Most photographers (myself included) will often go through a period when they worry about their choice of gear. Both the blessing and the curse of getting more into photography and learning about camera equipment is that you realise how good some specialised equipment is for some types of photography, and how bad it is for others. Someone in search of wide landscape shots isn’t going to get on very well with a 300mm lens for instance, and a wide angle lens is far from ideal if you want to take photos of birds in flight. These examples are obviously more extreme, but it’s surprising the nuanced differences that you’ll find over just a small change in focal length, especially in a genre as demanding as street photography. 26mm, 22mm, 15mm or 10mm of difference in ‘reach’ or wideness between lenses can make all the difference between getting a shot or missing one. With this in mind, and having shot street photography extensively with a mix of focal lengths from 16mm to 50mm, I’d like to offer my thoughts on using a 50mm lens for street photography.
What is a 50mm lens?
The clue is sort of in the title! When I refer to a 50mm lens I’m talking about a prime or fixed focal length lens. A 50mm lens offers a 50mm field of view, which will mean 50mm on a ‘full frame’ sensor camera, around 30mm on an APS-C camera, or 25mm on a 4/3s sensor camera.
It’s the Original Street Photography Lens
Henri Cartier-Bresson, THE bona-fide master of street photography used a 50mm prime lens. For Bresson, 50mm was the perfect focal length, as it offered “a certain vision”. He felt wider lenses like 35mm were “extremely difficult to use” in order to achieve meticulous compositions owing to their distortions. He also felt wider lenses made photographers more “aggressive”, as they introduce too many effects into photos, meaning they end up being “used by people who want to shout”. If a 50mm lens was good enough for a genius like Bresson, then well…..
50mm lenses were traditionally described as ‘normal view’ lenses. This means they are seen as offering a field of view that is similar to what the human eye sees when looking straight ahead. This has two benefits for street photography. The first is that it makes visualising framing a little easier – because the camera ‘sees’ in roughly the same way as you do when you walk down the street you can easily imagine a frame and composition before you even raise the camera to your eye. With a wider angle lens you’re more likely to raise the camera and suddenly spot something straying into the corner of the frame that perhaps you wouldn’t have accounted for normally. The second great benefit of having a normal view lens is part of Bresson’s argument – they offer very little distortion. The lack of distortion you get with a 50mm lens is pretty useful in street photography, especially for street photographers who like to build their compositions around strong geometric lines. When you use a wide angle lens for a shot with a person in front of a building, or maybe a window, you often will find the lines of the building will ‘bend’ at the edges of the frame, making your lovely straight geometric lines a little warped and bent. If you’re the type of photographer that seeks perfect geometric minimalism then you are likely to enjoy a 50mm much more than a wide angle lens! The distortion effect doesn’t just apply to photos of buildings either – a 50mm lens is a nice focal length to use for people as it is very ‘true’ to a subject’s real appearance. Wider angle lenses are prone to distorting facial features to the point where they can sometimes look grotesque. In some cases this works to the advantage of a street photographer if they are going for a particular effect, but in other cases it can be undesirable.
Medium Focal Length
I’d describe a 50mm lens as a bit of a Goldilocks lens – that is, not too wide, and not too long, it sits right in the middle! This means it’s a lens you don’t have to get too close with, nor stand too far back. A 50mm will let you take a shot from the pavement one side of a single carriageway width street looking over to the opposite side which makes it a nice focal length for street photos. A 50mm doesn’t demand that you get too close to your subjects, but isn’t so tight that you’re forever getting frustrated with the feeling that you’re missing photo opportunities because you’re looking at the world through a telephoto. A 50mm is a fantastic go-to lens for producing some great street photography results without taking you so far out of your comfort zone that you have to bring your camera really close to your subject’s face.
Inexpensive, Fast, and Sharp (for full frame sensors)
This part is mainly of benefit to those with a camera with a full frame sensor, as a 50mm lens is often one of the cheapest primes you can buy for your camera. As I mentioned earlier, because a 50mm lens has a ‘normal’ field of view it is very easy to engineer, as the lens does not require many pieces of large or complex glass. 50mm lenses were the ‘standard’ lens fitted to 35mm cameras during the commercial popularisation of photography between 1930 and 1970, which meant that camera and lens manufacturers became very adept at manufacturing these kind of lenses. This makes them quite simple pieces of engineering, even by today’s standards. I only need to compare my Canon 50mm f/1.8 to my Canon 16-35 f/2.8 to see this for myself. The glass in the 50mm lens doesn’t have to perform many ‘tricks’ to provide a 50mm field of view, making the lens itself very simple. This simplicity means fewer pieces of glass are required in the lens, which in turn makes it sharper. The inherent simplicity of a 50mm lens also means it’s much easier to make a 50mm lens with a large aperture. These factors mean you can often pick up a very fast, small, lightweight lens quite cheaply – using Canon as an example again, the base 50mm prime can be had for as little as £70/€80/$125 new. And again, because this lens technology is so relatively simple and old you can also find some fantastic old manual 50mm lenses quite cheaply. The simplicity also makes for a very small lens – my basic 50mm is my default choice when I want something that is discrete and low key on my camera – which is a very important consideration for street photography.
Of course, it wouldn’t be objective for me to only highlight the benefits of a 50mm lens for street photography, so I’d like to highlight some of the problems I’ve encountered when using a 50mm on the street, particularly when compared to wider lenses.
Bad for Zone Focusing and Hyperfocal Distance
The wider the field of view on a lens is, the greater the depth of field (and thus the area of focus) it has. This means that at f/8 a 28mm lens will have a much greater depth of field than a 50mm lens. I find this particularly frustrating in street photography when I practice zone focusing with a 50mm. To get the best results with zone focusing, or to use the hyperfocal distance technique you really need to ensure your lens has a very broad depth of field. This can quite easily be achieved with a wide lens, but with a normal lens like a 50mm it often means I need to stop down to a really small aperture like f/16 or even f/20 in order to ensure I have a nice wide field of focus, between say 2m and 5m. This is incredibly frustrating for street photography! Zone and hyperfocal focusing techniques are so useful because they allow you to act fast, but with an aperture like f/16 or f/20 I often have to raise my ISO very high to get a decent shot as my lens is letting in so little light! And of course I can’t keep my shutter speed too low to compensate for the small aperture as people on the street move fast so I’d end up with too much motion blur.
Despite the fact that I’ve mentioned how convenient the ‘medium’ or ‘normal’ focal length is, I do sometimes feel it’s a little too much of a compromise. On an old narrow winding street for instance, a 50mm lens can feel incredibly limiting – it’s just that bit too tight to capture all of a scene sometimes. I really find it incredibly frustrating when I miss shots because my lens is too tight – there are times you just can’t stand back enough to get what you want in the frame, and that’s very often the case on the street, where you don’t have the luxury of much forward planning or time when you see a shot unfolding. If you really, really need to you can crop your photo to make your subject fill the frame more if you’ve shot with a wide angle lens. There’s no way to do the same with a shot that’s too tight with a 50mm – you can’t ‘uncrop’ if the subject was out of the frame in the first place!
“If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough. ”
Robert Capa’s oft-quoted maxim actually sums up my biggest criticism of a 50mm lens for street photography. I really do feel that more often than not a photo is improved enormously when it’s clear that the photographer was in the thick of the action when they took the shot. Nowhere is this more true than street photography, where a great immersive shot will really throw the viewer into the scene, so much so that they can almost smell the the city and feel the heat of the streets! There’s a reason why street photography greats like Garry Winogrand and Eugene Richards like to work with wider lenses like 28mm and 21mm. You can truly tell when a photographer has thrown themselves into a scene and got right where the action is, it lends the photo a certain rawness and immediacy that just can’t be replicated. The courage to throw oneself into a scene and make a photo is an inherent part of street photography, as my fellow Street Hunter Andrew Sweigart has noted in his article on the four key ‘C’s of street photography. The more and more I look at examples of street photography shot with wider lenses, the more I find myself feeling that 50mm can sometimes produce photos that appear too neat and ‘distant’ Wider angle lenses will also trump 50mm in crowds – a wide angle is perfect on a hectic street or in the centre of a market while with a 50mm you’ll often find yourself backing up again and again which is very frustrating.
Camera equipment is totally subjective which makes any recommendations or advice very challenging. Preferring one lens focal length over another is like choosing one pencil lead over another to draw with. Some people will only draw with an 8B, others an HB, and others with a hard pencil. All will yield fantastic results in the right hands, but all the results they produce will be different. I can only remark on what I’ve experienced, and my experience has been greatly shaped by the specifications of the lenses that are available for my chosen camera system. Shooting with a big Canon DSLR, I currently shoot almost all of my street photos with a 50mm lens for two reasons:
The first and most important is that it is by far my most compact, discreet and low-key lens – this makes an enormous difference to me when my DSLR is big and conspicuous enough in the first place!
The second reason I am using a 50mm at the moment is because I find it a good focal length to start out using when I first head out to go and take photos. It’s wide enough that I can get things in frame, but not so wide that I have get too close to people while I’m still getting a feel for the streets when I’ve just left the house. That said, 50mm is not a focal length I am passionate about. In a perfect world, I’d use a 16-35 or 21-35 lens for my street photography as this is just perfect for immersing yourself in the scene, but with my current set up this just isn’t feasible all the time – my 16-35 is just too big and bulky and draws too much attention to be ideal for using on the street. I’ve got high hopes that something like Canon’s miniscule 40mm pancake will suit my needs much better in the medium term. For the time being though, 50mm is a very useful focal length for street photos, and I genuinely believe every photographer should experiment with it. A 50mm is an essential tool to have in your lens arsenal, and if you’re after something to help you produce perfect compositions you really can’t go wrong. As I said, if it was good enough for Bresson…..