I think a 35mm ‘full frame-equivalent’ lens is ideal for 90% of street photographers. Why a 35mm lens, and how do you shoot with it in street photography? Some practical ideas:


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35mm is a comfortable focal length to view the world

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People think this picture is a candid photo. It is not.

From what I understand, the ‘normal’ perspective of the human eye is around 40mm. I think there is a general misconception that we see the world as a 50mm — no, because 50mm is a little too close.

I think 35mm is ideal in street photography, because it is wide enough for most scenes, and if you’re too far– you can always take a step closer.

Another good lens to shoot with is a 28mm lens in street photography — but I only recommend using a 28mm when you use a point-and-shoot camera with an LCD screen. Why? Most street photographers don’t get close enough with a 28mm lens and fill the frame. I think it is easier to get close and shoot with a point and shoot camera with a 28mm lens, because you can extend your arm to get closer to your subject.

If you use a camera with a viewfinder, and you bring up your camera to your eye, I recommend using a 35mm lens in street photography.


1. How to pre-visualize

Leica M6 + Leica Summicron 35mm f2 ASPH + Kodak Portra 400
Suit with French fry. London, 2012. Leica M6 + Leica Summicron 35mm f2 ASPH + Kodak Portra 400

The first exercise is this:

Before bringing up your camera to your eye, imagine what the frame lines would look like. Then bring up your camera to your eye, and then figure out how accurate your prediction was.

What you want to learn how to do is previsualize your focal length (a 35mm in this case).

Woman in London on cell phone, and juxtaposition of poster banging against window in background.
Woman in London on cell phone, and juxtaposition of poster banging against window in background. Leica, flash, and 35mm f/2 lens

Some tips if you’re shooting with a 35mm lens:

  • When shooting horizontally: If you want to fill the frame with your subject’s waist up to their head, shoot with a 35mm lens, at 1.2 meters (about 2 arm lengths away, or 4 feet away). If you want a shot of just their face with a 35mm when shooting horizontally, shoot at .7 meters. If you want a shot of their full body (when shooting horizontally), shoot at 2-3 meters.
  • When shooting vertically: If you want to fill the frame with your subject’s waist up to their head, 1 meter should be good. If you want to fill the frame with the subject’s full-body (from their feet to their head), shoot at 1.5 meter.
London, 2015. Leica MP, 35mm f/2 Summicron, flash, yellow filter. Woman with fur and crossed arms. London, 2015
London, 2015. Leica MP, 35mm f/2 Summicron, flash, yellow filter.

Therefore my suggestion is when shooting with a 35mm lens, learn what your framing is based on your distances. This works especially well when you are shooting with a manual-focusing lens and using ‘zone focusing.’ I learned how to master a 35mm focal length when shooting with a rangefinder-Leica, because I had to shoot all my photos at f/8 and get to know my distances well.

A tip: if you are shooting with a manual-focusing lens, use a lens with a focusing tab. If you’re shooting with a Leica 35mm lens,

  • If the tab is dead-center, that is 1.2 meters (two arm length distance, or medium distance).
  • If the tab is rotated 45 degrees to the left, that is .7 meters (minimum focusing distance, or close distance).
  • If the tab is rotated 45 degrees to the right, that is 2-3 meters (‘far distance’).
LEICA MANUAL by ERIC KIM
LEICA MANUAL by ERIC KIM

To learn more about shooting with rangefinders, manual focusing lenses, etc– read: LEICA MANUAL.

2. Layers

eric kim the americans depth downtown la portra 400 film leica mp 35mm
Downtown LA, 2014 (shot on film Leica, 35mm, at f/8, ISO 400 on Kodak Portra 400, with 1/500th shutter speed)

When shooting layers on a 35mm lens, if you want to fill the frame, I suggest trying to get really close to your subjects, and pre-focusing your lens to 2-3 meters, to get more depth in your photos.

The technique you’re trying to do:

Get the subjects in the foreground to be out-of-focus, but have the subjects in the background to be sharp.

By having the subjects in the foreground out-of-focusing and the background subjects sharp, it will add more depth and interest to your photos.

Downtown LA, 2011. Shot on a Canon 5D, 35mm f/2 lens. black woman with popsicle
Downtown LA, 2011. Shot on a Canon 5D, 35mm f/2 lens.

Why are photos with layers and depth interesting? Because it gives the viewer an opportunity to feel part of the frame. A photo with depth feels more like ‘real life’– in real life, we see things close to us (foreground), middle-ground, and background (far away).

Generally when shooting layers, I would recommend trying to keep it simple:

When starting off, limit your layered/multiple-subject photographs to 3 subjects.

3. When in doubt, get closer.

Downtown LA, 2012. Shot on Leica M9, 35mm lens with flash.
Downtown LA, 2012. Shot on Leica M9, 35mm lens with flash.

When in doubt, take a step closer.

eric kim street photography
Downtown LA, 2011. Photo by Rinzi Ruiz

Generally in street photography, the most difficult thing is getting closer to our subjects. The reason why I like closeness in street photography:

With physical proximity comes emotional proximity.

Downtown LA, 2012. Man blowing nose with tissue. Shot with Leica M9, flash, 35mm at 1 meters.
Downtown LA, 2012. Man blowing nose with tissue. Shot with Leica M9, flash, 35mm at 1 meters.

With a 35mm lens, when you’re shooting with your viewfinder, most of the times– you’re not going to be close enough in street photography.

Thus, when I’m shooting street photography with a 35mm this is what I generally do:

Take a photo, take a step closer, take a photo, take a step closer.

Downtown LA, 2011. Shot with Leica M9, 35mm lens, flash, at 1 meter.
Downtown LA, 2011. Shot with Leica M9, 35mm lens, flash, at 1 meter.

When I played (American) football in high school, I was a linebacker– the coach taught me:

Most players instinctively take a step back. But, you should fight that instinct. Always take a step forward by instinct, then if you see the players going for a throwing-play, then take a step back.

In other words:

Always take a step forward.

To me, philosophically I like this idea too. This means in street photography and life,

Always take a step forward.

Often we are paralyzed with fear, or we are paralyzed by too many options or by analyzing too much.

Downtown LA, 2012. Canon 5D, 35mm lens. Juxtaposition between security guard and mannequin.
Downtown LA, 2012. Canon 5D, 35mm lens. Juxtaposition between security guard and mannequin.

In life, we have no idea how things will turn out. The best life is one of action– to make a slightly foolish (active) action, rather than inaction. As the philosopher Publilius Syrus said:

The rolling stone gathers no moss.

In street photography, you gotta stay light on your toes. You gotta keep moving your feet. Getting closer to your subject with a 35mm lens is a good practice.

Downtown LA, 2013. Nails. Shot with Leica M9, 35mm lens at .7 meters (minimum focusing distance)
Downtown LA, 2013. Nails. Shot with Leica M9, 35mm lens at .7 meters (minimum focusing distance)

How do you know when you’re too close? A tip from my friend Thomas Leuthard:

You know when you’re too close when your lens doesn’t focus anymore.

4. Study photographers who shoot with a 35mm lens

Leica M6, Kodak Portra 400, 35mm f/2 lens. Shot at 1.2 meters.
Leica M6, Kodak Portra 400, 35mm f/2 lens. Shot at 1.2 meters.

Some photographers who I admire who shoot with a 35mm lens include:

Alex Webb is good to study to see how he shoots layers and multiple-subject photos in street photography.

<a href=”https://erickimphotography.com/blog/2012/08/27/10-things-anders-petersen-can-teach-you-about-street-photography/””>Anders Petersen is good to study to see how he shoots ‘street portraits’ of strangers he meets. You can see– the 35mm lens is fantastic for shooting portraits, because not only can you shoot intimate portraits of people (waist-level up), but also full-body shots, when shooting in portrait-vertical orientation.

5. Look at the edges of the frame when you’re composing a scene

Eric Rivera, street portrait with cigar. 1 meters, with flash, Leica M6, Kodak Portra 400, 35mm lens
Eric Rivera, street portrait with cigar. 1 meters, with flash, Leica M6, Kodak Portra 400, 35mm lens

The nice thing with a 35mm lens– you’re not that wide, and not that close.

But still, if you want good compositions you have to always think about the edges of the frame.

Suit and woman in restaurant. Flash, 35mm Leica MP, Kodak Portra 400. Shot at around 2-3 meters.
Suit and woman in restaurant. Flash, 35mm Leica MP, Kodak Portra 400. Shot at around 2-3 meters.

Also note if you’re shooting with a rangefinder or a Leica with a 35mm lens, and you wear glasses– you won’t see the edges of the frame that accurately through the viewfinder.

The mistake in street photography we make is that we only look at the center of the frame– therefore we get ‘tunnel-visioned.’ As a street photographer, you want to see more of the frame– more of the edges of the frame, more of the background, and to see everything that is going on.

Leica MP, 35mm, flash, at around 1 meters. Kodak Portra 400.
Leica MP, 35mm, flash, at around 1 meters. Kodak Portra 400.

Of course, no human can see 100% of the scene at the same time. We only have two eyes (in horizontal orientation)– we are not dragon-flies with panoramic vision.

Istanbul bus. Leica MP, 35mm, flash, Kodak Portra 400, 1.2 meters.
Istanbul bus. Leica MP, 35mm, flash, Kodak Portra 400, 1.2 meters.

Therefore, when you’re shooting with a 35mm lens in street photography, try to focus on looking at the edges and the background of the scene when you’re shooting. This will help you create less messy compositions– and will help you become more conscientious and aware about what is going on in your frame.

6. 1.2 meters (two arm lengths)

Tokyo woman with hand. 1.2 meters, flash, Kodak Tri-X 400, Leica M6, 35mm
Tokyo woman with hand. 1.2 meters, flash, Kodak Tri-X 400, Leica M6, 35mm

I think by default (assuming you’re shooting with a manual-focusing lens), keep your 35mm at a default distance of 1.2 meters (2 arm length distance). To me, this distance is ideal for most framing in street photography with a 35mm– you will fill the frame, whatever you photograph.

I find that 1.2 meters is ideal when you’re focusing on a single-subject. If you want to do more layers and more multiple-subjects (3+ people), try to shoot around 2-3 meters.

Marseille man at beach. Shot on Leica M6, Kodak Portra 400, around 1.8 meters on 35mm lens.
Marseille man at beach. Shot on Leica M6, Kodak Portra 400, around 1.8 meters on 35mm lens.

The easy way to know what 1.2 meters is: extend your arm, and imagine another arm reaching out towards you. Or, just try testing your distance focusing with a friend or your partner. Ask your subject to extend their arm, and you extend your arm, and touch fingers. Then visualize that distance between you and your subject: that is 1.2 meters.

Boy and father. Leica M6, Kodak Portra 400, 35mm, around 1.8 meters.
Boy and father. Leica M6, Kodak Portra 400, 35mm, around 1.8 meters.

So when you’re walking on the streets and not sure what distance to focus at, just keep your 35mm lens at a default of 1.2 meters.

7. The zen of one camera, one lens

Mumbai woman cop, whisper. Leica M9, flash, 35mm, 1.2 meters.
Mumbai woman cop, whisper. Leica M9, flash, 35mm, 1.2 meters.

I think if you really want to master street photography for yourself, you gotta master your tools. Imagine yourself like a samurai– you have your one trusty blade/katana.

Canon 5d, 35mm. Paris, 2011.
Canon 5d, 35mm. Paris, 2011.

The same in street photography:

Master one camera, one lens.

It took me about 10 years before I was able to master a 35mm lens (from age 18 to 28). 5 of those years were shot with a DSLR, and the other 5 years were with a Leica and 35mm lens, before I was able to really master the focal length.

Istanbul man in suit, with flash through glass. 35mm, Leica MP, Kodak Portra 400.
Istanbul man in suit, with flash through glass. 35mm, Leica MP, Kodak Portra 400.

Nowadays, I just shoot with a RICOH GR II with the integrated 28mm lens.

This is why I am such a huge fan of the Fujifilm X100-series camera; you have one camera, and one lens (the integrated 35mm lens). Having a camera that allows you to interchange the lens can be a huge distraction. Because instead of improving our photography, we always think that by using a new lens, we will suddenly be ‘inspired’, or find a new artistic vision.

Leica MP + Leica Summicron 35mm f2 ASPH + Kodak Portra 400 + flash in Paris subway.
Leica MP + Leica Summicron 35mm f2 ASPH + Kodak Portra 400 + flash in Paris subway. Note the flash reflection in his glasses.

The truth is: I think all photographers would benefit by sticking with one focal length (like a 35mm) for at least a decade.

I’m not saying you can only use one lens for the rest of your life. I’m just saying– whatever focal length you like, try to stick with it for a long time.

Leica M6 + Leica Summicron 35mm f2 ASPH + Kodak Portra 400. Tokyo man in arcade.
Leica M6 + Leica Summicron 35mm f2 ASPH + Kodak Portra 400. Tokyo man in arcade.

This is why I am anti-zoom lenses– you never master any focal length.

The benefit of shooting with one camera and one lens is also that you get into a ‘zen zone‘ — you aren’t distracted by your gear. You have your one camera, one lens, and you just go out and just shoot.

The brilliant thing with a 35mm lens in street photography:

You don’t need a f/1.4 lens.

Stick with smaller, more compact, and lighter lenses. Use a f/2, f/2.8 lens for a 35mm lens.

Natural light, listening to the light meter. Leica M6 + Leica Summicron 35mm f2 ASPH + Kodak Portra 400. Man with newspaper. Beverly Hills, 2012. Leica M6, 35mm lens, Kodak Portra 400. Shot around 1.5 meters.
Man with newspaper. Beverly Hills, 2012. Leica M6, 35mm lens, Kodak Portra 400. Shot around 1.5 meters.

Not only will your lens be lighter on your wallet (cheaper, use that money to travel, buy photo books, attend workshops, buy more coffee), 35mm lenses that are light will always be married to your camera body.

For example, I used to have a Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux lens on my Leica. It was too big and heavy. My friend Todd helped me sell it, and I ‘downgraded’ to a Leica 35mm f/2 lens ASPH. Now, if I had to buy a new lens all over again for my Leica, I would just buy the Leica 35mm f/2.4 Summarit lens (lighter, more compact).

Venice. Man with chest tattoo. Leica M6, 35mm, flash, Kodak Portra 400. Shot at 1.2 meters.
Venice. Man with chest tattoo. Leica M6, 35mm, flash, Kodak Portra 400. Shot at 1.2 meters.

The great thing in street photography:

We are mostly shooting at f/8. Shooting ‘wide open’ for bokeh is overrated.

The benefit of shooting at f8-f16, you have more depth in your street photographs, the more likely your photos are to be in-focus and sharp.

8. Just shoot it.

ERIC KIM Cartoon with camera // from ZEN OF ERIC
ERIC KIM Cartoon with camera // from ZEN OF ERIC

Shoot a lot with a 35mm lens, and realize that it is probably the best lens for most people.

Of course, you want to experiment with different focal lengths in street photography. But based on my experiences– most street photographers find 50mm too constraining. 28mm is good too– but you must have the guts to get very close to your subjects. Thus, 35mm is ‘ideal’ for most street photographers.

ERIC KIM x HENRI NECK STRAP // Photo by Benjamin Thompson
ERIC KIM x HENRI NECK STRAP // Photo by Benjamin Thompson // LEICA MP x 35mm f/2 SUMMICRON

But whatever you do in street photography, just experiment and have fun. Ultimately, just shoot a lot, and the more you shoot with one focal length, the more you will enjoy photography, and the more you will master your focal length.

And of course ultimately in street photography, just shoot, have fun, and smile.

BE BOLD,
ERIC

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