I traditionally use a Fujifilm 35mm f2 lens when I’m shooting street photography. On my Fujifilm X-T2, that’s around a 53mm full-frame equivalent. It works well for me and helps me achieve the shots I want. I’d say most street photographers use a similar lens. We tend to use lenses ranging from 23mm to around 70-80mm. Many would deem anything beyond that “unsuitable for street photography.” So, to break some trends and ruffle some feathers, I pulled out a Fujifilm 55-200mm to see if I could use a telephoto lens for street photography. Let’s take a look.
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As this is a field report, my intention isn’t to show off my best work. (You can see that here.) Rather, the photographs below are here to portray a transparent, real-world experience. The truth is, I struggled using a telephoto lens for street photography. I was out of my comfort zone, and the user experience felt alien. I’d say it took three or four photo walks before I began to feel more comfortable using a 55-200mm, especially when shooting between 100-200mm.
Managing Distance with a Telephoto Lens for Street Photography
The first obstacle I faced when using a longer lens was judging where to stand. With a 35mm, I’m usually close to my scenes and subjects. That wasn’t possible when using a telephoto lens. Rather than analyzing scenes in the foreground, I had to judge what was going on in the background. The trouble with this is that it’s difficult to anticipate your subject’s next move. In turn, I struggled to judge the best moment to make the frame and ended up missing lots of shots. Also, by the time I finished judging the right focal length, the subject had left the scene, and the shot I wanted was gone. I spent most of my time frustrated.
Standing Out with a Telephoto Lens for Street Photography
A big barrier most street photographers face is the worry of being noticed when making photographs. You’d think you’d have more chance of being spotted when up close and personal than you would when standing from afar. That was not my experience. Maybe it was paranoia on my part, but I felt the subjects I focused my lens on knew it was happening. The 55-200mm isn’t an overly large lens for telephoto standards, but it’s much bigger than my 35mm, especially at 200mm. The truth is, for the first time, I felt a little creepy when doing street photography. That’s not to say using a telephoto lens is creepy. It’s just the feeling I had when using one.
The Technical Aspects of a Telephoto Lens
Using a small, f2 prime lens, blurry images from camera shake is seldom a concern. However, when using a telephoto lens for street photography, blurry images felt like something I had to consider with every shot I made. The lens I use does have built-in stabilization, however it still felt a little shaky when shooting between 135mm -200mm. I constantly forgot to think about my shutter speed. For those new to photography, the general rule to avoid blurry images is to shoot at a shutter speed equal to or greater than your focal length. For example, if you shoot at 125mm, your shutter speed should be 1/125th of a second or faster to avoid blurry images. You can break this rule for creative reasons, but if you want sharp shots, you need to apply the rule.
As this is something I never thought about, I experienced soft, blurry photographs when using the telephoto lens, which wasn’t my intention. When I remembered to adjust my shutter speed, the subject had already moved on by the time I had done it. There are fine margins in street photography, and you need to get the shot as quickly as possible. If you are shooting street photography with a longer lens, I’d advise shooting in shutter priority mode to avoid wasting too much time adjusting exposure.
To me, doing street photography isn’t only about the final images. The main reason I practice the craft is to enjoy the process. Using a 35mm prime makes me feel like I’m a part of a scene, immersed in my subject’s story. I also love the risk of getting caught. It’s a buzz. And the camera and lens combination feels great in my hands and light around my neck!
With a telephoto lens, the experience wasn’t the same. I felt detached from my scenes and more like a paparazzi photographer rather than a street photographer. Messing about with the zoom ring, remembering my shutter speeds, and standing out like a sore thumb spoilt the experience for me. I’ll likely never use a telephoto lens for street photography again. That’s not to say you can’t use one. Many photographers make great images with longer focal lengths. But for me and my experience, it’s a mid-range prime lens all the way.
What lens do you use for street photography? Do you enjoy using a telephoto lens? Let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading.