35mm or 50mm lens for street photography - the debate rages on

Shoot with your 50mm prime lens if you want to emphasise the subject in your street photos, and with the 35mm one if you want to put your subject in the context of the environment. Simples! Or is it?

Both focal lengths on a full frame camera offer an unparalleled flexibility and ease of application. 35mm wide angle lens is obviously more versatile when it comes to broader application, whereas 50mm angle of view is similar to what the human eye can see. 35mm can provide not only the wider perspective while shooting busy street scenes but can be equally useful for environmental portraits. However, 50mm can double as both reportage and portrait lens and also could be indispensable when it comes to isolating the certain elements in your image by the virtue of wider aperture settings and smoother bokeh. Case in point here could be a Leica 50mm Noctilux lens with its widest lens opening of f0.95 or similar types of glass produced by other manufacturers of 50mm lenses.

What about zoom lenses, you’d ask? Can’t you simply settle for a convenience of using one lens that is capable of doing it all? Let’s say 24-70mm, or 16-35mm zoom if you prefer to shoot wide. The answer is not that simple. Yes, of course, you will have multiple options while using zooms and carrying around just one lens with your camera body. If that is all you have, one zoom lens, fear not - you can be assured that whatever photographic challenge will be thrown at you, you may be able to come on top just by virtue of utilising that zoom range that you have at your disposal. Most professional wedding, travel and documentary photographers would swear by their 24-70mm zooms and will be absolutely right to justify the financial outlay, especially if they had to fork out a pretty penny for a constant aperture of f2.8 on their zoom lenses.

What about us street shooters though, who are known for a certain prejudice when it comes to carrying extra weight and having a bulky optic attached to the camera? There are times when having a zoom or a fast, and as a consequence heavy, prime is a necessity. However, in most cases and scenarios a nimble pancake lens would do just fine.

It needs to be mentioned here that the conventional wisdom of why the primes are better then zooms is a bit far fetched. I’ll be the first one in line shying away from the much used and abused expression “zoom with your feet”, when it comes to explaining why any prime is better then zooms. First of all, the prime lens would not give you the versatility and flexibility of the zoom range. There’s simply no way you will be able to capture an action taking place at a considerable distance from you if your prime doesn’t offer telephoto capability. Nor it will be possible to squeeze a large group of people positioned just in front of you if all you have is a standard 35 or 50mm prime. But what it will give you is much greater and much more important for your development as a street photographer. And that is an awareness of what could and what could not be included in your frame while using the prime lens. You will have no choice but to utilise a particular perspective the lens offers and it will teach you to approach and assess every photographic opportunity creatively. The prime lens attached to your camera also takes away the unnecessary delay and hesitancy while shooting in the field. Instead of fumbling with your zoom when trying to frame and compose the image, you will be able to shoot much quicker, while concentrating on what is happening in front of you, if you are using a single focal length.

My advise to you would be - when it comes to choosing which prime or zoom lens to use - don’t jump to any conclusions based on other people’s experiences and opinions. Look first at what you already have at your disposal, check which length is the most prevalent in your zoom lens range (check the images information on the Lightroom catalog, for example). Then decide whether you might need a dedicated prime for the ease of carrying and shooting. Research the second-hand market of that particular lens, and if you have a mirrorless body, maybe consider adapting a relatively inexpensive prime, even if it only offers manual controls.

Don’t be afraid of experimenting with it and use this lens in a variety of shooting scenarios until you satisfy yourself that you have made the right choice. It might stay glued to your camera for a month or two, or even a year, before you truly learn its quirks and it becomes an extension of your eye. If and when the time comes to sell the lens or you’d decide to upgrade to a more expensive piece of kit, most likely the used prime lens you purchased will still hold its value and even if you loose some money on it, it will be much less than you’d loose on much more expensive zooms that you’d had bought and eventually got tired of.

Last but not least, don’t discard the possibility of using the camera most of us carry everywhere - your mobile phone. As the saying goes “the best camera is the one that you have with you.” A 29mm angle of view on most of the smart phone cameras is wide enough to squeeze almost everything in, from a rather broad landscape vista to a small gathering of people. It also offers a close-up capabilities most of the standard lenses would envy, and some have a portrait mode, which would focus on the human face and blur the background into oblivion.

You can also check my take on the best street photography lens following the link below: https://www.photocrowd.com/blog/209-best-lenses-street-photography/ Mind you, though, that habitually I utilise a rather wide range of primes on a regular basis while shooting street, and some of my favourite street shots were done on a 18mm or 135mm prime lenses.

But, as I mentioned before, do not listen to me or others. Get any lens you fancy to try out and go ahead and shoot to your heart’s content and make up your own mind. So, as an answer to the never ending discussion on whether 35mm focal length dominates over 50mm or vice versa I can offer only this - it’s really up to you and what suits your style of street photography.

P. S. As a side note, the above image was captured with a 50mm lens and it still manages to put the viewer in the environment of where this shot was taken.