If You’re Not Close Enough, Then Go Telephoto in Street Photography

“I want to be the fly on the wall.” is the mantra of so many street photographers out there. For the most part, it’s possible these days. All you need to do is find a way to get close to your subject, use the silent shutter, click, and you’ve got your photo. It’s part of the old adage that if your photos aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough. Many photographers these days tend to use wide angle lenses and go up to the 50mm field of view simply because they feel that it’s important. Gear mongering aside, let’s more address the fact that the point of getting close to a subject is to actually, you know, have some sort of connection with them.

But in most cases, there really isn’t one. So what that mantra becomes is this really, really terribly old idea that in order to get the best street photos you need to be close to your subjects, and you need to use that specific gear. But if Instagram and the iPhone have taught us anything, that’s not true at all.

This piece is partially inspired by my good buddy Jonathan Higbee whose Forbidden City project is something I’m very happy with. It’s a series of travel/street photos curated using Google maps. We’re not close to the subjects and in all honesty, most of the time we aren’t close enough to become completely enraptured with an image.

The point of street photography is, well, there are a few different schools of thought on it. Urban Geometry values more of the overall scene while traditional street photography otherwise values people in the scenes and everyday happenings as they occur.

But let’s just stop all of this right now. The point of street photography is honestly to just capture aesthetically pleasing photos of people in public as they go about their daily lives. It’s about documenting life as it just happens. It isn’t about gear; gear can help and it can appeal to certain people, but I’m generally of the belief “Who cares?”

Where am I going with this? It’s okay for a street photographer to use their medium telephoto lenses to shoot images on the streets as long as they are creating good photos and they have good intentions with their images. If you, no matter, what kind of gear you’re using are taking photos to take advantage of people, then you’re doing something not ethically moral. But if you’re making every attempt at just trying to tell stories on the street, then keep capturing daily life as it happens. Call it candid street portraiture. Call it street photography. Who cares, just shoot. We as a society are generally beyond trolling one another or spewing anguish because someone isn’t close enough to their subject while calling the kettle black.

Times have changed to the point where photography is primarily experienced through a screen. Your viewers (be it on Instagram or other places) simply just look at an image, choose to double tap, and then move past it. The images don’t necessarily stick with them for the rest of their lives and most street photographers aren’t reinventing the wheel. But the point here is that a double tap and scroll isn’t a genuine, serious, life changing connection to an image especially when there are so many others out there.

So with that said, why even bother trying to “fake” that genuine connection with someone by getting close up and personal to them? Why not just take the photo, and leave as long as you’ve got good intentions?