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