Many aspiring street photographers often wonder— what is the best lens for street photography?
For me, I generally prefer a 35mm focal length lens (full-frame equivalent) for street photography. Why? A 35mm lens is generally wide-enough to capture most of everything happening in a scene, yet also close enough to shoot portraits of people.
However a caveat— if you are shooting with a compact camera, or a point-and-shoot camera, or if you’re using the LCD screen to shoot— I recommend a 28mm focal length lens. Why?
When you are shooting with a point-and-shoot camera, you generally take photos and frame your scene by sticking your arm in front of you. Therefore, your framing will be tighter, than if you’re holding your camera next to your face.
Prime or zoom?
I also think that the best lenses for street photography are prime (non-zoom) lenses.
Prime lenses are a “creative constraint.” They force you to make do with the limitations of the lens, which forces you to be more creative. You take a certain scene or situation, and you adjust your position in accordance with your subject to make a good composition. You can use your “foot zoom” to either take a step further, take a step closer, take a step to the left, or take a step to the right. By using a prime lens, you have to hustle and work harder to make an interesting frame. This usually results in better photos.
By using a zoom lens, you tend to get lazy. There is a saying that a zoom lens only has two focal lengths— the widest focal length, and the closest focal length. So if you have an 18-200mm lens, you will generally only ever shoot at 18mm or at 200mm. And if you’re a timid street photographer starting off, you’re going to default to around 200mm (at least I did when I started off).
Why shouldn’t you zoom?
I don’t recommend zooming in street photography because by zooming, you flatten your perspective of the scene. The viewers of your photos tend to feel more separated with your subject. The photos of a telephoto lens don’t feel as intimate.
However when you shoot with a wide-angle lens, you feel like you’re really there. You put the viewer in your shoes, and make them a part of the photograph.
Furthermore, zoom lenses just tend to look creepy when you shoot street photography. There is a saying, “Creepiness is proportional to focal length.” The longer your zoom lens, the creepier you look.
Also when you shoot with a wide-angle lens, you look more discrete. Wide-angle (prime) lenses tend to be smaller, and less conspicuous. Not only that, but you don’t need to point your lens directly at your subject to make sure they show up. If you use a zoom lens, you have to point the lens straight at your subject, which often gives you away, or makes you more visible.
Lastly, wide-angle (prime) lenses tend to have larger maximum apertures (f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2, f/2.8) which let in a lot more light. This means that you can shoot at night with less motion-blur at lower ISO’s. Telephoto lenses have smaller maximum apertures (f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6) which let in less light, which means that your photos have a higher likelihood of being blurry.
In a practical sense, wide-angle prime lenses are also cheaper than zoom or telephoto lenses. Wide-angle prime lenses are also generally shaper than zoom lenses. Lastly, wide-angle prime lenses are generally lighter and more compact than zoom/telephoto lenses (which means you can walk around longer, with less fatigue, and more photo-opportunities).
What about 50mm lenses?
Famous street photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson shot with (mostly) a 50mm his entire life (he sometimes shot with a 35mm, especially in India where the streets were more crowded).
My theory is that in the time of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the streets were probably more empty than they are now. There are more human beings on earth than there were in the past, so a 35mm might have not been needed in the past. A 50mm might have sufficed when there was more room in the streets to shoot.
I personally find that a 50mm (full-frame equivalent) lens is too narrow and constricting, especially if you’re shooting in a crowded city. I shot with a 50mm lens on a full-frame Canon 5D DSLR for a while, and found out in most situations (especially when shooting indoors) it was simply too tight.
However one of the benefits of the 50mm lens is that it flattened the background more, which meant more simple compositions. Considering that Henri Cartier-Bresson was obsessed with geometry and composition (he studied painting), the 50mm worked for him.
What about lenses wider than a 28mm focal length?
I see some street photographers experimenting with lenses even wider than a 28mm — like a 24mm, a 17mm, or even a 10mm fish-eye.
In my experience, I find any focal length wider than a 28mm is “too wide.” Meaning— when a lens is “too wide” you get distortion in the edges of the frame, which make your subjects look strange and goofy.
Furthermore, one of the biggest difficulties that street photographers have is not getting close enough to their subjects and filling the frame.
The wider your lens, the closer you have to get to your subject.
When you’re shooting with a 35mm lens, if you want a tight frame that fills the frame, I recommend shooting around 1.2 meters away (roughly two arms lengths away, or even closer).
If you are shooting with a 28mm lens, I recommend you to shoot from .7 meters to 1.2 meters (about 1-2 arm-lengths away) to fill the frame.
If you shoot with any lens wider than a 28mm, you have to get close. Really close. I mean damn close. Close enough that you might hit your subject with your lens.
And also the wider your lens is, the more difficult it is to get a proper perspective. I find that the street photographs that are the most dynamic are the ones that are shot head-on. If you’re shooting with a very wide-angle lens, it is hard to shoot head-on with such a wide lens. You might end up shooting all of your photos from the side, which create a strange perspective of your subjects.
However if you are curious, try experimenting with wide-angle lenses. I personally tried experimenting with a 21mm lens for a few months (ultimately returned it, because I found it too wide for my daily uses). However I did get a few good photos from it (like the photo in Tokyo above).
Find the lens which is ideal for you
And of course if you’ve made it this far — I hope you realize that this is all just my personal opinion based on my experiences (and the experiences of other street photographers I’ve met in the last 10 years).
There are some famous street photographers from the past (Saul Leiter being a good example) who shot with telephoto lenses who made these wonderfully-mysterious and beautiful street photos.
There are also many street photographers who use zoom lenses in their work (Martin Parr is also a great example) who make beautiful images.
There is no perfect lens or focal length for street photography. When you are starting off, I recommend you to experiment, and try out what works for you.
Perhaps it might be a 24mm, a 28mm, a 35mm, a 50mm, a 85mm, a 135mm, or 200, or something even longer. Or maybe a lens even wider.
But once you have found a lens that fits 80% of your needs and suffices for the majority of your needs, just stick with it. The longer you stick with one focal length, the more likely you are to master that focal length. You will start to see the world in that focal length, and will be able to frame a scene without even thinking about it. You will become very keen about the edges of your frame, and never need to crop your photos ever again. You will improve your composition, and make better photographs.
Use cameras with non-interchangeable (prime) lenses
I recommend shooting street photography on cameras which have non-interchangeable lenses, as they give you a “creative constraint” and for you to be more creative with your photography.
Furthermore, by not having the option to change your lenses, you don’t need to stress out whether the lens you are currently using is the “ideal” lens for a scene.
Keep learning about street photography
To keep learning about street photography, check out the guide: Street Photography 101 >