On Using an 85mm Lens for Street Photography And Forgetting Your Idols

I used to be one of those street photography believers: you know, the ones that always say that you need either a 28mm, 35mm or 50mm lens to create street photos. And that there is nothing else that you can possibly use whatsoever. But as I’ve grown as a photographer, I genuinely believe that I was wrong in that thought process. In fact, I’ve had a number of street photographers pitch their work here who used 85mm lenses and sometimes longer to create images that are fantastic. And while 50mm lenses will let you work closer to your subject, there isn’t a great reason why a modern 85mm lens can’t be used to street photography.

They’re Smaller Than Before

One of the reasons why 85mm lenses aren’t used so often was that the lenses themselves were pretty big. But that has changed these days. Though it’s still most likely true with DSLRs it isn’t so true with mirrorless cameras. The lenses have become smaller and arguably more low profile.

Quite honestly though, this is one of the lesser reasons why people haven’t used an 85mm lens for street photography.

They Still Deliver Images That Let You Feel Like You’re in the Moment

Some of the biggest reasons that photographers haven’t really gone about working with 85mm lenses is that arguably, they create images where you don’t really feel like you’re in the moment. Instead, photographers have reached for 28mm, 35mm and 50mm lenses. But an 85mm lens these days is very capable of not only capturing a moment, but doing it with that “fly on the wall” aesthetic that so many photographer praise and wish for.

The public’s fascination with selfies.

An 85mm lens can be used to single out a single subject in the greater scene while also giving us a scope of what’s going on around them. Some photographers may call the scenes candid street portraits, but to me and in my eyes the images that they’re creating are still street photography in nature.  You can even go as far as calling these scenes a bit more cinematic in that most cinema is shot with telephoto lenses.

Honestly, Who Cares? Street Photography Has Evolved Beyond What The Greats Have Said it Was

Now here’s where I’m getting to the bigger point of my story: photographers often sit there and fixate only on the work of some of the most iconic street photographers out there like Garry Winogrand, Bresson, etc. And I genuinely believe that acknowledgement of their work is very necessary for any street photographer to progress. They did great work for their time and have created timeless captures, but as as a society have advanced with new tools, new methods and new thought processes. Their ways worked very well for them and during their time period. Arguably, a lot of their ways can also work these days in the hands of the right photographers.

But on the other hand, photography these days is so incredibly democratic and there are more photographers than there have ever been in the history of the world today. A different interpretation and idea is surely acceptable if a photographer can make images that stack up.

In many ways, holding what the great photographers have said as Bible is just like saying that the only great landscape photographer was Ansel Adams. It’s not true! It’s just easy for people to sit there and talk endlessly about him because of how highly celebrated he is. The same goes for street photographers; and I think that in order for street photography to continue to evolve that we need to embrace other ways of doing it. It’s only recently that the mobile phone has really been accepted, but other formats including urban geometry can also become solidified.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.