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Let’s talk about prime lenses for street photography. Almost since its inception the genre has been dominated by a few specific focal lengths. And there are good reasons for that – both practical and aesthetic. So let's take a look at them and explore some of the reasons any budding street photographer might want to start with one of the prime lenses at these focal lengths.
Personally, I only use prime lenses when out shooting on the streets, because they have the special quality of appearing very unthreatening to people, at least by comparison to zooms. It's great to work with primes, because they force you to move physically instead of just turning a barrel wheel to get a composition that you like. Often they are faster and sharper than their zoom cousins too so the final shot is often sharper than what you might otherwise have ended up with.
One of the greatest documentary photographers of all time said: “If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough.” That was Robert Capa. Google him if you don't know yet; trust me. The premise is so true. You will fall even more in love with photography, because you are going to FEEL the moment instead of just capturing it. There is a huge part of photography that can't be expressed in the final result; it’s the thrill of getting close to the moment you want to capture.
Anyway, onto the primes…
This is my favorite focal length when working on the streets. You have a very wide view of the scene, but it still doesn't look exaggerated. They are built roughly, like mini tanks and they rarely break. They are pretty fast and silent. Even with the lens hood attached, they are quite inconspicuous meaning you draw slightly less attention to yourself compared to a zoom.
This has been the standard lens when working on the streets for a long time now for thousands of photographers. The great masters of street photography loved this focal length. For my taste, it is still a little bit tight of a focal length. And, there is another disadvantage I have seen in recent state-of-the-art 35mm lenses; they are big and a bit more conspicuous.
The greatest charm of working with this focal length is that it has roughly the same angle of view as the human eye (on a full frame camera), so you get to see exactly what your eyes are seeing when using this focal length. That is roughly 46%. There are very cheap options as well, and they have pretty fast apertures. The 50mm 1.8 made by Canon and Nikon is arguably the best value lens ever built.
All of these focal lengths are pretty standard in the photographic industry; they are even standard in the film industry. So, it doesn’t matter what brand or system you use, there is a pretty good possibility of finding any a prime lens at one of these focal lengths for your camera. You have to be aware that when working with APS-C sensor cameras, you have to convert these focal lengths to the crop factor of your camera. In the case of a 28mm, you'll end up with a more or less 45mm equivalent; 35mm will transform into a more or less 55mm; and a 50mm will end up as a more or less 80mm lens. Still, they are great focal lengths.
Bonus Tip: Pancake Lenses – I've recently been so in love with pancake lenses that I have to recommend them. Give them a try. They are cheap; they are fun; they are very well-built; and they are so inconspicuous that you'll achieve such natural results when working on the streets that you are just not going to believe it! Since the days of film, pancake lenses have been around, and it seems that they are coming back from the ashes thanks to mirrorless cameras, but they work just fantastically on DSLRs as well.