“What’s the best _________ for _________ ?”
Can you fill in the blanks?
Even if you stay well within the realm of photography you could rattle off an endless stream of possible answers. We’ve all heard them, we’ve all asked them: what’s the best lens, camera, focal length, aperture? For birds, flowers, fireworks, sports? I understand this sort of question gets asked so often, particularly by those who are in the early phase of their photographic evolution; it’s natural to look at all the impressive work around you and want to replicate what others have done. You figure if you can use the same gear or settings, you can achieve the same results. That’s a rather shortsighted way of looking at things but, again, I understand it because I’ve been there. To make matters worse, there are those who will happily dole out similarly shortsighted advice about “bests” simply because it’s what works for them, not because there is any objective, universal truth to it.
So, when I was asked recently, “What’s the best lens for street photography?” I just shrugged my shoulders this time (it was hardly the first time I’ve been asked that) — not because I suddenly didn’t know the answer but because, as I relayed to the one asking the question, “It just kind of depends what you want.”
The standard responses to questions about lenses for street photography tend to revolve around 50mm and 35mm focal lengths. There are photographers who will strongly prefer one over the other. Those who prefer to get close to their subjects, have more room for composition, and aren’t concerned with shallow depth of field will likely champion the 35mm focal length. The 50mm focal length will usually be preferred by photographers who like to keep a bit more distance between them and their subjects, who like a tighter composition, and who might want to work with shallower depth of field to introduce some background blur into their images. There are a number of other arguments in favor of either focal length, but the point is either approach works, both have their merits.
It is important, however, to not turn such a discussion into a two horse race between 35mm and 50mm lenses/focal lengths. There are street photographers who shoot almost exclusively at 28mm, and others who like 85mm or 200mm. All of them have their reasons and, viewed through the inherently subjective scope of artistry, none of them are wrong.
While street photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson made a name for themselves using the classic 50mm focal length, that doesn’t mean there haven't been other accomplished street photographers who went against the grain of commonly accepted focal lengths. Hungarian-born photographer André Kertész, for instance, readily used 90mm, 135mm, and 280mm lenses for his street photography and photojournalism work. His choices of focal length and composition were, at one time, deemed unorthodox but, hindsight being what it is, people now hold Kertész and his work in high regard.
The images sprinkled throughout this article were taken at a variety of focal lengths — all between 35mm and 300mm (though none at 50mm, ironically). This wasn’t by design; I wasn’t out to prove a point. On a couple of different occasions I was out doing work completely unrelated to street photography when, after completing my original objective, I decided to take a detour. These photos were made spur of the moment, using the camera and lens I happened to have with me at the time. Like them or not, these shots affirm the premise that street photography isn't locked into a single focal length.
If there is a focal length you prefer, by all means keep doing what works for you. If you’re unsure or if you want to add some variety to your repertoire, you should know that any focal length can work. The only limits, as is the case in any creative endeavor, are your own vision and creativity.