By Faizal Westcott
Street Photographer / Boston, MAAny beginner to street photography will likely have a lot of questions about where to start and one of the most common questions is in regards to choosing the “right focal length”. Most people assume right away that they should use a wide angle lens like a 24mm or a 35mm, but that’s not necessarily the case! Street photography can be done with almost any type of lens, but not every lens is for everyone. Whichever focal length you do end up choosing can have a profound impact on the way you shoot and compose images on the streets. It’s certainly not something you should gloss over and definitely something you should take the time to explore and experiment with as you go.
I’ve personally gone through the wringer of different lenses throughout my journey doing street photography. Like a lot of photographers, I started out with a “kit lens”. For me it was an 18-55mm zoom lens and it was the great all around zoom lens to get my feet wet in street photography. However, I quickly caught onto using prime lenses and have come to love the way they promote you to see and observe through just one single focal length. This article will assume the use of prime lenses, but don’t feel the need to jump right away to using primes, a zoom lens can give you
In this article I’ll be going through the most popular focal lengths people use in street photography and offer my thoughts and experiences using them for street photography as well as what kind of subject matter and shooting style each one entails. Hopefully for those just starting out you’ll have a better idea of what to expect and maybe where to start your street photography journey!
28mm & 24mm
The 24mm and 28mm are some of the most commonly used wide angles for street photography. The 28mm is great for street photography as it captures a high amount of area and with minimal distortion. The 24mm on the other hand will capture a bit more area than the 28mm, but at the cost of introducing much more noticeable distortion. Because of that distortion, a lot of photographers will prefer the 28mm over the 24mm. A lot of people will not see that distortion as suitable for street photography, especially when photographing people, but it’s not to say it can’t be a usable lens for street photography
Because these lenses let you capture so much of a scene in one shot, photographing bigger crowds or scenes where a lot of things are happening at once make these lenses shine. You might come across hearing the phrase “fill the frame” as it’s often used in street photography. Filling the frame would essentially mean having the subject or various subjects, take up the different parts of the photo. This can be very tricky to do right with a wide lens like a 24m or 28mm because you are capturing so much, but it’s one of the most fulfilling things to do in street photography when you get it right.
Like any focal length, the 24mm and 28mm are not for everyone. Despite their popularity for street photography, they’re not necessarily the easiest focal lengths to use when you’re just getting started with street photography. With wide lenses you’re forced to take in consideration almost everything that’s in your field of view and this can make composing more difficult to do because you have a lot more elements in your photo to take account of. These elements could be distracting and take away from the subject you’re intentionally trying to photograph. Because of this, you might feel inclined to get closer to your subjects when using wide lenses and many experienced street photographers who use wide lenses will encourage you to do so. For a beginner to street photography, however, this is no easy task.
Personally I don’t use a 28mm lens as much as I do other focal lengths, but having used one photographing one of the busiest of streets in New York City, a wide lens like a 28mm can almost make you invisible. Invisible you say? Let me explain. There comes a certain point when shooting with wide lenses for street photography where you’re so close to a subject you’re photographing that they don’t even assume you were taking a photo. In an incredibly busy city street where people are focused on getting from point A to point B, they’ll more often than not walk right by you unbothered. Camping out on a busy street corner like this is something a lot of street photographers will do and you’ll commonly see them use a wide lens like a 28mm or a 24mm, camera in a primed shooting position, and just waiting for the perfect subject to cross their path. It works tremendously well.
Zone focusing is a street photographer’s best friend in these situations using a wide angle lens. Because of the wide focal length, you have a much deeper depth of field to work with in terms of your focus. This means you won’t have to focus so precisely as you would with a telephoto lens and can quickly go between different zones of focus if your lens permits it. Street photographers who want to zone focus will look to use lenses that have great manual focusing rings, focus zone indicators, and a manual focusing knob. Most modern lenses don’t sport these qualities so you’ll find more luck with older vintage lenses commonly used on rangefinders.
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The 35mm focal length is the cut-off for lenses considered “wide”. Personally, this is my favorite wide angle focal length because it hits the sweet spot for capturing a wide field of view but with more creative freedom as you’re not forced to take into account so much of a scene. To a degree, it’s a cropped in version of a 28mm lens with even less distortion. The 35mm lets you be a bit more selective with your framing while still taking in a lot of the environment to provide context. It makes it a much more versatile lens compared to the 28mm in my opinion. One thing to take note of is that if you’re using a 28mm lens and find yourself cropping in a lot of the time, trying out a 35mm would be a good option.
A lot of people will debate between the 35mm and the 28mm for street photography. Those on the 28mm side will say that the 35mm is not wide enough, and those on the 35mm side will obviously say the opposite. Whether or not one works better for your style of shooting street photography will come down to personal preference. It’s why renting lenses and trying them out yourself before purchasing them is a great idea.
The 35mm and 28mm are the most common wide angle lenses I see used in street photography and you almost cannot go wrong with either if you’re looking to photograph people or work in a more “documentary style” approach. Both are great for photographing the unpredictable candid moments happening on the streets, but the options don’t stop there.
I honestly think this lens is going to be the ultimate deciding factor for anyone purchasing a Leica Q2. It has a 28mm focal length but 28mm is not necessarily for everyone.
However, having used some 28mm lenses in the past, the lens on the Leica Q2 feels a slightly wider. It’s somewhere in between a 24mm and a 28mm. This could be a deal breaker for someone who loves shooting 28mm. You probably would want it to feel exactly like all the 28mm lenses you’ve used in the past, but it does feel wider in my experience using it. It’s why it makes a lot of sense for anyone interested in purchasing a Leica Q2, to first consider renting the camera out first and seeing how they like it.
This isn’t something a little bit of cropping and lens correction can’t fix though, but it’s worth bringing up because 28mm is a widely popular focal length for street photography and why a lot of people might gravitate to this camera.
I mentioned before that 28mm is not for everyone. I would personally put myself in that category as I mainly shoot 50mm on most of my cameras. So that’s reason enough for me to not want to buy a Leica Q2. The focal length you shoot with is largely tied to the style and approach you have in street photography, and the 28mm lends its self to more candid documentary and environmental images. If you love documenting large events, architecture, or just like the “wide look”. This lens might be for you.
That said, I’ve heard from a few previous Leica Q2 owners that they sold their Q2s because they grew tired of the wide focal length and didn’t enjoy shooting it as much as they initially thought. A fixed lens camera like this at this price point calls for a pretty good understanding of how you like shoot.
The 40mm falls in an awkward place amongst the different focal lengths. It’s not exactly considered a wide angle lens and it’s not exactly a “standard” lens either. It’s in a bit of a no man’s land and it often gets overlooked because of this. Regardless, the 40mm is still an excellent lens that I’ve come to really enjoy using myself on my Ricoh GR IIIx which has a fixed 40mm lens. As with any lens, with time you adapt and get used to “seeing” through the focal length you’re using. The 40mm is a great option if you’re using a 35mm and find it to still be just a little too wide for your liking.
The 50mm is not called the “nifty fifty” for no reason. It’s the most versatile lens option out there as it finds itself right in the middle between the wide angles and the telephoto lenses. I would personally recommend this lens to beginners because of this fact. It will get you comfortable with the middle ground of lenses and as you use a 50mm lens for street photography, it will help you decide going forward if you might want something wider or something even longer.
What also makes the 50mm so great is that it closely represents what our own eyes see. There is little to no distortion in the images at all. You’ll have a lot of creative control to frame and compose your images and be selective about what you choose to include or not to include in your frame. The 50mm is still “wide enough” of a lens for you to photograph people on the streets, but also long enough for you to get more creative with your framing. This is what makes the 50mm such a great starting point for people. You can quickly find out how you want to approach street photography while using it.
Personally I’ve found myself coming back to the 50mm lens in my work. As someone who frequently goes between abstract and documentary in my street photography, the 50mm is the perfect balance of the two. So if you’re someone who is unsure where to start, the 50mm is the place to do it.
Beyond the 50mm
Street photography can be a lot of things. There isn’t just one style and approach to this genre, and while many will think street photography starts and ends with using wide angle lenses and photographing people in candid moments, they would be misinformed. Going beyond the wide angle lenses and the 50mm you have a large group of lenses that lends itself to a different approach to street photography. A much slower approach you could say.
I’ve actually found myself dabbling into these longer lenses as of late, using a 75mm on my Fujifilm X-E4. I describe these lenses as taking a slower approach to street photography because the longer the focal length, the tighter the frame, and the more precise you need to be about framing and composition. Unlike how you normally would with a wide angle lens, you can’t quickly photograph an unfolding moment in front of you with a long lens like a 85mm. So because of that limitation, you’re forced to approach street photography a bit differently.
Instead of “reacting” and photographing moments you come across, a longer lens is best suited for waiting out a scene. Some refer to this as the “fishing” technique where you pre-compose your image and wait for a subject to walk into your frame. This technique works wonders with long focal lengths as you’ve already taken the time to get ready for the shot. All that needs to be done is hitting the shutter when the time is right.
Using longer focal lengths in street photography can be tremendous fun as you’re inclined to look at ordinary scenes a bit differently than you’re accustomed too. Naturally you’ll find yourself photographing subjects from afar and your images might give a sense that you are removed from the subject or scenes you’re photographing. This makes longer focal lengths great for those who are not comfortable getting close to people and don’t want to disturb the moment.
I’ve found myself working with reflections or positioning myself to use the environment as a means to frame subjects in interesting ways. Personally I find longer focal lengths invite the most creativity out of me because of it’s tight crop and limitations, so if you’re someone who likes to do a lot of experimenting, longer focal lengths like a 75mm or 85mm might suit you well.
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There is no question that the focal length you choose to use for street photography will likely guide how you approach this genre. A wider lens might force you to get closer to a subject and really involve the overall environment in the story you’re trying to tell. A 50mm lens would provide any beginner a great starting point, but also any photographer looking for a balance of all the focal length characteristics. Longer focal lengths that go beyond the 50mm lens provide a much different look on street photography, one that might force a photographer to think more in the abstract and also move at a slower, more methodical pace. There’s many options for those looking to get into street photography and I hope this article helps clarify what you can expect of these popular focal lengths for street photography. At the end of the day, there is a focal length for everyone to suit any style, but the best way to truly find out is by experiencing them all for yourself.