It’s about time I start updating my gallery of street photography images. Digging through my archives, it is interesting to see how my shooting style has changed over the years. I also realize that my own opinions about what makes a street photography image good has also changed over the years as I gained more exposure and experience. Some images which I thought were unique and gained a lot of “likes” now look cliché and boring to me. I also noticed that my images actually had more variety back when I was still using a kit zoom lens. My technique may have improved today, but I seem to have less compositional and subject diversity than I used to get compared to when I was using a zoom lens. Time to rethink what is really the best focal length for street photography?
The subject of the best lens focal length for street photography is akin to religious war. Some insist on 50mm. Others claim 35mm. Some others claim even wider focal lengths from 28mm to 20mm. A lot of people say their chosen focal length is the superior choice. Honestly, if you want an example of what narcissism and arrogance looks like, just read an article or watch a video of some self-professed street photographer explaining how their chosen focal length is that one choice anointed by the universe.
This is of course laughably narrow-minded. An artist who claims his chosen methods and tools for creating art is “superior” or “correct” is an oxymoron and antithesis to the practice of art and creativity. Which imagination-deprived photographer claims that you can’t create compelling street photography images from a fisheye or a super-telephoto lens? One of the amazing characteristics of art is the freedom to experiment and become successful with different techniques, which in turn gives birth to all the amazing variety of creative works that makes art so wonderful. The state of art today will be in a very sorry state if the artists in the many art movements through history only stuck to “the same way of doing things”.
(This does not mean that art is totally subjective. I will continue to repeat my position that there is good art and bad art. If we possess the necessary intelligence and judgement to send people to the stars, we are full well qualified to call good art, good art. And bad art, rubbish.)
So there is no such thing as a “best focal length” for street photography. You should be free to experiment and discover what works best for your own creative vision and process. Many people settle on a fixed prime lens, but I see no reason why a zoom lens can’t work. The disadvantage of zoom lenses is that their versatility is easy to abuse. Instead of experimenting with different compositions, a photographer could just lazily zoom-in and end up with a thoroughly mediocre image. There is much to gain by juxtaposing your subject against different elements in the environment.
In addition, telephoto focal lengths tend to compress an image too much. Some people might describe the effect as “making the scene feel too distant”. However you describe it, the effect is that it could reduce the impact that a picture might have significantly. This does not mean telephoto focal lengths are automatically not good for street photography. Some of the most interesting street photographs I have seen actually came from a lady using a telephoto in the 100-200mm range. The important thing is to understand the characteristics of different focal lengths and leverage their strengths appropriately to capture the moments you want. A zoom lens in the hands of an experienced photographer can become an incredibly powerful tool for street photography. I can imagine that if Henri Cartier Bresson is taking pictures today, he could well be doing street photography with a kit zoom lens because of its small size and versatility.
To end, I wish to give one recommendation to street photography beginners. Start with a kit zoom lens and take a lot of pictures. Eventually you will find your own preferred focal length(s), and you have the pleasure of enjoying the journey getting there. If anyone tells you that you need an expensive prime lens to do street photography, just move them into the “joke” category of your social media groups.
I am now in the process of adding my older images to the gallery. It’s a slow process. As at the time of this essay being published you can see I am still going through images from 2013. I’ll publish blog posts whenever I do an update, and hope you enjoy these updates as much as I do.