As of early 2017, my only camera is the Ricoh GR II, which has a fixed-focal 28mm lens. I wanted to share my personal experiences shooting with a 28mm lens, after shooting with a 35mm lens for almost 6 years.
I still recommend 35mm for most street photographers
First of all, I still think that a 35mm “full-frame equivalent” focal length is ideal for most street photographers. Why? Apparently the human eye sees around a 40mm perspective. Shooting 35mm gives us a little more wideness than our natural perspective.
I started off shooting street photography on a 50mm “full-frame equivalent” focal length (copying Henri Cartier-Bresson), but I found that in today’s world, 50mm is just too tight and restrictive. My theory is that the world and streets were less crowded back in Cartier-Bresson’s time, so a 50mm suited him for most of his needs. Also, when Henri Cartier-Bresson traveled to India (a much more crowded atmosphere) he shot almost everything on a 35mm lens.
Shooting with a 28mm lens on a point-and-shoot camera is practically the same as shooting 35mm on a camera with a viewfinder.
Well, when I’m shooting with a point and shoot camera, I extend my arms closer to my subject. Therefore I can get closer to my subject with a 28mm lens, simply by extending my arm.
However, when I’m shooting with a camera with a viewfinder, I need to bring up the camera directly to my face. Therefore, I need to stand much closer to my subject when shooting street photography with a 35mm lens.
Why did I start shooting 28mm?
For a long time, I kept my Ricoh GR II’s function 2 button (fn2) to 28mm/35mm crop mode. Which means, every time I clicked the ‘fn2’ button, the camera would crop in to a 35mm point-of-view. I did this because I was so used to the 35mm focal length, and found it a lot more natural than shooting 28mm (the native focal length for the Ricoh GR II).
However, I started to notice that the 35mm cropped focal length was too close for most of my photos. I wasn’t quite sure why this was the case until I figured out that I was extending my arm when shooting street photography with the Ricoh.
That’s when I started to embrace the normal 28mm focal length, and I’ve been having a lot of fun.
The challenge of shooting 28mm in street photography
To start off, 28mm is more challenging in street photography because you need to get closer to your subject in order to fill the frame, and in order for you to have less clutter on the edges of the frame.
I know for myself, I love a lot of the street photos from history shot on a wide-angle lens (around 28mm). I love the wide-angle photos shot by Josef Koudelka in his ‘Gypsies’ book (shot on a film SLR and a 25mm lens), as well as the edgy dynamic street photos of Garry Winogrand (who shot on a 28mm lens). I am also a big fan of Charlie Kirk’s photos—he shot all his work on a film rangefinder and 28mm lens.
I think one of the best ways to avoid boredom in your photography is to constantly challenge yourself. When I first started to shoot 28mm, it was very unnatural. I got a lot of distortion on the edges of the frame, which I wasn’t used to.
Not only that, the 28mm forced me to shoot really close to my subjects—I mean, really close. All of my street portraits of late have been shot at 28mm, in macro mode on the Ricoh GR II, in P mode, with the flash. The camera was probably 20 centimeters away from the subjects when I shot those photos.
For typical ‘candid’ street photography, I recommend shooting at least one arm’s length away from your subject in order to produce dynamic, edgy, and interesting street photograph (at 28mm). That is usually 0.7 meters, which also happens to be the minimum-focusing distance of the Leica and many rangefinders.
28mm gives you more depth in your street photography
One of the biggest benefits of shooting with a 28mm lens is that you get more depth of field—meaning, more of your photos are sharp and in-focus.
I think bokeh (shooting wide-open, having the blurry background) is one of the most overrated things in photography. It doesn’t take skill to take a photograph at f/1.4 and blur out the background. I think a great street photograph should have an interesting subject and an interesting background. People (myself included) often over-emphasize the subject in street photography, and disregard the background. Shooting at f/8-f/16 allows us to have both the subject and background in-focus.
Shooting at f/8 with a 28mm lens means almost everything is in focus. Which is more challenging and difficult. If you have a cluttered or distracting background, your photos won’t work. Therefore, it is a constant dance between having a clear foreground and subject, while having an interesting (yet not over-cluttered) background.
Shoot head-on with a 28mm lens in street photography
Furthermore, shooting with a 28mm lens means that you have to shoot quite head-on to your subjects.
If you shoot at 28mm from the side, the photos lack intimacy and a dynamic energy. If you are shooting candid street photography (without permission) with a 28mm lens, you essentially need to almost bump into people (head on) if you want to make dynamic images.
Pre-focus to 1.2 meters
If you are going to pre-focus and shoot street photography with a 28mm lens, I recommend 1.2 meters (about 2 arm lengths away) as a pretty good default distance. And if you shoot in aperture-priority mode at f/8, at ISO 1600, you are pretty much guaranteed to get most of your frame sharp and in-focus.
For me on the Ricoh GR II (to keep things simple) I just shoot in “P” mode (program mode, which automatically chooses your aperture and shutter speed), use center-point autofocus, and ISO 1600. Because the Ricoh GR II has a 28mm focal length, almost everything is always in focus. And because it is an APS-C crop sensor, I get 1.6x the depth of field (compared to a full-frame camera).
But doesn’t 28mm make people look ugly?
I am not interested in taking flattering, model/studio portraits of people—with ‘creamy bokeh’ in the background—that they can upload to Facebook. I am looking to make dynamic, engaging, and unusual photos that show the soul of my subject.
I’ve found that 28mm exaggerates facial features and body parts, and I feel that shows more personality and soul in my subjects than just shooting my subject with a DSLR and a telephoto lens wide-open.
Shoot from a low angle with a 28mm lens to achieve the ‘superman effect’
I also like shooting with a 28mm lens from a low angle, because it makes people look ‘larger than life.’
They call this the ‘superman effect’ because it makes people look taller, and their legs longer. This is what makes Tom Cruise (who is very short) look very tall in some movies. It can also make a woman’s legs look longer (if you’re shooting model photography).
Conversely, if you shoot with a 28mm lens or a wide-angle lens from a very high perspective looking down, you make people look smaller than usual. A good example is to see Eamon Doyle’s work.
Focus on the edges of your frame
A practical tip of shooting 28mm: try to get clean edges in your frame. Don’t focus on framing your photos by looking in the center of the frame. Rather, be obsessed with having good composition on the edges of your frame.
Try to avoid random poles, white garbage bags, or distracting faces on the edges of your frame. And not only that, but if you’re photographing shapes like circles, rectangles, square, or triangles, make sure the edges of your frame don’t cut off the edges of the shapes.
‘Work the scene’ by shooting a lot of the same scene
Another tip: when shooting street photography with a 28mm lens, you’re not sure what you’re going to get until after you’ve shot the photograph. Therefore, learn how to ‘work the scene’ and take a lot of photos of your subject.
Shoot crouching down, taking a step left, a step right. Take a step closer. Tippy-toe and shoot from a higher angle. Alternate between horizontal and vertical. ‘Work the scene’. Then, when you go home, choose your best photos.
With a 28mm lens, you need to get really close to make good street photographs. When in doubt, take a step closer.
I have a practice of not cropping my photos once I’ve shot them. This has helped me build discipline to make better compositions and framing. So when I’m shooting street photography with a 28mm lens, I tend to still be too far away. Therefore I will take a photo, take a step closer, take a photo, take a step closer—so on and so forth until I can’t get any closer.
One of the fun things about the 28mm lens is the ability for you to add more layers in your photographs.
If you want more layered street photos with the 28mm, I recommend pre-focusing to the thing furthest in the background. For example: pre-focus your camera to about 5 meters, and then intentionally try to add stuff in the foreground, to add more depth to your photos.
Look for leading lines
Also, when shooting street photography on the 28mm lens, crouch down low and put your subject in-between skyscrapers or buildings to give them good leading lines. Leading lines act like arrows that point directly to your subject, making it easier for your viewers to identify your subject.
Not only that, but it emphasizes the form and composition of your street photos.
Subtract from the frame
Once again, the biggest issue you will have with 28mm in street photography is having too much clutter and information in the frame. You need to think of yourself as a sculptor, and sculptor makes a statue by subtracting from the stone.
Similarly, in street photographer, you want to always subtract from your frame. When you’re shooting, actively cut away from the frame. Think of how you can continue to cut away from the frame until you are left only with what is essential.
Don’t always center your subject
I tend to center my subjects in my street photos; but know that if you want more dynamic framing, you shouldn’t center your subject. Rather, put your subject somewhere in the left or the right side of the frame. This tends to create more dynamic frames.
Not only that, but the benefit of shooting street photography on a 28mm lens is that you don’t have to point your camera directly at someone to have them be included in the frame.
Avoid eye contact
One technique I like to do when shooting with the 28mm lens is to keep taking photos while getting closer and avoiding eye contact. This is one of the best ways to prevent people from thinking you took their photo.
And because the 28mm lens is so wide, your subject will be included in the frame even though you don’t point the camera directly at them.
28mm lenses are usually cheaper, lighter, and smaller
One of the good thing about 28mm lenses is that they tend to be cheaper than their 35mm and 50mm counter-parts. Another is that they tend to be smaller, more compact, and lighter.
That’s what allows Ricoh GR II to be so small and compact. Similarly, the Fujiflm x70 also has a 28mm f/2.8 lens, which fits the Fujifilm x100T sensor in a tiny body. Leica was able to put a full-frame sensor in the compact Leica Q body because of the 28mm focal length.
Don’t buy expensive 28mm lenses
A practical piece of advice: if you want to shoot street photography on a 28mm lens, don’t buy expensive 28mm lenses that shoot at f/1.4, f/1.8, or f/2. These “fast” 28mm lenses tend to be too big and too heavy.
The same goes with any lens for street photography. F/2.8 is more than wide enough for any street photography lens. Most of the time when we’re shooting street photography, you’re going to be shooting (mostly) f/8-f/16 anyways.
There is no ‘best’ lens for street photography
There is no best street photography lens. Each person has their own style and vision. Some of us prefer 35mm, some prefer 28mm, and some prefer 50mm. Some, I’m sure, prefer 200mm. Not every shoe fits every foot. And not every lens fits every photographer.
My practical suggestion is, whatever focal length you use, try to stick with it for at least a year. This will help you discover the true essence of each focal length. You will learn how to compose and frame much better, without bringing the camera up to your eye. You will internalize the focal length, and become a better photographer because you can compose intuitively.