The 35mm lens (23mm on apps-c and 17mm on micro four thirds) is the most used focal length for confirmed street photographers. The other popular lenses are the 50mm that has been used for decades and the 28mm. For information on the 50mm focal length, click here and here.
After lauding the qualities of the 50mm focal length, why am I now saying that the 35mm is better? Well, I’m not saying it is better, nor that you should ditch your new 50mm! There are certain qualities to the 35mm lens that you should take into consideration.
First off, 35mm are more difficult to make so they are more expensive. More often than not, a photographer will start out with a nifty fifty and I stand by the idea that it is a great lens whether you are a beginner or a confirmed photographer.
The 35mm lens is wider than the 50mm so to capture the same scene, you need to get closer. Frank Capa famously said : “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”. He is telling us to get closer, and that is intimidating to a lot of us. The fact of the matter is that if you a close to your subject, the photograph will have a more dynamic quality. The viewer will get the impression that he is in the scene. This focal length sucks us into the scene.
In in more crowded areas it is often difficult to get far enough away from a subject to capture it. I’m talking about crowded streets, buses, metros. You may find that a 50mm is too long and it is not always possible to move backwards. To remain discrete in the streets, your movements must be natural. Moving forwards is natural, stepping backwards is not and you will attract attention. If you notice someone you want a photo of, pick up some courage, take a few steps towards them, raise you camera and take the picture. You’ll be surprised how often the person won’t even notice or be bothered about it. If you are shy, don’t make eye contact and move away fast. If someone challenges you, say hello and explain what you are doing. If the person is offended then offer to erase the photo. Don’t get into an argument for a picture, it is not worth it and it is important to respect other people’s wishes.
The wider angle of a 35mm lens enables you to capture quite a lot of background. That means buildings and also other people. You’d be surprised how this enriches a photo it carries much more information. I’m persuaded that this gives your photography a timeless quality. People will always be people but buildings and streets change over time. When looking at old street photos, I often look around at the background and wonder at how our urban environment has changed over the years. This is also true for clothes and style too.
The wider angle gives a perspective distortion that you can use to good effect. A close up portrait with a 35mm might not always be flattering (with a bit of care you can still get a good portrait) but for pets it can be amusing.