Tristan Parker Photography


Is There a Direct Correlation Between Focal Length and Confidence in the Street?


The image above was Shot on 50mm Equivalens

There are a heap of posts on the net discussing what the optimal focal length is for street work. There is a mass of other discussion around the use of prime vs zoom lenses. I fall squarely on the Prime side of this fence due to the fact that you should be able to see what your lens sees, and this requires the use of a standard and fixed focal length to enable you to get used to how this will look when searching out images.

On the optimal focal length question, I think that there are a few different arguments, and my personal preference is somewhere in the 35-50mm range. Maybe if there was a fast 35-50mm zoom made then I might be swayed on point 1.

So, what are the focal lengths that people push as being optimal for street work?

24mm is likely the widest you will find much information on as a everyday lens. Anything wider than this and the distortion is likely to cause an issue. There are a number of very famous wide angle advocates in Street Photography that have said that 24mm is as wide as they will go after much experimentation with wider lenses.

28mm is a focal length that I have found little on, and this is a little strange I think as its a very classic length. As a OMD user I am hanging for someone to release a 28mm equivalent high quality manual lens. If SLR Magic or Voigtlander are listening?? Please? Garry Winogrand used one religiously in his work, and its a shame that the one offering on the micro four thirds system to this great focal length is a little sub par at the moment.

35mm is one of the classic focal lengths for not just street, but also being the first wide angle that was available way back before zooms were even thought of, and is widely thought to be one of the best focal lengths for street work. I can see why this might be the case with some of the street work that I have done with my amazing Voightlander 17.5mm on the OMD. In street work there are a few very famous users of the 35mm focal length, such as Elliott Erwitt and Lee Friedlander.

50mm was and still is considered a standard lens, meaning that it closely mimics the focal length of the human eye. Some would argue the 35mm is closer to this, and I tend to think that its likely somewhere in the middle. Maybe 40mm. However, as a focal length it is one that was made famous by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Raymond Depardon.

85mm, and we are starting to get into a portrait type focal length here. I think that street portraiture is likely a different field, so as a list of prime focal length lenses for street documentary photography I am going to stop the list here.

So, how does one make the decision of what works best for them, and back to the point at hand... The correlation between confidence and focal length.

As I started shooting on the street I gravitated to the 50mm focal length. This is due to the fact that I consciously thought at the time I may have a slightly narrower field of vision than the average person, at least that was my argument then. I think in the back of my mind I had realised that using 50mm would keep me a little more distanced from my subjects, and thus mean that I was able to go un-noticed when shooting. Idont know if with experience this is really the case

Since then I have also acquired a 35mm equivalent for the OMD, and I notice more and more than this is the focal length that I find on the camera at the start and the end of a days shooting. It allows you to get in a little closer whilst still keeping the frame full and interesting. It gives the photo a slightly more intimate feeling. And, as someone who has already talked about ways around the fact that I have a vision issue and need to use zone focusing in the main, it gives me much more latitude of apertures that I am able to use.

But, what of the 50mm. I still use it on the Nikon for film work. But the Nikon is an SLR and has a old mirror that was manufactured sometime in the late 1980's, and its LOUD. When you hit that shutter people a block away can hear the thing. I have had times when I have been carrying the Nikon on the train or in the National Gallery and have wanted to capture an image of someone, and have just not had the balls to hit that button cause I know that people would hear a pin drop with how quiet everything is. With the OMD, and likely with a range finder with a leaf shutter I wouldnt have had this issue.. Again, I like to have a little more distance from my subjects in this situation.

So, I have read quite a few posts from others along the same sort of vain. Slowly getting wider and wider with the focal length of choice until finding something that is way too wide and returning to somewhere in the range listed above. More often than not to the 35-50mm range.

I am currently looking at starting to shoot with a 40mm lens as a nice middle ground between the two. I will keep you posted on how this works out for me.

So, it may be as usual I am totally wrong, and people will settle on a focal length that works for them purely based on preference. But I think that if you think about the argument above there is merit to it for a beginner at least. There is the other side of the coin that a certain focal length will work better in different situation, and its an argument that I dont think anyone would be able to disagree with. However, every photographer will also have a preference for shooting certain scenes on the street, and as a new comer to the street game, I dont know if people will have identified what this scene is.

I encourage you to play with focal lengths if you can. Try out something different, but dont swap and change too much. Stay with something for an extended period of time. Get used to what the lens will take in. Get used to framing with the lens. Then you will better understand how the lenses in your kit work, and what should be used when.