Is a 50mm Lens Good for Street Photography

written by: CLARKE SCOTT 
man getting a shave in a barber shop

The 50mm lens holds a place of esteem in the world of street photography. But is it the best lens for street photography?

Its popularity stems from a unique combination of versatility, compact size, and image quality, which aligns closely with the candid, dynamic nature of street scenes. A 50mm lens mimics the natural perspective and field of view of the human eye, making it an intuitive choice for capturing life as it unfolds on the streets. Its relatively fast aperture allows for shooting in a variety of lighting conditions while offering the photographer the creative freedom to isolate subjects with pleasing bokeh.

Opting for a 50mm lens in street photography brings with it a blend of creative constraints and opportunities.

The fixed focal length encourages photographers to move within their environment to compose shots, a practice that often leads to more thoughtfully framed images and a deeper engagement with the subject matter.

The lens’s simplicity also means less time fiddling with camera settings and more time observing and capturing the subtleties of public life.

Key Takeaways

  • The 50mm lens’ natural perspective suits the spontaneity of street photography.
  • Its wide aperture offers versatility in different lighting conditions.
  • A fixed focal length promotes active engagement with the environment.

Understanding Street Photography

Street photography captures the essence of daily life and the humanity that permeates through cities. Using a 50mm lens can contribute to the creation of striking street portraits and candid scenes that reflect the context and emotion of the moment.

Defining Street Photography

Street photography is the art of capturing life in public spaces. It consists in documenting humanity in its manifold expressions, often by snapshotting moments of emotion, daily life, or interesting content within a context. Renowned photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Elliott Erwitt are often admired for their ability to seize the ‘decisive moment’, a concept deeply intertwined with the genre. The goal is to tell a story or provoke an emotional response from the viewer with a single image that holds significant value on its own.

The Role of the 50mm Lens in Street Photography

A 50mm lens, frequently referred to as the “nifty fifty,” is considered a standard lens due to its field of view closely resembling that of the human eye. This makes the 50mm an ideal lens for street photography because it can deliver a natural perspective without significant distortion, thus creating street portraits that feel immediate and relatable.

  • It’s a prime lens, which means it has a fixed focal length that encourages photographers to move within a scene to compose their shot, fostering a more immersive and mindful approach.
  • Many street photography aficionados praise the 50mm lens for its ability to isolate subjects, yet still capture enough of the environment to retain the scene’s context.

Using a 50mm lens aligns with the photographic philosophy described by Cartier-Bresson—a candid reflection of life on the streets that preserves the emotion and humanity of each captured moment.

Technical Characteristics of the 50mm Lens

In my experience with photography, I’ve come to appreciate that the 50mm lens has a well-deserved reputation for exceptional image quality, especially when it comes to street photography.

It strikes a balance between sharpness and versatility, providing a natural perspective with the potential for a shallow depth of field.

Focal Length and Perspective

My observations support that the 50mm focal length closely mimics the human eye’s field of view, offering a natural perspective. This focal length avoids the distortion seen with wide-angle lenses and the compression effect of telephoto lenses, making it suitable for capturing authentic street scenes.

A 50mm lens also provides sufficient image quality and sharpness, leading to crisp pictures that exhibit a high level of detail.

Advantages of a Wide Aperture

The wide maximum aperture of a 50mm lens is a key characteristic. When I use a 50mm lens at apertures such as f/1.8 or f/1.4, I gain two significant benefits:

  1. Low-Light Performance: The lens can gather more light, making it a solid choice for low-light conditions without necessitating a slower shutter speed or higher ISO.
  2. Depth of Field Control: With a wide aperture, I can achieve a shallow depth of field, which allows for a pronounced background blur or bokeh. This feature is instrumental for isolating the subject from the background details, directing the viewer’s focus exactly where I want it.

Practical Aspects of Using a 50mm Lens in Street Photography

In my experience, utilizing a 50mm lens for street photography neatly balances the need for composition control and capturing candid moments. This focal length offers a field of view that is close to the human eye, which is why it is often referred to as “nifty fifty”.

Navigating Space and Composition

With a 50mm lens, I find that framing a scene feels natural and intuitive because it closely mirrors what I see with my own eyes, minimizing distortion you might find with a wide-angle lens. This focal length enforces a discipline in positioning and perspective, often requiring me to move around for the ideal shot rather than relying on zoom. The 50mm perspective tends to include enough of a scene for context without the risks of feeling too tight or leaving too much empty space that might demand cropping in post-processing.

  • Zone Focusing: This technique proves efficient, especially with a 50mm lens, enabling me to pre-set my focus range and capture sharp images quickly.
  • Personal Space: The focal length allows me to maintain a comfortable distance, respecting personal space while still enveloping the emotion and humanity of the subjects.

Capturing Spontaneity and Emotions

A key to successful street photography is the capacity to record spontaneous moments and the raw emotions they convey—something that’s achievable with the fast aperture settings a 50mm lens often provides. This flexibility with aperture also guarantees that I can adapt promptly to changing light conditions, ensuring a faster shutter speed to avoid motion blur and preserve the vitality of the streets.

  • Fast Aperture: I can shoot with a wide aperture like f/1.8, which is beneficial for quick focus and creating separation between the subject and the bustling background.
  • Emotion: By not imposing on the scene, a natural expression of emotion is more likely to be captured.

Lens Choices and Aesthetic Outcomes

Deciding between a 50mm lens and alternatives like a 35mm or a wide-angle lens can significantly impact the aesthetic of my street photography. While a wide-angle lens may capture more of the scene, and a telephoto lens may allow for close-ups without intrusion, I lean towards the 50mm for its lack of distortion and its suitability for a wide range of situations, from portraits to wider street scenes.

  • Quality: Photos taken with a 50mm lens often have a higher quality with less distortion compared to other lenses that might exaggerate certain elements.
  • Aesthetic: The slight compression of a scene can make a 50mm lens advantageous for creating a sense of depth, adding to the overall storytelling quality of the photos.

Comparisons and Alternatives

When assessing the merits of a 50mm lens for street photography, it’s essential to consider how it compares to other focal lengths and how different camera systems affect its performance. The sharpness, field of view, and portability of the 50mm make it a favored choice, but alternative lenses and systems could sway a photographer’s preference.

50mm vs 35mm: Finding Your Fit

The 50mm lens, often referred to as the “nifty fifty,” offers a narrower field of view than the 35mm, replicating a perspective close to that of the human eye on a full-frame camera. This characteristic can help to isolate subjects and provide a natural-looking composition without much distortion. The 50mm lens is usually quite compact and affordable, making it an accessible choice for photographers of all levels.

On the other hand, a 35mm lens offers a wider field of view which can capture more of the scene and context around a subject. For street photography, this can be advantageous when the environment’s story is as prominent as the subjects within it. With the ability to produce a good balance between context and focus on the subject, the 35mm is often deemed as more versatile for dynamic street scenes.

LensField of ViewPortabilityBest Used For
35mmWiderPortableEnvironmental shots
50mmNarrowerCompactSubject isolation

Considering Other Lenses for Street Photography

In addition to the 35mm and 50mm, other lenses can be opted for their specific features. A wide-angle lens, such as a 28mm, can capture expansive street scenes and is particularly beneficial for tight spaces. Despite a potential for distortion, it can yield engaging and dramatic perspectives.

For a more discreet approach, photographers might consider a telephoto lens, although bulk and weight can restrict ease of use in street scenarios. Brands like Tamron offer a range of affordable lenses with varying focal lengths that might suit different photographers’ needs, but it’s important to note that heavier gear can hinder the portability crucial to street photography.

The Impact of Camera Systems on Lens Performance

The performance of a 50mm lens largely depends on the camera system it’s paired with. For instance, on a full-frame camera, a 50mm lens offers a standard perspective, while on a crop sensor, it behaves more like a short telephoto lens due to the crop factor.

Micro Four Thirds systems will double the effective focal length — meaning a 50mm lens will behave like a 100mm lens, providing a much tighter viewpoint. This system can challenge street photographers who desire to engage less obtrusively with their environment.

Ultimately, when evaluating the performance and suitability of a 50mm lens for street photography, considering the camera system’s impact is paramount.

In conclusion, the decision between a 50mm and alternative lenses comes down to personal preference, photography style, and the desired balance between subject isolation and environmental context.

Whether photographers opt for the “nifty fifty” for its compactness and perspective or other lenses for their unique characteristics, understanding each option’s strengths is key to making an informed choice for street photography.

Frequently Asked Questions

In my experience, the 50mm lens is a popular choice among street photographers. Let’s explore some of the specific questions often raised regarding its use.

What are the advantages of using a 50mm lens for street photography?

A 50mm lens often produces images that closely resemble the perspective of the human eye, which is ideal for capturing candid scenes with a sense of naturalness. This focal range also allows for a relatively wide aperture, enabling shooting in lower light conditions and achieving a shallow depth of field to isolate subjects from busy backgrounds.

How does a 50mm lens compare to a 35mm lens in street photography contexts?

The 50mm lens tends to bring photographers a bit closer to their subjects than a 35mm lens, offering a tighter frame without the need to intrude on personal space. In contrast, a 35mm lens generally captures a wider field of view, which might be preferred when including more environment in the composition. My preference depends on the desired outcome and shooting environment.

Can a 50mm lens be versatile enough for the dynamic environments of street photography?

Yes, 50mm lenses are quite versatile for street photography. They balance the capacity to both frame subjects clearly and include enough of the surrounding context without excessive distortion. While it may require more footwork compared to a zoom lens, I find this limitation often inspires more thoughtful composition.

What settings are recommended when using a 50mm lens for street photography?

I often shoot with a wide aperture, like f/2.8, to capitalize on the natural bokeh effect and fast shutter speeds to freeze motion. ISO settings can be adapted to the lighting conditions, but keeping it as low as possible helps maintain image quality. A standard setting might be an aperture of f/8, shutter speed of 1/250s, and an ISO adjusted according to available light.

How do 50mm lenses from different brands like Nikon, Canon, and others perform in street photography?

Different brands offer their unique take on the 50mm lens, with variations in aperture sizes, sharpness, and build quality. Brands like Nikon and Canon have well-regarded 50mm f/1.8 lenses that perform excellently in street photography by providing high-quality images at an affordable price. The choice often comes down to personal preference and compatibility with my existing gear.

For APS-C and Micro Four Thirds cameras, what considerations should be taken when using a 50mm lens for street photography?

On an APS-C sensor camera, a 50mm lens effectively behaves like an 80mm lens due to the crop factor, offering a tighter field of view. For Micro Four Thirds, the crop factor is about 2x, making a 50mm lens act as a 100mm equivalent. I take this into account by either moving further from my subject or choosing a lens with a lower focal length to achieve the field of view similar to what a 50mm provides on a full-frame camera.

Further Reading