A 35mm and a 50mm lens are great options for street photography, but both deliver different outcomes.
I’d always encourage a photographer to opt for a prime lens when shooting street photography. They’re often sharper, smaller, and more fun to use. A 35mm and a 50mm are popular choices for both new and seasoned street photographers. Personally speaking, I veer more towards a nifty fifty, but I’ve also enjoyed shooting with a 35mm. But it’s not just a case of choosing one or the other; the decision is based on what I’m trying to achieve with my work. Let’s take a closer look.
Predominately, I use a 50mm equivalent (35mm f2 on my crop-sensor Fujifilm X-T2,) because it gives me the most versatility when shooting my street photography style. It allows me to create a wider sense of story (but not too wide) as I stand farther back from my subjects. It also creates drama and emotion if I stand closer, without too much distortion.
With that in mind, let’s first look at the key reasons to use a 50mm when shooting street photography.
50mm for Street Photography
Traditionally, the general rule of thought is that a 50mm lens equates to precisely what the eyes see. Meaning, a photo created with a 50mm will look similar to how your eye sees the scene in real life. This is why I like this focal length so much for street photography. My style doesn’t rely heavily on creating exaggerated perspectives like you would see with either a wide-angle lens or a telephoto lens. I want my street photographs to be as true to life as possible, allowing the subjects to be the center of the narrative.
I also find a 50mm to be the best option for a street portrait. When I shoot street portraits, I like to get in tight on my street subjects. I also like keeping enough of the surrounding area in the frame to provide further content. Using a 16mm or a 23mm, as examples, would have two consequences for street portraits. Firstly, if I stood farther back, my subject would get lost in the scene surrounding them and their portrait wouldn’t be as impactful and meaningful. And if I stood closer, the level of distortion would be extremely unflattering on their facial features, and nobody wants that!
Another key reason to favor 50mm lenses is that they’re super fast. Canon offers a nifty fifty at f1.4, Nikon’s f1.8 is one of the sharpest (and cheapest) 50mm lenses I’ve used, and the f2 of my Fuji lens is perfect too. So if I wanted to freeze some motion, I can open my aperture nice and wide, allowing me to use quick shutter speeds. Those apertures are also ideal for adding bokeh to street portraits.
35mm for Street Photographer
Many of the genre’s leading photographers opted for a 35mm lens, especially in the SLR days. Admittedly, it’s not my first choice, but it’s certainly my second.
For me, a 35mm is perfect for removing some of the limitations that come with a 50mm. It’s wider, allowing for more context into the frame should you need it. And although wider, the 35mm isn’t too wide, meaning you won’t get too much lens distortion when using it.
Another great reason to use a 35mm is that it’s ideal for those who like to shoot from the hip. Shooting from the hip – taking photos with your camera in-line with your hip – isn’t easy to do. Street photographers need to give themself some spacial allowance in order to frame their scene. A 50mm (or above) increases the chances of missing the shot. However, with a 35mm you can fit more into the frame and worry about the crop later when you take the image into your editing tool.
A 35mm isn’t too bad for street portraits either. If you like to use the surrounding areas to give some story to your street portrait, then a 35mm is ideal. It’s not too wide for your subject to go missing in the frame, and not too tight where you begin to lose context. Be careful not to get too close though, otherwise you’ll start to see distortion.
If You Had to Choose One
Clearly, I favor a 50mm for street photography. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best choice for you. I like the option of getting nice and tight, and how it reproduces a scene. However, the 35mm isn’t too far behind in this regard, and in fact, will offer most shooters more versatility.
If you like something a bit wider, a lens that helps you shoot from the hip, go for a 35mm. And if you like to create what the eyes see, enjoy getting close and intimate to your subjects, and are partial to a good street portrait, the nifty fifty is the way to go.