Talk to a traditional portrait photographer and they will most likely tell you that any lens focal length less than 85mm equivalent is not a true portrait lens. Reasons given are usually focused on controlling distortion and using compression and subject isolation. These are all extremely valid and sensible reasons…lets call them rules…that serve as an excellent guide to getting awesome people shots.
However as street photographers, we are not always looking for the traditional portrait shot, nor working in the traditional way that a portrait photographer would work. Shooting street portraits there are always a range of factors in the environment around you that I have no way of controlling. There is also a limit to the amount of gear that you carry around all day (self imposed but who wants to walk 10-12km carrying a bag full of gear)?
There is a definite overlap between street portraiture, environmental portraiture and straight out portraits or headshots or whatever you choose to go with in between, and because of this there are options for what kind of lens to use, and in fact there are opportunities to break the rules and try something different.
So in case you haven’t guessed already, I have tricked you with the title of this blog, there is NO best lens for street portraits, it really depends on what you want to do. Let's discuss the pros and cons of each of the focal lengths that seem to fall within the realms of possibility for the average street photographer walking around doing street portraits.
28mm (or equivalent)
The 28mm focal length is an excellent medium wide focal length for capturing people in their surroundings. In order for the image to be successful the photographer has to work hard to minimise distortion by keeping the camera and the subject on the correct plane. However if this is mastered the wider angle allows for lots more of an interesting background to come into the scene and almost become a complementary character to it. Be prepared to get close to your subjects, really close, otherwise they will get lost in the scene. You also need to eliminate foreground objects that may distract. Then you have to frame to minimise distortion. If you can deal with this then you have the opportunity to experiment with the placement of the subject in the frame and create some drama.
35mm (or equivalent)
The 35mm lens is a fantastic lens for general street photography, and also works well for portraits where you want a full or half body length or where there are multiple people. You don’t have to stand too close to your subject but if you choose to do so you can still get some interesting shots without too much distortion. But you can still pull off a tight shot and get really close if you need to. This is the classic lens for environmental portraiture where you want to show the subject within their surroundings whilst still allowing them to be the main subject of the picture. As this is often the go to lens for general street photography, it is a versatile choice and great for being opportunistic and spontaneously capturing a person going about their daily life.
50mm (or equivalent)
The first time I stepped out into the street to take a street portrait I had a fantastic plastic nifty fifty, shooting wide open at f/1.8. I realised straight away that this lens gave me the ability to shoot a range of distances from my subjects, from full body all the way to close and tight. 50mm also serves as an excellent lens for photographing two people from the waist up. The other wonderful features of the fast 50 is the ability to shoot wide open and get some killer subject isolation and bokeh, if that is your thing of course. This lens lets you take a more traditional looking portrait but the working distance allows you to remain in contact with your subject so that you can direct them and talk to them which is really important in street photography. It can also work when you want to step back and include surroundings in your portraits.
85mm (or equivalent)
The more traditional portrait lens and the entry level into the range of focal lengths that really compress and isolate a subject. Great for head shots, close in crops and the ability to make a portrait despite whatever messy background you have to work with. However there is an issue in using this kind of lens for street portraits in that the working distance is quite far from the subject, so I often feel a little bit disconnected.
Even when I want to move in close I an actually not that close to the subject and I find it more difficult to elicit that emotional response I am looking for from them. The lens also makes it difficult to shoot on narrow footpaths and busy roads and I often find passers by walking between me and my subject because of the distance between us. I always feel like the subject feels distant, especially if I decide that I am going to do a full length portrait. It ends up feeling more like a traditional portrait shoot but without the benefit of the hours of pre-planning, mood boards and general chit chat to get to know your subject. Remember these are street portraits we are talking about and often the interaction may be 5-20 mins. Of course the results from this focal length can be absolutely stunning and there is a reason why so many portrait and wedding photographers start at this focal length as their go to, but for street I am not so sure.
So as you can see there really are pros and cons and differences and style considerations when it comes to choosing a lens for street portraits. For me I have settled on always carrying a small and light 50mm prime in my bag regardless of whatever else I am carrying because it is just such a versatile focal length. I dont think it is the “best” but it is the one that works for me most of the time for the current style of work that I am shooting.
I’d love to know what you all think about the way to use different focal lengths for street portraits and what your go to lens is, let me know in the comments!