Why the 35mm and 50mm Are the Best Lenses for Street Photography
The 35mm and 50mm lenses are the best lenses for street photography, hands down.
And I think they both work hand in hand together.
Hear me out. I know that may sound a little presumptuous, but I strongly believe it, and I think these are the only two lenses that you will ever need for your street photography.
The Benefits of a Prime Lens for Street Photography
First, let’s briefly talk about why a prime lens is ideal for street over a zoom lens.
I know there is a fear of missing out every time you leave that zoom lens at home or take it off your camera. And the reality is that you will miss shots without a zoom lens, many of them.
But it’s important to let that go.
Because I promise you will make up for it with more keepers with a prime.
Prime lenses focus you. They allow you to get so used to the focal length that photography becomes second nature. You become quicker and more spontaneous with your camera, all traits which are necessary for street photography.
This will allow you to capture moments with your camera that you just wouldn’t be able to get with a more cumbersome zoom lens. The camera becomes more of a part of you.
Finally, they are lighter and easier to carry around. They’re also less noticeable, so you will be able to get closer to your subjects without them noticing you as much.
35mm Lens for Street Photography
*When I talk about 35mm and 50mm focal lengths, I am referring to the full-frame equivalent. So for instance on mirrorless cameras, this would be the equivalent of a 23mm and 35mm lens.*
The 35mm lens is probably the most common lens used by street photographers, and this is because it has a lot of advantages in this fast-moving genre.
It is wide enough to capture multiple subjects in the frame easily or a subject and a background. This is great for those who like to capture juxtapositions or many people or elements in their photos.
You can get close to your main subject and fill the frame, yet still show a lot of the background.
Technically, the wide-angle 35mm lens allows you to have more depth of field in your frame, which can cover up the easy-to-make mistakes when shooting street.
For instance, if you are shooting with an aperture of F8 while using a 35mm lens and you focus on a subject around 10 feet away, everything from around 6 feet to 15 feet will be fairly in focus. This allows you leeway to screw up your focus and still get the shot sharp, and it’s great for scenes where you want multiple subjects at different depths to all be sharp.
Basically, the lens makes your focusing life much easier, and it is also an ideal focal length for zone focusing.
50mm Lens for Street Photography
The 50mm lens allows you to get a little further back. You can focus in on your main subject more, their features, and their expressions without worrying about as many distracting details.
It is great for those who are nervous about street photography because you don’t have to get as close, and auto-focusing is easier than the 35mm because you are further back and usually have more time to focus.
While it is tougher to fit as many elements into a frame as the 35mm, you can still easily fit multiple subjects altogether and the compressed view will allow you to fill the frame with them and see all their details.
Finally, it is a perfect lens for street portraits.
While the 35mm is great for full-length street portraits where you want to show a lot of background, a 50mm will focus the scene right in on your subject and the most important background details. It allows you to highlight their expressions and personality by getting in close to what really matters.
When to Use the 35mm Lens Versus the 50mm Lens
In general, I think the 35mm is ideal for busy areas such as in cities, where people move fast and are all together on small sidewalks.
The fast-moving scenes necessitate a lens that will minimize mistakes and allow you to get close and capture multiple subjects altogether.
The 50mm lens on the other hand is ideal for quieter areas such as in suburbia, where it is much tougher to get as close to your subjects and things are much further apart.
This being said, I use both lenses in cities and in the suburbs. I think using both is important to keep you fresh and to switch up your perspective.
When you get too comfortable with one, just switch it up!
If You Had to Choose One
I can’t tell you which of the two lenses to choose, but I can give you some questions to think about as you make that decision.
1. Do you shoot more in busier or quieter places?
2. Do you like to get close to your subjects?
3. Does street photography make you very nervous?
4. Do you prefer scenes that fill the frame with your subject or do you prefer scenes with multiple subjects or ones that have an equal footing for both the main subject and the background?
And finally, when purchasing a 35mm or 50mm lens, realize that you don’t need the fastest glass. In fact, the faster lenses are often not ideal because they are larger and more expensive. For this reason, I often prefer F2 or F2.8 prime lenses versus F1.4 or F1.8 lenses.