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The Best Lens for Street Photography

In all the years you may have been photographing, what’s the one debate you keep on having? That’s right, it’s the discussion about which camera lens is the best!
What you’ll find in this article is my opinion on the best lenses, and why they’re so good. Then you’ll see which one is the best, debate settled!

[Note: ExpertPhotography is supported by readers. Product links on ExpertPhotography are referral links. If you use one of these and buy something, we make a little bit of money. Need more info? See how it all works here.Ed.]

Prime or Zoom Camera Lens

When it comes to choosing the best lens for street photography there are really two main types. You have zoom lenses, which allow the change of focal length, and prime lenses that have a fixed focal length.
There are arguments for using both these types of lens in street photography, so let’s look at these lens types in more detail.

Street photography of a man playing guitar on a bridge at night using a 50mm f1.2L at f1.2 lens
The 50 mm f/1.2L at f/1.2 can create nice bokeh in the background.

Zoom Camera Lens

A zoom lens is the all-terrain type of camera lens. Its big selling point is the ability to change focal length without needing you to change your lens.
There are various types of zoom lenses. The common ones being the 18-55 mm kit lens, and the longer focal length 70-300 mm. Together they almost cover every focal length.
Those new to photography are likely to start out with this lens combination. It is possible to get great street photos with them.
Many of you may even have come across the superzoom. This type of zoom lens allows you to go from 18-300 mm, in one piece of equipment.
With a camera lens that offers this level of versatility, why would you ever choose to use a prime lens for street photography? We’ll come to that in a moment, first let’s look at the problems with zoom lenses.

Disadvantages of Zoom Lenses

The use of zoom encourages you to be a lazy photographer. Instead of changing your physical position you can simply change focal lengths. There are a couple of problems with this.

  • Perspective – Focal length can dramatically change your perspective. Do you use your zoom lens to zoom in on a subject during street photography? Then you’re compressing the scene, and you’ll not include other outside elements besides your main subject. This might not give you great street photography.
  • Lack of interaction – Another thing you’ll lose if you zoom into your subject is interaction. While there are times this can be an advantage, most of the time it’s great when you build a rapport with the person you’re photographing.
  • Loss of constraints – Using a zoom lens allows you to change focal length on a whim. Using a fixed focal length forces you to work within its constraints, and this teaches you to be more creative and active.
Documentary photography of people eating in a cafe
Wider focal lengths can work in street photography as well. This is 17 mm. You need to get close at this focal length though.

Prime Lenses

The best quality glass is found inside prime lenses. Anyone who does street or portrait photography will be using a lens of this style. Why is that?
One of the key differences is the prime lens aperture size. It’s a lot wider than a zoom lens will ever offer.
Is this really that big a deal?

  • Aperture – The aperture advantage of a prime lens is huge. The quality of the glass is also much better. You’ll be able to photograph at f/1.2 with some lenses if you so wish.
  • Low light – That huge aperture is a great advantage when photographing in low light. Street photography after dark is moody and atmospheric, and the best lens to capture this is a prime lens.
  • Bokeh – The large aperture also comes with another benefit, namely bokeh. Using bokeh in street photography is certainly an advantage.
Image of 3 prime lenses on a white background
Prime lenses are an excellent choice for street photography. On the left is the Canon 135mm f/2L, and in the middle the 50 mm f/1.2L.

The Best Focal Length

The majority of street photographers will tell you that 50mm is ideal. This strikes up a great balance between capturing the subject and their surroundings.
Is this true, and are there any alternatives out there you could experiment with?
NB: Depending on the type of camera you have, you may need to apply a crop factor to these focal lengths.
A full frame camera gives you 1:1 in terms of focal length, so 35 mm is 35 mm. A lens with a crop factor will mean adjusting the focal length. So if your crop factor is 1.6 your 35 mm lens is, in fact, behaving like a 60 mm lens.

  • 35 mm – Those with crop sensors often use this lens. It then becomes closer to the ideal 50 mm focal length. It’s also a favorite for full frame users as well. A nice frame size that allows you to capture enough of the scene, without needing to step back too much.
  • 50 mm – This focal length isn’t everyone’s favorite, especially if you’re not used to using it. The more experience you gain though, the more this lens will seem best suited to street photography. This lens also offers a perspective close to what the human eye sees.
  • Wide angle – Do you want to get more story into your photo? Then consider wider angle lenses. You might not want to go as far as a fisheye, but wide angle can be fun as long as you control the distortions.
  • Long focal length – Do you prefer a tighter crop? Longer focal lengths will compress the scene, and also allow you to stand further back so you’re less noticeable. The 135 mm f/2 is a great camera lens if you want something slightly longer.
Documentary photography of a couple eating lunch using a 50mm lens, best lens for street photography
50 mm is a great focal length for perspective and telling the story around the subject.

The Five Best Camera Lenses for Street Photography

There are many camera lenses out there worthy of comparison. Here you’ll see a selection of the best, and some different focal length options you could try.

Canon EF 50 mm f/1.8 STM

This camera lens is new on the market and is an upgrade from previous incarnations of the Canon 50 mm f/1.8. It has a more solid design and is a move away from the more plastic design of the older lenses.
The look and feel of this lens are great, and it delivers great photos as well. Of course, this isn’t going to be up to the same level as competitors like Zeiss or Sigma, but the price is much cheaper.
Best features:

  • Minimum focal distance of 0.35m
  • Better bokeh produced by a new 7 blade aperture ring
  • The best value for money of 50mm lens
  • Compact design – not too heavy
Documentary photography of two men chatting on a busy street using a 50mm lens, best lens for street photography
This photo was taken with a 50 mm lens, as the light was beginning to fade.

Nikon 50 mm f1.8G

I’m a Canon user, so in the interests of those who use Nikon, here is a 50 mm camera lens that they produce. This lens gives excellent results, works well in low light, and results in an attractive blurred background when a large aperture is used.
It’s not big and heavy. Although in the battle of the budget lenses, this one comes in a little more expensive than the Canon.
Best features:

  • Great in low light
  • Produces a nice blurred out background for artistic effect
  • Inexpensive, and if you’re a Nikon user this is the best value

Canon EF 50 mm f1.2L USM

On the more expensive end of the market is Canon’s 50 mm f/1.2L. That ‘L’ really does stand for luxury. With the more expensive price you’re expecting superb quality, and it delivers.
The photos are sharp, and this is a beast of a camera lens in low light situations.
If you’re looking for professional-level images, this is the lens. There are drawbacks though when it comes to street and/or travel photography.
While not big, it is bigger than its f/1.8 sibling. That extra glass really makes this a much heavier lens to carry as well.
So the big question is: are you prepared to fork out that extra cash? In low light situations, this lens can really deliver, where a smaller aperture lens might not.

Low light photography of a man cooking meat at an outdoor market. Camera lens for street photography.
Low light street photography is full of atmosphere, you need a nice camera lens to capture that.

Canon EF 135 mm f/2L USM

This is considered a longer focal length, but offers great potential for more portrait-based street photography. With this lens you’ll be able to stand back a little, and be more inconspicuous, albeit with a larger lens.
The image quality of this lens is also excellent, as you’d expect from an L series lens. It’s a little trickier to use in low light than the 50 mm lens though.
This is because longer focal lengths need faster shutter speeds to get sharp photos, and the largest aperture is smaller than even the cheap 50 mm lenses.
Like the 50 mm f/1.2L, this is also a heavy lens, and takes up significant space in the camera bag.

Street photography of two people sitting on a red wall. Camera lens for street photography
You don’t always need to blur out the background, solid colors work nicely as well.

Sigma 35 mm F1.4 ART DG HSM

The Sigma lens comes with a mid-range price tag compared to the other lenses discussed here. So how does this compare to the L series lenses? Very well in fact. It produces results that are sharper than its Canon counterparts.
This makes this a great lens for street photography. With an aperture of f/1.4, it’s going to perform very well in low light.
Keep in mind you’re unlikely to open the aperture up to its largest in most conditions. The depth of field will simply be too shallow.
Are you looking for a lens that gives great street photos and can be mounted on multiple camera bodies? This could be the best lens for street photography for you.

Conclusion

There are a number of factors you’ll need to think about when choosing the best lens for street photography. If price and weight are not issues to you then the 50 mm f1.2L is a really nice lens for street photography.
However, today’s winner is the Sigma 35 mm. Granted it’s more expensive than the two f/1.8 lenses, but this camera lens delivers at the end of the day.
Now you’ve got the best lens for street photography, why not check our article on street photography camera bags.

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