Best Focal Length for Street Photography

written by: CLARKE SCOTT 
bald asian man sitting on a tram

When we discuss street photography, the choice of focal length becomes a crucial consideration.

The focal length of a camera lens determines how much of a scene will be captured and how the subjects in the frame will appear in relation to each other. It’s a tool for storytelling, allowing us to frame our subjects in an environment that adds context to their stories.

Street photography, as a genre, favors lenses that are nimble, unobtrusive, and versatile, enabling photographers to capture life on the streets authentically and spontaneously.

In the realm of street photography, our tools can shape our artistic voice. Some photographers prefer wider lenses like 28mm for their ability to include more of the surroundings, thereby providing a sense of place.

Others opt for the intimacy of a 35mm lens, blending just enough context with focused storytelling. The debate between the two is a long-standing one, with each focal length having its advocates and distinct visual characteristics.

Our approach must be tailored to our personal style, the particularities of the environment, and the stories we wish to tell through our photographs.

While famous photographers may swear by specific focal lengths, our choice should support our creative vision and allow us to react swiftly to unfolding scenes.

Therefore, it’s essential to understand the advantages and disadvantages of various lenses—from the wide-angle to the telephoto—and how each can serve our purpose in street photography.

Understanding Focal Lengths in Photography

When we discuss photography, the term “focal length” is pivotal because it directly affects our perspective and how the scene is captured. Let’s demystify the focal length to understand how different lenses can influence our photographic results.

Focal Length Basics

Focal length, measured in millimeters (mm), determines our lens’s angle of view and, consequently, how much of the scene we can capture. Shorter focal lengths provide a wider field of view and are often referred to as wide-angle. Conversely, longer focal lengths offer a narrower field of view, which we commonly call telephoto. The focal length is not just a number; it’s the key to how our images portray the world.

Prime vs. Zoom Lenses

We have two main types of lenses: prime and zoom. Prime lenses have a fixed focal length, meaning they excel in clarity and usually offer wider apertures for low-light photography. Zoom lenses, on the other hand, give us a range of focal lengths, allowing for greater flexibility. This is achieved through a complex internal mechanism that adjusts the focal length without changing the focus on the subject.

Focal Length and Composition

The chosen focal length has a profound impact on the composition of our photographs. Wide-angle lenses allow us to capture expansive scenes, making objects in the frame appear smaller but more contextually rich. Telephoto lenses, with their greater magnification, help us isolate subjects from their environment, making them prominent in the frame.

Field of View and Magnification

Field of view is directly linked to focal length. The wider the field of view, the more of the scene in front of the camera we can capture. As we increase the focal length, our field of view narrows, and the magnification of distant subjects increases. This interplay is crucial in street photography, where we might need to alternate between capturing the intimacy of a street portrait and the breadth of an urban landscape.

Recommended Focal Lengths for Street Photography

Choosing the right focal length for street photography can profoundly impact the look and feel of your images. We cover the most recommended focal lengths below, each offering a unique perspective and photographic experience in the streets.

The Versatility of 35mm

The 35mm lens stands out as a highly versatile option for street photography. It’s wide enough to capture scenes with context while still maintaining a natural perspective. Zone focusing is also simplified with a 35mm lens, making it easier for us to capture fleeting moments. When we discuss street photography, a 35mm focal length is often our first recommendation for its balance between a wide frame and contextual storytelling.

The Classic 50mm Standard

Often referred to as the “nifty fifty,” the 50mm lens is a classic standard for its natural angle of view, closely mirroring the human eye. Its popularity is clear, given that this focal length allows for excellent subject isolation while minimizing distortion. A prime 50mm lens often allows for fast manual focusing, ideal when precision is key in the dynamic environment of the streets.

Wider Perspectives with 24mm and 28mm

To capture more of the environment and create dramatic compositions, wider focal lengths like 24mm and 28mm are superb choices. A 28mm lens lets us include a significant amount of the scene, lending a sense of place within a larger context. Lenses like the 24mm take it even further, pushing us into the realm of wide-angle, where every inch of the frame matters.

The Intimacy of the 85mm

Longer focal lengths like 85mm offer a more intimate perspective, allowing us to isolate subjects and compress scenes. Although not traditionally associated with street photography, the use of a 85mm lens lends a voyeuristic glimpse into the lives of others. The compression effect of these lenses can also soften busy backgrounds, putting more emphasis on the subject.

Technical Aspects of Street Lenses

In taking a detailed look at the technical aspects of lenses suitable for street photography, we focus on attributes that influence performance and creative expression. These include aperture settings for varying light conditions, focusing mechanisms that enhance the photographer’s ability to capture fleeting moments, and optical characteristics that shape the visual narrative.

Aperture and Low-Light Capabilities

The aperture is a critical component of a lens and dictates both the exposure and depth of field in an image. In low-light street photography, we often prefer lenses with a wider aperture, such as f/2.8 or greater, like f/1.4. These allow for more light to enter the camera sensor, aiding in faster shutter speeds to freeze motion and reducing reliance on high ISO settings that can introduce noise. A wide aperture also allows for a shallower depth of field, providing the ability to highlight subjects with smooth bokeh while keeping the background unobtrusive.

  • Wide aperture advantages:
    • Better low-light performance
    • Shallow depth of field for emphasized subjects

Focus: Zone Focusing and Manual Focusing

For street photographers, efficient focusing is paramount. Zone focusing is a technique where we set the focus at a predetermined distance, estimating the depth of field to ensure that subjects within that range will be in acceptable focus. It capitalizes on smaller apertures to widen the depth of field, which is especially useful for fast-paced scenes where there’s no time to fiddle with focus settings.

On the other hand, manual focusing provides direct control over the focus plane, allowing us to make fine adjustments that auto-focusing systems might miss. It requires practice but is highly rewarding, ensuring precise control over what is sharp in the frame, vital when we want to direct attention in a crowded or dynamic street environment.

  • Focusing techniques for street photography:
    • Zone focusing for quick shots
    • Manual focusing for precise control

Lens Distortion and Compression

Optical characteristics like distortion and compression affect the final image’s portrayal of space and subjects. Wide-angle lenses, often favored for street scenes, can introduce distortion, which may exaggerate certain features, adding a sense of dynamism or unease to an image. Conversely, longer focal lengths provide compression, making distant objects appear closer to the foreground and flattening the scene to give it a different sense of depth.

We choose lenses based on how these characteristics align with our vision; understanding the technicality helps us exploit or mitigate these effects. For example, minimizing distortion is crucial when aiming for accurate street portraits, while using compression can create impactful layers in a dense urban landscape.

  • Optical characteristics impacts:
    • Distortion for dynamic perspectives
    • Compression for flattened depth

In our pursuit of capturing the essence of the street, we pay close attention to these technical aspects, ensuring they serve our creative intent and the stories we aim to tell through our photography.

Further Reading