There are countless debates about the best focal length for street photography. There are even photographers who say that certain focal lengths should never be used.
In this article, we’ll explore the focal lengths favored by a few famous street photographers and why wide-angle lenses tend to be preferable. Next, we’ll answer the long-awaited question: what’s the best focal length for street photography? Let’s cut to the chase.
Why Focal Length Matters in Street Photography
A quick look at many online forums discussing focal length in street photography will likely reveal just how hotly debated the subject can be. Street photographers are known for their strong opinions and usually defend their choice of photo equipment until the distraction. But there are several reasons why focal length is rightly an important topic in street photography.
Many street photographers use specific cameras and focal lengths only because their favorite photographers did. We’ll discuss this briefly when we cover what a few famous street photographers have used. A good example are Leica cameras and prime lenses with 28mm and 35mm focal lengths.
Wide-angle focal lengths (typically 35mm and below) are popular choices for street photographers for two main reasons based on shooting styles.
First, a wide-angle lens can capture large scenes to provide sufficient background context and detail. This is especially critical for documentary work and photojournalism, which are genres that often intersect with street photography.
Second, wide-angle focal lengths ranging from around 18-35mm are great choices for taking pictures of people up close. In practice, the closer you want to be to your subject, the wider the focal length you’ll need depending on how much detail you want to fill in your frame.
There are street photographers who enjoy shooting extremely wide focal lengths and experimenting with fisheye lenses. They can vary from approximately 8 to 16 mm in full frame equivalent. These extreme focal lengths are known for their distortion properties and for creatively capturing panoramic and hemispherical images.
On the other side of the spectrum, a few street photographers also like to work with longer focal lengths ranging from around 50 to 135mm or more. Their reasons vary.
Many street photographers like to take wide aperture shots with larger focal lengths to blur the background and achieve the bokeh effect. Others may appreciate the effects of lens compression and how the background appears closer to the subject.
Street photographers may shoot with a specific focal length because that’s their personal style or signature, or simply for some of the reasons above. It’s also not uncommon for many to choose a focal length for a 365-day photography project.
There can be a number of reasons and circumstances for sticking to one focal length for several years or a lifetime. Either way, this kind of consistency bodes well for those looking to develop a personal style defined solely by their chosen focal length.
Favorite focal lengths of famous street photographers
Below is a brief list of famous photographers and the focal lengths they are known to have worked with for their street photography.
- Henri Cartier-Bresson – 50mm
- Bruce Gilden – 28mm
- Diana Arbus – 35mm
- Alfred Eisenstaedt – 35mm
- William Klein – 28mm
- Daido Moriyama-28mm
- Walker Evans – 35mm
- Robert Frank – 50mm
- Garry Winogrand – 28mm
- Joel Meyerowitz – 35mm
It should be noted that Bresson, possibly the most acclaimed street photographer of all time, is almost exclusively known for his 50mm focal length work.
A word of warning for beginners: at around 50mm focal length, street photography becomes a bit more difficult, in the same way that it could be difficult with focal lengths below 24mm.
The video above discusses the visual signature and the role focal length plays in it, as well as how a 50mm focal length replaces subjects traditionally shot with wider focal lengths.
Why Prime Lenses Are Popular
Prime lenses, or prime lenses, have only one focal length. These lenses were widely used by masters of street photography, if only for the fact that prime lenses have been commercially available longer than zooms for most of these photographers’ lifetimes.
Yet, from the late 20th century to the present day, prime lenses have played an important role in photography, and street photography in particular, for several reasons:
- Prime lenses are generally less expensive than their equivalent focal lengths in zooms.
- Prime lenses are generally “faster” in that they tend to have larger apertures which let more light into the camera and allow for faster shutter speeds.
- Prime lenses are generally sharper and of better optical quality than most equivalent focal lengths found in zoom lenses.
- Prime lenses tend to be smaller and more compact (although lenses of f/1.4 or less can get considerably larger).
With these advantages, it’s no wonder that many street photographers past and present tend to gravitate toward the focal lengths typically associated with prime lenses.
What is the best focal length for street photography?
When a beginner gets into street photography, it’s common for them to be unprepared in the gear department. Often photographers find themselves commandeering a “real camera” from a family member or friend, or buying the wrong equipment without doing any research.
Considering the advantages of wide-angle lenses and the focal lengths favored by well-known figures in the world of street photography, it’s safe to say that a focal length between 28 and 35mm is a safe bet for beginners.
You can also go a bit wider with 24mm or even go to 50mm like Bresson and Frank. If you prefer zoom lenses, there are plenty that cover a wide range of focal lengths, like 16-35mm and 24-70mm.
The best focal length? It’s yours
There really is no best focal length for street photography; there are only focal lengths favored by passionate photographers. This should not discourage beginners, however. It just means there’s a lot to learn and explore before deciding on your preferred focal length.
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