal length than the rest of the human beings on this earth? We have a FOV which is much wider than tele (50mm = standard, so lets call everything above 50mm (short) tele).

    Just use a unobtrusive camera instead of your big DSLR. That will help you to capture scenes like you first saw them… not a big tele as you are unable to see tele yourself.

  • Joe

    Well, I got into a fight once, so I said it’s not worth it, I’ll use a telephoto lens when needed. Now if I was working for a newspaper or Magnum, no problem, I can always show my ID. Maybe I’ll make a fake one one day :)