Best Lenses for Street Photography

The best lens for street photography

Street photography as a genre has been a point of debate for the last few years. This is because of the questionable approach that some photographers often tend to resort to in order to make a picture or two out on the streets. These approaches are far from being acceptable.

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Flashing a speedlight straight on to the face of an oncoming stranger isn’t a technique that is particularly pleasing. The father of modern street photography Henri Cartier-Bresson had forever been married to his Leica rangefinder camera. It is a small camera with a fixed 50mm lens.

Cartier-Bresson formed an unbroken partnership with this 35mm camera, a partnership that created thousands of powerful images over the years.

The most essential aspect of street photography is not the camera, and certainly not the lens, but the 12 inches that work behind the camera. It’s all about how romantically you are in love with the whole concept of street photography.

Tokyo by Osamu Kaneko

If pointing a camera towards a complete stranger appears intimidating to you are not alone. Every street photographer goes through the initial phase of fear and skepticism. It is that initial few days, or even hours, of shooting which can be the most difficult. You can say street photography is an acquired taste.

The second essential aspect is the lens. The lens and more importantly the angle of view that you get through the lens by standing at a specific point is what determines whether you can capture the right perspective.

The Best Lenses for Street Photography

There is no right or wrong lens in that respect, only the right image.

Whatever you end up shooting with should allow you to capture the perspective that you originally intended to. If it does not then you are probably not standing at the right spot.

1. Street Photography Lens: 50mm prime lenses

Tokyo by Osamu Kaneko

The million dollar question is: which is the right or the best lens for street photography?

Unfortunately there is no single lens which can be termed as perfect for this genre. As a matter of fact there are two or three lenses which can fit that profile easily.

One of them is definitely the 50 mm prime lens.

This is one of the most popular focal length when it comes to street photography. Widely considered as the focal length that closely matches that of the perspective as seen by the human eye (which is not true!), these lenses are much sought after. A number of companies manufacture this particular lens in a number of maximum aperture.

You can buy 50mm prime lenses in f/1.8, f/1.4 and even f/1.2 maximum aperture. These are really uncomplicated lenses with exceptional optics, fast auto-focusing and instant manual focusing override.

One of the reasons photographers prefer the 50mm over the 35mm is because with the 50mm you can get a better subject separation. Here, subject separation is referred to the ability of the lens to blur out the background and only keep the subject tack sharp. Don’t confuse this with the quality of the out of focus area. That is known as bokeh and is different to subject separation. It certainly helps that the 50mm is slightly longer than the 35mm.

You would ask why you need subject separation if you are shooting street photos. Aren’t you supposed to keep everything tack sharp? Well it depends on the need of the photographer. Many times you are confronted with a subject that requires that you highlight it while blurring out everything else in the vicinity. For such shots you will need to use a shallow depth of field which can be obtained by using a wider aperture and also use a lens that better separates the subject from the background.

2. Street Photography Lens: 35mm prime lenses

Retro Taipei – Sony A7r by Luke Ma

The 35mm is another wide angle lens that’s often considered in the same breath as the 50mm prime. The 35mm has exceptional optics, fast auto-focusing, comes with image stabilization and manual focusing override. The 35mm does everything that the 50mm does except that it is wider.

With a 35mm you would get a bigger angle of view. In comparison with the 50mm which gives an angle of view of 46 ° (Canon) – 47 ° (Nikkor), the 35mm gives an angle of view of 63 ° (Canon) – 62 ° (Nikkor).

If you need a slightly bigger angle of view then the 35mm is a better bet. For photographers with a crop sensor DSLR like the Canon 60D or the Nikon D7000, a 35mm lens converts to a slightly longer 56mm (Canon) or 52.5mm (Nikon). This is much closer to a 50mm standard view for street photography.

3. Street Photography Lens: 40mm prime lenses

Mini & Me by Okko Pyykkö

Canon makes an excellent 40mm lens, the EF 40mm STM.

One of the requirements of street photography is that you remain out of sight or at least inconspicuous when shooting images. One of the greatest street photographers ever, Henri Cartier-Bresson shot almost the entirety of his career with a Leica 35mm rangefinder fitted with a 50mm lens. He would paint the shiny parts of his camera with black paint so that no one would notice him.

In that respect the 40mm is a tiny bit of a lens and sits quite inconspicuously at the front of a full-frame DSLR. If you have a smaller body such as one of the Rebel series 700D etc. that is even better.

Don’t underestimate the seemingly fragile 40mm. It is faster than your average kit lens and let’s in four times more light at the focal length in question. F/2.8 is a good fast aperture and though it is no match to something like a 50mm f/1.4 lens this is still a very good lens.

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The only problem with this lens is that it lacks image stabilization. Though you still have auto-focusing and the all-important full-time manual focusing override, lack of image stabilization can be a problem at certain times.

Though not related with still images, the Stepping Motor technology (STM) ensures that the lens is super quick to focus during video shooting and also super silent. This is another reason the 40mm is a great choice for street photography.

We hope you this post will make it easier for you to choose the best street photography lens out there!

Feel free to leave a comment below and let us know your epxirience with street photography lenses!!

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Rajib's love for the road is second only to his love for photography.
Wanderlust at heart and a shutterbug who loves to document his travels via his lenses; his two passions compliment each other perfectly.
He has been writing for over 6 years now, which unsurprisingly, revolve mostly around his two favorite pursuits.

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Rajib's love for the road is second only to his love for photography.
Wanderlust at heart and a shutterbug who loves to document his travels via his lenses; his two passions compliment each other perfectly.
He has been writing for over 6 years now, which unsurprisingly, revolve mostly around his two favorite pursuits.