NOTE: This is a subject that I feel I don’t have the really professional technical knowledge for, so everything I write in this post is from personal experience. If something is inaccurate, please correct me! You are most welcome to do so!
A Street Photographer has many camera lens options for when shooting. A Street Photographer can use a camera equipped with a zoom lens, or a prime lens. Zoom lenses provide Street Hunters with focal length flexibility but are usually bigger and not as sharp or as fast as prime lenses. So, naturally primes are widely used in Street Photography, without that being the rule of course. When someone uses primes they automatically have a lighter and smaller kit to carry around, compared to another Photographer who uses a big zoom lens which gives them some advantages in movement and stealth.
There are many different types of Prime lenses. There are ultra wide lenses, wide lenses, normal lenses, classic portrait lenses, telephoto lenses and ultra telephoto lenses. Today, we will talk about the wide angle lenses and discuss their pros and cons in Street Photography.
What are Wide Angle lenses
Prime wide angle lenses, are fixed focal length lenses that have a focal length somewhere between 21mm to 35mm. They are used mostly for landscape Photography. The general use of a Wide Angle lens is to fit more of what you see into your photo. Of course there is distortion, but that is a small price to pay if you can get what you want into your shot.
THE PROS OF SHOOTING WITH WIDE ANGLE LENSES FOR STREET PHOTOGRAPHY
You must get close to your subject
Wide Angle lenses force you to get close to your subject in order to take a photo. Getting close to your subject can help you photograph details that you wouldn’t have been able to from a distance. Legendary Master Photographer, Robert Capa, used to say “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” and Magnum Photographer, Bruce Gilden, says “I’m known for taking pictures very close, and the older I get, the closer I get”. I totally agree with that philosophy.
Focusing is faster and easier
I am not much of a Photography technical person. I know basic things that I need to know to understand how to use a camera manually and what to expect from a certain focal length of a lens. But from my experience Wide Angle AF lenses focus on mostly everything and they focus fast! I have noticed this on the SEL20F28 I use with my NEX-6 and I have also noticed it when I use my compact Panasonic LX7 at wide angles. This statement is clearly from personal experience, so it might not be a valid point. Therefore if someone reading this has the knowledge to back me up, or to correct me, you are most welcome to do so!
Your gear is lighter and most of the times much smaller
This is something that is very important for Street Photographers. Wide Angle prime lenses (not zooms) are lighter and most times they are smaller than zoom lenses. The best Wide Angles lenses though, if you are looking for a lightweight solution, are pancake Wide Angles! They are very small and incredible handy. They can make your camera seem smaller and lighter, so much in fact that you will be surprised! I know that many camera and lens makers offer pancake Wide Angle lenses and I can tell you from personal experience that they are worth every penny. Especially if you are using a MILC with a pancake Wide Angle lens for Street Photography, you will feel that you have a compact, pocketable camera after mounting that little pancake Wide Angle.
Photos are more dramatic
Wide Angle lenses give Street Photographers much more real estate to work with and because of that, things seem distorted but in a creative way. This helps to create compositions with much more photographic “data” and add a dramatic effect to the result. So, if you setup your camera on a tripod you can do the test I did. I set it up and took 2 shots. Once shot was taken with the 20mm and the other with the 35mm. The camera body didn’t move at all, but the result is very different. You can see what I mean in the photos below:
THE CONS OF SHOOTING WITH WIDE ANGLE LENSES FOR STREET PHOTOGRAPHY
You must get close to your subject
For some Street Photographers getting close to the subject is not a good thing. This is something that is determined by the Photographic style of each individual, so that is why I have added this point in both the Pros and Cons of using a Wide Angle lens.
You can’t have fun with bokeh
Because of the Wide Angle view, the Depth of Field is long. You can get some bokeh if you get very, very close to your subject and if your Wide Angle has wide Aperture capabilities, but usually there is not so much bokeh in Wide Angle Photography.
Wide aperture, wide angle lenses are more expensive
As I mentioned in the previous point, Wide Angle lenses usually don’t come with a Wide Aperture. On average you can find a Wide Angle with something around 2.8 to 4.0 Aperture. If you want something with better capabilities, then you will have to look at some rather expensive glass and depending on your camera, you will probably have to use an adapter as well. I read through some forums and posts and saw that the Wide Angle Wide Aperture glass is more difficult to build and that explains their cost.
Not ideal for Night Street Photography
Because on average an every day Street Photographer can’t afford a Wide Angle Wide Aperture lens, night photography becomes a tough cookie to bite. Night Photography needs glass with Wide Aperture, so unless you pay up some big bucks to purchase a nice and lovely Wide Angle Wide Aperture lens, you will have to shoot at night using very high ISO, thus getting lots of noise in your shots. If you are a Monochrome person, this shouldn’t be a big problem, because noise most of the times looks ok in mono, but if you are a Colour person, you might find this annoying. Your other option is not to shoot handheld but on a tripod, but then that defeats the meaning of modern Street Photography.
Wide Angle lenses fit more stuff in the frame, allow photographers to get closer and create dramatic photos, because of the effect of making backgrounds seem further away than foregrounds. Shooting with a wide angle in the Street is fun and produces some lovely unexpected results. The best solutions for Street Hunters are in pancake form. But at the end of the day, you can only shape an opinion if you actually try one out and see for yourself if the experience is something you like or not. You might love it, you might hate it or you might find yourself indifferent, it all comes down to your personal style.