With street photography, the optimal word when it comes to lenses is “primes”. Fixed focal lengths are the better choice for this particular genre of photography, and not just for their better image quality. Yes, zoom lenses provide you the flexibility of several focal lengths within one lens, but that’s not necessarily an advantage when working on the street. Those critical moments that happen in front of the camera are often so fleeting that they can be easily lost while turning the zoom ring to the appropriate focal length. A fixed focal length eliminates that. You know exactly what you have to work with as soon as you attach the lens to the camera. At that point it becomes all about composition. Prime lenses are also faster or offer a wider aperture (f1.4, f1.8 or f2) than most zoom lenses. This can be particularly important when you are shooting under low light conditions. That not only impacts your exposure options, but it also improves the effectiveness of the camera’s autofocus system when working under dim conditions. Though some people may start off street photography using “discrete” telephoto zooms, the best photographs involve proximity to the subject and the moment. So, it’s often focal lengths of 50mm and wider that make up the heart of a street photographer’s kit. Here are the focal lengths that I believe should be in a street photographer’s camera bag.
A 50mm or an equivalent focal length is a great place to start. Not only does the focal length closely match the field of view of human sight, but also the f1.8 versions of these lenses are incredibly affordable. If you are starting off with nothing more than the kit lens, the 50mm provides much better light gathering capability than a zoom with a variable aperture of f3.5-5.6. I often recommend the f1.8 versions not only because of their price, but they are also very sharp lenses with minimal distortion. If you can afford the faster versions such as f1.4 or f1.2 and frequently work under low light, you may prefer these. But when it comes to my own street photography, it’s fairly rare that I am shooting with my lens wide open.
If you are using a camera that is designed with a Micro 4/3 or APS-C size sensor, you will need to multiply the focal length by the camera’s crop factor. For example, the 30mm Sigma f/1.4 lens when mounted on a camera with a crop factor of 1.6x will give you the equivalent focal length of 48mm, which qualifies as a “normal” focal length.
Moderate Wide Angle
If I have a favorite focal length for street photography, it’s the 35mm. With a slightly wider field of view than the 50mm, this provides greater flexibility when it comes to creating interesting compositions. With the wider focal length, the background takes on a greater degree of importance. Effective images are not just about photographing an interesting subject, but creating a relationship between the subject and their surroundings. It can be a relationship based on contrast of color, tone or even something that evokes humor.
If there is a focal length that provides a challenge for any photographer to use effectively, it’s a wide-angle lens such as a 24mm or 28mm. Because its field of view includes much more in the frame, the photographer has to be very conscious of what he chooses to include or exclude from the composition. The potential for distractions increases. But when used well, this focal length can produce amazing results. Part of the effective use of this lens is that it forces you to work closer. The closer the photographer is to the main subject, the more impact the photograph has. It can demand a lot bit of courage on the part of the photographer to work more intimately, but the shots can take one’s street photography to another level.
Another aspect of street photography is the art of the street portrait. While you can produce some wonderful portraiture with a 50mm or even a 35mm lens, a moderate telephoto like an 85mm allows you to achieve a look unlike what you would achieve with a wider focal length. A big advantage is that the combination of the wider aperture and the compression from the telephoto focal length allows you to use a shallower depth of field. You can blur the background of your subject and bring greater attention to the subject’s face or body language.
This may be considered a very unusual choice, but I think that the Lensbaby lenses provide a great creative alternative for the street photographer. The unique optical quality delivered by this lens can bring an interesting and unique look to one’s street photography. Just as the iPhone has broadened what’s acceptable with respect to the look of photography, the Lensbaby helps to make the content of the image much more important than the edge-to-edge sharpness of the optic.
Buy Now: Lensbaby Composer
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