We all like to chop and change our lens selections from time to time. One of the things I have discovered as I have practiced street photography more and more is that a prime lens is perfect for street photography. There are several reasons for this, but that’s a story for another time. But once you’ve decided that you prefer prime lenses over zoom lenses for street photography a problem presents itself. Which focal length should you choose? After all, you can’t simply switch focal lengths as you would with a zoom lens. You may remember a while back I wrote about my experiences using a 50mm lens for street photography. I’ve also talked about why I currently feel that the 28mm is the perfect street photography lens. This time round I’ve decided to focus on the photojournalist’s holy grail – the 35mm lens. So read on for my pros and cons of using a 35mm lens for street photography!
What is a 35mm Lens?
First things first, I’d like to make it clear exactly what kind of lens I’m talking about, given the proliferation of digital camera sensor sizes and their effect on the ‘effective’ focal length and field of view of lenses. So, when I refer to a 35mm lens I mean a prime fixed length lens that offers a 35mm focal length on a ‘full frame’ (35mm film sized) sensor. On an APS-C sensor camera you’d need around a 22mm or 23mm lens to get this effect, and a 17mm lens on a micro 4/3s sensor camera.
Wide, But not too Wide
As far as I am concerned, 35mm is a nice compromise between the standard normal view 50mm prime (which I find a little tight), and the more slightly more extreme (for street at least) wideness of 28mm and even 24mm lenses. 35mm is a good lens to force you to start to get close to your subjects, but not so close that you have to be right on top of them. It’s wide enough to be useful in cramped narrow streets or for more landscaped minimalist ‘cinematic’ vistas, but not so wide that you start to get weird distortion on straight edges, or making people look grotesque and gargoyle-esque close up. Let’s not forget of course too, that by being a little wide, the 35mm prime lens also lends itself quite nicely to the hyperfocal distance and zone focusing technique for street photography, as the wider the lens the broader the depth of field it offers at any given aperture.
Primes can be compact, & fairly fast
It’s a slight generalisation, but traditionally, 35mm prime lenses have traditionally been quite compact and fast. This is because, like 50mm lenses they aren’t a massive challenge to engineer optically. They don’t need the reach of a big telephoto lens, or the massive edge to edge sharpness and large pieces of glass required of a wide or ultra wide angle lens. And naturally, like all prime lenses, they don’t need the variety of elements and components to cover a range of focal lengths like zoom lenses, so tend to be more compact than these too. Of course, all these reasons for relative engineering simplicity also apply to the maximum aperture of 35mm prime lenses too, and it isn’t particularly difficult to find fast f/2 or wider aperture lenses in this focal length, which is a great benefit for night street photography.
Owing to the 35mm prime lens’ comparatively simple design, and also its ubiquity as one of THE must-have default primes in a photographer’s kit bag, you may often find that you can get hold of a 35mm prime lens relatively cheaply if you have a full frame or 35mm film camera. Both Canon and Nikon both produce ‘mid-level’ versions of prime lenses in this focal length, and with their massive market share you’re likely to find a decent amount of used versions of these lenses kicking around too. The budget brand Yongnuo (best known for their flashes) have also started producing their own (autofocus-equipped) version of the 35mm prime, which sells for an extremely reasonable price. If you don’t mind using manual focus for street photography – and I must admit with my current setup I prefer it – you can find lots of old manual 35mm prime lenses which you can either use on your film camera or use an adapter to fit onto your full frame DSLR.
You Can Start to Practice Layers
My favourite thing about using a 35mm lens for street photography is that it is a perfect focal length to begin your work with layers. 35mm gives you a lovely wide canvas to start playing with, and in my opinion, offers a great ‘window’ through which you can begin to see the world in a new light. A 35mm viewpoint feels very natural to my eye, and doesn’t shut too much out. I feel that I can stand in a scene and still capture a lot of it without having to take too many steps back. And by immersing myself in a scene like this, I can try to begin to reach that mecca of street photography – seeing a scene in multiple layers and tying all those layers together in a coherent whole that begins to tell a story. Which brings me onto my next point…
35mm Beloved by Photojournalists & Street Photographers
Another great reason to give a 35mm lens a try for street photography is because it is a lens that has traditionally been beloved by photojournalists and street photographers. It has proved popular with visual storytellers and reporters because its relative wide-ness forces photographers to immerse themselves in the scene and this tends to show through in their photographs – they can not only ‘fit’ more of the scene and its background in but the shots they capture have a more arresting and immediate quality that resonates with the viewer. Here we can remember that old Robert Capa maxim yet again! In fact, adding a twist on that theme, my family were luckily enough to live in the same town as the wonderful photojournalist Joseph McKeown who worked for the Picture Post magazine, and his advice to my father was always “Use a 35mm, and get in close!” Naturally, this approach lends itself excellently to the streets, and iconic street photographers like Joel Meyerowitz and David Alan Harvey have both been known to sport a 35mm lenses.
You Need to Get in Close
While it’s all well and good talking about the benefits of a lens that forces you to get closer to your subjects, it would be remiss of me to ignore the fact that this style simply does not suit some photographers. Not everyone likes to work in-your-face with strangers, for fear it can lead to awkward or confrontational situations. Shooting at any new focal length to you requires a lot of practice, and I don’t think it’s as easy to slap on a 35mm and get going on the streets as it is with a 50mm lens. If your style doesn’t suit a 35mm lens then you’re going to end up with photos that are simply shot from too far away, making all your figures appear small and insignificant in the frame. This can often lead to boring street photos. It took me a long time and a lot of shooting (not to mention a switch to a smaller and lighter system) to move away from mainly using a 50mm lens and into wider focal lengths like 35mm or 28mm.
Still A Little Tight (You Can go Wider)
On the flipside, another negative I have found with using a 35mm lens for street photography is that it is not wide enough. Once you have got used to shooting with a wider lens like a 28mm then going ‘back’ to a 35mm can feel very constricted and ‘tight’ in certain scenes. While a wider lens can easily offer you more ‘dramatic’ shots – you’re shooting close and you have have the slight effect of the wide angle slightly distorting things – returning to a 35mm can feel a little staid and unexciting in the manner of a 50mm lens now does for me. Not only that, but a wider lens gives you a bigger depth of field making your zone focusing easier each time. So if you’ve used a 24mm or 28mm lens for street photography, a 35mm lens is going to limit how big your zone focus area is by comparison. Naturally each photographer’s mileage may vary, and as with all aspects of photography it all depends on what you get used to shooting with, what makes you feel comfortable, and what produces good results for you. The feeling of constricted ‘tightness’ I complain about could perhaps become a never-ending cycle if you experimented with wider and wider lenses on the street, until it got to the stage where nothing narrower than a fish eye lens would do!
I think at 35mm lens is a good lens to use for street photography. Depending on the size of your camera system and lens – we shouldn’t forget that the top-end 35mm primes for the big full frame DSLRs are still pretty large – it is a good all-around lens that many street photographers will find serves them very well. With the right system combination, it can prove the perfect balance of size and wideness that will suit many street photographers perfectly. I would not be unhappy having to use a 35mm lens for street photography. That said, I feel currently that the 35mm lens focal length served as a perfect stepping stone for me from 50mm into a wider world of 28mm and hopefully beyond. I currently prefer wider lenses, but I think my dream camera bag setup would always include a place for the 35mm lens. In my opinion it is a perfect compromise of a focal length for street photography, and I feel that all photographers should at least shoot with a 35mm lens for a while to see where on the focal range their style falls. It’s a great focal length to learn with and develop as a photographer, and in many respects still the gold standard. All hail the 35mm!!