This is the first of what will become a regular series of quick tips for anyone interested in street photography. For me, street photography is all about traveling light and I really don’t want to be walking the streets with a bag full of lenses. So What’s the best lens for street photography? I’ll explain how and why I use the lenses I do and give you my top tip for lens choice in street photography.
As with most considerations about gear, lens choice is a very personal thing and you have to do what works for you. I’ve been doing this for a long time and what works for me – without any doubt – is a wide-angle prime lens.
But why a prime lens and not a more versatile zoom? Well, there are a number of reasons. Firstly, zooming inevitably takes longer and those vital seconds could make the difference between getting your shot and missing it. So you can lose the spontaneity of the moment. Secondly, the image quality you’ll get from a prime lens is nearly always superior to what you’d get from a zoom. Thirdly, as primes have far less glass than zooms – and often have less electronic circuitry – so they tend to be smaller, lighter and quieter – and they’re often more durable and reliable. And finally, a fixed focal length lens gives me a wider depth of field at any given aperture than I’d get from a zoom lens, which I find particularly useful as I usually want a fair amount of front-to-back sharpness in my images.
So, you’re probably getting the message that I use prime lenses for street photography. But what about focal length? Well usually, in street photography, we give some importance to context and the background in our scene more often than not contributes something useful to the frame. Remember – you have a full frame to fill, not just that bit in the middle. A wide-angle lens will allow me to take in the wider picture. And more importantly, it forces me to get closer to the subject. By getting in close, your images will have much more sense of emotion – or drama – or intimacy – than they would have if you were shooting from across the road with a long lens.
So my go-to lens for street photography is, more often than not, a 35mm prime – and I mean 35mm in full-frame terms, so it would be this 23mm with my APS-C crop sensor X100V for example. This focal length gives me a perspective which isn’t too far from what the human eye sees – so it’s a realistic perspective. Sometimes I’ll go even wider – maybe 24 or 28mm (again in full frame terms) for a more dramatic feel – and a greater degree of fluidity and expansiveness.
But if you’re just getting into street photography – and this is one of the best bits of advice I can give you – don’t faff around with lots of different lenses. Get to know one lens really, really well. Well enough so that your eyes will start to see like that lens – your brain will start to think like it. Everything will start to feel so natural, so fluid, so instinctive, that you’ll get to the point that by the time you bring the camera up to your eye, you’ll already know exactly what your frame is going to look like. And that’s when the magic starts to happen. It’s liberating!
I’ve just posted a short video about this to my YouTube channel, which you can see here.
If you’d like to know about the settings I use for street photography, you may find this video helpful.