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Street Photography with a 50mm Lens: Mastering the Classic Focal Length

written by: CLARKE SCOTT 
Woman stand stoic at Anzac parade

Street photography invites us to document the candid essence of daily life in urban landscapes, capturing stories and moments that often go unnoticed.

The choice of lens greatly influences our interaction with the scene, and using a 50mm lens allows us to approach our subjects with a perspective that closely resembles the human eye. This focal length offers a natural field of view, simplifying composition while providing a desirable balance between subject and environment.

With a 50mm lens, we bring a sense of intimacy and detail to our images without intruding too much into the personal space of those we photograph. This lens encourages us to be present within the scene, rather than observing from a distance.

The versatility of the 50mm lens also makes it ideal for street photography; it is adept in a range of lighting conditions, useful in tight spaces, and it forces us to engage with our surroundings to frame our shots thoughtfully.

Key Takeaways

  • A 50mm lens offers a natural perspective akin to the human eye, ideal for street photography.
  • This focal length allows for a balanced composition of subject and environment.
  • The 50mm is versatile in various lighting conditions and promotes thoughtful engagement with the scene.

Equipment Essentials

When we discuss street photography, the equipment we choose is crucial for capturing those fleeting human moments in the urban landscape. Our focus will be specifically on understanding and utilizing the 50mm lens – often referred to as the “nifty fifty” – and the factors to consider when selecting it.

Choosing the Right Lens

The lens is our eye to the world in street photography. We typically have to decide between a 50mm prime lens and other options like the 35mm lens or a 28mm lens. The 50mm lens is acclaimed for its versatility, offering an excellent balance between a natural field of view and the ability to isolate subjects. It matches closely to our natural field of vision on a full-frame camera. Meanwhile, a 35mm lens can provide a wider angle, which is useful if we prefer to capture more of the scene.

50mm Lens Characteristics

A 50mm lens, commonly known as the nifty fifty, is prized for its relatively wide aperture and compact size. It offers us a field of view that closely resembles what our eyes see naturally. For full-frame cameras, this lens gives us a true 50mm perspective.

However, on an APS-C camera, a 50mm lens acts more like an 80mm lens due to the crop factor. Similarly, on a micro-four thirds camera, the focal length equivalent would be around 100mm. Manufacturers like Nikon and Canon provide these lenses with varying apertures, like f/1.8 or f/1.4, allowing for good performance in low-light conditions and creative depth of field control.

Lens TypeField of ViewApertureBest For
50mm (full-frame)Naturalf/1.8, f/1.4General street photography
35mmWiderf/2, f/1.8Including more of a scene
28mmEven widerf/2.8 and beyondDynamic, busy street scenes

Understanding Lens Specifications

When we examine lens specifications, we look beyond just focal length. The maximum aperture, indicated by the f-number (like f/1.8), is key for understanding light gathering capability and depth of field potential. A lower f-number indicates a wider aperture, which is better for low light and creating a shallow depth of field. The minimum focusing distance of the lens is also important for us to consider; it determines how close we can get to our subject while still being able to achieve focus. These specifics guide our gear choices to suit our unique street photography style.

Technical Aspects

In street photography utilizing a 50mm lens, mastering the technical aspects is crucial to capturing compelling images. We’ll focus specifically on how to leverage aperture and shutter speed, use the focal length to control depth of field, and apply techniques for impactful framing and composition.

Mastering Aperture and Shutter Speed

Aperture is paramount when we aim to control light and depth of field. A wide aperture (low f-number) allows more light, great for low-light conditions, and creates a shallow depth of field, which emphasizes the subject while blurring the background. On the other hand, a smaller aperture (high f-number) provides a greater depth of field, keeping more of the scene in focus. For street photography, this can mean the difference between a subject popping out or blending into the bustling street scene. Managing shutter speed is equally important; a fast shutter can freeze the moment in a busy street, while a slower shutter might convey motion, adding a dynamic element to our shots.

Utilizing Focal Length and Depth of Field

The 50mm focal length is beneficial in street photography for its similarity to the human eye’s perspective. When we discuss depth of field, the 50mm lens offers us a versatile range. At wider apertures, we can isolate our subject with a shallow depth of field. By adjusting to smaller apertures, we expand our depth of field, enabling us to capture sharper details throughout the scene. Techniques like zone focusing, where we pre-set our focus based on an estimated distance, or utilizing the hyperfocal distance, can expedite our shooting process, as it allows us to shoot from the hip without missing critical moments.

Framing and Composition Techniques

How we frame our subject is critical for composing a visually appealing photograph. We should always be aware of the frame and arrange elements within it to guide the viewer’s eye towards our subject. A 50mm lens requires us to be physically closer to our subject, or clever with our composition, making it easier to fill the frame and create intimacy. Composition techniques such as the rule of thirds, leading lines, and the careful balance of positive and negative space help us achieve a harmonious and intriguing photograph.

Creative Approach

When we harness the capabilities of a 50mm lens in street photography, our creative approach broadens, focusing on capturing the essence of the urban narrative through the human element, unique perspectives, and the interplay of light and shadow.

Capturing the Human Element

With a 50mm lens, we come closer to the natural perspective of the human eye, reducing distortion and maintaining the authentic expressions of our subjects. This proximity allows us to capture intimate street portraits, unveiling stories through candid moments. The relatively narrow angle of view compared to wider lenses enhances the isolation of subjects from the busy street scene, drawing the viewer’s attention directly to the human emotion and expression present in the frame.

Perspective and Distinctiveness

We favor the 50mm lens for its perspective that closely mirrors how we perceive the world, which adds distinctiveness to images without the exaggeration common to wide angles or the compression of telephoto lenses. We utilize this focal length to infuse our photos with a sense of depth and scale, capturing scenes that feel both intimate and expansive. Strategic positioning and choice of angle of view can yield a dynamic foreground that adds depth, leading to more engaging compositions.

Managing Light and Shadow

The 50mm lens affords us the flexibility to play with light in creative ways, often producing a beautiful background blur or bokeh that highlights our subjects against a softened scene. Bold use of contrast between light and shadow can be achieved, enhancing the drama in our images. In situations with movement, we can adjust our settings to create a slight motion blur that conveys the energy of the streets, while keeping the main subject sharp, creating a balance that brings a still image to life.

Practical Guidance

In this section, we’ll provide actionable tips for using a 50mm lens in street photography, focusing on navigating public spaces and understanding the ethics involved.

Navigating Public Spaces

When we’re shooting with a 50mm lens, our distance from the subject becomes a crucial part of the composition. This focal length allows us to maintain a comfortable personal space while capturing the essence of daily life.

To effectively capture humanity and daily life, we often prefer a candid approach. The right shutter speeds are essential to freeze the moment without blur, which means we should aim for at least 1/125s, though this might vary with the lighting conditions and personal preference.

  • Affordable and accessible: The 50mm lens is not only budget-friendly, but it’s also widely available, making it a great tool for both beginners and experienced street photographers.
  • Challenging yet rewarding: While it can be challenging to frame the perfect shot with a fixed 50mm lens, it often results in “keepers” that showcase human elements in a way that zoom lenses can’t match.

Ethics and Street Photography Etiquette

The line between capturing a moment and being intrusive can sometimes become blurred in street photography. We must respect the people we photograph — if someone appears uncomfortable or objects to being photographed, we should comply with their wishes. Being aggressive with the camera is not part of our ethics.

Our approach to street photography should be inspired by the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Elliott Erwitt, who were masters at observing and documenting life without altering the scene.

Here are several photography tips to maintain etiquette:

  • Always exhibit a demeanor of respect and professionalism.
  • Understand the cultural context of the area we are photographing in, especially in contexts of travel photography.
  • Be transparent about our intentions if asked. We carry the responsibility of a photojournalist, capturing life as it unfolds.

We must also consider modern platforms such as Instagram, which can influence our definition of street photography.

Our goal with this platform should be to share authentic moments, rather than staged or altered images, to preserve the integrity of street photography.

Further Reading