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What Is the Best Focal Length for Street Photography?

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There are countless debates on what the best focal length is 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 focal lengths tend to be preferable. Then, we'll answer the much-anticipated question: what is the best focal length for street photography? Let's jump right in.

Why Focal Length Matters in Street Photography

Phtographer posing for camera

A quick glance at many online forums discussing focal length in street photography will likely reveal how hotly debated the subject can be. Street photographers are known for their strong opinions and typically defend their choice of camera gear to the point of distraction. But there are several reasons why focal length is rightfully an important subject in street photography.

Tradition

There are many street photographers who use specific cameras and specific focal lengths only because their favorite photographers had done so. We'll briefly discuss this when we cover what a few famous street photographers used. A great example of this is Leica cameras and prime lenses with focal lengths of 28mm and 35mm.

Wide Angle

Wide angle focal lengths (generally 35mm and smaller) are popular choices for street photographers for two primary reasons based on styles of shooting.

Firstly, a wide angle lens can capture large scenes to provide ample context and background detail. This is especially critical for documentary work and photojournalism, which are genres that often crossover with street photography.

Secondly, wide angle focal lengths ranging from roughly 18-35mm are great choices for taking pictures of people in close proximity. In practice, the closer you want to be to your subject, the wider the focal length you'll need depending on what details you want to fill your frame.

Special Effects

There are street photographers who like to shoot with extremely wide focal lengths and experiment with fisheye lenses. They can vary anywhere from approximately 8-16mm in full-frame equivalent terms. These extreme focal lengths are known for their distortion properties and for capturing panoramic and hemispherical images in creative ways.

On the other side of the spectrum, a few street photographers also like to work with larger focal lengths ranging from about 50-135mm or more. Their reasons for this varies.

Many street photographers like to shoot wide open with larger focal lengths to blur the background and to get the bokeh effect. Others may enjoy the effects of lens compression and how the background will appear closer to the subject.

Style

Street photographers may shoot with one specific focal length because it's their personal style or signature look, or simply for some of the above reasons too. It's also not uncommon for many to choose one focal length for a 365-day photography project.

There could be any number of reasons and circumstances for sticking to just one focal length for several years or a lifetime. Whatever the case, this kind of consistency bodes well for those seeking to develop a personal style that's solely defined by their focal length of choice.

Focal Lengths Favored by Famous Street Photographers

Bicyclist riding next to flock of pigeons

Below is a brief list of famous photographers and the focal lengths they're known to have worked with for their street photography.

  • Henri Cartier-Bresson – 50mm
  • Bruce Gilden – 28mm
  • Diane Arbus – 35mm
  • Alfred Eisenstaedt – 35mm
  • William Klein – 28mm
  • Daidō Moriyama -28mm
  • Walker Evans – 35mm
  • Robert Frank – 50mm
  • Garry Winogrand – 28mm
  • Joel Meyerowitz – 35mm

It's worth noting that Bresson, probably the most widely acclaimed street photographer of all time, is almost exclusively known for his 50mm focal length work.

A word of caution for beginners: at around a 50mm focal length, street photography does become a bit more challenging, much in the same way that it could be challenging using focal lengths of less than 24mm.

The above video discusses visual signature and the role focal length plays in it, as well as a 50mm focal length being a substitute for subjects that are traditionally shot with wider focal lengths.

Man reading newspaper at an outdoor cafe

Prime lenses, or fixed focal length lenses, have only one focal length. These lenses have been widely used by masters of street photography if only for the fact that prime lenses have been commercially available for longer than zoom lenses during most of these photographers' lifetimes.

Even so, from the late 20th Century until the present, prime lenses have played an important role in photography, and street photography in particular, for a number of reasons:

  • Prime lenses are generally cheaper than their equivalent focal lengths in zoom lenses.
  • Prime lenses are usually "faster" in that they tend to have larger apertures that let more light into the camera and allow for faster shutter speeds.
  • Prime lenses are generally sharper and of better optical quality than many of the equivalent focal lengths found in zoom lenses.
  • Prime lenses tend to be smaller and more compact (although primes of f/1.4 or less can become substantially larger).

With these advantages, it's no wonder that many street photographers of the past and present tend to gravitate toward focal lengths commonly associated with prime lenses.

What Is the Best Focal Length for Street Photography?

Camera and lenses in an office environment

When a beginner starts out in street photography, it's common to be unprepared in the gear department. Oftentimes, photographers find themselves commandeering a "real camera" from a family member or friend, or purchasing the wrong gear without doing any research.

Taking into account the advantages of wide angle prime lenses and the focal lengths favored by well-known figures of the street photography world, it's safe to say that a focal length between 28-35mm is a safe bet for beginners.

You can also go a little wider with 24mm or even step up to 50mm like Bresson and Frank. If you prefer zoom lenses, there are many that cover a wide array of focal lengths, like the 16-35mm and the 24-70mm.

The Best Focal Length? It's Up to You

There really is no such thing as the best focal length for street photography; there are only focal lengths favored by passionate photographers. This shouldn't be discouraging to beginners, however. It simply means that there's a lot to learn and explore before settling on your favorite focal length.

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