Which Is the Best Lens for Street Photography: 35mm, 50mm or 85mm?

18/10/2019 8:00 am

Street photography is one of the most dynamic styles of photography. It’s as interesting as it is unpredictable, and it requires you to adapt to the scene in front of you. For those shoots, you need to have the best possible lens. But the great debate is: What is the best lens for street photography?

The experts at Ted’s Cameras break down the three most popular lenses, and share our top street photography tips.

Prime vs. zoom lens for street photography

The one thing most street photographers agree on is the superiority of prime lenses. If you’re fairly new to photography, prime lenses have a fixed focal length, which means they can’t zoom. You’ll need to physically move if you want to adjust your framing and composition, which can help you to get different perspectives on a street scene.

Along with boosting creativity, these are the main reasons for using prime lenses to snap street photos:

1. They have a bigger aperture size


Prime lenses are faster, and offer a much wider aperture, like f1.4, f1.8 or f2. To compare, most zoom lenses are limited to f2.8 or slower. This is a huge advantage, especially if you’re working with low light - which many street photographers do. A good prime lens will increase the effectiveness of your camera’s autofocus so you end up with crisp photos. It’ll also bring out the detail in your images, even if you were shooting in a dark, moody nighttime setting.


2. They have an excellent image quality


Since prime lenses have a single focal length, there are fewer “moving parts.” As a result, they’re known for producing sharp, high-quality images. 


3. They’re smaller and lighter


While you can prepare for a shoot, you often never know where a scene will take you. Prime lenses tend to be less bulky than their zoom counterparts, so they’re easier to carry around.


4. They can produce bokeh


If you want to create that beautifully blurred effect, a prime lens will help you to get there - and it’s all thanks to the wide aperture.

Which is the best lens for street photography: 35mm, 50mm or 85mm?

Popular lenses for street photography

The most widely-used lenses for street photography are 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm. These are the benefits of each.

The wide-angle lens: 35mm

Which is the best lens for street photography: 35mm, 50mm or 85mm?

Typically used for landscape photography, wide-angle lenses are great because they encourage you to get closer to the action in your street scenes. This has a few advantages. Firstly, by capturing a wider scene, you’ll be able to bring more context into the photo - which will help you to tell a story about the subject and their surroundings. Secondly, you have a better chance of interacting with your subject and even build a relationship with them. This can lead to incredibly candid and poignant photos. 


On a practical note, 35mm lenses are lightweight and compact, which makes them less conspicuous. If your photography style is discreet, they might be the best fit for you.


The nifty fifty lens: 50mm

Dubbed the “nifty fifty,” this is the classic street photography lens. A 50mm focal length gives you a field of view that’s closest to what the human eye sees, so it easily balances out the subject and the street environment. It also helps you to capture accurate photos, without the distraction of a distorted lens. 


A 50mm lens has a large aperture of f1.8 or higher, which creates a shallow depth of field. This allows you to blur out the background and draw attention to the subject. As any street photographer knows, the subject is often the most fascinating part of the photo. They bring the street scene to life. 


Thanks to this kind of aperture, a 50mm lens also works well in low light, making it a good option for night shoots.


Which is the best lens for street photography: 35mm, 50mm or 85mm?

The moderate telephoto lens: 85mm

Which is the best lens for street photography: 35mm, 50mm or 85mm?

A go-to for portrait photographers, an 85mm lens also works well for unobtrusive street photographers. It’s no surprise that it’s a favourite among paparazzi, too! Unlike the 35mm and 50mm lens, the extra-long focal length lets you put some distance between you and the subject without sacrificing any of the context. 


By standing far back from the scene, you might be able to snap natural, candid moments you may not have captured otherwise. With an 85mm lens, you can create a shallower depth of field, and focus on your subject’s face or body language. 


A moderate telephoto lens also comes in handy when you’re shooting from an elevated position, or from across the street.

Tips on dealing with people who don’t want to be photographed 


While an 85mm lens suits shy photographers who want to observe from a distance, just remember that not everyone wants their photo taken. If a stranger spots you snapping their photo and confronts you about it, here’s what to do:


  • Respect their request for space and privacy and stop shooting immediately.
  • Offer to show them the photos you have already taken. They might change their tune if they see that you’ve captured a beautiful or candid image. Or they might not, and that’s okay too.


Which is the best lens for street photography: 35mm, 50mm or 85mm?

Find your favourite street photography lens

Every street photographer has a personal favourite lens. If you’re new to street photography or want to switch up your lenses, pop into your local Ted’s Cameras store. Our expert team will help you to choose the lens that best suits your style.


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