Using A Telephoto Lens For Street Photography

Using A Telephoto Lens For Street Photography

Note: The following views are mine personally and do not necessarily represent the views of the StreetHunters team


Rules are made to be broken.” Nowhere does this hold more true than in the creative world. Great artists, in any genre, break rules all the time. Sometimes, the act results in failure. Sometimes, it’s a game changer. And sometimes, it’s a different means to an end.

From what I’ve read and what I’ve seen, shooting with a fixed prime has long been a commandment of street photography. Using a 35 or 50mm had been gospel. Why? The most popular reasons I’ve seen are these:

  1. all the great street photographers have used them.
  2. fixed primes produce the sharpest images, and
  3. a fixed focal length lens helps the Street Photographer know what he / she will see in the viewfinder before the camera hits the eye, enabling them to focus faster then they would with a zoom.

All very, very valid reasons. Using a fixed prime is the the best way to get the street feel and to isolate and capture your subject within whatever composition you’ve dialed in. But, it is the only way? I’m saying no, it’s not.

Why I use a Telephoto

In a sense, using a fixed prime provides an intimacy with the subject. You have to get close with that lens to capture the intimacy, right? Why is it you can’t capture that with a tele? Can’t you capture the soul of the shot? Can’t you capture it from a distance? Sure, you can!

Some say you have to get close and use that fixed prime to properly achieve a quality street shot. Part of this, I believe, is the social aspect of street photography. That you have to be close and intimate to make that capture. This is where definitions become cloudy. Does a street photographer need to be that close to get the shot? Do you have to play by the unwritten rules?

On my first few excursions into street photography, I set up camp at a reasonable distance and shot with the 18-55 or the 55-210 mm on my Sony Nex 5n. Initially, it was because I was “getting my feet wet.” I was trying to get a feel for it. I was nervous. Eventually I got closer and used my 30mm. But tell you what, I got some great shots with those teles.

I was doing some long range sniping, for sure. But, did that not make them street shots? I definitely considered them street. The moment and the feel I was trying to get was captured. Did it have a great bokeh? No. Was it a solid shot? Definitely.
So why continue to use a telephoto when I know the prime is better?

I’ve found, on more than one occasion, that it’s best for me to set up at a distance and shoot. If there’s a throng of people, I can isolate the subject without getting close. And, I can feature that subject among the other people. Or, if I want to get back and capture that subject against part of an urban backdrop, I can set the shot up nicely with my tele, without backing up, and possibly losing that moment.

In a way, it depends on the situation, the location and what I’m looking for. The small cities where I live are not that active when I go out. They are not at all like Philadelphia or Baltimore. Much, much bigger cities with a lot going on. In those cities, you could walk blocks and blocks and have a huge variety of compositions present themselves. On my stomping grounds, a lot of the time, I set up camp in a more popular spot, and let the action come to me. This is much more productive than wandering the fairly empty streets. However, with this approach, I’ll miss that shot that’s a block away if I don’t have my tele on. With the cracking good 55-210, I have a great jack of all trades. I can get great shots up close or father out!

The 55-210 is a very obvious lens, though. It makes me more obvious and my camera more noticeable. With the 30mm on, my rig is real small and I’m a little less conspicuous. I find ways around this, though. I’m sneaky. I’ll pretend to shoot a building and then sneak my shot of the subject in. Is this the definition of street photography? Depends on who you ask. To the purist, no. If it results in a great shot, I don’t think the definition matters one bit!


My definition of street photography is hard to put into words. In short, I define it as a shot from the street, or of the street, that captures the soul of the moment. It also includes capturing inanimate objects that convey a feeling or just beauty. Here’s a Wikipedia definition of street photography. “Street’ simply refers to a place where human activity can be seen, a place to observe and capture social interaction.” Like I said, it depends on your definition of street photography. A piece of art shouldn’t be defined by the means. It should be defined as the end result. It doesn’t need to be defined by the tools you use to get that result.


  1. aghast be dawned though rule breaker! I’m afraid I actually have to agree with you.. The image is everything.. How you get there is up to you but I do feel using a long lens, I choose a 16mm prime currently, is your not in the thick of the frisson.. Watching rather than immersing, definitely a sniper with a rifle rather than an infantryman with just a blade. I do wonder whether a difference can be felt between the result of the two approaches?

    • Casper, I’m betting you’re not a big fan of rules, much like myself. Especially in art. Blah!!! I like how you compare it to combat, that’s a great analogy. I use the tele a lot less now than i did when first starting. That’s because the fear is not as strong. But I’ll never abandon it! The geography, the population and my schedule has a lot to do with when I use the long boy. If i lived in a more major metropolis, I doubt I would ever use it for street work

  2. Starting out in street photography, I prefer to let citizens go about their day and relax. Street Photography is about connecting with the subject, as "humans of New York" does, but surely the realm of Street Photography is broad. As I begin to approach people perhaps I can judge whether telefoto or fixed focal length is best. However I had already read that keeping the lens at a fixed length with a known focal distance is best for captruing street photography.

    • Julian, I think that a fixed prime is best for the classic, "true" street style. And you can feel it in shots made with such. But the tele does come in handy. There is some situations where long range sniping is necessary. And there’s some scenes you just can’t get close to! A fixed prime is the ultimate for street portraits, without a doubt! By
      the way, the Humans Of New York shots I’ve seen are AMAZING!

  3. Good read. I’m a veteran of street shooting preferring generally to use a short wide prime over anything else. I very rarely interact with my subjects, capturing non-posed candid is my “thing”. Unless I’m doing a documentary series I prefer not to connect directly. The unobtrusive observer is more my style, however I do like to get close. Having said that, I have been known to use a 70-200mm now and again and that really depends on my photography making mood at the time — I think it’s healthy to switch things up. Challenge yourself. Experiment. Get a different perspective. Whether you use a prime or a tele, you can still get amazing results. There are no rules in the street, or very few anyway. Just shoot, and shoot often!

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