28mm – The Perfect Lens for Street Photography?

28mm – The Perfect Lens for Street Photography?

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28mm lens for street photography cover

Regular readers of Street Hunters will probably have seen several of our past posts about the different lenses you can use for street photography. We’ve discussed the various merits of telephoto lenses for street photography, wide lenses, and 50mm lenses. Choosing the best lens for your street photography is an agonising decision, because they all have their strengths, weaknesses and compromises. Some photographers will chop and change their lenses and focal lengths a lot, others will pick one focal length and stick to it, while others will go through ‘phases’ of shooting one focal length for a while, then another, and so on. Having done my fair share of lens roaming myself, I am starting to wonder if I’ve finally found a lens that is perfect for my street photography, and that lens is around the equivalent to 28mm focal length on ‘full frame’. Why? Read on for more…

A Journey from 50mm to 28mm via 16-35mm

I’ve said before that I’ve enjoyed using a 50mm prime lens for street photography because I liked the compact size (many 50mm lenses are very small because they offer such a normal perspective and require fewer pieces of complex glass). However, I think 50mm is a very constraining focal length – it’s just too tight. I’ve greatly enjoyed shooting a 16-35mm zoom on the streets too, but this was very big and heavy. Using the zoom was very useful in learning and developing my street photography style though. It taught me that for my needs, 35mm wasn’t quite wide enough, and I greatly appreciated having the extra wideness when I wanted it. I didn’t find myself shooting 16mm on the streets all that much though! From my experience with my wide angle zoom, I learned that my ideal street photography lens would be a prime lens wider than 35mm, but not crazy wide. If you’ve ever done a bit of prime lens research, you’ll have seen that lenses have traditionally come in a fixed set of focal lengths. They often go something like 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, etc. So, enter the 28mm…

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28mm is wide, but also small

I think 28mm is quite a sweet spot lens for street photography. It’s certainly wide, but not so wide that it distorts images. It’s also doesn’t offer such a super wide field of view that manufacturing one is very complex, and I think this is an often overlooked aspect of lens selection. Ultra wide lenses are difficult to manufacture as the glass has to be optimal quality right to the edges of the elements, which makes them big, heavy and expensive. 28mm gives you a nice wide focal length but without getting into the expensive and cumbersome realms of 24mm and wider. Lots of the camera manufacturers seem to produce a relatively small, fast, and by the standards of camera gear at least, not eye-wateringly expensive 28mm or equivalent lens. In other words, 28mm seems to mark a nice compromise of size, speed, weight, and price.

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28mm lets you get close

It’s been said so many times before, and I’m going to repeat it once again:

“If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough. ”

Each day that goes by, the more I shoot, and the more photos I see, the more I agree with that famous statement by Capa. Any lens that forces you to get close to your subject to stop them just being a little speck in the frame is onto a winner for me, and 28mm certainly does this! You need to get close with this focal length, but at the same time it doesn’t render all your subjects as grotesquely distorted caricatures. Using an ultra wide lens for street photography is quite a challenge, and I’d recommend you take a look at some of the tips for ultra wide angle street photography that Yiannis Yiasaris provided for us.

28mm nicely matches your vision

It is often said (and I have said it myself) that 50mm lenses give a ‘normal view’ that match what the eye sees when looking straight ahead. 28mm though, is a good match for the way you see the world as you actually look at it, i.e. when you take your peripheral vision into account too. I simply cannot believe how easy it is to shoot street with a 28mm lens. I can walk along, see a shot, raise the camera to my eye, and what I see through the viewfinder is a great match for what I just saw through my own eyes. There’s none of that shock horror corridor telescope effect you get with longer focal lengths!

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28mm is cinematic

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I find movies very inspirational when it comes to photography, and I often seek to emulate shots from movies in my street photography. What your may not know is that 28mm is one of the most commonly used focal lengths in cinema. It’s found popular use with Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Orson Welles, and Terrence Malick to name but a few. This is because it is a very good focal length for storytelling. You can fit a lot into a frame (e.g. a group of characters in a room) without edges of the frame being too distorted and jarring for the viewer. It also works very well for wide exterior shots and portraits too, so it’s a very flexible and adaptable focal length.

28mm makes zone focusing and hyper focusing easy

Zone focusing has transformed my approach to street photography. I simply cannot believe how much easier and faster it makes my shooting, and how I ever managed without it! No matter how fantastic an autofocus system is, it (currently at least) cannot know exactly the point in the frame in advance where I want to focus for any given shot. Using zone focusing and hyperfocal distance I don’t have to worry about focus. And the wider the lens for this the better, as the depth of field becomes wider too. A 50mm is pretty poor for zone focusing unless in amazingly good light, a 35mm is better, and a 28mm is better still!

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28mm is the choice of several masters

The exceptional street photography masters Garry Winogrand and Eugene Richards are just two street photography masters who have been know to wield a 28mm lens out on the streets. Both of these photographers turned the act of documenting a moment into an art form, but their choice of focal length meant that they went even further still. They threw themselves into their scenes literally and got right in up close. This is very clear in their work, and is invaluable in street photography.

28mm is a good focal length for layers

Being able to skilfully use layers is a long time goal of mine in my street photography. It is something I dream of being able to do at some point. To successfully use layers you need a lens that is wide enough to show you a good portion of a scene, and to encompass lots of elements. For me, 28mm represents a great range for working with layers, so I’m hopeful that if I persevere with it, one day the magic of layers in street photography will no longer elude me.

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Tell us your favourite lens for street photography!

I’ve outlined several of the reasons why I’m currently relishing using a 28mm lens for my street photography, and I feel like it’s a focal length I want to settle with for a good while now and really and truly learn the ropes with. I hope with lots and lots of practice I can get it working to my advantage. Do you have a favourite focal length for your street photography, or are you still hopping between several lenses? Let us know in the comments below!

Edit: In response to some questions, I’ve clarified that I’m talking about using a lens that is equivalent to 28mm in ‘full frame’ 35mm terms.

17 COMMENTS

    • Hi Jimmy, glad you liked the article! Yes, I’m talking about 28mm in full frame (35mm) terms. I tend to try and refer to things like that as it keeps things simpler by having a ‘universal’ system.

  1. Hallo mate! Nice post, as you know I shoot with XPro1 and XF18/2.0R and that lens is fantastic and eith cropfactor become a 27.
    That lens is allways my first choise in my digital streetphoto then my 35 (52) is too long for street. Use that for consert and theatre photo.
    As many say 50 is a perfect normal, it is not!
    A perfect normal is 42 and that legth I use when I shoot film and I must admit that I love that focal length more and moore and for me it works really great in street to.

    • Thanks for the comment Dan! Yes I was writing about my experiences with shooting around 28mm with both my Canon zoom and then the Fuji XF18 which seems to fall around the 27-28mm range. I totally agree with you that 50 is long. I quite like the Fuji XF27 (40-42mm equivalent) but even that seems a tight focal length now! Maybe I should practice with it more on the streets though!

    • Hi Tony! The X100T is certainly a lovely little camera! The lens on that is around a 35mm equivalent I think, though you can get a special wide angle lens adapter to turn it into a 28mm which may be tempting!

  2. I think 28mm is great for more documentary style photography, where the subjects are aware of you, you are “permitted in” and can move around and shoot freely. You get very close to your subjects, but also have the luxury of being able to frame and compose the shot properly. Street photography is more about candid shooting and you need to keep some kind of distance to frame the shot well, hence a longer focal length is better. Looking at your sample pictures, it is clear that you are close, but your shots are very “point and shoot”-y. Yes, you captured the person you wanted to shoot, but that’s about it.

    I had a situation yesterday where I was in a beautiful bookshop. There were three eldery ladies sitting by a table chatting and I wanted to take a candid picture of them, with a manual, mechanical film SLR and a 28mm. I just couldn’t do it. To get a good shot, I would have to go very (uncomfortably) close. I could have passed them and shot from the hip, but first of all the mirror noise from the SLR would have been too much for the fairly quiet environment, plus that kind of shooting is not “photography” to me. There should be a compositional element involved, not just “capture”. A 35mm og maybe 50mm would have been a much better focal length.

    • Thanks for your comment Thomas! I agree that a wider lens like a 28mm does force you to get close to your subject and that does bring with it problems. Of course there are also opportunities where you have to sacrifice total candid-ness (at least when clicking the shutter) in order to capture the kind of ‘immediacy’ and involvement that you get in some really awesome street photographs. With regards to your comments about my sample photos your analysis of ‘point and shoot’ feel is very fair, but my results shouldn’t necessarily put anyone off practicing and using a 28mm lens. My photos are much more a result of my attempting to evolve my style and being in a bit of a ‘rut’ that an truly inherent fault with the focal length itself for street photography. Great street photographers get amazing results with this focal length. That said though, it isn’t for everyone and we all have our favourite tools and combinations!

    • Hi Angel! Unfortunately I don’t know the exact focal length Bill Eppridge used I’m afraid. I guess as a photojournalist he probably used a bit of a mix overall. I see lots of his shots are characterised by a wide and ultra-wide perspective, so I’d guess perhaps around a 28mm or wider for some photos. I couldn’t find much in my research online, other than that he used Nikon SLRs and then DSLRs I think, and he does mention enjoying using a Coolpix 20mm ultra wide lens too. Sorry I can’t be more help!

      • Thank you, Digby. Which 28 mm lens do you use ? I am inclined to purchase
        the Canon 28mm f/2.8 IS, which according to reviews has better optical quality than
        the 24 mm 2.8 IS and the 28 mm 1.8

        • Angel on the Fuji X system I use the XF18mm f/2 prime (so around 27mm to 28mm equivalent). For Canon EF mount I use my 16-35 f/2.8 zoomed to 28mm on my 6D. I like the idea of a 28mm prime on Canon but I really mustn’t get any more lenses!! I haven’t used either the Canon 28mm f/2.8, EF-S 24mm f/2.8 or 28mm f/1.8 so I’m afraid I can’t offer any experience there. I hope to be trying out an Olympus OM 28mm f/2.8 on an OM-2N film SLR sometime in the future and I’ll write about my experiences with that too!

          • I can recommend the Canon 28mm f/2.8 IS. Great little lens for street. Small and compact, sharp and a very good contrast. You can get a “film” kind of look. (The 24mm IS was a disappointment though. I sold that one…)

          • yes, this Canon 28mm 2.8 is the one I intend to purchase. I have read very good things on the web concerning it. Better than the 24 mm 2.8 and the 28mm 1.8.

  3. Just a quick comment on “28mm Is Cinematic”. It is true that the 28mm is a very common focal length in cinema, but that’s on a Super 35 format, which is smaller than the 35mm frame.
    On a Super 35, the 28mm focal has approximately the field of view of a 40-42mm lens on a full frame camera.

    • Damn thanks Thomas! Good point, thank you for bringing it to my attention. When I was researching I think I got a little confused about the whole super 35mm frame thing and exactly what it meant for the relative lens focal length so thanks for clearing it up. I’m trying to think of movies and TV shows I’ve seen that use a very obviously wide lens (ie 28mm in ‘full frame’ still camera terms) – I reckon The Sopranos is probably one, there are some street shots in that outside the diner where the lens seems super wide!

  4. I use a VC 25mm f4 Snapshot Skopar on a Leica M4-P. The camera viewfinder has frames for 28mm but there’s a bit outside these. I use the entire finder for 25mm. Although my lens came with a 25mm viewfinder, I seldom use this as my camera is more ‘pocketable’ without this item atop the body.

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