Greetings, you’re listening to the Liam Photography Podcast, I’m your host Liam Douglas and this is Episode 247. So, for today’s episode I am going to be talking about what is the BEST lens for Street Photography?
As someone who shoots a lot of Street Photography, especially when I lived in the Atlanta area and worked downtown, I would often carry my camera and shoot Street Photography during my lunch hour and on my walk to and from the bus station. One of the biggest arguments I have heard more times than I can count is what is the BEST lens for Street Photography? Well, today we’ll look at this question in detail.
Prime or Zoom?
When choosing the BEST lens for Street Photography, the first question you need to answer is should I use a Prime lens or a Zoom lens? Zoom lenses offer a variety of focal lengths so they offer my flexibility, where Primes are a fixed focal length and generally available in wider maximum apertures than Zooms and they are quite a bit sharper. But, both of these types of lenses are used in Street Photography, so let’s look at them in more detail.
Zooms are a general use lens and it’s biggest selling point is the fact that you have a selection of focal lengths, so you don’t need to change your lens and risk getting dirt in your camera and on your sensor. There are of course a large selection of Zoom lenses on the market with one of the most common being the 18-55mm, which with most camera companies is considered a kit lens. There are also those that are called Super Zooms, which allow you to go from 18-300mm, such as the new 18-300mm just released by Tamron for the Fujifilm X Series of cameras. Anyone new to photography will likely start out with the 18-55mm since it is a kit lens and it is totally possible to get great Street Photography shots with this lens. Canon, for one company, makes a fantastic 18-55mm kit lens and it got even better when they released the Mark II version a few years ago.
Pros and Cons of Zoom Lenses
Like any other product or piece of equipment, there are pros and cons to Zoom lenses, so let’s take a look at them now.
Affordable – Most of the zoom lenses are considerably cheaper than primes, even when you get into the higher end of the zooms like the Canon L or Sony G Master lenses. If your wallet cannot support buying multiple primes lenses, then this is the way to go.
Ease of Use – The nice thing about a zoom lens is you can easily go from wide angle to close up shots with a simple twist of the zoom ring.
Flexibility – A zoom allows you to keep shooting without having to change lenses all the time, your typical zoom lens is equal to four or five prime lenses.
Perspective – Now one thing to keep in mind is focal length can drastically change your perspective when shooting. Do you use your zoom lens and have to zoom in when shooting Street Photography? If so, then you are compressing the scene and you cannot include other outside elements in your shot.
Lack of Interaction – One of the best Street Photography tips and you’ve heard me talk about it before is learning how to interact with the people you are shooting. This is much harder to do if you are zooming in from a distance and zooms tend to be more obtrusive and make people on the street nervous. With a nice, compact prime you are be more “undercover” and people will be more comfortable with you shooting street.
Loss of Image Quality – With a zoom lens you can change focal length on the fly, but they also come with the issues with variable aperture, poor sharpness and poor image quality. Distortion, chromatic aberration and vignetting can also easily be an issue with the zoom lenses versus primes.
Although zoom lenses have some disadvantages, they are not as bad as some people will lead you to believe. They are a great choice if you have a limited budget, don’t have a massive lens collection yet and are comfortable working around their limitations.
Prime lenses only have one focal length so whatever you buy is what you get, to keep things simple you can think of these as non-zoom lenses. Now when it comes to Primes, there are TONS of options and the most popular ones for Street Photography are the 35mm and 50mm. These two lenses are chosen the most as they closely match what your eyes see. Now Primes don’t stop there, you can get prime lenses from as wide as 8mm, usually a “Fisheye” lens to as long as 1200mm from Canon.
Most Street Photographers prefer to use a prime lens as they are more compact, sharper and wider aperture, making them superior to zoom lenses. So, the question is are Prime lenses the BEST option for Street Photographer?
Pros and Cons of Primes:
Aperture – The wider apertures of primes give them a HUGE advantage versus zooms because you can get more background blur or Bokeh. Primes often come in Apertures such as F/2.8, F/2, F/1.8, F/1.4 or F/1.2. The glass in Primes are often better than the glass in zoom.
Low Light – The super wide aperture of Primes lenses also mean you can shoot in much weaker light than you can with most zooms. Street Photography after sunset is more moody with more Contrast so the best lens to capture this with is a good Prime.
Bokeh – As mentioned under Aperture, Primes will have the absolute best Bokeh because of their really wide apertures, some of the newest Primes on the market made by various companies are the F/0.95’s and many of them are quite affordable.
Fixed focal length – The most obvious issue with Primes is that you don’t have multiple focal lengths to work with, which might mean changing lenses especially if you want a tighter shot as it’s better than getting right into someone’s face to make that shot. Also if you do get too close with a wide prime you have the distortion issues, which will make their features out of whack.
Not Quite as User Friendly – Most new photographers are used to zooming all the time as I mentioned before because kit lenses tend to be zooms such as the 18-55mm or a 70-300mm, but there are exceptions like Fujifilm offering kits with their 27mm F/2.8 pancake lens, which is a 40mm in full frame. Since new photographers are used to zooming all the time, it takes them a bit of time and practice to get used to shooting with a Prime. You also have to change lenses in the field if you want a different perspective, so you run the risk of getting dirt on your sensor and miss the shot.
Expensive – The 35mm and 50mm as I mentioned earlier are great lenses and unless you are looking at the Canon 50mm F/1.2 L, they are not too expensive. But many other primes out on the market will be really expensive, much more than your typical zoom.
So, do you think Primes are the way for you to go? As you progress as a photographer, you should consider buying at least a few primes. Remember, they often have superior glass, wider apertures and better Image Quality than zooms.
My recommendation is start with a 50mm as from most all companies they offer a really inexpensive option. Canon, for one offers up to three different models to choose from. They have a 50mm F/1.8, which is really affordable at $200 or less, they offer a 50mm F/1.4 for around $400 and then of course their 50mm F/1.2 L for $1,400, and these are all in the EF mount, in RF they currently offer the F/1.8 and the F/1.2 L.
Now why do I recommend the 50mm? Well because it allows you to get your subject and some of their surroundings and 50mm is also often used for portraits in the studio.
Some other great options for Street are:
35mm – Many photographers shooting crop body instead of full frame opt for this lens as with the crop factor it gets to around 50mm, actually 53mm, which is why in the Fujifilm X mount I went with a 33mm F/1.4 as that is a perfect 50mm in full frame. The 35mm is also wide enough to capture plenty of background with your subject without having to back up too much when shooting full frame.
40mm – 40mm is another good focal length for Street Photography and many shooters I know love to use this focal length. It’s not as wide as the 33 or 35mm but they are super affordable and still get you close to what your eye sees. If you want to be discrete, the now discontinued Canon EF 40mm F/2.8 STM pancake at $393, or the Fujifilm XF 27mm F/2.8 pancake at $399, which is 40mm in full frame. The other really nice thing about these two specific lenses is since they are both a very small profile pancake lens, they are really discrete for Street Photography, especially if you pair the XF 27mm F/2.8 with one of Fujifilm’s X-E series bodies. I have photos of my Fujifilm X-E4 with the XF27mm F/2.8 lens on it that you can check out in the show notes.
50mm – Although the 50mm can be used for Street Photography, it is not everyone’s favorite for this style of shooting, especially if you are not used to how the 50mm works overall. With more experience, you will learn to love this lens for its ability to shoot more than just Street Photography.
Wide-angle – If you want to get even more of the “Street story” into your images, then you should consider a good wide-angle prime like the 16mm or a 24mm. Being that these lenses are quite a bit wider than 35mm, you will get WAY more in your scene.
Long focal length – Some photographers prefer a tighter crop and a longer lens also compresses the scene for you, which is why a longer focal length prime might be the route you want to go. You could choose from the 75mm, 85mm, 105mm or the 135mm and most of these lenses come in apertures ranging from F/1.2 to F/2. With a longer lens you will have to step back more and you might make people more uncomfortable as they feel like they are under a magnifying glass.
How about zoom lenses, which are best for Street Photography?
18-55mm – As I mentioned earlier, this is one of the most common lenses used for Street Photography as it comes with most cameras no matter the brand. It is good for shooting wide and getting more in your scene at 18mm, but also allows you to get a bit tighter with the 55mm end. They are not as good as a Prime optically, but both Canon’s and Fujifilm’s 18-55mm kits lenses are really high quality for their price point if you do have to buy one separately.
24-70mm – This is the kit lens for professionals and comes with many professional bodies such as the Canon 5D, or 1Dx line. They are much more expensive than the 18-55mm as they are generally a fixed Aperture, where the 18-55mm is usually like F/3.5 to F/4.5. The 24-70mm also comes with higher quality glass as it is more of a high end zoom, but it is also fairly heavy as it often comes in F/2.8.
12-24mm – If you are in need of a speciality lens than you can consider this ultra-wide lens. They usually come in an Aperture that is fixed as well, but usually it’s F/4, which can be fine for Street Photography and it also allows you to shoot in either spaces like alleys.
24-105mm – To get an all around option that can be used for Street Photography, you can never go wrong with the 24-105mm, which is a kit lens for the more professional bodies much like the 24-70mm. The 24-105mm generally only comes in F/4, where the 24-70mm often comes in an F/2.8, but the 24-105mm gives you the ability to shoot even lighter with its extra reach. The only down side is this lens tends to be heavy as they often have image stabilization as well.
70-200mm – Some photographers like to use this lens as it allows you to get even tighter than the 105mm or the 135mm and it has more versatility than the others, covering a wide range of focal lengths in a single lens. The 70-200mm comes in both an F/4 and an F/2.8 version, but both lenses are fairly heavy and expensive, with the F/4 model being a bit less expensive than the F/2.8 model.
The Five Best Lenses for Street Photography:
Canon EF 50mm F/1.8 STM II
This is the newer version of the original “Nifty Fifty” or “Plastic Fantastic” and Canon also offers this in the RF mount. The lens offers a good aperture, it’s fairly small and light weight and still makes great images. It’s not on par with Zeiss or Sigma’s 50mm but the price is also much lower.
- Minimum focus distance of .35 meters
- Better bokeh produced by the 7 aperture blades
- Best value for the money in 50mm, especially if you find the original model at $125
- Compact design and not very heavy at all
Nikon 50mm F/1.8G
I shot Canon for years before switching to Fujifilm X Series, but I want to include others as well. The Nikon lens like the Canon model is great in low light, compact and light weight and inexpensive with good image quality.
- Awesome in low light conditions
- Produces excellent background blur or bokeh for a more artistic effect
- If you are shooting Nikon, this is the low cost option for you.
Sony 35mm F/2.8 Sonnar T FE ZA
This Sony lens packs a tremendous punch when shooting Street Photography and it features Carl Zeiss optics. This means it will make insanely sharp images and make you very happy with its results. It is still smaller and lighter when compared to the F/1.4 and F/1.8 options.
- Light and compact design
- Very fast, accurate and quiet AF
- Works with both Sony APS-C and full frame cameras
Fujifilm XF 23mm F/2
Since making the move to Fujifilm X Series, this is the lens I went with for Street Photography as it’s 35mm in full frame. It has a fairly wide aperture at F/2 and it’s also weather sealed so I can safely shoot with it in the rain.
- 9 aperture blades for beautiful, round bokeh
- 35mm in full frame Equivalent
- Aperture range of F/2-F/16
Sigma 35mm F/1.4 ART DG HSM
The beautiful Sigma 35mm F/1.4 comes with mid-range price with excellent optics, especially since it’s part of their ART series of glass. In comparison to Canon L lenses it can be a bit sharper. With an aperture of F/1.4 this lens works really well in low light, but you probably won’t shoot it wide open as the depth of field will be too shallow.
- Available in multiple mounts including Canon, Nikon and Sony
- Produces wonderful bokeh without losing sharpness
- Beautiful, modern design as well as very easy to use
24-70mm F/2.8 by ANY Maker
As I mentioned earlier, the 24-70mm will work as there are a number of companies that make this lens, from Canon, to Nikon, Sony and even Fujifilm. It gives you the versatility of 24mm on the wide end to 70mm when you need tighter shots.
- Very wide aperture at F/2.8, making it excellent in low light
- Most of these lenses are very high build quality
- Most are also weather sealed for shooting in bad weather
Wrapping up, there are a few key factors to consider when choosing the best lens for Street Photography. It is wisest to consider weight, features, price and the most important part, Image Quality. Now, after all of this, which lens wins? To be honest, it doesn’t really matter, it’s more about what you want and can afford. You can go to a local camera store and try some of these options between Primes and Zooms, or you can even go to lensrentals.com and rent before you buy! In the end the best lens is the one you are most comfortable with!
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