For street photography the choice of cameras and lenses is, simply put, huge. So where do we start? What IS the best lens for street photography?
Whilst a lot of talented street photographers use camera phones or compact cameras for street photography and do a great job at it, this article will focus on prime lenses and the various focal lengths available to the street photographer using interchangeable lens systems. We’ll discuss how the choice affects everything from how the shot is created to how it affects how the final images look.
Why Are Prime Lenses Better?
I personally prefer prime lenses for my urban photographs and I think I can say most photographers would as well. Prime lenses have a fixed focal, they cannot zoom, instead you just have to get closer or further away to adjust your frame and composition. This has its limitations (at times frustrations) but also many benefits.
Fixed focal lenses are usually smaller and lighter than their zooming counterparts since they have fewer elements which make then ideal if you wish to reduce the bulk of your equipment.
Prime lenses are generally sharper and optically superior by the simplicity of their design. There are no moving elements and fewer layers of glass than in zooms therefore light gets to the sensor with less degradation.
Often they’ll be faster lenses allowing for wider aperture (sometimes as far as f0.95) whereas many zooms are limited to f2.8.
The benefit of this is a much shallower depth of field than you’d get with zooms, ideal for (street) portraits as the shallow depth of field isolates the subject.
Another key benefit is the possibility to shoot handheld in low light without having to crank up the ISO resulting in lower image quality or slow down the shutter too dramatically resulting in unwanted motion blur.
What is the Best Lens for Street Photography Then?
Should I use a 35mm or 50mm for shooting in the streets? Opinions are divided and it’s, as with everything, a matter of tastes. In fact, it isn’t just limited to 35 or 50, as some well respected street photographers experiment with other focal lengths for a less conventional look.
Anything Below 35mm
Wide lenses that are below 35mm in street photography can be seen as more difficult to use. You’re shooting people and you want them to be the main focal point in your photo. In order for this to happen with anything under 35mm you’ll need to be really close, kind of “in their face”. Some still argue that a 24mm is great for street work. I don’t but it doesn’t mean it’s not worth exploring.
Each to their own, I personally prefer to keep a reasonable distance out of respect for my subjects (read my article on street photography ethics), it makes me more comfortable.
That doesn’t mean it cannot yield interesting results. Street photographer Willem Jonkers for example often shoots street photography with a fisheye. The results are indeed very interesting (because he does it so well) but far from a real life representation. It’s worth checking his website.
Arguably the most used focal length by street photographers. I personally still find it a tad too wide and also not as flattering as a 50mm. If used in portraits it still doesn’t in my opinion show the person as they are. With a 35mm you still have to be a bit aggressive in your street photography, a bit too much in people’s faces. It’s not a lens that gives me the most pleasure as I just enjoy keeping a certain distance to my subject (as in: not inside their nostril).
Having said that I did capture an entire series spanning an entire year, “The Great Londoners” using a 35mm lens.
When on occasions I do use a 35mm, since I shoot with mirrorless, my favourites are:
- Voigtlander Nokton 17.5mm (35mm FF equivalent) f.95 for Micro Four Thirds
- M.zuiko 17mm (35mm FF equivalent) f1.8 for Micro Four Thirds
- 35mm f1.4 Distagon FE for Sony A7 mirrorless such as the A7RII.
These were shot using a 35mm at about two metres from the subject:
50mm (AKA The ‘Nifty’ Fifty)
The 50mm is, for me, the ideal street photography lens. Actually it’s an ideal lens full stop.
It has the most applications of any focal and hence why they are often referred to as the “nifty fifty”, the versatile lens. If you have to buy one lens only, my advice is go for the fifty. There is barely any distortion as opposed to the 35mm. It feels just right.
My favourites are:
The Pana Leica 25mm (50mm FF equivalent) and the Voigtlander Nokton 50mm f/1.5, which uses a Leica M mount but with an adapter I can use it on my Sony A7RII.
Here’s a shot taken with the Nokton 50mm and A7RII, I was inside a pub and yet managed a close shot, in my opinion a 35mm would have been too wide:
Greater than 50mm
Beyond 50mm you’ll be struggling a bit as often it’ll be too tight a crop and you’ll find yourself moving back… back… back… until you eventually hit a wall. Of course, for anyone intimidated by shooting strangers, it’s helpful but maybe too helpful and you’ll probably be far too detached from the scene you are shooting and the whole point is to sometimes get out of your comfort zone, be a little more immersed.
There are, however, times where you need a longer focal. It could be to shoot the street from a certain elevation or across the street saving you from getting run over by traffic whilst standing in the middle of the road.
The shot below was shot with a 90mm lens. I could only be on the other side of the street because of traffic and didn’t want to heavily crop so it was a good choice on that occasion.
And this next shot, being on top of a fairly high bridge, I needed a longer focal to get such a close shot:
Having written this, I have to say I keep going back and forth between 35 and 50mm. They both are interesting to use and any street photographer should probably own both of them.
Can’t quite remember who said it, but I like this quote:
You date your cameras, but your marry your lenses.
This says it all. Choose glass wisely, even if you upgrade your camera every year or two or three, great lenses will remain great lenses.
About the author: Nicholas Goodden is a London-based photographer specializing in urban photography, street photography, and micro video content such as cinemagraphs and timelapse. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can see his work on his website or by following him on Facebook, Instagram, and here.
Image credits: Header image by Mk2010.