Medium telephoto lenses for street photography

Given how widely practiced it is, its no surprise that street photography has many rules-of-thumb, and one of them has to do with focal lengths – the traditionally preferred ones have been on the wider end such as 28mm, 35mm and 50mm. However, I’ve often found myself using an unconventional focal length of 90mm. While the wider focal lengths may be more suited for environmental portraits and story telling, using a longer focal lengths allows me to break away from that stereotype and to create a more dramatic outcome.

In this article, I will explore why medium telephoto is my preferred focal length and the advantages of using tighter framing in street photography. It’s important to not that since I primarily shoot with Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and M.Zuiko 45mm F1.8 these days, “medium telephoto” here refers to 90mm in 35mm terms.

The main reason medium telephoto works so well for me, is the ability it gives me to compress the background which means tighter compositions with fewer distracting elements in the background to deal with. I admit that I’m not a fan of having too many subjects or points of interest in my frame. I generally have one main subject and a simple background in my images. Additionally, the longer focal length in tandem with the wide aperture (f1.8 in this case) can help increase subject isolation with a shallow depth of field. I find that clean, straightforward framing works best for my own images, especially when I take portraits of strangers – and the 90mm focal length is ideal for this.

A medium telephoto focal length is also useful when shooting strangers on the street, as the longer working distance helps put them at ease. This comfortable working distance between the lens and the subject results in a more relaxed and natural look for the portrait. I believe that respecting the personal space of a stranger is important. Otherwise, the facial expressions, body language and other elements of the portrait will show signs of agitation, tension and a lack of consent. The way the subject behaves in front of the camera is what actually makes or breaks the shot – in my opinion.

I don’t entirely agree with the recent resurgence of street photography sub-culture where you stick a wide angle lens (usually 28mm) inches away from a stranger’s face! Perhaps the idea is to catch the subject off guard and encourage a strong, humorous or unexpected reaction but personally it does not sit well. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of treating people with respect and that includes a respect for personal space. I am not sure how long photographers get away with being so rude and inconsiderate to people on the street, but if this were attempted in Malaysia – a black eye, bloody nose, broken camera or some combination of the three is likely.

Shooting people with a medium telephoto lens also results in flattering, pleasing and natural looking images. Longer focal lengths generally have less barrel distortion, and are also less susceptible to perspective exaggeration. Imagine for instance, a portrait with a ultra-wide angle where the face is disproportionately stretched – not a pleasing mental image I think. Most of my street photography resolves around people, whether a simple portrait or an environmental one. The ability of a medium telephoto lens to distortion free and pleasing images works well for the people in my images.

Another obvious advantage which is easily underestimated, is the longer reach of the medium telephoto lenses. The extra reach forces me to look for subjects a little further down the street than usual. Instead of observing just my immediate surroundings, I am constantly looking one street ahead, or even at what is happening across the road. Having this awareness of subjects or moments has helped me better anticipate moments and prepare to shoot.

Of course, there are cons as well. The biggest drawback I can think of in using a longer lens, is being stuck with the tighter perspective all the time. It is not easy for everyone as it’s not suitable for shooting subjects close to you. Nevertheless, I’d encourage putting the “stick-to-one-lens” principle to work. If you’re willing to give it a try and focus on the opportunities that a medium telephoto lens can bring, I am sure you will return home with plenty of interesting photographs.

To clarify, I am not saying that medium telephoto is superior to any other focal lengths when it comes to street photography. In fact, I believe your choice of focal length is entirely personal and highly dependent on your own shooting style. If you haven’t used medium telephoto lenses on the street, why not give it a try next time? It may not be your cup of tea, but you’ll know for sure and I am still certain that you will walk away with some interesting shots.

The Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm F1.8 is available here from B&H
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II is available here from B&H

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Comments

  1. Evan McKnight says:

    I really appreciate your comment about treating people on the street with respect. Shooting wide or long I think that is a great point to make. I’m really enjoying your articles.

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      In some countries, it isn’t a question of respect – it’s actually against the law to photograph people without their consent.

      On the question of respect, I was once faced with a dilemma. Sitting in a cafe in Hong Kong, I could see an elderly lady who was the most extraordinary image of dignity in old age. I ached inside – I really ached, for a photo of her – but I couldn’t speak her language, I couldn’t ask her permission, and I couldn’t bring myself to destroy the very thing I was admiring, by invading her space and her dignity, to take a photo of her without her consent. So here I am, 35 years later, with the memory of that lady etched in the archives of my mind – and no way of producing the image, for other to share what I saw that day. There is a line in the sand, that we should not . . . MUST not . . . cross!

  2. PAUL TIRAJOH says:

    Thank you for the excellent article with beautiful pictures.
    What is your advice to put the focus target, at the eye or eyebrow for “head only” or “head and shoulder shot” ?
    For a long time I use E-M5 (1st generation) with 75mm f @ 2,2 for more DOF, and since this year 45mm.
    45mm is a very good lens, but 75mm is better

  3. Another useful article.But as a beginner I would like to know what is the medium telephoto lenses for canon cropped sensors.Your advice much appreciated.

  4. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Robin – while this discussion has been taking place, I received a rather odd posting in another group, about shooting in low light conditions. What was odd, was a suggestion that one advantage of using a wide angle lens is that “it captures more light” and “therefore gives you a brighter image, in poor light”, than you would get with a standard (eg 50mm) or telephoto lens.

    This is outside my technical knowledge – I always thought the amount of light ANY lens captures was governed quite simply by the aperture. Can you explain what the author of the article might have been talking about? – because I simply don’t understand his suggestion.

    • I’m not Robin 😉 but tour understanding is correct. Technically speaking the quality of the glass and the coatigs have a minor effect too (usually less than a third of a stop), which is why movie cameras have lenses with T-stop ratings (for transmission) instead of F-stops; this allows them to ensure the same exact exposure across shots from different cameras / lenses. But apart from that, aperture determines the amount (density) of light falling on any given area of the sensor, not focal length.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Thanks for clarifying that for me, bartjeej – getting a handle on some of this technical stuff is a bit of a tough ask, when all I need is practical knowledge as to how to take a photo – so it was beyond the range of my knowledge base, to grapple with that idea. All I could think was, that the person who said it thought the fact a w/angle captures “more of the image” means it’s capturing more light, too. And it made my head hurt, trying to figure how that would get past the f-stop rating used for taking the photo.

  5. Great article, it’s about time the street photography dogma of using only wide angle and being close, is challenged.

    Another comment already mentioned Saul Leiter – he is by far and away my favorite street photographer. He used the longer focal lengths not only to isolate the subjects, but also to go beyond the content and give his images a really graphically appealing structure, in a way that is usually simply not possible with a wider angle from up close. It gives many of his images a painterly abstraction and dreaminess.

    For that same abstraction, I really like your B&W “legs” shot in the article!

  6. To be honest, I also prefer medium telephoto for street photography. It lets me get the candid shot I wanted without disrupting the scene or the subject. Also, with 90mm (FF equivalent) lens, the field of view (FoV) is exactly the same as one human eye. So the scene that I see in the EVF on my right eye has the same FoV as I see with my left eye.

    Also, since I love 50mm-ish vintage lenses, in MFT, they became medium-telephoto-ish lens (around 100mm, or 90mm with a focal reducer). So 85-100mm-ish (in FF) became my favorite focal length

    On a side note, MZD 45mm is a seriously good small prime. I still keep mine although I also have the Nocticron for that focal length.

  7. Thanks again for your excellent post which has triggered a ton of interesting responses for me to digest. My 45mm has been much neglected but I will put it back in to use at the next show…. had nearly forgotten that I had it. I am mainly shooting ancient aircraft in flight however these shows include early motor vehicles and people dressed in period costumes who will gladly pose for you however my best shots are usually candid. I have been using the long telephoto 70-300 ( with rear viewer flipped up) simply because it was attached however I am carrying the second Oly which can take my 45. It is one of my sharpest lenses and ideal for the reasons stated, immensely sharp, unobtrusive, nice bokeh and handy FL.

    • Robin Wong says:

      You should definitely give the 45mm some love. So small, and it just works! Surely to get some people shots, it is one of the high recommended lens to use!

  8. Bill Walter says:

    I really enjoyed these photos! Some are posed and some are candid. Your street set reminds me of a street photography related pet peeve. Many street photographers (who use wide angle lenses) are critical of those who use longer lenses for street photos. They accuse those who do street photos with longer lenses of sniping (along with some other vulgar name calling I won’t go into). Sniping means taking a photo of someone without their knowledge. To me, this is no different than a candid photo. What is so hypocritical is that these street photographers brag about their own “shoot from the hip” techniques. And shooting from the hip is a method of taking someone’s photo without their knowledge. So this would be sniping as well! (Hypocrites!) Robin, I agree with what you stated. I also find that using a longer lens for street work is a less invasive (in your face) method to photograph someone and it looks better as well. It’s great to get a candid photo of one person, or several people interacting. Without invading their space, you get natural photos without offending your subject. I have nothing against the street photographers who only use wide angle lenses, but I find it offensive when they resort to childish name calling when referring to those who do street work with longer lenses. Just because you do your sniping from closer range doesn’t mean you should act so arrogant and elite!

    Keep up the Good work Robin.

    • Robin Wong says:

      I can totally relate to what you are saying here. There was that unspoken rule of using only wide angle lenses in street, as some would put it, to get more “intimate” feeling of the portraits which I totally do not agree with. Having the lenses so close to people make them uncomfortable, and worse intruding into their personal space is another disrespectful thing to do. The 45mm provide a good working distance, and I have proven that I can still get that intimate look in my portraits!

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Ha! – sounds like people with “opinionitis” have been trumpeting for everyone to do what they do, because they claim they’re right and we all have to follow their example. Phooey – someone needs to tell them that “opinions are inherently incapable of being right OR wrong – all they can do is agree or differ, and the only useful purpose they serve is to provide a topic for a conversation or discussion”.

        Anyone with half a brain and any sort of eye can photograph the same object umpteen different ways, with all sorts of different lenses, and come up with a whole selection of “winners” and “keepers”. What we “should” do is entirely dependent on what we are trying to achieve.

  9. Robin,
    there is always something special about your street photos. People so often take part actvily to composition. It seems to me, that you are not just a nice story teller with your photos, but also that you are able to involve poeple and communicate with them nicely. In these times of “digitally closer-phisically far” your attidute has a great value.
    Regards
    Stefano
    PS:hope my english is understandable…

  10. aran banrai says:

    Some people get offended being photographed without permission by total stranger with a camera. In London a few years ago, I was once warned by a Police man not to take photo of kids playing foofball in a park. I don’t know how can you print your street photo with no regard to law of different countries. Am I missing something here, or being paranoid about nothing?

  11. Check out the work of Saul Leiter. He also used short to medium telephotos for street photography. It is interesting that I am drawn to his photos as I also prefer these focal lengths for street photography.

    I am a bit about people seeing me photograph them. So, I use Olympus Image Share to remote the display and control to the camera on my smartphone while dangling the camera from my wrist. It just looks like I am texting on my phone. The technique takes a bit of practice but it is certainly fun. Most of the time I use my 45mm for this, but I have been lately using my 75mm with success. The silent shutter makes things even more inconspicuous.

    Take care! Keep up the fantastic articles / photos!!

    • Robin Wong says:

      I think we should use whichever focal lengths that work and suit best to our shooting style and needs. Surely not everyone sees photography the same way!

  12. Good post. And a good reminder to open up our horizons of creativity. There are so many ways to shoot street-style, and there are truly no “rules” per se in focal lengths. Although I shoot primarily with the 17mm 1.8 on my OMD for candid street shooting, which I love sincerely, I must take out the 45mm and experiment more. I do often use it when I’m shooting live music from the stage, and portraits. It is a lovely lens.

    Great shots as usual, Robin. As a matter of fact, you’ve inspired me — I think I’ll just take out the 45mm only for the next week while hitting the streets and see how it goes.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks for the kind words! And yes, do give that 45mm a try. I am sure it will bring back some keepers.

  13. Martin Fritter says:

    Back in the film days, wider lenses were the norm. HCB, Winogrand, Frank & Co. shot 28-50mm. In part because you could zone focus. Friedlander did (and still does) use a Hasselblad SWC, which has basically infinite DOF. Harriet Meir of course used a Rollei. I think in a way 80mm for street-type work gives a kind of false intimacy. I mean, you’re not really that close. Otoh, if you want to alert your subject that you’re taking their picture (as in “May I?”) longer is better because you can do it without getting too close – see “The Satoralist.” Hum, in other words, with a longer lens, they get the choice of how to present themselves. Wider, you, the photographer, get to make the choice.

    • Robin Wong says:

      You are right. And with the choice the photographer has more control and perhaps that is what makes the difference in producing the results that the photographer visualised in the first place. I am not saying using longer focal length is better than wider perspective for environmental portraits. The message here is choice and the ability to do things differently.

  14. When I had an R series Leica many years ago, I had only a 9 cm lens for a long time. I felt that the 9 cm focal length excluded all the irrelevant, extraneous stuff, allowing me to concentrate on the essentials. I thought then, and I still think, that it’s a more ‘natural’ field of view than the more usual 5 cm or 35 mm lenses, though I realise I’m in a minority. And it helps to make the separation of the foreground so much better than the others. I’m delighted to find that I’m not the only one with this view!

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Kor, we all use the gear that suits “our” photography best. In my head, what you are saying translates as meaning you do your best work in this field with a lens that some of the other photographers might ignore because they favor a shorter lens – for “their” work. I don’t think there is any “right” or “wrong” in this. Any more than there is any one camera that is “the best”.

      And sometimes being in a minority is, indeed, the “right” thing. After putting what we would discuss that day to a popular vote, and finding only one student voting in favor of one of the alternatives he had given us, my English master at college said to us “well, we should do what the minority want, because the majority of men are fools!” It doesn’t augur well for the idea of democracy, but there’s a definite point in what he said.

      For one thing, following the herd will produce “more of the same”. Doing your own thing – whether it’s with a fisheye or a tele or anything in between – is the path to learning, to improving creativity, to seeing – in short, it’s the road to “better”. Book learning and imitation are merely a starting point – getting out there and doing – trying – experimenting – that’s how the great masters get there, in every field of human endeavor.

  15. Cannot agree more . I have more favourite street photos taken with my 90 mm. , than my 28 mm or 50 mm.
    The 90 MM. wide open gives me the background isolation and Bokeh I want .

  16. A great article. I too love shooting with a medium telephoto prime, a Fujinon 56mm on my X-T2. Lenses which have a 35mm equivalent focal length of 85 to 90mm are great to use in street photography, they produce beautiful results and mean you don’t have to intrude too much into people’s personal space. With a medium telephoto I can concentrate on the element that is really fascinating me without getting so close that I distract the subject and spoiling the shot. Having a lens with an equivalent 35mm focal length in my pocket to switch to if the need arises means I have every situation I need to cover, covered. Your shot of the three shop girls in the street is wonderful, if you had gotten any closer to them I doubt if they would have been as comfortable and relaxed.

    • Robin Wong says:

      That is the main thing, not to get too close and be intrusive! I think being respectful is extremely important, a trait that photographers should practice. A little respect can go a long way.

  17. I often shoot with a 28 and a 150 at the same time great things happen faster than you can run closer . always be prepered,then you won’t pull your hair out missing the moment.

  18. J.W. Parker says:

    Thanks for the excellent article. Steve McCurry (who actually embraces being referred to as a street photographer), shoots primarily in the style you describe in your article (I believe he does many of his portraits at 85mm).

    • Robin Wong says:

      That is true! While Steve McCurry does use 85mm, he also uses 28mm and 35mm in many of his environmental portraits.

  19. Dear , I am also street photographer, and very used to connect all you theory. Very Happy.

  20. but… but… you are not shooting with a telephoto! you are shooting with a normal lens. it is true that because of the crop factor you get the field of view of a 90, but you do not have the same compression that you would normally get with a real 90mm lens; your 45 is still a 45 regardless of the sensor it is attached to.

    • Robin Wong says:

      I have to disagree. In terms of focal length and telephoto compression the 45mm micro four thirds is exactly the same as the 90mm on 35mm format. However depth of field is of course different.

      • Compression and Dof is not the same because smaller sensor just does cropping, nothing else. FoV is only the same when comparing 45mm and 90mm | m4/3 vs 35mm.

        • Compression is purely a matter of subject distance – nothing else (not even field of view, although a narrow FOV can isolate – draw the eye to – the compressed part of the real-life scene more effectively than a wide angle FOV). So in the sense of isolating the compressed part of the scene, 45mm on m43 = 90mm on ff. Absolute sensor format or absolute focal length has zilch to do with compression, and neither does absolute or relative aperture or depth of field.

          • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

            bartjeej, you might be amused to know that I was attacked on this issue over a photo I took with a w’angle, by a pro who claimed that the use of the w’angle caused unacceptable distortion. The shot was purely experimental – and the image he saw was a 50% crop off a full frame image taken with a 24mm w’angle. In his opinion I should have shot the image he saw, with a 50mm lens. ?? I am still at a loss to understand how that would have made any difference – he even knew at the time he said it that the image he was criticising was only half the picture that that w’angle captured.

            • If I correctly understand the wikipedia article on focal length, the relationship between focal length and angle of view stops being linear (i.e. halving the focal length stops giving exactly twice the angle of view) somewhere below 50mm, and this is what causes the slightly stretched edges in wide-angle images. I’m not sure if this depends on the absolute focal length being below 50mm, or on the angle of view / equivalent focal length being below 50mm equivalent.

              But using that logic, a crop from the edge of a 24mm shot would indeed include some distortion. A crop from the center of a 24mm shot would not show anything else than a 50mm shot, except lower resolution and possibly different depth of field.

              • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

                Thanks for clarifying that, bartjeej. It was in fact the centre of the photo. Because it was purely experimental when I took it, I wasn’t thinking of “composition” at the time the shutter took over – I just wanted to find out for my own purposes if it would solve another problem, doing it. The reason for choosing a w/angle was purely its DoF advantage – and it did do what I wanted. Armed with that knowledge, next time I can zero in on setting up the shoot properly.

                Not clear how the DoF would differ, except for that – it doesn’t matter anyway, because the lens gave me the DoF I was looking for, for the shot in question. Nailed, that – end of experiment.

                And frankly, considering the w/angle in question was the Otus 28mm, I don’t think resolution is an issue either.

                I have to say the reason I asked your views/comments is that being attacked like that in a forum similar to this one, by a self-professed professional photographer, who seemed determined to belittle what I was describing, left a bad feeling. In the end, I simply had to stop the dialogue with him because he wasn’t taking any notice of what I said and it was not “interesting” to other members of the group.

                Receiving your comments makes me feel much better. And you have opened my eyes to a problem I hadn’t thought of – the distortion those lenses can generate at the edge of the field of view. Many thanks for your patience, and for sharing your knowledge and wisdom.

                • One other addendum: not all lenses have a flat field; wides tend to exhibit more projection distortion towards the edges. This does not help transparency of projection, and also contributes to the perceived ‘wide effect’…

  21. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    A couple of comments, Robin – apart from admiring your photos, of course 🙂

    I find that using a telephoto lens is more discrete – less “in your face”, for the people you are photographing – and also helps (as you say) to eliminate clutter.

    And it’s not so much what “I want” as what other people viewing my photos appreciate. With one shot, the person I showed it to said “nice photo – but it would have been better if everything except the people you photographed was slightly blurry – having the background and the foreground in focus is distracting from the subject of the shot!” WOW – you don’t normally expect that kind of comment from a non-photographer! So I think there’s a lot in what you say in your article.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks! And yes I am sure the comment on seeing the subject and background is a valid one and environmental portrait is important too in visual story telling. Using a longer focal length changes the way the story telling works but visually it gives us different results.

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